We’re almost there, almost to the anticipated day but tonight we pause, we have only a little longer to wait. While we do so I want to share a couple of stories with you and then I want to ask something of you … don’t worry, nothing tricky or dramatic, I want to ask something of you … but not yet.
Sunday, a week or so ago, we were gathered at the back of St Matthew’s waiting for the service to begin. The organ was playing, accompanied by the slightly muted roar of traffic for the doors of the church were open. I noticed a young girl, maybe 4, tiptoe in. Pink T shirt, long wavy hair neatly pinned back, startling big grey eyes framed by dark lashes. Looking around, wide eyed, she turned slightly and beckoned through the door. “Come in, come on,” she said. I looked out the door. Dad, clad in basketball singlet, baseball cap, lightly tattooed arms was nervously paused there, “Come on,” he beckoned his daughter, “You can’t go in there.” I smiled at him, “You can if you like. You don’t have to stay, come and have a look.” He smiled, tentatively stepped inside. “It’s OK,” I said, “It’s not a usual sort of place, she just wants to look around.” “Look, Daddy,” she said to him, reassuringly taking his hand. A moment later she again looked out the door, arm beckoning, “Come and see,” she said. This time she stepped toward the door. Looking again, I saw Mum in T shirt and shorts, distracted by the text she was sending. “Come on,” she said to her daughter, “You can’t go in there.” I said “It’s ok, she just wants to look, come in, you don’t have to stay.” Mum paused, looking at her phone. Her daughter took the initiative, stepping toward her Mum, hand outstretched she said, “Mum, come and look, it’s a castle like princesses live in, it’s real.” Mum smiled, tossed her phone into her handbag and came in. She crouched down, her daughter leaned against the chair shape of her Mum, arm draped around her shoulder, big eyes searching and looking. Her Mum put her arm around her and said quietly and instructively, “This is a church.” Princesses, castles, churches, I wonder the links that will be made in that little bright wide eyed child self.
A day or so later, while seeking a book for a 2 going on 3 year old, I stepped into the Unity children's bookstore. After perusing the enticing array for a while I decided I needed some guidance. The young woman serving was suggesting books when we were politely interrupted by a woman also buying in the shop. “I don’t mean to interrupt,” she said “I couldn’t help overhear, maybe I can help.” Soon after another older woman also began to help, an anecdotal exchange rippled through the shop, of favourite books and authors, especially Joy Cowley and Margaret Mahy. “Mind you it was such a shame that the ending of the Lion in the Meadow had to be changed to fit the US market,” the older woman commented. “Really,” I responded, “I didn’t know that, how was it changed?” The new version of the book was duly plucked from the shelf. “See in this version the mother’s with her child on the bed. The book she’s reading looks like the Lion in the Meadow, it ends ‘the lion in the meadow became a house lion and lived in the cupboard.’ It’s a very tame, tidied up happy ending. It’s dreadful,” the older woman commented. In the first version the child and mother are looking at a picture book, the child’s pointing to a lion and it ends, ‘The mother never ever made up a story again.’ The woman further quipped “You either believe in the mystery and the magic or you don’t, putting a sappy happy ending to it takes all that away. It makes it an entirely different story and no fun at all.”
A nice tied up happy ending, safe, comforting resolution. Was the change made to protect children or adults from the mysterious uncertain ending? The first version ending it seems to me is also a beginning. We’re left hanging, wondering, pondering. To figure out what we think’s meant, we have to consider the story over again, we have to get involved in the story. It’s not done for us.
Wide eyed wonder and children’s stories this Christmas Eve, with these in mind I now want to ask something of you. I want you to pause for a moment and remember back, if you can. Back before you had to become a grown up adult self, Christmas Eve magic always helps, of course! I want you to remember your ‘young, wide eyed, awestruck, wondering self.’ I want you to remember when days were long and the world was a place alive with your imagining, fantasy, fiction and real life were intermingled. When real was something to be imagined, not yet confined to the real imposed by someone else. Can you remember that young self? It is still in you.
This season we tell of angels, of young woman pregnant, birthing God, of shepherds and Magi. Tonight the Word that was in the beginning, we're told, is made flesh. Bravely, tentatively, we draw near, curious yet also cautious, disbelieving before what we don’t know. Not for certain. It feels as if we're on the brink of something, as if something's opening up in us.
Before we try to make sense of it, before we try to make it fit our world, before our credibility censor shuts us down, stop!
No, it doesn't make sense, not for certain.
We've tried to make a tidy package of the story of this season for years. Weaving different story strands from different gospels together to make a complete story. But it’s full of holes. It leaves more loose ends than tidy ones. Because the story isn't complete.
It’s risky to get involved in such a story, tangled up in the puzzle of an incomplete story that's still unfolding. It might ask something of us, it might need us. By getting involved we become part of creating the telling, the sense of the story. We become part of the story. For a story’s as dependent on its teller as a new-born is on its nurturer. How a story unfolds, is made real, depends on how it’s telling is embodied.
This story: that life has come into being. This life, that is, the light of all people, shines in the darkness, and the darkness will never overcome it.
Who is to tell this story into the darkness in our world?
Are we wide-eyed wondering enough to notice light being shown to us, insistent enough to tell others this is so, courageous enough to live so to make it real. Are we to tell of the presence of light, despite the darkness, a light that darkness cannot overcome?
Mary – brave, active, faithful, not afraid to seek help. Elizabeth – strong, welcoming, speaks her mind.
Mary and Elizabeth are our last two characters of Advent. In the bible group which met last week we noticed the difference between last week’s story about Joseph and today’s story.
Last week we read the Matthew version of the birth story and in it Mary is silent. Everything is done to her. Today Mary acts and speaks. Elizabeth is equally vocal. Joseph is not present.
We have met Elizabeth earlier in Advent with Zechariah as they learnt they would be the parents of John the Baptist.
Mary was just an ordinary girl who went to spend time with her cousin Elizabeth. Mary was escaping the shame and scandal and gossip of being an unmarried mother. She may well have been running for her life. No one was going to believe stories of angels; she did what young pregnant women have done for centuries – she got out of town!
Elizabeth would have been the object of gossip as well, being pregnant later in life and her husband Zechariah mysteriously struck mute in the process. So the two women took refuge together, supported each other.
Mary and Elizabeth would have shared their fears and hopes, they would have sewed clothes for their babies, talked about their strange experiences, encouraged each other. And Mary would have assisted Elizabeth when the time came for John to be born. The biblical version of an antenatal support group.
Woven into this very personal every day encounter of 2 pregnant woman are threads of Israel’s history – when we hear Elizabeth’s words “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb” many of us might think of the Roman Catholic prayer
Hail Mary, full of grace.
Our Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou among women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death. Amen.
The Hail Mary is of course based on Elizabeth’s words and is still prayed by millions every day. It sounds beautiful and it is beautiful.
But when Elizabeth said these words, or when Luke wrote them for her, they were referencing words found in the song of Deborah in the Book of Judges, and said of Judith in the Book of Judith (Apocrypha) . The song of Deborah (who was a prophet and judge in Israel in the 12th century BC) describes the murder of the Assyrian general Sisera by a woman, Jael. “Most blessed of women be Jael” it says, and then the song describes in grisly detail how she struck him with a tent peg and a mallet (Judges 5:24-27). The story of Judith is set in the time of the exile of the 6th century BC but is not thought to be history, rather a tale of a woman Judith held up as an example for the women of Israel to follow. She too kills her enemy (cuts off his head while he is sleeping) and is praised “O daughter you are blessed by the most High God above all women on earth”.
“Blessed are you among women” began life not as a pious prayer but as a war cry of praise of women who joined men in the battle to redeem Israel. Now Mary and Elizabeth join this line of women who bravely stood up to the oppressor. Mary’s strength also reminds us of Miriam, with Moses leading the people of Israel to safety after the crossing of the Red Sea.
The personal, intimate encounter has woven into it threads of the macro history of the people of Israel. Luke is writing politics here.
