Judgment – Advent 2C, 9 December 2018

Advent is the time when we contemplate the future and prepare ourselves to meet the Lord. We meet him in two ways: firstly, in history at Christmas, when our Lord took on our human flesh to live as one of us. We will meet him again, at the end of time, our time and the world’s time, a place without time, when we face him.

It has been well put (by St Cyril of Jerusalem, some 1600 years ago,) that when our Lord came firstly, he was judged, but when he comes again, he will judge. This is indeed a terrifying prospect, but our Lord know what it is like to be judged, and therefor has mercy. But we must face our sins and his judgment. Yet curiously, and as a paradox, we this moment of greatest scrutiny is promised to be one of greatest intimacy. We shall know him as he is and know ourselves as were truly are, and instead of running for the gates of hell we shall see and understand the love he has for us.

So today is rather a bit of a survival training for judgment day. This morning we are faced with St John the Baptist, and his curious baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The New Testament goes to some pains to make this clear that this is difference from the baptism of the Christians, and John is only the forerunner, the one who points the way. Hence, we deal with him in Advent, on the way to Christmas and seeing our Lord.

Christians deal with evil and wrongdoing in a different way to non-believers. Firstly, we acknowledge the existence of evil. Sins are not relative, not the result of background, they are to do with evil, and our temptations to evil. We cannot explain evil away, nor can we ignore the affects of evil in our life. We do sin.

In one sense, it is the hardest part of Christian living, the acknowledging of the problem of sin. We have a culture that makes us victims and wants compensation. If we have failed, there must be a reason, and someone is to blame. However, it is harder to say, that I have sinned, I am responsible, and I must acknowledge it. It’s much easier blaming someone else, and demanding compensation, and being a permanent victim, always blaming your problems on someone else. But that’s not our way. Yes, we are often hurt by other people. In the end we see that it is evil: we can’t explain it, we just have to learn to hate the sin, try and forgive the person, and leave the rest to God.

Now this is where John the Baptist and his baptism comes in. His baptism was a way of acknowledging sin – it was for repentance and forgiveness. It was a public way of saying I have sinned and wanted forgiveness, and as such very, very powerful. One of the great strengths of evil is that it is nameless. By that I mean that the most effective sin is that never discussed, never acknowledged. Sin without form is the most powerful grip on a person. That is why John’s baptism is powerful, and it makes the person say that yes, I am a sinner.

Now here is where Christians part from John and why the New Testament makes a distinction. For we believe that sin can be taken away. That’s the point of Our Lord Jesus – our sins are taken away. We don’t have to suffer the consequences for our evil, we are not caught in a cycle of perpetuation. It all has to do with his death, showing that his love is such that no sin of ours can separate us from that all-giving love. That is why we say the Agnes Dei just before our communion, “O Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world”

All we have to do is let Our Lord take our sins away.

That is why we can approach our judgment with confidence. We will be afraid, because we will see the sin in its true life, clearly spoken so to say, no longer a hidden dark nameless thing. That will be a shock. Don’t have a weak heart on the Day of Judgment. But then we will know, from our Christian lives here, that Jesus loves us, Jesus forgives, and Jesus wants to take us into his bosom. Judgment Day for us is not the horror of sin only, that can drive a person to Hell, but the bravery that we can say, that we are guilty, yet we ask for that forgiveness given to us in the Church, and accept it, and allow us to be overwhelmed in love.

There is another theme I would also like to draw out from the reading today. Both John and Our Lord are put to death by people who don’t want to kill them. John is put to death by Herod to fulfil a foolish promise – he does not want to. Our Lord is condemned to death by Pilate, because of the crowd. Both people sinned because they gave way to other’s wills. Sin is often the giving in to other’s wills. But we are called to follow Our Lord’s will – he gave over his will to God and desired nothing but to follow God. Sin is the removal of our selfish following of other’s wills to give up everything for God.

But for now, we need to look for John, we need to start to see our sins, and find a way of repentance. Nothing beats a life of prayer and the daily examination of conscience – how have I done this day, what have I done and what should I have done better? If we do that, sin is forced out of the shadows and we start to grapple with. That way we can prepare for judgment.

Our Lord is coming – what shall we do?

The Days are Surely Coming: Advent 1, 2 December, 2018

“The days are surely coming,” says the Lord. So starts our first reading today, with the ominous words of Jeremiah to the rebellious people of Israel and Judah, who have left their God to follow the other gods. What has happened? The people of the land have become assimilated into the religious practises of the people around them, and as a result, the wrath of God hangs over them, warning them of the future disaster that will come, when they, with those of the other people around them, those who also worship those petty gods, will be taken away. The days are surely coming.

