This is a sermon requested by a church following the collapse of a rent-for-life scheme that targeted senior citizens, mostly in Western Australia. A public eighteen month long campaign for redress continues. As participants in this struggle, Jenny and I shared these reflections today at the Mount Hawthorn Community Church. It is but one of many stories emerging from the Sterling New Life housing disaster.
A couple of days ago I saw this Tweet from @Fred_Buechner
“Listen to your lives for the sound of him. Search even in the darkness for the light and the love and the life because they are there also, and we are known, each one, by name.”
Some time ago in a small regional town a young girl received some troubling news that would change her life forever. She was pregnant through no act of her own. Although exposed to future gossip, scandal, ostracism and the possible loss of her betrothal – even her life, she accepted and eventually welcomed her circumstances. The messenger had cast a light on the way forward for her. Luke’s written down account tell us…
Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38)
What do we hear in these words? Resignation? Fatalism? Passive acceptance? Or, rather – resolution, purpose or response to a calling?
Mary was bearing within her the Christ, the Word that was in the beginning, the Word through which all things, indeed that which is beyond what we can know, came into being, the Word that is from God and is indeed God. Planted within her as a zygote, growing into the embryo, foetus and neonate that would be known to us as the human being, Jesus of Nazareth.
The Christ who in Creation gave birth to us all was also, at a time in our history, our story, birthed from a young peasant girl from the backblocks of Galilee.
Richard Rohr recently published a list of reflections on how we too bear the timeless Christ within us, by virtue of his first coming in all of Creation, bearing the divine DNA of God’s intention and purpose, then sealed by his incarnation through the service of Mary that enabled this Word to become flesh to dwell amongst us.
Great church pioneer of the early centuries, Irenaeus said, “Christ became as us that we might become as Christ.”
Mary has become an icon of all who carry the Christ within them. Truly, we are Christophers – Christ-bearers!
This is why Fred Buechner urges us to “Listen to your lives for the sound of him.”
This is the setting for a story that some have asked me to share with you today.
It is the story of an arduous journey that Jenny and I have travelled over the last 18 months.
In June last year we were drawing to the anniversary of our first year in retirement from salaried work in ministry. We had enjoyed making our new home in a property for which we had arranged a life-long lease. The community in the northern suburbs was developing, neighbours were moving in and we had enjoyed being part of it all. This was also the month marking 40 years of our marriage and we were preparing for our first short trip overseas together – six days exploring Singapore.
We sat down to watch the news on the Sunday night of the week of our departure and couldn’t believe our ears when we heard the announcement that the company that managed the trust fund for our lease had gone into liquidation and that the funds of 105 couples, along with our own, had disappeared and rendered us all technically homeless.
The news item was already showing vision of an elderly couple packing their effects and moving into a caravan in their daughter’s backyard!
Frantic phone calls over the next few days confirmed the bad tidings. We had lost the funds assuring our living arrangements and we were now living in something the liquidators were calling an “onerous property.” It was not the first time in our lives that we had experienced that sinking feeling. It was the first time we realised how deep that elevator in your stomach can descend.
We did manage to act swiftly enough to find and contact our property owner who was servicing the mortgage from our lease payments. We mae some temporary arrangements that enabled us to stay on while we explored possible avenues for a more lasting solution. Jenny and I flew out to Singapore that Friday and celebrated our Ruby Wedding Anniversary in style.
On our return we learned of the mobilisation of all the affected tenants and a few property owners. They had engaged a campaign leader, Denise Brailey of the Banking and Finance Consumer Support Association, to address the matter of reclaiming our lost funds in order to ensure home security. Many were pensioners who had no other equity and their needs were urgent. Some were of advanced age and living with co-morbidities.
We soon became involved in discovery of what had gone wrong, uncovering a sorry litany of fraud, corporate crime, failing regulation, political negligence and media compliance.
The group of affected tenants has become close knit and, under Denise’s guidance, has written thousands of letters to Federal Cabinet, met with local members of parliament, held rallies to draw public attention to regulatory failure, spoken to TV and newspaper reporters and engaged in social media warfare. In the meantime 16 of our number have died, many deaths hastened by stress related illness.
Behind it all is the demand for immediate restitution of lost moneys, a call for a full Royal Commission with wide terms of reference into Australia’s financial regulatory systems, and justice for the perpetrators of fraudulent activity.
This remains the current status as together we head into our second Christmas under the swinging blade of Damocles’ sword.
So how do we reflect on all this as Christ-bearers, heeding Buechner’s call “to listen to our lives for the sound of him?” How do I reflect on the “spiritual journey?” of it all?
Several classic frameworks commend themselves.
Can we look at this through the prism of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey?
We could certainly write our own Odyssey of how the Common Person of no account (how most of us see ourselves) have our ordinary lives interrupted, finding ourselves stepping over a threshold into a strange and unfamiliar landscape. Here we find allies and adversaries; and they are sometimes interchangeable. There are all sorts of strange encounters, a meeting with a wise mentor who gives us a quest which carries a boon, a life changing reward, a final nail-biting struggle which enables the journey back to where we started from, but never the same.
