Island Lagoon, SA 2016

One Man's Web

When we sit in church next Sunday, fire will be upon people's mind. Will older folk who have paid attention to the news, along with their grief, be secretly glad of coming death so that they may avoid what is to come? What will be in the hearts of younger folk who must live through what is coming? They tell me they are "terrified for my children," and that they "see no hope for our survival." My neighbour says, "Humankind is working for its own destruction."2020112london 

There is something different about the fires this year. It's only January 6 and already in this fire season twice the area of the Amazon fires has been burned here in Australia. The maps of the UK and the US in this post, already out of date by the time of your reading, don't mean much to me because the 5.8 million hectares (in excess of 14.3 million acres) is an inconceivable figure. 20200112adelaideBut when I apply the same overlay of the burned area to my own state of South Australia I am filled with foreboding. I understand we are on the burning edge of climate change; we are living the future which is coming to the rest of the planet. (You can click on the images to see them full size.)

Matthew says a lot about burning. The lectionary tends to leave it out. I suppose this is because it seems unworthy of the Gospel, but perhaps it is time to reconsider.

I have expanded the reading set for the day to include some of the surrounding text.

3:1 In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ ... 9Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

11 ‘I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with [the is not in the Greek] Holy Spirit and fire.fn112His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’

13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan...

Do you see that Jesus comes into a world of fire and judgement? John understood, as does Matthew, that we live in a world of consequence. How we live shapes the world in which we live. It is a simple feedback loop true of our "social ecology" and of ecology of land and sea.

"Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan," the place of Israel's entry to the Promised Land,

to be baptized by him... Read on >>>

I don't train, I commute. My work sites require a 60 or 70km round trip for the day. Ride into work two or three days a week, and training is done!  This is because the key issue for touring, and for endurance rides, is simply having lots of miles under the belt.  It's not about speed or sprints, but simply riding the distance. I often say to people that if I asked them if they could ride up to Mt Lofty the answer would be, "No!" But most folk could walk up there because they walk all the time.  Ride all the time, and physical training is 90% done. 

Add to this the fact that any long ride is as much mind as it is body, and training looks like a different thing.  Mind and strategy is huge in racing, too, but in the longer day after day rides, mind is often the key factor, especially when conditions are bad.

We are coming up to the Tour Down Under. Deb and I will do the full Community Ride, which is 162km to Murray Bridge, and then we plan to ride back to her place east of the city, which will be another 80km. It requires a climb home through the Hills, and we will take a less direct route to stay out of traffic (Friday night pubs and bikes are not a good mix.) I'm then hoping to do at least another 250km, but this will be very weather dependent. In the new Australian climate it is entirely possible, if not likely, that the entire event will be cancelled due to catastrophic fire danger... Read on >>>

When it comes to despair and fear there are no experts. None of us can sit apart from these things. None of us can escape the biological and genetic conditioning to stay alive at any cost. We can only live with fear; courage lives with fear. The one with no fear is a fool, or has been dehumanised.

This means that no human being can speak objectively or from outside our dilemma; beware those who appear to do this, for they are either lying, in denial, or have not yet woken up to themselves and to just how dire the human situation is.

Indeed, to be afraid, to grieve, to despair of the future is to be human. Our best selves come from living in the full consciousness of who we are: limited, contingent, frightened creatures who are subject and subordinate to the biosphere. It is our refusal as a species to live in this place which has brought us to this point, particularly the refusal of the cultural west with its technologically powered consumer excess. We have thought we owned this place, and have denied what is well understood by many indigenous cultures: this place owns us and demands our respect.

The fear and despair that climate change brings to consciousness was always going to come to us. Death is inevitable. Most species that ever were, are now extinct. It takes a certain death-denying hubris to think we could beat this.  We know that it is likely the sun will eventually engulf the planet. And we have known since childhood that the children of millions of people suffer and die in the heat and societal breakdown which we now recognise will come to us.

The difference is that the climate crisis is abruptly stripping us of all our defences and pretences.... Read on >>>>

One of the difficulties for us westerners is that we think (and pray) from such a position of privilege. For many of us, and for many issues, life simply goes on regardless. We can contemplate policies, vote against certain politicians or parties, even rage at them, but for us, regardless of the outcome, life will not be too badly altered. I wonder if part of the anger and fear and grief we feel about climate change, is that suddenly, it all really does matter. Climate change threatens everything we have. In some ways, this is the first time this has ever happened to me.