And Luke is writing politics in the next verses. Luke says when Mary discovers her part in the story of God’s coming to earth she sings. She sings words based on the ancient song of her foremother Hannah. She sings about God and God’s blessings for the poor and lowly and those who had waited for generations for God to fulfill God’s promises. Her song is a very radical piece of theology about God changing the world.
In Ein Kerem near Jerusalem there is a church built to honour the visit of Mary to Elizabeth when they were both unexpectedly pregnant with their sons. It is called the Church of the Visitation. The Magnificat, the song of Mary, which comes after the passage we read today, is reproduced there in 42 languages. Set in beautiful tiles on the wall of the courtyard of the church her words can be read by all who come.
The Voices have sung a Magnificat for us every Sunday of Advent.
My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants for ever. (Luke 1:46-55)
Mary was a girl who felt called by God to take risks, be brave, and bring a child into the world who would be God’s son. God dwelling with us, Emmanuel, the word made flesh. A child who would show us the way. At one level this is the story of an ordinary girl who had a baby. The way Luke writes it, it is the story of women claiming their place in the changing of our world forever.
So sing with Mary, sing with Elizabeth, delight in their stories and their courage and our hearts and minds will be alive with the transforming love of God this Christmas season.
 Richard Horsley The Liberation of Christmas; the infancy narratives in social context p 84 1989 Crossroad
Joseph – a solid man, an enabler, decisive but not afraid to change his mind, brave, kind, a man of faith. That is how our Bible group described Joseph as we met last week to examine today’s gospel reading.
Today we have Matthew’s version of the birth of Jesus. Gospel writers Luke and Matthew give us quite different versions of the birth stories.
They are conflated in our minds and added to liberally by carols and Christmas card scenes.
Matthew has the angel appearing to Joseph, the wise men bearing gifts, and the escape to Egypt. Luke has the angel appearing to Mary, the travel to Bethlehem, the shepherds and the angels. The two stories are quite different.
We did our best last week to stick with Matthew’s version and not bring in assumptions from Luke. We discovered in Matthew’s version that Mary is silent, and has no power; everything is done to her, not by her. Now never fear – next week we are back with Luke and we will see Mary in a different light.
But Matthew’s version is a realistic portrait of the life of a woman in first century Palestine. Women belonged to their fathers and then their husbands, and were at their complete mercy. Joseph and Mary are engaged – which means they are legally bound to each other but are not yet married, nor living together. Joseph discovers Mary is pregnant – he would have been expected to denounce her to the community and call for her death by stoning.
He chooses not to take that route and plans to dissolve the engagement – which would still leave her as an outcast, but alive.
However Joseph has a dream and an angel appears to him, telling him to take Mary as his wife.
In our discussion we appreciated that Joseph was willing to change his mind; he was willing not to listen to the prevailing world view but seek his own counsel; he was willing to risk public ridicule; all in order to follow the instructions of the angel.
We called to mind another Joseph, son of Jacob, from the book of Genesis, who was also blessed with dreams. This Joseph, was sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, ends up in Egypt and interprets the dreams of the Pharaoh, thus saving the people of Egypt from famine.
He also saves his family who are reconciled with him.
Matthew’s Joseph is told to name his son Jesus “for he will save his people from their sins” – Jesus can be said to mean “God saves”.
While Joseph might not be Jesus’ biological father he is father to him in every way – in particular he names him which is his right as father, and in biblical writing the power to name is always significant.
Joseph is resolute, he acts decisively; he acts with compassion and care; he heeds advice; he follows the call of God given to him by the angel and the words of the prophet Isaiah. Joseph is a good man.
Where do we get our guidance from?
How do we make good decisions?
How do we raise good men like Joseph?
This week there has been much discussion about violence in our community as a result of the murder of tourist Grace Millane.
The light of judgement has been shone on our very bad track record as a country in partner violence.
A major government report has also been released – it is called “Every four minutes” because there is a police or child protection notification of family violence on average every 4 minutes. That is a mind blowing figure!
The fact that 1000s of people attended the vigils on Wednesday is perhaps a sign that we are ready to take stock and bring about change.
The conversations on social media about what women can and can’t do safely are informative. The comment by many that Grace and other young women like her “should” not be travelling alone and going out alone have been soundly condemned with the reply – men should not be violent towards women.
The report states
Preventing family violence is very simple and very complicated. Day-to-day, it’s about not ignoring the way your friend’s partner behaves towards her, or not judging the disruptive kid at school and just wanting him kicked out. But it’s also about reflecting on our beliefs about relationships; who is responsible for family wellbeing in our communities; and how public and private resources should be applied. It should be simple to take note of implementation science: start with the needs of children. 
This affects every single one of us – some people sitting here today will have suffered from violence; some will have committed the sin of being violent towards someone else. We are all collectively responsible for the way our society is.
We can all be proactive – challenge things we see in our extended families and workplaces – anything from comments that belittle a woman to outright violence and control. 
The Christmas dinner table with extended family is often a place we see or hear things we avoid all year because we do not see family members. This year call it out.
Encourage our boys to be compassionate and caring; encourage our girls to be strong and confident.
When I was growing up my father worked in what was then called the Dept of Industries and Commerce, which included the overseas Trade Commissioner service. I can remember him telling me when a woman was first appointed as Trade Commissioner and when women were promoted to senior positions. I wasn’t really that interested – it just seemed like boring stuff from the office. I realised years later he was giving my sister and I role models to aspire to. He also always made a point of saying when we went on holiday – we can afford this holiday because of the salary your mother earns. Again modelling respect.
I thought of him this week as our daughter Hannah graduated with a Masters of International Trade and gained her first promotion at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He would have been so proud!
We can make a difference – from conversations at the dinner table, to conversations at work; we can act and make change; we can seek help if we need to change ourselves and don’t know how; we can offer help.
Joseph listened to the inner guidance of the Spirit. Joseph was able to change and step beyond what was “normal” for his time. He cared for Mary and nurtured Jesus. He raised a good man.
Today is the second Sunday in our season of Advent. This year we decided to pay attention to the characters in the narrative of Advent. The narrative leading us to Christmas when we say God is born with us, one of us, in human form. To look to what the characters do, what the verbs reveal to us of them. We do this together. In a time after church we gather, read the text and pay attention to the verbs listening for what it speaks to us.
Last Sunday a larger number joined the bible study verb searching session. With generous engagement we looked into the scripture. We who gathered were not all familiar to one another or necessarily to the subtleties of the English language. All of us were pretty new to this way of opening the scripture. Even so there was engagement and enthusiasm aplenty.
John the Baptist was the character of Advent we were seeking to learn more of. It was around his presence that the particular piece of Gospel had been chosen. Not all in keeping with Advent, it is true, yet all preceding the ministry of Jesus. The ending of last week’s gospel left us hanging mid drama. Somewhat in the ‘until next episode’ style of the soap opera genre thechild John we left “in the wilderness until the day he [is to] appear publicly to Israel.”
Last week we learned of Zechariah and Elizabeth and the events leading to the birth of their first child, a son. Before conception the stage is set. The appearing angel promises that the baby to be conceived, to be named John, will be filled withthe “spirit and power of Elijah.” Elijah looms pretty large in the prophet stakes in the Jewish faith narrative, so its fair bet John is likewise to be a prophet. From John’s beginning, we’re told, “the hand of the Lord was with him.” The gospel of Luke read today, exploring the character of John the baptiser, is going to be about a prophet. It is inevitably also going to be a prophetic text.
Having gathered as a whole last Sunday, we then divided into smaller groups for a time. One group was to look for nouns, one for verbs and the other for adjectives. Nouns were most numerous, then verbs, then adjectives. The process helped us see the familiar text with different eyes.
Then we came together to consider the verbs, verse by verse. This began straightforwardly enough. The first couple of verses only had a verb or two. Then it got a little trickier. Words from the prophet Isaiah entered stage left. With them arrived some challenge, a little confusion and some consternation. We had worked out what the verbs were but which verb related to whom? Were we looking for the one doing the verb or the one being told they were to do the verb? It wasn’t that one way was better than the other just that we had to be consistent.
