2018 May 13 - Living In The World

Readings: Acts 1:15-17, 21-26 John 17:6-17

In his lecture in Newcastle last Thursday on the theme Australia Reimagined, social researcher Hugh Mackay offered a searching analysis of the state of the nation. While affirming the many positives that enable us to feel fortunate to be living here, he also pinpointed some deeply concerning trends. Along with the regulars of high alcohol consumption and gambling spend, he noted that mental illness is in a spiralling trend. Anxiety is the primary symptom of fragmented community where the young sleep with their devices under their pillows, and one in four households have only one occupant.

Another most disturbing reality is the declining state of the natural environment. Of primary concern are the Great Barrier Reef, the Murray Darling Basin, de-forestation and an unacceptable rate of species extinction. At a local level, residents in the areas surrounding the Williamtown Air Force Base are alarmed at the ground and water contamination as a result of runoff of the Chemical PFAS, a component of fire-fighting foam. The front page of Fridays Newcastle Herald tells the story of falling property values. There is anecdotal evidence that banks are not lending to those willing to move into the area, which some suspect is now also a cancer cluster.

It does not take a genius to understand how all of these things are related. What is more challenging is how to turn it all around. Mackays solution is that we reach out more to the neighbours and communities with active compassion. Positive as this is, it would seem that more thoroughgoing and systemic changes are needed to make a real difference.

The fact that he spoke to a packed house at the Wests Leagues Club auditorium in King Street is a hopeful sign that some at least are not putting their heads in the sand, or staying glued to their devices. We may think we can deal with anxiety by not getting involved in the difficult issues and dilemmas of our world, but the research seems to be showing just the opposite. There is just nowhere to hide, and being engaged means that we can at least feel that we are doing something; taking at least some measure of control of our destinies. Rampant anxiety is more the malaise of those who seek constant distraction from reality, only to find that their bet or their football team is going to lose more often than not, and the latest fashion will only last until the next season.

And so we are faced, like it or not, with Living in the World, anxious and fearful as this sometimes makes us. As those who put their faith in the influence of higher powers, the challenge and opportunity is to make a difference to the quality of life of the planet as a whole.

In chapter 17 verse 17, Johns Jesus says to God "And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world protect them, that they may be one. Later he says "I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, as I do not belong to the world. Sanctify them in the truth.

There is so much to dwell on even in those few sentences. The question I want to ask today is this- what does in mean for a person of faith to live IN the world?

At theological college in South Africa I had a fellow student who wanted to argue against the need for Christians to be involved in the struggle for justice. To clinch his argument he quoted Jesus saying "My Kingdom is not OF this world. His conclusion was that those who followed Jesus in the Kingdom were also somehow exempt from involvement in the nitty gritty of social action.

This approach underlines the falsity of taking one short saying out of context and making a principle of it. The fact is that Jesus was DEEPLY involved in the harsh reality of life during his earthly ministry. He said, in effect, that he was here to love the poor and needy, and words and actions proved it. My fellow student also failed to understand the distinction between two very important little words, IN and OF. Jesus prays for his disciples who are IN the world, but makes it clear that they are not OF the world in the sense that the agendas of the greedy were not to be their agendas, and they were not to be seduced by the goals of the power-brokers.

It is of course depressingly easy for people to be alive, but not really live in the world. As tempting as it might be for some of us to withdraw into a cocoon of cappuccino, social soirees and football scores, the real world demands deeper engagement, especially for those who claim to follow the one who came to be an agent of deep spiritual and social change. As much as the budget might bore us, the antics of the politicians make us want to switch off, or reports of changing climate make us want to put our head in the sand, WE LIVE IN THE WORLD. As such we are either agents of change or passive defenders of the status quo. We either accept shabby standards by walking past them, or we do a bit of lifting, and so help raise the bar.

The story in Acts of the election of Judas successor is an interesting vignette of how Jesus disciples took to heart his conviction for them to be IN the world. They started by establishing the criteria for the new candidates. They had to be people who had been IN THE GAME from the beginning. Having done this, they prayed. These are people who are IN the world, but look for divine guidance because they are not OF the world. So far, so good. They then do something that seems strange to say the least. They cast lots. I used to think that this was an incongruously superstitious act for a group so spiritually experienced. I now think that they were wise to not ask people to take sides in a vote. Both candidates were suitable, and they took their subjectivity out of the equation.

I want to address the paradox of living IN the world but not OF it. How do we take responsibility for who we are and where we have been placed, while at the same time recognising that as branches of the vine we are not autonomous beings, but deeply integrated with one another, and in the divine flow of things. If we have discerned together what seems to be the right way forward, and we have acknowledged where our decision-making sits within the divine order of things, we can go forward trusting the process.

It is so important that we start with the principles that come from an informed faith, and move to the pragmatic, and not the other way around.

Well, it just so happens that in a few days time we will find ourselves in the unique position of being able to engage at a deep level with one of the crucial, anxiety-producing issues I mentioned earlier. The Inspiracy program is part of our churchs response to the environmental challenges of our world, and is happening right here in Newcastle from next Thursday to Sunday. The basis of this years Inspiracy is eco-theology. In other words, how do we think about creation and our responsibility in this world from the point of view of God and faith. The program will help us to think about the principles upon which our action in the world are based; then also, I am sure, look at practical ways to be involved.

You dont have to be a so-called environmental activist to benefit from the Inspiracy program. At one level, there are those who are passionate about such things, and tend to be deeply engaged in an ongoing way. This is their calling and giftedness. Its like the Grandmothers group of between 10 and 20 who meet every week for an hour at Civic Park to stand up for refugees and asylum seekers. Then, every now and then, like on the 21st June, the call will go out to a much wider circle of sympathy for a much larger vigil. In the same way, Inspiracy is a wide call to the concerned, if not the passionate, to make the most of this resourceful program and be there for at least some of its events.

The Inspiracy Program includes an opening event on Thursday night, with the screening of the young persons short film finalists. On Friday and Saturday there are numerous talks and workshops to choose from. Its all outlined in documents at the back of the church, and on line.

Why not grab a friend and make a booking, or just turn up if you prefer.

If anxiety is the mental illness of the moment, we need to be looking for the antidote. Some need counselling, and possibly medication, to get them through. For those who are not quite in that space yet, I see two related ways forward. One is the way of faith. If we truly trust the reliable God of a good creation, it is easier to be at home in the world than if we buy the line that the world is inherently evil and in decay. I also find that when I am fearful and anxious, to actually take some positive action is an excellent way to regain a sense of having at least a measure of control.

Friends, as Christians we are, like Jesus disciples, called to be united in an alternate community of faith, where we stand together, IN the world, for a better world. This is a world where the common good is an abiding value, and compassion is our determined goal and way of being. In this space the anxious can find a calm centre, and the fearful, a cleft in the rock of ages. To this, we bear witness as a non-anxious presence in a needy world.

site managed by freesites