We perceive this at a very deep level. The thing we think of as "us" or "me" is not quite a single unified being. Many of us know the experience of something happening quite rapidly— a crash, or a fall... and along with that, a kind of slow motion observation and even commentary, by another part of ourselves. Even deeper than this "observer of me," I have begun to discern a subterranean instinct which scents danger of which the surface me is quite unconscious. It moves me before I am aware of anything happening. I know before I know. I know even if I am saying something different.... Read on >>>>

Olia is two months past her expected birth date, but was born much earlier. We met for the first time a few nights ago, and I was inspected by calm dark eyes which felt far older and more knowing than I expected. She sat up straight in her sister's arms like an icon Christ child. In such a child, all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. (Col 1:19)

In such a child as this...

Think for a moment or two about your recollection of the Christmas story...

We tend to blend the Christmas story from Luke and the Christmas story from Matthew into the one story. There is some sense to this: they both speak of a child born at God's command— a child conceived by the Holy Spirit, a child who is descended from David. Each gospel tells of the birth of the Messiah.

But they are also two quite different stories.  I think we tend to read the story from Luke, which is one of the gospel readings set by the Lectionary for today and tomorrow, and we import a bit from Matthew; mostly just the story of the three Magi at the manger. And this means that on Christmas cards, and in much popular art,
• Jesus is born at night because of the story of the shepherds,
• it's serene like the Carol Silent Night,
• the animals are gathered around the manger, (that detail got its big boost from St Francis' nativity scenes over a thousand years later) 
• and the three Magi or Wise Men, arrive on their camels. (Actually Matthew doesn't say three, and he says nothing about camels.)

The thing about Luke's story is that it portrays the power of God over all that is happening in the world. Caesar has called a census of all the world— something Jewish people often understood to be a kind of idolatry— and all Caesar achieves is that he gets the Messiah to Bethlehem just in time to be born as scripture had foretold; God is in control.

But when we read Matthew on his own, we enter the stark and often terrible world in which his people lived.

So tonight we are going to hear the story of Jesus' birth and then what happens after that, according to Matthew. Let's listen to Matthew 1:18 – 2:18... Read on >>>>

As I reflect:

  1. Scott Morrison may yet be one of Australia's great anti-witnesses to the Faith, up there with Pell and others. His public faith and his Pentecostalism, his links to Hillsong, and his appalling judgment over going to Hawaii during the fires, not to mention lumps of coal in Parliament, and his scepticism and vacillation on Climate Change will all come together. People of all political persuasions and ages are beginning to rage at him. He is shaping as a scapegoat, the one who pays for the sins of the nation. John Hewson wrote recently that

Ironically, climate probably offers Morrison his best chance to show leadership, and to earn the genuine support of the “quiet Australians”. It will take honesty and courage… Morrison just needs to out this rump in his government and discipline or manage them. He would be surprised at just how much slack voters would cut him for doing so.

Not doing this could be his undoing.

  1. As I consider the depth of feelings in our house over one day of fire in the Hills, and just up the road, here in Adelaide, I wonder what the month of living in smoke in Sydney is doing to people… not to mention to the people in the fire zones.

  2. I see that Climate change is not simply a mortality reminder, not simply a reminder that I will die. It says something about the culture. If we have any compassion for people we surely see that for all our violence and other limitations as a species, what is happening here is the undoing of the best of people's desires. Despite all the greed and fear, and in its midst, this planet has been a place of people seeking to be something more, seeking to transcend mere brutishness. Most people seek to live for the good as they understand it. And it is all coming to an end. So it's not just that we all die and so there is no faux immortality via our descendants. It is also a great grief about the death and failure of the human endeavour.

  3. And I am startled at how, despite all my knowledge of the scapegoating mechanism, and despite all my efforts to transcend it, at how much in the last 24 hours I have caught myself transferring anger onto others. When it comes to our interpersonal relations, I suspect the fires have barely started.

(Archive)

This is an Advent 4 cum Christmas sermon written for Adelaide, in South Australia, 2019. This morning at 6am it was 95F in our suburb,  (that's 35C,) a whisker under 108F at mid morning, and heading for 116. A major blaze is developing near Cuddly Creek as I write, another one is headed toward the hills behind Blakeview, and the NSW fires, so far, have "a total perimeter of 19,235 kilometres. That’s the equivalent distance of Sydney to Perth four times over." (And the Prime Minister has finally realised that it was not a good time to take Christmas off on an overseas holiday.)