As we mused our many voices spoke into the room, some to the group, some to each other, some to themselves. A cacophony of noise arose as we puzzled and wondered. Different things were being discovered, different voices were present. How were we to talk with, to one another? The context was new, a new group, a new way of doing things. I’m not sure we were all attending to the same task. It made me smile and reflect, nothing like chaos, confusion and competing voices when a prophet is introduced! Were we also distracted by wanting to get it “right” wanting to solve the puzzle, to have an answer? Even as we were simply seeking to discover what was uncovered, perhaps not seen before because of our preference for nouns we could nail down.
Once we’d done the best we could we stopped to look at what was before us. The first verse is stacked with the names of the powerful few. They’re full of titles Emperor Tiberius, Pontius Pilate governor of Judea, Herod ruler of Galilee, his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, Lysanias ruler of Abilene, the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas. They introduce John the baptiser and they allget just one verb, “was.” The powerful “was” on this prophetic stage.
John’s introduced, he’s more than just of his time. John of the wilderness who’s going about proclaiming a baptism of repentance isn’t just an isolated crazy man. Those collating the stories for Luke’s gospel introduce John then quickly deploy the text from Isaiah. Isaiah prophesies of a future “voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, every mountain and hill shall be made low, the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth.” It’s not spelled out but the deft positioning of this text from Isaiah hints and points, suggests and intimates so we, with Luke's community, will join the dots. John is the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy. John stands in continuity with the lineage of prophets threaded through the Jewish narrative of the Lord their God. Echoing through Malachi, the prophetic messenger comes to prepare the way. A prophetic lineage points from and to. That’s the intention. That’s the link the compiler of these stories for this Luke community wants us to make.
Malachi, then the words from Isaiah in Luke, repeats the imagery of a messenger coming, of preparation for a new way. This strand of prophetic voice, the threat and promise of a fundamental inversion of our landscape, these images are stored in me. I’ve heard them so often they’re like memories, they’re known, if mostly unexamined. The words spoken are of how things shall be. They’re not written as an invitation to participate. It’s more as if we’re being told, being warned of a fundamental rift, shift in the status quo after which things will align.
The voice crying out in the wilderness declares things are going to be other than the way they are. High places shall be levelled, deep places raised, crooked straightened, rough smoothed. The voice from the wilderness spoke this way into that day. The voice of the wilderness crying out in our day echoes same warning. The boundaries between water and land are moving, the effect of climate change, valleys will indeed be filled and hills thus levelled. Certainly we have to align ourselves differently.
Preparing the way of the Lord involves smoothing, straightening and evening out of that which disrupts, erupts, roughens or chafes. Smooth evenness precedes the way of the Lord. Surely we yearn for this, desire that which shall come to pass. Yet my enthusiasm’s a little muted as I imagine the making real of such imagery. I can’t help but wonder if it’d be a bit boring, a lovely but bland sameness landscape.Yes, I know I need to be careful not to be too literal. I confess to also have an issue with the ideal of heavenly bliss. Maybe it’s because I’m familiar with a world of discord and dissatisfaction. A world disrupted, roughened and chafed for sure. But the competing, claiming clamour of daily survival also energises and enlivens. It causes us to question, to desire to engage and participate to bring change that is life bringing. In a strange way the discord of the world generates a friction to strive against. Our world is far from an ideal evenness but in it you know you’re alive!! I wonder how much we yearn for, want to live in a world of straight, level, smoothed ideal.
Consider the crowds that come to John in today’s gospel. John’s portrayed as a loner, a somewhat rogue character, even if the hand of the Lord is with him. Today’s gospel has John haranguing the crowds. John doesn’t woo them, or bestow reassurance. “Who warned you to flee the wrath that is to come?” Even sothe crowds flock to him. What or, maybe who is it that sent them? What are the crowds restless for? Those who John accuses and convicts of their shortcomings, do they recognise something in John? Something’s stirred in them, they desire to be different, to change. To those coming, familiar with the paths of God, John warns, don’t come thinking you know how it is, don’t come thinking what you know will keep you safe. Your status as a child of Abraham is known as you fulfil your potential and promise to bear good fruit. Being a child of Abraham’s a verb not a noun, revealed through living in a way that brings God’s ways of justice and righteousness to life.We might find ourselves like warned. It’s not sufficient to rest on the laurels of religious tradition if it echoes emptily to serve its own ends.
The crowds who’ve come to repent, be turned, baptised plead, “What then should we do?” “Share,” that’s the verb given to the crowds. The verb for the tax collectors, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed” and for the soldiers, “do not extort, be satisfied with your wages.” It’s not complicated, no one’s asked to give up their day job. They’re told to be fair handed in their dealing, to be straight forward, transparent and honest. It’s as if they, like us, already know how to live rightly, righteously and equally how often we choose otherwise. Prepare for the day of the Lord, is it still to come? Might it come each time we choose to raise up one bowed down. Each time we choose to speak truth to power, relieve the isolation of those in high office and be reminded of our mutual responsibility for care. Each time we heed the cry of the wilderness, open hearts and minds to learn and willing hands to enact a way of being well together.
Elizabeth and Zechariah Speaking
December 2, 2018
Advent 1 Luke 1:5-8, 11a, 12-17, 24a, 57-60, 63-66, 80
Today is the advent of Advent. Advent in Christian context is, we say, a season of waiting, with expectation. It’s a religious season of waiting. A season in which we tell tale of God past, when God became in human form and also of future hope, when God will come again and the world will be put to right. We sort of know this, if we’ve been around a church that enacts this tradition. But how much sense have we of Advent’s point, its purpose in enabling us to journey deeper, to faithfully incarnate divine presence in this world. An ever decreasing number of people have any idea of Advent. Those of us who do, are we ever increasingly wondering as to its relevance? We’re often weary at this end of the year, has Advent become simply a forerunner to Christmas. We go through the motions as required, not really pay much attention. Advent’s a season to be got through rather than lived through.
Advent, tradition reminds us, that we live in an in between time. There’s more to the story of this creation than first appears, and we wait. While we wait what do we do? It’s fair to say our patience for waiting varies, depending on our level of anxiety, our trust in the competency of the one who’s keeping us waiting, our expectation of how long is reasonable, what we’ve got to distract ourselves in the meantime and so on. While waiting I’ve heard people say they are killing time, or wasting time or spending time. In an Advent time we say we wait with expectation for … God, I guess, God to return … from? Waiting … waiting … you know it could become habit forming. Waiting could become an identity, we the God waiting, God expecting people. A people faithfully telling of and reinventing the God who was, for our time, and holding faith for the God who is yet to be, all the while not expecting to be or see God now. I wonder, really, what we’re waiting for. Maybe, as long as we’re waiting, the onus of responsibility for God being made real in time does not fall on us, it falls onto God, who came and hasn’t jolly well bothered to return yet.
I wonder whether the time in which this story dwells, the one we tell with past and future, is not linear time at all. I wonder whether, just as Jesus declared “the kingdom of God is at hand,” the presence of God, who was and is and is to be, is at hand. Fully with us in every moment of the linear time in which we live, if we took time to notice, if we were to step into that which is.
The story of the past we tell in Advent, that culminates in the birth of Jesus, God in human form, is populated with a cast of characters. For those of us who’ve kicked around the church for a while we’ll have heard these stories many a time. We pretty much know them by rote. We know who to expect to appear, we know the part they play in the Christian narrative which centres on the miracle and marvel of Jesus, God with us, made flesh in real time. We remember who populates the story, perhaps we wonder who they were, how and where they lived, try to imagine the scenes in which they are depicted. Or perhaps we’re suspicious of the actuality of the story, did it really happen or is it a story that may not have happened this way but nevertheless is true. The role the characters assume has more symbolic significance. We have a habit of noticing, being distracted by nouns, those naming words.
