Today’s gospel seems hard to proclaim as good news. We often times want difficult texts such as this to be excluded. Or at least the hard, uncompromisingly inhumane detail edited a bit so it’s not so confronting. And yet, sadly, the hard bits we read continue to be made real in the life of our world. If God is with us, as we say, that means in all of life. Please don’t hear me say God is with us, as in on our side or on the side of those who use such title to justify perpetrating such inhumanity. Rather I mean God’s not just about the good bits but is present, in, to all of creation, in, to all humanity enacts.
In today’s gospel we hear Matthew’s continuing narrative of the early life of Jesus. Mary and Joseph flee Egypt and the wrath of Herod, a wrath that results in the terrible massacre of innocent children. Later we hear, Joseph’s urged to enter Israel. For political reasons however they settle instead in Nazareth in the area of Galilee. All this, according to Matthew, in order to fulfil the prophetic predictions about the coming Messiah made by and for the Jewish people.
Joseph and Mary, we hear, protect and nurture the fledgling life of God in the world. They need to provide a safe environment for this life to grow in strength and mature – for it is precarious and vulnerable to the powers of the world. We don’t live in a context where the shadow of persecution or threat of death for our faith looms. And yet to live as a person of faith, especially overtly, can be a vulnerable experience. The smallness of difference our faith seems to make in the face of a world that largely speaking doesn’t hold a vision of a world where each person is equally valued or that our greatest potential comes to fruition as we allow ourselves to be transformed by God.
As today’s gospel illustrates our experience is not new. Those who have power and influence in our societies dominate at the cost of others and will use any means to retain control. And yet … they die just as did Herod and their influence passes. None of us live just to ourselves but understand we act and have purpose in continuity with what has been. How we contribute to and become part of what has been determines what gets perpetuated. For those who do and have lived mainly to benefit themselves, who’ve misused and abused power to secure their place, few, if any will perpetuate their influence and story. By contrast the Christmas story that declares ‘God is with us’ is a story of hope and light in and for the life of the world. As we speak, act and live as people of hope, as bearers of light, revealing God as present in the world, as this birth story tells, this story will be perpetuated.
Jesus birth is framed by Matthew to threaten Herod’s power, seen in Herod ordering the massacre of innocent children. What threat did Jesus pose? We could construe that it related to the Magi telling of a new King being born, but really, with the humble start Jesus had, was this likely? Perhaps the threat lay in his alternate vision, that there is another viable way to live with one another, not trading with the same currency of domination. A way that disempowers simply by not giving power to the systems, people and structures that determine that the strongest dominate by misusing and abusing the rights and dignity of each person.
Such threat is more than theory for bullets are used to kill those who work for fairer, more just societies – the Benazir Bhutto’s, the Martin Luther King’s, the Ghandi’s – to silence those who stand against, who speak against evident injustices. Those who refuse to take up the cudgels, to engage the weapons of destruction against which they speak, for doing so would deny their alternative vision. Their silenced voices however echo in the hearts and minds of people throughout the world, echo a deep truth in their and our hearts that in our humanity we’re not so far from one another, that what separates and divides us is of our own making and not intrinsic to our existence. The echo soon fades however and we step away, seeing only our separating differences.
This is the way of incarnation to which we join, our voices joining with the voice of others through time that sound that heart echo common to our humanity. Let me finish with this story of incarnation told by Athanasius in the 4thcentury, it’s been slightly adapted and expanded by Brian McLaren.
“Once upon a time there was a good and kind king who had a great kingdom with many cities. In one distant city, some people took advantage of the freedom the king gave them and started doing evil. They profited by their evil and began to fear the king would interfere and throw them in jail. Eventually these rebels seethed with hatred for the king. They convinced the city that everyone would be better off without the king, and the city declared its independence from the kingdom.
But soon, with everyone doing whatever they wanted, disorder reigned in the city. There was violence, hatred, lying, oppression, murder, rape, slavery and fear. The king thought: What should I do? If I take my army and conquer the city by force, the people will fight against me, and I’ll have to kill so many of them, and the rest will only submit through fear or intimidation, which will make them hate me and all I stand for even more. How does that help them – to be either dead or imprisoned or secretly seething with rage? But if I leave them alone, they’ll destroy each other, and it breaks my heart to think of the pain they’re causing and experiencing.
So the king did something very surprising. He took off his robes and dressed in the rags of a homeless wanderer. Incognito, he entered the city and began living in a vacant lot near a garbage dump. He took up a trade – fixing broken pottery and furniture. Whenever people came to him, his kindness and goodness and fairness and respect were so striking that they would linger just to be in his presence. They would tell him their fears and questions, and ask his advice. He told them that the rebels had fooled them, and that the true king had a better way to live, which he exemplified and taught. One by one, then two by two and then by hundreds, people began to have confidence in him and live in his way.
Their influence spread to others, and the movement grew and grew until the whole city regretted its rebellion and wanted to return to the kingdom again. But, ashamed of their horrible mistake, they were afraid to approach the king, believing he would certainly destroy them for their rebellion. But the king-in-disguise told them the good news: he was himself the king, and he loved them. He held nothing against them, and he welcomed them back into his kingdom, having accomplished by a gentle, subtle presence what never could have been accomplished through brute force.” 
 Brian D. McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy, (Zondervan; Grand Rapids), 2004, 64, 65.
Why do we come to church in the dark tonight? Why this night and not other nights? What is it about Christmas that means we want to be here at midnight to usher in the day? Maybe coming to church in the dark seems more magical: the candlelight; the joy of being with friends and family. The sense of expectation is heightened.
Maybe there is something too about claiming the darkness. We heard in our gospel reading tonight:
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
John, the gospel writer, proclaims with confidence that light shines and cannot be overcome.
I don’t think I was ever really afraid of the dark as a child, but lots of children are. We are cautious even as adults of walking alone in the dark.
We have security lights and street lights to help us feel secure. In apartment buildings and hotels the lights in the corridors never go out.
In the city the lights never go out. If you want to see some stars you need to get far away from the lights of the city.
Tonight we embrace the dark. We have lit the Christ candle on the Advent wreath, where we have been lighting one candle a week in a countdown to Christmas. Each of the purple candles represents a week of Advent and each candle has a meaning attached to it. The first one is for hope, the second for peace, the third for joy, and the fourth for love. Advent themes that lead us into Christmas. The candles bring light and the darkness does not overcome them. Hope, peace, joy and love are not overcome by the darkness.
In Aotearoa 2019 was a year when we felt like we could perhaps be overcome by darkness. The Christchurch Mosque shootings; the measles epidemic which we exported to Samoa; the Whakaari White Island eruptions. And that is without the world events of unstable politics and of course climate change.
Isaiah promised that God would comfort God’s people (52:9) – the people who had been in exile and were returning to their homeland. John promises light in the darkness.
And we saw plenty of light this year – the way communities responded and came together; the way our leaders were able to express the mood of the nation. But if you are someone who lost a loved one in Chch or if you are sitting at the bedside of a burns victim, if you are a doctor or nurse treating that burns patient; the darkness will be feeling pretty overwhelming right now. Simply turning the lights up; more street lights, more security lighting, more candles, does not bring about change.
What we need is a different kind of light.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
Thousands of years before John wrote these words, storytellers passing down the story of creation from the memories of their foremothers and forefathers, had said the same thing. “In the beginning God said “let there be light” and there was light. And God saw the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness.” (Gen 1:4-5). Many creation stories from the cultures of the world speak of the coming of light as essential to the beginning of life. Like our own story of Rangi and Papatuanuku, the sky and the earth must separate to allow light in and to bring forth life.
John’s poem or hymn of the coming of the Word begins in the same place: with light. The light is literally light that shines, like a candle or the sun.
The word “phos” in Greek can also mean understanding, enlightenment or truth. Biblical writers always use words with multiple meanings to encourage us to peel off the layers and wander about in their writing.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
Understanding shines in places of ignorance, and the darkness has not seized it.
So tonight in the dark we seek light and we seek understanding, or wisdom.
And this light is not just a light as bright as the sun to blind us and banish the darkness. Instead it lives alongside the darkness – like night and day, which were both declared good.
Barbara Brown Taylor, an American writer, has a book called Learning to Walk in the Dark and in it she recounts being taken to a cave by a friend so she could experience real darkness. In one cave before turning her headlamp off she spots a sparkly stone full of light and keeps it as a souvenir. When she gets home and takes it out of her bag it looks like a piece of gravel.  She says “I have learned things in the dark that I could never have learned in the light, things that have saved my life over and over again, so that there is really only one logical conclusion. I need darkness as much as I need light.” 
We don’t want life to be hard, we don’t want suffering for ourselves or others but we know too that from “dark” times in our lives can come learning and strength and hope. To bring about change in amongst the darkness of the white supremacy ideology which led to the Christchurch massacre requires spending time acknowledging that the ideology exists.
It requires us to spend time in the darkness so we can find out how peoples and governments can work together to eradicate this evil and the racism which is part of the ideology.
Moslem leaders are telling us that hatred is rising not falling.
We can’t magically fix these problems even on this the most magical of nights. Rather with the strength of the light within, we can together listen and work and bring about change. And with the strength of the light within we can bring the comfort Isaiah promised to those in grief or physical pain.
Jesus’ journey into our world began in the same way as each of us; in the darkness of the womb. There is an early church tradition that Jesus was born in a cave – which is entirely possible if the house the family stayed in was built against a hill and so the section for the animals was a cave.
He was born into the quietness and darkness of a humble home with a family and animals around. 
His life journey ended in the darkness of a tomb, also a cave.
Then light broke into the darkness, the light of new life, or resurrection.
And so we gather tonight in the dark, the dark of a womb,
the dark of a cave, the dark of the night, the dark of creation waiting for first light.
This darkness is good as God created it, and safe.
We know there is much in the world that is not safe, much in the world that is sad and wrong and evil.
And so we come this night to seek the light,
the light that was created at the beginning of time;
and the light that was born that first Christmas night
The light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
 Chapter 6 “Entering the Stone” Learning to Walk in the Dark 2014 Harper Collins
 Ibid p 5
 Kenneth Bailey Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes 2008 SPCK chapter 1
Today is the third Sunday in Advent, Gaudete Sunday, so named for the Latin words of the Mass sung: Gaudete, Rejoice. Each Sunday in Advent we’ve decided to pay attention to the voice of the prophet Isaiah. Thus far this voice has been expressed in poetic form. Each week unveiled a vision of transformation and hope: thronging multitudes of people, creation itself renewed to flourish. The last two weeks we’ve celebrated coming transformations of weapons, economies, social orders and animals. Today we celebrate the coming transformations of land, of human brokenness, of locations, emotions and destinies. We take readings from their place in Isaiah and utilise them for our intention and purpose in our season of Advent. Words from Isaiah today are spoken in Matthew’s gospel, rejoicing words of hope, of restoration and flourishing fulfilment.
A closer consideration of Isaiah requires we pay attention to the place of today’s reading within the corpus and context of Isaiah. As is the habit of our lectionary we separate out pieces of scripture to serve our purpose. So it’s helpful today to consider that Isaiah 35 heard from today is of a piece with Isaiah 34. They are as two sides of a coin. Unlike today’s words of hope and promise, the words and imagery of Isaiah 34 portray a God of vengeance, dealing punishment and ultimate destruction on the unfaithful people of Edom who collaborated with Babylon in the devastation of Judah that led to the exile. In stark contrast Isaiah 35 portrays a God of restoration and deliverance, rewarding those who are faithful. The holy highway imagery of Isaiah 35 is almost the direct inverse of the road to destruction of Isaiah 34.
The riot of imagery running through today’s verses of Isaiah has a basic concern for restoration of wholeness. The wilderness and the dry land, through which the exiles will return also participates in this restoration. It is as if this holy way to Zion is a reversal of the exodus journey, rather than a journey of wilderness and suffering, it’s one of flourishing and abundance.
In it we hear of the reversal of blindness, deafness, lameness and muteness. Before we presume from this that being blind, deaf, lame or mute makes someone less than whole. The Oxford Bible Commentary reminds us that in the Isaiah context of Babylonian exile “the blind and the deaf, [lame and mute] are the community themselves ... that this section plays an important part in proclaiming restoration of that community to full humanity.” 
The intent and imagery of the poem is to bring hope to those in exile, connecting old hopes with the need for new ones. And yet, as I explored I was interested to read, “Isaiah 35 understands that though certain of the old promises came true, their fulfilments were somehow unfinished. In specific, the promise of the wilderness highway for exiles had already come and gone. Captives from Babylon had returned to Zion long ago, but disappointments met them. Judah was a prolonged devastation; new oppressions overtook it. Now, in the far extended bleakness, this poet chooses … to retrieve the vision of a highway in the desert. The promise will be fulfilled once more, but its meaning will be deeper and broader and more finally true.” 
We too retrieve from Isaiah this beautiful poetic vision. We can understand the imagery and vision within its context and time. But we still use this text today. We use it to point to and inform our Advent narrative. Not just of the birth of Jesus, Immanuel, God with us but of Christ coming again, with vision, imagery, hope of divine restoration. How can such vision speak into and make sense in our time? How we hear this text depends on who we are, where we’re located, what we want and/or need the text to speak to us. We choose how we listen and we choose what we hear.
A year or three ago I had the good fortune to holiday on Martha’s Vineyard. One evening, my sister and I attended an annual event where a number of African American choirs, along with remarkable soloists converged on the island for a concert. This makes it sound more posh than it was, it was more like a jam session, impromptu combinations of musicians and instruments and voices. It took place in a plain, painted timber circular church, no choir robes – too hot for that!! Hymns, spirituals and quite incredible impromptu solos were threaded through with narrative. Some personal testimony, some stories behind the spirituals or hymns written or chosen, passed to them through parents and grandparents for generations. There were stories of times gone by and yet for many of them a continuing narrative of oppression, prejudice and injustice.
I listened to scriptures of hope, just like those of Isaiah today, of exiles seeking freedom from oppression, the hope of dwelling in a land not as outcasts demeaned and diminished, denied fullness of flourishing. I listened with dawning awareness. I was hearing words I knew yet I was hearing the meaning of them in a way contrary to the way I was accustomed. Usually I hear such promises of restoration, transformation as words of hope of how things will be different. When moments of restoration, transformation break through this makes known God with us. When we’re part of this we participate in incarnating God presence.
But as I listened to the voices in song and prayer and testimony what I came to hear was that the hope was not so much in the restoration of things occasionally or sometime later. The hope was present now. In all the overwhelming challenges of life God, Jesus, was always and abidingly with them. The promise is that they were never alone or abandoned but accompanied, in company of a God who loved them fiercely and dearly. Hope was a now thing and it brought tears of joy.
This wasn’t a triumphalist narrative. It wasn’t a narrative that assumed God was on their side and would be known when everything was restored according to their vision or program of things. It was a narrative that spoke of knowing, experiencing that in whatever life would bring God was with them. It made all the difference, it transformed the world.
It made me wonder if such way of hearing, knowing, receiving and living in a God-present world was the experience of those in exile. As with those who knew exile in Babylon, the poetry of Isaiah reminded and restored to them the hope and promise that God present was with them within all of life, despite the appearance of things.
That my ear’s attuned so differently made me pause. Have I learned to hear differently because I have power and privilege? Could it be that I hear from the vantage point of one who oppresses? That unknowingly I am an oppressor in the systems that perpetuate oppression? I’d like to soften that. But maybe the hardness of it’s necessary for me to dwell with.
I’d like for the world to be restored, for creation to flourish. But how much of my creation-destroying comfort am I willing to forfeit? I love the idea of the hungry being fed, the oppressed being set free, for there to be a fair and just distribution of resources so we each have sufficient for our need. I love the idea because I desire to follow this Jesus way, trust myself to divine transforming, to the embrace of God who beloves me. But am I willing for the freedom granted me by my inherited position of power, my more than needed share of resources to be encroached upon to ensure the freedom and release of others. Am I willing to risk endangering my version of the way the world is, to have it upended by the ‘real’ of someone else’s way of seeing?
In Advent we hear these words from Isaiah, they echo in Matthew. In Advent when we tell of God born among us. When we say we know the promised Immanuel has come. So why are we singing Come, O come Immanuel? Is it because, just as with the post-exilic community of Isaiah “Immanuel’s visitation among us is an unsatisfied fulfilment. Real captives and refugees suffer in the present; the earth is a burning desert; bodies are broken; cities are joyless; and human hearts everywhere are sighing.”
Our world isn’t like this by chance but by choice. The choice we make to participate in systems of privilege that require and perpetuate contexts of exile, not just of our human neighbours but of our very creation. When people with the privilege of choosing recognise the way things are, recognise this is outcome of choices made and want different outcomes, what is their resource for choosing otherwise?
Poetic visions of hope of long ago, like those from Isaiah, are part of a narrative through time. They’ve withstood the test of time. They bear wisdom within a context yet are not confined there. They provide broader scope, perspective more tested and considered than possible within the time bound limits of our lives. Could the wisdom they bear be resource for choosing otherwise, could they be mirror of accountability and challenge?
Our Advent challenge is to reimagine this old story from Isaiah in and for our time and place. We might learn to hear such old story differently, if we listen to it told through the experience of those in exile. Through them be reminded, reconnected, recommitted to Isaiah’s vision: despite the appearance of things, despite our inconsistency we are part of a story that say God is here, a now reality AND whether that God is made known depends on what we do.
 Barton, John, and John Muddiman. The Oxford Bible Commentary. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001, 462
 Bartlett, David Lyon, and Barbara Brown Taylor. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013, 53
December 8, 2019
Advent 2 Isaiah 11:1-10 Psalm 72 Romans 15:4-13 Matthew 3:1-12
As clergy we are not supposed to have favourite parishioners. But Tom has always been a favourite of mine. Tom can’t make it to church any more and so every month or so I take him communion at home. Home is now a small room at a rest home. His life is getting narrower and smaller he says. He can’t read any more which is something he really loved. “Books were my university”, he has told me several times. Last month when I arrived for our service, he was looking out the window and he said “see that tree, I have been sitting here every day watching that tree and the leaves have gradually come into leaf.” “Did you know”, he said, “that the leaves sprout from the top of the tree and gradually work their way down. Each day another layer appears. I didn’t know that before now,” he said.