But we know what has happened in the meantime: in the meantime the people of Israel and Judah went along with life, enjoying it, and ignoring the prophets who were sent to warn them. It was, and is, always the case. Life at the moment seems more interesting: what’s on the television seems more fascinating than the call of the Spirit. But the days are surely coming, says the Lord.

Today we enter the season of Advent, when we contemplate the days that are surely coming. The colour and liturgy changes, and, in the season of Advent, we are encouraged to turn from the now to look to the future.

At first sight the future is not too pleasant. People are going to faint from fear and foreboding, we are told by our Lord, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. But for Christians it is to be different: when these things take place we are to stand up and raise our heads, because our redemption is drawing near.

This is the curious duality that Scripture and the Church seem to offer: the future is decidedly grim but we are going to enjoy it.

Well, it’s grim because it’s going to end. For the world and its people that lives in the now, that’s the problem, especially for the world that enjoys the good things of life. We know that we are the privileged; we are really the Dives of Scripture who enjoy the good things of life while Lazarus sits in poverty by our gates. We are faced with the reality that the future will have to be different. But in the meantime, we want the good times to continue.

But the days are surely coming, says the Lord. Well, as long as they don’t get here too soon. But for Christians, we are to learn to live in detachment from the pleasures of the moment. That’s why our Lord tells us to be on guard, so our hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of life. Don’t get bogged in the now, in other words. We are not to live so that the pleasure of the moment is the most important thing: that’s wasted time, useless time, sterile time, for it won’t last and even more importantly it doesn’t involve God. Happiness is being close to God, happiness is learning what God wants for us, happiness is the exploration of love that comes from and will return to God.

Christians are called to live with God. Not just in some distant future but now. That’s why we keep an eye on the future, to live better lives now. It makes for perspective. We are to cultivate the presence of God in our lives so the now becomes infuses with God and creates meaning. That is why our Lord tells us to be alert at all times. We are offered this moment, to be filled with the presence of God, to be the witnesses of God. That is why traditionally at this Advent season we talk about the four last things: death, judgment, heaven and hell, to leave behind the things of the world and to concentrate on who we really are, not a child of the world but a child of God, more interested in our eternal future and creating it now by living it, rather than the wealth of the world and the burden of things. That is why we are continually called as Christians to see God now. For by looking afnd seeing God we can shake away from the dross of the world. That is why we should pray every day, learn to have arrow prayers, make the sign of the cross at meals; all little things to make us see God now.

The days are surely coming, says the Lord. The question is: how do we want to meet those days? In this Advent season, we are reminded again to turn and face the coming glory of God. We are called, in the words of our Thanksgiving Prayer of the Mass, to wait with eager longing of the coming of the Lord. Eagerness, because we realise that what we are offered is far, far better. This understanding then changes our now, it makes us live in the world with joy knowing the love and power and glory of God. That’s why our Lord tells us that we are not to live with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of life: a life lived in God is far, far more glorious than that.

We are not to be afraid of the future: God will be there. We are not to be afraid of this moment: God is surely here. Advent allows us to glimpse the glory of that future to inspire us for the moment. The days are surely coming says the Lord, and we can have the confidence to live them now.

Sacrifice -18 November 2018

Sacrifice is a word that is over used and misunderstood in our world. We talk about sacrifice in many ways – she sacrificed her career for him, for example, when someone gives us something for another. We perhaps hear it in the more formal words from Remembrance Day as in last Sunday, about those who made the supreme sacrifice in war.

But for the ancients, sacrifice was one of the actions of life, usually a bit bloody but also a celebration. Pagans and Jews in the ancient world routinely sacrificed. Usually it was animals of some sorts, although the grain offering of the Temple was also a sacrifice. But for most people, sacrifice was the giving up of expensive animals to be slaughtered before your eyes. Often the meat would then be shared with you, some would be kept by the Temple and some returned. Every pagan town would have a temple altar of some sort, usually in the centre, where animals would be slaughtered. It is suspected that it was a major source of protein in the ancient diet. You could not escape the smell of blood that would be so strong. Some anthropologists have even suggested that the foundation of human society was not in the so-called social contract suggested by Rousseau and Hobbes, but in a sacrificial compact instead. But that’s another story. Also what was important was the altar, outside, where the animal was slaughtered, not the building behind, which was used often as a sort of treasury.

For Jews sacrifice was a little different – only in the Temple of Jerusalem would sacrifice be made. But at peak times, like Passover, massive amounts of animals would be slaughtered, tens of thousands of lambs for example. That’s a lot of blood. They used to wash down the Temple, and blood and water literally used to flow from the side of the Temple. That’s the significance of the blood and water flowing from Our Lord’s side on the cross.

