Thursday, 6 April 2017

Sermon (Chinese New Year Feb 5, 2017) – Darkness and Light in the Year of the Rooster

Happy New Year! Gung Hey Fat Choi

It is Chinese New Year - the Year of the Rooster
Earlier this week, I attended a Retreat.
- One of the questions my work team discussed was:
Do we regard our world as deeply sinful and our only hope is in the new heaven and new creation? Or do we regard Creation as essentially good, but in need of restoration and healing?
- Our perception of what is around us changes how we behave…

It has an impact on whether we regard anything or anyone as ‘beyond redemption’… or whether we look for ‘that which is good’…
How we are brought up, and what questions we pose and spend time on, shapes our world-views. Our world-views help us to categorize ideas and behaviours. We may see something as normal or antisocial. We regard some things as counter-cultural. Sometimes we regard the counter-cultural act as the prophetic one – the behaviour that challenges people to rethink their world-view with spiritual enlightenment.
Much religious searching is about this quest for enlightenment.
We seek ‘higher truth’.
We hope for a sacred path – a holy way for our pilgrimage in life.
We yearn for ‘the way – the truth – the life’.
I have, at times, had the opportunity to try to explain what being a Christian means to me, having come from a Chinese-Buddhist background.

For Chinese, there is a habit of taking bits of many philosophies and theories to make whatever works…
According to Yin-Yang Theory, everything in the universe is composed of two opposing, but deeply interconnected forces: yin (feminine, dark, and negative) and yang (masculine, light, and positive). These two forces deeply support and nourish each other, and cannot exist without the other.

I can explain that Buddhist-style Meditation and emptying often has a goal of letting go of self and embracing otherness. In allowing self-focus to fade, we have the opportunity to see freshly that which is denied by our obsession with self. Enlightenment is the possibility of seeing freshly and completely – being able to truly comprehend that which is beautiful, true and sacred. I explain, then, that for me, Jesus Christ… or revelation made possible in Jesus Christ, brings Light.
In Jesus Christ is the Enlightenment of the World.

O Lord – enlighten us – that we might see Truth!

Such a plea for enlightenment often haunts us as we struggle with complex ideas. One of the more complex ones recently has been exploring the Church’s response to what is happening in society around marriage. At the last Assembly, in 2015, I co-authored a paper proposing methods for how the Church might address questions about marriage. Last year, I was asked to flesh this out a bit for the Assembly Standing Committee. What I offered them was not a position on marriage, but a way of approaching who is in the conversation.

My Big Fat Greek Wedding is a 2002 Canadian-American romantic comedy film written by and starring Nia Vardalos and directed by Joel Zwick. The film is centered on Fatoula "Toula" Portokalos, a Greek American woman who falls in love with a non-Greek upper middle class "White Anglo-Saxon Protestant" Ian Miller.

When I first joined the Uniting Church's  National Multi and Cross-cultural Reference Group (2009), we would meet for a few days and would always have at least one movie night.
On these evenings, we usually watched a film that had some cross-cultural themes.
One of the films was ‘My big fat Greek wedding’.

There is a great scene, when Toula explains to her aunt that Ian is vegetarian.

Her response illustrates her worldview…

[upon learning Ian is a vegetarian] What do you mean, you don't eat no meat? [The entire room stops, in shock. We hear plates break and there are gasps.] ...That's okay, that's okay. I make lamb.

This is not as silly as it sounds.
Take my husband, when in Spain:
He would ask for a vegetarian salad and would be served with a tuna salad.
For the Spanish, vegetarian meant no red meat, but they simply could not conceive of someone only eating vegetables… it was not part of their world-view.

One of my younger staff,who has been doing project work for us in the Justice area, just got back this week from her first ever trip overseas. Talking with her on Friday, her enthusiasm was contagious.
“There is so much to learn and discover!” She said. “I can’t wait to go again!”

Yet, this past week, at the retreat… several of us also talked about some of our concerns about world travel. In an era of Post-Truth, of manufactured vilification and racism, of hate-speech and condoning of societal violence, we should be concerned.
There are today people who, on the one hand, claim their righteousness before God, while still waving “the wicked fist”… “pointing the finger”… “speaking evil”.
The Isaiah passage this week provides the list of contrasts, confronting us with the dilemma of knowing evil masquerades as goodness and, to our shame, we sometimes do not even know when we are colluding with it.
O Lord – enlighten us – that we might see Truth!