“Isn’t it great I can sit here and watch God’s creation at work and learn something new.” Tom, at 96 years of age, modelling for me how to live with positivity and hope.
Advent is a season of hope, and writer Hannah Malcolm says “Feeling hopeful has very little to do with being hopeful. We identify ourselves as hopeful people by the choices we make, by the decision to live as though we are bringing in a new creation.” 
It is not about feelings, but about living.
The people of Israel in the 700s BC had little reason to feel hopeful. As Cate explained last week Isaiah begins his life as a prophet preaching in the turbulent times of King Ahaz who has no choice but to collaborate with the Assyrians and the Babylonians. Prior to the more hopeful passage we heard today, in chapter 10 we read that God will destroy the Assyrians and the land of Israel with them: God will wield an axe and “the remnant of the trees of his forest will be so few that a child can write them down.” (10:19) And that is what it would have felt like for the people as they suffered under foreign rulers and were eventually sent into exile 150 years later in 587BC. Yet from this destroyed forest, Isaiah says, “a shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse” (11:1). Jesse was the father of King David; Jesse was not a king but a shepherd and his youngest son David was chosen as the first king of Israel. The forest of Jesse, the kingly line, has been laid waste – yet from this stump, Isaiah says a new shoot will grow. A new tree. And on this new king, or new leader “the Spirit of God will rest – a spirit of wisdom, understanding, knowledge and fear of God.” The world will be changed so much that even animals will live in peace together.
As Cate said last week we Christians tend to leap forward 500 years and apply these descriptions and visions to Jesus. We claim the description of Isaiah for our own picture of Jesus. This however narrows Isaiah down into one track of thought and can limit some of the vision. 
It is true that John the Baptist from Matthew’s gospel picks up the same imagery to describe the coming of Jesus. “Even now” John the Baptist says “the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (3:10) But of course Matthew as a gospel writer has access to the prophet Isaiah just as we do and is inspired by the same imagery. That doesn’t mean that Isaiah was only talking about Jesus.
Isaiah was addressing the people and politics of his time and if we can use the imagery to address our time then we also can follow in the prophet’s footsteps along with Jesus.
Walter Brueggemann says “As much as any of the prophets of ancient Israel, Isaiah is the voice of an insistent public theology, an assertion that YHWH’s rule matters consistently to policy and practice.” 
The demands of God can or should be seen and heard in the way we make policy in our societies, the way we act towards each other, the way we look after the vulnerable. In Isaiah’s day a calamity or natural disaster was seen as a direct intervention of God into the lives of the nation. If the land of Israel was invaded it was a judgement of God against the people. If an earthquake struck the people must have sinned. We do not see war or earthquakes in this way today. Yet things like storms and rising temperatures which we know are a consequence of climate change caused by human actions, could be seen as a judgement. Our actions do have consequences.
There must be many Samoan parents today feeling abandoned by God as their children die one after the other from the measles epidemic. Those children are suffering because of the inaction of NZ as a nation, and the inaction of Samoan leaders too. But I think the judgement falls on us as a nation.
How we long for a world where 54 children just up the road don’t die of measles. Where Isaiah’s vision of the wolf living with the lamb and a child playing with a snake would not be a crazy one. Where swords are turned into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks.
Hannah Malcolm says “I don’t believe that the people of Israel were convinced that lions lying down with lambs – or the end of all war – were sensible things to expect. Prophetic hope insists that a different world must be possible, and then insists we live as though it must be possible, even if it seems totally unreasonable in the present. …. it is also the prophetic task to declare peace while telling the truth about the reality of violence. Realism is an important component of prophetic work, but it can’t end there. We must both express the material truth of the danger we are in and the theological truth of the hope we cling to.
The Church should be better at this unrealistic hope. After all, we believe in the actual, real, resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come, despite our overwhelming experience that dead people stay dead.
Feeling hopeful has very little to do with being hopeful. We identify ourselves as hopeful people by the choices we make, by the decision to live as though we are bringing in a new creation.” 
So how are we living with hope this Advent? Nurses and doctors have gone to Samoa to care for the sick and try to turn back the tide of the measles epidemic. Some of you are living with illness and disability and living well anyway. Others of you are missing loved ones this Christmas and looking forward to it anyway. We are changing our ways for the sake of the climate as best we can. The City Mission is getting ready to feed 2000 people on Christmas day.
The Housing First programme is housing people who are homeless one person at a time.
A couple of weeks ago I was at a conference  where I went to a workshop led by three men who had been previously homeless. They were part of the design group for the Housing First Programme. They described going to their first design meeting with a number of government departments and staff from Lifewise and the City Mission. They said they were astonished that when they said something or offered an opinion it got written up on the whiteboard like everyone else’s. And that was the moment things changed for them. They felt valued. And now they are housed and working for Lifewise, helping to house others, and could lead a workshop with all the social design jargon you could imagine!
So how are we living with hope this Advent?
Tom can’t walk very far now, or read, or do most of the things he once did.
Tom lives with hope by watching the tree come into leaf outside his rest home window, and giving thanks to God for what he sees.
 The approach of this sermon was inspired by Barbara Lunblad
Today marks the first Sunday in Advent. Advent – that in-between season. Jesus, Immanuel, God with us has come, our tradition says. Yet our tradition also says this Christ, once come, is to come again. And so we wait, with anticipation. Anticipation in the narrative we know – of God born in human form, back then. Anticipation in the narrative we tell – of the restoring Christ who will come again.
Today’s reading from the book of the prophet Isaiah begins with words of anticipation, “In the days to come”. These are the words of one who is named a prophet. Does this orient us to hear them speaking of things to come, of things yet to be. Curiously, though, these words of the future from the prophet Isaiah, are centuries old. Isaiah, son of Amoz lived in a particular context, for it says this word is concerning Judah and Jerusalem back in the day of this prophet. The poetry that follows is redolent with images of a restored creation. From what we know of the history of the world, this hasn’t come to pass. We look back in linear time to hear tell of things still to take place in the future?
The gospel words come from that hinge time. Put in Jesus’ mouth, the one we’ve since then named as God with us. Hinge time of God present here on earth speaking of things to come, of future hope. “About that day and hour no one knows … only the Father.” All we know is it’s to come and while we wait we’re to keep awake. Waiting, with what we know of what has been and from what we know what we expect is to come.
This Advent we’re taking the four Sundays leading to Christmas as opportunity to pay attention to the readings from Isaiah. To return them to their own context and hear what they have to speak to us, without necessarily appropriating them entirely to serve our Christian narrative. Curiously, as I’ve explored the body of work attributed to Isaiah, its potency within the context of its time and place, is enhanced by so doing.
Let’s consider a bit of background to the book of Isaiah. As we hear in the opening of today’s passage, the book of Isaiah is attributed to Isaiah son of Amoz. According to the introduction to the book Isaiah worked in reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah. Isaiah’s main activity takes place during the reigns of Ahaz and Hezekiah (735-687BC).
The relationship between Isaiah and Ahaz is introduced when Ahaz is at crisis point, threatened by Assyria and besieged by an Israel-Syrian alliance. Ahaz choice to turn to Assyria for help works but includes Ahaz introducing Assyrian worship practices into the Jerusalem temple. This causes the clash between Isaiah and Ahaz. It also introduces a major theme of Isaiah. The king and people shouldn’t trust an alliance with a foreign power for survival and prosperity they should trust in God, a theme that continues in the reign of Hezekiah, Ahaz’s son.
The threat of Assyria formed the background of Isaiah’s ministry, the setting in which he called for faithfulness. However, the book of Isaiah’s concern for faithfulness when threatened by dominating powers isn’t confined to the time of Assyrian domination. Babylon appears as an even more prominent focus. Historically, Babylon succeeded Assyria as the leading power in the region in 605BC. Judah fell and went into Babylonian exile in 587BC. By this time Isaiah had been dead for about a century.
Yet Isaiah 40-55 concerns the people of Judah in exile and the beginning of Isaiah 56 and Isaiah 65-66 address a community returned to Jerusalem. Such historical events behind the book of Isaiah suggest it can’t have been written at one time. However much modern scholarship thinks the book of Isaiah has been deliberately shaped as a whole in its present form over a long period of time and interprets it as having a unity and coherence in themes and theology.
Of course there’s no way to work out ‘the’ message of Isaiah, once we assume Isaiah didn’t say everything in the book named after him. But we can look at what’s commonly thought about Isaiah’s own work. As we do so to reflect how Isaiah’s priorities have shaped our Christian priorities.
Scholars assert Isaiah’s message is based on a single foundation “the belief that Yahweh, God of Israel, is the only one who is ‘high and lifted up’. No other earthly power can challenge Yahweh, nor any other god.” Gordon McConville argues this shapes Isaiah’s thinking in politics, ethics and the future of Judah and Jerusalem. Politically Isaiah argues that in crisis rulers should trust in Yahweh, rather than in political measures to protect the country. For Yahweh has power over all of history, authority over the kings of Judah, other nations and the forces of nature.
Ethically and over the future of Judah and Jerusalem, God’s “overriding aim is to establish ‘righteousness and justice’… a vision for Jerusalem that dominates ... this comes from the nature of God … God … desires a certain kind of order because of what God is like.” … God’s power to save is for the purpose of making them a people that shows justice and righteousness. “ 
Isaiah’s message is a ‘vision’ unfolding a view of what society could and should be like. It declares God’s intention to make God’s chosen people into such a society, even though they’ve failed so far. The book of Isaiah doesn’t record the fall of Jerusalem in 587BC but the question of God’s plan for Jerusalem is worked out in the light of the fact of Jerusalem’s destruction.
Isaiah’s vision for Jerusalem … is a vision of a city in which God’s desired righteousness is really found and remains. In one sense, this city will be the historical Jerusalem after the exiles have returned to it; in another it is a city that is greater than Jerusalem. 
We in our time hold the vision of being God’s people, incarnating righteousness and justice, the nature of God. This is the revelation in Jesus, of how humans can live and be? We know we fall short yet the vision of hope that this can be made real remains. So Isaiah’s twin vision still challenges us. We still look back to such words of future hope. They join the gospel words of the Christian tradition we say stands in continuity that speak also of future hope. Yet we live now, in this time when things are not aligned according to what we imagine divine vision is.
Does this impact what we expect of God? Looking back we trace the arc of our scripture and see how God’s been in the life of the faithful and in the world. We look forward as we hear promises of God’s restoration of world that’s to come. We look around our world today and find it hard to imagine God presence here. This world too broken and hurtful, too messy and complicated to coexist with divine presence. We humans are too overrun with our own importance, bent on the destruction of creation for it to be true that God is here. We find it hard to imagine some divine presence as active, real, tangible, and provably able to make any difference.
Easily God becomes an optional extra, a nice accessory but not a fundamental requirement for and of life. Is this because we’ve come to fit God to our expectations of what right living, of justice, of righteousness will look like? Because we don’t see things the way we imagine they’d be if God was here then we interpret this to mean that God as largely absent? Surely, when everything’s made good and beautiful, bountiful and full of life then is proof God is here.
What if God is here? It is we who fail to recognise such presence because it isn’t what we think it should be. I was struck by the words of a poem by Malcolm Guite on the feast of Christ the King.
Our King is calling from the hungry furrows
Whilst we are cruising through the aisles of plenty,
Our hoardings screen us from the man of sorrows,
Our soundtracks drown his murmur: ‘I am thirsty’.
He stands in line to sign in as a stranger
And seek a welcome from the world the he made,
We see him only as a threat, a danger,
He asks for clothes, we strip-search him instead.
And if he should fall sick then we take care
That he does not infect our private health,
We lock him in the prisons of our fear
Lest he unlock the prison of our wealth.
But still on Sunday we shall stand and sing
The praises of our hidden Lord and King. 
In our in-between time have we come to hold lightly to the possibility of God in real time? Maybe, in this meantime we wait in hope for God to make our world right. I wonder whether this vision of future hope, of divine restoration lulls us to think that ultimately we can’t destroy things. Like a get out of jail free card. So, quietly, we absent our responsibility to grow into the stature of our intended creation. Like children, we expect someone else to provide for us, someone else to clean up after us, someone else to make things all better. Is this our theology? Subconsciously we’re still a little ‘parent God’ dependent? You see it effects how we understand our place, role, responsibility in life, for life. It effects what we expect to find in life now.
 McConville, Gordon. A Guide to the Prophets. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002, 5
The words of today’s gospel aren’t exactly comforting. Especially with catastrophic fires in Australia, flooding in Venice and England, earthquakes in Indonesia and the ever increasing impact of Climate change. Though we invoke scriptural wisdom and say, “There’s nothing new under the sun,” we still see our present reality as unprecedented, more dire and catastrophic.
Luke was however speaking into a particular context. Vernon Robbins remarks, “In Luke’s account Jesus … says arrests, persecution, trials, betrayal by family members and hatred against them will all occur before the sequence of turmoil that leads to the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, which the author knows occurred in 70CE, about 20 years before the gospel was put together.” 
So we might understand today’s gospel as an historic narrative of a struggling, persecuted religious movement. Luke’s gospel words spoken into a religious context, a community located in a particular place and time. A community of people whose actions defied dominant system, who gave first allegiance to a lord other than the Caesar of such system, who defied their religious system when it resisted inclusion for all – without legitimating rites of entry.
Such context isn’t our religious context. Our lives and livelihoods are not in peril because of our religious allegiance. The greater problem for our religious continuity, for existence into the future isn’t persecution. The greater peril to us is a societal lack of interest, our context one of religious indifference. I remember it being said of teenagers in family systems, when they’re just being – impossible, that their most powerful potency is that they to do nothing. When you’ve something to fight against, when you’ve existence to fight for, a cause beyond you to rally to, it provides impetus and energy. When there’s nothing, no apparent movement either toward or away it’s hard to know what to do.
Barbara Brown Taylor reflects that she understands, “the anxiety of mainline Christians who are watching congregations age and seminaries close. It is hard to watch the wells from which you drew living water dry up. It is awful to watch people go away leaving the dead to bury the dead – so awful that it is natural to try and find something else to blame. Blame the culture for shallowing the human mind. Blame the megachurches for peddling prosperity. Blame the world for leaving the church behind. There is some truth to all of these charges, which is why they generate so much energy. At the same time they obscure the last truth any of us wants to confront, which is that our mainline Christian lives are not particularly compelling these days. There is nothing about us that makes people want to know where we are getting our water. Our rose has lost its fragrance.” 
Today, as we hear the gospel, we hear how it makes sense in and to a particular religious community in its context and time. It’s a source of reassurance and hope for them. We now hear it in our religious community in a very different context. A religious entity facing very real survival challenges. For this to be a source of reassurance and hope for us, we need to break it open beyond religious confines. We have a resource here that’s withstood the test and testing of time. We’re bearers of it in our time. It’s not just for us, it’s given as resource for the life of the world, how do we speak this good news into life beyond our walls?
We live in the same creation as Luke’s community, a world vulnerable to natural disasters. Although we’ve done much to distort the balance of creation since then, so we’re complicit in the scale and frequency of their impact. Today’s gospel speaks of the real life world we know where natural disasters are part of things. They frighten and bewilder us too.
Today’s gospel also declares there’s more to the life of the world than the appearance of things. Hope and deeper wisdom reside here also. Do we think this is the way things are and that we can recognise them? What does hope and deeper wisdom look like? Or, maybe, are we willing to recognise them in those we least expect. Create space for them, stand with them so they can speak into being the wisdom our world needs. People like Greta Thunberg who reminds us of who we are, or once were. Who open our hearts, minds, wills to learn in new ways, for surely the old ways no longer resonate as they once did.
On the world stage we see and hear truth daily sacrificed on the altar of convenience. Where are our voices in this increasingly uncontested space?
We worry about the continuity of our religious lineage. Are we brave enough to dig down, and ask what it actually contributes into the world, to accept the once fragrant rose has lost its perfume?
For there was a time when our hearts and passion were stirred and we spoke and acted boldly against the injustice of apartheid, the coming of nuclear power to this land. When we joined the hikoi of hope, spoke and acted for peace, advocated for the LGBTQI community and for a Living wage. I wonder what part the Jesus story had in our conviction, our passion, our declarative insistence for another way. I wonder what that sounded, looked, tasted, touched or felt like. I wonder how we’d bring it to life today in our context where religion decreasingly resonates in people’s lives.
With all these challenges – of our world and to our faith, have we stopped believing along the way? Or is it that we’ve outgrown our certainty. The old ways that used to reassure and inform us have lost their lustre.
I’ve heard it said if no-one holds up a mirror to reflect back to you who you are, you begin to disappear. What would it be like to hold up a mirror one to another? Or have a mirror held up to reflect back who you are. Would you see an image of one alive with divine presence? See reflected back one willing to risk the radical possibilities of living aligned with divine presence in and for the world. See it reflected in our practice, our thinking, our praying, our caring, our engaging, our insisting in the divine priority for all of life. Requiring that we make space, give way, be opened, be willing to be changed – to learn anew. Not to race here and there as if to secure a certainty that privileges us at the cost of the other. Rather to hold lightly, live deeply, sincerely as those beloved of God – for we know and insist this is the way things are. Creation is beloved into being and we can align ourselves with that in our acting, living, being in the world.
Is not something of the hope proclaimed Isaiah’s prophetic vision? Rowan Williams spoke to this vision when addressing the people of New Orleans, who were facing the reconstruction of their city. He asks “What in biblical terms makes a great city a Godly city? Is it businesses? It’s arts? It's educational system? It's social welfare? It’s commercial services? No, not really.
What makes a great and Godly city is that it's a safe place for old people to sit and children to play in the streets. What a long way we are from that great and Godly city in most of the cities we inhabit in our present day world.
[W]hen we start asking about profit and success in the city (of God), we're saying our fellow citizens are there to be celebrated, they are there for our gratitude. They are there for our life.
