Following the lectionary: Passover, Christian ethics, and God’s radical commitment to the marginalised

passover.jpg“Go at once and select the animals for your families and slaughter the Passover lamb. On that same night I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn of both people and animals, and I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt. I am the Lord…

Take a bunch of hyssop, dip it into the blood in the basin and put some of the blood on the top and on both sides of the doorframe. None of you shall go out of the door of your house until morning. When the Lord goes through the land to strike down the Egyptians, he will see the blood on the top and sides of the doorframe and will pass over that doorway, and he will not permit the destroyer to enter your houses and strike you down.” – Exodus 12.12

Following the lectionary readings in a church is sometime a precarious thing to do. The lectionary is a list of portions of the Bible, appointed to be read at church services. They often throw up difficult and sometimes troubling texts.

Last week was no exception as we read about the story of the Exodus, the liberation of the Israelites from the hands of the Egyptians. In the lectionary reading we heard about God sweeping through the land of Egypt, exterminating the firstborn of every household, unless of course they marked their homes with the blood of a slain lamb. Weird stuff.

This is a troubling story to say the least. Not least the fact that we read of God murdering children. It is one thing to accept the eradication of the Egyptian army in the Red Sea, but to justify the murder of innocent children seems inexcusable.

But it’s important to remember that this story does not commend to us an ethical framework by which to live by. Instead, it is a theological narrative, one which presents God’s absolute commitment to the oppressed and marginalised. It speaks of a God who will stop at nothing to liberate slaves, and promise to them a better future.

This is the God of which Jesus speaks of in the gospels. When Jesus began his ministry in his home town of Nazareth he went to the synagogue and, as was the custom, read from scripture. From all of the wonderful Hebrew texts from which he might read, Jesus picked up the scroll which included a vision from the prophet Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.

This is Jesus’ mission statement. His call to arms. He understood that stories like the Exodus were not simply about Israelite exceptionalism, or God’s divine wrath. Rather, he interpreted these texts to be stories about God’s absolute commitment to the marginalised; the poor, the captives, the disabled, and the oppressed.

During his life he spent his time with “sinners”; tax collectors, prostitutes, foreigners, and the “unclean”. He knew that God was on their side and would stop at nothing to liberate them from oppression.

Whatever our personal beliefs on moral or social issues, Christians are called to follow Jesus on this radical mission. We are compelled to put our personal identity and beliefs aside to always side with the marginalised, perhaps crossing preconceived ethical and moral boundaries along the way.

With this in mind one might envisage Jesus returning today and, attending one of our local churches, reimagine Isaiah’s vision for freedom like this…

The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the LGBTQ+ community.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for those
detained on Manus and Nauru
and the closing of the health gap,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.

One Man Against a Wall

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Autumn leaves in the church garden

On Sunday we welcomed Gareth from Baptcare Sanctuary who shared with us this beautiful poem from Cameron Semmens – One Man Against a Wall.

If you’d like to support Baptcare Sanctuary you can bring food parcels to the church, or you can donate directly here. Alternatively you can join us the first Monday of each month when we visit Brunswick Sanctuary to prepare a meal and get to know the guys there.

One Man Against a Wall – Cameron Semmens

One man
against a wall,
let’s call him – Rajeev
let’s call him – an asylum seeker
lets call him – a person.
I ask:
How long’s it been?
How do you live with the uncertainty?
What do you do with your days?
He says: 7 years. It’s hard. Sometimes I paint.
He shows me one of his canvases,
he says
Look at the leaf.
Without leaves there are no flowers.
Leaves are always forgotten.

One man
against a wall –
a towering barricade of bureaucracy,
multi-tiered and jargon-sealed,
as real as any bricks and mortar fortress.
But this wall is spongy and slippery,
subject to every political swing and whim;
you’ll never know exactly where it lies,
and where it could bounce to
and where it could bounce you to.
Lets call this – protection.
Lets call this – precaution.
Lets call this – wrong.
I watch a leaf in the courtyard
blown about by the wind –
it is not a dance it chose
torn from its family tree.
Once, it was useful,
now, just litter.

One man
against a wall –
but this wall holds a roof above his head
this wall holds hope for his future.
Smiling, he is stroking his beard, saying:
This is good place.
Government should learn from this place.
People here they listen.
Lets call this – dignifying.
Lets call this – the least we can do.
Lets call this – Sanctuary.
As I sit, mind-spinning,
in the solid, comfy chair of my life
he leaves…
he leaves
and I promise,
I promise to myself,
he will not be forgotten,
this leaf will not be forgotten.

Inspired by my visit to Sanctuary –
a Baptcare service providing housing for asylum seekers.

Nick Cave and theology: reflections while listening to Lovely Creatures

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This week saw the release of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ latest album Lovely Creatures. I have been eagerly anticipating this for a few years now. Not because it has any new tracks for me to devour (it’s a compilation of 30 years of Bad Seeds songs), but rather because my friend, the hugely talented literary critic Lyn McCredden, had contributed an article to the accompanying book. Her article is titled Fleshed sacred : The carnal theologies of Nick Cave. 

