It is a mistake to underestimate Santa Claus. He didn't get a part in the Bible, but he's sure a big part of Christmas.
On Christmas Eve there is a children's service here. It's one of the biggest of the year. Children and chaos abound, and the atmosphere is charged. We sing, we laugh, and we tell stories of cribs and candles and Christmases past. We also have Santa.
For years I've had trouble with Santa. No, it's not the reindeer parking problems or the resultant pooh… it's finding Santa himself. It takes a special person to don the red suit, and frankly some of them haven't been up to it. There's more to being Santa than sticking out your stomach, chuckling 'Ho, ho, ho', and answering smart seven year olds. But – and this is the interesting bit – Santa is never a flop. He never falls from the grace the children extend.
On Santa's entrance – from the roof of course – the energy levels rise. Whatever he says is listened to. Whatever he does is received with rapt attention. The power of Santa is quite formidable.
Many people take a low view of Santa. He is paraded in every shopping mall in the country encouraging people to buy, and buy more. He doesn't say, “Pay off that car you drive” or “pay that phone bill”. No, he's saying buy new and buy now things we know we could do without. Santa is a slave of rampant consumerism.
Then there is the bribery brigade. “Listen boys and girls, if you aren't good [read: do what I say] then Santa won't come this year.” Santa's morality is reduced to the suspect morality of these parents. Everything in life has to be earned. Including love. Including Santa.
Max, my neighbour, also takes a low view of what he calls “the Santa myth”. He objects to the portrayal of vertically challenged people merrily working in cramped sweat shop conditions. He objects to reindeer being used as promotional aids with no benefits accruing to the threatened herds of Northern Europe. He objects to an obese elderly man being given, firstly, license to enter any home or premise, secondly, a monopoly on the disbursement of gifts, and thirdly, an annual parade in his honour. Santa to him is a symbol of inequity.
The original Santa was, of course, a saint. Dear old wealthy Bishop Nic lived in the ancient city of Myra and gave generously to others. One story has it that an angel visited him one night and said, “Nicholas, you must take a bag of gold to the pawnbroker's, for he is very poor and has three daughters. Unless they have a dowry, they will be sold into slavery.” Nic took the gold and rushed to the pawnbroker's house where he discreetly dropped it through a window. Naturally, the parents were overjoyed; now their eldest could marry.
As you would expect in a good story this angelic visitation and discreet dropping of gold happened three times. But on the third and last drop the Pawnbroker, curious to discover the identity of his benefactor, locked all the windows of the house. Nic not being short of ideas climbed up on the roof and deposited the bag down the chimney.
It's a story about sympathy for those in poverty, about practical assistance, and innovative delivery systems. It's about compassion. It's about shedding wealth. It's about the virtue of anonymous giving – a virtue that in our modern world of sponsorship seems almost quaint.
Personally I take a high view of Santa, and not just to infuriate my neighbour Max [which it does]. I simply believe in Santa Claus. And, like most beliefs, it has been refined and tempered by experience, especially year by year sitting with children at Christmas and trying to explain in simple, precise language the meaning of life, faith, and flying sleighs.
There comes a time in most children's lives when some of the mathematics of Santa seems insurmountable. Consider the number of children in this city, the quantity and size of presents, the dimensions of your above average sleigh, the distance from Auckland to the North Pole, the aerodynamic potential of reindeer… So, inevitably the questions arise: “How come…?” “How does he do that?” And, looking at me as though I was deranged, “Do you actually believe in Santa Claus?”
If the inquisitor is worth their salt they won't stop there. “What about the down the chimney bit eh?” “Yep,” I reply, “I'm into it.” “Look Glynn,” my young friend continues, “our chimney is designed for someone who only eats lettuce. It has a metal pipe of some 20 centimetres in diameter. Are you telling me that Santa can squeeze down that?”
“Well,” I respond, girding myself for the challenge, “tell me how your favourite music group can sing their stuff through cyberspace, enter your computer, and morph themselves onto a CD for you to enjoy whenever? And you think a bit of chimney pipe is a problem?” Around now my young friend will roll their eyes, code for 'my silence is not my assent'. Failure to appreciate the fertile imagination is as big a problem in our society as consumerism.
The better questions for the young inquirer to ask are about meaning. For Santa means giving. Giving to others. Giving to those we don't know. Giving with no strings attached - including no reciprocating gifts.
Santa is about dreaming that nothing is impossible when it comes to helping and sharing. No elf, no chimney, no amount of snow, or consumerism, or cynicism, is going to stop it. This is why I believe in Santa Claus.
The Santa saga is more powerful than any factual findings by the geek who sat for three consecutive Christmas Eves with a telescope and camcorder on a rooftop. Santa inspires and encourages the best in humanity, the best in you and me – selfless giving to others.
Christmas is simple really: Give what you can and then some. Don't believe in the barriers to giving. Set your imagination free. Dream of a world where all can have enough and be satisfied with it.
These are the gifts that Santa brings me time and again, time and again.
Reading this gospel passage continually brings a vision to my mind of those millions upon millions of women in two thirds world countries to whom the announcement of another child is a tragedy. For them it means trying to stretch food further, to try to earn or find more money which is merely a mirage on the horizon. It is almost certain that the child and its siblings will be even more disadvantaged than before and the threat of starvation, disease and death is part of the landscape. So where is the beauty and the anticipation, the excitement for such as these. These people, who are our brothers and sisters.
Quite simply – there is none –
It's hard to imagine for us – our affluence, our social welfare systems, our fat societies that appear helpless to effect any real relief for those in desperate need.
Well – I have got to say that I gave someone a goat for Christmas, and as I write these rather pathetically proud words I know deep in my heart that it should have been a flock of goats – would it really matter if I didn't drive a powerful car or bought decent face cream for my aging skin – would it really matter if I didn't drink reasonable red wine or buy my children gifts that they probably don't need but I indulge in giving them because it is traditional and part of the excitement and anticipation of Christmas day. My heart shudders… and I try to push these thoughts to the back of my mind with the usual excuses
- What can I do?
I constantly resolve to alter my behaviour so as to be more in solidarity with my brothers and sisters who need goats and water, certainly not iPods, new computers and CD's I might only listen to once and then get fired to the back of the cupboard.
It is a really difficult problem for me as my faith, my conscience, my heart feels deeply for this crazy world, as I hope yours does too – but, what do we do?
We talk and carry on as normal don't we – as I said – we appear and feel helpless – we pray maybe, but then go out and have some cake and a latte.
So – when I read this gospel passage today it seems a little unreal. Not only do we have the annunciation where good old angel Gabriel gives Mary the hottest news in town, then Mary really is zapped by the Holy Spirit because Elizabeth tells her Yep - its all for real. She felt it herself as Her baby said a big Hi to Mary's baby who is the real McCoy. True. Its all major excitement and they both get pretty high on the Holy Spirit who fires them up with the knowledge that they are the special ones – they have been picked out, amongst all women – these are the two chicks who are going to deliver the goods and bring all the justice and the love and the truth to the world. That's what the Magnificat says doesn't it – we have been singing it each week of advent haven't we –
God does Mary a favour and she's blessed
God is holy and into mercy bigtime - everywhere
God will show awesome cosmic power and put down the egotistical greedy people
God will take away the money from the rich and will give it to the poor and the hungry
This is a promise – God's promise.
That's what it says, and I can't help thinking – Well God – When?
Things haven't changed, in fact they could be even worse as its not just people now who bleed and starve and sell their kidneys or their babies to survive, but the whole planet is beginning to sicken………as we continue to drink our lattes.
I find it hard to get the celebration bit here – sure, it's a sweet story and we sit here and listen to it year in year out and do all the stuff and feel good – we do don't we – feel good… we decorate our Christmas trees and cover the floor beneath with presents we don't need, we sing beautiful carols and eat and drink and eat and drink - we feel good that we have been to church because we know the real meaning of Christmas – don't we??
I am not so sure – it's real because we are in it and its how we do things in this incredibly wonderful, fortunate and blessed part of the world. But what about the rest – I bet there are thousands of women just like Mary this Christmas who are in utter despair because they are having yet another child and can't support them. Maybe they are in fear because it could be another girl – the awfulness of it.
It's unjust, unfair and quite ghastly to think of our riches and our indulgence in light of this sort of thing.
I don't claim to have any answer and I have never heard a satisfactory one yet, but I do know that having a baby should be beautiful because it is a miraculous event and I think that is what this reading is all about. Shouldn't all women be like Mary to whom it is exclaimed in today's reading “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”
For us in the west it can be exciting and eagerly anticipated – The miracle and the beauty of a healthy baby – and I just realize, there I go again – what is wrong with a baby that is perhaps not so perfect – isn't life itself sacred – isn't life, all life, whatever life, sacred. Don't we believe that God is the creative principle that undergirds all life, that is behind all life, - so then isn't all of it, the good and the bad filled with God, and isn't it our task to be like Jesus and to try, however small and pathetic – to redeem it, to struggle with it, to love it. And never to stop. I know - it's hard.
For me, a small way we can maybe do this within our own sphere or community is to celebrate life in the best sense of the word. I don't mean the usual overindulgence, but more on a personal level where we smile and really try to be aware of how lucky and truly blessed we are – maybe it's a time to call that long lost brother you fell out with a few years ago or walk down the road to that old ladies house and say hi with a cake or whatever, to make contact with that solitary neighbour – to do something out of the ordinary that connects us with the lives we pass by or conveniently ignore because it's too much bother or we'll do it next time – and never do!
I think we have to be thankful – joyful too, that this event, the birth of Jesus, did happen over 2000 years ago and that we are still living into what that meant – here and now as we wrestle with these ongoing conflicts and ethical issues that seem ever to plague us. We must also rejoice in the birth of you and me, our neighbour in the pews, our families and all people we love and those we don't love – life truly is a precious gift and we have an obligation to leave the world just a bit better than when we arrived, that those who follow us may look back, just as we look back to the birth of Jesus at this time of the year, and be thankful for us too. We are the world, we are a slice of that divine life that Jesus is and represents so intrinsically in symbol and body – we are the future, we must guard and speak the best truths of our faith and fight and write on behalf of those millions that cannot.
Christmas is a special time – for us here it is ever a harbinger of hope – the hope that Mary sings of in the Magnificat, that our God will come in showers of love, justice and peace for all humankind. The hope we feel in the miracle of every baby born, the hope in our humanness, our vulnerability.
The hope, the incredible beauty, the power and the miracle of God born in a manger.
You may remember that last Advent I told you God created the Internet so I could do my Christmas shopping online and avoid the malls. In my Christmas surfing I have found a most unusual gift. I wish I knew someone to give it to. It's a computer game called The Left Behind Game. It's based on a popular series of books of the same name that is based on the author's interpretation of the Book of Revelation. It takes place after the Rapture, when Jesus has taken his people to heaven and left nonbelievers behind to face the Antichrist. The book series has sold 60 million copies.
The goal of this adventure game is to convert or kill nonbelievers. The player can choose to join the forces for Jesus or the Antichrist. If you join Jesus you are a freedom fighter. If you choose to fight for the Antichrist you know in advance you are going to lose. But you get to choose a persona from fictional rock stars and Muslim-sounding names.
If you are a freedom fighter for Jesus your mission is to try to convert nonbelievers for which you get spirit points. If you fail, you kill them. If forced to kill them for their own good, spirit points are lost, but you get them back if you pray for them.
I hope you find the fact such a game even exists horrifying and an embarrassment to you and all Christians. So, what was your reaction as you listened to today's Gospel? Did you feel the same when John the Baptist warned the Jews that if they didn't convert and be baptised they would be cut down like dead trees and cast into the fire. Were you shocked that he predicts Jesus will separate his followers like wheat from the chaff, throwing the chaff into the fires of hell, which Luke assures us is “Good News”? If you weren't equally horrified maybe I should get The Left Behind Game for you.
The first thing I did after discovering that the luck of the draw had given me this Gospel to preach on was to see if scholars thought John really said these things. I was disappointed to learn that their consensus was that if John didn't say most of these things, he wishes he had. If John felt this way it begs the question, “Was this how Jesus saw things as well?” If so, he's not the man I thought he was.
This message and others like it, especially in John's Gospel, have been used to justify the burning of 40,000 women in Europe as witches, the torturous and deadly methods of the Inquisition, the Crusades, the Holocaust, the Iraq War, and even prayer in public schools. It is not dissimilar to many passages in the Qur'an used to justify flying jets into twin towers, car bombs in Baghdad, and suicide bombers in Tel Aviv. It echoes Deuteronomy in the Torah, “If your brother, your son or daughter, or the spouse whom you embrace, or your most intimate friend, tries to secretly seduce you, saying, 'Let us go and serve other gods'…You must kill him…You must stone him to death since he has tried to divert you from Yahweh your God.” 
It is this kind of Good News from Good Books that threatens survival of the species. Something is wrong when religions are the single worst threat to peace in the world. While Islam seems to be the worst offender at the moment, elements in Christianity who take the Bible seriously as the literal Word of God are no less a threat as the war in Iraq and The Left Behind Game prove.
The root of this negative aspect of religion is in the kind of apocalyptic thought John expresses. When people are oppressed in this life they understandably hope in an afterlife where God will balance the ledger and bring those in power to their knees. Many scholars believe that Jesus had an apocalyptic view as well, but his words and actions were more about loving your enemies or those with different beliefs than casting them into the fiery pit. He didn't proclaim a perfect life after this one; he called people to live in the kingdom of heaven now. Sadly many in most religions focus on the afterlife instead of this one. You might think so what. What people believe is a personal thing. But beliefs are the engine behind our actions. Beliefs about the afterlife may seem esoteric, but they are killing people every day. This and other beliefs that are based on no evidence whatsoever or outright deny knowledge available to a child do untold harm. So I've been looking beyond Scripture to examine my beliefs. Moderates and Progressives have been do this a long time. Lots of scripture has been rejected as being literally true in any real world sense: creation, virgin birth, physical resurrection, heaven as a place, even a personal God. But we are inconsistent and too tolerant of faith beliefs that do harm. As an aside I wonder why we work so hard to reinterpret the unbelievable?
So I have been looking outside of scripture to find the believeable. That for which there might be evidence to support my faith. Lately I have been focusing on spirituality and physics. I have to keep a copy of Physics for Dummies nearby to help me with the tougher concepts. Physics was the only subject in my education I began but didn't complete. I dropped it because I couldn't see how knowing how fast a steel ball rolled down an incline would be of any use to me. Little did I know that physics would give me a glimpse of God. Of course, when I studied physics it might not have done so, as scientists didn't know much yet about sub-atomic matter. The Big Bang theory was not even mentioned nor was the Quantum nature of being.
Quanta are minute bundles of energy that are the building blocks of atoms. They make up all things. They are the lowest common denominator of creation. Part of their mystery is that they can be equally described as solid particles like tiny billiard balls, or as waves, like the undulations of the surface of the sea. As particles they bounce off of each other protecting their identity from the power of the others. As a wave they join their identity with others to become one wave. In human terms, particles are separate individuals; they are anti-social and self-centred. Waves behave more like a community. They like to party. They value cooperation and relationship. They accept being a part of a whole while particles are wary of it. In physics and life both can be true at the same time. 
A quantum view of the universe requires learning a new word – Holon. H-O-L-O-N. Each of us is a holon. Each of us is made up of holons. And each of us is a part of a holon. A holon is not a kind of matter or a particle or a wave or a process; a holon is both a whole and a part simultaneously. Everything in the created order is a holon: “Whole atoms are part of whole molecules; whole molecules are part of whole cells; whole cells are parts of organisms, and so on… and the evolutionary thread…connects them all, unfolds them all, embraces them all, endlessly.” 
Evolution is the consequence of how holons relate. Different results occur when they act as particles instead of waves and vice versa. If they rely on their particle nature, they would rather die than adapt and some do, becoming extinct. If they act like waves they would rather join with other holons to adapt than preserve their independence. In their willingness to sacrifice some sense of self to join with another they create something new without anything that they are being lost. What they gain is self-transcendence.
While reason would suggest it is better for a holon to adapt than to risk dissolution it is not possible to predict which a holon will choose. Ultimately, as far as the cosmos is concerned, both are part of the creative process that is constantly emerging. This relationship between holons is at the core of our reality and why the universe is emerging and not static. It describes but does not explain the mystery of life. I think it is as close as we can get to understanding God.
Let me give a real-life example of how it works. Some months ago I shared the story of one of our most faithful members, who spent her days at the church and her nights sleeping in bus stops. Her rough sleeping made being in close proximity a less than pleasant olfactory experience. The staff you will remember at first tolerated her but we behaved as particles trying to keep her from impinging too much on our boundaries. But somewhere along the way our staff holon began acting as a wave. We invited her into our lives and made an effort to be connected. We got to know her and her story. We began working to improve her quality of life. What we didn't predict was what she would do for us. She and we had become a new holon. She was a part of our identity and we a part of hers.
This week Christmas came early. She moved into a room at an assisted living facility. She now has her own room, bed, and bath. While this was not a predictable outcome this new holon has resulted in self-transcendence. She gets regular, healthy meals, medical attention and has opportunity for meaningful activity. While we never foresaw this outcome, we can be quite certain that if the staff and she continue to acts as particles, this would not have happened.
The significance of Jesus is he reveals the truths about the universe we experienced in this example. His importance is not that he was something new in creation. He was one of our species. He was divine in the sense that each of us is the product of this emerging mystery of life. The truth of Jesus is found in the very building blocks of creation. Creation and how it unfolds is not an example to explain Jesus. Jesus is an example of creation at its best. We honour Jesus for living out its truth; not for creating it. It began unfolding 15 billion years before him. Anyone could've have done the same before him. Some probably did, he just got more and better press preserving his story. I don't say this to diminish Jesus but to remind us that if he is something more than we, we and our capabilities are diminished. If he is our saviour, we are victims. I don't think Jesus would have bought that. We each have the capacity to live in creative relationship with the universe as he did and thereby know self-transcendance. Our salvation is borne in our DNA.
Jesus understood our fundamental connection with one another and the universe and called for us to embrace it allowing for our self-transcendence into a new creation. His life tells us we can do it too, for it is a part of our created nature. In his death he showed that even when the whole is destroyed, its parts remain. In his case, his transforming love and the memory of his life became one with his followers inviting them into a radically new way of being one with the fundamental reality which is God. For me that is resurrection.
Jesus was a wave that is still rolling strong. His life invites us to become part of the wave. His cousin John was a particle threatening other particles using Jesus as the club. Sadly the church, which was the unexpected new creation from Jesus' death, has largely chosen to act more like John than Jesus. I think it always will if it holds on to apocalyptic thinking of an afterlife for which there is no evidence or support instead of looking at creation around us.
Religion generally seems more bent on being a particle than a wave.
Perhaps that's why Jesus doesn't seem to have been all that fond of religion, considering his views about the Temple and the Holiness Code and his lack of popularity with the Scribes and Pharisees. I wonder how pleased he would be to know a religion was founded in his name? If John is right about a judgment day at the end of time, considering the Church's past and present behaviour, it may be surprised by who is left behind. The Church may find itself the chaff that's burned. But it will be left behind no matter what if it doesn't look to our natural world to understand a better way to be the Church.
 Deuteronomy 13:7-11
 Wessel, Cletus, Jesus in the New Universe Story. Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York: 2003, pp. 53-54
 Wilber, Ken, Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution, Shambahala, Boston: 1995, p. viii.
The Nativity Story is Hollywood's latest attempt to bring us the authentic Christmas. It tells of the scandal of a young woman, Mary, conceiving without having intercourse with her fiancé, Joseph. Paternity is attributed to God who has miraculously seen to the impregnation of Mary. Her child, Jesus, will not be shunned as illegitimate but will be hailed as the blessed saviour of his people.