When we hear nouns like Zechariah, Elizabeth, angel of the Lord, temple incense offerings, they’re not familiar to us. We have to translate them into our context so we’re distanced from the scripture before us. ”The text,” Anna Carter Florence writes “stays in its own orbit and we get to live in the ‘real world’ at a safe distance. Nouns … look good in a museum but not in our living room … “ [they] are parts of speech that allow us to isolate ourselves, draw boundaries, designate an ‘other’ and even avert our eyes as if we don’t want to look at what happens next.”  By contrast verbs are common across time and culture. We know what serving, entering, offering, appearing, seeing, terrifying, hearing, conceiving and giving birth are.
This Advent we decided to look at what the characters in the gospel text did, to pay attention to the verbs. Considering the text before us this way, looking for verbs meant we entered the text. Rather than it being something a sacred and untouchable other over there we had to take care considering, loaded with all the things we thought we already knew. Because we considered it differently it moved from being a set piece of Scripture, to an ‘alive script’ within scripture. Verse by verse we named the verbs and the character to whom the verb belonged. We discovered certain verbs gathered around each character. We also discovered we’d made assumptions about which characters were doing which thing based on our usual, expected reading of a familiar text.
There was a small cast of characters, or groups, each with a particular collection of verbs. Looking at the collection before us, we found our perception of people and of the story shifted. Elizabeth gained stature and place, there was surprise at the prominence of the crowd presence and participation, it was noticed this is a stand-alone Jewish story that doesn’t need Jesus, ‘baby John to be’ is important in his own right. John was born to Elizabeth and Zechariah but also distanced, as if he was born not for them but for the community.
Elizabeth began without stature, not fruitful according to the religious rubric of her community. Yet she is chosen to bring to birth the one who will restore and rebirth the life of her religious community. Zechariah of priestly stature is silenced, it is Elizabeth who names, not in keeping with tradition, the one who will bring, renew life and hope in the community. After Elizabeth has spoken to name this new thing Zechariah regains his voice.
Elizabeth was known as barren, Zechariah as priest in a world where angel encounters were possible because of a community, the people of which they were a part. The community gave them identity. They were made persons in being part of a people, in this instance a people of God, a Jewish people of God. This story has integrity in that community, in the Jewish narrative of God presence. Zechariah, Elizabeth, John are full part players in that narrative. We make them bit part players with role to serve our story, the one we claim completes, fulfils, perhaps even supplants the Jewish story. John is a prophet sent to turn, recall the people of Israel to the Lord their God, he is not simply a preamble, a forerunner to Jesus. John, Elizabeth and Zechariah have stature without Jesus.
We paused to look for the verbs in the Gospel passage from scripture we read today. We listened for what caught attention, was noticed on that day and to ponder together. Today I speak, and inevitably interpret, some of what the people gathered heard on that day. The process undid some assumptions, gained space for new understanding and an appreciation not so much of who was present in the drama of the script but how they were present. We listened for the script from scripture for us, as mentioned one of the things that caught attention was the integrity of this as a Jewish story. We’ve taken this story and make it Christian. We use to serve the needs of our story. In so doing have we come to colonize it, dominate it with our story? Such small piece of scripture is readily lost in the bigger narrative we insist it serves. By pausing to listen, paying attention to what was before us, it regained some integrity. We gained from this story life and deeper meaning and learned we could shift to accommodate it with its integrity.
I wonder how many people, contexts, voices, stories, situations we filter, silence, discount, exclude or perhaps manipulate to fit our unexamined story to serve our end or that of a dominating Christian story. In so doing, do we diminish the integrity of a unique speaking into life of divine presence that may be just what we, our church, our world needs?
We tell this Advent story with claim of the inherent potential of life that renews and enlivens because of a community who gives us identity. We don’t bestow this identity on ourselves. We need reminding that the One creating, enlivening, sustaining the world, imbues our uniqueness as gift not just for us but for the world. The blessing of fruitfulness, of being God bearers in the world is for the world.
This Advent, how about we look out for the verbs, notice the verbs we choose to live by. How about we kill, waste, spend some time paying attention to what is before us in each moment. Notice what surprises us, what disturbs us in each encounter. Let’s not switch into automatic Advent mode. Reminisce about a story past and pipe dream hope for divine rescue in some future, all the while refusing our responsibility to notice divine presence with us, to participate in being divine presence born in every moment. Let’s seek in each moment, perhaps with expectation, to discern the potential for burgeoning divine fruitfulness in the unlikely and unexpected, in Wilf’s king of the road character, in those deemed unfruitful, in those silenced. This Advent let us pause to listen and turn, realign ourselves with divine desire for the flourishing of life.
 Anna Carter Florence Rehearsing Scripture: Discovering God’s Word in Community Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. ; Grand Rapids 2018, 18
I have to own I am not a fan of readings such as the gospel this morning that comes from what is often referred to as Mark's ‘little apocalypse’.
I think that is because it reminds me of my teenage years walking up Queen St when is seemed every corner had its ‘end time’ preacher proclaiming the end of the world, reminding passers by how little time we had left to repent and prepare to meet our maker!
On reflection, it seems our world of today is in an even more dire situation than it was then!
Now days it is not just hearsay, we have experienced for ourselves fires and floods and stones tumbling down, we have heard and have seen videos of famine and homelessness, of mass migration and vitriolic posturing by world leaders and religious leaders warning of dreadful things and urging division and discrimination and self-protection – all the things that Christian fundamentalists such as the old street preachers told us signaled the end of the world. I found it very scary when young then dismissed it as 'crackpot' when an all knowing teenager!
Amongst Biblical scholars there is discussion as to whether this apocalyptic style portion of the gospel we know as Mark was written by the same writer who compiled the rest of the gospel or if it is instead a later insert. That doesn’t matter to me, as I’ve mentioned before, my discipline is to address readings head on and not skirt around the ones I don’t like!
So how can we address this reading today, small portion though it is of what is a chapter, seemingly, about the end of the world as it was known.
Context makes all the difference! And knowing something about the context of Mark's time helps us understand the gospel and be provoked to think about these verses in relation to our own time.
We’ve heard how the time of Jesus, and the years following his death, was one of turmoil and oppression for the people of Judaea. How there had been numerous uprisings and revolts responded to by the Roman governors by bringing in thousands of soldiers to keep a lid on things. The religious leaders, based in the glorious gold and marble and fine-wood Temple, were accused by the people of being in cahoots with the governor and his soldiers. Consequently they were not loved and not respected by the general population who were finding life more and more difficult as a result of the heavy taxes, and the diversion of food to feed all the soldiers and the Roman administration – to say nothing of temple taxes and strict purity laws. Thousands of protestors and ‘revolutionaries’ were crucified during this time and the preceding decades, including Jesus, for their preaching and teaching against this Roman oppression and the Temple collusion.
So, what if we take a lesson from other parts of the gospel, in particular the parables, and turn the whole account on its head?
What if, instead of hearing it as a warning of the end times and perseverating fearfully and resignedly on that aspect, we hear it as an account included in the gospel to bring comfort and hope, a call to get ready for action, for change?
Is this possible do you think?
· Certainly life and hope is what I want to preach, not death and despair; not passivity and helplessness;
· Certainly life and hope is what I believe the sweep of biblical teaching offers – notwithstanding the difficult passages of judgment and death.
· Certainly life and hope is what we seem to need in our own time of despair and world turmoil and predictions of a heating planet and daily news of increasing selfishness and evidence of despair.
· Certainly we need good-news in our time as Marks contemporaries needed good-news in theirs.
The writer of Mark seems to be convinced that things were just about as bad as they could get.
Then comes the Son of Man, a child of the people, their representative, in all the glory of a redeemed, liberated future.
If we are watching out for a child of the people today, for those who offer us a caution or a message of hopeful change, if we are prepared to engage openly with others who may be different from us; if we are willing to listen to their message and reflect on its capacity to benefit the earth and earth creatures such as us; if we are willing to cast our lot with this Son of Man and resist all that destroys and dehumanises and divides … then things will change for our communities and our world too. Hope and life will be sustained; life will be restored from impending death; resurrection will come to the earth and its creatures; we will find community and a just and peaceful future together.
