The staircase to Heaven
Dr David Bromell
Bible Readings: Isaiah 40:6-11, Matthew 13:31-32
Well, here we are again. Its wonderful to be back. But of course, nothing is as it was. There are new faces here. And there are faces missing people who have moved on; people who shared our life here only for a time; people who have come and gone in the years since I left; children and young people who have grown up and gone about their lives; friends who have died.
And of course we ourselves have changed. I know Im not the same person I was when I offered ministry here from 1986 to 1993. Im older now positively middle-aged, in fact. Ive been other places, and belonged in other communities. My life has been touched by people and events, and the experience of living in Oamaru, then Christchurch, and now Wellington.
And life has not passed you by, either. I see that. And I can only wonder at the stories written in lined faces. But here we are. So come with me on an adventure of ideas. Because thats what church is for. Church is a place, among other things, to take time to think and talk about matters of life and death. To shift the focus from the local to the universal, from the particular to the general. To take a step back and see a pattern in things, and ourselves in connection with everything else.
None of us can escape the fact of change. Im not afraid of change I think theres something quite wonderful about it. Im fascinated by the passing of time, and the way things move from mere possibilities that lie out there in the future, to actual realities here and now in the present moment, to memories in the past facts that cannot be changed, because they have already been decided.
And isnt that what lifes like? It faces us with choices to do this, or to do that. When you woke up this morning, you faced a choice to stay in bed, or get up and come to church. Two possible options, among many others. (You could have gone into town for a leisurely brunch and a read of the Sunday papers. You could have curled up on the couch with a good book and a cup of tea.)
Wind the clock back to eight oclock this morning, and these were all potential ways of spending Sunday morning, the fourth of July. They were all possibilities. But you chose to come here. And having made this choice and acted on it, you have excluded all other possibilities from ever being actualised by you in this period of time from 11:00 to 12:00 on Sunday morning, the fourth of July 2004. Youve created a fact, an event that is actual, that cannot now be changed. And by lunchtime it will already be in the past, a memory.
So then Im fascinated by the what if , by chance, and the way our free decisions to do this rather than that collide or at least link up with each other and create something new, patterns of events that maybe none of us anticipated. When I chose to come here this morning, I did not know which of you would also choose to be here. But because we chose this particular group of people we are creating a unique, unrepeatable event that would be quite different if some of us were missing, and others were here that are not here. Because we affect one another. Our meetings shape and change one another. Your freedom and my freedom together create possibilities that none of us alone could ever know or dream of. I think its wonderful.
And then Im fascinated by the way past decisions channel future possibilities this way, rather than that. I remember the first time Malcolm and Euan chose to come to this church. What if they had made a different choice that Sunday morning? They were, after all, somewhat reluctant first-time visitors! But any of you who know them just imagine how different their lives, and ours, might have been if they had not decided back in 1989, I think it was, to try church one last time. Coming to this place opened up a world of possibilities for them and it has closed other worlds. And thats what lifes like, isnt it?
What troubles me is that my memorys not good enough to hold the pattern, let alone a reliable memory of every past event. When Ken phoned me, and I agreed to come down, I started thinking about you all the living and the dead. And I struggled to remember all the names. Id remember a first name, but not a last name. A face, but not a name. Times I spent with people but just fragments of it. I remembered Loveday, and Ron, and Doris and Jimmy, and Win, and Rose, and Roy, and Audrey and her dogs, and Patsy, and Norah. But I couldnt remember the name of the old man with a moustache and blushingly politically-incorrect opinions who lived in the little house on Cumberland Street, or the woman who lived in the rest home at the top of George Street, who kept a bottle of gin in her wardrobe.
What happens to all these moments of time that slip out of our memory? What happens to the gossamer threads of relationship that connect, and re-connect our lives? What happens to the patterns? Are we really just like grass that withers and dries, like flowers that fade in a season?