Nativity is a marked improvement on its forebears, particularly in its portrayal of the repressive governance of Palestine and the patriarchal culture that impacted on women. Nativity however is reminiscent of parish Christmas pageants - uncritically splicing the two biblical infancy narratives together and using cinematic tricks to explain the unbelievable bits. Unlike the parish equivalent though, Nativity masquerades as history.
Liberal scholars for decades have told us that most of the supposed facts of the nativity are fictions. Angels, wise men, heavenly hosts, the census, Bethlehem… are all part of the story-telling craft, weaving meanings derived from Jesus' life back into his birth. It makes for great stories, encapsulates great truths, but is lousy history.
As for the paternity of Jesus, these liberal scholars denounced the divine implantation thesis that Nativity went to some length to replicate. On the basis that embryos don't drop from the sky, these scholars thought that Joseph was the most likely candidate.
However it makes no sense for both Matthew and Luke to sow doubt about Jesus' paternity if Joseph was his actual father. The scandal that accompanied the pregnancy would have diminished if Joseph had owned up. Indeed the pregnancy of a betrothed girl by her fiancé was viewed as more positive than negative, for it was thought to guarantee children and ensure the male line.
Although scholarship today is less concerned about historicity than about what the texts actually say, it is possible to assert the following: Firstly that Mary, the mother of Jesus, conceived between betrothal and home-taking. Secondly the circumstances of his conception were scandalous. Thirdly, Mary was not blamed. Fourthly that Joseph, despite not being the biological father, legitimated the child. Lastly, that the child was not accounted as inferior or cursed, like an illegitimate offspring. Rather the opposite.
Who then was the father? For those who like to use God, as the movie does, to explain the supposed unexplainable please note the words used by the angel “come upon” and “overshadow” have no sexual connotations. In the ancient world divine and human paternities were not mutually exclusive. As with King David being called “Son of God”, it was possible to have human parents and still be hailed as of divine origin.
Today there is growing acceptance of the validity of the work of Jane Schaberg, Professor of Religious Studies and Women's Studies at the University of Detroit Mercy. She posits that within and behind the nativity stories is an illegitimacy tradition. Mary was seduced or raped.
When the Magnificat sings that God has looked with favour on the 'lowliness' of Mary, and the Greek word for 'lowliness' is usually translated 'humiliation', one has to ask how she was humiliated. Illegitimacy, despite the indoctrination of multiple Christmas pageants, is probably the answer.
Schaberg asks us to look again at Matthew's genealogy of Jesus, and the unusual insertion of four women in it. These women – Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba – were not the great heroines of Hebrew history. Tamar and Ruth were childless widows, Rahab a prostitute, and Bathsheba an adulteress. All four were wronged or thwarted by the male world. In their scandalous sexual activity - or in Ruth's case perhaps only suspicion of sexual activity - all risked their own condemnation. Their situations were righted by men who accepted responsibility for them, legitimating them and their children-to-be.
The inclusion of these women in the Matthean genealogy alerts us that we should expect another woman [read Mary] who becomes a social misfit, is wronged or thwarted, who is party to a sexual act that places her in great danger, and whose story has an outcome where she is drawn in under patriarchal protection. Illegitimate rather than miraculous conception is a better explanation for the women in the genealogy.
In Matthew 1:18-25 Joseph discovering Mary pregnant weighs his options and, due to angelic intervention, decides to own both mother and child. There is an allusion to Deuteronomy 22:23-27 where the Torah addresses the seduction or rape of a betrothed virgin. Joseph is choosing from among several options – a “quiet” divorce being less severe than public exposure and punishment, even death. The question is does Joseph think she was raped or is an adulteress? It is improbable that he thought the latter. If he thought Mary had committed adultery he is more likely to have sought a more extreme remedy, and he would have been unlikely to take the angel's advice to marry her.
Schaberg asks us to consider also the use of Isaiah 7:14, mistranslated to say “the virgin shall conceive and bear a son”. In the Hebrew text the phrase is “a young woman shall conceive”. In the Greek translation of the Hebrew, the word parthenos [commonly translated as 'virgin'] is used. However the Greek text also uses parthenos to refer to women who are not biological virgins but rape victims.
The consequences of Jane Schaberg's work have been sobering. She has been vilified, had her car torched, and received screeds of hate mail. Yet slowly and surely academic colleagues, when not being dictated to by Church authorities and their vested interests, have addressed the textual issues she has raised. The case for an illegitimacy tradition is strongest in Matthew's Gospel, and possible in Luke's.
The theological consequences of the illegitimacy thesis are enormous. The Christian God sides with the rejected, humiliated, and wronged. God vindicates the violated. With Mary and with all the abused, Christians can sing the hope of God putting down the mighty men from their inflated thrones and exalting the humiliated and weak. The Magnificat was always a rallying cry for those protesting injustice, but those promoting compliance have tamed it.
We have a choice to make as we read and hear again Mary's story this Christmas. Is she a passive 'handmaiden of the Lord' who by a miraculous divine implantation carries the Son of God? The movie Nativity is weakest at this point, for Keisha Castle-Hughes is more powerful than the traditional script permits. Or is Mary a victim of abuse who with steely grit, courage, and support battles patriarchal society to own her son as a child of God? This movie would raise the ire of most Christian churches.
The choice of how we read Mary's story will affect how we read the whole Christian story, and how we understand sin, sex, holiness, and redemption. Jesus, the one born of the flesh, who might be thought to bear the curse of his parents, who will be executed as a criminal, who is unholy in human estimation, is the one who will be declared holy by the power of God. This is the scandalous message of Christmas.
Nativity – Jesus' and Ours - 2006
December 3, 2006
The Night Army
When the Night Army surrounded the shepherds near Bethlehem (Luke 2:13-14), the shepherds had good reason to be terrified. It wasn't just the spine-tingling supernatural that spooked them. With or without angels, Armies were a terrifying reality of everyday life for the whole peasant underclass of Galilee and beyond.
• Caesar's Armies
• Herod's Armies (with Temple Police)
• “Peasant Armies”
There were Caesar's Armies. In their zeal to put down rebellion in any village, their Centurions did not hesitate to bulldoze every last local hovel. That's what had happened just up the road from where Joseph and Mary lived, in Sepphoris, about the time that Jesus was born. The substantial town had subsequently been rebuilt as a tax-collecting and security garrison and pleasure town after the Graeco Roman pattern. Emmaus, near Jerusalem, had also been torn apart after an insurrection following the death of Herod the Great. The Roman General, Varus, hunted down the fleeing villagers and crucified two thousand of them. This was the same army that enforced Caesar Augustus' command that the whole world was to be “counted” – for taxation and homeland security purposes. They supervised the forced temporary resettlement of the whole Jewish population back to the places of their birth. Paying tribute or tax to Caesar was as much a control mechanism as an economic demand. Tax-evasion was taken to be treason and punished accordingly.
Then there was King Herod's army. For all his being Herod “the Great”, Herod was a lackey of Rome who bribed his brutal way into power. His soldiers, police and informers were closely allied with the Jerusalem Temple 's elite, themselves in turn political appointees and often relations of Herod. Herod the Great was known elsewhere throughout Asia as an extravagant benefactor. He bestowed and secured the naming rights for many a public amenity: here an aqueduct, there a colonnade, there a statue, sometimes a whole magnificent city like Sebaste or Caesarea Maritima. He even underwrote the Olympic Games. His ultimate benefaction, as “King of the Jews” was the new Temple in Jerusalem that so bedazzled Jesus' disciples and which so disgusted Jesus himself, himself also ironically acclaimed by Pilate as “King of the Jews”. And how could such dazzling magnificence all be funded? By sucking out the last drop of blood from the Palestinian population. No wonder rebellious leaders arose in villages and amongst the shepherds, citizens now (through this brutal profligacy) of a truly “failed” State. It was no fault of the people that the State “failed”. The People were made to fail by the appalling inroads upon their basic living conditions by layer after layer of tax collectors, backed up by layer after layer of ruthless military.
To these two armies of Caesar and Herod must be added the “peasant armies” which inevitably gathered around local wannabee Messiahs like Barrabas. The relentless rule of Rome and the crazed fear of the Herods moved immediately against such hasty wild-cat militias and against those segments of the trembling civilian population amongst whom they arose. Thus came many massacres of “holy innocents” by Herod and Caesar seeking to control and make example of the least suspicion of dissent and revolt.
A People Subjected to Multiple Terror
Jesus was thus not the only Messiah to emerge in Israel. Nor were the babies of Bethlehem the only ones to be put to the sword in a genocidal attempt to root out future rebels. No wonder Mary and Joseph was as terrified as the shepherds of the consequences of the arrival of a baby so dramatically singled out as messianic “King of the Jews”. No wonder Herod was himself as much afraid as insulted when the Magi, the Wise Men from the distant Magical Lands of past great empires, came to him as King of the Jews enquiring where this new “King of the Jews” was about to be born. The sword that would take such a bloody toll of the Bethlehem babies would indeed pierce the heart of Mary also. The alert young Mary didn't need the wise old Holy Man Simeon to tell her that.
The Film The Nativity Story
Who could forget Keisha Castle-Hughes, star young woman of Whale Rider?
Her next film has just premiered in the Vatican.
It's the first film ever to premiere in the Vatican – the first Hollywood one that is.
The film is The Nativity Story. The NZ Herald gave it a good write-up.
The Censor warns that the film goes beyond “low-level violence” to the real stuff. And that is the film's chief reality. The film makers pride themselves that they have portrayed Mary and Joseph as real persons. But in this they are more successful with the soldiers and Herod – father and son – Herod the Great and Herod the Not-So-Great you might say. True: compared with the detail sketched early in this sermon, the violence is somewhat subdued, beginning from the few frames of the slaughter of the Bethlehem Innocents through the brief glances at peasants crucified amongst tree foliage along Mary's route to see her cousin Elizabeth.
But Keisha is quite an improvement on Cecil B de Mille, also on quite a bit of pulpit oratory. She brings us closer to the lives of this peasant community amongst whom Jesus spent his whole life as far as we know. Jesus certainly knew his People's situation intimately. Once we ourselves appreciate the reality of the People and of the Messianic Prophet on whom they gambled their precarious lives, the Bible is far more authentic for us. The con-text of the life and the text - that of the New Testament - produced by the life of Jesus with his disciples belong inseparably together. The same is true of the context and the text of our own life in this new millenium.
The New Millenium's new Questioning
All these brutal facts shed a different light upon the Christmas Story. Indeed they are only the beginning of a vast questioning about the meaning and life-project of Christianity. That questioning can take a typically secular turn:
• did the Bible really happen?
Or it can take a far more radical turn:
• does the bible really happen?
This second question is what haunts me, especially when there are no easy answers at hand. For me, the bible does and has really happened in our lifetime – over these last forty years in particular. I would think this is true for many of you too. The issue is not whether angels really exist or whether Mary really was impregnated by Holy Spirit in some literal way. The issue is more that the Bible does actually resonates with our experience of life – just how this happens is intuitive, hard to track down, and difficult to put into words. And this is a resonance that is both personal and political; relational and communal.
This large new questioning that is arising in our millennium is
• not so much the old secular – sceptical questioning but rather:
• “sociological” questioning as to where we want our world to go as a whole inhabited and fragile Earth and
• how can we do something about that
• together, communally (as church and as society) and as intimately inter-related individual human persons: sisters and brothers; parents, grandparents and children together.
This “new” questioning turns out to be surprisingly similar to the questioning that pervades the Second – the “New” Testament.
The Night Army turned out to be a genuine “Good News” Army
It was initially terror that was inspired in the peasant shepherds by the Night Army accompanying the Angel. And imagine their relief when this “Army” (the word “Army” is translated as “Host”) turned out to be a fantastic Choir: a thousand Vienna Boys' Choirs, a couple of thousand Kiri te Kanawas, a few legions of basso profundos, and four hundred or so cohorts of frantic tenors thrown in for good measure. Add another parade ground in the sky altogether for U2 and its audience. And how their shepherd ears were eased at the astonishing message: not more taxes, more censuses, more Herods and Caesars, more hatred and bloodshed and failure! No indeed! The very reverse! “Poverty banished to Past History”. “Peace and Goodwill to All People – No Exception!”.
The Nativity Story is a well-timed production.
In the US (and probably much the same here) 40% of the whole year's retail trade is transacted between now and Christmas
Though itself part of the Great Consumer Festival, the film gets in 25 or so shopping days before Christmas.
Same with this Sermon:
I wanted to get it in before the decibel level of the advertising drowns our senses.
I wanted us to strengthen our sense of reality even as the unreality of clever advertising seeks to manipulate us – often through our children and grandchildren…
to retain our composure and deep goodwill as we are stampeded into “shop until you drop” mode (therapeutically of course).
“Pushing forward” our Third Millenium theology of the Christmas events is not a matter for elite theologians or silver-tongued preachers only. It's vital that the hearers tell one another (including the preachers) what they think – especially if they disagree. With desire have I desired to preach this Christmas especially. Because I wan't to evoke from you your thoughts and reaction and get sufficient buzz going to survive the Christmas cacophony. I'm grateful for your hospitality in having me here with you there this morning. Perhaps – together – we can be a key part of this profound theological renewal which I believe is under way in the third millennium will only proceed from ordinary people like yourselves.
This Nativity is the Nativity of Christianity as much as the birth of Jesus the Christian Messiah. It is OUR nativity.
Who can doubt that we now in our own day desperately seek for a World beyond Empire. George Bush has tried a re-run of the old failed imperial method of globalisation. Before we judge him too arrogantly, we have to remember how the whole of the Western Church since Constantine has been an imperial Church, how we ourselves as Anglicans ended up as chaplains to the most powerful segment of that Empire. We have been a colonising and a colonised church, deeply compromised and far away from Bethlehem, the other side of the great divide between rich and poor, between Dives and Lazarus. And here I speak as a preacher of the Pakeha sector of our Anglican church in New Zealand.
Yet this church of ours over the last half century of the last millennium has stumbled upon those genuine Bethlehem truths could we but recognise them. Our Prayer Book and our new bi-cultural Constitution are a wonder of Anglicanism worldwide. And do we not owe much of this wonder to the fact of the struggle and ordination of women and the astonishing new leadership style that they have brought into every level of policy formation and decision making in our church. And do we not owe our bicultural potential to the fact that we are originally a Maori Church before we were a settler church and are now by law if not yet by nature and grace a bicultural church. And does not all this look somewhat similar to what is hoped for in First and Second Testaments of our Sacred Texts and prefigured in that nativity story which is also our nativity story?
And was not our Hikoi of Hope our very own Exodus into Royal Priesthood – assuming responsibility for the whole Nation and especially for the abolishing of its structured poverty.
Never did we do better than in that Hikoi, Pakeha and Maori together as never before; just as our new Constitution intended. Nor ever were we more despised and rejected for doing so much better.
And now, for all our weakness and absurdity, even now we are on the threshold - have in our slippery grasp – a capacity to become to become a true church for all the rich distinguished forms of humanity; no exceptions.
Te Hahi Mihinare ki Aotearoa ki Niu Tirene ki nga Moutere o Te Moana Nui a Kiwa.
Today's gospel reading provides us with two reassuring agricultural images of the seed. The mustard seed, tiny and insignificant but carefully planted grows into the greatest tree providing both strength and cover. By contrast, the scattering of the seed, almost reckless in its abandon prospers in spite of, not because the sewer's efforts.
These images of God are images for our life. Not far from here at Orakei are located Ngati Whatua o Orakei, the hapu who by virtue of their continuous occupation of central Auckland since 1840 have manawhenua (tribal authority) status in this area. Not two months ago this hapu buried Sir Hugh Kawharu, one of Auckland 's most distinguished academics and leaders. He also happened to be chairman of the Ngati Whatua o Orakei Maori Trust Board through the period of the cultural renaissance of this people.
Hugh was a mustard seed planter, a person with the vision to understand the paradoxical, that when you appeared most vulnerable so you could be at your point of greatest strength and what appeared to be concessions were in fact advantages. He also understood the value of time. For Hugh the reconstruction of the history of his people was the core to the recognition of their manawhenua. What had been lost over generations could not be recovered in a single lifetime but with the soil suitably tilled the new life was possible.
What's more he grasped the capacity in public life for the promotion of new growth through forgiveness and reconciliation without surrender. There was no stronger and more articulate advocate for the recognition of tribal rangitiratanga. But that was never the end of it for him.
He understood culturally that the mana of his people was intrinsically linked to their capacity to honour the obligations that came with this mana. This he described as manaakitanga, the capacity for consideration of the other.
In the most recent Treaty negotiations concluded just months before he died Hugh was adamant that there could be no honour for his own people unless and until honour was restored to the Crown.
The audacity of this insight is staggering given the gravity of the dispossession exacted on his people by successive governments since 1840. But it should not surprise us.
Hugh's central thesis (his planting of the mustard seed) was that if Maori were affirmed in their rangatiratanga (their capacity to exercise authority by way of collective trusteeship over all matters necessary for their cultural survival), the reciprocal benefits to the rest of us are enormous.
As we celebrate Aotearoa Sunday we might reflect on the Ngati Whatua history in this city. It is a story worth telling. The journey traverses three centuries.
• in 1840, just months after the first signing of the Treaty, Apihai Te Kawau, paramount chief of Ngati Whatua invited Governor Hobson to come to Tamaki Makaurau to set up his seat of government. He offered Hobson an inducement. Come, he said and I will give you land (over 3000 acres) to develop your settlement. Make this the capital and I will give you more. The area transferred in modern day terms was Parnell, the CBD, Ponsonby, Grey Lynn, Herne Bay and some of Newmarket and Mount Eden.
• In 1841 a gathering of 1000 Ngati Whatua greeted Hobson on the shores of Okahu Bay. Te Kawau addressed him. “Governor, Governor, welcome as a father (matua) to me: there is land for you … go and pick the best part of the land and place your people, at least our people upon it.”
The block chosen is latter day Westmere, Pt Chevalier, Western Springs, Waterview, Avondale, Mount Albert, Titirangi, Sandringham , Mt Roskill, Three Kings, Balmoral, Kingsland, Mount Eden and Epsom.
This represented the transfer of a further 13000 acres.
Why would Apihai have made such a significant gesture? What was behind his thinking? The answer was an alliance. The transfer of land was in Maori terms a “tuku rangatira”, a chiefly gift with strings attached. Those strings were the advantages to be gained from commerce, education and health and the protection of all under the law. The Orakei report of the Waitangi Tribunal commented that the “settlers came not as conquerors, not as interlopers, but as Te Kawau's invitees to share the land with Ngati Whatua.”
• All this contains a certain poignant relevance for in 1869 at a hearing of the Native Land Court Apihai Te Kawau was asked “Who were the people who sold Auckland to the Europeans?” The answer was “I did not sell it, I gave it to them.” On the further question of “Did not the government give you and your people money for it afterwards?” Apihai answered: “No, I have been constantly looking for payment but have not got it.”
Why was Apihai in the Native Land Court? Because within 5 years of the invitation to Hobson to come to Auckland, Ngati Whatua who had previously uncontested standing as manawhenua across the Auckland isthmus had seen over 100,000 acres of its whenua disappear with little to show for it. By 1868 they were reduced to the 700 acre Orakei Block deemed by the court at that time to be forever inalienable, not to be sold. This was later reversed just before the First World War. In 1913 government changed the policy. While Ngati Whatua leaders were with New Zealand troops overseas the government passed a law allowing for the individualisation of title. The land was sold off and what remained then was a marae, a pa and an urupa based at Okahu Bay.
• In 1951 the marae and pa were deemed an eyesore on Tamaki Drive and unsafe for habitation. The Auckland City Council evicted all residents to new State housing on the Kitimoana St hill and razed the marae and attendant buildings to the ground. The quarter acre urupa was all that remained.