So, when the writer to the Hebrews, whoever that was, wrote his letter to those Jews, they would have been very familiar with the concept of sacrifice, and visualised easily the Temple or the local pagan temple altar, with all the smell of animals being slaughtered. Sacrifice was important – it dealt with the notion of appeasing the gods or God and making an offering for a person’s sin. Only sacrifice could do this with its mysterious opening of the doors of death through the shedding of blood.

But the sacrificed needed to be repeated. This was because our own sin continued and the gods remained displeased. There was no end to sacrifice and the shedding of blood and life.

It’s the insight of the unknown writer of Hebrews who thinks about what does it mean, for Christians, that we no longer have a sacrifice of animals? The writer realises the ultimate defect of sacrifice, in that it cannot stop. No matter how many animals you kill, your will need another one. But Christians don’t – why?

The main reason is that animal sacrifice is not required, we have the sacrifice of Christ which we share in the bread and wine, which Our Lord identifies using sacrificial language as his body and his blood. His shedding of himself completes the sacrifice.

This is where the writer takes a new idea. In the past, sacrifices were done for Jews by the line of Aaron, and continued forever, but Jesus takes his priesthood from another line in the Old Testament, that of Melchizedek. Our Lord becomes the new high priest, the sacrifier, and at the same time, the victim, therefore completing the impossible, and being a completion of the demand of sacrifice.

Now, Christian theologians have been divided on why Our Lord had to complete the sacrifice by being the victim. Some writers from the middle ages and then taken into Calvinism, saw Christ’s death as satisfying the legal need of God – we had broken the law and deserved to be punished, so Our Lord out of his love for us dies in our place and takes away our sin. This is what is called satisfaction atonement, that is Our Lord gives full satisfaction for our sins by dying. But other theologians disagree. For that theory means that Our Lord has to die to appease a God who wants death and sacrifice, an angry God who needs his Son to die.

The alternative theory is that Jesus dies to stop us victimising. The needs of sacrifice are not divine, for God always loves us. We sacrifice because we see our evil and we put a sacrifice in place of ourselves. We channel our violence and evil into a sacrifice to show our shame and remorse. This idea is one of transference – we make God into an image of our own evil anger and appease it with the precious blood of life to console ourselves. Sacrifices continue because we never really change and give up vengeance.

Then Our Lord dies as the victim. His identification with the victim means that when ever we try and channel our anger into a victim we find Christ is there. As we love God we find we can’t sacrifice anymore – Christ is the perpetual victim, so whenever we victimise, we find ourselves opposed by Our Lord. God is not an angry God demanding legal satisfaction but a loving God stopping our evil need of victimisation by turning into the victim.

Once you accept that you start to see the reason why we use sacrificial language with our communion. We take Our Lord’s body and blood, we become part of the victim. This means that we too join with whoever is victimised in the world, the marginalised and the oppressed and the objects of our own sins. Whenever we victimise someone, be that refugee or Moslem, we see Christ in that person. Whenever we find someone victimised, we join with that victim through the love of God. The self giving of Jesus changes our world and how we oppress and hurt those around us.

Sacrifice is different for us because of what we believe as Christians. We no longer think in terms of sacrifice of animals – we think in terms of self sacrifice, how we can give ourselves. Through our belief in Christ, and our actions, we no longer can pick on animals or refugees, or Moslems or others – we must learn to give ourselves.

Rememberance Day – 11 November 2018, Guest sermon by Deacon Joe Johns

One hundred years ago today at the 11th hour of the 11th month 1918, the Armistice was signed and “the war to end all war was officially over.”  Shortly after what came to be called the Great War was underway in 1914, Laurence Binyon composed this poem while sitting on a cliff top in North Cornwall, looking out over the sea as the casualty lists of that war began to be published:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

A few months later another poem was written, this time by a Canadian doctor serving in Flanders, Belgium. John McCrae penned the equally well-known words beginning

In Flanders’ fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place: and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

For Australia, there would be many, many crosses row on row.  For Australia The Great War remains the costliest conflict in terms of deaths and casualties. From a population of fewer than five million, 416,809 men enlisted, of whom more than 60,000 were killed and 156,000 wounded, gassed, or taken prisoner.  It has been estimated over 5,000 South Australians died on active service during the First World War, lest we forget.  As I share my own experience of war with you, as the son of a veteran and as a veteran and retired military chaplain myself, I do with the hope that as you hear my words you will in some way connect with the experiences of the soldiers of World War One whose names appear on St. George’s War Memorial just a few feet from us.  I don’t know their specific stories, but I do know that in all war the cost in human suffering is the same, from one generation to the next, from one country to the next.

