Cruciform Living

February 9, 2014

20140209_serm

1
NORTH BALWYN UNITING CHURCH
EPIPHANY 5
SUNDAY 9 FEBRUARY 2014,
Rev. Anneke Oppewal
Psalm 27, 1 Corinthians 2
“Cruciform living”
When I chose the image to go with the sermon on the powerpoint this morning, I wasn’t quite sure how it
connected to the passage I was preaching on, except that somewhere, deep inside, it felt like it was, or my
gut instinct told me it was.
With Paul speaking about the wisdom of God being deeper and more important than rational or worldly
wisdom alone, I decided to go with it, and even more, to take the picture and that gut feeling as a starting
point for the sermon.
The picture is of Hassan, the guide who took us on a tour around the main sights of central Mumbai. We
had arrived the day before, and were spotted by Hassan’s “boss” when we were making our way to the
gateway to India, the “Circular Quay” of Mumbai, which is one of the main tourist attractions close to our
hotel. We had the intention of getting on a boat from there to see some of the ancient temple ruins of
Elephanta, an island off the coast of Mumbai. As we later discovered, we’d walked straight into a tourist
trap, where people like Hassan’s boss spot people with little or no experience of Mumbai (like us), and try
to sell them tours before anybody else can get to them. We fairly soon cottoned on to the fact that this guy
was not just striking up a conversation and telling us about his brother in Australia for the sheer pleasure of
getting to know us. He tried to win our trust, wheedle relevant details out of us, in order to then pitch his
sales talk as to which of his tours we should do and why. And he did a very good job.
He told us to forget about the temples for the moment, telling us that mornings really were not the best
time to go there. But he would happily sell us a ticket, just to make sure we were booked in, and gave us a
price. We took his advice and realised an afternoon would much nicer. Once we had settled on that idea,
he continued: Perhaps we wanted to see the special Jain festival in the Jain Temple, only open to the public
today? He had gauged us correctly. Of course we were interested! On the way, we would also be taken to
other important attractions in Mumbai: the hanging gardens, the tower of silence, and a behind-the-scenes
look at one of the biggest and most successful enterprises run in the slums of Mumbai. He then produced
an official looking document to tell us this was all government-approved. He quoted two prices, highly
recommending the more expensive version which involved an air-conditioned car, as the heat would only
increase over the next couple of hours.
Of course we couldn’t resist this unique opportunity and so decided to go with him, even though we both
felt, friendly as he seemed, that he was also, clearly, a very cunning salesman. Indeed, on queue, and we
still don’t know if they were in on the act or not, two people from the Jain temple appeared to bless us with
flowers, a strand of orange wool and a red smudge of sandalwood paste on our foreheads underlining the
specialness of it all (for a simple donation of a few hundred rupees).
As soon as we had agreed, he waved his hand, and out of nowhere, the man you see in the picture, which
we later got to know as Hassan, appeared. We were taken to his car that was parked two streets away, and
we heard the boss give him instructions for where he was to take us, and also that he was to try and sell us
the main slum tour on the way back.
Hassan was lovely. His English was very good. He first took us to a slum area where the laundry of most of
the city is done. There were rows of great big concrete tubs, “home made” big mechanical washing
2
machines, and he explained how they manage to not mix up the thousands upon thousands of pieces of
washing and hang them to dry without the use of pegs. Then he took us to the next site, a beach where
fishermen and their families live in ramshackle huts, eking out an existence with nets full of polystyrene for
boats from a shoreline lined with trash.
He pointed across at another slum area, just across the water, and told us, proudly, that this was where he
lived, with his wife and baby daughter.
While in the car, we got him to fill in his personal story a bit more and discovered he’d come to Mumbai as
a street child, and had found shelter with an English charity where he’d learned English. His parents were
still alive and living on the other side of the country, and with his current job, he was able to send them
money occasionally. He filled us in on the details of his pay, the cost of living and his dreams to build his
own tour business.
He took us around gardens and landmarks, pointed out historic buildings, as well as the latest apartment
high-rise building where the very wealthy make their home. He told us about a family of five living in a
seven-storey high-rise building, the most expensive house in Mumbai, with 600 servants at their disposal
and a helipad on top. In three hours, he gave us a breathtaking insight into the complexities and contrasts
of this megacity of over 20 million people.
When he took us, as promised, to the Jain temple, I asked him what his religion was. There were prayer
beads dangling from his rear-view mirror and he confirmed what I had assumed: that he was a Muslim. But
not practicing, he said, like most people where you come from, who don’t practice their religion. He was
born into a Muslim family but was no longer actively involved.
When I told him I was a Christian Priest, he smiled his big, warm smile and said: “Maybe you can bless me
before you go?” When he showed us the Jain temple, it was clear he was at home there, and when I asked
him, he said that he often went to Hindu temples, and many Hindus would also visit mosques “for
blessing”. When I asked about Church, he looked puzzled and said, “They are only open on Sundays, and
only for a short time….”.
Reflecting on the passage from 1 Corinthians this week, with this experience still fresh in my mind, it struck