Thus is summary, Ngati Whatua o Orakei, the once proud people of the Tamaki isthmus, at 1840 holding sway over the whole of Auckland; the people who invited and induced Hobson to Auckland to form the seat of government; were reduced in precisely 112 years to a landless few living off the state. By 1951 they were without a marae on which to fulfil their customary obligations and were left with a quarter acre cemetery, being the last piece of land they could tribally claim as their own.
Joe Hawke took the claim in 1987 before the Waitangi Tribunal. The outcome was unequivocally in their favour and Bastion Point in 1991 was finally transferred back into Ngati Whatua's hand by Act of Parliament.
Let's for a moment pause to consider the first thing Ngati Whatua did when it took back the land.
What they did was agree to share the huge chunk of Bastion Point with Aucklanders. They opened it up to you and me for our unimpeded use. I am talking here about the most expensive land with the best views in all of Auckland. The land where Michael Joseph Savage rests. Ngati Whatua agreed to manage this jointly with the Auckland City Council for the benefit of all the people of Tamaki Makaurau.
What therefore is it that enables a people who sought for 150 years to get some form of justice that recognised their cultural destitution, to react in their moment of triumph with such generosity to those who had dispossessed them?
What underpins such an act of munificence? To put it simply, the recovery of the hapu rangatiratanga. The 1991 Orakei Act confirmed their manawhenua status in statute, providing the crucial Crown recognition of their mana that had been absent for over a 100 years. Their generosity (manaakitanga) followed from that recognition of mana.
The courage to mount the occupation and run the initial Treaty claim came from Joe Hawke and his family. The genius to arrive at the solution was Hugh's work.
This example provides the challenge for us as New Zealanders today. It is to recognise that the secret to justice and reconciliation in our Treaty relations does not lie in viewing the world through the lens of the dominant and powerful.
Rather the planting of our mustard seed for justice is to first do what is right and then be vulnerable to both the forgiveness and generosity of those once afflicted. The restoration of right relationships requires nothing less.
About the Preacher
Patrick Snedden, a Pakeha New Zealander, who for over 20 years has been an economic adviser to Ngati Whatua and is a member of their Treaty negotiation team. He also works as a business adviser to Health Care Aotearoa, a primary health network involving Maori, Pacific and community not-for profit health providers. Most recently he has been involved in public sector governance roles as deputy-Chairman with Housing NZ Corporation and as an elected board member of the Auckland District Health Board. He is also deputy-Chairman of the ASB Trusts and chairs their Investment Committee.
If you put your hands of the walls of St Matthew's you may still feel trembling reverberations of rock music from last Friday's U2charist. But unlike the stones in the Temple they do not yet lie at our feet in rubble. These walls have not framed an event quite like this one in their 101 year history, which at St Matthew's is saying something quite extraordinary. Coloured lights danced in syncopation with the vital Christian-flavoured music of U2 played appropriately by a local group called The Believers. A combination of graphic arts and video enveloped the band and the altar, from which a Eucharist was celebrated by Glynn that had never been celebrated before. Like those of the first Christians, it was born of experience, but not theirs, ours. Our distinguished pulpit supported a rock band celebrity, Dave Gibson, who describes himself as being on the edge of the church, and liking it that way. He reminded us that we can make a difference in a world blighted by poverty and disease. And then the diverse crowd, united by the music and a commitment to a better world, fed on the gifts of bread and wine.
It has been said that Jesus came to bring us the kingdom and instead we got the church. Friday it finally felt like we got a taste of the kingdom and I think Jesus smiled. I know he was dancing over there in the south aisle.
In today's Gospel he certainly wasn't smiling. In the translation I prefer it says, “He walked away from the Temple.” He then went on to foretell that some day it would be destroyed.
We are coming to the end of our exploration of Mark's Jesus in this church year. We have seen that this Jesus did not shy away from conflict and controversy and was full of surprises. We saw that his ministry was conducted on the margins of power and in the midst of nobodies. He did not trade on the past but was giving us a new vision of ourselves and our relationship with the divine. But what I find most powerful in Mark's Jesus is his rejection of long-accepted authority and his invitation to claim our own. It is this message that brings him to Jerusalem and the political and religious leaders are understandably peeved. Today he is taking the mickey out of the scribes. The Temple was their source of authority, not to mention bread and butter. It had been there centuries, its rituals had been perfected, and its keepers were revered and powerful. They maintained that power with Scripture's purity laws that said who were included and who weren't. It all worked together to make their position as solid as the Temple itself.
And yet Jesus walked away from it and foretold its demise. He was not going to support a system that enslaved a people he came to free.
So what might Jesus think of the Church that replaced the Temple? What future might he predict for it?
Just as the Temple had already been destroyed by the time Mark had Jesus predict it, it wouldn't take a fortune teller to predict the Church's future. The church will continue on its present trend. It will continue shrinking, and becoming more conservative as it does until it fully confirms its irrelevance. Now don't get me wrong, it won't cease to exist. It will continue as a picturesque relic of our heritage. So, while some will continue to worship in the ways of generations past, the Church will make no difference at all to life, and few will take its claims seriously.
When I was beginning my ministry a quarter century ago these trends were suggested but today it is abundantly clear that, as Don Cupitt puts it, “traditional Church-Christianity is well past its sell-by date. Too dualistic, too otherworldly and too disciplinarian. It makes too many inflated claims on its own behalf.”  I would add that it is too concerned about preserving itself. It might be able to be preserved like last summer's fruit, but it will still be dead.
I may sound harsh and even pleased by this development. But it's not true. I have a deep fondness for much of what we call the traditional church. I cut my teeth on her ancient liturgies and hymns. I was steeped in its theology and I confess to enjoying many of the perks that come with being part of the hierarchy. The church that was has played an important role in forming who I am and has been the source of much joy. For that I give thanks.
Yet the Church has also been at times the bane of my existence. Every time she shoots herself in the foot, it is my blood that is spilt. When she insists on denying human rights that civil society has already granted to women, gays and lesbians, I bleed. When she persists in using Shakespearean language in a generation that communicates in hyper-abbreviated text on cell phones, I wince. When she rejects as secular music anything that isn't best played on a pipe organ or at least with a string quartet, I limp. When she proclaims a dogma better accepted by those who think the world is flat than by anyone I know, I go into shock. When she ignores the plights of the poor and the destruction of Mother Earth, promising a better life in the one to come, I scream outraged, “No!”
Such a church is crumbling fast. She probably won't breathe her last until after I retire, but I do worry for Glynn. So how did something so vibrant and promising in the person of Jesus come to the point of redundancy as an institution?
I think David Jenkins reflections on becoming Bishop of Durham offer some insights. After being consecrated bishop but before being enthroned as Bishop of Durham he found a carver chiseling his name into the stone wall of Durham Cathedral after a long list of predecessors going back to 995 AD. He was humbled and horrified. Mostly the latter, if this quote is any indication, “A church so determined to enshrine nearly two thousand years of tradition – particularly a tradition that ignores the radical developments of the civilization in which it now resides – is nearly hopelessly weighted down in any attempt to reach out to communicate the Gospel in the twenty-first century and beyond.” 
Knowing the past is a good and useful thing. Making it sancrosanct is to be blinded to the present and future possibilities. The Church seems to think everything important has already happened. The coming of Jesus was the end not the beginning. And until he comes again we are on hold. It is in the past the church tells us we will find Eternal Truth. While such a platonic notion that such a truth even exists is generally rejected in our era, the church keeps claiming ownership. I don't think the church was always this way. I think this view is the product of 1000 years of static history often referred to as the Middle Ages or more honestly in the case of the church, the Dark Ages. The first 500 years of the church were vibrant years full of fierce controversy. The creeds we still use, the defining of what was sacred scripture and what was not, doctrinal formulations were all hammered out in that period prior to the fall of Rome to the barbarians. What followed was a culture with an inferiority complex. With little happening of importance the people of this time looked back to the luminaries of the past and saw them as infallible. For more than a thousand years little changed in any area of knowledge. No wonder folks believed with complete integrity what had been believed for centuries and expressed it without reservation in well-used forms. The church, the body of Christ, while now severely arthritic, became a tool of the powerful. Life was hard during this time and little ever changed. The church became the arbiters of hope. She offered the promise of at least a better life after death to those who conformed to the church's authority rather than a living, breathing kingdom now. It certainly wasn't in the church's self-interest to offer the kingdom Jesus was talking about, where the meek would inherit the earth.
This ossified church was hardly prepared for the four hundred years that followed. The church scrambled to deal with Galileo, Darwin and Freud but is still trying unsuccessfully to incorporate the worldview this trio established long ago as the norm. The church hasn't even begun to deal constructively with the last 50 years of knowledge and technological advancements. The present situation begs the question, “What good is owning Eternal Truth when no one considers it worth having?”
In 1996 circumstances in my life forced me to make a choice. Over the strenuous objections of family, friends and my bishop I walked out of the Temple. I left the priesthood when my career was still in its ascendancy, painfully resigned that the church I loved could be neither reformed nor resuscitated. It was better to live than die with it. I grieved bitterly, never expecting to return.
Of course I never expected to immigrate to New Zealand either, or for that matter to find St Matthew's with its persuasive Vicar. When Glynn challenged me to resume my priesthood, I was both drawn and repelled by the notion. In my agreeing to do so, however, was not with any hope of resuming my efforts to save a dying institution from redundancy. The church I was ordained into is rubble at my feet.
St Matthew's, however, is another thing entirely. While few buildings could look more like that poor arthritic church of the middle ages it is a place where the flesh and blood inside her is more concerned about being the kingdom than being the church.
Sure we are still betwixt and between. Our ambivalence shows up in our liturgy which struggles slowly to shed the past so it can move into the present as something both entirely new and yet as old as Jesus. But our intention and direction is clear. These stones don't crumble because they are not about enshrining the past but framing the present.
The lines between sacred and secular are blurring here as seen in Friday's U2charist. We don't proclaim an eternal truth, but a way of being. Our only certainty is that there are none. We are not about giving answers but about struggling with the questions this very complicated world presents us with at an ever increasing rate. We are about freeing ourselves from the past, our prejudices; our guilt, that we might live into the fullest expression of love. We believe that the kingdom can be had now. In fact this is the only time it can be had. We better get cracking if we want it in our lifetime. We reject hierarchical authority, knowing that the only authority that counts is in our own hearts. A priest is a fellow pilgrim with particular knowledge and expertise, but not one who holds authority over you.
Lastly, we don't even think you need stones to build the kingdom, as we seek to build it with megabytes on real estate in cyberspace. Such a kingdom, built on the world wide web, is open 24/7 to everyone everywhere. It becomes a reflection of the kingdom of God. You can walk out of a temple, but not out of God's love. It is everywhere for everyone. There simply is no exit.
 Cupitt, Don. The future: A Redundant Church, an address given at St Michaael's Uniting Church, Collins Steet. February 2001.
 Jenkins, David, The Calling of a Cuckoo. Continuum: 2002. p. 104.
Nga iwi Ngati Whatua, Nga iwi o te motu, tena kotou, tena kotou, tena kotou katoa.
Mist, rose, Lifted by a chill Breeze from the south On a bleak, hillside Above the little township of Cave South Canterbury Stands a plain stone cenotaph.
From my childhood memory of a bitterly cold ANZAC morning, there were some 25-odd names of the young men of that area inscribed on one face, under the title "The Great War."
As a child I wondered what was great about it. The little town of Cave today would be hard pressed to muster 25 young men. It gave its all.
The truth is that New Zealand gave its all in that war. From a population of little over a million, around 100,000 were sent to war. About 18,000 lost their lives. No other country of the Empire suffered more heavily per capita.
So as we mark the passing of the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918, when the bloody carnage of the "war to end wars" ground to a bitter and exhausted halt, we still ask "why?"
We ask what we can take from such sadness: as comfort, as wisdom, as token that these brave young men did not die in vain.
For the young shearers and farmhands of these days, the war no doubt promised a heady mix of duty and adventure. Unlikely ever to travel aboard as we now take for granted, for some, no doubt, it held the promise of an "OE."
But the same ships that carried those men had decades before carried the trade of empire: our mutton, wool and butter; petroleum from the mid-east; copper, nickel, iron and slaves from Africa.
And as the 19th Century drew to its close and the 20th dawned, so the winds of empires blew in cross current. Competition intensified. Protectionism ensued. Tension erupted.
It is sobering to think of the slaughter of World War I as an accidental cascade of events following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo – triggering as it did alliances and counter-alliances.
It is equally galling, but perhaps more insightful, to see World War I not as accidental but as inevitable.
In that war, the proud towers of competing empires came crashing down in mutual destruction. The world was forever changed - not only the maps of Europe were redrawn but the class-based certitudes of the Victorian era were shattered by the emancipation of women into the workforce and the reorganisation of military and political command.
Unfortunately for the brave young men from Cave, military technology had changed even more quickly. We cannot go where they have gone - where one machinegun had the firepower of three hundred rifles. Into them marched our brave young men and others, line abreast, time after time at places like the Somme and Passchendaele.
And if the scale of the slaughter in this industrial manner beggars comprehension – New Zealand lost 845 men in a single day at Paschendale – so too does the extraordinary bravery of those men who could not have been oblivious to these odds.
Today more than anything else, we commemorate their bravery, their service, their sacrifice made to preserve - that which as a country we held to be good and true.
So, they might well ask us - what we have learned over these last 90 years?
We have learned to honour those who fell or who returned bringing with them tears of the soul that would not heal. Each year, at ANZAC and Armistice Day, the crowds grow larger and more solemn.
We have learned that New Zealand's' troops were the equal of the world's finest.
We gave a generation to the war of the Empire. Through it, we learned to stand up for our own identity. We forged an identity – Anzacs and Kiwis. We took steps towards full nationhood that continues today.
We learned that wars do not end wars.
Twenty-one years after Armistice Day, Germany invaded Poland and the long and ghastly sequel began.
I hope we have learned to put as much sweat and grit and courage into building justice and peace – because war, while occasionally unavoidable, too often represents a failure to solve problems by intelligent means.
We know that New Zealand's extraordinary international commitment continues. We are now in peacekeeping and peace building from the Sinai to Timor to Afghanistan, to the Solomon Islands.
For we have learned that these who forget the lessons of history, inevitability repeat them.
But those "lessons of history" must have seemed remote to our young men buried in the mud of Flanders or the dust of Gallipoli as they whistled "it's a long, long way to Tipperary" and sang "Abide with me".
We hold this remembrance service here in St Matthews – surely one of the most beautiful churches in New Zealand – built to inspire all who worship in it with the love and truth of God. And as we remember the nobility of courage and sacrifice; and the terrible slaughter of man; we pray for God's guidance to live better in this world.
If His grace, His humility, His love truly abides in us - if we can bring that spirit to bear on the world around us – then we will truly be remembering the young men of Cave and all our hamlets, with a tribute fit for heroes.
If we can do that, then their service and our remembrance, will not be in vain.
The Book of Ruth is a story of women in a men's world. It is a well-crafted, subtle story where literary form and content combine in order to affirm the clever strategies and courage of women.
God doesn't make an appearance. Ruth and Naomi know hardship, danger, and death. No omnipotent God promises them blessing. No man rushes to their rescue. They themselves risk bold decisions and shocking acts in the midst of the alien and hostile. They are working out their own salvation.
There are four distinct Acts in this drama. Act I concerns the tragic plight of Naomi. She is a Jewess who with her husband, Elimelech, and two sons fled from a famine in Judah to neighbouring Moab. There the boys marry local girls. Then disaster strikes. Her husband dies. Her two sons die. The famine also comes to town.
In a patriarchal world the security and survival of women depends on male patronage. Naomi's cultural worth, without husband or sons, is negligible. She is now reliant on the goodwill of kinsmen in the extended whanau. Naomi therefore decides to leave Moab, return to Bethlehem, and seek out such goodwill.
Her two widowed daughter-in-laws want to come too. Naomi is touched. Indeed she sees in their gracious loyalty the graciousness of God. Note the power of this: the author is proclaiming the presence of the Jewish God in pagan female foreigners!!
Naomi, however, orders her daughters-in-law to turn back. She tells them that she is past marrying age, and therefore cannot attract a man to shelter them. She tells them that being a foreigner without resources in Judah is no picnic. She tells them their chances of re-marriage [the path out of poverty] are better in Moab. One of the daughters-in-law reluctantly agrees.
Ruth, however, does not. “Where you go, I will go,” she says to Naomi.
I smile when I hear this read at weddings. Not many, if any, of the wedding guests realize that these words of fidelity are spoken between two women, and between a daughter-in-law and a mother-in-law!
Ruth's choice however makes no sense. She is forsaking the security of her own kin and her own gods. In the entire epic of Israel only Abraham matches this radicalism, but then he had a call from God. No God has called Ruth or promised her blessing.
Further, Ruth has reversed sexual allegiance. A young woman has committed herself to an old woman rather than to search for a new husband. One female has chosen another female in a world where life depends on men. There is no more radical decision in all the memories of Israel. 
Act II. They have now arrived in Bethlehem, and we are told about a wealthy kinsman of Naomi's called Boaz. Ruth went out to collect grain, as the poor were permitted to do, behind the reapers in a field belonging to Boaz. As chance would have it, he happened to pass by.
Chance, fate, luck, whatever you call it, in this story is the silent handiwork of God. Yet fate, as Naomi and Ruth, well knew can be a fickle thing, raining both curse and blessing where it wills. In order for fortune to smile fate needs courage and daring deeds.
Boaz asks, in classic patriarchal prose, “Whose maiden is this?” Who owns her? The question might fit the culture, but it doesn't fit the woman. The servant says she came with Naomi from Moab. Boaz then graciously directs her and protects her. Concern from this foreigner marks Boaz as a true child of Israel.
Ruth's response is deferential: “Why have I found favour in your eyes, that you should take notice of me?” It is also ironically subtle. This inferior foreigner by choice and by chance created this situation. Her deference results from her daring.
At evening Ruth returns to her mother-in-law with food and relays the day's events. Naomi is delighted that a kinsman has been so kind and they will not starve. Ruth is pleased that she can provide for the two of them. There is no inference that Ruth is sexually attracted to Boaz.
Act III. Naomi takes over. Aware of the kindness of Boaz, she begins to act upon it. She does not wait for matters to take their course or for God to intervene with a miracle. She plans an outrageous scheme, dangerous and delicate.
Ruth is to dress in her finest clothes and go alone at night to the threshing floor where the men are drinking and eating in celebration of the harvest. After Boaz has lain down to sleep Ruth will approach him, uncover the lower part of his body - euphemistically called “his feet” - and lie down. Just how much of the lower part of his body she is to uncover remains tantalizingly uncertain. Naomi concludes, “Then Boaz himself will tell you what to do”.
Ruth agrees. In Act I Ruth's allegiance to Naomi superseded any desire for a husband. In Act II her struggle for physical survival submerged any desire for a husband. Now, in Act III Ruth's allegiance to Naomi accords with that desire.
The suspense-filled question is: how will a patriarch of Israel respond to this bold action by a foreign woman?
All went according to plan. At midnight Boaz stirs and sees Ruth. “Who are you?” “I am Ruth, your maidservant,” she replies. Up to this point Naomi's script has been followed. However instead of Boaz telling Ruth what to do, now Ruth tells Boaz. “Spread your wing over your servant.” The wing refers to marital and physical security. Yes, she is proposing to him!!
Consistently throughout this book we have a portrayal of Ruth as the defier of custom, the maker of decisions, and the worker of salvation.
Boaz's response is characteristically gracious. He calls her a woman of worth. The story's audience breathes a contented sigh. It looks like Boaz and Ruth are going to get it together.
Yet there is a hitch. Legally the closest kin to Naomi's dead husband has the right and obligation to take Naomi, and therefore Ruth, under his wing. Boaz is second in line. He must go and see if the matter can be resolved.