And to see the old and the young, the people who are not necessarily part of the system of profit, the people who are not going to be useful to us for any particular reason to see them, there, secure in the city. Isn't that a sign of the health, the life and the Godliness of a community?
A place where the old and the young are valued for what they are.
The children who have time to play and the old who have time to sit – there are many forces in our modern society which would quite like to see them relegated out of sight.
So we wouldn't have to think about that terrible frightening fact that leisure, enjoying who we are and who each other is, in the presence of God, is what we should be spending eternity doing.
And the old and the young will help us remember that. And help us get used to it. However frightening it is.” 
We live in frenetic times that prioritise busyness over being. The news, if not full of disaster and hopelessness, tells of people in power playing fast and easy with truth claims and what is real. As people of faith in our time we seem to have forgotten we have a place or the confidence to step into it. There is work for us to do. We are to engage in the necessary industry of life but let’s not make an idol of it. Let’s also leave space for reflection, to discern wisdom and nurture to life as we engage in such activity. To learn what it is to be a person of faith in a world despairing of hope, to speak and act that into being genuinely, in relationship with our context as it is. Then maybe we’ll act not out of fear, but trust, aligning with and allowing that a deeper wisdom prevails. Learn how to value, appreciate and enjoy who we are and the gift of who the other is in a world redolent with divine presence.
 Bartlett, David Lyon, and Barbara Brown Taylor. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013. 313
 Taylor, Barbara Brown. Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others. New York, NY: HarperLuxe, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers, 2019, 157
Many moons ago when I was first studying theology, one of the papers that was compulsory was Philosophy of Religion. I hated it. I found it so abstract and hard to get a handle on. Philosophical proofs for the existence of God did not excite me. And grappling with the theories of the existence of evil and suffering; religious language and proofs for life after death were tough going. I found biblical studies and church history much more fun!
But in the few years after I was ordained I said many times that I should have done more philosophy of religion. The questions I was always grappling with at funerals and bedsides and in people’s lounges was – why is my child suffering; and is there life after death? And don’t worry even though I was young and inexperienced I didn’t take people through the theories I had learnt, but knowing and being able to say that the greatest minds of our world have not come up with satisfactory answers was a help, and I hope stopped me from uttering platitudes.
The Book of Job, from which we heard a short extract this morning, is a lament. A lament about suffering which tackles the big question head on: why do bad things happen to good people? Why is there suffering in our world? If God is all powerful and all good then how come there is disease and tornadoes and earthquakes? Job is a good and righteous man and in the tale God allows Satan to “test” him to see if he will stay loyal to God. Calamity after calamity is visited upon Job. His initial response is “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” (1:21). As time goes on Job debates with three friends why he is suffering when he is a good man; in OT times there was a clear correlation between obedience to God and well being. Job must have offended God. But Job maintains his innocence and at the same time remains steadfast in his faith that God is just. So he demands to know from God what God’s charges against him are – he seeks to know for what he is being punished. Eventually God does speak “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” and goes on to describe the wonders of creation and the natural world, putting Job in his place as one tiny part of the whole. (ch38) “have you commanded the morning since your days began, and caused the dawn to know its place …. have you entered into the springs of the sea, or walked in the recesses of the deep?”
God goes on like this for a few chapters, does not say why this has happened to Job, and in the end “restores the fortunes of Job” (42:10) who is blessed once again with fortune and family. Job dies, we are told “old and full of days.” (42:17)
The story of Job is not considered historical, it is a tale to help us grapple with the true reality of suffering which is real and not to be understated or swept away. It can give us words to lament and rail against God when we need them. It does not in the end give an answer to the question – why? Brueggeman says “The dramatic power of the book of Job attests to the reality that faith, beyond easy convictions, is a demanding way to live that thrives on candor and requires immense courage. Faith of this kind ….is no enterprise for wimps or sissies.”  Like the Beatitudes from last week we are called to name and face the realities of what we see in our world, and hunger for what is good and right; in that hungering we find God. Job did not give up.
In the same way in our gospel reading Jesus directs his audience to seek life. Some religious leaders try to trap Jesus with what they see as a complicated theological question. The Sadducees were a group who did not believe in life after death. The Pharisees did teach that there was life after death.
So the Sadducees set Jesus up with a question based in the practice in Jesus day that a woman who dies childless (and so therefore with no son to protect her) would then marry her husband’s brother. In the Sadducees’ example the woman is passed like a chattel along the 7 brothers. The religious elite use the suffering of the powerless and marginalized to score points against Jesus. “Human suffering, abstracted for the sake of argument, debate and theological comeuppance.” 
But Jesus has none of it. A week later “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” (Lk24:5) will be the question the angels ask Mary Magdalene at the tomb; and Jesus makes the same claim “God is the God not of the dead but of the living.” Like Job Jesus calls us forward to embrace life with all its paradoxes and confusion, with all our unanswered questions.
After our 10am service today we are beginning a conversation around “disability.” We are wanting to listen to parishioners who have disabilities (or as some might put it, are differently abled) to check in and see if there are barriers that need removing for full inclusion in the life of our parish. There are practical things to attend to – doors and ramps, microphones and lighting. But the much more challenging conversation (if we are willing to enter into it), is to listen to the story of faith of those with disabilities. Those who have every right like Job to rail against God and say why me? and how long, O God, how long? Those who may feel uncomfortable when they hear biblical verses which paint a picture of redemption like this from Isaiah: Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. (Isaiah 35:5)
Those who are blind, or deaf, or lame, or unable to speak, can feel that the Bible paints them as imperfect or not whole. They would want to say they are whole and loved by God as they are, and do not need fixing or healing as some churches might teach.
Nancy Mairs who has multiple sclerosis asks the question “If a cure were found, would I take it?” All the same, if a cure were found would I take it? In a minute. I may be a cripple, but I’m only occasionally a loony and never a saint. Anyway, in my brand of theology God doesn’t give bonus points for a limp. I’d take a cure; I just don’t need one. A friend who also has MS startled me once by asking, ‘do you ever say to yourself, “Why me, Lord?”’ ‘No, Michael, I don’t,’ I told him, ‘because whenever I try, the only response I can think of is “Why not?”’ If I could make a cosmic deal, who would I put in my place? What in my life would I give up in exchange for sound limbs and a thrilling rush of energy? No one. Nothing. I might as well do the job myself. Now that I am getting the hang of it. 
How do we understand wholeness and healing? What do we do with our faith when the bad times roll around? Where is God when these things happen? These are the questions the poet who wrote the book of Job wanted to grapple with. These are also the reasons Jesus came among us as a living, breathing, and yes suffering human being.
As I learned after my Philosophy of Religion class the answers are not to be found in the books and the theories but in living the life of faith. As Debie Thomas puts it “The life of faith is not a spectator sport – to know it we have to live it …. We have to enter into the joy, the loss, the sacrifice, the wonder, the mystery, the grief and the challenge of life in Christ. Resurrection knowing is a lived knowing.” 
 An Introduction to the Old Testament; the Canon and Christian Imagination, Walter Bruggemann and Tod Linafelt, 2012, p336
Blessed are you – simply for being here – blessed are you. We are here for many different reasons today. Some of you are here because you have a loved one who has died in the last year, and their funeral was here. Some of you are here to hear the choir sing. Choir members, you are here to sing and to see how the Requiem you sing as a concert actually works in a liturgy. Some of you are here because you are always here. Some of you are here because you have wandered in by chance. Blessed are you.
Blessed too are the people whose names we will read during the prayers, or whose names you will remember as we pray. There are names on the list of people who died very recently, others long ago. Some old, some very young, some in between. For some of us the grief is so recent and so fresh we can barely breathe. For others the tears flow again, but more softly. Each life, whether short or long is complete in itself. In the midst of sadness and grief we can still be thankful. That is partly what Jesus meant when he said “blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.”
Wherever you are in your grieving and loving and giving thanks, you can allow the words of the Faure Requiem and the choir to speak for you. Whatever it is you want to say to your loved one, to God, or to yourself.
Words of thanks, words of anger, words of love, words of regret, words of joy, words of sorrow; tears and smiles; goodbyes and hullos. Do your own translation, let the music carry your prayer and your thoughts.
But then let me warn you the words of Jesus we just heard from the gospel reading might come crashing in and not seem quite resonant with your personal prayers. Jesus is like that – gets in the way of our own plans and thoughts. I said before that in the midst of sadness and grief we can still be thankful and that is partly what Jesus meant when he said “blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.” But the Beatitudes, as this list of blessing is called, are not really about us as individuals.
Jesus we are told went up a mountain to pray and them came down to “a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples (not just the 12) and a great multitude of people … and he looked at the disciples and said.”
He spoke to his followers (not to everyone), on the ground, on the level. Blessed are you who are hungry, who weep; when people hate you. These are not descriptions of individual struggles, but the life of the early followers of Jesus who were hungry for God, who were weeping at the state of their lives and communities, oppressed and hated by the Romans. Jesus’ words are a commentary on their community and way of life. And when Luke writes these words down the early church was definitely struggling and asking the question – what has changed? We are following Jesus but people are still hungry; we still weep for our world; the Romans are still ruling. What has changed? And don’t even start with love your enemies – how are we supposed to do that?
One writer, Mark Lau Branson puts it like this
The perspective being voiced here is not that poverty is good or that (weeping) is to be sought – but that a community that lives with these characteristics in vulnerability and receptivity to the presence of God’s reign will find themselves embraced, reconciled, comforted, even re-created. … Jesus wants them to have new eyes, different perspectives, an awareness of God’s generative work among them.” 
So it is about perspective and the way we see things.
Sam Wells calls it “a window into the heart of God that can be seen by those who experience adversity but is invisible to the comfortable.” 
And to drive that point home Jesus ramps it up with the “woes” or curses – woe to the rich, the full, the laughing, those who are praised. Again not so much woe to the individuals but woe to the society who ignored the needs of others and carried on in their own self satisfied way. Those who were blessed, the followers of Jesus, were the saints, and the rest, well they were the lost.
These words of Jesus are about life here and now and in every generation – life in all its complexities and paradoxes – life with all its questions and lack of answers. Who are the blessed, and who are the lost? Blessed are the hungry – those who literally are hungry and who will eat today at the City Mission. Blessed are the hungry – who will be fed today from this table – we are hungry for our ritual bread and wine – which represents to us life with God, life in community. Blessed are we who hunger for God in our lives – even if we are not sure who God is or how we might meet God.
Blessed are the hungry, who seek, who look, who want to know God and who want to feed the hunger of our world with love and service. At this table all are welcome and all are fed.
In the same way the mysterious words of the Requiem are sung for us all and those for whom we pray. The words weep for us and we are lifted up by their beauty. Blessed are those who weep.
Woe to us though if we think we have life figured out; woe to us if we are self satisfied and sure we know everything; woe to us if we neglect the hungry at our door. Instead we are invited to be here today – hearts and hands empty, hungry – ready to be filled with the beauty of music and the touch of God’s grace. In this moment where nothing else matters.
Nadia Bolz Weber is a Lutheran priest from the US and she has written a book Accidental Saints – Finding God in all the wrong people and this is part of a litany she wrote for All Saints’ Day:
Blessed are they who doubt. Those who aren’t sure, who can still be surprised.
Blessed are those who have nothing to offer.
Blessed are they for whom death is not an abstraction.
Blessed are they who have loved enough to know what loss feels like.
Blessed are they who don’t have the luxury of taking things for granted anymore.
Blessed are they who can’t fall apart because they have to keep it together for everyone else.
Blessed are those who no one else notices.
Blessed are the forgotten.
Blessed are those who know there has to be more than this.
Blessed are the kids who step between the bullies and the weak.
Blessed are those who hear that they are forgiven.
Blessed are the merciful, for they totally get it. 
Blessed are you – simply for being here – blessed are you.
 p 59 Memories, Hopes and Conversations: Appreciative Inquiry, Missional Engagement and Congregational Change 2016
 p 25 A Future that’s bigger than the past: Catalysing Kingdom Communities 2019
Today’s parable reads a bit like a drama, as do many parables if you think of them this way. We’re directed by the opening remark – this one's going to be about self-righteousness. We’re introduced to the main characters: a Pharisee and a tax-collector. They enter, or are placed, on the stage of the Temple. Don’t forget this drama follows hot on the heels of the previous one, almost scene 2 to last week’s scene 1, last week about a judge, who feared neither God nor people and took a good while to decide to administer justice to the widow, motivated by self-preservation.
It’s curious to imagine a parable in this guise – an enacted drama as a teaching tool. Although in the time and place of Jesus’ telling perhaps this was closer to the hearers’ experience, for Jesus told parables within their familiar lived context. So maybe it’s just curious for us to imagine applying this to a religious text.
For outside of a religious context we’re more than aware of the formational influence of drama upon our society. Especially in the West we only have to think of the influence of Shakespeare, his plays have “for four hundred years captivated theatre-goers worldwide, thanks to their unforgettable characters, gripping plots and poetic verse.” What I was unaware of, until recently, while reading Kate Haworth’s book Doughnut Economics, was that “To keep his actors on their toes, Shakespeare handed each member of the troupe only their own lines and cues to learn, intentionally leaving them in the dark about the unfolding plot.” Can you imagine that, stepping onto the stage with others, only knowing your own part and your cues, but no idea what’s to unfold?
Apparently, “Soon after his death … over-zealous editors added in complete lists of characters and, in plays such as the Tempest, introduced many parts along with their tell-tale traits.” The effect of providing such tell-tale character traits was to influence the way characters interacted, or expected to interact with one another, it shifted the balance between character and plot. As Haworth continues, “the play [becomes] pregnant with plot and the story ahead almost self-fulfilling.” 
As Jesus unfolds the drama of today’s parable, it’s assumed we know something of the characters involved and we play our part in determining exactly the plot. We’re asked to fill in a lot of the gaps and we do so and have done so perhaps for many years. We make meaning and find significance for ourselves (and perhaps of others,) depending on our context, our level of knowledge, what we need or want to hear at any given time. Because this parable’s placed in the mouth of Jesus and because it’s embedded in a gospel in scripture, it has heightened significance. For those who believe, it’s about God, this means it matters a lot. We want to learn, to understand how to grow to be well with God, aligned, made right, “justified” in relationship with God, to quote the gospel.
The parable begins a bit like one of those (often racist or sexist) jokes, “one day there were two men who went into a …,” well this time the Temple. As far as we know this is something they regularly did. A bit like coming to church each week, it was their practice. As far as we can tell they don’t interact with one another. We only know what goes on inside their head because of the dialogue Jesus gives us. Look around, can you even imagine the dialogues going on in here, inside each person’s head, not to mention the ones inside your own head! Perhaps this parable’s bit of a reminder to pay attention to why we came and what we’re doing here.
Each character in this drama stands before God. They have each come, they are each seeking … something. Yes, we do have Jesus tell us what they’re praying, or asking. But what do we know of these characters?
Let’s take a quick character check: first the Pharisee. In the Gospels the Pharisees often appear as the influential arch-enemies of Jesus. The Pharisees were a lay movement who placed emphasis on the Torah, particularly the importance of the purity code for everyday holiness.
In their opinion holiness wasn’t only for the priests and the Temple. By observing the purity code every member of the people of God might participate in the holiness of God. Pharisees held to a liberal interpretation of Scripture, the aim of Pharisaic law was to make observance of the Torah available to all.
Conflicts between the Pharisees and the disciples of Jesus came to a head after the death of Jesus, when the Jesus movement began to accept Gentiles into membership without demanding that they be circumcised or that they observe the purity code. These controversies are reflected in the way the Pharisees are portrayed in the New Testament. 
And now the tax collectors: During the Herodian period, Julius Caesar made the rulers of the new Jewish state responsible for the taxes. The Herodian rulers farmed the taxes out to individual farmers or to associations. So tax collectors were seen as collaborators with the hated Romans. As the burdens of taxation became ever more intolerable, the tax collector become a more hateful and dreaded personality. At times they contrived to extract payments by torture. ... Since [tax-collectors] were classed with "robbers," talmudic law disqualified them from acting as witnesses. Neither was their money accepted for charity.  Despite our perhaps attraction to the tax collector character depicted in today’s parable they weren’t the most humble and simple of people.
Both Pharisee and tax collector come to the Temple and both of them leave. As far as we know neither of them change their jobs or their allegiances. What Jesus comments on is their changed orientation with God. As far as I can tell Jesus doesn’t pass judgement as to whether one is right or wrong, one good, one bad. Simply that one left justified, made right, in their relationship with God and one did not. What’s at stake is the alignment of each character in their relationship with God. Yes, that those who exalt themselves will be humbled while those who humble themselves will be exalted. Is this about the way they, we, are ourselves before God?
This parable speaks of our inner orientation toward God, yes, but also of how this outworks in our orientation toward the world. Of our tendency to think we know. And then to create a world that supports our thinking. To generate belief systems, determine practices, things to do we deem as correct practice that reflects our self-understanding. Too easily we come to defend so seal ourselves inside such self-created worlds.
I began suggesting today’s parable is scene 2 of a drama. In scene 1 a judge was named unjust – once he administered justice – is this because he knew how and chose not to. Scene two, today’s parable, suggests we know how to be transparent, honest before God yet most often we choose the safety of measurable, correct behaviours, right practices. We limit ourselves to safe parameters. This isn’t wrong. But potentially by this we deny ourselves the extravagance of God for us and for others. When we diminish our world, or limit it to safe self-creation, we diminish not only who we can be, but also who others can be, what the world can be. Is it sufficient to act correctly and not risk the disruption of an opened heart?
As they left the Temple, these two men of faith, one had opened himself to be changed; one had determined he and his ways need not be changed.
Where or perhaps when, do we open ourselves in honest declaration of how we are? Acknowledge our sense of incompleteness that, too often, our actions contribute toward. Not that they make us less beloved of God, but that sometimes our choices diminish us, our capacity to know and live as one’s divinely beloved. When we can be honest, we open up in us space for transformation, for being transformed, changed. When we know this, experience this, we discover we can choose to participate in change. We can choose to participate in changing ourselves so participate in the changing, transforming the world.