We have just concluded Living Wage Week, you will have seen the billboard and its message. Overcoming systems that have produced the wealth gap that divides our increasingly unequal society is one practical way life and hope can be restored to a significant number of families and people struggling for fair pay for the work they do. Your support is necessary if this movement is going to bring the change it is working for. So watch and listen for those who are in places and can make decisions to pay people a wage sufficient to live on – be that in your own work place or in local government or central government, ensure those who provide services for you pay a living wage to their staff.
Keep your ears open for how we can support a sustainable environment … public transport to reduce fossil fuel emissions; reducing the amount of meat you eat; refusing plastic bags; if you have space try growing lettuce and tomatoes; planting trees instead of cutting them down and nurturing our green spaces, our bees and our birds; supporting however you can those people who are doing what you can't do yourself but would like to be able to.
Pray – bring into focused attention the changes you live for and the people whose lives matter to you.
As Advent approaches and we are challenged to 'read the signs' of the times and to be the change we pray for, I encourage you not to be overwhelmed by the size of the task – the stones of our temples of finance and inequality, despair and disregard for a sustainable future, certainly do look huge, but, our imagination, our faith, our story of hope and of life from death – our capacity to bring about change when we work together is even bigger.
We were called into a community of hope and struggle, those who will be baptised this morning are joining our ranks, and together we will move into a future bringing hope and redemption with us.
November 4, 2018
All Saints' Day Isaiah 25:6-9 Psalm 24 Revelation 21:1-6 John 11:32-44
“There is a Celtic saying that heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in the thin places that distance is even smaller … poet Sharlande Sledge gives this description.
‘Thin places, the Celts call this space,
Both seen and unseen,
Where the door between the world
And the next is cracked open for a moment
And the light is not all on the other side.’” 
All Saints’ Day is a “thin place” day. A day when we feel we can reach through the barrier of time and space and touch our loved ones whom we see no more.
If we come today remembering someone who has died recently our sorrow might be acute – and that is ok. If we remember someone whom we lost long ago our sorrow will return – and that is ok. Or maybe we are pleased to have a moment to focus and to remember. And so we are not so much sorrowful as hopeful or peaceful, and that is ok.
I have been spending time the last couple of weeks discovering the stories of people whom I didn’t know but who were known by this church, this space.
I have been researching the 51 soldiers memorialized on our walls (and the three whose names were left off). We walk past their names every time we walk into church, usually without a second thought. Every now
and then a poppy is placed on the memorial and we know someone has stopped to remember.
Next Sunday is Armistice Day, 100 years since the end of World War One; and so in preparation I have been researching and finding myself in one of those thin places. When the memorial was dedicated on 27 February 1921 the bishop of Auckland, Bishop Averill said: “We know that those brave heroes are not lying in scattered graves, but that they form a part of that encompassing crowd of witnesses who have passed from death to life and under the leadership of the Great Captain, are leading a fuller and higher existence.” 
The “crowd of witnesses” is a phrase from St Paul that we use on All Saints Day to think of ourselves joining with the “saints”. St Paul said we are all “saints” not just the super holy, super perfect ones.
Also at the dedication of the memorial the Governor General, Lord Jellico said “that the call of arms was obeyed by the glorious dead whose memory was perpetuated by the memorial. They had answered the call of duty to God, to the King, to the Empire, and themselves.” 
How strange that language sounds to us today. History has taught us the futility and waste of World War One – the trenches, the massacre at Gallipoli.
18, 277 deaths from our population of just over one million. Everyone knew someone who had died. So no wonder there are 51 names listed in our church.
The Vestry at the time decided “That marble tablets be erected in the church containing the names of all from St Matthew’s Parish who have fallen, irrespective of denomination and that the names of others who have been associated in any way with St Matthew’s be also incorporated.” 
Even in 1920 St Matthew’s was a place for all – to be willing to name anyone of any denomination was a bit radical for those days.
The vicar at the time was William Gillam – he took leave from the parish and did three tours of duty. When he first left to serve in 1915 the parish threw a big party and showered him with gifts . He served on the hospital ship Maheno at Gallipoli and returned to a hero’s welcome. When he left again in 1916 he asked that there be no farewell. He had seen by then the horrors of tending to the wounded and performing countless burials. He returned much diminished and unwell and never regained his full strength. His son Floyd was killed and is remembered on our memorial.
Rev Gillam retired in 1919 and when he died in 1929 his ashes were placed in the pillar by the consecration stone – there is a plaque there to him.
How often do we hear the comment that the returning soldiers never wished to speak of the war; families only discovered, often after their death, diaries or letters recounting the full tragedy and horrors suffered. How hard it must have been for them to marry up the official language of serving king, empire and God with the sheer agony of what they were asked to do. The disconnect would have been unbearable. And so they did not speak.
Would they be pleased I wonder that we remember them 100 years later?
Would they be pleased that we want to reach through the barrier of time and touch their stories? I am sure they would ask us what have we learnt, what do we do differently 100 years on? And we would have to confess the wars that have been waged and the lack of peace and justice in our world.
The passage that we read from the Book of Revelation today would have been one that Rev Gillam and his fellow chaplains read at funerals or to comfort the dying:
“the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.” (Rev 21:3-4).
Did it help them I wonder? Did they understand that God was on no side in the war but with the suffering and the pain and yearning for it to be over?
Does this passage help us?
Can we hear that God is not in some far away place but here “among mortals”; here in our joys and in our sorrows.
The Book of Revelation was written at a time of suffering and persecution for the early Christians so the words are not sweet words designed to cheer people up; they are real words, burnished with suffering that is very real.
‘Thin places, the Celts call this space,
Both seen and unseen,
Where the door between the world
And the next is cracked open for a moment
And the light is not all on the other side.’ 
The light is not all on the other side; the light is here, where God is present among mortals, dwelling with us, wiping tears from our eyes.
Today we hear from the gospel of Mark of the encounter between Bartimaeus and the Jerusalem bound Jesus. Bartimaeus is blind, on the side of the road, literally sidelined. Upon hearing that the noise and fuss around him is because the person of Jesus is passing Bartimaeus cries out to be seen and heard. The crowd try to silence him, but Bartimaeus cries out even more loudly, insisting on being heard. Blind, a beggar of invisible status and no particular account calls out. Jesus hears, he stops, calls this blind, made invisible man to him and asks him what he wants. Bartimaeus doesn’t say “heal me,” rather he says “let me see.” It’s as if Bartimaeus already knows he has the capacity to see. Jesus listens, sees Bartimaeus, and speaks “trust/faith,” step into that which you already know, your capacity to see clearly and Bartimaeus’ is able to see again. Seeing clearly a world enlivened and imbued with divine presence Bartimaeus chooses to follow Jesus, to walk in way aligned to this knowing.
Just two chapters earlier in Mark there was another story of Jesus healing a blind man. You may’ve missed it, given the way the gospel is broken up in the lectionary. That time a blind man was brought to Jesus by companions, not speaking, Jesus led him away from the crowd. Using saliva upon the man’s eyes, he can see, but only in part, so Jesus lays his hands upon him and he sees clearly. This man is sent home, instructed to avoid the village.
Between these two healings of blindness Mark has Jerusalem bound Jesus declare to his disciples on three occasions that he’s to be betrayed, killed and will rise again. Following ‘the way,’ Jesus explains, will require sacrifice of things that lend humans reassurance, sense of surety, security and continuity. Familial ties, financial security (rich young man) and societal status (sons of Zebedee). What’s more living this way claims only in God do humans really know and understand who they are, to be whole and to flourish requires a first allegiance to God, a commitment to being and doing, to living in a particular way that takes priority over any other allegiance. To commit to live and act this way defies the authority of those wielding power and control in the world and will lead to persecution and suffering. The promise is that life lived trusting in God brings wholeness, healing and fulfilment into the world.