My Great Uncle Al Herztler served with the American forces in World was 1.  He said nothing about the war other than that he had served for a time in France with an artillery regiment.  My father served with General Patton’s 2ndArmed Division in North Africa, Sicily and Normandy, France.  More than any combat operation he had participated in, it was the landing on Omaha beach that forever marked his soul.  My father jumped off his landing craft into a sea of red from the blood of the soldiers who had been killed in the first and second waves.  He was in the third wave.  Four days later he was wounded during the Battle of Carentan. Although medically evacuated back to the USA for treatment, ending his participation in combat operations, the war stayed with him for the rest of his life.  I never really understood my father or appreciated how the war affected him until I spent a year in a war zone myself.  As a twenty year old US Marine, I experienced first-hand the brutality of armed conflict in a country at war with itself.  I served as a member of the Marine Security Detachment (a small team of 12 Marines) assigned to protect the American Embassy in Beirut. I arrived on 19 March 1980 and left exactly one year later.  My experience of war made me yearn for peace.  After a particularly chaotic few days after I’d been in county about six months and just after we had survived a rocket attack, I asked our cook how he managed to stay calm and positive with the war swirling around him.  He told me that he was a Christian and that every-day he would take time to read the bible and pray.  He quoted our Gospel for today and said:  In the Bible it says you will hear of wars and rumours of wars – but the one who endures to the end will be saved.  Abu Smir – our cook, inspired me with his goodness and his stalwart faith.  I didn’t know it then but my path to becoming a military chaplain began then.

In 1997 I married my Canadian bride and a few years later we were both serving as chaplains in the Canadian Armed Forces. When we both received the Queen’s commission, going to war was the last thing either of us expected.  Then there was 9/11. And then for the first time since the Korean war, Canadian troops were deployed on combat operations.  The sadness in receiving the bodies of our fallen soldiers was so somber, so brutal.  The cost of war can’t be fully appreciated without seeing the effects of the loss of a soldier on his or her family.  Early one morning in October 2006 I received a call from the base senior chaplain informing me that soldiers from my unit had been killed on operations in Afghanistan.  I was to come in for a briefing in preparation for the death notification to the family.  We had already had a number of casualties in the previous weeks and we were all emotionally exhausted.  The last tasking I wanted was this one.  As we got the final green light to proceed with the death notification I kept thinking about how that knock on the door would forever change that family’s life. As the Commanding Officer and I approached the front door of the house, I noted the children’s push bikes on the front porch.  My heart sank more.  The wife of the soldier who was killed didn’t want to open the front door to her home. We eventually persuaded her to let us in.  As the Commanding Officer explained what had happened, she turned to me and said: what am I going to tell my children? How do I explain to them that their daddy won’t be coming home?  I said: you need to tell them that their daddy went to war, he got hurt in the war and he died.  She said, yes, I need to tell them the truth.

Four years later, I was serving as a Royal Australian Air Force Chaplain at Al Minhad Air Base in the United Arab Emirates. I got a call to assist with the repatriation of the remains of a Canadian Army Officer who had been killed in an IED strike in Afghanistan.  I had known the officer, he was from my base in Canada.  I also knew the escorting officer, I was his battalion padre for three years.  We were mates.  After the casket was received from the aircraft and brought to the morgue to await further transport the following day, I had a chance to catch up with Steve, the escorting officer.  He was surprised to see that I’d transferred into the RAAF.  After a few moments Steve teared up a bit, got a bit emotional and said: Padre, I don’t know what I’m going to tell his wife.  There is no body in the casket.  I don’t know what they put in there.  The bomb blast that destroyed the vehicle he was in was so great that all we could find of Geoff were his military id discs, dog tags.  How do I tell her there is nothing left?   In silence we sat.  We both knew he had to tell her what happened.  The only consolation she could have was that because the explosion was so sudden and horrifically intense, he would not have suffered.  He was gone in an instant.

Finally, I’d like to share with you the cost of killing on our soldiers themselves, even when the killing is technically justified by the laws of armed conflict.  After my return to Australia upon completion of my tour I had the opportunity to provide pastoral counsel to an Australian soldier who according to his own count had killed 7 armed combatants while on operations overseas.  As a Christian he could not reconcile the commandment though shalt not kill with the killing he had done while operations.  He was guilt ridden, despondent.  In brief I explained to him that the commandment though shalt not kill is more correctly translated as though shall not commit murder, as in pre-meditated murder.  I explained to him that if he felt his life was in danger or those in under his command or the civilians in the area from those he killed, then his actions were justifiable.  I explained to him that the ultimate responsibility for a soldier killing an armed aggressor in a combat zone belongs to the Prime Minister and his cabinet. Because the cost of war is so great and the life-long effects war has on everyone involved on the ground in combat zones, it must always be the very last option after all other options have been exhausted.