Act IV begins with the elders conferring. No women are present. The unnamed nearest relative is happy to take Naomi under his wing when he learns that Naomi has a little parcel of land. But when the unnamed relative learns that with Naomi comes a foreign widow, Ruth, another mouth to feed, he wants to renege. The inference is that he is greedy – wanting the rights without the obligations.
Ruth and Naomi are now within Boaz's household, and the men see Boaz as having achieved this. The patriarchal concern for seeing the name of Elimelech, Naomi's dead husband, continue has also been achieved.
The story however does not end in the male court. It returns to the women. This is a women's tale, about women's achievements. Ruth has now conceived and borne a son. The women of Bethlehem rejoice. Rather than identifying the child as the son of Elimelech they see him as the son of Naomi. They speak of Ruth the bearer rather than Boaz the begetter.
The Book of Ruth can be read as a tribute to patriarchy: 'Women's worth is to be found in getting married and producing sons.' Yet to read the Book in this way is to miss the tremendous hope and courage of the women involved. This is a tale about moving from death to life. It is about surviving poverty and vulnerability. It is about surviving in a climate of prejudice and patriarchy. It is a man's culture, where wealth is blessing and poverty is curse. Where God favours Israelites and men. Yet within that cultural world, by daring deeds and a sprinkle of fate, by fidelity to each other, and struggling forward, Ruth and Naomi have triumphed.
Ruth appears in the genealogy of her great, and many times great, grandchild, Jesus. She appears there along with three other unexpected women, all bold and brave, in stark contrast to the usual men only genealogies. Her name is included in order that we might not forget. I think she would have been proud of her far distant mokopuna, Jesus. And he of his ancestral granny.
 Trible, Phyllis God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978, p.173.
Saints are usually thought of as religious goodie-goodies who obey the rules, please the rulers, and are popular with the pious. And undoubtedly many fit this profile. However, there are some saints who are naughty, disobedient, and downright insolent. They have little regard for rules or rulers, and popularity usually eludes them until long after their death. In a world that worships power, affluence, and military might, it is these rebellious saints who are our guides as we seek to live lives of integrity and protest.
The Book of Esther tells us about three such saints – Vashti, Mordecai, and Esther. And every year the Jewish community celebrates these three at the feast of Purim, a riotous fancy dress party.
The Book of Esther begins with a party thrown by the Persian king, Ahasuerus, for all the inhabitants of his capital Susa. After a drinking session, the king summons his queen, Vashti, to appear before the court wearing only the royal crown. Vashti, in the great tradition of brave and self-assured women, tells the guys were to go. The king, angry, banishes her. After a time, the king regrets losing his queen, and his nobles suggest that he hold an empire-wide search for a new one. Ahasuerus agrees, and all the eligible virgins in the kingdom are paraded into the harem in order to have their assets assessed.
At his point we are introduced to the heroine of the book, Esther, and her guardian, Mordecai. Esther enters the harem and wins the regard of all who know her. When her turn with the king comes, Esther woos Ahasuerus, who makes her his queen.
Some time later, the king promotes the talented and bigoted Haman to the position of vizier. Haman demands that all the people bow down to him. Mordecai, in the great tradition of Jewish faithfulness and courage, tells Haman where to go. Angered, Haman plots revenge on Mordecai by slaughtering all the Jews in the Persian Empire. Mordecai learns of the plot, and turns to Esther to intercede with the king. At the climax of the story, Esther, in the great tradition of little people risking everything by doing big things, goes unsummoned to the king. She gains Ahasuerus' favour, uncovers Haman's plot, and foils his scheme. Haman is put to death and Mordecai is elevated to vizier. The book ends with Esther and Mordecai instigating the festival of Purim to celebrate this turn of events.
The Book of Esther tells a story, historicity uncertain, of what to do when the voice of one's own truth demands something quite different from the voice of authoritative truth; when the voice of the God within you conflicts with the voice of the God above you; when the voice, for example within Vashti, says 'No!' to the authoritative voice of the king.
For many the two voices are one and the same, so that listening to the voice of authority is, in effect, listening to God. What the President, Principal, or authoritative person says is uncritically considered to be what God says. Obedience and compliance with authority is automatically considered good and right, while noncompliance and disobedience is automatically considered wrong and selfish.
In Esther, however, we learn a different truth. There is a time for holy rebellion. There is a time to listen to other voices – especially to the voices of those suffering, or those who soon will be. There is a time to be true to the voice within you, and take the risk that you will be misunderstood and vilified.
In the Book of Esther God is silent. There are no prayers either. The main character, Esther, enters a Gentile beauty pageant, marries a non-Jew, doesn't keep the dietary laws, and lives in a Gentile environment. You can imagine what her pious critics would have said!! Although the outcome of the book reveals the disobedience of the three - Vashti, Mordecai, and Esther - as the will of God, the divine silence in the text seems to place a question mark over their actions.
I think there are times when we take some risks – politically, personally or theologically – and there is no God-like guidance to steer us, to tell us that we are doing it right, to tell us that we are the goodies. We walk in the dark, trying to be true to ourselves, and it is anyone's guess whether we will be praised or punished. It is lonely. And the authoritative God, the God whom everyone else seems to believe in, who knows right from wrong and good from evil, is not with us. Indeed this God seems to be against us. So, without a map, we search for a different God.
Vashti wasn't Jewish at all. She was simply a Queen who when summoned to appear naked before a gathering of drunken men refused. She was not going to be used or demeaned. But this was a very public refusal. The king, the male god, was having a session with the boys, and a piece of his property wouldn't play his game. She was lucky to escape with her life.
In response to Vashti's rebellion a decree was passed that “all women bow to the authority of their husbands, ensuring that each man might be master in his own house.” [1:20 -22]. Isn't it fascinating that Vashti's refusal to be paraded as a pinup was seen to threaten the power of every man? The decree, this ridiculous over-reaction, reveals the ego-fragility of the king and his male entourage.
Mordecai, Esther's cousin and mentor, also committed an act of rebellion that likewise elicited a huge over-reaction. Haman, the new vizier or chief official, as was probably his right, received the bows and due groveling associated with his office. Mordecai refused to play along. We are not told why. Only, in the worst traditions of racism, Haman uses Mordecai's disobedience as an excuse to plan to slaughter every Jew in the Persian Empire. Haman presents the plan to the king as 'we should all be one people' – one law, one faith, one rule for all… Sound familiar? Difference is really deviation, and deviation is really disobedience, and disobedience needs to be destroyed. The King goes along.
In the Book of Esther there are four reasons given for holy rebellion. Firstly, when there is unbearable oppression. This may be personal, as in the case of Vashti, or communal as in Haman's genocidal plans. Secondly, rebellion is called for, like in Esther's case, when there is the hope of relieving oppression. Thirdly, rebellion is warranted when the oppressed community calls for it, as the Jewish community asked of Esther. Lastly, holy rebellion is justified when the voice of authority, in this case the king, believes he is the supreme authority, and thus denies the sovereignty of God.
Mordecai asks Esther to intercede on behalf of her people. He wants Esther, as the favourite wife, to go immediately, unsummoned, into the king's presence and plea for the Jewish people. Esther objects saying that anyone going uninvited into the king's presence invites death. She is not due to next appear in his presence for 30 days. Mordecai responds: “Your position will not save you. In the end they'll get you too.” One cannot read the Book of Esther this side of the Holocaust without seeing the parallels.
So Esther, who has hidden her Jewish identity to date, who is successor to the feisty Vashti, who is the beautiful winner of the king's affection, the very king who has issued a decree wanting women obedient and Jews dead, makes the appearance of her life. And she does it with class.
Step one: look your best. She spends three days getting mentally and physically ready. She gets made up, and puts on her royal, queenly robes. Beautiful and regal.
Step two: be subtle. When the king sees her he is pleased. (Relief, big relief). He asks her to name her request. She doesn't. Instead she invites both the king and Haman to a banquet.
Step three: know your men. Food is the doorway to many a deal. The banquet is magnificent, and the king again asks her to name her request. Again she doesn't. Instead she invites them to another banquet. She knows about men and food!
Step four: when the odds are in your favour, lay down your cards. The king was in Esther's debt. For the sake of honour he needed to be generous to her, as she had been to him. She appeals to his emotions. “Spare me and spare my people.” Then she appeals to his pocket. “The loss of the Jews would be a great financial loss to the Empire.' The king, having forgotten that he himself agreed to the killing of the Jews angrily asks who is planning the massacre. Haman is accused.
Esther disobeys the rules. She went unsummoned. Esther uses brains, beauty, and manipulation to get what she wants. Her ethics are the ethics of those fighting to survive. She has courage. She has spirit. Ironically she displays the same self-assurance and determination of her predecessor Queen Vashti. While the king has his pick of beautiful virgins, he singles out two who have independent, disobedient spirits. The king, despite his inadequacies, seems to get queens with backbone!
All live happily ever after, save Haman and his ilk. No conclusion could be more fitting to the Book of Esther than that of celebrating Purim; honouring holy rebellion two days of every year; celebrating the courage of women and men, the indestructibility of the human spirit, and the memory of all those who stood up and suffered for the voice of a different truth.
May we this All Saints day remember all those who have worked, suffered, and believed in the cause of a different truth – one beyond the control of the controllers. And remember too that part within ourselves that works, suffers, and believes in that truth. And give thanks.
In my office at Trinity/St Johns College in Auckland, sitting within a particular alcove on one of the bookshelves I keep a number of significant symbols and items. Items which speak to me of people, events, that have marked a pivotal stage on my ongoing process of coming to and keeping the faith, at the centre of which for me is a God in process.
In the centre stands this cross, made for me by a friend, Wellington artist and poet, Rhonda Svenson, who lives daily with the effects of varying disabilities. Lives daily with the effects of being expected to fit the frame of normality, and the pain that comes with being always considered as 'other'.
Let me tell you something of the story and symbolism behind this significant piece of artwork, entitled, “The Disproportionate Cross.”
The story is as told to me by Rhonda who has given me permission to use her story and her artwork.
The cross was made after a deep spiritual reaction at the first New Zealand Spirituality and Disability Confererence, “Through the Whirlwind” – held in Wellington, May 2003. A hugely significant gathering of people from Australia and New Zealand many of whom live with effects of varying physical and mental impairments who gathered together in order to express for themselves their own theological and spiritual expressions of faith in community.
The two different sized pieces of wood and the deliberate crooked angle, reflect and encompass the body of difference within the whole body of Christ. It is deliberately disproportionate. Not a straight up and down cross with perfect dimensions – it represent difference, represent the power imbalances – represents the varying disjunctions Rhonda feels are part of her living.
The power differentials – most people assume when looking at a cross that the pieces of wood are of equal proportion. Most disabled people don't have power – but they are whole – there is beauty in who they are - they don't have to be anything other than they are. When people look at the cross – it makes them think – makes them ask – it was a very therapeutic exercise, like a living journey to speak out who and what my Christ is.
Due to the drying process – 9 layers – each layer takes 24 hours to dry.
The small glass tiles are grouted with black paint running on to the cross. The glass tiles around the side, some are deliberately missing – missing to create difference. Black is normally used for framing, as it stands out against any other colour.
The tile stuck on the front of the cross – this indicates that I am whole in Christ – but different and I can be different in Christ. I can be framed in a different way
The magazine pictures in which the base and the cross are wrapped in - pictures of lounge suites, book shelves – things I dream of - things you wouldn't expect to find on a cross – a very deliberate use of images.
Scraps of paper one piece at a time clipped together to scatter in a way to be 'me' the jigsaw of hope never quite fitting together to clasp the sequence of gaps running all the way through the channel of life
Rhonda's story – let us hold that in our mind's eye.
The story of Bartimaeus – let us enter in, in order to hold that also in our mind's eye.
Bartimaeus must have become an expert interpreter of crowd noises. He would be familiar with the short, light steps of children, the heavier tread of men, the hesitant paces of old people and the sound of a woman's footsteps, sometimes clarified by a snatch of conversation or w whiff of perfume which would settle the doubt.
This day he is the first to become aware of something unusual happening.
There is excitement in the air. A large crowd is coming. Quick enquiries soon reveal the answer: it is Jesus of Nazareth. The name of Jesus had probably gone like wildfire around the communities of sick and disabled in the area. Bartimaeus knows that this is his opportunity. Indeed, such a chance might never come again.
His sight is gone but there is nothing wrong with his voice. There is no point in getting up and pushing through the crowd. He would only get pushed aside and lose his sense of direction. In the confusion, Jesus might pass by. So he stays right where he is, sitting beside the road, and begins to shout at the top of his voice, 'Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!
There is something slightly disturbing about shouting. To the orderly mind, it suggest a possible rebellion, an excess of emotion which is inappropriate.
One of my grandmothers, often said to my sister and I as we might have shouted something to one another – it is not becoming for young women to shout – tone yourselves down - we laughed.
It is something like this maybe when Bartimaeus shouts out. People try to hush him up. All around him people are telling him to shut up, but he can tell the bulk of the crowd is now almost directly opposite and he increases his volume. Over the noise of the crowd, Jesus hears his cry.
The story then continues with one of the most expressive and moving sentences in the Gospels.
The record simply says, 'Jesus stood still' (v.49).
What sensitivity, what quality of attentiveness is in that sentence.
Just as when the woman with the haemorrhage touched the fringe of his garment and the disciples were surprised that, hemmed in by the crowd and amidst the pushing and shoving, he had detected the touch which was an entreaty.
So now, above the babble and confusion, he hears the voice with its hint of desperation, 'have mercy on me.'
Jesus says, 'Call him here.' Now the attitude of the crowd changes. 'You're okay mate. He's heard you.' 'Come on, get up! He's calling for you.'
Bartimaeus springs up, throws off his cloak and many willing hands thrust him forward. The crowd parts and there is silence. Then Bartimaeus hears a voice which he knows must be the voice of Jesus, asking him a most surprising question. 'What do you want me to do for you?'
Jesus does not actively seek out blind people and offer them healing. He is not a healing evangelist of the modern type, who advertises healing as a regular part of his ministry. The truth is that Jesus would have passed by if Bartimaeus had not shouted out so loudly.
Even now, face to face, Jesus makes no assumptions about what the man wants. This shows a remarkable and gracious acceptance. Jesus does not take it for granted that the man wants his sight restored. He offers the man the dignity and independence of declaring his request.
Bartimaeus responds – 'Master, let me have my sight.' And Jesus says to him, 'Go your way; your faith has made you well.'
The words of Jesus are given fresh meaning when we think of them from the point of view of Bartimaeus. 'Go your way.' In his life as a blind person he had not been able to go his own way, but had depended upon others and had to follow in the ways that they chose. Now at last he can go on his own way. 'Immediately he regained his sight, and followed him on the way.'
The way that Bartimaeus chooses is the way of discipleship. This reminds us that the story of his healing is intended to be a symbol of parable of conversion. In becoming a disciple of Jesus, you are delivered from the ignorance and helplessness of your former life and given direction and purpose in living.
John Hull, Professor of Religious Education and Practical Theology at Birmingham University writing from his lived experience of having been sighted but now blind, puts forward the view that “this symbol expresses the sighted person's point of view. To be delivered from the restrictions of blindness into the freedom of a sighted person's point of life is one of the most desirable transformations that a sighted person could imagine. Naturally he says, blind people get caught up in this point of view.
This puts blind people into a difficult position. What are we to say in reply to the question of Jesus, “What do you want me to do for you?”
Hull recounts receiving a particular letter in 1997.
Dear Mr Hull,
There is fortunately, a type of healing that is known as divine healing. It is done by Christians laying their hands on needy and afflicted persons. There is a man by the name of Peter Scothern who has been mightily used of God I divine healing. He goes to various areas, if invited to do so, to lay his hands on needy and afflicted persons.
A person, writing on your behalf, could invite Scothern to come to Birmingham University to lay his hands on you. If you then wished this you could also have a divine healing service in Birmingham, and you could inform al the needy and afflicted in Birmingham of the coming service. The needy persons of Birmingham will be as follows; blind, semi-blind, deaf and semi-deaf, dumb, those in continuous pain, diseased (especially those with diseases what are thought to be 'incurable' in the minds of most persons), allergic, those with bronchial troubles, those with mental troubles, and those who are physically abnormal, and many others with others things wrong with them….
And so the letter went on with further detail as to how special miracle prayer cloths could also be sent to be laid on the afflicted or abnormal part of the human anatomy….
Here is Professor John Hull's reply.
Dear Mr Morris
You wrote to me recently about the healing ministry of Mr Scothern. There are a number of misunderstandings in your letter which I thought you would like me to correct.
In the first place, you describe me as being needy and afflicted. Of course, in a sense I am needy, as are all human beings. However, I am much less needy than many. God has blessed me in many ways. I have a wonderful wife and five beautiful children. Because I have been able to do useful work for my employer, the University of Birmingham, I have a secure job and am able to maintain myself at a standard of living which is higher than many in our country. As for being afflicted, it is true that I am blind. However, I do not interpret my blindness as an affliction, but as a strange, dark and mysterious gift from God. Indeed, in many ways it is a gift that I would rather not have been given and one that I would not wish my friends or children to have. Nevertheless, it is a kind of gift. I have learnt that since I have passed beyond light and darkness, the image of God rests on my blindness. No sighted person can say that he or she is beyond light and darkness and yet we are told in Psalm 139, v 12 that God is beyond light and darkness. So in that respect it seems to me that it is blind people who are in the image of God rather than sighted people. Because of their dependence upon outward appearance and their confidence of being superior, it is often sighted people who are needy and many of them could do with a dose of blindness, like Tobit, or St Paul in the Bible, to bring them a kind of humility and insight which has not come to them through sight.
I am a Christian like yourself. My Christian life has been deepened since I lost my sight. This loss has helped me to think through many of my values in living, and in a way I have learnt a greater degree of intimacy with God.
Your letter distressed me because it showed so little sensitivity to the actual condition of blind people, and no awareness at all of the emotions and beliefs of Christian blind people. You assume that everybody wants to be like you, a sighted person, and you do not recognize that people are called into various states of life, some of which they would perhaps rather not have had, but they grow in faith and realize that whether they are sighted or blind they are in the hands of a merciful God.
Thank you for your letter and I hope that that my response will help you to consider again the Christian values behind your own letter.” (47-48. In the Beginning)
O God, it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother's womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made…How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! I try to count them – they are more than the sand: I come to the end – I am still with you.
Last week Elaine Wainwright spoke of the inconvenient truth that having eternal life is not something we can put off until tomorrow, it is in our grasp today. What is inconvenient is that it means choosing to live an ethical life now.
This week we get a glimpse of the implications of that truth. James and John have just made an end run around their mates to grab power. If we can't be number one, make sure the one who is depends on us. Their power, honour and glory have to rub off somewhere. Why not on us? It's a perfectly natural desire, even if it is wiser not to own up to it. Many a preacher today will give a fine sermon about how James and John don't get it. Seeking upward mobility is not the route to eternal life.
As worthy a sermon as that would be, that isn't the sermon you get to hear.
One of the interesting ramifications of having a major shift in your theology, I am discovering, is that you don't read familiar passages in the same comfortable way. When your theology no longer has room for an external, personal God somewhere out “there”; when your view of Jesus is that he is no more or less human than ourselves; it becomes difficult to simply accept without question the Gospel's account of his words and actions. The Gospels are not an account of Jesus' life. They are the early church's interpretation and explanation of that life. They are written from the perspective of hindsight and with the benefit of untold hours of theological reflection. His followers are trying to make sense of this man who did not behave according to expected norms. They are coloured by what was happening in the Christian community at the time and the challenges they were facing trying to follow him. Like a pebble in your shoe his life kept irritating them, challenging the way they understood the world to be or at least wanted it to be. The Gospels reflect our human need to resolve uncomfortable tension by putting Jesus in a box we can make sense of. The “Son of God” box is what they used and for the next 2000 years generations of followers just accepted their work and conclusions, without doing the work for themselves in their own context.