To return to Shakespeare who kept actors on their toes, he also wrote “All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players.” Imagine if we understood ourselves this way. That each of us has a part in the play of life in the world. We know our part (or come to learn it) and work out the unfolding of life as we interact with each other player. The drama of life unfolds in the interaction between us, rather than being predetermined. It leaves a space for grace between us, for relationship to develop and evolve in the moment of meeting. That life is an unfolding with particular players who each moment are creating life within their unique context. Imagine what that might free us to create for the good of the world.
 Kate Raworth Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist Random House Business Books, London 2017 61,62
In the name of God the Creator, Christ the Cosmic One, and the Spirit the Sustainer, Amen.
Every time I’ve come to any church to worship, I like to sit close to the front, on the left, on the aisle.
I’m such a creature of habit – of very deeply ingrained habit.
One of my earliest memories of church is sitting right there. Because that’s where my father always led our family to each Sunday. And that’s where I still gravitate to today.
Long ago, I fell into another deep habit. A rather worse one. At every Eucharist, I resort to my same little litany of sins. I cruise through Confession on auto-pilot.
Then a few years ago in my parish, St Andrew’s Epsom, I made for the first time a very different Confession in our Season of Creation Eucharist.
Repeating it in subsequent services made it no easier a Confession for me to make.
It was so confronting. In making it, I admitted I was massacring the abundant life God creates. I admitted I had shattered my relationship with God and his creation.
Yet I know God wants me to confess my ecological sins…so he can forgive me…so I have the hope, and courage to try to restore my relationship with his creation.
So, in that Spirit, please may I suggest we now make that same Creation Confession. I will read about each day of God’s seven days of creation. I will take one day at a time, followed by our mirror day of destruction.
With each of those I’ll offer some facts about our destructive behaviour; and then some suggestions about what we might do to help heal our relationship with God and his creation.
And then together we will give thanks and praise to God for his forgiveness and for his great abundance.
We will do so by reading together a verse or two of the Benedicite Aotearoa…not in the order they’re written!
So, would you like to turn please to the Benedicite, which is on page 63 of the prayer books in your pews. To give much credit where its due, the Benedicite was written especially for the prayer book by the Rev Bruce Keeley, when he and his wife Diane were vicars of St Albans, the co-operating parish at Chartwell in Hamilton, before they were vicars for many years at All Saints Howick.
A Confession for the Season of Creation
On the first day of creation you split the darkness and created light.
On the first day of destruction
we split the atom, exploded nuclear devices,
and created a black mist of death.
Nine nations have a total of 14,900 nuclear warheads. If just one of the most powerful ever built – Russia’s Tsar Bomba – was dropped on New York, it would kill 7.6m people, injure 4.2m more, and spread radioactive fallout over 8,000 sq km killing and injuring many millions more.
To help repair our relationship with creation, we could, for example, relate well to each other.
When we settle our differences and work together, communities thrive; When our communities thrive, our nation thrives. When our nation thrives, we can help other nations relate better to each other…so together we can rid the world of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction.
So, let’s read together verses 8 and 9 of the Benedicite Aotearoa:
8. You Maori and Pakeha, women and men,
all who inhabit the long white cloud:
give to our God your thanks and praise.
9. All you saints and martyrs of the South Pacific:
give to our God your thanks and praise.
(…that is the nuclear-free South Pacific!)
On the second day of creation you created the sky filled with clouds, stars and fresh air.
On the second day of destruction
we began burning fossil fuels,
pumping fumes into the sky
and created pollution.
Since 1950, emissions from burning fossil fuels have increased nearly 7-fold (to more than 10bn tonnes a year); as a result, temperatures are rising and the climate is changing. With this, we are deeply damaging the ecosystem, our life-support system, which God created.
To help repair our relationship with creation, we could, for example, drive less; or use more public transport; or walk more…and rejoice in nature.
Let’s read together verse 3 of the Benedicite Aotearoa:
3. Sunrise and sunset, night and day:
give to our God your thanks and praise.
On the third day of creation
you gathered together the waters
revealing earth, the source of rich vegetation,
forests, streams, and seeds for new life.
On the third day of destruction
we began to strip the land,
creating barren plains,
then we began to woodchip and burn the forests,
removing over half Earth’s vegetation
in less than a human lifetime.
We humans actively manage 75% of the land surface of the planet (excluding that covered by permanent ice and snow). Through our faming, mining, deforestation and other activities we move more of the earth’s surface each year than nature does.
To help repair our relationship with creation, we could, for example, eat less meat; grow some of our own food; and compost our food waste.
Let’s read together verses 4 and 5 of the Benedicite Aotearoa:
4. All mountains and valleys, grassland and scree,
glacier, avalanche, mist and snow:
give to our God your thanks and praise.
5. You kauri and pine, rata and kowhai, mosses and ferns:
give to our God your thanks and praise.
On the fourth day of creation
You created the sun and the moon
and differentiated the day, the night and the seasons.
On the fourth day of destruction
we threw aerosols up into the sky,
ripping apart the protective ozone above,
and changing sunlight from friend to foe.
We’ve changed the chemicals we use in aerosol sprays, so the ozone hole is shrinking. But our ultraviolet levels are high because we have less air pollution than many other countries.
However, we create other kinds of aerosols such as very, very fine particles from the likes of airborne soil, or dust, or indeed from diesel engines.
To help repair our relationship with creation, we could, for the high UV – slip, slop, slap and wrap (slip on shirt and/or into shade; slop on sunscreen; slap on a hat; wrap on sunglasses).
For airborne particles, try to avoid creating dust in its many forms; if you have a diesel-engine vehicle, trade it in for a petrol or electric one.
And another way to help repair our relationship with creation, is to immerse ourselves in God’s amazingly clear, bright, night skies.
Let’s read together verse 2 of the Benedicite Aotearoa:
2. You sun and moon, you stars of the southern sky:
give to our God your thanks and praise.
On the fifth day of creation
you called the sea and air to bring forth life
of many kinds for the wonder and delight of all.
On the fifth day of destruction
we created DDT, killing the fish of the seas
and destroying unborn birds of the air.
Very, very little DDT is still used today. But many of our continuing activities are destroying natural habitats. Thus, of our 30 indigenous species of marine mammals – one quarter are threatened with extinction. We have 92 species and sub-species of indigenous seabirds - one-third are threatened with extinction; and a further half are at risk of extinction.
To help repair our relationship with creation, we could, for example, join Forest & Bird; fish wisely; help with a marine or land conservation project.
Let’s read together verse 6 of the Benedicite Aotearoa:
6. Dolphins and kahawai, sealion and crab,
coral, anemone, pipi and shrimp:
give to our God your thanks and praise.
On the sixth day of creation
you watched as the creatures of the land emerged,
crawling, leaping, and playing games of life.
On the sixth day of destruction
we looked away as multitudes of species
disappeared through our destruction of their environments.
Of our 168 species of native birds, just 20% are doing OK, 48% are in some trouble, and 32% are in serious trouble. Of our native plant species, one third are threatened with extinction; likewise, our indigenous bugs!
To help repair our relationship with creation, we could, for example, in our gardens, plant natives to help our native bugs, animals and birds multiply; trap predators; keep our cats in at night; and put a bell on them.
Let’s read together verse 7 of the Benedicite Aotearoa:
7. Rabbits and cattle, moths and dogs
kiwi and sparrow and tui and hawk:
give to our God your thanks and praise.
On the seventh day of creation
you gave creation the blessing of rest
to celebrate and sustain all life.
On the seventh day of destruction
we created the relentless drive for progress,
exploiting all life to increase profit.
Since 1950, we humans have trebled to 7.5bn; but our economic activity has increased 8-fold (to US$65 trillion); our water use has quadrupled (to 4,100 cu km a year); the number of motor vehicles has increase 7-fold to 1.3bn; our use of paper has increased 8-fold, our use of fertiliser has increased 18-fold.
To help repair our relationship with creation, we could, for example: Buy wisely, buy less; and with our material possessions, reduce, repair, and recycle. And instead of possessions, we could enjoy the rich diversity of each other, and the simple things in life.
Let’s read together verses 10, 11 and 12 of the Benedicite Aotearoa:
10. All prophets and priests, all cleaners and clerks,
professors, shop workers, typists and teachers,
job-seekers, invalids, drivers and doctors:
give to our God your thanks and praise.
11. All sweepers and diplomats, writers and artists,
grocers, carpenters, students and stock-agents,
seafarers, farmers, bakers and mystics:
give to our God your thanks and praise.
12. All children and infants, all people who play:
give to our God your thanks and praise.
We rarely think about these issues of God’s creation…the ecology, life support system, he has given us.
If we do, we salve our conscience, saying “my impact is so tiny.”
When we do feel responsible, we feel helpless. What difference can I make?
Yet, when we confess to God, he forgives us…and gives us courage to try again.
He asks only that we each play our tiny, tiny part in his creation.
If an infinite number of us each do our infinitesimally small bit, we can together restore our relationship with creation, and with God.
Let’s read together verse 1 of the Benedicite Aotearoa:
1. O give thanks to our God who is good:
whose love endures forever.
From Jeremiah: I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you.
And from Luke:
you must hate your mother and father
You must give away all your possessions to the poor.
You must count the cost.
I could, I suppose have just decided I was talking about Spring and Creation, and ignored them, but the readings are of course strangely resonant with our present predicament.
We are seeking, today, in this season of Creation, not only solutions around our climate, but also meaning in creation.
The role of faith, of theology, is to reconnect us with nature. To read the signs of nature. I think we can all feel the buoyancy of Spring as it gives birth to new life. But creation may be signaling something deeper as well.
Creation, emergency, catastrophe, crisis are now all said together, in the same breath.
Indeed at Synod in the last few days not just one but two motions were passed on climate change and carbon neutrality.
Someone in Britain said recently that it feels as though we/they are sleepwalking into disaster, just like they did in 1914, seeing the disaster that is ahead, but unable to change it or do anything about it. Multitudes of men & women working feverishly but to what end. It really is as though the potter is at work, and the clay is slipping out of our control, as though someone else is moving the wheel. Not us!
As we commemorate the end of the first world war and the beginning of the second it is worth looking at some of the ways in which modern prophecy and poetry have together given voice to the premonition of disaster. A catastrophe and a sense of peril similar to that we now feel around climate.
A hundred years ago, just after the first world war Yeats wrote this poem (The Second Coming)
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity…
How did he know, a hundred years ago?
200 years ago as Napoleon wrecked havoc in Europe Schleiermacher wrote:
Great Forces of destiny are stomping about our neighbourhood, with steps that make the earth tremble; and we know not how they will draw us in.
We know not how they will draw us in.
And before the first world war also we get the Scream, or Shriek by Edvard Munch from 1893. He describes it like this:
I was walking along the road with two friends – the sun was setting – suddenly the sky turned blood red – I paused, feeling exhausted, and leaned on the fence – there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city – my friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with anxiety – and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature.
I was living near New York for a year in 2012 when the MOMA had an exhibition. I found myself drawn back to it over and over again.
What is common in all these expressions of unease, or disease, is the connection between nature and humans, nature resonates with our psychic health as well as responding to the results of human exploitation. If we are sensitive we hear and feel the earth tremble, or scream, as much as we sense its joy and new life.
For ancient Hebrews something similar was happening as they too faced a conqueror and the humiliation of deportation, and the sack of their sacred city, and with all this a loss of meaning. They took everything what we would call personally. I am shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. That is, God.
But equally ancient Hebrews as far as we can understand also believed that God was up close and personal with nature. For Jeremiah God’s Spirit was so close to nature that they were almost one. Where we might talk in terms of scientific objectivity. We might say; Nature or Gaia will pay us back, they would say: I am a potter plotting evil against you. There is not much difference really. We too fear at times that the potter is not on our side.
We are not facing anything entirely new. Just old trajectories re-traced. Although, as Yeats so profoundly says, there appears to be a widening gyre. We are retracing old patterns but the stakes keep being ratcheted up.
A few stories show the consequences of abusing or not heeding nature. The young Czech couple who decided to walk the Routeburn in Winter, without proper provision, guides, or permission. They made mistakes and one of them died. There are limits to how far a human can go to survive cold and ice, snow and wind without proper protection. They weren’t malicious mistakes. Just mistakes of judgment – lethal ones.
And on a completely different scale, I have also been watching Chernobyl. This was a disaster where mistakes were made mostly by young inexperienced men within a corrupt self serving system, and with shoddy manufacturing – it nearly cost the lives of tens of millions. Speak of the widening gyre. When your tussle is with the power of an atom the stakes are so much higher. The mistakes were not huge in themselves, but together they amounted to something that could have threatened human life in Europe.
This really is the human predicament. Small errors of judgment can have unforeseen consequences. We find it hard to understand the whole. We focus too much on some things and not others. There is malice and greed. But above all our problem is blindness.
IT is interesting that the gospels are full of stories of blindness and of healing from being blind. We can see now, that blindness is our collective problem. We are all a little like the couple stumbling around in the snow. Or the technicians trying to prevent a meltdown that would enter ground water or explode and kill 60 million instantly.
Wittgenstein said. The picture kept us captive … our ways of seeing, which are so powerful, create our worlds, and those worlds can be with the flow of nature or against it.
Recently we have begun to see that our ways of seeing are undermining nature.
But within the Christian story there is always hope… The Christian message both urges us to repent and gives us a vision of the future.
Barbara Rossing, the New Testament professor who was visiting us recently talked about how Jonah is a story of hope because it shows us that a corrupt system can turn around. Can repent.
She reminded us that salvation and healing are really the same word. We have always been talking about salvation in church, we just now need to see that it extends further than we thought, to the natural world as well as us.
She ended with the ubiquitous tree of life. This is the total vision of peacefulness and abundant life. The most powerful symbol of healing in the Bible. This is also what we have to offer the world. The vision of a world healed. Our message should always be something visionary as well as warning.
We need to hang on to these visions of healing because another aspect of our collective blindness is that we become so focused on solutions that we lose sight of the larger picture. The coroner explicitly said that was the problem with the Czech couple. It was also one of the problems at Chernobyl. It could easily be our problem now, as we navigate the climate issue. WE have to make sure that our focus does not become so narrow that we make the situation worse.
Because we are blind we need guides and prophets to warn us and to see this vision, every bit as much as people did in the days of Jeremiah.
But probably the best known young prophet is Greta. She is so sure and single minded.
She is unrelenting in her denunciations. Like Jeremiah she has been called as a very young person. She says she is too young to do this work. Jeremiah said something similar. The old ways have not worked, she says. The older generation has failed she says. Political movements have all failed, she says. She doesn’t hate her mother and father, but she did resolutely refuse to go back to school. She does hate the dithering and double standards of her parents’ generation. She’s not giving away her possessions, but she is speaking for the poor and living lightly in the world. So even the stern words from Jesus have some relevance today. Greta shows us that we need to do something new. And sometimes that does mean hating your mother and father and brother and sister.
As individuals we know so much depends on political powers
But we can learn to listen better to nature.
To Pray for nature’s healing
To pray that we will be healed from blindness
We can Support the prophets amongst us and those who work to change an unjust system.
As voters we can make this issue more important than any other.
As Christians, we can try to listen and find meaning and guidance in nature itself.
And we can pray…
I want to end by saying with you the healing prayer from the ecumenical community on the island of Iona
But here we are praying, not only for ourselves, but for every part of nature.
For nature as she groans as in childbirth, for nature as she is screaming, as the ground trembles. For nature where the centre does not hold. For nature as she labours on, one season following the other through all of this. For nature out of which will emerge the tree of life.
We could talk about Creation as the ‘Big Bang’ theory; but I shall leave that to the astrophysicists. OR we could talk about biological evolution, but I shall leave that to the biologists. OR we could marvel at all the creatures on land and sea and skies; but I shall leave that to David Attenborough.
Instead, I’m going to share a personal story.
Some people are fortunate enough to have had an epiphany.
Dr Google defines epiphany as: ‘a moment of sudden and great revelation or realization.’
I have had just two epiphanies in my life. The first one was when I was born, during a snowstorm, and I discovered what a magical world it was. Unfortunately, I don’t remember that epiphany very well. The second one was in 2005, that’s 14 years ago. I was starting to read scientific studies about environmental issues, when I suddenly realised that there was a black cloud on the horizon that would change everything.
Scientists were calling it ‘global warming’ which means an increase in the average surface temperature of planet Earth. The predicted consequences of this were frankly alarming. I realised that I could no longer assume that I would live out my life in relative comfort. And my children and grandchildren could suffer terribly, and might not even survive to my age. If the scientists were right, I would have to change my expectations and my comfortable lifestyle. That epiphany, I do remember.
After this Epiphany followed Despondency. I could not see any way ahead, and it felt like a heavy burden. Furthermore, hardly anybody was even talking about it, so I felt alone. The Swedish schoolgirl Greta Thunberg had a similar experience recently when she was just 15 years old. She became aware of climate change caused by global warming, and she realised that this was incredibly important; but nobody seemed to care. The leaders in her society were not even talking about it. Then she became depressed, stopped talking, and even stopped eating for a while.
After Epiphany and Despondency, came Action. Greta skipped school for three weeks and sat down outside the Swedish parliament to protest Government inaction on climate change. Then other people joined her; then the politicians started to listen. On 15 March this year, an estimated 1.4 million students in 112 countries around the world joined her call to protest Government inaction on climate change. Greta has become a world leader at 16 years old, influencing even the United Nations. So one determined person can make a difference. The students will be striking again next month, and they have invited us all to join them.
Closer to home: way back in August 2006 (13 years ago) a group of us ran a workshop in the Cathedral on climate change, with support from the Dean and the Royal Society. We had 5 expert speakers in the morning and practical workshops in the afternoon. It was well attended, although not everybody was up with the play. I met one person who came along to learn about weather forecasting.