me that the community Paul was writing to lived in a city not dissimilar to modern day Mumbai.
Corinth was, as Mumbai, a thriving international port, teeming with life, full of people looking for
opportunities, traders, sailors, business people, from every layer of society, attracted to the city from every
corner of the globe. A multitude of tongues, faiths and cultures jostling for space, with people indulging in
every human sin, as well as achieving lives of unblemished virtue and morality.
With various layers of society, culture and religion mingling everywhere; an overwhelmingly complex mix of
contrast, opportunity and diversity.
I imagine Hassan’s boss would have received plenty of admiration in Corinth – a smooth talker with a knack
for making things work for everybody, while realising a good profit for himself. The successful business
people living in the expensive high-rise apartments lining the bay would also have been admired, and even
the families running the successful laundry business in the slums would
have been the recipients of much admiration. And deserved it!
This is, however, also where the Church and world clash, according to Paul. Where the wisdom, which
deserves admiration and commands respect in the world, is not necessarily what wisdom is in the Church,
deserving of admiration and commanding respect in the community of the Church.
This is something the people of Corinth did not properly understand. Paul wrote to them because their
community had been ripped apart by discord due to a thriving few who believed their success, wealth,
3
influence and status in the world, as well as their sophistication, made them better people who were more
blessed than others and therefore closer to God.
Paul is at pains to make clear that in Christ, nobody can claim any preference or higher standing before
God. All are equal, no matter what their status, wealth, education, gender, religious background, success or
power base.
What is important, he writes, is not what counts in the world – smooth talking, business acumen,
sophisticated learning or a high status in society. You know that the gospel I preached to you was effective
not because of lofty words I used, my eloquence, or any special, secret knowledge. It is effective only
because I simply and clearly spoke to you about Christ, and about him being crucified. I spoke from the
heart, with not me, but the Spirit touching your hearts and minds with the message of the gospel.
What works in the world, says Paul, does not work in the Church. Status, education, sophistication and
success are all categories that, when it comes to faith, lose their importance. When looking at the world
through the eyes of Christ, when deciding what is important from the perspective of the crucified Lord,
none of these things will hold any sway in the end.
Other things are important, things that cut right across those categories that are so important in the world
outside, and turn its values upside down.
In faith, we discover that no matter what our differences are in status, gender or faith, God’s love for each
and every one of us is what is important. That God’s welcome is equally open and generous towards all,
equally forgiving and accepting, equally respecting and appreciative, equally calling everyone to live in the
power of the Spirit and in imitation of Christ. Regardless of worldly achievement and understanding, all are
called to a life that breathes peace, and practices integrity, harmony, healing and blessing wherever, and in
whatever, circumstance it is lived.
Hassan asking me for a blessing moved me deeply, not least of all because of his self-evident trust that any
blessing from any person of God would enrich his life and be worth having. He made me understand
something about Christ I had not understood in that way before: That as in Christ, there is no Jew or Greek,
as Paul writes, there is no Muslim or Hindu either. Whatever their faith, what should matter to a Christian is
not what people believe, but how their lives and spirituality measures up when looked at through the prism
of God’s love and Christ’s life.
The quiet dignity and pride with which he shared of himself and showed us his life and that of his
community, his openness and self-evident trust and faith in God, as confessed in his many shapes and
forms in the religions around him, struck me as truly Christ-like.
He impressed me, impressed us, with the fact that there was no judgment of the rich and powerful living in
opulence only a stone’s throw away from where others struggle with only shared toilet facilities and live
electricity cables hanging within reach of children. There was an openness to others, trust and interest in
their faith, without renouncing his own. There was hope, and a deep wisdom that spoke from the heart,
believing that God’s Spirit was at work, making things better all the time – not necessarily in a material
sense, but also in a spiritual sense, with people sharing each others’ cultural and faith realities.
In him, a lapsed Muslim with a tentative connection to Hinduism and other faith traditions, I believe, we
met something of Christ. We were blessed to be able to spend time with him and look at his world through
his eyes and see it as I imagine God would see it. A world of people living their lives where they find
themselves, in society that obviously has many flaws and is full of grave injustices; living with integrity,
dignity and generosity of spirit wherever the opportunity to do so arises.
What struck me is that, in the end, cruciform living, a life of faith, following in the footsteps of Jesus, speaks
not with the voice of success, of numbers, of eloquence and power, not even through adherence to dogma
or religious knowledge and sophistication, but through open acceptance of others, integrity, dignity, and a
4
peace of heart and mind that is able to communicate itself to the world around it. Living a spirituality open
to God above, rooted in the world below, reaching out to whoever happens to be around. Amen.