Unfortunately their conclusions no longer make sense for me. I know this because Jesus irritates me now more than ever. It is annoying to me that at age 57 I have to re-examine my worldview. He has slipped out of his box and is raising havoc with my carefully shaped assumptions. I long for when I could just accept the traditional view that he was the instrument of a personal God cleaning up the mess we've made of things, relieving me of all responsibility except to acknowledge him as Lord. This view let me off the hook. Jesus by this interpretation is one-of-a-kind, instead of an example of what each of us is capable. There is no way I can emulate the one-of-a-kind Jesus, besides I don't have to, that Jesus has already done my work for me.
My former view let me easily slip into focusing on the differences between the one-of-a-kind Jesus and us instead of our similarities with the historical Jesus. I could look at James' and John's all too human tendency to climb over the backs of others for personal gain and go “Tsk, tsk. People like them are the problem with the world today. Just look at Bush and Blair. At least when I'm trying to shine up my CV I'm trying to make the world a better place.”
That was such a self-satisfying way to read the Gospel. But if I have to look at my capacity to be Jesus, my focus has to shift from James and John to what Jesus was about.
Today's Gospel is more likely about some power struggle happening in the infant church at the time Mark was writing it than about what Jesus really said or did on the road to Jerusalem. I suspect this because while a human Jesus certainly knew he was becoming a dangerous irritant to the authorities which did not bode well for him, he had no way of knowing what the outcome would be at this point in the story. He certainly hadn't already sent out invitations to the Last Supper to which he refers. What does come through of the human Jesus in Mark's account is that he apparently wasn't interested in proving or using earthly or heavenly power, even for his own holy purposes.
This character trait preserved in the collective memory of those who followed him and passed on to others is probably for real. It is certainly an inconvenient memory for the church to preserve as it was busy structuring itself in a hierarchical manner just like the emperor's court. If this characteristic wasn't as undeniable as it is inconvenient, it surely would have been edited out at some point. After all, power and authority would become the bread and butter of the church, justified by its godly desire to be the gateway to heaven. It's a tough job, but somebody's got to do it.
What is striking about this memory of Jesus is his not being flattered by James' and John's recognition of his being a rising star and their desire to tie their wagons to it. How abnormal. His leadership style doesn't seem to need them. Yet, don't leaders need loyal followers, parents need children, teachers need students, doctors need patients, and preachers need congregations?
Jesus' example says, apparently not. Now that's irritating.
This Jesus seems to recognise that human interaction is fraught with conflict because each of us wants our own way. But the only way any of us can achieve this outcome is if the other chooses to be or is forced to be subservient to our will. That seems to be a great solution for the one whose will is being met, but is less satisfactory for the one who has had to put their desires on hold. As we have all had times when we have not gotten our way, we know the resentment and envy this engenders. We put up with it in the hope that some day we will get to impose our will. The world says that's the way it has to be. Better that some of us get our way than none at all.
This Jesus says, “Not so.” Getting your own way isn't all it's cracked up to be. The superior one has to live with the knowledge that getting their way requires someone else giving up theirs. They need that person to recognise their superiority in order to have it. As there is always the possibility they will no longer do so or will demand that turn about is fair play, they become a threat, but a threat they need. This can lead to loathing and contempt. The superior person knows there is no difference between himself and the one he depends on to maintain his position. The natural response is to diminish the other so as to justify their place in the general order. The proof of this is everywhere. Look at how men traditionally treat women, or Pakeha often refer to Maori, or how straights denigrate gays and lesbians, or Christians portray those who believe differently. The problem with diminishing others is that we are diminished as well.
Jesus' leadership style invites us to avoid this ultimately destructive trap. By not needing others to fulfil us and define us, we no longer need to seek domination. Our power and authority come from within. They are not dependent on others. How else could the master wash his disciples' feet and not be diminished? He invites others to follow, he doesn't force them. They maintain free will and the capacity to choose. He loses nothing if they don't. He teaches those who wish to be his students, but if they don't he is no less a teacher. He offers eternal life for our sake; he does not require it for his own.
This Jesus did not create this truth. He simply lives it. Even as he is denied, rejected and executed, he is still not diminished. By the world's standards, he is hardly a sterling example of leadership. I suppose that is the most annoying thing about the man. That is why he remains for me an itch I can't quite reach. We know he's right. We all know leaders who form leaders. We all know doctors who make their patients well. We all know parents who raise their children to leave home. We all know teachers who graduate their students. I suppose the only question left is do we know any preachers who don't want their congregation to show up because they are too busy living eternal life? There is always the chance this could happen. If Jesus was capable of living this way, so are we. If next week Glynn asks where everybody is, that's my story and I'm sticking to it.
Managers are people who do things right, while leaders are people who do the right thing. [i]
Jesus, I believe, was a leader, not a manager. The gospel reading this morning gives us the opportunity to reflect upon leadership – the sort of leadership Jesus offered, and the sort of leadership we need today.
Good management is essential in any organization. People need to be heard and understood; good processes, protocols, and safety provisions need to be in place; conflict needs to be mediated and resolved; and employees and clients' hopes and expectations need to be taken seriously. Good management usually leads to increased productivity and profit. This is what many people understand to be leadership.
There is no evidence in the biblical texts that Jesus was a manager. There are no stories of him sitting down and listening to the hopes and fears of Peter; or patiently mediating in conflicts between the disciples; or emphatically caring for those who gave up their jobs and businesses to follow him. Those who posit that Jesus pastorally coached his disciples are largely arguing from what is unsaid in the texts rather than what is said. However there is no doubt in anyone's mind that Jesus lived and preached a vision, and challenged others to follow him.
I think the Church has a bad habit of trying to domesticate Jesus. It paints him as meek, mild, and obedient, a kindly shepherd always ready to listen, guard and comfort. It tries to portray him as apolitical, as if that was possible in 1st century Palestine. Similarly the Church has wanted its leaders to be meek, mild, and obedient, always ready to protect and console, and of course be apolitical. 'Servant leadership' is the term.
The Church wants to be safe. It wants leaders who will make people feel safe. It asks its leaders to faithfully adhere to the traditions and understandings of the past in the mistaken belief that repetition will bring security. It asks its leaders to care for the members. It asks its leaders to coach and equip the members in caring. And it asks its leaders to care for outsiders - but not at the cost of neglecting the members. Like a well-run club the wellbeing of members is paramount because the highest value in the Church is continuity. Is it accidental then that we appoint people into positions of authority who have highly developed managerial skills?
Jesus wouldn't have got a job in the Church, and if he had he would have turned it down. The Bible portrays him as confrontational, challenging, and disturbing. He was rude to those in authority. He disregarded the rules. He spent more time with the unfaithful than he did with the faithful. He got into heated arguments and said outlandish things. He had grandiose ideas that didn't seem to lead anywhere. He was impractical. The bottom line was: Jesus served no one but God. An employee of the club needs to serve the needs of the club.
Jesus promoted a political and spiritual vision of an upside down kingdom where the last are first and the first slaves. It is a place where the CEO's wash the feet of the unemployed. It is a place where the outsiders are in, and the insiders choose to be out. It is a place where the 99 sheep are deserted in order that the lost one is found. It is a place where the despicable find a home.
In this vision Jesus will not sit on a throne with his two trusted lieutenants beside him, sycophants serving him, and his army available in the wings. Rather it is vision where the forces of oppression will hang him on a cross, with two thieves beside him, with Roman soldiers dividing his meagre assets, and a few women wailing beneath him. Siding with outsiders made Jesus an outsider. Threatening the powerful made Jesus a threat. There is a terrible cost to ignoring safety.
James and John, and in Matthew's account their mother, didn't understand the vision or the cost. On the way to Jerusalem, the pinnacle of religious and civic power, they thought glory was coming and the fishing nets were far behind. They thought they were, with God's help, soon to overcome any opposition, then triumph and reign. And, being entrepreneurial upwardly mobile graduates of the Galilean Leadership Academy, they thought they would put their hands up first for the best jobs.
You can almost hear Jesus groan. They didn't get it. They didn't understand what triumph and glory would be. Jesus' vision had not penetrated their hearts, let alone their heads. The cost hadn't entered their equation. Neither did the other disciples get it. They were just envious that the Zebedee brothers had put their hands up first.
I'm reminded of these words: “Most of the people who mourn the passing of a national leader wouldn't know a leader if they saw one. If they had the bad luck to come across a leader, they would find out that he or she might demand something from them, and this impertinence would put an abrupt and indignant end to their wish for his or her return.” [ii]
The leadership of Jesus demanded something of the disciples, and demands something of us. It demands commitment to making his vision a reality in our lives. As Ghandi said, “We must become the change we want to see.” It demands a commitment to stand with outsiders and both criticise and seek to dismantle the structures that keep them there. When you stand with outsiders in time you become one.
Most of what is called leadership today in the Church is a blend of management and leadership. We need both. The worry is that in the order to maintain 'productivity' we will nurture risk-adverse strategies ('Keep doing the same things but just do them better!') and encourage our clergy to be managers more than they are leaders. Despite any rhetoric to the contrary the church primarily employs pastors, not prophets.
Two stories, one of good management and one of good leadership:
“An influential British politician kept pestering Disraeli for a baronetcy. The Prime Minister could not see his way to obliging the man but he managed to refuse him without hurting his feelings. He said, “I am sorry I cannot give you a baronetcy, but I can give you something better: you can tell your friends that I offered you the baronetcy and that you turned it down.” [iii]
Good management. Now for good leadership:
“Of the great Zen Master Rinzai it was said that each night the last thing he did before he went to bed was let out a great belly laugh that resounded through the corridors and was heard in every building of the monastery grounds. And the first thing he did when he woke at dawn was burst into peals of laughter so loud they woke up every monk no matter how deep his slumber.” [iv]
Good leadership. A leader defines reality - both for him/herself and for others. That's what that laugh was doing. How much laughter is there in your Church or workplace?
The word “servant” or “serving” needs to be carefully used in relation to leadership. As a friend once said, “When I see cleaners, waitresses, and rubbish collectors becoming bishops and priests I'll believe the Church has servants as leaders.” He has a point. 'Servant' has socio-political implications.
What do we mean in the Church by the word 'serving'? Does it mean that our priest should be on every committee? I would say that reflects an inability to trust others. Does it mean that our priest knows every parishioner's needs, and where possible attends to them? I think it is the vocation of every Christian to be a good neighbour and care for one another. By expecting the priest to do it we are neglecting our baptismal vocation.
I remember one vicar who for twenty years had a wonderful reputation among his parishioners. He was always there for them, always caring, always available. However in the 20 years he served that parish both his family and his health fell apart. He had succumbed to an uncritical understanding of 'servant leadership'.
Self-care is not optional. You live what you are. The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. If reality is solely your business or your Church then you have failed to understand what spirituality is and the importance of transformative love [the essence of God] permeating all of your life and relationships. I think a priest's job description should be simply “To pray Jesus' vision into being”. Period. But please don't think I mean something passive when I use the word 'pray'.
When you are, like myself, a recipient of privilege (and it is a privilege to lead) you have the obligation to use that privilege and its power wisely. This is what 'serving' is. 'Serving' doesn't mean necessarily doing the dishes. Often it is harder to make small talk with the dignitaries out front than pick up a tea towel out back. 'Serving' is about being conscious of the good fortune and grace bestowed upon you, and treating all others with grace and dignity as equals. The opposite is arrogance, which unfortunately is all too common.
The task of the Christian leader is to articulate a vision and to lead people in the transformation of society in line with that vision. Further, and intimately connected with this, is the ability to live and engender the spirituality that will sustain both the struggle and its outcome. This is how Jesus led. When he died he left others to manage. Thankfully some of them had the courage and tenacity to lead.
[i] Warren Bennis.
[ii] Lewis Lapham.
[iii] De Mello, A. The Prayer Of The Frog, Anand: Gujarat Sahitya Prakash, 1988, p.154
[iv] De Mello, A. The Prayer Of The Frog, p.172.
Eternal Life: An Inconvenient Truth
October 15, 2006
19th Sunday after Pentecost Hebrews 4:12-16 Mark 10:17-31
What must I do to inherit eternal life? … [Mark 10:17]
…There is no one who has left house or brother or sister or mother or father or children…who will not receive a hundredfold in this age…and in the age to come eternal life.
These two verses with their reference to eternal life, frame the reading of today's gospel – inheriting eternal life, in the age to come eternal life [Mark 10:30].
When we think of eternal life we imagine it in the future according to our linear view of time: past…to present…to future. In the Israel of the first century, a future reference like 'eternal life' was imaginary. In a culture, however, whose time process was cyclical rather than linear with the main focus being on the present rather than a linear long-term future, the future imaginary, “eternal life”, reflected back into the present on how one ought to live now. In other words, the reference to 'eternal life' was about ethics in the present rather than about an unknown future.
The man who questions Jesus is asking the same question which each one of us asks of ourselves time and time again: how must I live a good life? Am I living a good life? In response to the man's question, Jesus lists some of the commandments and his questioner says: I've kept all these since my youth. Let's listen for the familiar in this conversation. I suspect it is very descriptive of most of us who are generally 'good' Christians. We attend church regularly, we pray regularly, we live a 'good' life – we generally don't murder, commit adultery, steal or bear false witness, or defraud and I suspect most of us not only honour but love and care for our parents. And so like the rich young man we could very readily say: I generally live a good life [and in parentheses, I'll probably go to heaven].
The challenge in today's gospel, however, is that Jesus does not limit his invitation to the commandments. He sees the potential in this good man to take up an invitation beyond listed commandments: he looks at him and loves the potential he sees. And he invites him to examine his life carefully in a “limited good” society in which it was believed that anyone who had “many possessions” had generally obtained them fraudulently at the expense of others. Jesus even spells out what he might do to be truly and fully ethical: sell what you own and give to the poor and join the community around me - this is the way in which the future vision of “eternal life” reflects back into your present. But the man was shocked and went away sad because he had many possessions.
What is the invitation to us today? What do we have at the expense of others that could be given to/returned to them? First, as in the gospel, we can look to our material possessions. How do we live simply in a material-rich culture so that everyone has what they need to live? Or will we too go away sad because we have many possessions.
And what of time? How do we give of our time in an activity rich culture in which there is such demand to be here, to be there, to do any number of activities. How will we make time available for those in need of another? Or do we go away sad because we have and hold our time to ourselves and for ourselves?
And what of our very person? How will we give of ourselves in love, in relationship in a world that is supposedly communication rich but often connection and love poor – a world in which every moment thousands of people are texting or on mobile phones but often are lonely and sad. Do we really give of our person to others in relationships with a quality that generates love? Or do we go away sad because our giving of ourselves lacks depth?
Jesus invitation is to leave and to follow, to live the gospel as he lived it, to do the work of bringing in God's kingdom, God's transformative dream for the human community. This transformative dream is for right relationship – right relationship around material realities, right relationship around time, right relationship about our very person. Such ethical living turns our world upside down as the second part of the gospel suggests: people leave their family which was their source of relationship, of resources, of identity in the first century; Jesus pronounces the last will be first and first last; and says that a camel can go through the 'eye of the needle', the small gate into the city of Jerusalem through which only people could enter on foot. To do the extra beyond the keeping of the commandments will change our lives, will turn our world upside down.
In the movie The Devil Wears Prada, Andrea has her simple but value-rich or ethical life turned upside down when she takes a job in the fashion industry. She acquires exquisite material resources, has all her time eaten up by a demanding job so that she has no time with her family or friends, and loses her very self so that there is none of herself available to give in loving relationship. When she claims that she has no choice but to live this lifestyle, her boyfriend challenges her with the claim that everyone has choices. Andrea, like the man in today's gospel, comes to a turning point when the two lifestyles are held up before her and she has to choose – will she allow her new high-flying life to be turned upside down! Al Gore in the movie An Inconvenient Truth which I saw at the same time as The Devil Wears Prada on a very recent plane trip from San Francisco, places before the human community a much more radical ethical choice in relation to God's transformative dream. Can we, will we live in right relationship with the human and other-than-human communities of being for the survival of the very planet itself.
Today's gospel takes us, therefore, to the core of our being – what does it mean to live not just a good but a responsible and an ethical life, to allow our present life to be turned upside down. This is the challenge of the living and active word of God which goes to the very heart of our being, as the Letter to the Hebrews suggests, to the place where soul is divided from spirit, joints from marrow, places within ourselves too deep, too fine to see. It is there that we cannot escape ourselves nor the word of invitation. It is there to that hidden place within that we are invited today. We take with us to that place the invitation, the challenge of Jesus, the vision of the basileia or kingdom as God's transformative dream, the hard data and images and metaphors from our culture, and the very stuff of our day to day lives. In that quiet inner place, we cannot escape. We are naked and laid bare the Letter says and it is there that we will be invited like the man who questions Jesus, like Andrea in The Devil Wears Prada, and like the world community in An Inconvenient Truth to render an account. Impossible we are tempted to say but the gospel says no: with God all things are possible – you can live a truly ethical life and you can live it now and you can imagine the future of inheriting eternal life! With God all things are possible!
“Beware of the God” reads the bright red sign outside our church. The kennel beneath it and the subscript advertising the upcoming animal service give the sign its context. Adults and children smile as they pass by.
Our detractors also love it. “Ah,” said one chap last week grinning at the thought, “at last, a theological health warning outside St Matthew's.” He thinks visitors should be wary of the God within.
I agree with him. The God we worship here is not safe, and will not make you safe.
The late James K. Baxter was one of my spiritual mentors. As well as being among our country's foremost poets, Hemi combined his understandings of Maori and Catholic spirituality with a potent blend of compassion and justice.
One of his more difficult pieces comes from the Jerusalem Daybook:
“[God] is my peace, my terror, my joy, my sorrow… but not my security… Who is harsher than this God of ours? The God they imagine, and pray to very often in the churches, is a God of sugar compared to the terrible One who grips our living entrails… I would not advise any [person] to follow that One.”
As Hemi goes on I find myself both repelled and challenged by this image of God. I am repelled by the notion of a God who destroys, who terrorizes, who frightens, and who practices a random morality. Yet at the same time I know this is theological experience of many, not least Abraham and Jeremiah.
What challenges me is the deep Hebraic truth that God cannot be contained or tamed by our desires to have an orderly, secure, and predictable life. What Christianity often does to God is what the Governor of California in the 1970s, Ronald Reagan, tried to do to the Redwoods, namely make them into lounge furniture. That which is wild, wonderful, and free is an affront to our worst managerial instincts. It needs to be cut down, domesticated, and made into something comfortable to sit on and sip our coffee.
Proponents of Christianity throughout the ages have tried to keep God under control by creating fences out of the Bible, the Creeds, synods, clergy, hymns, and liturgies. Yet, as Baxter reminds us, they need to be aware of who and what they are dealing with. For God continually breaks out of our constructs and language - popping up in others' holy texts, speaking through social and political outcasts, refusing to favour any one race, religion, or sexual orientation, and generally being a darn nuisance to those who like decency and order. Be aware, this God is not safe.
If you want to judge a religion firstly judge how many constraints it puts upon God. Then judge the religion by its mercy. The untameable God who pushes us beyond our boundaries has always and continues to prod and shove us towards the exercise of mercy and compassion.
Jesus was a reforming Jew who rebelled against love being turned into legalism. His ministry was one of constant and unbridled compassion. This is the context of our Gospel reading today. In a society where women had few rights marriage gave them protection. Yet their husbands if they took a fancy to some other woman could divorce them at whim. Jesus' comments need to be understood as siding with the vulnerable, namely married women.
Of course we know that marriage can also be a place of violence and oppression. Nowadays the ability to divorce allows a way out. Biblical legalists however have taken Jesus' words and used them to judge those whose marriages end. Words originally meant to support the vulnerable have been turned to condemn the vulnerable.