The next year, a group of Anglicans came together and formed the ‘diocesan climate change action group.’ Our mission was to help Anglicans to reduce their carbon emissions in order to help to mitigate climate change. A few weeks later, the UN inter-governmental panel on climate change (IPCC) published a technical report called AR4. This collated a great deal of scientific evidence on climate change.
Since that time, our Anglican group has given educational workshops on climate change throughout the diocese; we have persuaded the 3 Tikanga church of Aotearoa NZ to divest from fossil fuels and to offset its carbon emissions from episcopal staff travel; we have provided energy audits of church buildings; and we have worked intensively within one rural parish to encourage sustainable living practices. In July we made submissions to the environmental select committee on the Zero Carbon Bill. This is just a very small start, and there is far more that needs to be done.
So we had Epiphany, Despondency and then Action.
But what about Hope? Is there really any hope that we can avoid climate catastrophe, or have we left it too late for our children and grandchildren; and many of us too?
I can see a number of hopeful signs, and I want to share these with you today.
The world is waking up, at last. Thousands of the world’s scientists who study the land, the oceans and the atmosphere have made it very clear that we have a climate crisis that is heading towards catastrophe if we don’t take drastic action now. There can be no doubt that we humans have caused this by burning coal, oil and gas and cutting down the forests that store carbon.
Many secular groups have sprung up, determined to spur governments into action. In New Zealand we have Generation Zero, a group of young people who initiated the Zero Carbon Bill that is now going through Parliament. We have another international youth organisation called 350. We have Coal Action, Forest and Bird, the Green Party, Greenpeace, Extinction Rebellion, Youth for Climate and other. Also, a large group of doctors and other health professionals.
So what about politics and business? Is anybody listening? Yes, there were about 1500 submissions to the Select Environmental Committee on the Zero Carbon Bill. There has been some understandable pushback from the agricultural sector and the fossil fuel and automobile industries, but it has cross-party support and I am fairly confident that it will go ahead. We already have incentives for public transport and for more efficient vehicles; and there is a growing interest in plant-based diets and corresponding changes in agriculture. Auckland Council and others have declared a ‘climate emergency.’ Some major institutions are trying to work more sustainably, and many of them have divested from fossil fuels.
But what about the church? Do we care enough about our world and about our future to take action? One of our mission statements is ‘care of creation’ and another one is ‘social justice’ but do we take these seriously? I have mentioned our Auckland group. In Wellington diocese, a young woman has been appointed by the Bishop to work on climate justice, and she has the energy and passion that are necessary. Throughout the country there is an ecumenical network of Christian churches learning from each other. General Synod is planning to appoint a Climate Commissioner for the church, with a focus on Tikanga Pasifika. After church next Sunday we shall be having a practical workshop here at St. Matthews, on the actions that we can take personally to reduce our carbon footprint. It will be informal and interactive, and I hope that many of you can come.
There is some Hope, and it comes about through commitment and action. We don’t have to despair, and we don’t have to carry the whole burden ourselves. But we have work to do.
SO: what can we do in practice? The scientists tell us that we must ‘put the world on a war footing’ in order to prevent climate catastrophe. It’s not too late; but we must take this very seriously, right now.
For Christians, the starting point is that old-fashioned biblical word: ‘repentance.’ This doesn’t mean getting depressed! Repentance is about changing our behaviour. The most important thing we can do is to reduce our consumption. As Quakers say: ‘live simply, so that others may simply live.’ The ‘others’ are our children and grandchildren.
In our workplaces and our places of leisure and our homes and churches, we can influence others by our words and our actions. Professor James Renwick, a well-known NZ climate scientist, says that we must talk about it. If it is swept under the carpet, nobody will do anything. Of course, we will have more credibility when we have started to make changes in our own lives.
We can support many of the secular groups that are working to change government policy. Prepare to be surprised and uplifted by the thousands of young people in our country who are working to preserve their future and ours. They need and welcome our support. If we show that we support them, they will take us more seriously.
At the local and regional level, we can get informed and vote for the candidates with policies that support our habitat. We have a great opportunity next month, with the local body elections.
At a national level, we need to stop oil and gas exploration immediately; phase out the burning of coal for electricity generation and for drying milk powder; stop dairy conversions; reduce the intensity of beef and dairy farming; and plant far more trees to absorb carbon from the atmosphere. We city people need to reduce our air travel; reconsider our local transport, our retail shopping habits, our food; our use of energy, our waste disposal, and our use of water. We shall be addressing some of these issues after church next Sunday.
We must also act collectively. Research tells us that transformational change comes about when networked individuals change. As Christians, we are already members of a community of people of goodwill. We are not alone, and as Wilf keeps reminding us: ‘the spirit of God is alive in the land.’
SO: from Epiphany to Despondency to Action to Hope and finally to Leadership.
Here is my challenge. Could we at St Matthew's lead the Auckland diocese in sustainable living practices? Could we become known as ‘the green church on the edge?’ Are we ready to change our personal and community behaviours? In 5 years from now, we could be known as the church that faced up to the existential challenges of our time. We could be known as Kiatiaki, custodians of the land and the oceans and the atmosphere. It’s up to us. Amine.
There is a group of about 15 people from amongst us that has been meeting for a few weeks to explore what might comprise a faith for today able to sustain us and empower us in the face of the issues and context of our time in history. From the conversations, it clearly means, letting go of most of the doctrinal statements that have comprised a ‘right faith’ until fairly recently. We are giving consideration to what we might put in their place. Our work together is provocative and serious theological work that is unsettling for many of us. It’s hard to let go notions, words, images, and metaphors that we have held since childhood: God the Father who will forgive us and judge 'others'; who will reward our efforts and respond to our prayers; the Son of God who died on the cross to save us; the angels who watch over us…
Over the last few weeks we have been considering our theology and faith in the light of the current climate crisis. This crisis now shapes our time in history and our theology and our faith must speak to it and offer us the resilience to face it. So we must ask,
“Who are we humans, and who now is God?”
We haven’t found the definitive answer yet!
But the questions must be asked.
In one first testament story, found in the book of Exodus (3:14) from about the 15th C BCE, Moses asks God what his name is so he will know what to tell those who ask. God's reply is translated as ‘I am who I am’ though these days it is thought ‘I will be who I will be’ is more accurate. The latter shifts the idea of God from a finished being, to an unfinished becoming; to a god always in process of becoming in response to the needs of the people and the times whether that be from swarming locusts or plagues, droughts or floods, war or famine.
So again we ask “who are we humans?” and “who now is God”?
We know we are consumers of the resources of the earth. We are the biggest consumers. We inherited a theology that set us on that path long ago along with stories that gave us dominion over all the earth and its creatures. We assumed all the resources of Earth were for our use and benefit (those of us from the religious tradition that became known as Christian that is). We humans produce nothing – we contribute nothing of substance to the wellbeing of the earth’s life-sustaining cycle until we die and decompose. Apart from that we fool ourselves with notions of creativity and our capacity to produce thing, but in reality we translate, transform or transmute the resources of the earth from one substance or thing to another by application our amazing imagination. Everything we use is sourced from the substance of Planet Earth; from the plants that convert carbon and minerals into food, from the rocks and soil, from sand and water, from the metals and carbons under the earth. Even our very selves, in all our amazing complexity, are made from the substances of earth: humans from the humus. As Sally McFague says in her book A New Climate for Theology, “we are born of the earth and the earth will be our tomb”. We are of the earth – we belong to the land as the Maori wisdom suggests – it does not belong to us.
Paul declared to the people of Corinth who were struggling from their different experiences, to understand who this God of his could be (Acts 17:28) “in whom we live and move and have our being”. Many notable theologians have pondered this image of God, “in whom we live and move and have our being”
What could that point us toward?
Who are we and who now is God?
We are of the earth and not separate from it, we are not different in substance and are totally dependent on it for our living. So what of God – of the earth too? Do we live and move in God as fish move in the sea?
What can we expect of God then, or of ourselves, in the face of the climate crisis? There is little doubt we humans have created the crisis and continue to exacerbate it with the carbon emissions we are still pumping into the atmosphere. The earth can no longer clean up our mess at a fast enough rate to ensure our wellbeing. Eventually acid rain will makes it impact; droughts and floods affect food supplies; air pollutants (including pollen) will affect our breathing. All these things we are seeing and experiencing already.
So who are we humans, and who now is God?
There is a thread in our Christian story that differs from the dominant 'dominion over' story with its location of humans as the pinnacle of God's creation and the suggestion, (that we have wholeheartedly embraced), that the world and all that is in it was made for us. The other thread suggests living well together, respecting and caring for each other and the earth. We are not too keen on this alternative thread because it goes against the grain of all we have been told for the past 400 or so years culminating in post-war consumerism: that Iam important and I deserve all Ican get. This individualistic ideology, and concomitant psychology, as worked to separate us from each other and to put boundaries around ourselves and our possessions. We have divided up the earth and set boundaries around bits of it for the individual possession of those who have the money to buy it, or the means to patrol the borders. As nations we are even setting boundary markers in the oceans and claiming it for our possession. We have turned the generous earth into commodities to produce profit for our individual-selves instead of food and commodities for the wellbeing of communities. The thread of our story we must reclaim is, that we are mutually dependent on each other and with the earth; that the struggle for justice includes justice for the earth; that it is in God that we all live and move and have our being. To this end our endeavours demand we stop privatizing and start 'commoning' to use a phrase I heard at a lecture last week. The protesters at Ihuāmatao are an example close to home offering us this wisdom. Our imaginations must turn from how we accrue private wealth to how we can share common wealth.
This is possible, if we give deep consideration to the questions who we are and who now is God?
Theology's cause is to help us shape meaning, value and purpose; to shape the questions and ideas that will guide us to living well together and help us understand who we are and a little more about God. The wisdom of our Christian heritage offers us a way of looking at all this. It offers us a lens through which to look when searching for how we can live well together. The Jesus story suggests the lens should focus on all humanity living well together in harmony with the earth, and not only a rich few or the nations with the most powerful military force able to dominate others and able to secure borders. Perhaps one of our key contributions to today's climate crisis is to actively promote this other vision of a world in which we all share life in a sustainable earth. It will mean some of us will have to consume less; it will mean knowing ourselves as part of the whole, it will perhaps mean knowing God as the matrix of all that is and in which we live and love and have our being.
When preaching, the common wisdom is never to give the last word to someone else, keep it for yourself.
But this morning I want to give my last word to a powerful prophet. Not a familiar prophet from our, but a prophet from our future – Greta Thunberg, a 16 year old Swedish climate crisis activist. To paraphrase what she said when addressing the UN leaders at an assembly on climate, "I don't care about offending people or being politically correct, I only care about the survival of the earth's capacity to sustain life for future generations."
I'm not worried about doctrinal correctness, but rather the wellbeing of planet earth and all who inhabit the earth – human and non-human – that we might all live well.
So let us ask ourselves who are we humans and who now is God?
Bouma-Prediger Steven. The Greeing of Theology. Atlanta, Georgia, ScholarsPress. 1995.
McFague Sallie. A New Climate for Theology. Minneapolis, Fortress Press. 2008.
Noah Harari Yuval. 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. London, Jonathan Cape. 2018.
What Is Your Faith?
August 11, 2019
Ordinary Sunday 19 Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16 Luke 12:32-40
Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. It is pretty hard to define faith. If someone asked you what is faith? What difference does faith make to you? How would you respond?
Shortly in the baptism liturgy Jeffrey and Malachi will be asked this very question – what is your faith? But you might notice that we ask them this question after they are baptised, not before. It is not an exam question like at school where you are asked the question and you pass or fail. It is a question asked and responded to after baptism, after receiving the love and grace of God symbolised in the water, not before. It is only in receiving God’s grace, or discovering God’s grace within us that we can respond to the question “what is your faith?”
Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. So says the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews (by the way we have no clue who the writer might have been; and apparently no clue either as to who “the Hebrews” were, they were not even necessarily a Jewish community).
Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Frederick Buechner says faith is better understood as a verb and not a noun  so we could also say faith gives substance to things hoped for and offers a proving of things not seen .
Faith is active, in movement, not static and still. Faith is call and response, like the karanga on a marae, we are called forward by the Spirit and respond with our lives.
The writer of the letter evokes (Heb 11:8) the memory of Abraham and Sarah who were called from their homeland to travel to an unknown land and promised a child in old age in order to become the father and mother of the people of Israel. People of faith, the writer says, desire a better country, and God, we are told, prepares a city for them. (Heb 11:16) People of faith are travellers, pilgrims on the road. 
In being baptised today Malachi and Jeffrey do something pretty strange and countercultural. They join a tiny minority of people in our country who profess faith and are followers of Jesus.
We know that the community called the Hebrews suffered from ridicule and persecution (Heb 10:32-34) and while we do not experience persecution like many Christians around the world, we certainly can be targets of ridicule on social media and face to face.
People can be very dismissive of people of faith and make so many assumptions about what we believe or care about.
So we need our community here – we need to gather to be strengthened, to learn from each other, to seek the Spirit together, and to go out ready to find God in our world. Then we return next week with that God experience and begin again.
So often I think people think of the church as the “holy” place where God might be found and we are the holy people who take God out into the world. But God is already in the world long before us and we seek and find God there and then come here to reflect on what we have seen.
As I go along the communion rail each week I am acutely aware of what some of you bring with you and know that others carry just as much with them – worries about children, or parents or jobs; joys of births, new opportunities, travel; worries about school or friends; the joys of success and the pain of failure.
God is in the midst of all these things and so we bring God with us to the eucharist. We bring our whole selves not just the polished shiny part fit for public viewing.
Speaking of the eucharist brings us to the gospel reading from Luke – a rather strange parable:
Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves.
It would be quite normal in Jesus’ time for a “master” to expect his slaves to be waiting for his return in case he needs something before bed. In this case though something strange happens – the master says for the slaves to sit down and he will serve them some food – unheard of and most shocking!
The phrase “fasten his belt” means to put a belt around a loose robe so it won’t get in the way of manual labour and hard work. Like putting on overalls or an apron.
There is an echo here of John’s version of the Last Supper when Jesus gets up from the table, takes off his outer robe, ties a towel around himself and washes the disciples feet. (John 13:4)
They too are shocked that the master will take the role of a slave.
Back to today’s parable – what food is he going to serve them?
The master doesn’t seem to take time to prepare anything. Nor would he know how to! And he has been at a wedding feast so the servants will have assumed he doesn’t need food when he comes home. So they have nothing ready.
Writer Kenneth Bailey  quotes Egyptian monk Matta al-Miskin in saying that the master must have brought food with him from the wedding banquet. He could have easily sent a waiter home with food for his servants if he wanted them to have a few tasty delicacies but he comes and serves them himself. He brings the food and serves them.
And in the same way, at this table – the table of the eucharist – we are served. We are served the symbols of Christ’s self offering love – bread and wine, body and blood; the essence of his life for the strengthening of ours. The master comes, week after week and offers to serve us. Offers to serve us so we can receive strength and renewal at this feast.
So when we are asked the question “what is your faith?” we might respond with the classic formula which the baptism liturgy gives us – I believe in God the Creator, and in Jesus the Son, and in the Holy Spirit.
Or we might unpack what lies behind that formula and talk about being in relationship with God and with each other; about the movement of our lives, being pilgrims on a journey and how each week we come to the table to be nourished and served by the master himself.
And while gathered at the table, we learn
Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
Faith is about having hope for the future and knowing that things we cannot see or touch are still real – like love and prayer.
Faith that we are truly, deeply loved and valued, no matter what.
And that the way of Jesus is the way to become who we most truly are, created in the image of God for the good of the world. 
Vanity of vanities and all is vanity! The Qoheleth, the teacher in Ecclesiastes declares. An elusive character, a teacher, perhaps more accurately one who summons and speaks to a gathering. The teacher, the Qoheleth’s assertion to be a Davidic king who ruled over Israel in Jerusalem is to intimate he’s Solomon. Sufficient scholarly doubt over this suggests this is most likely a ruse for credibility rather than a reality. “Vanity of vanities. All is vanity!” is his catch cry. “This too is vanity” is threaded through today’s reading. Vanity but perhaps not quite as we understand the word today. The “literal sense … is probably ‘breath of wind’ but it’s more often used metaphorically, to suggest transience, uselessness or deceptiveness. A comparable phrase in Hosea suggests ‘pursuing the wind’ it’s probably used to evoke the sense of the frustration inherent in attempts to achieve the impossible.”
Seeking meaning, understanding, reason and rationale for the life and experience of the human journey of life, is it a chasing after the wind? For whether you’re rich or poor, good or evil, blessed or cursed the sun shines, the rain falls on each the same. We each come to life and we each die, of this we are certain “the same fate befalls each of them.” And much of life is toil. Life is hard, not relentlessly or mercilessly so, for there are times of joy, gladness and celebration. Yet for the large part life is experienced as plain plodding persistence.
So we look back upon the trail of our life and seek to discern a pattern to it. To gain sense that we, through life, have gained, grown, accumulated some measure of, what shall we say – wisdom? Some sense we've had purpose, that there's meaning to the sum of it, to the sum of us. We attribute qualities to our achievements, to where we have come, from where we began, as does the teacher of Ecclesiastes. That all our toil has merit because it’s been done with wisdom, knowledge and skill. For longevity, that all our effort, revealed in what we've produced, created, generated, is rewarded when those it passes to also live this way so honour the value and effort of our sincere, hard wrought labour. We desire for the sum of our time of striving, of our life to count for something, somehow. To have our value affirmed, known, revealed in the sum of our parts, in what we've acquired through our striving labour, through living righteously and honourably.
And yet, uneasily, we also know that when we die all we've gained, amassed, will pass from us to those who did not earn it. And we’ve no control, no way of knowing or determining the character of those who’ll gain from our toil. We also know, uncomfortably, that there are those who live amassing, gaining little or nothing. Who live perhaps dissolute and dishonourable lives under the same sky as us, the same sun and the same rain. They too have lived and will die and the memory of them will, like ours, pass.
Vanity of vanity and chasing the wind, how are we to live with this being so, how are we to live?
