SERMON 6 NOVEMBER 2016
Some 50 years ago I sat in the crowded village hall on the little island of Iona, off the west coast of Scotland. We were packed in there for a big event – the screening of “The Bridge on the River Kwai”, courtesy of The Highlands and Islands Film Guild (which no longer exists). The projector whirred away at the back of the hall as we all watched the images on a big white screen. Twice, just at tense moments, the whirring speeded up, the images flickered, a communal groan was heard and the lights went on as the film reel was changed. Then we got going again. Three times this happened. Things have changed a bit nowadays! We have data projectors and can pick on movies, video clips on a vast range of subjects. We can see images from outer space to the minutest details of insects in HD, indeed from the whole world of nature and the whole gamut of human life. We don’t have to have images projected “out there” – we can pick them up on our phones, and how often have you nearly been knocked over by someone who is engrossed in that little screen in front of them?
Nowadays, projection is also a term that is commonly used in psychology and in counselling. It is what happens when we, often unconsciously, “project” onto someone else, or a whole group, what it is that we ourselves are dealing with. We know that we are all shaped by different experiences. No two lives are the same. Even people in the same family will remember things slightly, or even very differently. We see through our own lenses. We project our own feelings and interpretations onto others. Mostly this is just the way things are and it’s ok. Sometimes people don’t realise how strongly they are projecting their own feelings onto someone else and it becomes a difficulty because it stops them seeing things more broadly. They reduce what is there to what they themselves know.
I wonder if, in the church, we realise how much, over centuries, people have been projecting things onto God. We make God in our own image. That’s is quite understandable. After all, we are dealing with mystery and we are not very good at allowing that in our rationalistic lives. But the problem is that we don’t recognise that we are doing it. And so we have got God caught up in all our very human thoughts and processes. Too often we have made the institution into God. We have made our very human need to belong, to protect ourselves, to feel secure, into the most important aspect of the way we understand the church to be, so we exclude those whom we think don’t measure up for whatever reason. At this moment in time we are on the verge of the US Presidential election and we have witnessed a campaign that has brought out the worst in each and given rise to hate and racism. That has become a contagion. People project all their fears and insecurities onto those who are different and have turned towards what they think will recreate some idealised “nice” world where they can feel safe. We are by no means free from that contagion in Australia. I am not sure, where in God’s good earth, people are free of that. Certainly if you are anywhere connected to the internet you can’t escape it. These debased was of thinking are all around. The trouble is we often don’t recognise what is happening, and when we do, we become so dispirited. Where does that leave the mystery of God?
That is a mystery that does not go away, that isn’t sucked into our human constructs and limited vision. We have heared of that in our readings today. Firstly in Haggai. I must say, I am sometimes amazed and wonder at how passages that are selected to be part of the lectionary. But in this reading, the prophet Haggai is addressing the people who had returned from exile and rebuilt the temple. They had achieved that. But now they were beginning to wonder “So what? What now”. Nothing much seemed to be happening. They were focussed on themselves, just as those who had been part of the exodus from Egypt had been, who then lost their vision and wandered about in the desert for 40 years or more. Haggai reminds the people that faith in God is about looking to the future, and that the temple, which is God’s, not theirs, will be even more blessed than the original one. There is always change. Humans just struggle to see that or believe in it. And in God, that change will be for good, for blessing.