Every religion needs to examine its beliefs to see whether they encourage adherents to be more or less merciful, more or less tolerant, and more or less compassionate. This is the touchstone of faith: does your church make you kinder? Does your church make the world a kinder place? And if it doesn't my advice is to ditch your church and go looking for God.
Kindness and compassion led St Francis of Assisi well beyond his comfort zone. There is a story told of Francis  and a savage wolf. The citizens of Gubbio were wary and frightened to venture beyond the city walls. Francis, both compelled by and trusting in God, went out alone to meet this wolf. The brute appeared. Francis made the sign of the cross and spoke, calling the beast “Brother Wolf” and telling him off for all the suffering he had caused. The wolf, having made ready to pounce, became very quiet, and in the end lay at Francis's feet. The tradition records that “[the wolf from then on] lived in the city ...and was fed by the people ...and never a dog barked at him, and the citizens grieved... at his death from old age.”
Let us note that, firstly, Francis was pushed by God to confront his fears. He ventured out, beyond where it was safe. Beware of the God. Secondly, Francis engaged with the wolf that others both feared and excluded. Risky behaviour. Thirdly, he brokered a deal that was of mutual benefit to both the wolf and the townsfolk, and built a lasting connection between them.
There was another solution available to the citizens of Gubbio: hire a hunter to kill the wolf. Time and again this has been what humans have done. Rather than befriend our fears we have killed that which has threatened us. It has led to the depletion and extinction of many animal species. It has led to many wars and generations weaned on hatred. The story of the Wolf of Gubbio, on the other hand, invites us into building relationships of trust and mutuality with those we fear.
There are similar Francis stories around poverty and sickness – like when he hugged a leper; and around enemies and Islam – like when he visited the Sultan of Babylon. Each of these stories is about Francis being pushed by God beyond the limits of safety to embrace humans or animals others were frightened of and wished to exclude or destroy.
Our actions towards animals, or towards those who are labelled as deviant or different, or towards those with little status or power, or towards those of other religions or none… is the measure of our faith. This is not an easy or comfortable faith. Frequently you will find yourself consigned to the theological dog house. By siding with outsiders you become an outsider yourself. Then beware everything changes. Ask James K. Baxter. Ask Francis. Ask Jesus. Ask God.
 Almedingen, E.M. Francis of Assisi: A portrait, The Brodley Head: London, 1967.
I'd like to ask a favour. If you are a fundamentalist who prides yourself on taking the Bible seriously, clap your hand, blink you eye and stomp your foot.
Oh, by the silence I'd guess I'm in the wrong church. Or am I?
Mark Twain once commented, “Most people are bothered by those passages of Scripture they do not understand, but the passages that bother me are those I do understand.”
Not me. I just preach on something else.
While today's Gospel can be credited with stirring the pot, it is something that happened this week that is my text for the day.
This week many of the Primates of the Global South met to consider their response to the American church's electing a woman as primate. Her gender isn't her only sin in their eyes. She supports the ordination of gays and lesbians to any office in the church just as if they were “real” Christians. Her election and the American's refusal to recant for having ordained a gay bishop earlier has brought them to call for drastic action. They have asked Canterbury to appoint a more acceptable bishop to represent those conservative American churches and dioceses who wish to disassociate themselves from The Episcopal Church, and of course, take their assets with them. This outrageous interference in the life of the American church is in effect a call for them to be thrown out of the Anglican Communion. By implication they are also calling for the ex-communication of anyone who doesn't exclude those they exclude. That would include Glynn and me, who support the direction of The Episcopal Church and any of you who agree with us.
Perhaps they are using today's Gospel as their justification. How does it feel to be an amputated foot or hand?
To date no word of rebuke has been heard from English, Canadian or New Zealand primates or bishops. The only voice of opposition to these primates is from one of their own. The South African primate has disassociated himself from the statement signed in Kigali, Nigeria. However, conservatives here and around the world are hailing their actions loudly.
While it seems only a matter of church politics, few in the world care about -- the popular press certainly hasn't mentioned it -- I face a difficult choice.
I don't know whether to be sad and angry or go dancing in the streets relieved.
I am saddened because their exclusive attitudes are magnified by the papal challenge to Islam, virtually calling for a new crusade. No matter how feeble his apology, he meant what he said. Different is wrong. Such attitudes are underlined bold in the recent story about the “Gays are cancerous” bumper stickers sent anonymously to New Zealand Presbyterians before they voted this week to prohibit those in same-sex relationships from being ministers or leaders. In less publicised words last week the Pope gave support to people like those who sent the bumper stickers. He told Ontario bishops Canada has excluded "God from the public sphere. In the name of tolerance your country has had to endure the folly of the redefinition of spouse, and in the name of freedom of choice it is confronted with the daily destruction of unborn children." Expect the same if he comes to New Zealand.
I'm angry because I'm tired. My whole ministry has been marked by listening to the voices of exclusion. I first heard their voices when they objected to letting the divorced come to communion. In America the next big issue was fighting those voices in opposition to integration, voting rights and fair housing. In the church it was those opposed to a more inclusive prayer book, girl acolytes, women priests, women bishops, ordaining gay ministers, ordaining gay ministers in committed relationships, ordaining gay bishops, and finally blessing of same-sex relationships.
After untold dialogue and debate the voices of exclusion in the church have not accepted one of those inclusive steps. You have to give them this: They are consistent.
New Zealand has a better record where inclusion is concerned. Perhaps it is because many of the people who came here were escaping the oppression of a class society. Perhaps it was their being welcomed by the Maori already here. Whatever it was it showed up early on in the Treaty's intent and later in being the first place in the world where women could vote. An inclusive attitude is reflected in our acceptance of civil unions, in the church's Three Tikanga constitution, electing the first woman bishop in the world and in issuing the most popular prayer book used in the United States. But the voices of exclusion are not silent here either. For months now clergy email inboxes have been inundated by a debate over the issues generated by the American church. Conservatives go on at length seeking to justify their exclusive tendencies by dredging up ancient church documents and early church practices to support their view of Scripture. They use disparaging names for those who value inclusiveness. They love to rant on about Glynn and places like St Matthew's, as if there is another place like St Matthew's. Frankly, they are boring. And they make it more than a little embarrassing to be an Anglican or a Christian for that matter.
Sad and angry? Yes. But I'm also delighted and relieved.
I'm dancing in the street because the global south primates would not be taking such steps if the Gospel wasn't in full bloom in some places on the globe. The back of homophobia has been broken in the US and Canada and I hope in New Zealand, the Presbyterians give me pause. Yes, there is still noisy resistance but it is more of a death rattle than a call to arms. The global south bishops and those who support them may succeed in cutting us off from their vision of the body of Christ but there will be little applause with only one hand clapping.
I'm relieved because I'm through debating. Last week Glynn gave us two models of the church, one of a house and one of a ship.
Exclusion is a house issue. Arguing about it endlessly keeps us from doing the Gospel work. Living the Gospel requires sailing with all hands aboard.
When Katharine Jefferts Schori was asked by a conservative evangelical after her election as Primate what third-world Anglican women would make of her views on homosexuality, she shot back: "I should think they would be more interested in issues of hunger, clean water supply and education for their children."
I grew up in the house. It was historic and beautiful in many ways. The solid foundation was comfortable and predictable, but house chores keep us from giving living water to the least amongst us. It keeps us from being the salt and fire the world desperately needs.
While we sweep out the house, polar ice caps melt at an alarming rate. While we dust, the people of Darfur face imminent genocide. While we take out the garbage, 30,000 children a day die of hunger and violence. While we tidy up, unimaginable numbers die of malaria and HIV/AIDS.
I'm relieved that we are being sent packing from the house. We're finally free to be who Jesus showed us we are. Now we can set sail on the good ship St Matthew's and ships like her where the captain's table is set for all, even for those offended by our very existence.
While their place is set, they will miss the boat. The lawn needs mowing. They will send their apologies, but for me, that's a relief. They have been party-poopers long enough and their manners are dreadful. Let's weigh anchor and set sail.
Crossing the Theological Threshold: The Journey from House to Ship
Matthew. Sitting at his tax booth, doing his extorting best, like the good little Roman lackey he was. Along breezes Jesus. “Hey, you, follow me!” The breeze lifts him up, picks him up, snaps the mooring ropes, and he's away.
Away to where? Well Matthew didn't have a clue. All he knew was that transformative power in Jesus had filled his sails and his heart. But he didn't know where he was bound. Neither did Jesus.
The Christian Church, like other world religions, attracts adherents by its perceived stability. In a world that seems to be constantly in flux it is a religion that has endured 2,000 years. Each week in the marketplace ideas, structures, products, and processes are hailed as 'new' and 'better', as if those two adjectives are synonymous. And each week, contra the marketplace, a number find comfort in grounding their spirituality in traditions and rites dating back centuries. With magnificent buildings made to endure, Christianity declares to the world that at least here permanence is presumed. No fickle wind, whim, or scandal is going to change the Church.
The common model for this understanding of Christianity is that of a house. Built on the 'sure foundation' of Jesus Christ, as one popular hymn attests, this house will supposedly endure forever. Grounded in the Bible and tradition this rock-solid structure will be able to withstand the storms of change and doubt.
Much of the debate within Christianity is between those who want to reinforce the foundations, strengthen the walls, and keep foreign winds and doctrines out, and those who want to open the windows and doors to the world and be prepared to change time-honoured methods and doctrines in order to do so.
Both sides are using the model of house. The critical issue is the limits of hospitality, how accommodating the Church should be. The debate about homosexual clergy and blessings, for example, is in part a debate about how open the doors of the house can be without compromising the foundations of the whole building.
God, in the house model, is at best a benevolent tolerant host who opens the gates to strangers, welcomes them and dines with them. God may take on board the strangers' suggestions about rearranging the furniture, even knocking a hole in a wall, but the basic foundations and structure will remain unchanged. For God in this model is not only the host but also in charge of the property. Order and structure, the look of permanence, remains immutable.
This is the model of Church and God that most often passes for Christianity. There are though Christians who are not comfortable with this model. They tire of the in-house debates, like the one over homosexual clergy and blessings, not because the issues are unimportant, but because the model is not true to their experience of God, faith, and community.
A building doesn't move. It isn't meant to. The model assumes that the land won't move either. It is essentially a static model, supportive of the illusion of an unchanging past and a predictable future. It assumes that any change is peripheral to community, faith, and, of course, God.
Some of these discontented Christians articulate their faith and understanding of the Church by using the model of a ship. The late Brazilian archbishop Helder Camara, for example, once wrote:
Pilgrim: when your ship, long moored in harbour, gives you the illusion of being a house; when your ship begins to put down roots in the stagnant water by the quay: put out to sea! Save your boat's journeying soul, and your own pilgrim soul, cost what it may. [i]
If one considers the Church to be more like a ship than a house then nearly everything changes. The Bible ceases to be a brick to fortify your structure or throw at your enemy, but is spiritual food for the journey. It gives energy for the challenges ahead. So does other 'food' – like the collective wisdom of world religions. The traditions of the Church are not a legal system but a guide, helping with the little tasks, teaching for example the theory of the helm but not doing the steering.
God too changes. Instead of being the gracious host and property overseer, God is the wind in one's sails and the beat in one's heart. God is a power within more than a power without, but not limited by either boundary. God is the energy of transformative love.
This wind God is more a breaker of rules than a maker of rules. It is less interested in order and structure, than in those excluded from order and structure. Change is not a threat, inconvenience, or prescription, but part of its nature. It is a God that refuses to be tamed.
The house Church and the ship Church have very different attitudes to leaks. Leaks in the Church can be thought of as the things that go wrong, the plans that don't quite work out, and the hurt people who distribute their hurt around. In a house a leak needs urgent attention. It drips on your head and can rot your walls. It needs to be repaired before your dinner guests arrive, or are even invited. In a ship, however, a leak is expected. Bilge pumps are normative. You don't stop the ship to attend to them, unless they are very serious. Leaks are part of sailing.
Yet the biggest difference between the two models of Church and God is risk. The house, even an open house, speaks of security, stability, and safety. The inhabitants know where they are, what to expect, and even whom they might meet at the door. The ship, on the other hand, is heading out into unknown waters. The familiar towns and headlands are no longer there. The good old ways become more irrelevant day by day. God, faith, and community have or will change. They will also become more essential; more connected with the essence of each person aboard.
St Matthew, long ago, boarded a ship and left the surety of his vocation, the known markers of his business, culture, religion, and God in the house of Judaism; and headed out to sea.
We bear Matthew's name. On some days we are house-focused: rightly concerned about the institution of Christianity – its squabbles, the debates over the nature of its foundations, and how open are its doors – and it consumes our thoughts and prayers. However on most days, with no disrespect to the house that nurtured us, we are out sailing.
We are looking to the horizon and the horizon is looking at us. Our website statistics tell us that nearly 4,000 new and unique visitors come to us each month. Some are looking for a house and its God; but not many. Most are looking for a different hope, a different way of Church that includes their difference, and a different way of envisioning and experiencing God. And that's what we offer. Welcome aboard.
[i] Camara, D.H. A Thousand Reasons For Living, Darton, Longman and Todd, 1981, p.40
“What does it profit a person to gain the whole universe and lose their own soul?”
When I was a teenager I spent many nights each year sleeping under the stars. There is nothing quite like falling asleep beneath an enormous canopy of twinkling lights, variously arranged, and different each evening. Being a child of modernity I knew that the blackness of the sky was not a great dome that encompassed the earth and above which a kingly God sat. I knew the blackness was all I could see of the fathomless depth beyond, where the experience we call God might or might not be. For everything that astronomy could tell us there was always more it couldn't. Yet, like the best of theology, its purpose was to ignite wonder.
As adults, wonder is not a daily experience, unless we make it so. The journey from childhood to adulthood is usually marked by a diminution of wonder. As explanations from science and history are given to the child, linking effects with causes, the moments of awe often evaporate. So while the acquisition of knowledge can be exciting there can also be the sense of loss.
Some interpret this sense of loss as a direct attack on God. Like the Pentecostal bishop in Kenya this week who wants to hide away the fossils of pre-humanity currently in the Nairobi Museum, they see knowledge as threatening religion. Yet the religion they wish to defend is the sort that can be threatened by knowledge. It is the sort that tries to give you answers instead of better questions, offering a kitset God: 'Just follow instructions and all will be well.'
What could be called the theological task of the sciences is to open the windows of the mind to all the possibility, awe, and wonder of the universe. The enormous space that astronomy opens us to elicit in many people not batten-down-the-hatches fear but mind-blowing delight.
“Honk if you love Pluto” declares the T-shirt. Not too dissimilar to the old ones promoting honking for Jesus. And, like so often happens when discussing God, the Pluto debate is up and raging. The International Astronomy Union meeting in Prague last month adopted a new definition of a planet – one that knocked Pluto out of the club.
Pluto is used to being knocked about. Living on the extremities of planetary imagination - even with the Hubble Space Telescope it is still merely a bleary sphere in shades of grey - Pluto didn't join the club until 1930. That was the year when a 24 year old American Unitarian by the name of Clyde Tombaugh mapped movement where movement had not been mapped before. A young girl from Oxfordshire suggested the name of Pluto, Roman God of the Underworld. Beyond Pluto was the abyss of unknowing. Many imagine that Pluto got its name from Mickey's dog; but not everything originates in Hollywood!
Since the 1930s Pluto has shrunk. With each advance in technology Pluto's measurements have diminished. It's now smaller than our moon. Hence the T-shirts, without the honking, that proclaim 'size doesn't matter!' and 'is a dachshund not a dog?'
What does matter to the astronomical elites is the discovery in the 1990s of other Pluto-like bodies on the edge of our telescopic vision. And not just one, or five, but hundreds, and probably thousands!
Interestingly this naming debate has spilled over into popular consciousness. The public wanted a voice. The planets mean many different things to many different people. Pluto was not just a bleary dot out in space it is something people love. It inspired and inspires myths, art, and poetry. It is part of astrology charts – 'Pluto direct' is a way of talking about transformational energy. Kids identify with Pluto's smallness. Adults relate to its marginalization ['poor oppressed planet!]. In particular those who forlornly hope that 'whatever has been will forever be' find its demotion out of the Big Nine major league of planets difficult to accept.
The pragmatists of astronomy suggest that instead of knocking Pluto out of the club that they change the rules. In other words expand the definition of planet to include not only the eight and Pluto but also Eris [formerly known as Xena] and Ceres. The purists though argue that this will open the doors to hundreds maybe millions of potential new planets. This is a debate about who can join the club, who controls who joins the club, and the fear of loosing control of the boundaries. Sounds very much like the Church to me!
In ancient times the word 'planetai', meaning wanderers, was applied to the seven heavenly bodies that moved. They couldn't see Neptune and Pluto. Also, being pre-Galileo, it was assumed the sun was one of the seven and the earth wasn't. The definition of planet was therefore not fixed but to be influenced by changes in science and thinking in the years ahead.
This is not so different from the Christian history of God. Within the pages of the Bible God progresses from being a personal deity ['the God of Abraham'], to a tribal deity ['the God of Israel'], to a deity who is pan-tribal [a God of Jews and Gentiles], to one that transcends all human constructs [the God of earth and heaven]. The location of God moves from the desert, to the Temple, to a literal realm in the sky, to the presence of the historical Jesus. Later in the early centuries of Christianity, via an intricate weaving of Greek and Hebrew thought with the experience of transformative love, God was woven into a magical carpet called Trinity. But the development of God didn't stop there, locked in the 4th century. God as 'process', as 'go-between', as 'liberator', as 'power within', as 'matrix of grace', as 'deep silence'… were all still to come.
The influence of science and philosophy on the definition and development of God is not to be underestimated. Indeed it is the interplay between experience, history, and science that has pushed at and shown as puny the easy and simplistic notions of God.
I find it interesting when language runs out. Language is a system of signs and codes that is based around the visible and tangible. When language has to be found for the invisible and intangible then we are into the realm of multiple metaphors. We say the thing we are trying to describe is something like this, but also not like that. It is also something like this, but also not like that. No one set of metaphorical clothes quite fits. In theology we surmise that such is the nature of God that no sets of clothing will ever quite fit. God is both knowable and unknowable, both here and beyond.
There are two words in theology that defy close definition. One, of course, is God. The other is soul. Soul, or 'heart' as it's sometimes called, is an attempt to talk about God in us and us in God. It blends passion, feeling, wisdom, and wholeness. A person can gain the whole world, nay the whole universe, be as rich and successful as he or she could possibly imagine, yet without attending to their soul they gain nothing. To nurture the soul, the task of spirituality, is therefore very important. All sorts of little things help – that walk in the bush, playing with the dog, listening to a child, smelling the coffee before you drink it, laughing lots… Yet answering the question of why these things help is harder. It is as if the universe is inside us and all the spinning, pulling, moving and amazing wonders need to be held together in some way.
The Pluto debate asks some deeply theological questions. Firstly, who has the right to name heavenly bodies? Secondly, what is their matter? Thirdly, does the re-naming of them matter when their matter doesn't change? Or does it? And lastly, what do we do when we reach the limits of our knowledge and speech?
Theology and astronomy have at heart the same purpose: to excite the imagination, to encourage us to wonder, and to think about that which we struggle to name and understand.
For the sake of your soul, look at the stars tonight and the dark beyond.
Messiahs Are from Mars; Syrophoenician Women Are from Venus
Every male of the species knows he's no match for a cheeky woman when she wants something and today we learn Jesus isn't either. He is clearly outfoxed by the Syrophoenician woman.
Mark places this story at the end of his account of Jesus' ministry, just before Jesus heads to his certain fate in Jerusalem. It is not a happy time for Jesus. He has essentially gone underground. He has left Israel for some peace and quiet. It is a time for reflection and reassessment.