Such echo of this resounds in today's gospel. We might be accustomed to hearing this parable as a remonstration against wealth, against the amassing of resources beyond our need. And this may well be a part of the deal. Yet the focus seems to me to be more upon the rich man’s self-understanding. About the choices he makes based on his understanding of what secures him, what tells him who he is, what bestows upon him value and worth. The way the story is told this rich man understands he and his life are described, valued, known and successfully secured by the sum of his wealth. So yes, for sure, excessive wealth is part of the picture – somewhat incidental, yet curiously telling.
Wealth is a potent measure of success in our society, as doubtless it was in the time of Ecclesiastes. Wealth’s a measurable thing. In its varied forms it’s a resource for trading with in life so we could see it simply as a convenience, a necessity. However it’s also become a primary means by which we measure ourselves, by which we compare ourselves one to another.
But let me ask you, does such wealth, the means of trade with which you’ve negotiated and amassed resources for your life, does it tell you who you are in the essence of yourself? I’m not meaning by this what you can do, how clever, intelligent, useful you are and how this is recognised through financial reward. Rather does your wealth remind, redirect you to consider the wondrous uniqueness of you, your created “beingness”? Does it cause you to pause and notice this moment? Consider the immense unlikely improbability of this creation that is, upon which you are delicately and utterly dependent? And that none of it’s your doing?
Has our ‘most of the time toiling in life’ for wealth and our ‘all is vanity seeking for this toil to have purpose and meaning’ come to cause us to think of ourselves as the sum of a number of parts? Perhaps with careful attention we’ve pieced together, determined and created an intentioned life for ourselves. Put together the component parts of what we discern and determine is a good life and one that fits us. And we’ve stitched these parts together to be a whole.
It’s not that this is wrong but I wonder – in doing so has this stepped us away from remembering we each are a uniquely created whole? Holy, naturally fitted to take our place as participants in the life of the world. Each inherently inclined to creative, life bringing activity for the flourishing of life. Each desired and loved into being to take our place, to live, intimate companions of the divine, and to act in accord with this.
Thinking of this reminded me of a piece I read recently, from real life.
“A young Peace Corp. volunteer entered a small village to teach biology to the native children in Tanzania. After dissecting a frog one day and describing all the muscles and organs to the class so that they could “understand” a frog, he was confronted by a local elder who offered his way to understand the working of frog.
He set loose a second frog destined for dissection and crouched down in a frog-like position and began to move his head and body in synchronicity with the frog. The native elder paused and looked around as the frog paused, and hopped as the frog hopped. The elder increasingly joined into the experience of “frog” with the frog until the frog finally hopped off into the bush.
After many minutes had passed in the becoming one with the frog, the elder described what he had felt happening in his body and “mind” as if he “were” a frog. He reflected to the young volunteer that the young man understood the components of the frog – its muscles and organs – while the elder understood the working of the frog – its froggy moves and idiosyncrasies as a unique frog in its species surveyed in a given environment. He also added that in the native way of knowing about “frog” the frog lived to produce more frogs. Neither way is a more “right way” to know; each leads to different knowings.
In the “dissection” model the view of the world is more static and fixed in time. The world that is sorted into components and parts tends to be interpreted in isolation from other elements. [This] model allows us to gain knowledge about the function of elements of something. The “being” model sees the world as moving and changing. The world is more related and interactive.” 
Neither way is a more right way to know but each leads to different knowings. Having said that, from a frog point of view, one way definitely is more right, one way diminishes and destroys life, the other frees and enables life to flourish.
As we toil in life, we construct, stitch together meaningful lives. We identify, develop and grow our capacities, discern creative opportunities to contribute, to align with others. Depending on the context into which we’re born and perhaps a fair dose of providence along the way we may have chance to amass wealth. We’re tempted, in fact encouraged to keep this wealth for ourselves. Easily and soon it can become a measure of our worth, if we do not also hold the native elder’s way of knowing. A way that invites us to step free from these things, see them for what they are - that they’re not us and may well be binding us. A faith, religious perspective such as this, invites us to remember who we are. To learn to trust we can release our bindings, to pause and notice, pay attention, become one with God. Grow to understand the divine workings of God in the world, each of us, idiosyncratically, as unique individuals in our given environment. We can choose to be rich towards God, generous, openhanded, giving of our abundance, honouring so releasing the abundance of others, not just store up treasures for ourselves.
 Sanford, Carol Science Into Technique: a Systems Research and Development Process for Organizational Science InterOctave, 1991, 6, 7.
In 1920, 99 years ago Casper Calder an assistant priest here at St Matthew’s started the Auckland City Mission. The 1920s was a time of social change after the Great War had ended in 1918 and with the returned servicemen and women came the pandemic influenza epidemic. Our returning soldiers suffered from what is now diagnosed as PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and there was no treatment for this devastating condition. We had no Social Welfare system until 1935. Many in the community were suffering and Casper saw the need.
…for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.
2019 sees the Mission still “standing with those in desperate need.” This morning I will share with you the work of the different teams that make up the Mission.
I would like to welcome some of my colleagues who have joined us this morning.
There are eleven different teams at the Mission and I will start with Wilf’s all important Homeless Community Team. This is the team that manages Haeata our dining area serving over 100 meals at breakfast and lunch. Many of you are volunteers in Haeata and it is wonderful to see the volunteers come in each day so many Aucklanders are very generous with their time to the Mission. This team is not just about meals.
Jeanette organises the activities; Monday starts with Choir practice followed by a band practice then Music makers. Tuesday commences with Waiata attended by many Mission staff followed by the well-attended art class run by a wonderful volunteer Clare. Wednesday includes: Clay, Reading and writing concluding with meditation. Thursday we have Kapa haka and Golden Oldies (those over 55). Friday starts with a Quiz followed by carving. Sunday we have a movie. And there is more we have a Drama Club that meets here at St Matts on Monday evening. There is also a group who go out to work in the Community on a Tuesday.
When our meals are being served and eaten there is another team working in Haeata, Brief Intervention. This is a team of 4 key workers who assist our whanau with benefit applications, accommodation and any other need that may present. This team works with whanau for 12 weeks and if need still persists referral to another Mission service is made.
Our Homeless Outreach Support Service HOSS includes a team of three Key Workers and a Mental Health Nurse. They respond to notifications of homelessness from the general public and monitor those we now who are known rough sleepers. This team starts their day at 6am climbing under bridges, checking grave yards and Central Auckland Parks or where ever a rough sleeper maybe.
I would like to share with you some work I did with HOSS a few years back. We had a young man living on Queen St and he had been there for quite some time and was becoming very unwell physically. We monitored him most days often resulting in my taking down one of the Calder Health Centre’s nurse. Eventually Wiremu became so unwell it was decided we needed to get him off the street has he couldn’t physically manage this himself. On the third attempt we were successful thanks to an AT Bus driver who allowed us to park the detox van on the bus stop by the Civic.
Wiremu’s recovery has been remarkable, after a short admission to hospital we made a plan that he would come to the Mission each week for activities and reside at Karetu House in Greenlane. Now Wiremu is very busy working on his fitness and health. We are so proud of what he has achieved for himself and also reinforced to us how important it is to have activities our whanau can connect with while they work through the issues that caused their homelessness, allowing them to move forward.
A very special team that I work with closely is the Elder Service managed by Gerard who has been at the Mission for some years. This service takes referrals from the community and other agencies regarding anyone over the age of 55 who has social issues some are homeless, many are in their own homes and are socially isolated. Gerard, his Key worker and I have worked closely over the last few months supporting three men dying of cancer. While this is often a journey fraught with frustration it is always a privilege to be there to the end. As many of you will be aware some of our funerals are held here at St Matthew’s.
We have recently had a new team added to the wider HOSS group and this is Housing First where our rough sleepers are supported into accommodation and assisted to sustain their tenancies.
Crisis Care supports our community with food deprivation issuing food parcels from Union St and supporting our satellites such as MUMA, Papakura Marae, Clendon Community Centre and St Luke’s Manurewa. This team also offers budgeting services and advocacy for anyone who walks through our doors.
I am based in the Calder Health Centre as an Assessment Professional providing social work for the patients and working very closely with all our other teams. A rough sleeper’s life is shortened by nearly 30 years, so complex health issues arise for our community well before they are 65 and we have a health system organised to assist those over 65. Our doctors, Gerard’s team and I are constantly trying to manoeuvre around these restrictions. Our medical practice has 1600 patients and 75% of them are high risk. This makes us the largest high risk clinic in New Zealand. We have two full time nurses and four doctors who work various days, most days we have two doctors available. We have walk-in clinics five days a week, a Mental Health Practitioner once a week, Hep C Clinic twice a week, Cads Clinics and a podiatrist visits fortnightly.
Out in Avondale there is our Social Detox Unit who look after those with drug and alcohol addiction with ten in-house beds for treatment that usually lasts two weeks with follow up in the community.
In July the Mission took over the management of James Liston Hostel in Freemans Bay. James Liston has recently had a wonderful renovation physically as well as operationally. It is managed by Charlotte and her extended team. As an emergency housing provider our whanau typically stay there for twelve weeks and move on to permanent housing.
The Mission would not manage without our Distribution Centre. This team provides the thousands of food parcels, clothing and furniture as well as managing our New Beginnings Shops.
All our other teams are assisted by our administration team including our very important Fund raising Team and Homeground who are responsible for the building next door.
The Auckland City Mission in a thousand words. Thank you to my fellow team members for coming this morning and a special thanks to Wiremu.
I will finish with words from Micah:
…and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
June 30, 2019
Ordinary Sunday 13 1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21 Luke 9:51-62
Elisha and Elijah were two OT prophets; strange and mysterious men who strode the stage of the northern part of Israel in the 9thcentury BC. They railed against corruption and decadence; they pleaded with the people and the kings of the day not to abandon God. Elijah is said to have called down fire from heaven on the false prophets of Baal (a pagan God) and at the end of his life he was said to have ascended to heaven on a chariot of fire. Elisha performed many miracles of healing. These giants of Hebrew scripture are in the background of our gospel reading today.
Many of the people of Jesus’ time thought of Jesus as a giant like the prophets, a hero, a miracle worker, someone who stood up to the religious leaders of the day, someone who made them feel strong, someone who inspired them. People often asked Jesus – are you Elijah? But Jesus wasn’t interested in hero worship, he wasn’t interested in people following him for the hype and the excitement.
At the beginning of our gospel passage Jesus and the disciples are in Samaria; the Jews and the Samaritans were pretty hostile too each other and it is no surprise the Samaritans do not welcome Jesus.
So James and John, wanting to be heroes, suggest that they could rain down fire on the people (reminiscent of the prophet Elijah who did just that). James and John, the wannabe prophets. This puts Jesus in a pretty grumpy mood. His followers just don’t get it, they want to be heroes without the hard work, they want him to be a hero.
Then an innocent soul comes alongside Jesus as he walks and says I will follow you wherever you go. Jesus does not give any words of welcome or encouragement – rather he says – foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, I have nowhere to lay my head. A rather sad and lonely Jesus comes through – I have nowhere to call my own, no house I can retreat to. And he implies that anyone who is to follow him will also be on the road, always seeking new people and new places to hear the message, never laying down his or her head.
Following me is about your whole life, the way you live and think and pray, the choices you make.
David Lose says of this passage:
“Does Jesus make a noticeable difference in our lives?
Does the grace, mercy, and love of God made incarnate in Jesus trump our plans and shape our lives, or do we shape our faith to fit the lives we’ve already planned?” 
He doesn’t mean the over simplified idea that God has a “plan” for our lives; but he is asking does our faith mould our lives; are there choices we make and things we do differently because we are people of faith? or do we shape our faith to fit the lives we’ve already planned?
Over the next 3 weeks we are going to be hearing from fellow parishioners in the Telling Our stories series. They will share something of their life story and share with us that very question – how has faith shaped their lives and their choices. Sometimes faith can be gentle and supportive; other times faith can be like the Jesus of today’s account – harsh and in your face. What does it mean to each of us to be a follower of Jesus? As we listen to their stories we will be encouraged to reflect on our own stories.
Back with our gospel story – another poor soul says he wants to follow Jesus but wants to bury his father first; a reasonable request one might think but Jesus says rather callously – let the dead bury the dead. Seize the moment; there is no time to lose; life is here, now.
A final person echoes the Elisha story we heard this morning from the Book of Kings – let me first say goodbye to my loved ones.
Elisha is permitted to do this by Elijah. But Jesus says no – even the great Elisha is not a model here. Do not look back. Tough words for us. Listen over the next few weeks to see how our fellow pilgrims in the faith look at how faith shapes their lives, in the tough moments and the good moments. They are not speaking to us as ‘experts’ but as followers on the same road as us.
In our readings over the next weeks we will continue to accompany Jesus through the eyes of the gospel writer Luke. We will be hearing about the Samaritans again with the famous parable of the “good Samaritan” appearing in two weeks time. The disciples Mary and Martha will argue about whether it is better to serve Jesus or to sit at his feet and listen. There will be encouragement to give up our possessions; stories of healing and of the lost being found. All of these readings in this season of “ordinary” time are there to form us as followers of Jesus.
And also in the next few weeks we will do some work on our parish review as outlined last week for us by Archdeacon Sarah Moss.
She explained the process of survey and workshops. We have an opportunity here to take stock and ask each other how we are doing as a community of faith. How well are we supporting each other as followers of Jesus? And what are we doing collectively to live out that faith. Does our worship empower us for ministry in God’s world? Then when we have reflected on our answers to the surveys we will look at what we want to focus our energies on as a faith community over the next couple of years. What are we being called to let go of? What do we seek in our future together?
While we are doing that we also have other programmes and workshops coming up – your WH lists them – work on anti discrimination; work on climate change; some evening sessions with our resident theologians Susan and John; and of course music and concerts galore. There is lots to choose from in this season – we don’t expect you to do everything but hope you will find something to stretch and challenge you.
Jesus lays out a challenge today – he said this is who I am, follow me or not, take it or leave it. You don’t get to be heroes and call down fire on your enemies. Instead: don’t look back, move forward.
Trinity Sunday again, the day we explore the paradoxical limitation of words with not a little confusion. Perhaps most apt it follows the cacophony of Pentecost voices. The explication of Trinity is as much to limit our grasping at God as to seek to explain. There’s not a lot we can do about this bit of the family inheritance bestowed us, well we could ignore it, but it’s not gone away and actually it’s quite a central identifier of Christianity.
Trinity brings with it incarnation, which we’re pretty OK with and the Holy Spirit of Pentecost that illuminates the wondrous colours of our diverse composition. Again, we’re OK with this. And of Creator, probably something we’re slow to contest. So that kind of leaves us with a Trinity. What can it teach us about incarnating, being the life of God in the world? Is it just theory or is there something real in it?
If we’ve hung out with the divine for a bit we’ve probably had to negotiate the highs and lows that come with relationship. Perhaps along the way we decided to wrestle with the theory, the theological stuff and it may’ve caught our interest. Even so next to the real life experience of God in relationship the theory can seem a little dry. What’s more engaging is working out what difference this God relationship makes – to our life, to the life of the world, to what we do, to how we live.
What affects us most significantly is our experience of the divine, more than words or theory. For to name, create concepts of God, even if they’re concepts intended to defy or deny conception, objectifies and dulls the lustre of rich relationship forged in the tussle with real life. Relationship that helps shape our hopes and aspirations, slakes our thirst for purpose and meaning.
The way God has come to be named is outcome of human discerning, of human perception. With words we name and communicate an experience of divine other. Not just this faith lineage but also other faith lineages are populated with people who've experienced transparency to that which is other, named divine. This is the grounding of the religious enterprise.
Naming God as outcome of relationship and lived experience, naming our aspirations to live as God people in the world is all well and good. But how do we move from word to act? Maybe our wrestle with the notion of Trinity is resource for us? Let me expand.
This last week I found myself faced with a situation of dishonesty and injustice. I could name the injustice but how could I speak so justice might prevail? Speak in sense of that first Genesis story whose narrators declare: God speaks creation into being, the ruach, Spirit of God breathes creation into life and creation becomes. Echoing in the poetry of John’s gospel, “in the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and was God and all things came into being through [that Word.]” Faced with situation of dishonesty and injustice what words could be spoken so justice could come into being. How many of you have found yourself facing such situation? You’re willing to name injustice and want to be part of dismantling it. You’ve a fair idea of how it’s come to be and some idea how and why it’s perpetuated. How do you speak so word becomes act that unravels and unstitches the unjust system? Not in word and act of the system of injustice for that works to empower and feed such system. How does naming our desire for full inclusion of all people, naming the embrace and welcome of diversity as normative and authentic Pentecost church be word and act that makes it real? Not just an aspiration, a hope, a desire to be willed but this other-wise way of living and being made real in time.
The reality is we cannot undo our foolish ways, as the hymn words proclaim, with the same mind that teaches us our foolish ways. To be changed we need source beyond ourselves, beyond our limitations and the limits of our context. One to which we willingly cede, trust ourselves to, in process of transformation and renewal. For we cannot do what we do not know. Can we enact a church of full inclusion and embrace of diversity if we’ve no experience of it, if the structure and system of church isn’t formed this way? We can name we want to, but how can we do this when it isn’t what we know, our heads may want to but the habits of our hearts and bodies aren’t shaped this way. Just so with overturning systems of injustice we’re habituated into. Of course it’s possible, times of history attest to that. But it’s also important to know our limitations. Such change happened but not by sheer dint of unchanging will. Rather by concerted collaboration and a will that was changed.