I cant bring myself to believe that nothing really matters. That it all just slips away like sand through an hourglass. That none of the decisions we make are of any lasting consequence. I dont know how anyone could actually live out beliefs like that, short of curling up into a ball, doing nothing at all, and waiting to die. I know in my heart that its better to be alive than dead, better to act than to do nothing, better to do good than evil, better to love than to hate. I just know that some choices are better than others. Surely you know this too. All our actions express this common faith.
So how do we account for this instinctive belief, if it all just slips away into the land of forgetfulness? How do you account for it? What is it about the way things are in this world of ours that could justify our stubborn, intuitive conviction that how we all live, and what we do with our lives, actually counts for something?
Thats the question religion tries to answer more or less badly! Religions paint pictures, tell stories and create rituals to address questions about the ultimate source and final end of all things. About the meaning and significance of our lives, and what its all about.
Some religions do it better than others. And it was while I was here, in this church, that I learned ways of thinking and talking about the way things are, about ultimate reality or what we call God, that made sense of it all for me. And that hasnt changed.
I learned to think of God as all-inclusive, persuasive compassion. The sum of all the parts, that is more than the sum of all the parts. All actual things actual in God. All possibilities potential in God. Creator of a world of freedom, constituted by relationship. A God who knows and understands. A God who holds and stores for ever the moments of our lives. A God who allows Godself to be shaped and changed by us, as we freely choose this rather than that. A God who does not bully or manipulate, but who tugs and persuades us toward goodness, and who holds the whole show together in such a way that evil never completely triumphs, and goodness remains always a real possibility.
This is what I believe. Because of you, because of me, in all our moments of living, deciding and acting, the good with the bad, all of it means that God will never be the same again. God is different because of you, because of me. God can only know the actual as actual, the potential as potential. Our freedom is real. Without a world of creatures to decide, freely, between this and that, Gods life would be almost entirely possibility, and not actuality (which is far more interesting). So we make a difference. What we decide really does count. What we make of ourselves and one another matters.
Colin Gibson captured it, much more simply, in a hymn:
|Nothing is lost on the breath of God,
nothing is lost for ever;
Gods breath is love, and that love will remain,
holding the world for ever.
No feather too light, no hair too fine,
no flower too brief in its glory;
no drop in the ocean, no dust in the air,
but is counted and told in Gods story.
Nothing is lost on the breath of God,
nothing is lost for ever;
Gods heart is love, and that love will remain,
holding the world for ever.
No impulse of love, no office of care,
no moment of life in its fullness;
no beginning too late, no ending too soon,
but is gathered and known in Gods goodness.
Heres the rub. Just imagine if this is true. What if our experience enriches God, adds value to the divine life, contributes to an enduring pattern of actual events? Wouldnt this suggest we should seize life by the throat and not inhibit the contribution of our lives by a timid shrinking away from possibility? Wouldnt it suggest an ethic of the whole of life as Mardi Gras as procession and celebration and the totally in your face affirmation of the goodness and enduring value of our lives and loves, despite everything?
And wouldnt it suggest taking great care in our relationships with one another and with the creatures with whom we share this world encouraging and enabling one another to reach our full potential, and not performing our various acts of carelessness and violence on one another?
Oh, the idea of God is a huge idea its the biggest idea there is and no one yet has ever got their head around it. Not really. But never mind. The point of it is that small things matter. Your decisions and mine. What we choose to make of ourselves. How we choose to be with one another.
Jesus of Nazareth told stories about this. He said, The way things work with God is like this. Look someone took a tiny mustard seed, and sowed it in a paddock. Its the smallest of all seeds, but when its grown, its such a big shrub you can almost call it a tree. And birds come and make nests in its branches.
Small decisions, of little apparent consequence, make a difference that endures. They create new possibilities for many others. Small things matter.
Eighteen years ago, Donald Phillipps accepted my offer to help out with ministry in the Dunedin parish. He asked me to come to this little church and take a monthly communion service. Who would have thought that out of such a tiny seed would grow, if not a tree, then at least a goodly shrub that has provided shelter for all manner of strange birds?