For the five thousand South Australians who were killed in the Great War, for the thousands more scarred for life mentally and physically, for there family members, today we honour their sacrifices by holding them up in prayer to the Prince of Peace.

On this day the 11thof November, as we remember in prayer all those killed in the Great War, all those wounded and their families and friends, let us pray for peace and work for justice in our world.  Let us insure that we take our elected officials to task when it comes to decisions of war engagement.  May it only ever be that last resort and not the first response.  Let us pray for those who have served in uniform and those who serve today, that our government will always to right by them. Amen.

All Saints & All Souls – 4 November, 2018

Today I would like to ponder grief and joy. We all know what they are and have felt them: grief at losing something or someone, joy in finding and loving.

They are opposites, but of course related. We need both to be able to tell the difference. We also cannot escape them in life, but will feel both.

In one sense this is why we organise the calendar of the Church in a particular way. Friday was the feast of All Souls, when we remember and pray for the dead, and also remember our grief. Today we keep, transferred from the Friday, the Feast of All Saints, when we remember those in heaven now.

Christians have had a long theology about these two days. In the early Church people just remembered the dead as the saints. In the early centuries there were no Christian cemeteries, the Christians were buried with their pagan neighbours in the cemeteries and on the days of anniversaries the relatives, pagan or Christian, would gather at the grave of a beloved and have a feast there. Pagans would pour libations to feed the soul of the dead. Christians developed the feast of the mass in memory of the departed.

But gradually, at the ending of the classical age, people started to worry more and more about the nature of the departed. Was everyone going straight to heaven? Even all the nasty ones? Most people were prepared to let the obviously good go to heaven and the obviously evil go to hell, the sheep and the goats that Jesus had talked about. But most people also realised that the vast majority of people did not fall automatically into either camp, they were the almost good and the almost bad, the middling people for whom most of us categorise ourselves.

It was in this time that a change started to happen in our theology and burial practices. People wanted more assurance that they could get to heaven. Christian cemeteries sprung up to show assurance that we would all go to heaven together. Also ideas about purgatory were developed: people who had not grossly sinned could be purged of their last imperfections and find entry into heaven.

In line with this grew the two festivals of the Church, All Saints and All Souls. All Saints commemorates those we remember in heaven. All Souls were for those we were not so sure about, those perhaps in purgatory. The dates for this partly reflected the dedication of early churches to All Saints, such as the Pantheon, in Rome. All Souls grew around the need to help the dead in purgatory, by saying prayers for their release and freedom from the last pains before entering heaven at the end.

However, these festivals also reflect earlier beliefs, that still shadow us in things such as Halloween, the fear of the dead, as if the dead were envious of us and seek to possess us to live again. Against these fears Christianity has long been opposed. Our Lord Jesus went down to the dead and rose again to show that the dead were not some closed evil company, but a place where even God has been. This is what we sometimes call the harrowing of the dead. Death ultimately is not a place of fear for us, for our Lord, the God of love, has been there. Do not be afraid, the dark realms can have no hold on us.

Now there is not the same obsession about the afterlife. People certainly still fear death, of that I am sure, but they don’t want to talk about it. Many just believe in oblivion, a wiping out at the end, and no life beyond. The sense that they can help the dead by prayers on All Souls has diminished. Even at the few non-church funerals I go to all fear and grief is kept away by happy pictures and a glowing report card on their life that often hides the reality that many people are just difficult and not easy to live with. But the presentations like to show we are all going to the Good Place.

But we still need to grieve. All Souls, and the customs of Christian funerals are designed to make the reality of death clear. It hurts. We will not make such friends again. We will not know such love again. Grief is part of the human condition and needs to be dealt with. We have to learn in our lives that grief is there, so we can face the tragedy of the world and help others in need.  All Souls, with its black vestments, names of the departed and imitation coffin, are part of that process. We do not forget those whom we loved: and neither does God.

All Saints is the other part of that process: we grieve, but not without hope. All Saints is the joy of believing that God has offered a place in heaven for all he created. Today we think of the endless blessed in heaven whom rejoice in the presence of God. This is what we hope for. In contrast to the black of All Souls we have the white of joy and celebration, the colour of Easter and Christmas. We do not understand it. All we know that even the thief on the cross was promised paradise by Our Lord as he too died in pain. In the same way, we too, thieves and other sinners, look forward to that same paradise.