But living this way of God is not as simple or straightforward as it first appears. The first blind man saw ‘but not clearly’ until Jesus hands were laid on him, healed away from crowds and privately dismissed. Seeing clearly what following this way entails is not yet ready or able to be perceived. Despite first impressions, just who Jesus is, is not immediately clear, much less the cost of committing yourself to this Jesus way. After Jesus’ difficult teaching, of his impending death, the cost of discipleship, the inverted values of the way, just before Jesus enters Jerusalem, the second, immediate restoration of sight takes place, in midst of, in fact interrupting the movement of the crowd. Trusting in Jesus, his capacity to see is affirmed and sight restored Bartimaeus chooses for this Jesus way.
We can see a structure take shape as we consider a slightly extended section of Mark’s gospel. Symbolism emerges that adds depth and meaning to our hearing of Mark’s unfolding telling of Jesus life and journey. It is lovely, isn't it, nice to get a bit clearer idea of things … but it’s not exactly life threatening, doesn’t confront us such that we’reknocked off our perch, dislodged from our usual, caused to question who we are, how we live, made to want to change. Sure the gospel seems to be telling us that following this Jesus way will have serious implications for life. Require much more of us than a simplistic declaration of faith in Jesus, which hardly causes us to break stride of our usual patterns and expectations of life. But does it really?
There’s good news, isn’t there, that you share over a nice cuppa of your favourite brew. Then there's GOOD NEWS that disrupts the inherent complacency of such settled world. I wonder if in our settled world the good news, that gospel sense one, has become tamed, part of our familiar and comfortable world. One we can keep spinning pretty much as we wish, modulating our exposure to that which discomforts and unsettles us.
Does living good news this way mean we come to sideline and silence disruptive unsettling voices that cry out to be heard? Whether human voice, that of our natural world, or our inner yearning for wholeness. For the wild gospel good news, wouldn’t it be dangerous in the hands of the unlikely, the unwashed, they might want a place at our table of plenty, we might have to live with enough and not too much. What's more they might upend our world, disrupt our tidy ordering of things, open our eyes to see a world patterned by divine delight that is untidy and disordered and inconvenient. Heaven forbid, they might even teach us of divine presence, of how to live the Jesus way, that trusting our broken incompleteness to God brings healing and restoration.
I want to share with you a real life story, strictly speaking it’s not a Jesus story but then again. I’d gone to an Emporium not far from where I live, searching for that “I’m not sure what I’m looking for but I’ll know when I find it” elusive thing. In the shop, other than the woman at the counter, there was just one other couple, she was in a wheelchair, quite physically disabled, and with her a chap, he may have been her partner, a family member, I’m not sure. While I was sifting through things the couple went to the front of the shop and engaged in conversation with the woman behind the counter. I suspect they knew each other as the woman from the shop was enquiring as to how the wheelchair bound woman was as she’d had a bad cold/flu. With a still hacking cough and stumbling sentences it became clear things were not much improved. After a while they drifted off out of the shop, but were soon followed by another guy, wearing Rastafarian striped shorts and a woolly jumper, a few strips of Rastafarian coloured design threaded through his long, partially dreadlocked hair. This chap was enquiring as to how the son of the woman serving was enjoying his new job. It appeared the son had switched from one car dealership to another and was now much happier, “What did they do that made him so unhappy?” the chap asked, “It’s not appropriate for me to answer that” the woman tactfully responded, then ensued a conversation about the virtues of the cars from one dealership over against the other.
I left the shop at that point … still looking, as happens half an hour or so later I returned. The woman in the shop was now in conversation with another man I’d guess in his 50’s or 60’s, somewhat shabbily attired. The conversation seemed to be around a woman who must at times frequent the shop, he was explaining how the woman was a friend but not a girlfriend – that she needed to understand this, she was a bit needy for his liking. The woman in the shop was explaining how the not girlfriend friend was probably just lonely, then followed a largely one way conversation about the merits of the Jaguar as a car and how his neighbour had one and all the things it could do, the woman mumbled periodically in return. By this stage I’d found something of what I wanted so went to the counter, the woman was looking a little tired and a bit frazzled, I made comment about the interesting nature of her clientele that afternoon. Exhaling, she commented, “I don’t know what’s going on, today they’ve all come out. Were you here when that last chap was here with his girlfriend?” “No” I responded, “Well … she said, “That was interesting.” “I left when the chap with threaded hair was here,” “Oh, she said “Well in between time the guy with Asperger’s was in, he’s rearranged and tidied all my ribbons again, I can never find where things are by the time he finishes.”
I couldn’t help but reflect what an amazing, if unrecognised, world of belonging she was providing for all these people who don’t quite fit. I doubt when she goes home that she considers those conversations, the refuge created by her willingness to engage with the silenced, sidelines, ill-fitting people of our community as the work she did that day. This woman lives out an amazing ministry though I doubt she understands herself or what she does in this way. Seeing them as persons in their own right, with complicated and convoluted ways of negotiating life, by hearing and stopping and listening and asking she gains them the stature of personhood. Clearing for them a place to stand, permissioning them a world to walk in, a way to walk, for their uniqueness to have voice.
In her meeting them, was she as God presence for them, was this drawn out of her by their need. It gave me pause to think, I wonder what we would say should the living God ask us what we want, maybe we would speak of our brokenness, our desire to know ourselves whole, maybe it is there in our incompleteness that God is closest to us. It’s hard, I think, in our context to live a radical, wild and untamed gospel life. Yet I wonder how many times we hear and stop for, listen and ask of the need of another, how often we minister to/with, not looking, not expecting, not realising how through us God is made present in the world.
When our sons were young they played a game called “shotgun” whenever we went out in the car. The person who got to the passenger door first and said “shotgun “got to sit in the front passenger seat. I was bewildered why would they wish to sit in the most dangerous seat in the vehicle and more importantly why would they want to sit next to me, the most tense driver you can possibly imagine. Nevertheless each time we went out shotgun was played, no matter how many times I explained the negative side of winning this game.
While reading today’s verses from Mark this memory came to mind. Jesus and the twelve disciples are on their way to Jerusalem and Jesus was trying to prepare the disciples for what lay ahead of them when they arrived in Jerusalem. This was the third occasion that Jesus had predicted his trial, suffering, death and resurrection. They were not listening or at least not comprehending what he is trying to teach them.
Jesus’ ministry has been one of boundary breaking: challenging the Empire, the religious purity system and the patriarchal family system. Jesus’s ministry through actions of inclusiveness to those on the margins and his vision of “God’s empire” was totally different to the world they lived in and there would be a consequence for that. The Empire and religious ruling class could not allow this subversive behaviour to continue and Jesus was aware of what would be happening to him in Jerusalem.
He was a radical, nonviolent egalitarian who associated with those on the outside of society, those who had no power or recognition in the social structure of the day.
James and John sons of Zebedee the fisherman who Jesus calls “Sons of Thunder”. They are zealous and hot headed, they ask Jesus in Luke to rain down heavenly fire on a Samaritan village that refuses Jesus its hospitality. Their request was not out of left field they had faith in Jesus believed in him and his message and wanted to support him. Their request was not unusual nor was the reaction of the other ten. The request of James and John brings to light our natural desires to be approved of and rewarded in worldly terms.
Tom Bissell in his book “Apostle” suggests that Jesus’ reply to their request, “The cup that I drink you will drink”, appears to be predicting that the Zebedee brothers will die as martyrs. There is an early tradition that John, like his brother James was martyred. However what happened to James and John in reality is lost to history.
Following James and John’s request Jesus goes into an explanation about the leadership style of the Gentiles and his style of servant lead leadership. I found an article that talks of nine common leadership styles including: transformational, transactional, autocratic, bureaucratic, charismatic, laissez-faire and servant leadership. I have certainly experienced a number of the above in my own working career and have always found the autocratic and bureaucratic style a demotivating practice as opposed to transformational or servant lead environments.
