For those of you who are already showing the signs of forgetfulness, let me remind you that in my last sermon I said that the world, the context in which we live our daily lives, is continually manipulating and massaging us. I used the phrase “cultural hypnosis” as a summary of what is happening to us day by day. We are being conditioned by the world.
This, as I said then, is a constant theme of the scriptures – the world over and against the faith. It is not as some have suggested that the world is evil and to be shunned. No way! It is simply that the world is always and subtly conditioning us into its way of thinking and acting, and we have to be continually aware of this.
Jesus certainly was and in our lectionary reading for this morning (John 17:1-11) he spells it out in no uncertain manner. The gist of the passage is Jesus’ concern for his followers. While he has been with them he has been able to help them see things in a different way to that of the world. His concern is that when he confronts the world, and incurs the consequences of crucifixion, they may slip back into “cultural hypnosis”. So he prays for them – the essence of the prayer being that his disciples may be “in but not of the world”
And he finishes with these striking words ‘It is not for these alone that I pray but for those also who through their words put their faith in me”. That’s us! Jesus here is praying that we may not be “overcome by the world”, that we may be “in but not of the world”. John 17 is one of the most relevant and striking chapters in the bible. I would suggest that you read it sometime in the next few days in the sense of it being about you.
On Friday there was what was described as” a welcome home march for soldiers who contributed to operations in the Middle East.” Ten thousand people turned out to wave flags and give them what was described by the ABC as “a hero’s welcome”. The only dissenting voice, as Channel 10 described it, was a group of twenty people standing outside the American Consulate holding photos of injured Iraqi children. Underneath the photographs were the words: “Peace means valuing other children as much as our own”.
There was no question of what they were on about. Two large signs expressed it clearly. One said “Thankfully, no Australians were killed. Thousands of Iraqi children were”. The other sign had a photograph of an injured child with the words “We will remember them”.
The press release made it quite clear where we stood as far as the armed forces were concerned:
“Our society will today celebrate the return of soldiers from the Iraq war. We share with them their joy and their family’s joy at their safe return. We hope we will never again do what we did to the soldiers returning from Vietnam. That kind of treatment should have been reserved for the politicians who sent them. Like Vietnam, the recent war will be regarded by history as a monumental mistake. Iraq posed no threat. We were deceived into the use of unwarranted armed force. It was not Iraq that was the aggressor. It was the United States and Australia. We do not question the commitment of our armed forces. We do however challenge the lie that sent them to war.
The fact that not one Australian life was lost is very significant. What kind of a war is it when one side has no casualties? It points up the fact that it was not a war. It was a massacre! The enemy had no air force, no navy and no weapons of mass destruction. The destruction was reserved for thousands of Iraqi women and children.
This is what we who are gathered here today will not forget. Alongside the posturing of our Prime Minister, we will remember the devastated families of Iraq, families that were massacred in the name of war.”
The media, however, did not want to know about it. The only TV Channel to cover it was Channel 10 who quoted one controversial statement out of a three minute interview. But give them their due – they did give it five seconds coverage. The rest of the media were lining up behind the traditional, patriotic, flag waving, jingoistic, massaging and conditioning affirmation of war.
And let me freely admit that I was scared about doing anything on the day of the march. If I had followed my feelings, I would have let the war supporters have their day. Over the last few months I have been in some scary situations but on Friday there was exceptional fear. I have stood against the flow on many occasions but the flow on Friday was massive – one that you could guarantee would swamp everything in its path. On the day previous I received an email from a friend saying “With great respect can I suggest that the planned vigil for tomorrow is likely to be productive only in creating animosity on the part of people we might want to influence. The euphoria evident in the Sydney march yesterday is likely to be repeated in Perth tomorrow, and while the vigil is intended to make a strong counterpoint, I believe the timing is bad”. The point was well taken and was a view evidently held by many. When I spoke at Fremantle a few weeks ago, it was well received by over 600 people. The organisations of these people were emailed and not one arrived to support the vigil. In fairness to them, one should say that the nature of the vigil may not have appealed and may have been seen as too “religious” but I have the feeling that the real reason may have been of discretion being the better part of valour – something which I only too readily understand. I too was very apprehensive about the whole exercise. And I know that others standing alongside me were likewise apprehensive. One of them expressed it well “It’s a bit like a fly being squashed on the windscreen of a car”.