The formulation of Trinity arose within an historical and political context, one not without intrigue. Words and concepts of that time were used to express in time something beyond time. Unless we can deposit ourselves back in time, or spend a lot of time banging our heads against philosophical conundrums and disentangling political scheming to gain glimpse of perspective, there’s not much we can do about this. However we could take a gentler approach, generate a more sympathetic attitude toward those who crafted these words rather than thinking their God as Trinity formulation was set up just to confound us. A story may help, recounted by Ernesto Sirelli as part of a TED talk, he’d read it in what he described as a futuristic magazine:
There was a group of experts who were once invited to gather together to discuss and consider the future of New York. In 1860 all came together and all speculated about it, what would happen to the city of New York in 100 years. And the conclusion was unanimous. The city of New York would not exist in 100 years. Why? Because they looked at the curve of population growth and they said if the population keeps growing at this rate to move the population of New York around they would have needed 6 million horses and the manure created by 6 million horses would be impossible to deal with. They were already drowning in manure. So from their 1860 perspective they saw that this dirty technology was going to choke the life out of New York. The inevitable conclusion was that the city of New York would cease to exist. But in 40 years’ time what happens? In the year 1900 in the US there were 1001 car manufacturing companies. The idea of a fundamentally different technology not even previously imagined had absolutely taken over.
We too only have the language and the understanding of the time and place in which we’re located to imagine and express things beyond our knowing. Things we’ve perhaps intuited, experiences we’ve had beyond the reach of our ways of knowing, beyond the edges of our present reality. Of justice made real, radical inclusion and diversity celebrated. This story has a very concrete and historical location yet perhaps it speaks to the dilemma we face with Trinity. We wrestle with these ancient inaccessible words yet we too in our time are trying to find words to authentically express our knowing and experiencing of God. Words that will provide continuity into the future, connect with the experience of God in the lives of people yet unborn in a world we can’t imagine. Words that express something of our experience, while aware they’re inadequate in face of God’s continuing self-revelation. It’s tempting to ignore, disregard or discard the words and wisdom of so many years ago. The discipline of tradition, however, advises against such action, suggests rather we’re to learn from and add to. That it’s difficult may prove quite useful – preventing us from grasping God, forcing us rather to learn from our experiencing of God.
It seems a human conundrum, as David Hart reflects in his book The Experience of God, “To speak of God properly … to use words consonant with the teachings of orthodox Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Sikhism, Hinduism, Baha’i … and so forth is to speak of the one infinite source of all that is … and for that reason absolutely [intrinsic] to all things. God so understood is not something posed over against the universe, in addition to it, nor is God the universe itself. … All agree as well … that God can genuinely be known: that is, reasoned toward, intimately encountered, directly experienced with a fullness surpassing mere conceptual comprehension.” 
God can be genuinely known. God is intrinsic to all things. Is God we can genuinely know intrinsic also to us? As we experience and come to know God more genuinely, might this suggest we also come to know ourselves more genuinely? As we experience God, dare to put words to describe that which we experience, do we describe something of the way we are and the way the world is? To talk of Trinity is to say something about mutuality, interdependence, being distinct but not separate from, that the expression of any part is an expression of the whole that the act of any part impacts upon and affects each part of the whole. Are we also speaking of how we, created in image of God, actually are in relation to one another and the world, whether or not we’re aware of it? If this were to be so it might make us very mindful of what we say of God and full of care in how we act.
 Hart, David Bentley. The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014, 30.
During my radio interview with Kim Hill a few weeks ago Kim asked me “in your idea of paradise would there be one big church accommodating everybody?” I said “no, I think diversity is paradise; different expressions of the ways we come to God.” 
I couldn’t imagine anything worse than one monochrome church where everything was agreed upon and everything the same.
Imagine the impossible process to get there! But you might say – didn’t the reading from John last week have Jesus praying that we might all be one? (Jn 17:20). Aren’t we supposed to be “one”.
Well, what do we mean by being “one.”
Cate said last week “When we speak of oneness do we imagine oneness as something unifying, drawn together, retracting into a tight ball - held together by some centralising power?
Or do we imagine oneness as an ever expanding energy, a network with power held in relational connectivity?” 
Pentecost shows us that the second is to be true. An ever-expanding energy, retaining connection to the source.
Pentecost was the Greek name for the Jewish festival, which fell 50 days after Passover, a kind of harvest festival.
Pilgrims gathered in Jerusalem for it.
And the followers of Jesus, we are told, “were all together in one place.” Earlier on in this account Luke writes that the believers numbered about 120 – so a few more than are here this morning but not many. A group about this size; all gathered in one place.
Feeling “one,” feeling unified by their grief that Jesus had died, feeling puzzled by the stories that Jesus had been seen, and then disappeared again. But they were together, they were in one place, they were one.
Then some pretty strange things happen – now, don’t get bogged down in wondering what actually happened – was there an actual wind and actual fire? The more important thing to ask is what are we being told in this story? This event is often seen as the beginning of the church – the moment when the followers of Jesus get their mission and identity.
So what are the components of this identity? First there is the noise like a violent wind – it is not gentle – it is loud and intrusive.
Wake up it seems to say. Then tongues of fire; again not gentle; but bright and urgent. Each person is touched, everyone is marked or chosen by the fire. No one gets to sit in the back row and hope they won’t be noticed. The followers of Jesus are on fire for their faith.
Then the followers speak. They do not speak the same language, they are not all on the same page; they are not all confined by doctrines and creeds. They speak and are understood.
What do they say? We do not know.
But they are understood by Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, Lybia and Cyrene, even Romans, Cretans and Arabs. Being multicultural is nothing new – Jerusalem was an amazing city of many cultures, 2000 years ago. And this amazing mix of peoples and cultures; this diversity (which is such a clichéd word these days I know) this diversity was at the heart of the beginning of our church. The Holy Spirit made it so.
Peter tries to make sense of what is happening for people – he says the prophets spoke about this – you should recognise it – Joel said there would be wind and fire and young people and old people dreaming together. For the politically astute listeners in Peter’s audience they would have heard him quote the prophet Joel and would have noted that the same passage Peter was quoting, also says that God will remove the occupying army from the north of Israel. The Romans would not have got that clue but for the Jewish people of Jerusalem Peter was also making a political statement about the occupying army. This is not just a “spiritual” experience; this was the beginning of a revolution.
So will paradise be one big church accommodating everybody? – only if it is like the church on the day of Pentecost – one source of ever expanding energy. And a crazy diversity of languages and cultures and peoples and genders and orientations. People who have their eye on politics as well.
Markus from Edinburgh asked in his sermon 2 weeks ago – who trusts dreams anyhow these days? We do – because the Spirit came and threw open the doors and hearts and minds of our ancestors and said dream big, go wide, speak the truth to anyone, everywhere.
There are plenty of people within the wider church though who do not want to dream big and go wide but instead want to invite “outsiders” in only if they sign up to strict creeds and exclusive practices. And for too long we have let them hold our church to ransom. In recent weeks in our Anglican Church in NZ some clergy and lay people have left the Anglican church and set up a new “church” which they also want to label Anglican, affiliated with a worldwide movement called Gafcon, funded from the extremely reactionary Diocese of Sydney. These “no longer Anglicans” have elected someone they say will be a “bishop” to lead them. 
They have not said much about who is actually part of this new church nor who participated in the election of the new “bishop”.
Already our Maori colleagues have called them out over having no Treaty statement in their founding principles. Neither have they said publically what their position on women’s leadership is; their funder the Diocese of Sydney will be pressuring them to not have women priests, despite women being on their founding Board.
And then we have plenty of examples of non Anglican churches in the news who ascribe to the same principles of exclusion and inequality, with one of them trying recently to dress up a so called “apology” to the LGBT community for some better PR.
This Pentecost we can lay claim to our heritage, our biblical heritage of difference and oneness, all at the same time. And this Pentecost we reject the sinful forces in our church who would shut down difference and force everyone into a straightjacket of doctrine.
These people have left our wider church because we have had the courage to finally say yes to the Spirit and say yes to full inclusion of the LGBT community in our church. Yes to the leadership of women, yes to the dreams of the young and the prophesy of the old.
I fear that in all the handwringing and worrying about those who have chosen to leave that our bishops and dioceses will not be bold and move forward even more strongly now. We want to that say we are a Pentecostal church – a church of the Spirit who comes with a noisy wind and burning fire and gives us words to say and dreams to dream. We are ready to move forward into a new future and we will not be held back by those who have left or are threatening to leave our wider church. Like the followers in Jerusalem waiting for the Spirit we claim our place this Pentecost amongst the rainbow children of God.
Today is the last Sunday in the season of Easter. These last three weeks the gospel of John has treated us to a slew of farewell words. Aphorisms Jesus’ gifts his beloved disciples, wisdom to guide and prepare them to live without him.
Three weeks ago the gospel read, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples.” Wilf asked not what does Jesus do and how do we emulate that but how did Jesus love. How is it that Jesus loves for by this we’re known as disciples? As if it’s not simply an acquired garment we overlay ourselves with.
Last week we heard, “those who love me, my Father will love and we will come and make our home with them; my peace I give to you, not as the world gives.” Let’s not ask what does this mean what does this peace look like so we can grasp to then emulate. Let’s ask how are we a place of home for the divine, how do we receive a peace given but not as the world gives?
The gospel today, “I in them and you in me that they may become completely one, so that the world may know you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” How is Jesus one with the Father? How are we to become completely one, how is it possible? And who wants this – to become absorbed in some amorphous sameness of being with everyone?
There’s something revelatory going on here. We’ve heard these words before. The repetitive circularity of argument’s sufficiently convoluted to befuddle, perhaps make our eyes glaze over. Yeah, yeah it’s all about love. To disengage.
If something’s being revealed here, what is Jesus talking about? If we’re seeking to comprehend, to gain understanding so to be disciples in our day, what’s being shown forth here? It seems important.
Love, we had, then peace, now oneness. All of these things threaded through with Father and Jesus and Holy Spirit intertwined, as one, and now it’s our turn to be as one.
If we follow a thread through today’s gospel, evading its repetition, it sounds a bit like this, “that they may all be one; that the world may believe you have sent me; and loved them as you have loved me; before the foundation of the world;
Oneness, belief, sent, loved before the foundation of the world.
Oneness … is this about unity? About us being as one or is it that we’re as one being?
When we speak of oneness do we imagine that as some unifying, kind of drawn together, retracting into tight ball – held together by some centralising power? Or do we imagine oneness as an ever expanding energy, a network with power held in the relational connectivity?
This oneness Jesus speaks of in his farewell words to his closest friends – is it something they’re going to have to strive to achieve? Their success or failure as Jesus-teaching bearers depends on them being as one. So they’re to seek oneness before all else. And it may mean they have to guard and defend oneness from any threat of difference or divergence.
Or could this oneness of which Jesus speaks be something that is, the way things are. Consider creation itself. Is it expressing divine oneness in all its abundant and glorious variety, reflecting divine glory, revealing divine love from before the foundation of the world?
How is Jesus one with the Father? We’re accustomed to speak of the divine as uncreated over against that which is created. Jesus is created how is he one with the divine source of life? How can what’s created be as one with uncreated? These are of course words, by which we’re necessarily limited and bound, words to describe what’s beyond words.
Jesus farewell words – are they describing how things are, to his disciples, to those who will hear them and now to us. We’re being invited to participate in the way things are. Also being revealed is of a choice available to us.
If Jesus speaks of how things are, he tells of an innate already connection in God – the creating source of life. As he was sent, intended, so creation’s intended, we each, a creation intended, not by accident made. And, as Jesus knows this, so we can know this. In knowing this we too can be intentional. We too can attend, nurture, strengthen and develop this deep connectivity, participate in relationship, become as one. As we do so we’re opened, made aware we participate in the energy of and for life that which we name God, of our being part of a One. Uniquely and individually we’re created, empowered to choose whether to collaborate, cooperate with this energy for life or to turn aside.
In Brian Taylor’s words, “[W]e can let go of the security of keeping God as a thing for ourselves, as a being. [W]e can come to know God simply as Being itself. … [T]he creative and dynamic energy within us and throughout the universe, of life and love. … If God is Being, then union with God is not something to be achieved; it is a fact of life… our efforts in prayer … are to open ourselves to what is, and what can be realised in us, with awareness. ... If God is Being, then when we love we are … moving with, rather than against, the Being of all life. Love is what works and it is how things are.” 
We’re a community of rich and varied talents and preferences. I know that some of us likely have little time and perhaps little patience for such seeming introspection. Or rather it’s all good and fine but without concrete outputs, what use is it? Some of us just want to get on and do stuff. And last I preached I did indeed suggest that by what we do as a community of faith we’ll be known or become known. That how we enact what we speak of, reveals how we are the resurrected body of Christ in the world.
If being as One is the way things are. We can look to the plethora and variety of creation we see how Oneness is expressed. Or turn to Paul’s metaphor of the many parts that is body of Christ. We, as the body of Christ in this place, are a conglomeration of many, varied, diverse and different parts. We participate in the One that is. It means we need each other. It means we value and take seriously each person who has part, in all their wholeness and brokenness, in our Oneness. We don’t all need to be the same to express oneness.
Likewise we need to be mindful to align our doing with the knowing gained from our growing awareness of how to most skilfully and effectively enact the life of God for the world. We need to open ourselves, to be willing to be changed, to be willing to hear and heed the voice of the other and the cry of creation. We need one another, creation needs us to act and our world has a need of knowing this Oneness of which we speak. Aa authors Andrew Harvey and Carolyn Baker in Savage Grace: Living resiliently in the Dark Night of the Globe, reflect:
“Many activists have … [a] profoundly limiting rejection of religion and any form of spirituality. … One of our deepest purposes in writing this book is to awaken activists of every kind to the urgent necessity of empowering themselves at a far deeper level … with the peace, passion, stamina and moral and spiritual strength that can only come from an incessant cultivation of the inner divine.
It would be tragic if the dominant soulless culture prevents activists from drawing on the grace, power, stamina, strength and discerning wisdom of the conscious spirit. …[C]onfronting the appallingly difficult world crisis in which we are engulfed without being sustained by spiritual practice is, as Marion Woodman once said … like walking into a raging forest fire dressed only in a paper tutu.
What this demands of us is an unprecedented claiming of our own inner and outer authority. If humanity is going to have the ghost of a chance … it can only be through the arising of a worldwide movement of universal love in action. This cannot come from above. It can only come from the individual acts of millions of ordinary people daring to come together … to claim and take back their power. In an increasingly authoritarian society … the only source of strength is within ourselves and within the communities we improvise and create. 
Oneness is not limited to the boundaries of community we create. We participate in Oneness with creation. We have unique and particular part to play. It is time to take our place. It is time to act.
 Brian C. Taylor Setting the Gospel Free SCM Press London 2010, 64
 Andrew Harvey and Carolyn Baker Savage Grace: Living Resiliently in the Dark Night of the Globe iUniverse: Bloomington, IN 2017, 49-51
Ki te ingoa o te Matua, o te Tamaiti, o te Wairua Tapu. Amine.
First of all, I would like to acknowledge the Iwi of this land on which I am but a guest. They and their ancestors have hallowed it with their presence and lives. I honour them: All our relations!
My name is Markus Dünzkofer and I am one of the members of the conference so wonderfully hosted by your vicar. Helen and Stephen are providing an amazing experience for us who have travelled from Paris, London, Hong Kong, Sydney and Edinburgh. It’s been amazing, as we strengthen our bonds of affection across the worldwide Anglican Communion. Thank you to all here at St Matthew’s for the hard work of organising this conference and thank you to Trinity Church New York for their generosity.
I am the rector of St John’s Episcopal Church in Edinburgh and I bring you greetings from Scotland, a nation which has much in common with New Zealand. And I am not just talking sheep and the Crown. But we share the experience of living with a considerably larger neighbour that sometimes makes all kinds assumptions about us and easily takes us for granted. And with all due respect to my Australian, English, US American, and German friends, but let me tell you, I very much understand that Kiwis are unique and different and that you can cope on your own quite comfortably, thank you very much!
Let me thank Helen also for inviting me into this pulpit to once and for all clear up the all-important question: What does a Scot wear underneath his… cassock? Well, a kilt, of course.
The great Jewish theologian Martin Buber tells this story:
Isaac Ben Jekel of Krakow in Poland after years of hardship had a dream one night. In the dream, God, baruch haShem, suggested to him to search for a treasure under a bridge in Prague in Bohemia. Isaac did not re-act immediately. But after he had had the same dream three times in a row, he packed up and wandered the long road to Prague.
He arrived in Prague and found the bridge. But there were guards protecting it. Isaac did not dare start digging. But every morning he would walk to the bridge and linger about.
Finally, the sergeant of the guard approached Isaac, and asked in a friendly tone: “What are you looking for?” Isaac replied: “While in Poland I dreamt that I should look for a treasure under this bridge.” The sergeant laughed and said: “You poor man. You left your home and journeyed to a different place, a different city, a different country, to please a dream? Who trusts dreams anyhow?” And the sergeant laughed again.
Yes, indeed, who trusts dreams anyhow?
Nobody in this difficult era of human history!
This is not the time to trust dreams! We live in a world, where we don’t need dreamers, right? We need practical people, we need do-ers, who can deal with the issues before us. Dreamers with their crazy ideas of globalisation and human interconnectedness have brought us to this point of crisis. Brexit. Christchurch. Sri Lanka. Rising nationalism and racism. Incompetence in sustaining the biosphere. All these ring out in our ears and dismantle the prevalent ideologies and philosophies of the past 50 years!
We live in times of anxiety and fear. And dreamers are needed no more! Rather, we defer to those, who can provide easy, practical answers. We embrace do-ers, who continue to operate within our experiences, within our limits, within our familiar understandings. We now trust those who connect to the populous with plans for swift, if short-sighted, narrow, and exclusivist actions.
Who trusts dreams anyhow?
No-one it seems.
Who trusts dreams anyhow?
The apostle Paul did.
Well, actually, this is not quite true: Initially, it wasn’t really a question of trusting a dream. Remember, he was knocked off his high horse by a dream, by a vision of something that was so removed from his experience that it shook and blind-sighted him. It was as if his entire religious memory bank, indeed, his entire identity was re-set, erasing fundamental understandings of the world and deep held convictions about God.