Now many of you probably don’t immediately associate Nick Cave with theology. When Irene and I walked onto the floor at Yianni’s Tavern to share our first dance as a married couple, it was to Cave’s Into My Arms (LP side D track 1) . There were no doubt a few raised eyebrows in our largely Christian entourage as his metronomic baritone churned out those famous opening lines…

I don’t believe in an interventionist God
But I know, darling, that you do
But if I did, I would kneel down and ask Him
Not to intervene when it came to you

Despite this heretical suggestion (and his penchant for topics like sex and death) I would consider Cave, perhaps alongside Michael Leunig, as Australia’s greatest public theologian. But Cave’s theology isn’t one bound by doctrinal limits. As McCredden suggests, Cave’s is a carnal theology, forged in the fires of precocious creativity, drug addiction, and familial loss.  The son of a literature teacher and a librarian, he understood from childhood the literary grandeur of the bible, its rich imagery, and its lingering presence within the social imaginary. This can be seen in the words of The Mercy Seat (LP side D track 4), a story of a man on death row. A song greatly admired, and later covered, by one of Cave’s heroes Johnny Cash:

And the mercy seat is waiting
And I think my head is burning
And in a way I’m yearning
To be done with all this measuring of proof.
An eye for an eye
A tooth for a tooth
And anyway I told the truth
And I’m not afraid to die.

I hear stories from the chamber
How Christ was born into a manger
And like some ragged stranger
Died upon the cross
And might I say, it seems so fitting in its way
He was a carpenter by trade
Or at least that’s what I’m told

Cave’s life and spiritual journey can be traced through his music. Early songs like Red Right Hand (LP side D track 3), inspired by Milton’s Paradise Lost, describe his disillusionment with Christianity:

He’ll wrap you in his arms,
tell you that you’ve been a good boy
He’ll rekindle all the dreams
it took you a lifetime to destroy
He’ll reach deep into the hole,
heal your shrinking soul,
but there won’t be a single thing
that you can do
He’s a god, he’s a man,
he’s a ghost, he’s a guru
They’re whispering his name
through this disappearing land
But hidden in his coat
is a red right hand

Cave regularly questions and even challenges God in his music. He explores the violence and seeming malevolence of the God of the Old Testament. In his youth Cave came to see these stories as “a pitiful humanity suffering beneath a despotic God”. Later in life however, he began to come to terms with his Christian faith. Older, and perhaps a little wiser, he began to explore his spirituality beyond the literary allusions of the Old Testament. Let’s return to Into My Arms for a moment:

And I don’t believe in the existence of angels
But looking at you I wonder if that’s true
But if I did I would summon them together
And ask them to watch over you

Echoing the opening verse, Cave refuses to acknowledge the supernatural elements of Christianity. But as he continues, he delves a little deeper:

Both to each burn a candle for you
To make bright and clear your path
And to walk, like Christ, in grace and love
And guide you into my arms

To me, this highlights the mysticism found within his work. Rather than an intellectual ascent to Christian doctrine, Cave’s theology is a deeply existential one. Much like Rabbi Elie Wiesel putting God and trial and then immediately retreating to pray, one might easily imagine Cave lamenting God’s non-intervention in one breath, then lighting a candle and muttering a prayer with the next.

It seems that Cave lives constantly within this tension. As his spirituality shifts, he remains critical of the Christian church, most particularly its colonial past. This can be seen in his stark portrayal of early Australia in his screenplay for The Proposition, or in one of the more memorable lines from the recent Higgs Boson Blues (LP side C track 1):

Look here comes the missionary
With his smallpox and flu
He’s saving them savages
With his Higgs Boson Blues

This is why I consider Cave to be Australia’s greatest public theologian. Unlike many of us, he refuses to hide behind ideology, doctrine, and certainty. His faith is a lived faith. It has faced tragedy – the death of his father and more recently his son. It has weathered addiction – at the centre of the heroin crisis in Melbourne. Rather than destroy his faith his experiences and deep questioning have, in a way, strengthened it. While his may not reflect the Christianity that many of us know, it is at the very least, real. Perhaps more than this, it is hopeful. Nick Cave is rightly considered as primarily a melancholic and recalcitrant poet. Like the psalmists of old, he laments our systems of injustice. But these lamentations are always juxtaposed with signs of hope. I’ll leave you with the words of Cave’s ode to our collective future, the achingly beautiful O Children (LP side E track 1):

Hey little train! We are all jumping on
The train that goes to the Kingdom
We’re happy, Ma, we’re having fun
And the train ain’t even left the station

Hey, little train! Wait for me!
I once was blind but now I see
Have you left a seat for me?
Is that such a stretch of the imagination?

Hey little train! Wait for me!
I was held in chains but now I’m free
I’m hanging in there, don’t you see
In this process of elimination

Hey little train! We are all jumping on
The train that goes to the Kingdom
We’re happy, Ma, we’re having fun
It’s beyond my wildest expectation

Hey little train! We are all jumping on
The train that goes to the Kingdom
We’re happy, Ma, we’re having fun
And the train ain’t even left the station

Music we’re listening to: Fernando by Hue Blanes

Our musician in residence and Brunswick Renaissance Man Hue Blanes recently released his second studio album Holiday, which you can buy here. The PBS Young Elder of Jazz 2017, Hue combines his virtuoso classical & jazz piano with his trademark melancholic poetry & dry humour to bring us one of our favourite albums of the year.

If you want to see Hue play live he’s currently doing a residency at Brunswick’s own Jazzlab, Saturday nights from 9pm. Or you can come at heckle at church one Sunday.

Check out the beautiful Fernando below.