We have a friend who runs a local café… our friend is Aussie-Indian and he married a beautiful young Indian woman.
While the couple regarded themselves as married and they were recognised under Australian law, they travelled to India, getting married in the eyes of the bride’s family.
Until this ceremony and the blessings of family had occurred, her family could not feel they were really married.

This is a common issue among many Asian families, particularly Indonesian (but also some Korean), where wedding ceremonies and legal contracts are merely precursors to the real aspect of marrying which involves the blessings and union of families.

In still other cultures, such as some traditional Chinese, the marriage is not considered to be enacted until a child has been born. While this may seem strange to us now, it is not so very different from an era where marriages could be annulled if there was no progeny.

Blended marriages have been around for a long time. In recent decades, the Uniting Church in Australia has had to reconsider how to encourage families whose building blocks have been inter-denominational , interfaith  or intercultural . Such marriages have often been criticised or denigrated in Australian society, with politicians sometimes referring to the mixed children of these couples as mongrels  or half-caste . I am one of these children. Some of us call ourselves “hyphenated”…

As I engage with others, it is helpful for me to reflect first on who I am and call this to awareness. By knowing my own story, I become less threatened. My own identity does not need to be threatened as I seek to offer hospitality to the stories of others. I can listen and become comfortable with stories sitting alongside each other, rather than needing to dominate dialogue.

Questions for self-reflection could include:
1. What is my sense of identity?
2. How much of this has been shaped by my family situation?
3. What other factors shape my world-view?
4. Do I own or identify with particular values, beliefs or theological positions?
5. How do those closest to me perceive me?

Last time I was here – two weeks ago – I disclosed a fair bit of personal background information about myself. A preacher will sometimes do that to open up the possibility that you might trust me enough to hear some ideas or concepts from me that might arise from my different life experience. In Christian community, it is when we take the time and make the opportunity to share more deeply with one another that we create opportunities for corporate spiritual growth.

Coming from a hyphenated identity of blended cultural influences, I resonate with diverse people centring on Christ, rather than fitting narrow exclusive criteria. We need to discard outdated principles, where church growth was linked with members being from similar social, ethnic or cultural background . Donald McGavran’s work was shaped by reflecting on mission in village settings where missionaries had to cross cultures to proclaim the gospel. He found people preferred to become Christians without leaving their bounded sets or crossing cultural boundaries.

In a contemporary pluralistic urban setting, where gospel proclamation is situated in-between and among multiple cultures, it is more helpful to recollect the early church, where Jews and Gentiles heard the gospel together (Acts 2:5-11, 11:19-21, 13:16, 26). The church grew across culturally-bounded sets and overcame cultural barriers between people groups . People needed to learn to cross cultures at home.

The household table is often perceived to be hosted by a dominant culture group.
Often, the people who are most unaware of a dominant culture are the ones who feel completely at home with it. People of dominant culture often desire to be hospitable to guests, going out of their way to make minority people feel welcomed and cared for.

This can work very well when we visit each other’s homes and enter into each other’s lives. Knowing my own sense of place and personhood allows me the confidence to take a seat at the table of conversation. When others start to stereotype me or make assumptions about my identity, I am equipped to be able to share some of my own ‘home’ story to move beyond the stereotype into the reality that will enable us to relate. In this way, we can begin to feel ‘at home’ with each other.

Where hospitality becomes a caricature is where a dominant culture group assumes the role of Host at Christ’s table. Who is this Host, who determines normative behaviour, by their own cultural standards, when the feast of Heaven is for all? Developing identity confidence helps me to resist dominant culture put-downs and challenge oppressive assumptions. Knowing and articulating the validity of my own story allows me to place it humbly beside the other stories I will learn to respect. It is a way of respecting myself and being able to show respect for others by being prepared to share.

This is what it means for us to come to the table today. Our stories are not identical… our experiences are sometimes vastly different, but we can only embrace the depth and wonder of this community when we embrace the complexity of our difference. When we fail to provide space for gracious appreciation of difference, we fail to be the vibrant community God calls us to be.

In the words of the psalmist (112:4)
We are called together to rise in the darkness as a light for the upright; to be gracious, merciful, and righteous.
to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?

O Lord – enlighten us – that we might see Truth!

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