But then again, not everyone wants a mustard tree in their paddock. Its as good as a weed. Jesus story has a disturbing edge to it. And I learned the hard way that the wider Methodist Church of New Zealand did not altogether welcome the likes of me sowing mustard seeds in its paddocks. Neither here at Glenaven, nor at Broad Bay, nor at Durham Street in Christchurch. And so finally, like many gay and lesbian people of faith, I took my leave of the church. Ive embraced our exile. Ive hung up my harp. I dwell in a foreign land. (Well, Wellington anyway.) In fact, its a year to the day since I concluded my ministry at the Christchurch Mission. Independence Day. Why?
Because the Methodist Church has simply not honoured its decision in 1993 to comply with the Human Rights Act, and not to discriminate against people on the grounds of sexual orientation. In fact, the Church has taken a step backwards. Its sanctioning and institutionalising prejudice and discrimination, by negotiating its Memorandum of Understanding with the Evangelical Network and the Pacific Island synods.
Oh sure, the so-called liberals will still be able to nominate gay and lesbian people for ordination, and the evangelicals, Samoans, Tongans, Fijians and Rotumans will not actively block it. They will, however, stand aside and dissociate themselves from any affirmation of gay and lesbian people in ministry and leadership.
The result is that gay and lesbian people can only serve in the Methodist Church in an increasingly narrow and proscribed domain. There is no equal opportunity, and little hope of exercising any leadership role that requires appointment by the whole Conference. Its absolute nonsense to say that the Methodist Church does not discriminate against gay and lesbian people. It does. And it continues to tolerate the active expression of prejudice and discrimination against us.
So I left, and left wondering why I had stayed so long, and why I ever went back in 1996, having previously left from here in 1993.
The struggle for me was that I do believe small things matter, and that the most insignificant deeds make a difference that can endure for ever because they make a difference to God. So why not hang in there, in hope, working for change from within?
Well, all I can say is that theres faithfulness, and then theres just plain masochism. At Sunday School I learned that hideous little song about J-O-Y coming from putting Jesus first, others next, yourself last. But the adult faith in God I worked through and learned with you here at Glenaven taught me that there is no hierarchy. Small things matter. And that includes me. We sang it here in another of Colins hymns:
How much am I worth? What values in me?
If small things matter, then my short life matters too, and I dont want to spend it banging my head against a brick wall of bigotry and discrimination. Not if I have a choice. And I do.
You see, I havent lost my faith, or my vocation, or my desire to sing the Lords song, even if I have hung up my harp. I continue to be what the first followers of Jesus called a God-respecter. Someone on or beyond the edge of organised religion, but who takes time to think about matters of life and death. Someone who is passionate about God. Someone who believes that true religion takes us, not into the denial of who and what we are, but more deeply into our selves, and our connections with others and with this world, and the contribution of all our lives to the God in whom we live and move and have our being.
Remember what I said when I began talking this morning? Church is a place to shift the focus from the local to the universal, from the particular to the general. To take a step back and see a pattern in things, and ourselves in connection with everything else.
Shortly before I left the Christchurch Mission, there was a concert in the Durham Street church one afternoon. The music was for two violins and string orchestra a work composed by Vladimir Martynov in 1988. It was inspired by the saying of an ancient hermit:
The staircase to Heaven is within you: it exists secretly in your heart.
And it is true:
Our whole life is but an attempt to find this miraculous entrance.
All our deeds are but a timid knocking on this mysterious door.
All our hopes are to hear, one day, perhaps, a voice that would respond:
I speak from faith to faith when I affirm this morning, as I have affirmed here so many times before: Your life matters. You are precious and valued and greatly loved. Whoever you are, and wherever your life journey has led you, the staircase to heavens door is within you. Knock! And the voice of a welcoming God will respond, and will ever respond, Come in!