In 1990's Adelaide a mother duck used to nest in the fountain outside Police Headquarters in the middle of the city. Each year she would walk the ducklings down to the River Torrens, along the busiest street in the city centre, and across six major roads. It was a small media phenomenon accompanied by TV cameras and a police escort.  There is also a Victorian joke in the text, but the sermon is serious.

It's like being in paradise...

If you've been in the Botanic Gardens, you'll know what a beautiful place it is— walled off from the heat and the noise of the city, lush, shaded, every kind of plant. It's a beautiful, and feels like... a safe place.

People have understood for a long time that if we were close to God, if God were with us, then the whole of life would be like that garden; it would be paradise; we would literally live in Paradise. That's why we have the story of Paradise, the story of Garden of Eden where God walked with Eve and Adam in the cool of the day. Paradise... is the Latin word for garden.

The problem for us— and we've known this for a long time, too— is this thing we call sin. Sin is not some list of moral wrongs which varies according to where we live. My friend Ann, from North Carolina, married a man with family in the Barossa Valley. She said, "I can't help noticing that in North Carolina it's a sin to drink, but it's fine to smoke. In the Barossa churches, it's a sin to smoke, but wine is fine." Sin is something much deeper than that.

Sin is that much deeper thing about us which means we are separated from God. It's not that God leaves us alone or deserts us, but that something about us— so deep we wonder if it's in our genes! — means we have walled ourselves off from God; we've fallen dreadfully short of what we know we could be, and we can never get there. We are outside the garden. Life is hot, hopeless, and full of violence and fear. The idea that God is with us seems not so much untrue as completely ridiculous!

So what if you met a man who made you feel that when you were with him... you were somehow in the very presence of God, a man who made life — with all its pain, and despite all its pain — what if you met a man who made it feel like you were in the Garden again? ... Read on >>>>

It begins with Joseph

Listen here

We need to know who we are, and to be known. Knowing our family and origins allows us to make sense of the world. It identifies us for ourselves, and to others. It locates us in society. Perhaps Australian western society does this in a more muted fashion than the culture of Jesus' time, but even here in Australia, we carefully curate our "book of generations" with small lies about parentage, with taped together pages in our research records left waiting for a later generation, and even with carefully erased wayward children. Genealogy is only partly about history. It is also the defining of ourselves and who we would like to be. 

Matthew begins his gospel with a family history for his people. WD Davies says

The genealogy implicitly reveals the identity and status of the church. Congregations which included both Jews and Gentiles could not find their identity in a shared racial heritage. They found it instead in their common Lord and saviour... and since he was the Messiah, the Son of David and the son of Abraham, those who adhered to his words and participated in his destiny knew themselves to be heirs of the promises... In other words, the history of Jesus was his followers history, and his heritage their heritage. Despite its belonging to the rootless Hellenistic world of the first century, the church, by virtue of its union with Jesus, had a secure link with the remote past. (Matthew: A Shorter Commentary.  Davies and Alison pp 11)

In a rootless post-truth, apocalyptic world of political lies, where all that seemed solid is now under threat— and for people of all persuasions, and where all westerners find themselves complicit in the destruction of the biosphere, such a belonging  may provide an anchor— if we choose to use it. Christmas without the genealogy leaves out half the story; it leaves us afloat with theories of salvation which are not anchored into the history of our species... Read on >>>>

John has come to the end. He knows he will not escape prison alive. Yet there has been no fire, no judgement, no felling of trees. (Matt 3:1-11) It seems nothing has happened at all. That which might be his only rescue has not come. How do you keep believing when nothing has worked and it seems everything you had hoped and dreamed for is going to elude you?

How many people later in life, when death has become a reality which will not stay ignored, and how many people who began a path with plans and high ideals which they realise will not be achieved, wonder if their choices were correct? Should they have looked elsewhere? Could I have done more? Was the church wrong? Have I wasted my time— even my life?

"Are we to wait for another?" John asked, voicing the grief and doubt of countless Christians and people of all faiths, at those times when the kingdom seems more absent than present. Indeed, when a respected scientist says he thinks it is "'at least highly unlikely' that his teenage children [will] survive beyond late middle age," what is there to wait for? The person I am quoting said of herself "At that point, three decades of climate unease crystallised into debilitating dread, and I’m far from alone." 

To all this, Jesus says

‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. 6And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’

Which is to say... Read on >>>>

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