As we approach Advent and come near the end of our journey with Luke, we have this story of the Sadducees coming to Jesus with a question about resurrection. Maybe they were trying to trick Jesus. Everyone knew that the Sadducees didn’t believe in resurrection. For them the ‘here and now’ of earthly life was all there was with God. So they saw everything through those eyes. This situation they presented about the 7 brothers and their widow might well raise lots of questions. It was the custom for the brother of a dead man to marry his widow and to try and ensure the family line. It was partly also about protecting the widow who had no status, though this story shows how much women were just regarded as the property of the man and, as such, it makes uncomfortable reading. It is not a Western concept today, but this links to difficult questions that bother people still, because there are still relationships that demonstrate power and control. We might reframe it to ask what this story means for women who have been abused? Are they going to have to deal with their abuser in heaven? What about people who have remarried for whatever reason? Will there be a conflict of interests? It can extend to all kinds of imperfections – will those who suffer from a disability still be seen like that? Maybe it seems ridiculous, but these are indeed real pastoral issues for people. So this issue is not so far-fetched. As we come towards the end of the Church’s year and its climax in its celebration of Christ the King, today’s reading leads us to think about how we understand our lives and God’s promise of eternal life through Jesus.
Today we are also thinking about the communion of saints, since we missed All Saints Day on Tuesday. The Luke reading almost leads us to this. The communion of saints is such an important thought for so many people. It is about the continuing relationship between us all, in our here and now, in this place and the continuing relationship that connects us with people we have loved who have died, who we miss greatly, as well as people who are part of the history we all share. They may not all be people we have loved. There maybe people who we find hard to forgive. But somehow we are all held in the communion of saints. That communion is in God’s hands, though we may want to perform our own judgements about who might be part of it and whom we would like to exclude.
So we think about how we so often seem to shape God within our human limitations and weaknesses, to project our own ideas and thoughts onto the mind and heart of God; how we seem to have some need to protect God, and ourselves, by our own restrictions. We think about the communion of saints that transcends boundaries and in which we have to suspend our human judgements. We touch on mystery, the mystery, revealed in Jesus, through the Spirit, that is our relational, Trinitarian, dynamic God, and we are not sure what to do with that. I think that all these strands are very important. They come in very close to us as we seek to discover how our life of faith can be, both personally and together. These are not strange and unreal ideas. Just as the Sadducees held their beliefs within their own limitations that made no room for mystery, so, we discover, do we. Is not our journey of faith more about opening out the walls of our God-boxes and discovering how this journey is one of relationships: relationship with our dynamic, three-dimensional God who is always moving towards us and throughout creation, leading us on in hope; relationships with ourselves, with each other, with those around us, with those who have gone before us, and in awareness of those who will come after? Relationship with mystery. God does not need to be in a box, even in a house. We do not need laws with which to protect God. We only need them to guide ourselves but not in such a way that we end up worshipping the laws rather than God.
Jesus’ response was quite straightforward: he points to the timelessness of connection between people and God, and so between people across the ages. As he said, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob is our God and in God all have continuing life. This breaks us out of our boxed in thoughts wherein our lives in our moment of time are what is most important or real. We are given our lives in our particular moment to live in as best we maybe. All our experiences as we journey through our lives are opportunities to discover God’s ongoing presence. We know how much we are enriched by learning of the lives and experiences of those who have gone before us. This is how it should be, because all this long thread of human and creaturely story goes on unfolding as we move. Soon we will be preparing to celebrate the birth of Jesus again, the coming of God into our lives in that particular way at that particular point in time. But the resurrection, the very thing the Saduccees questioned, is what makes Jesus’ particular moment into the universal: God uncontained by any box of time or place or of our expectations. It stretched their rational minds too far but it is not with that rationality we are invite to understand this. Our Trinitarian God is all about relationship and is always drawing us into relationship with God and with all around us, freed from our self-imposed containment. And that is all wonderful because it is all about love. Love uncontained. What the world so much needs.
This is all about communion with God. Today we mark that communion in a particular way, a way that is also mystery. It is communion in which God offers us God’s self as we come together in relationship with each other across the many things that could divide us. It tells us that God is more than us, as individuals, as people together in this particular time and place, with all the love our memories hold. It tells us that we are all drawn into the amazing relationship of, and with, God. This is a connection that is always offered to us. It is God showing us the embrace that connects us more widely than we can imagine, if we can stop limiting God to a being in our own image. Thank God that God is not so restrained!