Re-imagining God

I read an interesting statistic recently that claimed that Anglican clergymen in Australia were ten times more likely to have a model train set than other men in the wider Australian population.  I will leave it up to you to draw your own conclusions about why priests would want to hide away in their attic or spare room for sustained periods of time, living in the kind of imaginary world that model train sets offer!  I do confess that we have various model railway sets in the Rectory, although none of them have been unpacked or assembled since we arrived here in East Maitland – there has been too much going on in the real world for us to do that!

Australia, I think I am right, is unparalleled in the number of different rail gauges that are in operation in one country.  Some of you would know much better than me, the extraordinary fact that in some states railways were developed with one distance between the two tracks, and in other states, and even within states railways were developed with different distances between the two tracks.  For the last one hundred and fifty years people have been trying to work out – through a whole series of projects and schemes – how these different railways, and different rolling stock might be connected together with one standard gauge – one standard distance between the two tracks.

What is known in Australia as the ‘standard gauge’ is 4 feet and 8 and a half inches (or one metre and 45 and a half centimetres if you work in metric.  A strange number really compared to all of the options available.  Back in 1847 that was the distance between tracks in the first railways that were built in South Australia, and in the following year in New South Wales.  But by 1854 it was decided that new railway lines would be built with the distance of 5 feet and 3 inches between the two tracks.  And of course none of this created any problem at all until someone had the bright idea that each of the individual lines should be joined up to each other.  I have been so intrigued by the strange distance between rail lines – the various gauges – that I have been trying to do some investigative work this week.

It will not surprise you to know that our Australian standard gauge is simply a copying of the standard distance between railway tracks in England.  But why did the English (before us) build railways with such a strange distance between the two lines?  Well, that was largely because the people who built the first railways were  the same people who had built the carts and covered wagons that had come before them, and they used the tools that they already had for building the wagons when they built the first trains.

But why did the pre-rail wagons have that strange space between their wheels?  Well, that was the space between the ruts in the English roads that had been ingrained through the centuries, and if wagon wheels couldn’t fit into the ruts that already existed in the roads then they wouldn’t last very long.  So where did the initial ruts in the English roads come from?  They largely came from the Roman chariots, and Roman chariots had a standardised size across the Imperial Roman Empire which was four feet and eight and half inches wide.   But why did Roman chariots have that standard size?  Well, that was the best size, in the Roman Empire for a chariot that was being pulled by two Roman war horses.

In other words, when you take the train from Broadmeadow to Sydney, the distance between the two tracks of the railway is as it is, because of the optimum size of an ancient chariot being pulled by two horses and ridden by a Roman centurion.  Now I hear you say,  “it is obvious that this priest does not have enough useful work to do to occupy his time in the parish if he has the space to be thinking about rail gauges, but why on earth is he inflicting all of this on us at the Eucharist today?”

If you haven’t got the point it is simply this:  we are not necessarily where we are today because it is logical or because we choose to be: we are where we are now because of the great meandering journeys of people who have come before us.  And I am no longer talking about rail travel.

In our Gospel reading at this Eucharist we hear Jesus telling his disciples two parables: one about an unjust judge and a poor widow, and the other about a Pharisee and a tax collector.  These two stories in the Gospel of Luke, follow immediately after Jesus has been teaching his disciples about the coming of the Kingdom of God in its fullness, in other words about what it will be like at the end of times when everything has been gathered into Christ.  In telling them Jesus is seeking to teach his disciples – both those who were with him then, and we who are gathered in his name now – about how to act, and how to carry on seeking his Kingdom now,  in the time before Jesus returns again. They are stories about how we understand God at work now, as we await his son’s return.

As the Gospel writers announce, the first is a story that Jesus tells about the need to keep on praying and not to lose heart, and the second is a story to warn us against trusting in our own religious observance, rather than remembering that God is the one, (by his grace) in whom we hope and depend for all that we need.