It is hard to miss the irony that he seeks quiet in what is presently a war zone. He is in what we know as southern Lebanon where we have just witnessed Israel use superior strength and weapons to pound their enemies, the descendants of the Syrophoenician woman, into the ground, only to make them stronger than before.
He has sought some quiet because his ministry is in crisis. In fact it is in shambles. It has gone to the dogs. He is wondering where it all went wrong. At first it seemed to be going great. He was attracting good crowds. He gave some sermons that were well-received. But quickly he came up against increasing surveillance by the authorities who were nipping at his heels, there were public attempts at entrapment, and he was accused of committing capital crimes. The poor, the very target of his ministry, misunderstood him. His neighbours in Nazareth were cynical and disparaging, while his own family doubted his sanity. Saddest of all, his beloved disciples suffered from ideological blindness. No matter how much private tutoring he gave them, they just weren't getting it. He has to face up to it, despite some cracker healings and exorcisms, the kingdom had not arrived. His mission is looking more and more impossible.
While into his reverie, his private pity party perhaps, he is interrupted by a doggedly determined anxious mother. Her daughter is possessed and rumour has it that he can help. What seems to us like the normal and understandable actions of a loving mother is actually quite extraordinary in that time and place. A woman just doesn't approach a rabbi. Perhaps, horror of horrors, she even touched his feet as she kneeled in supplication. And she isn't just any woman. She is a gentile. Not just a gentile, but a pagan. Not just a pagan, but a Canaanite. She represents the people Israel as the chosen of Yahweh had vanquished from the Promised Land. Her gods had lost to their God, and just because they were all now under Roman domination, that reality had not changed. She had no claim on him. A Jewish rabbi, and certainly not one who might be the Messiah, shouldn't even acknowledge her presence. He abruptly, if not rudely, dismisses her with a proverb, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs.”
In ten years of weekly Sunday school I have only one memory of one class. It was on this Gospel and I was incensed by Jesus. In preparing this sermon I checked out what the scholars had to say about his stroppiness. There were all kinds of suggestions trying to explain away his harsh words. He was only being ironic some said. He said it with a smile and used the Greek word for puppy or pet dog to soften the words. His bark was worse than his bite. Others argue he was testing her faith. Would she persist? Still others explain that Jesus was using this as a training session for his disciples so they would know his message was for everyone, not just the so-called Chosen people. Certainly Matthew's version of the encounter validates this hypothesis. But I think Mark's version is more honest. Until this moment I think he saw his ministry as being only to the Jews. At best he thought, maybe in time it could be extended to the Gentiles.
No, I and a couple of other scholars believe he was just cranky. No getting around it. Calling someone a dog, small or otherwise, is rude. He had much more important things on his mind — like his own misery. He wasn't in the mood to be either welcoming or inclusive, nor did he have the motivation to confront his own culturally conditioned racism and sexism.
Perhaps that is what's going on with the Archbishop of Canterbury these days. Last week he said the church is welcoming but not inclusive. Seeming to contradict his previous more enlightened views on gays and lesbians in the church he argued that the church welcomes all who want to come but they have to conform to church teaching and scripture. Maybe he needs some face time with a cheeky woman too?
She certainly did Jesus a world of good.
As a mother worried about her child, she wasn't going to roll over for a self-centred bloke in a position to help because of some stupid taboos and prejudices. Nor was she going to growl menacingly at him like two alpha males might either. She was too smart for that.
This formidable woman makes herself small on behalf of her daughter. She kneels, begs; gives honour as an inferior. By her actions she is one of the least of those he's been talking about.
Her littleness though is only a posture, a negotiation, a canny playing of how he sees her but not how she knows herself to be. She uses the possibilities of either shame or honour in a verbal exchange that doubles his word back upon himself, by quoting another proverb, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs.” One would hope Jesus had the good grace to laugh at her response.
He refuses in the name of children; she accepts his refusal and links human little ones and canine little ones. Their value is in their littleness she implies. Her response allows him an honourable way out. He only has to expand his mission to include her. If he doesn't, he is shamed.
Mary didn't raise any dummies. Jesus gets it. He has been cleverly out-manoeuvred and like any smart man with his back to the wall he takes the route of honour she has provided him. He casts out the demons in her daughter. He doesn't require her to be baptised first or become a follower of Yahweh or even express belief in the kingdom he is trying to inaugurate. In fact, if he perceives any faith in her at all he doesn't mention it, as he does when justifying healing other Gentiles or unclean women. He doesn't welcome her; she just makes herself at home. He doesn't include her, she makes sure she is included, not with power but by simply sitting herself down at the heavenly banquet. She is declaring the reality of her presence not unlike women seeking their rightful place in the church today or cheeky gays who point out “I'm here, I'm queer, get used to it.”
My question is who was exorcised? Yes, the daughter was healed by Jesus, but Jesus was also healed by the Syrophoenician woman. He was brought up short. His prejudices were confronted; his tunnel vision was expanded. Not only did a healing word come from a pagan woman but a whole new approach to his ministry was revealed in her. Like any smart woman she even lets him think it's all his idea, but her influence on his future ministry is clear.
He adopts her approach when he arrives in Jerusalem. He uses Scripture in a way similar to her use of the proverb to silence the outraged priests and scribes after cleansing the Temple. He doesn't claim his authority, he lives it. Her wily ways pop up again when the Pharisees tried to entrap him into either calling for insurrection against the Romans or denying God's authority in their question about is it right to pay taxes to the emperor. I can almost hear him asking, “Now what would that cheeky Canaanite say?” Later he foils the Sadducees attempt to reveal him as a heretic by similar means.
But her ultimate influence is seen in how he approached his immanent death. He did not look or sound like a man defeated before his mission was accomplished. Thanks to her he knew the kingdom had come. Nothing could change that. It's here. Those who think otherwise need to get used to it. He is the evidence. It has broken forth in him. The God of love doesn't differentiate between us, even between him and a pagan Canaanite woman. No one is excluded from that love. Not even tradition or Scripture can change that. Jesus didn't heal her daughter to grant her God's love, but to acknowledge she already had it, no matter what the archbishops of his day said.
As one who society and the church have always invited to the table, I hope those of you who at best have only received the crumbs will not wait for people like me to include or welcome you to the table. Take a chair. You are already there. Those who would deny you do not have the authority to exclude. It's not their table. Your uninvited presence points out the obvious. God reigns. You are the Gospel. Be Cheeky. Live it with authority. We'll get used to it.
'Always wash your hands before eating' said granny, said dad, said the doctor, said I. Good common hygienic sense. A gang of critics, a religious club from down Jerusalem way, reprimanded Jesus' followers for not washing their hands. Hand washing however was not about hygiene. That's our post-Florence Nightingale thing. Hand washing was about symbolic purity.
In the Bible hand washing was something priests did in the Temple – it was not a requirement for laypeople. Yet the Pharisaic movement was trying to promote the idea that every home is like a temple and every person is like a priest. 'Holiness' they would have said, 'is not just something that happens in Jerusalem, but also something that happens right in your midst'. Not too different from some of Jesus' ideas really.
The actions of Jesus' disciples were not seen as dirty because of a lack of soap. Rather they were seen as in need of a moral scrub-up because they had been out mixing with “undesirables”. It was their social contacts that made them unclean.
This passage from Mark's gospel is about the purity code – that code of conduct that defined ethnic and religious boundaries. It determined who was in and who was out, what was acceptable and what was not, and who was in control. Before we get too hard on the Pharisaic movement (a number of whom would have had sympathies with Jesus' interpretations), let's recognize that every group has boundaries. Every group has ways of determining who's in, what's acceptable, and who's in control. Schools, pony clubs, AA, bowling clubs, and the Church all have boundaries. The critical questions are: how rigid or porous should boundaries be, do they reflect the core values of the group, and is the leadership accountable to the values?
As an aside consider for a moment baptism. This, on one level, is a boundary ritual. We are welcoming a child into our group. Should the child, or parents and godparents on the child's behalf, meet a certain doctrinal criteria to get in? Right belief is a core value for many Christians.
I take the view, however, that the core value of the Church is God's acceptance of all people regardless of belief. Belief is a byproduct of Christian community, not a gate to exclude. If someone wants to come, participate in this ritual of welcome, celebration, and blessing, then that is enough. The boundary is porous, holey.
These scriptural debates between Jesus and certain Pharisees and Scribes lead me to suspect that the latter had put purity, right belief and practice, as a core value around which their world revolved. They interpreted God's holiness as demanding an elaborate system of rules and regulations, and then vindicating the systems they created. On the other hand, Jesus interpreted God's holiness as compassion and an embrace of all, particularly those who were excluded and oppressed.
With compassion and acceptance at the core of his values Jesus got a reputation for wild dinner parties. Around the same table would sit a rural fisherman, a one-time leader of the Synagogue, a prostitute, a local bullyboy, a Roman soldier, an immigrant woman from over the border…. Jew and gentile, male and female, strange and familiar…
The purity system was constituted by external boundaries: “Don't eat with them, don't touch that, don't fraternize with her… Look out or you'll get grubby, and then you won't be able to eat with us!” Purity was about rules. Piety meant adhering to them.
For Jesus purity was constituted by what was in one's heart. If compassion was in one's heart, then piety meant being hospitable, generous, and willing to suspend one's prejudices in order to meet with strangers. For Jesus it wasn't what you put in your mouth, but what came out of it. It wasn't about keeping to the rules; it was about letting love be the measure of all you do.
It's not that Jesus was into a tolerance that says, “Everything is okay”. It is possible to find verses that infer, for example, that Jesus was opposed to the Roman occupation and unsupportive of bullying and prostitution. At the same time I don't think it is possible to categorically say that every soldier, tax collector, and prostitute Jesus dined with had renounced the morally disagreeable aspects of their professions.
In other words, at the table with Jesus the agreeable and disagreeable sat together. The sinners and saints broke bread together. The ideas, comments, and chat were not religiously sanitized. I imagine there were some pretty colourful words and some pretty novel views bandied around. The good, the bad, and the grubby were all together.
“What makes a person holy,” Jesus intonated, “is not who you mix with or what they say. What makes a person holy is being true to the God of compassion that wants to include everyone. It's the words you say and things you do that will reveal that God.”
Anglicanism at its best is into diversity but not apartheid. You can't go off into your corner, erect your security walls of right belief, and stay there. We are not the 'closeted brethren'. Like it or not you have to relate to the hetero-orthodox. You have to relate to those you find repugnant. We call it being in communion.
All of us are invited to Jesus' cosmopolitan dinner party. You are invited along with the weird, the wacky, the wonderful, the heretics, the harmful, and the harmless. And we don't sit in silence eating our own pre-packed sanitized meal. We talk, we share food, and we listen... Some have washed their hands. Some have washed their hearts. Others are dirty. Infection is possible. Purity is out the window. If you don't want to risk getting grubby don't come.
Jesus is there too. But, and this is the hard bit, he's in disguise. None of us are sure who he is. It's not like he's got a crown plastered on his head or a cross strapped to his back. Is Jesus that nice person or that disagreeable one? Is he the pain in the neck that won't shut up, or the quiet morose one sipping his merlot? Is he a she? And which she is he? Like I said, this is hard. We don't know whom he is agreeing with, if anyone. All we know is that he is there. This is what I think our new archbishop, David, was meaning when he said recently that “in any discussion the first principle is that Christ is in the room.”
The hard part of not knowing what Jesus looks like is that in our discussion and arguments around the dinner table each of us will have to find authority within ourselves. We can't turn to Jesus and seeing him or her nodding in agreement with us. There will be no external reference point, no judge or encyclopedia to determine right and wrong. On second thoughts I wonder whether any archbishop would really want that.
My punt is heaven's going to be a little like this. For some it will be hell.
August 27, 2006
Pentecost 12 John 6:51-58
Jesus said, “For my flesh is the real food; my blood is the real drink” [John 6:55]
Real food. It sounds like part of a lecture given by a diet guru. Lettuce, lentils, and legumes. Someone else's idea of what is good for us. No bacon, or burgers, or yummy pink-icing buns. Real is a loaded word. It slips out of advertisers' holsters and aims at us. To be 'real' we need to do this, dress like that, behave like them, be a 'real man' or 'real woman', and eat their 'real food'. Real can be a word of social control; controlling us.
That's why I like Garfield the cat - he of comic-strip fame; he of smart tongue, large appetite, and slothful demeanor. He is a nineties parody of the well-dressed, good-looking, and correctly behaved culture. Garfield irreverently debunks real culture. If you are what you eat, Garfield is a lasagna. He's a cardiological disaster.
Not that I think there is anything wrong in people choosing to go on a diet. I've done it myself and will, alas, probably do it again. What is wrong is someone else defining your reality, taking away your choice of deciding what is real and unreal. Garfield debunks any 'real' box that others want to slot human or furry-kind into.
When I think of real food I think of Niger, in the Sahel region of Northern Africa. We were sick, as only one can be sick in Africa! Finally we got up. We strolled and chanced to meet a family. Dad, mum, mum, kids and cuzzies... They lived in a lean-to on the side of a wall. On their two-stick fire they brewed coffee. With camel milk [acquired then and there from mummy camel], plenty of sugar, and lashings of hospitality we received some real food. Together, with few words in common, we communed and our souls were fed. Soul-to-soul.
This was real food not because of the taste or nutritional value. Neither would have scored very highly if served in a Viaduct cafe. This was not something real because it was common or unique to this family or this part of Africa. This was real simply in the subjective sense that the food was a vehicle of grace to us.
There is a story from the Hebrew Scriptures about food being a vehicle of grace. It's called “Manna in the Wilderness”. The Hebrew people were hungry and hot. Which is not surprising being in a desert. They were in the Sinai, miles from anywhere. Many longed for the days of the whip, back in Egypt, when there was some certainty about food, and some certainty about the real world of pyramid manufacturing. Now there was only the uncertainty of the desert and the rumbling in one's belly.
Then the manna fell from the night sky. Indiscriminately it fell on grumbler and grateful alike. The word manna is a pun and can be translated as “What is this?” 'This' was probably the nutritious droppings of thousands of little flying insects that ate one of the desert bushes. The manna fed the body. The travellers physically survived. Even though the manna quickly rotted, the miracle occurred fresh every morning. There was a special provision for the Sabbath to prove that the world wouldn't collapse if Yahweh, their God, took the day off.
One reality in this story was new economic principles that differed markedly from Egypt. Every family, for example, were ordered to gather just enough manna for their needs. Enough for everyone was the goal, unlike in Egypt. In God's world there is such a thing as “too much” and “too little” – something that our capitalistic economies need to be very mindful of!
Another new principle was that the manna bread should not be “stored up”. Wealth in Egypt was defined by surplus accumulation. For the Hebrews wealth was to be kept circulating through strategies of redistribution.
Another reality in this manna story was the feeding of the soul. Yahweh was meeting them in the midst of their uncertainty and on their road to freedom. Yahweh was a travelling companion who knew their needs. Yahweh was the chef who cooked up a feed. The food was heavenly - it was miraculous and plentiful. No one made a profit out of it. It was uncertain, non-marketable, and transient. For that group of desert wandering Hebrews it was real food.
It's hard to describe the miraculous. The miraculous happened in Niger and it happened in Sinai. It wasn't about a big God up in the sky doing a “suspend all natural laws” number. Yet it wasn't just a cup of camel milk coffee or solidified insect poo. It wasn't solely about hospitality or feeding the belly either. The miraculous did happen in the sense that somehow on our journeys God was encountered, soul-to-soul, and we were changed.
The debate around real is ongoing. For some people the word 'real' means objective, concrete, verifiable, and beyond doubt. For others 'real' is subjective, changing, bound up with experience and the doubting of absolutes. The political question of the debate is “Who defines and categorizes what is real?” The religious question is, “How is God real?”
One of my favourite children's stories is that of the Velveteen Rabbit. The rabbit, a ragged stuffed little animal, was made real. This didn't happen through believing the authorities in the Nursery. Nor did it happen by philosophical or theological deliberation. It didn't happen through market forces or the curtailing of the same. Instead the Velveteen Rabbit was made real by the love of a child. When you are loved it doesn't matter what you look like," says the wise old bear, "you have become real."
I think it is the experience of Christians over the last 2,000 years that God has been made real for us not because we were told to believe by “our betters”, nor by the insights of theology, philosophy, or other disciplines, but because as we have journeyed we have experienced something real touching our souls - soul-to-soul - and the closest word we have for that real is love.
The tension in the Gospel text today is between the real literal and the real metaphorical. Jesus' opponents say, "How can he give us his flesh to eat?" [v.52]. In the Aramaic tradition the "eater of the flesh" is the title of the devil - he of tail and pitchfork fame. The drinking of blood was looked on as a horrendous thing forbidden by God's law. To take this text literally invites us into some sort of cannibalistic carvery – if Jesus' flesh is real food and his blood real drink in a literal sense, then Christian Eucharist is dead meat.
The experience of Eucharist is something best understood with the heart, not the head. Its reality is found in the truth of encounter not in literal foolishness. Jesus is bread. Jesus gives himself to fellow travellers. We are bread. We too are to give ourselves in the service of justice and peace. This is what eternal life is - not some palace in the sky - but the giving to, and receiving from, others. The Jesus bread, food for the journey, is a vehicle of grace to be shared.
This is what real food can be: food by which we experience a God-imbued reality with each other. Soul-to-soul we find it together. Often in strange places, like Niger, or Sinai, or an upper room. We become real to each other and glimpse again the possibility of what the world might be.
My friend runs across the road, flagging me down. He has some lunch, and looks with utter disdain at my brown bread and bean sprout sandwich - "Hey, mate, have some real food. Got some chips and a fish. That rabbit food is bad for you man... Gee its good to see you." We sit down, open his greasies, and sprinkle some grace on top. We eat, we share, and we commune. Soul-to-soul. Its strange how in the midst of the mundane miracle can appear.
There is obvious Christic allusions in this ballad eulogizing Joe Hill, a working class hero, who was killed in 1915. Like Jesus he was concerned about injustice. Like Jesus this concern rallied the forces of wealth and might against him. Like Jesus he was killed. Like Jesus he lives on, immortalized in song and deed.
Let's imagine that Joe had been with his friends the night before he was arrested. Let's imagine that he'd taken a pint of beer and a chunk of hard tack, [ii] likened them to his body, and shared them round. And let's imagine Joe told them that every time before they go out on the picket line, every time before they stand up to injustices, every time before they fight for what is right, they are to eat and drink and remember the spirit - that is Joe's spirit, and the spirit of their forebears who struggled, and the spirit of those standing beside them.
This ritual is about re-membering, bringing together the past with the present, and the dead with the living. It is a ritual that empowers people. It focuses them on the tradition of protest of which they are a part. It focuses them on the cost of that protest. And it focuses them on the dream of life lived free of oppression, hatred, classism, and prejudice.
I don't know very much about Joe Hill. I do though know his song. And I have met his spirit and joined with it. I know a lot more about Jesus, been taught his songs, and have met and joined his spirit too. While every spirit is unique, there is a resonance between these two spirits.
Listen to one of our Eucharistic prayers:
“Here today, through bread and wine, we renew our journey with Jesus and his disciples. We renew our unity with one another, and with all those who have gone before us in this place. We renew our communion with the earth and our interwovenness with the broken ones of the world. We take bread, symbol of labour, symbol of life. We will break the bread because Christ, the source of life, was broken for the excluded, exploited and downtrodden. We take wine, symbol of blood, spilt in war and conflict, symbol too of new life. We will drink the wine because Christ, the peace of the world, overcomes violence.”
This is a call to political action. This is a call to stand with Christ on the picket lines of history – everywhere oppression is rampant, freedom is suppressed, and bread is not shared. The spiritual is political, it can be no other. This Eucharistic act re-members the past and binds it to the present in order to build the future. It is holy, and it is potent.