Currently worldwide we have some very autocratic leaders such the President of the United States Donald Trump or the leader of Russia Vladimir Putin to names just two both have sections of their societies struggling to survive while they appear to live lives not dissimilar to the Emperors of Rome who Jesus was challenging and was crucified for.
We have a world in climatic crisis with one of the most powerful leaders determined that this crisis doesn’t exist. Famine is being experience in the Middle East due to the ongoing conflicts in this area. We have a world crying out for a leadership style that offers caring, compassion and social justice.
The Markan scholar Chad Myers says of the Gospel of Mark: This story is by, about, and for those committed to God’s work of justice, compassion and liberation in the world. The gospel of Mark is accepted by most biblical scholars has being written around 70CE. This was during a period of violence in Israel the Roman Empire had destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem and persecuted anyone who was opposed to their imperialism. The followers of Jesus where in disarray, who would lead them now may have been a constant question among these survivors. Was this gospel from Mark for them! Mark’s Jesus was not suggesting that the leadership would be transferred from the top down. He was not handing out the privileged positions like an emperor or patriarch would. Mark is saying that leadership belongs to those who learn and follow the way of non-violent subversion, and who are prepared not to dominate but to serve and suffer as Jesus.
I would like to share with you an example of servant lead leadership that I was part of four very short weeks ago.
The Auckland City Mission after nearly forty years moved from 140 Hobson St to 23 Union St a move that we had all anticipated with dread. However it was such a smooth transition not a break in any of our services with the exception of the Calder Health Centre that did close for two days and moving a medical practice is no mean feat. In the weeks preceding the move our deacon Wilf Holt personified diakonoshe worked like a slave! Wilf wasn’t the only one, from the City Missioner down to our client committee everyone worked together to move the Mission. The hours worked by everyone were amazing and the spirit of positivity was astounding, a spirit of aroha abounded. The planning was meticulous we had instructions for packing and labelling boxes and each team had a timetable to work within all the while still supporting our clients. On Friday the 21stof September we served our last evening meal at Drop In (140 Hobson St) and on Saturday the 22ndwe opened our new Haeata at 23 Union St.
Our leaders worked as servants more often slaves. I am not sure that Chris Farrelly or Helen Robinson ever went home in that last week. There is a delightful picture of Helen cleaning the City Mission’s iconic sign after it had been taken of the Prince of Wales before its relocation to 23 Union St. This is an image epitomising the style of leadership that Jesus was talking about.
In our new location our practice of service has also changed and has been greeted with respect and we have been able to offer dignity with our service which our old building and work practice precluded. There have been little teething problems nevertheless they are not insurmountable and the Mission is busier than ever at our new site.
Jesus brought a radically new kind of leadership into the world. Everywhere he went, he sought out the lost, the forgotten, the ignored, the shunned, the broken, and those most in need.
Servant leadership is unselfish, not concerned with what we can get out of it, but solely concerned with how someone else can be lifted up. Many servant leaders never make the headlines, but they make a difference in people’s lives.
Jesus’ call to servanthood as leadership is offered to each of us as disciples of Christ.
Our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters are familiar with the phrase which begins a confession – “Forgive me for I have sinned; it has been – however many – weeks since my last confession.”
Well it has been 12 weeks since my last sermon and so my penance is that the week I am back in the pulpit I have to wrestle with “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God. Go sell what you have, give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.”
There is some divine humour in there somewhere. I have no desire whatsoever to give up what I have. And I am pretty sure you don’t want to either.
Our readings today can either leave us feel pretty beaten up – with Amos who seems to shout “I know how many are your transgressions and how great are your sins” – or the readings leave us feeling guilty and sad like the man who encounters Jesus and chooses not to follow him – or annoyed like Peter “we have left everything and followed you” – we have done our bit, surely, we are here aren’t we?
Many writers and preachers have tried over the years to soften this passage – maybe it is not about literally giving away all your possessions, maybe it is about our attitude to our possessions. There have been theories about the camel – some have claimed there was a literal gate in the walls of Jerusalem where the camels had to be unloaded to get through; and because they kneel to be unloaded it was symbolic of prayer. But as one writer says “In the end, this story is untamable. … it resists simple explanations and denies loopholes, making us so uncomfortable that we are liable to talk circles around it in hope of stumbling upon a basis for softening its message.” 
So I will try not to talk circles around it, nor soften its message in keeping with the writer of the letter to the Hebrews who says “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of our heart.” (Heb 4:12-16) Are we ready to be pierced by the Word?
As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?"
Inherit? eternal life. Our unnamed man is using the language of his world – the language of the rich and the entitled who inherit what is their due. In Jesus day, and indeed in OT times, to be rich meant that God has blessed you. We find its parallels in today’s so called “prosperity” gospel where preachers claim the same heresy of wealth equating to God’s blessing. So this man feels blessed by God already – now he just wants to be sure he will have that for all eternity.
Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?
Jesus is having none of the man’s compliments: Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. But since you ask You know the commandments: 'You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’
Jesus lists 5 of the 10 commandments (Exodus 20); but he changes one of them – the 10th commandment is “You shall not covet your neighbour’s house” – meaning you shall not be envious or jealous, or desire to have what your neighbour has but be satisfied with what is yours. But Jesus changes covet to “defraud” – the Greek can translate as to defraud or make destitute; so Jesus is directly challenging and accusing the man of becoming wealthy by dishonest means or at the very least by the exploitation of others. And that was the way of things in Jesus day – you didn’t get rich on your own – using slave labour or indentured peasant labour was the way to be wealthy.
Without a pause the man says "Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth."
Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, "You lack one thing; go , sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me."When the man heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
This man is the only person in Mark’s gospel not to agree to follow Jesus when asked.
Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, "How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!"
Jesus looked at the man, looked at his audience – the word ‘look’ here means, looked at intently or deeply; looked in the eye; considered – Jesus looks us in the eye, considers our situation, assesses it.
How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!
No wriggle room at all.
It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.
And we say with the audience – well what hope is there for anyone?
They were greatly astounded and said to one another, "Then who can be saved?"
Peter began to say to him, "Look, we have left everything and followed you."
I’m with Peter – the disciples have left everything – their businesses, their fishing boats, their homes, their families – surely that is enough?
Up till now we have probably been assuming that when Jesus talks about entering the kingdom of God he means where we go when we die, or life after death, as the man’s question was about inheriting eternal life. But Jesus’ answers are about the kingdom of God, the reign of God, the realm of God which is about the here and now. Jesus often says – the kingdom of God is at hand, or has come near (Mark 1:15). He is talking about life now -
Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age – houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions – and in the age to come eternal life.
The age to come part is an afterthought – Jesus says the people will be rewarded now.
And they will receive houses and families – the Jesus revolution was about people’s economic wellbeing as well as their spiritual wellbeing. Those two things were not separated out like we do today. And Jesus has a lot more to say about money and possessions than he ever does on prayer or believing. 
So what do we do with this teaching that pierces us?
Do we go home and on Monday morning sell all we have? We could.
That would be a personal, individual response.
Or we could think about the community, the kingdom Jesus promises is at hand.
And then we would work together to bring more economic justice to our world.
There are things we can do
pay the living wage to people we employ
encourage businesses we deal with to the pay the living wage
support initiatives like the one the government announced this week where loan companies will be controlled to stop debt being able to spiral out of control
support the City Mission and Lifewise in their Housing First programme
I know some of you volunteer at the City Mission; at Citizens Advice Bureaus and in other ways support those in need
get involved politically to hold our Council and Government to account on their promises to improve the lives of those living in poverty
we know that climate change is the greatest threat to the lives of the poor worldwide, so maybe we don’t grizzle about taxes on our petrol and drive less instead
and of course we can always give more, to the City Mission, to other charities we support, to our church.
This story is in the end still untamable; there is no wriggle room: Jesus looks at us, loves us, and asks us to believe that with God all things are possible.
Even the prophet Amos says that if we hate evil and love good, and establish justice; it may be that the Lord will be gracious to us.