The widow who comes before the judge is utterly alone.  We know that because the courts of Jesus’ time were a place for men, and if this woman had had a son or a son in law to act on her behalf then he would have done so.  But she is the one who is painted in the picture of the story, as the poor widow who comes to represent herself again and again in the courts as she seeks justice.  The judge is clearly an unsavoury character, who does not fear God, and does not hold the respect of the people of the city.   He denies this poor widow her claim without giving it proper attention.  But she is resolute in her vigorous persistence, and returns again and again, until he fears for his own safety, and I say that because what is translated for us as  the judge’s concern that he is being worn out, would be much better translated as something like, “I will grant her justice because otherwise she might give me a black eye” – the idea of being worn down comes from the boxing ring, not simply from the weariness of having to listen to this widow pleading her case again and again.  And so, fearing for his own safety, he simply gives in and grants her request.

In the second story two men go to the Temple to pray.  The Pharisee, whose strict observance of the religious law means that he is fasting more often than he is required to, and he is giving more of his income than he needs to.   In fact he is so confident in his religiosity that he asks God for nothing in his prayer (did you notice that?) and therefore receives nothing in response.  But the second man in this story that Jesus tells is variously described in translations as a publican or as a tax collector.  Whichever profession he comes from matters very little, because the point is that both were despised by the Jews of Jesus’ day as people who collaborated with the Roman Empire.

Imagine the shock as people hear Jesus take the religious man who is respected in society, and the tax collector who is not, and says that it is the second not the first who receives the grace of God.  I have never forgotten someone preach on this story many years ago, who ended his sermon with a prayer in which he said, “we thank you Lord that we are not like the Pharisee” – a kind of understandable sentiment, except that it is the kind of judging of others that Jesus is condemning the Pharisee for in the story.

The point that Jesus is making in both of these stories is this: don’t presume that the ideas that you have inherited are actually the way that things are or should be.

There would have been many people in the time of Jesus who would have recognised in the judge in the first story a sort of parallel for how they understood God to act.  As they heard Jesus telling the story they could easily have been thinking in their minds, yes, just as it is for that poor widow, beating down the door of the judge, wearing him out with her relentless requests for justice, so it is for us with God.  God isn’t really interested in our well being at all, in fact God is so distant that he may not even know or like us.  So we just keep pushing and pushing as humans have done throughout history, to persuade him to help us, to urge him to be on our side.  You see, just because people had been taught that did not make it true.   Jesus through that wonderful story says to them, if even an unjust judge can respond with justice in the end, how much more will the God who loves you, and who desires the best for you grant you the help that you need.

Imagine the shock as people heard it, “you mean… God isn’t like that judge, he actually does know our needs, and seeks the best for us before we even ask?”  Despite all that they had heard to the contrary, about the remoteness of God, and his eagerness to judge them and to catch them out for doing things wrong, here Jesus paints a very different picture of what their and our heavenly father is like.

There would have been many people in the time of Jesus who would have presumed that God would have been impressed by the religiously law-abiding Pharisee, visibly saying his prayers, keeping the fast, giving his tithe.  As they heard Jesus telling the story they could easily have been thinking about how inspiring that religious man was, who so publicly followed God to the letter of the law, how impressive in contrast to the tax collector who is standing alongside him.  God isn’t really interested in those who have messy lives, who find themselves in difficult situations, who make bad choices and then don’t know how to resolve them.  As it was with the first story, just because people had been taught that God had more time for those who kept the law did not make it true.  Jesus simply says to them, it was the man who had messed up everything but who came seeking God’s mercy who went home justified in the eyes of God, and not the one who thought that he was blameless.

Now brothers and sisters, these stories are a very great challenge to us as we hear them today.  They remind us that the ideas about how God acts, and who God thinks is important, are not simply true because of what we have been told by people before us.

That is the point of this morning’s Epistle reading.  There is debate, discussion, development needed as we reflect on God’s revelations to us through the scriptures, the tradition of the Church and our experience of God at work in our lives.  It is not an easy task, but it is the task to which we have been called.

Hundreds of years have given us a very strange measurement for the distance between our railway tracks.  Thousands of years have given us some very strange ideas about God.

Jesus says to you and to me through these stories: do not lose heart, keep faith, remain humble, and most importantly never presume that you know all that there is to know about God: not knowing is what faith is all about.  In other words, keep on keeping on, try to be faithful, but not through judging others, and live everyday in the knowledge that God loves you and wants the best for you.   Live in the hope that one day all will be revealed when the Kingdom comes in its fullness.