The biblical antecedent of Eucharist is the manna from heaven story. [iii] Manna, the food of liberation, is found not in the Big Red sheds of Egypt but in the wilderness beyond Pharaoh's control. Manna is bread that is to be shared, not stored for profit. It is bread that comes courtesy of God, not from the machinations of the market with more landing on the palates of the rich than on the plates of the poor.
It will be no great surprise to you to hear me say that it has served the interests of the ruling classes to de-politicize the Eucharist and turn it into an individualistic private act of devotion. With our sins of disobedience confessed we were to kneel and bow our heads to God, as we would to the king. We were to receive of the king's bounty and go forth quietly to live subservience lives. We dressed our bishops and priests like royalty. “Yes, m' Lord, you know best.” From Constantine on the primary political function of the Church has been to sanction, and thus sanctify, the power of the state.
As God said to Moses; 'Stop groveling and get moving. I want my people to be free. I don't want to hear about your shortcomings and guilt. I don't want you to wallow in it. Saying sorry isn't going to free my people. Decisive, confrontational, planned action is. When you act, you'll find me acting with you. Together we will walk out of slavery into freedom.'
It is no mistake that Matthew's Gospel pictures Jesus as the new Moses. It is also no mistake that Constantinian Christianity removed Jesus from the picket line, stuck a crown on his head, and plonked him in a starry heaven – as far removed from working class people as possible.
The Eucharist has also been de-politicized by debate. Is the bread and wine real flesh and blood, transubstantiation, consubstantiation, or symbolic substance? Who can receive it – divorcees, children, gays and lesbians, Buddhists and Muslims, anyone? Such disagreements still divide the Church, diminish our potency, and serve those who fear our power.
The Eucharist is marching food. Think of it as a high-protein energy bar for those communities that passionately burn for justice. It brings us individuals, all the little spluttering, erratic flames and the torches that we are, into one bonfire. Together we can light up the sky bringing hope to those in darkness.
Eating is a communal act more than an individual one. Some days as individuals we can't even amble to the clothes line let alone stand on any picket line. Yet we belong. We belong to a community that stands for justice. Newborn babes belong, folk stricken with ailments belong, the brave belong, the weak belong, and even those who don't believe can choose to belong.
For too long the high-protein power bar for the visionary Jesus movement has been reduced to a pious after-dinner mint for individual penitents. We need to recover the potency of the Eucharist. It is God's gift and it's divine. In eating we come together. In solidarity there is healing. With healing comes the ability to re-vision. With renewed vision comes the passion to plan and act. With action we live our prayers.
The Eucharist calls us to action. Not for action's sake, but for all the forsaken. It is a holy meal for the sake of the whole world.
[i] By Alfred Hayes and Earl Robinson
[ii] Hardtack is thick cracker made of flour, water, and sometimes salt.
It is late afternoon in the office. Ian and Linda are trying to be productive, Nelson and Cardy are just being bad, giving each other a hard time, laughing a lot and generally being disruptive. Linda continues against all odds to finish her task. “I'm updating the website calendar, who's preaching when?” Glynn says, “Good question.” Picking up the lectionary starts thumbing through it. “What are the worse lessons I can find to give Nelson.” I groan with my eyes rolling heavenward.
Now I know he was kidding, but he did pretty well putting it to me with today's Gospel -- not that I realised it at first.
“I am the bread of life” is a pretty familiar passage to most of us. Nice imagery. John's metaphor hearkens back to the story of manna from heaven feeding the Hebrew people in the wilderness. Our daily need for it is tattooed on our consciousness thanks to the Lord's Prayer. We hear it echoed as we are given communion, “Te taro o te ora” -- “The bread of life.”
I've preached on it many of times. I'll just go back to the barrel and see what I can rework from an old sermon.
Let's see, there is the “What have you done for me lately?” sermon. Yesterday, John tells us, Jesus fed five thousand people who had just dropped by without bringing a plate. They were impressed with how far he could stretch a couple of fish and a few loaves of bread, but that was yesterday and they are hungry again today. That sermon reminds us that we are not an easily satisfied people with our endless needs. God knows, its all about us.
Ok, what else is there in the barrel?
If I hadn't just preached on it, the grumblers in the Gospel give another opportunity to preach the prophet is without honour sermon. “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, 'I have come down from heaven'?” As you remember that sermon points out that finding the extraordinary in the everyday, common and mundane aspects of life is not our strong suit as human beings.
Then there is the history lesson sermon. I do love that sermon. It gives me a chance to be erudite and show off my theological training and it does make a good point. The Eucharist has been evolving, taking different forms and meanings, since before the Gospel writers had Jesus saying, “Do this in remembrance of me.” By the time John wrote this reflection about who Jesus was, identifying him as the main course of the heavenly banquet, Christians had been celebrating the Eucharist for about 70 years. But for most of that time it was celebrated on Friday or Saturday night as part of a potluck at their local synagogue. Instead of the traditional Jewish grace praising God for the creation that provided them the meal and thanking God for saving them in the rough patches of the past, they would remember Jesus' death and resurrection as they waited for his imminent return.
The problem with the history sermon is I can't find a way to make a discourse on how Holy Communion has subtly evolved over two millennia into a life changing moment for you today. Even the clergy listening to me would check out as soon I start talking about the theological fine points of anamnesis and epiclesis. At that point I'll only be talking to myself and I won't be sure why.
Getting near the bottom of the barrel, I find a dusty sermon on the Holy Mysteries. Hmm, that should make it a memorable morning for the congregation. I know they dragged themselves to church this morning to hear about a mystery made up of mysteries. I'm sure as you ate your Weetbix and Vogel slathered in Vegemite, you wondered if Clay was finally going to answer those nagging questions: How does bread and wine become the mystical body and blood of Jesus? What happens to us when we receive the heavenly Word made flesh into our bodies? How does it bring our souls to a supernatural life of grace that entitles us to see God on the last day and assures us that our bodies will be raised up on Judgment Day? Sounds like a sermon guaranteed to take the life out of a life-giving sacrament to me.
At this point I now know there is nothing in the barrel, I'm going to have venture out into new territory without a map. Thanks Glynn.
To help you understand the scope of my problem, I'd like to ask you to take a risk -- a small one but a risk all the same. You don't have to play if you don't want to. I'm going to ask you in a moment to raise your hand. I'm not going to try to make you look foolish, like then having you raise your other arm and shout. “Alleluia!” I want to give you an opportunity to examine your beliefs. The risk is inviting you to do it somewhat publicly. It will give you a little idea of what it is like to be up in the pulpit without leaving your pew and all you will have to do is put your arm up or take it down. If you are willing to live dangerously raise your arm now and leave it up until invited to put it down.
I appreciate your bravery. Ok, let's begin.
If you think Darwin 's theory of evolution is more reliable than the account of creation in Genesis, leave your hand up. If not, you can put it down.
OK, now if you think of God as an objective, physical being —someone like Michelangelo painted on the Sistine chapel who listens to and answers our prayers, you can put your arm down.
If you believe heaven is a physical place you can put your arm down.
If you believe that God required the sacrifice of his son so we could be saved from our sinful nature you can give your arm a rest.
If you disagree with the premise of my recent sermons that Jesus embodied love, life and being, but was still biologically just a homo sapien sapien like you and me, you can put your arm down.
If you believe that Jesus was physically resurrected to heaven you can put your hand down.
Now for those of you who still have your arms up, we admire your upper body strength, but you are clearly heretics. If that bothers you, you may put your arm down. Are you sure? This is your last chance.
OK, this sermon is particularly for you. Those of you who put your arm down earlier don't particularly need it, for there is no disconnect between your world view and the central event of Christian worship. But the rest of you have a modern secular world view and the Eucharist, as we presently celebrate it, presents some major challenges.
John and the church's view requires having a personal God. John's Jesus was the Word of that personal God who came down from a physical heaven like manna to save a corrupt human race by becoming a once and for all sacrifice to his father God. Unlike the manna in the wilderness that lasts for only a day, Jesus is eternal bread. He has no expiry date. He is eternal because after meeting the need for a blood sacrifice he overcame death and was physically resurrected back to heaven to await his return in glory. We participate in this event according to John by not just eating bread and sipping wine, but by chewing the flesh of Jesus and drinking his blood. By this act we become one with Jesus and will be taken to heaven when he returns in glory to destroy evil and establish God's realm.
Even if John was being purely metaphorical, the church became quite literal about this over time. While there would be arguments about whether the bread and wine were literally or spiritually Jesus, the rest remains the orthodox position.
None of this makes sense literally or metaphorically to a modern secular view. So what are people with a secular view doing in the church anyway?
It would probably surprise most who consider themselves orthodox that our secular society emerged from the radical notion of putting flesh on God, an idea that offended and still offends Jews and Muslims. We call this idea the Incarnation which is the focus of our Eucharist where we consume the body of God to become one with God. That is where the idea that the material secular world could be sacred began.
As long ago as 1891, Anglican theologian J.R. Illingworth was warning Christians not to regard secular thought as the enemy of Christianity. In his words, “Secular civilisation has co-operated with Christianity to produce the modern world. It is nothing less than the… counterpart of the Incarnation.”
Lloyd Geering explains the Incarnation eloquently “as the humanisation of God, the secularisation of the divine and the earthing of heaven.”
That the secular world is the offspring of the Christian west may be a shock, since it swallowed up and eliminated the idea that the world was divided into the supernatural and the natural, but in return it gave us an awe-inspiring physical universe full of mystery as revealed by the Hubble telescope. It has given us a new appreciation for the mystery of life as uncovered in the double-helix of DNA.
While the Incarnation has resulted in consigning an objective personal God to the pantheon of history, it has still left us with values we attributed to that God. Values like love, compassion and justice. We now just refer to them as human values. Modern secular Christians see Jesus as historically the fullest embodiment of those human values.
This is not as radical as it may sound. While eventually Christian orthodoxy would see only Jesus as God “enfleshed”, Paul reveals that first generation Christians saw Jesus as the new Adam. Meaning, Jesus encompassed the entire human race. Jesus gave us a new understanding of ourselves. In Paul's language, in Christ we are a new creation. All humanity is part of the incarnation of the divine.
It is this understanding that preserves the importance of the Eucharist for the secular world. It celebrates the best of our humanity as revealed by Jesus.
It reminds us daily that it is not all about us and challenges us to ask what have I done today to meet the world's continuing need for the pursuit of truth, the practice of justice and the nurture of compassion, freedom and peace.
It invites us to find divine attributes in the world and people around us and in our very selves, no matter how ordinary and mundane they may seem. We are no less ordinary than bread that sustains life.
The mystery and power of this secular Eucharist is that those of you who were left with your hands up and those of you who had put them down can still join hands to receive the bread of life and be one. It also invites those who are outside of our tradition to eat at the table for they share the human values we celebrate and nourish.
In a little while from now, when I give you bread and say “Te taro o te Ora,” I'm not only describing that which I give you, I am addressing you with honour. You are the Bread of Life for which I give thanks.
Now in case you think this is the last word on the subject, let me share with you how clever, if not devious, your Vicar is. When Glynn skewered me with this Gospel lesson, he knew that John's discussion on Jesus as the Bread of Life continues next week. He has saved the last word for himself. Don't miss it. I know I won't.
I didn't notice. Was his hand up or down at the end?
The young woman who sat in my office was soon to be married. “Glynn, I want you to know,” she said, “that I don't believe in God.” “Which God is that?” I replied. She proceeded to describe her auntie's God who kept guard of the planet, barking at moral turpitude, and biting offenders. “Sounds like a bit of a mongrel,” I said.
We all have our Gods. Indeed we all live our Gods, for better or for worse. An agnostic and atheist may think they are immune, but how they live will reveal what they believe, and to what or whom they pay homage.
I was sobered this week to read in The Observer that the huge support the militaristic faction in Israel receives from the US populace is not due so much to Jewish lobby groups but allegedly to the support of conservative American Christians whose God is cheering for the Israelis regardless of how many casualties. Their God is worshipped amidst blood and broken flesh.
The bride's auntie had had a spiritual experience. She had gone up the mountain, had her vision, and had come down to build on it. God had confronted her up there. Yet what she built down here was more a reflection of what she wanted a God to be. She built a security wall, entrenched it, and created a God who would patrol it.
In contrast I knew a lady who went to a large fundamentalist church. She liked the singing, but the rest she pretty much ignored. She hadn't met her God on a mountain. God had just wandered in through her backdoor one day, eaten the cat's food, found a warm hearth and heart, and decided to stay. Her God was a playful God. It would giggle or yawn at inopportune times. It enjoyed the antics of children, and like a puppy wanted to join in. The lady's fellow parishioners in the large church disapproved and dismissed her as being rather simple. The children though liked her and she ended up assisting in the nursery. There her God found the freedom it needed to be real.
On life's pathways I've met a number of Gods. Some are well behaved and some not. Some are on leashes, some straining at them, and some wandering free. Some Gods bring joy, healing and inspiring the best in the human community. Some Gods are frightened, trying to protect their owners from the inevitability of change. Some Gods are frightening, destroying anything seen as threat.
Rex and his God were very similar. Both preyed on people. Anybody who felt a bit insecure, who had been bruised or battered by life, anybody who didn't fit and felt it, was fair game. Gently Rex would befriend them, stroke their wounds, and get them on side. It was nice, until they wanted to leave. Then Rex got nasty. He prayed for, and preyed on. The Rex-God took over the house, and then started a church. Not infrequently I meet people with scars from where they had been bitten in that church.
Jimmy had a God that didn't need a leash because it never went out. It lived on Jimmy's sofa. Jimmy would take it and stroke from time to time, particularly when he was watching TV. When his brother died, Jimmy stoked it a lot. The God was a great comfort. It helped Jimmy to keep going. Jimmy's God never complained, barked, or bit. It demanded very little of him. Jimmy did though need to keep it looking good, grooming it fortnightly. It was a well-trained ornamental house-God.
Pete wanted a God with clout. One that was big and had connections. One that people wouldn't mess with. In other words, a reflection of how he wanted people to see him. So, up the mountain, where heaven and earth collude, and mist and mystery dwell, Pete went. He wanted a God of majesty, power and glory, and he found it. The two Hebrew heavyweights of old, Moses and Elijah, supposedly turned out in the blazing white jersey to bind with the Messianic Hope. It was glory all round. And Pete was part of it, swigging it back.
Pete wanted to build a house for this God. Like kings David and Solomon before him Pete wanted somewhere for God to be comfortable and under his control. Leader's Handbook p.343: 'To control the people first control their military, then control their God.' [Its rumoured George Bush read a copy of this handbook]. Pete, Dave, Sol, and Dubya all tried to tame the untamable and transform Her into a house-God.
As David and Solomon learnt, Gods that aren't house-Gods misbehave. They mess up well-laid plans and other expectations. Pete would learn. Majesty, power, and glory came to a sticky end. Pete's sword wasn't needed and then when it got tough he chickened out. Only the women stayed staunch. Later, much later, Pete would learn about the God-in-Jesus who broke chains, removed leashes, undid collars, and tore down fences – bringing liberty, joy, and mayhem. This was a God who had never been and never will be anyone's pet.
The bride who didn't believe in her auntie's mongrel had some questions for me. “What's your God like?” she asked. “Well, not only does it not have a leash,'” I replied, “It doesn't try to put one on me either. It's not afraid of playing, cuddling, upsetting things, or doing it differently. It is a powerful, unrestrained, transformative energy whose best name is Love.” She left my office thinking.
Theology of Accidents
July 30, 2006
A sermon Clay Nelson was invited to preach at the Auckland Unitarian Church on the subject of "universalism".
I don't know if you are surprised or not to have an Anglican priest in the pulpit this morning, but I'm surprised. No, I'm not surprised that I'm in the pulpit of a Unitarian church. It is by no means the first time. No, what surprises me is that I'm here wearing an Anglican collar.
To appreciate my surprise you need to know that when I emigrated to New Zealand from the U.S last August as a political refugee protesting the war in Iraq and the systematic destruction of the American Constitution I was one small step away from being received into fellowship as a Unitarian Universalist Minister and I had spent the last eight years administering 400+ member Unitarian Universalist congregations after 15 years of active ministry as an Episcopal priest.
When I decided to leave America, I put aside dreams of returning to the active ministry in either tradition, so that I'm here dressed as I am is purely by accident.
If I believed in predestination, I'd feel a little like the Presbyterian minister who after finishing a sermon about the graciousness of God fell down the pulpit stairs, got up, dusted himself off and prayed, “Thank God that's behind me.”
While I don't remember it being offered in seminary, I wish there had been a paper on the Theology of Accidents. It would've been invaluable as I have come to understand it as the foundation of my religious beliefs that encompass universalism, which is what I was invited here to preach on.
My premise is that accidents of faith are part of our common humanity. That we call ourselves Anglicans and Unitarians may seem to separate us, but how we denote ourselves is historical and says little about our beliefs today. Those are grounded in what I would call accidents of faith.
The idea for “accidents of faith” came out of a conversation with an Auckland University professor of Computational Biology and Informatics. That means he studies how animals and plants evolved to their present state which requires analyzing immense amount of data that can only be handled by large computers. I asked him if he only studied the past or if he attempted to predict how species might evolve? He shared that predicting evolution is the Holy Grail for scientists like him. He said, it was one thing to study what accidents in nature resulted in changes to a species, predicting what accidents might occur in the future and how they would impact a species' evolution had far too many variables to be calculated at this time.
In the language of faith we can look back easily enough to see what “accidents” in history changed religion or our personal faith, but predicting where we are going in our faith is an open book. All we can say is accidents will happen and our faith will change. This alone is a challenging premise for those who want their faith and their God to be both eternal and unchanging.
An example of the lack of predictability of how faith might evolve would be if Thomas Cranmer, the first Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury were to read my sermons and writings online, he would not recognize any kind of Anglicanism he was familiar with. He might call me a Christian Unitarian after reading my declaration that the Trinity is a dangerous doctince of God or a Christian humanist after reading my belief that the best part of Jesus was that he was just a man. Either way he would consider burning at the stake too good for me. The same is true for you. Michael Servetus, Francis Dávid, Faustus Socinius, John Biddle, Joseph Priestly or even Charles Joy, who conceived of the flaming chalice, would not recognize the beliefs of most of you as being anything close to what they meant by Unitarianism. At best they would see you as atheistic humanists in the line of John Dewey or new age pagans at worst. I suspect this because of a class I taught to Unitarians in the U.S. on the history of Unitarian Universalist thought. Most of the students were appalled at how much of their historic theology was theistic and Christ-centered.
I am an Anglican first because of the accident of birth. I was born the great-grandson and great-great grandson of Southern Baptist preachers. While growing up, my mother hated Sundays. Church was boring and an all day long affair. Her grandfather's sermons were long and tedious in their conservative fundamentalism. When it came time to marry she wanted a very different religious experience. She and my father chose to marry in an Episcopal Church, I think mostly because their services were rarely more than an hour.
The rest of my faith story is shaped by a series of accidents, one after another so that I stand before you as an Anglican priest, but Anglican not because of my beliefs but because Jesus and the Anglican tradition are a part of my story and I am a part of it.
You sit before me as Unitarians not because you would go to the flames with Servetus or die in prison with Dávid rather than acknowledge the Trinity. They are part of your faith story, but accidents of faith have shaped your present beliefs.
An ironic example of evolving faith would be that of Charles Darwin. By accident of birth Charles was born into a Unitarian and Anglican mixed marriage, but in spite of a family full of free thinkers he did not doubt the literal truth of the Bible. He studied Anglican theology to become a clergyman only after neglecting his studies to become the physician his father desired him to be. As luck would have it most naturalists at the time were Anglican clergy who apparently had the time to wander the woods studying God's creation. In his studies he became convinced by William Paley's