So why would such sensible people as us do such a foolish thing? Why would twelve members of this congregation stand silently in the freezing cold holding a picture of an injured Iraqi child. Why indeed?
One answer may be that they know their scriptures. They know of that scene in John’s gospel where Jesus prays that his disciples may be “in but not of” the world, where he refers to his disciples as being “strangers in the world”. “I Pray for them. I am not praying for the world but those you have given me. They are strangers in the world as I am.” On the back of the picture they held were some words that verified and motivated their action.
In the silence today we remember the words of Edmund Burke
“Events have happened of which it is difficult to speak
and impossible to remain silent”
We have no easy words to offer the victims of violence.
To do that would be an inexcusable cheapening of their suffering.
We simply stand in silence and raise the question
“Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by.”
In standing here we seek to broaden our understanding
of what has been done in our name to innocent children.
We remember those whose blood cries out from the ground
“I was, I am your brother, your sister.
Let me not be forgotten. Remember me.”
We pray for the innocent victims of violence, each one a child of God,
and of untold value in God’s sight and the sight of those who love them.
In other words, they were there because they could do no other – the famous words of Martin Luther: “Here I stand, I can do no other”. I cannot speak for the rest but, if it had not been for the compulsion of the gospel, I certainly would not have been there.
And I found some of the comments after the vigil fascinating and revealing. One person spoke in terms of “standing for an alternative” – and stand we did in two hours of freezing cold. One of our number has arthritis and how he lasted the two hours is beyond me. We did make an exception for an eighty five year old and provided a chair for her. But what was said was very true “We stood for an alternative”.
The futility and minimal effectiveness of what we did was also commented upon, that we had as much effect as a leaf falling in a forest. But it was also recognised that it did something for each of us. I was reminded of A.J. Muste who was holding a candle outside the White House when someone said that such an action was not likely to change the world. A.J.Muste replied “Probably not, but it may stop the world changing me”.
And that I believe is line ball with our scripture passage today. Jesus has helped them resist the massaging, conditioning, hypnotising effect of the world. Now he is leaving them so he prays that they may be “in but not of the world” . Jim Wallis says it in contemporary language:
“The call to discipleship, the call to follow Jesus, demands a fundamental break with the dominant values and conformist patterns of the majority culture. … Christians must begin to understand that lives lived under the Lordship of Jesus at this point in our history will necessarily put us at odds with the leading assumptions of the cultural mainstream, the dominant institutions of political and economic power, and the paralysing conformity of the Church. …… A Church seeking to be a sign of Christ’s presence in the world is thus a contersign to the values and assumptions of society”
It is a magnificent statement, one that I have quoted on more than one occasion, and one which expresses well the whole ethos of our lectionary passage for today.
One more matter needs to be considered – something that is emphasised again and again in the passage. What is the key to being “in but not of the world”? The answer given is in terms of “being one with” the revelation of ultimate reality to be found in Jesus – in other words, the concentration on that kind of prayer known as “contemplative” prayer. Prayer is the means by which we offset the massaging and conditioning of the world. This is the pivot point of the Christian life and I was interested to read Michael Mayne’s words the other day. “The priority we are prepared to give to prayer is the hardest challenge and the most consistent testing of the seriousness of our readiness to follow Christ.” It will be obvious that by prayer I do not mean asking for something. I am talking about prayer in terms of a Simone Weil’s definition of “Attention taken to its highest degree”. Prayer is like looking at a painting of life. You can talk about it, you can think about it but I find it of far more significance to simply be silent in the presence of it, There are libraries about this kind of prayer, about becoming one with the ground of our being – the Spirit of Life – and I commend them to you.
Prayer is about awareness, about experiencing awareness, enjoying awareness and deepening the awareness of ultimate reality, that which really counts. Prayer is the means by which we see beyond the cultural trance in which most of us live. What we do in prayer is to break free of our cultural hypnosis and become aware of the greater reality revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. We become one with him and one with the greater reality which lies at the depths of our being. This is what Jesus is about when he prays that “they may be one as we are one.” In our passage this morning, Jesus throws us into the deep water of mysticism – the experiencing of God.
What does it mean to be “Church”? It means to be in, but not of, the world and it means to be at one with, aware of, the things that really matter – that which is seen in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ in whose name we meet this day and whose vision for humankind to which we are committed. May we, as his Church, become who we really are!