Saul, the do-er, who thought he had exclusive access to the divine and then thought he could translate God’s will into action, this Saul turned into Paul, who, despite being limited by his own time and culture, was a dreamer, who had a broader vision for God’s wandering people, a wider vision to move forward in the journey into the mystery of our triune God. Once Paul’s egomaniac and zealous facade had been dismantled by the Risen One, whose empty tomb to this day remains an implausible dream challenging our do-er culture – once Paul fell off his high horse, he saw as in a mirror something that he had never seen before: He saw himself naked and bare, frail and fragile, finite and imperfect, held captive by fear and rebellion against God, a puppet of the religious, political and economic elites as much as of his own self-righteousness and arrogance. And, yet, he saw something else. He saw himself at the same time as beloved and cherished: held close to God’s heart, redeemed by Christ’s blood, and infused with grace by God’s Spirit.
God caught him as he fell of his horse.
And God turned everything around, forcing Paul to broadened his vision of himself beyond imagination.
And it forced Paul to broadened the vision of God’s people, too: no longer was the church to be limited by rules and regulations, but what matters are the living and loving relationships with God, with one another, and with creation as a whole. It was a dream, and not just any dream. It was God’s vision and this vision proved to be the lifeline not just for Paul, but also for the church and indeed for creation. The Macedonian in today’s reading from Acts is more than just a man from across the border, longing desperately to hear and be given the Good News of God in Jesus Christ. The Macedonian also stands for all those throughout history who reveal to the church that the familiar and the comfortable, whatever that might be (including our liberal theology), blinds her and makes her incapable of recognising God already at work in surprising and unusual ways.
Ironically, once the church’s eyes are open, she can dream up a new reality: a broader, deeper, and bolder vision of what it means to be witnesses to salvation and redemption in our Lord Jesus Christ and of what it means to be a prophetic people from every nation, tribe, people and language, and from every gender identity, sexuality, and socio-economic background.
The sergeant of the guard in Martin Buber’s story had too limited of a view of the world. He was a do-er, who guarded the status quo. He stayed put unwilling to be moved. And nothing life-giving would come of it.
Life, however, is brought about by people, who anchor themselves firmly in God’s self-revelation and who also are willing to dream dreams that move them to discover God beyond the confines of the familiar. People like Abraham and Sarah, Jacob, Ruth and Naomi, Mary and Joseph, Francis and Clare of Assisi, Evelyn Underhill, Florence Nightingale, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King Jr, and the apostle Paul himself. They let themselves be enticed by God and became God’s dreamers, willing to explore new shores fully expecting to discover God waiting there with the fullness of God’s grace.
A few days ago, I visited the Auckland City Mission with our group. What an amazing organisation! Obviously, somebody had a dream that has been life-giving ever since. What will stick with me for a very long time, though, wasn’t the history or the operational practices, but it was a series of photographs of streeties on the walls. They hit me over the head with a two by four, calling me to be a dreamer again. They became my Macedonian reminding me to trust God’s unique self-revelation in Jesus Christ and to dream up visions that will move me beyond the familiar and that will bring God’s healing not just to those hurting in body, mind, and soul, but that will bring healing to me as well. And I trust there are Macedonians waiting for you too.
Isaac Ben Jekel of Krakow in Poland was one of God’s dreamers. And Martin Buber’s story needs to be concluded:
The sergeant of the guard continued talking to Isaac after he had laughed at him.
“Who trusts dreams? If one were, I would have had to also pack up my things some time ago and go to Krakow to look for a Jew called Isaac Ben Jekel. In his kitchen under his stove there supposedly I should have found a treasure! Yeah right!” And the sergeant laughed again.
Isaac, however, bowed down deeply, went home, dug underneath his stove, found the treasure and used it for the good of God’s people.
With our Gospel reading today we seem to have been pulled back into Easter. (In terms of the lectionary of course, we have.) We are back in the upper room with the disciples and Jesus. Wet cloths, pitchers and bowls in the corner. Supper has been completed and Jesus has spoken at some depth to all those in the room. He has appeared troubled at times.
Just before our reading starts a strange and lengthy conversation is held between Jesus and Judas. Its strange because only the two of them know what Judas is about to do. The others have no idea. Judas receives dipped bread from Jesus and with clean feet departs into the night.
So our text begins.
When he (Judas) had gone out, Jesus focuses on his mission and preparing his disciples for what is to come. He speaks of being glorified and of glorifying God, which in Johannine language is a reference to his elevation on a cross. Then he tells his disciples in tender words (“little children”) that he will be with them only a little longer, and that where he is going, they cannot come.
Then we come to perhaps the most oft quoted words in all the Gospels:
I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.
Just as I have loved you. How then has Jesus shown his love at this point in the Gospel. Well Jesus has, since he gathered the disciples, shown them how he has constantly loved them. He has taught them by his actions. Sitting with outsiders whether at a tax collectors table or at a Samaritans well. He has healed numerous times – especially the poor and people of little account. He has feed the disciples, kept them safe.
He has shown them how he has loved by his words, instructing them into the mysteries of this new way of being. He has patiently answered their questions and put up with their failures to understand. He has put up with their squabbles and jostling for pre-eminence. He has welcomed their families into his circle, taught them to understand the Torah from a new perspective. Many of these actions and teachings were dangerous for both the Roman and Judean authorities would have regarded much of what he said as blasphemy or insurrectionist.
In other words, he has demonstrated his love time and time again.
At this point in this sermon I could then ask, “how do we demonstrate our love to one another”. As a Deacon I could talk about my experiences at the Mission. We could explore the various forms of love found in scripture – but I’m not going to do either for I think that for our today we can take those understandings and knowledge for granted (albeit imperfectly).
No for today I’m not so much interested in how many ways we can show our love – I’m not even interested in how many ways Jesus loved – but I am interested in HOW he loved. Let me explain.
Jesus knows he is about to die. And not die gently.
How then can Jesus even begin to talk about love of those who have been with him from the earliest days and yet are about to betray him? How can Jesus begin to talk about love in the face of the devastating events that will soon befall his community?
For clues lets recall the context within which our reading is situated.
Before our text begins, we are told of the betrayal by Judas.
After our text ends, we hear Jesus telling Peter that he will deny him three times.
The horrific fact is that these two small sentences about love are bracketed by two acts of betrayal. One of total betrayal to death and the other a denial by one of Jesus closest followers.
Seeing these two verses in this context reveals a radical kind of love.
In this context Jesus doesn’t talk about love in a general sense. His words are spoken in an intimate setting to those who have travelled many miles together, have broken bread together and who have come to know each other deeply. He speaks simply to his followers without elaboration in the knowledge that soon they will truly comprehend the radical nature of his love.
Only in hindsight will his followers recognise the ferocity of total dedication that Jesus brought to his loving. How he immersed himself in his unique selfless task of loving. How he did this by drawing from his unique well of spiritual knowing, his total faith in his God and his understanding of how the world works. Jesus demonstrated, in his short life, a total focus on his mission.
This degree of focus seems almost inhuman, almost beyond us as humans … and yet.
Neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote a fascinating vignette of an intriguing neurological difficulty. Tourette’s Syndrome is a mental disorder that causes victims to have any number of physical and verbal tics. Some Tourettic people have constant facial twitches, others find themselves uncontrollably uttering verbal whoops, or words they wouldn’t normally use. Dr. Sacks recounted a man who was given to deep, lunging bows, a few verbal shouts, and an obsessive-compulsive adjusting and readjusting of his glasses. This behaviour was constant.
Now that man was a skilled surgeon! Somehow and for some unknown reason, when he donned a mask and gown and entered the operating room, all of his tics disappeared for the duration of the surgery. He lost himself in that role and he did so totally. When the surgery was finished, he returned to his old quirks of glasses adjustment, shouts, and bows.
I understand that Sacks did not make any spiritual comments on this, yet we can find in this doctor a remarkable example of what it can mean to focus or be totally immersed in a way of being.
We know from the lives of the saints both ancient and modern that there really can be a great transformation of peoples lives when they focuse on just one thing – focus to the point that bad traits disappear even as the performing of normal tasks becomes all the more meaningful and remarkable.
As humans we can perhaps just grasp the extent of love that drove Jesus – in the scripture stories we hear time and again the very humanness of love inducing situations that require a radical intervention. We are called to respond to need in an all consuming way.
We are called to feel a depth of compassion that’s gut-wrenching – the look on Lazarus’s family’s faces moved Jesus to raise him after four days of death. We are called to feel a depth of outrage at injustice, Jesus anger at injustice resulted in the clearing of the temple – a love of justice so fierce and so urgent that Jesus used a whip in the holiest place in the nation.
A radical kind of love indeed.
Something like this surely is our Christian goal.
To do this, we need an infusion of a kind of love that does not arise naturally from the context of the world as we know it.
To love in the manner that Jesus loved the disciples, reveals an utterly self-giving, all-consuming desire to live together no matter what, and, in whatever sense is called for. Even to lay down our lives for each other.
Moravian pastor Frank Crouch recounts the story of the Greek Orthodox Bishop Chrysostomos on the island of Zakynthos in 1944. At gunpoint, the Nazis told the bishop and the mayor Loukas Carrer to surrender a list of the names of all the Jewish residents on the island. When the list was presented to the Nazis by Bishop Chrysostomos, it contained only two names: Mayor Carrer and the Bishop. The bishop bravely told the Nazis, "Here are your Jews. If you choose to deport the Jews of Zakynthos, you must also take me, and I will share their fate".
The bishop explained to the Nazis that Greek Orthodox Christians believed Paul's teaching in Galatians that there is neither Jew nor Greek.
The fact that the Bishop survived the war (as did all of the Jewish islanders) in no way diminishes his ultimate self-giving.
That same war saw some 2720 priests incarcerated in Dachau Concentration Camp. 1034 perished – the majority (868) were Polish.
Such example are not of everyday stuff – yet we can’t discard the fact that in committing to loving as Jesus did anything can happen that could challenge that love. Perhaps one of our greatest challenges however is not to be found in the heroic or remarkable but in the everyday events of our lives.
When we understand the significance of the foot washing, we realise that the kind of love that Jesus talks about can be found in the mundane happenings in our lives. We can only emulate the how of Jesus love by paying attention to the little things of life – for how else will be prepared when the big things come along.
The last words of our reading today “By this everyone will know.” speaks to a future that the disciples can probably hardly guess at. Love will become the litmus test of a Christian. Exhilarating – yes and perhaps terrifying. For to love to the depth that Jesus did will require all that the disciples have to give. And give they did. All were executed in enacting the love that was commanded of them – all with the exception of the generally recognised writer of this Gospel who died in his bed. And it is to John we turn for our last words.
It is said that John, in his old age, would remind those around him to love one another. When questioned why he told them this so many times, his reply would be,
“Because it is what our Lord commanded. If it is all you do, then it is enough.”
I came across an interesting discussion on twitter this week about the use of the term “Lord” in worship. 
I know – nerdy clergy stuff – but this is actually a conversation we also have here in our worship committee. Reasons to avoid Lord as a word for God were – it is a masculine name for God; it makes us think of medieval English hierarchy; people in the discussion were pretty much agreed that the many and varied names for God in the Bible should be used in variety and the occasional Lord in a hymn wouldn’t kill us. (Except that is for the 100 people the Rev Stacey Midge from Ohio had to block for being abusive and calling her a heretic).
More problematic though was the discussion about what to do with Jesus as Lord. When the early Christians say “Jesus is lord” they are making a political statement saying the Roman Emperor is not Lord, Jesus is. In making this claim they risked death, or at the very least persecution. Nobody really came up with a better more modern word in this scenario where we want to keep the political strength of the statement – the best was probably “sovereign one” – but in our context that still sounds a bit like the royal family.
We could have the same kind of discussion about the language in our first reading from the Book of Revelation. In the liberal/ progressive church tradition to which we belong I don’t think we often read from the book of Revelation. Its end times, apocalyptic imagery and talk of angels and thrones is not really to our taste.
Written for communities who followed in the tradition of the gospel of John and the letters of John, it speaks in images which are strange to our ears. It is written though, to real communities of people, about real situations, but in a style which makes it seem very disconnected from our reality.
When the multitudes cry out “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb” (Rev 7:10) we hear imagery which speaks of a far away God, in a heaven “up there” somewhere that we don’t really believe in. But try listening again to the words and think of early 2nd century Christians and Jews being persecuted by the Romans. Then perhaps we can hear them differently. As the twitter discussion reminded us, Christians were killed for refusing to call the emperor Lord. They defied the propaganda of the Roman Empire and called Jesus, Lord (read, sovereign). So “salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne” is not about God in some far away heaven, but God on the throne of the lives of those early Christians, God whom they worshiped, not the Emperor.
This was very radical and political talk and certainly cost them their lives. They are comforted by the writer of the book of Revelation – there will come a time when “they will hunger no more, thirst no more, and the Lamb (that is Jesus) will guide them to the springs of the water of life, and will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (Rev 7:16-17). In an interesting overlaying of imagery the Lamb is also going to be the shepherd who will guide them.
In the same way Jesus was the shepherd in John’s gospel, calling the sheep who know his voice to follow him. And echoing the 23rd psalm “the Lord is my shepherd, who leads me beside still waters and restores my soul”. The Christians are being asked to put their faith and lives on the line and call Jesus Lord, not the Emperor; and in doing so begin to build a new community, a new way of living, where souls can be restored.
In her sermon last week Cate said we are called “to tell a different story from the story of violence, intolerance, injustice and oppression” which has appeared in the form of the Christchurch massacre and other acts of hate in our land. She said we can we learn “to act together in a different way, so a way of living well together” is seen and heard. We can work as a community to model acts of graciousness and love and repel violence and fear.
The over dramatic language of Revelation says the same thing – there is a diversity of people “from all tribes and languages”, who declare their faith in God and in the goodness of God. They are not promised an end to suffering, but they are promised the waters of life. So how does this work?
The gospel of John seems to be saying that the foundation of the way we build this community is found in trusting that God has called us into this place of relationship with each other and with God.
“My sheep hear my voice, I know them”; like Mary Magdalene at the tomb recognizing Jesus by his voice when he says her name, we hear our names called, and we are told no one will snatch us from the hand of God.
It is from that place of safety, from those still waters that we gather here and say – how can we face down the evil of our world; what can we do to offer dialogue and action that brings peace.
Yesterday we hosted a vigil for peace in Sri Lanka – I was very grateful that at short notice 8 parishioners were able to come and assist with the service and others of you attended. We stood alongside those of other faiths and supported people from Sri Lanka as they ponder yet more violence in their land.
“A great multitude from all tribes and languages” seeking peace and still waters. In order to find that place of peace and still waters we need to spend time hearing our names called; hearing our names called as we come to receive the bread and wine; hearing our names called as we share the peace, say the Lord’s prayer, light candles and receive a blessing.
We take time to nurture our faith so we can stand the heat of the desert and the “great ordeal” (Rev 7:14).
The heat of the desert is the reality of poverty, racism and injustice right outside the doors of this church, on our streets, in our homes, and on our social media feeds. The great ordeal is that racism turned to violence like in Christchurch.
Some of you have started conversations about what next; how do we respond. Keep talking, keep asking, keep listening to the voice that is calling. “My sheep hear my voice, I know them and they follow me.”
Wherever we are called to, we can be sure that no one can snatch us from the hands of God.
We are led beside still waters, and even if we walk in the valley of death we can still say Alleluia Christ is risen; He is risen indeed Alleluia.
Resurrection season again, in today’s gospel Jesus is recognised, either with the sudden abundance of fish or just because he is. It occurs at the end of an unsuccessful night long fishing trip and early morning cook up on the beach.
Other stories have Jesus recognised in a greeting, walking with, at table, in eating of food, in being named, in the breaking of bread, in the blood and flesh of wounds. As Helen said there are many and varied ways of resurrection knowing and doubting and disbelieving, all are part of resurrection. And each happens in the middle of the ordinary.
After Jesus death, after these resurrection encounters what did the disciples do? Confused, fearful, disbelieving, first of all nothing, from what we’re told, at least that was largely the male response. Then, it seems some went back fishing. What else do you do when your world’s upended? What you know.
Resurrection sermons reflect a certain circularity of argument. Resurrection is core to Christianity, necessary, crucial to this lineage. Without it Jesus isn’t the Christ, death isn’t overcome, our faith’s a sham. If there’s one thing you’ve got to uphold it’s this, if only we knew incontrovertibly what it was!!
So sermons might argue to prove plausible explanation for what happened. Or point out you can’t, logically, with the things of this world. But it’s OK, in fact the point, because it’s a matter of faith. And sufficient faith to believe this makes you a true believer, and that means you’re saved – risky to argue with if one with authority declares it. And poking around questioning the literality of bodily resurrection is still a little dicey.
But let’s take a step back. Talk of resurrection only happens in church, which isn’t to diminish it. But the persuasive rhetoric, the examining, the arguing to convince, or confuse, who is it for, what does it do?
What if we just let the story stand? Jesus died by crucifixion. Those who knew Jesus had experience of a continuing sense of him after his death - in different ways. They describe physicality to this after death experience. They were told, “don’t hold on, I send you, go from, believe, don’t look for the living among the dead, trust, receive the Holy Spirit.” This is what we know from the stories we’ve received. A miracle? Well something happened.
It brought to mind advice once given me, from a priest and friend. “It’s not the miraculous, the mystical, the spiritual experience you have that matters so much. For you might then spend the rest of your life trying to emulate it, to recreate the experience. It’s what you do with the gift of it, that’s what’s important. That’s what matters.”
What did the disciples do in response? Eventually they went and told the story of what had happened. Of Jesus – his impact on them, on their living. Jesus himself didn’t actually deliver a body of teaching, rather he taught in story and parable. Look around, see, the kingdom of God is near, is at hand. Look, see, hear, taste, touch, open yourself to encounter a deeper way of knowing what’s already here. Jesus’ companions experienced something in him. They came to name it God presence. It changed them. It changed the way everything was. They saw into the world, behind the veil, discerned the ‘real’. Paul’s experience that knocked him off his perch later impelled him also to tell of a world transformed through his Jesus encounter.
Jesus taught in parable and story. The disciples told the story of Jesus and their experience. The stories we tell, tell our story. The stories we tell story our world, make our world real, tell us and the world, what’s possible, what’s importa