There’s a famous saying attributed to St Francis doubtless familiar to many of you, “Preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.” It lends a certain irony to preaching on St Francis day. I was genuinely tempted to stop there and invite you to reflect in silence for a time on the ways that you preach the gospel without words and then speak, yes use words, to share your reflection with your neighbour. I thought it an interesting way to recall ourselves to the simplicity of the way of St Francis. However I’m not quite sure it would fulfil my brief.
St Francis day falls in the liturgical calendar just after September the month set aside to celebrate the season of creation. That time when we turned to face climate change, the effects of which are transforming the world from the one we know and love, to one we’ll hardly recognise – happening we speak. Climate change – the leading cause for concern for every social issue we as church have sought to address and relieve. The poor, the powerless, the disenfranchised are paying, with their lives and livelihoods, the price of a world we’re disfiguring, outcome of our misuse, our overuse of creation.
Into such context we step St Francis, a man who came to choose a life of radical simplicity and poverty. Obedient to a simple rule “To follow the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ and to walk in his footsteps,” Francis soon had followers wanting to walk this way and early on he sought papal approval for what was to become a religious order. Francis’ way of life was not alluring, yet even today his person and way profoundly influences. People from all walks of life are still drawn to follow Francis’ example, to enact simplicity, to live more attuned to the life of creation.“Probably no one in history,” Encyclopaedia Britannica suggests, “has set out as seriously as did Francis to imitate the life of Christ and to carry out so literally Christ’s work in Christ’s own way. This is the key to the character and spirit of St. Francis, [it] helps explain his veneration for the Eucharistand respect for the priests who handled the elements of the communion sacrament.”
Radical poverty, simple living, obedience to the institution of the church, centrality of the Eucharist, a man who saw visions and was obedient to the divine directive perceived in them. Francis embodied simple dependence, trust in a creation construed in such a way that, as he aligned himself with the way of Jesus, would provide for him. Francis way brought life, he enlived a way of divine priority for creation. Accounts from Francis life especially remembered and loved, are those of his communing with nature, of his relational engagement with the natural world, as genuine to him as his human encounters. Perhaps Francis lived within the real world where humans understand their interdependence in the living and breathing organism that is this planet earth, delicately suspended, finely tuned to spin around a sun, part of a galaxy within galaxies.
Did Francis know the science of this? Of course not, not in the way we might assert as superior now. But knowing more doesn’t mean we’re made wiser, more able to live aligned with the world as it is. Knowing more might rather lead us to isolate ourselves from the living world around us. Tempt us to create our own imaginary worlds with their own priorities. Then for us to sustain them we take what want, when we want, as we see we’ve need, even if it puts us at odds with, perhaps even threatens to destroy the world that gives us life. You see we forget we can’t continue to have and take at will without repercussion.
Francis chose to emulate the way of Jesus. A way we know led inevitably and inexorably to death. To live aligned with divine priority, with intention to release life, to stand and speak against ways of being and doing that enact injustice, destroy potential for life and full personhood is dangerous. For such living reveals how powers and principalities retain their sway with vested interest in perpetuating systems that deny life flourishing. What’s more Francis’ life reveals that fullness of life is experienced in living simply and openly. Ignoble as the means of Jesus death may have been, the way the story is told, Jesus death was one of noble and, albeit written back, divine purpose. Through death comes life. Through this particular death, result of insisting with integrity for a life bringing way of living, comes trail and tale of abundant and ending of the power of death life.
I want to take a chance here and wonder whether this way of death-leading-to-life isactually the way and shape of creation. Divinely intended creation coming into being – this is the way things are. Each of us, an intended creation, is invited to step into our uniqueness, to align ourselves with the life of this world – to bring our life for the flourishing of life in this world. Death, dying, which is for us all, releases potentiality beyond what has been known for the life of the world. This pattern and way of regeneration is the DNA of this divinely being created world.
Let me illustrate with a story from real life. Once, not so long ago, in a land far away, yet no so far from us, a revolution took place. It wasn’t a revolution with war. It was a revolution of change, it became known as the Industrial Revolution.
Its’ success required more energy than that produced by fossil fuels, it required electricity. And electricity needs, or did back then, wires, copper wires and miles of it. For 50 years, Jim Antal tells us, one mine produced a third of the copper the US needed and a sixth of the copper the rest of the world needed. However in the 1940s the price of copper plummeted and traditional mining became unprofitable.
Come 1955, though, a new form of mining, open-pit mining, emerged when the top of a mountain was blown off just outside Butte in Montana. The Berkeley Pit was formed in this place. It soon became the largest mine of its type until it was closed on Earth Day in 1982 – it was no longer profitable.
Closed for mining it may have been but there was a problem with the pit. It was filling with rain, snow and groundwater. No one was paying for the operation of the pumps so a lake began to form. Not just any old lake but a lake that was a dangerous brew of acid and metals from the ore that had been mined: copper, cadmium, arsenic, among others. Nothing could grow there. Life wasn’t possible. The lake kept growing until its volume made it one of the largest lakes in the US.
Then one stormy, wintry night in 1992 a flock of snow geese, over 300 of them, landed on the lake. For snow geese in a snowstorm it was an obvious place to land, to slake their thirst, to rest so to find food in the morning. But there was nothing normal about this lake and morning never came. During the night locals heard lots of honking but by dawn the geese were silent. The first to arrive at the edge of the pit saw acres of floating lifeless bodies. You see long before the geese landed, the lake had been deemed a Superfund site – land in the US contaminated by hazardous waste and identified by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a candidate for cleanup because it poses a risk to human health and/or the environment.
Then one day, a man carrying a stick with some green slime on it, came into the lab of two biochemists at the University of Montana. He’d retrieved the stick from the lake. The professors were shocked. The slime was alive, having adapted to the life-cancelling conditions of the lake. They called it an extremophile – a kind of life no had ever seen before.
Not long after that, these same biochemists came across a small pile of black slime – yeast actually – with some very special properties. You see, previously few organisms had been found that actually consumed metals. By way of example say you put algae in a beaker of pit water … algae consumes 10-15 percent of the metals in the water. But put this new, black, slimy yeast in and 85–95 percent of the metals are absorbed!
The professors knew of nothing like this so they contacted their colleagues around the world to find out if this yeast was known to exist anywhere else. Finally a vet got back to them. The one place they could find the yeast, he told them, was in the gastrointestinal track of the snow geese.
The 342 snow geese that had died … had left a gift behind. A common yeast from their intestines had not only defied death in the acid bath – the yeast had actually thrived! Using the snow geese’s gift, the scientists could help life return to one of the most lifeless places on Earth. These … geese, Jim Antal writes, had taken into themselves the very worst that humanity had to offer and in dying had returned to humanity something that might actually restore the most forsaken and wounded corner of God’s creation.” 
Does such rationalisation make this story any easier to bear? Perhaps not, but might it suggest the DNA of creation is for life. The biochemists became famous for uncovering an extremophile and revealing the life restoring properties of this yeast. Even as the life forms they uncovered and revealed were already present in creation. Is it too far a step to imagine from such discovery, of the miraculous restoration of life from lifelessness, that it is of the nature of creation, inherent to creation to heal, to evolve so to restore wholeness and regenerate life. I wonder, if we’ve eyes to see, ears to hear, hearts and minds open to receive, that solutions to restore that which we’re destroying may already exist. Unbeknown as yet to us regeneration may already be happening, may even be realisable but not if we insist on imposing unsustainable expectations for life on the life of this planet. Francis lived simply, present to his world, openhearted in his care and concern for all of life in creation, aware of his interdependent place within God’s good, life bringing and evolving creation. Now is the time for us to relearn we have place, yes, we do have a place, as interdependent beings in, as part of this divinely breathed into life organism of creation and we need to take our part for its’ flourishing, for us to have future.
 Jim Antal Climate Church, Climate World: how people of faith must work for change Lanham: Rowland & Littlefield 2018, 37-39