Many rich possibilities there – but difficult for reflection until the journey is complete.
I like to look at such journeys as the one with which we are engaged through the lens of Alexander Shaia’s four questions:
- how do I move through change?
- How do I handle pain and suffering?
- How do I recognise joy and union?
- How does all this deepen mature service of others?
These are all questions that invite me to “listen to my life for the sound of him.”
Victims of this Ponzi scheme were certainly thrust into the experience of overwhelming change. We were no longer securely housed senior denizens in our respected communities but shamed pariahs scammed by the unscrupulous. Initially some politicians and regulatory bureaucrats sought to dismiss us as “silly old fools” who should have known better than to fall for such a scheme. My habitually compliant, self-doubting and self-critical nature might have been inclined to agree, but “listening to my life for the sound of him” encouraged us to find strength in our numbers who were finding enough voice to push back and say “we all did our due diligence – the regulator got it wrong and here’s the evidence.” We changed from victims, to survivors, to fighters.
For eighteen months now the core group has maintained a vocal and determined focus on redressing the wrong that has grown from being merely personal but collective as we care for each other, and systemic as we have learned of repeating patterns in the ideology and practice of financial regulation in this country. Ask any of the group now to give an economic dissertation and they could tell you things they didn’t even know this time last year. This has been like climbing a mountain and seeing things that we never saw down on the plain. It is Moses’ Mount Sinai where he chiseled out the law that set the course for the lost and wandering tribe of Israel. It is Mount Horeb from which he viewed the Promised Land. It is the Mount of Transfiguration where we heard anew the Voice that said “Listen to Him/” It is the Mount of Matthew where Jesus outlined a fresh and deep blueprint for living.
The group has certainly had opportunity to learn to live with the pain and suffering of this momentous housing security collapse. Some have endured district court appearances and now face having their lease’s validity tested in the Supreme Court. This includes a couple in their 80s. Others, unable to sustain the stress of uncertainty, have abandoned their leases. Still others are keeping equilibrium in the face of harassment from predatory real estate agents. Some have walked away from the group to attempt their own path. Property owners whose tenants are unable to pay rent (and who argue they are not liable for the 40 years upfront lease they paid for anyway) are contemplating handing their keys to the banks and walking away As news of another death reaches the group the clouds of despair grow heavy. Exhaustion, despair, depression and feelings of excruciating hopelessness have been owned and articulated within the group. All this is part of the journey. We embrace it and own it. We steer through it because we can’t go around it. On this pathway it is hard to listen to our lives and hear his voice. These are the terrified disciples trying to awaken a sleeping Jesus while the stormy waves threaten to swamp and sink the boat. It is Elijah sitting in despair in the desert wilderness, not even noticing the ravens that have come to feed him. It is Mark’s panicked women fleeing the empty tomb and saying nothing to anyone.
On the flip side, the shared journey of change and suffering is bonding the group. The camaraderie and joy that has grown in the delight of each other’s company at rallies and picnics knows no bounds. Whether it’s marching through Perth’s financial district to deliver a parcel of letters to a recalcitrant Minister for Finance, greeting the grinning Federal police he sent to intercept us, or riding the trains as either the Mandurah or the Joondalup faction and meeting up as one, we have discovered the unique personality of our collective cause. We listen to our lives and hear his voice calling us to live abundantly even in the midst of a crisis that seems to go on and on. It is in the songs and poetry that emerge from within. It is in the passion and ardour of the Song of Songs. It is John’s heavenly banquet where all are equal and all are fed to fulness. It is in the flashes of insight where we not only know, but feel our Oneness.
There is a marked difference between the first rally that gathered 18 months ago and the most recent get togethers. The shared pathways of change, suffering and union have seen the development of a body that is more mature, savvy and compassionate in the honouring of self and one another.
Each has discovered their role of service. Led by a campaigner who has the runs on the board, who has come out of retirement and often works eighteen hour days on our behalf. A true leader she is firm and direct and knows how to delegate. Others assist her in dealing with media, finding a voice they didn’t know they had. Delegations have visited politicians and armed with some hard won facts, entered some respectful and meaningful conversations. Preparing placards, researching Freedom of Information documents and minutes of meetings, engaging social media. All have played their role. And yes old dogs cam learn new tricks. They said they would never use Twitter. Having had thousands of letters ignored the grey army is now learning and employing hashtags and handles to create the perfect Twitter storm. The hiatus of Federal Parliament recess is being put to good use by the grey power fighters who are creating a Twitter trend that the minders will catch and take to their political masters. Listening to our lives for his voice inevitably takes us on Luke’s road to service for the greater good. It is a pathway of focus and purpose.
It is Luke’s road from Nazareth to Bethlehem along which we travel with Mary, carrying the Christ within us, but also serving his daily birthing in our encounters with one another and the events that otherwise may threaten to overwhelm us.
We began our reflection with a troubled Mary abandoning herself to the outcome of the angel’s startling announcement. It’s only a few verses on in the opening chapter of Luke’s gospel that we witness the joyful encounter between the expectant mothers, cousins Elizabeth and Mary, and Mary’s ecstatic hymn that rings down through the millennia.
My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.