It is wonderful to be with you here this morning, and thank you for the opportunity to preach. I have now been in my role as Archdeacon, and working with the episcopal team of the Diocese, for over 9 years and one of the most enriching things that I do is worshipping with a different congregation each Sunday. I have about 36 ministry units in my region across central Auckland, out West, on the North Shore and up as far as Warkworth. And today it is your turn.
I must say though, that when I looked at the Gospel reading, I wondered why I always get the difficult texts, and perhaps Helen knew exactly what she was doing when she asked me to preach this Sunday. The issues covered include masters and slaves, destroying both soul and body in hell, using swords and setting family members against each other, and living in fear and the losing of one’s life. Wonderful theology! Just a few little subjects to cover! So how do I make friends when preaching on such controversial and difficult issues?
In saying that, I am excited about being here today to celebrate with you in the opening of the new offices. I think this occasion represents the priority that St Matthews in the City has placed on the health and wellbeing of the team who work from this place. COVID-19 has encouraged us to think about our life together, and how we care for one another and keep one another healthy.
2020 has certainly been an interesting year so far. During the COVID-19 lockdown many of us have deeply appreciated some time to slow down a bit, to refocus on the ‘local’, to enjoy time with family, and to support people around us in our journey together to prevent people from getting sick. In saying that there are many people around the world who are still deeply suffering, and who need our support and prayers. And there are many people in our local society who have been, and still are, struggling. The pandemic has highlighted the injustice in our world – both locally and globally. So, what can we do?
Well let’s look again at our Gospel reading this morning. On initial reading it is a divisive text. Here Jesus is promising to set a son against his father and a daughter against her mother, not to mention the daughter in law against her mother in law. Some have read this text to support family dysfunction and disunity – even justifying verbal abuse or violent behaviour within the family structure!
During the COVID-19 lockdown I was part of a global group of theologians who put together a resource in response to domestic violence during this pandemic, and it was published through the Anglican Communion Office. In this resource it stresses that many of our biblical passages have been used to justify violence, and especially domestic violence, and that we need to reinterpret and give clear teachings within these texts. I must say that this text this morning was not one of the passages mentioned in the resource, but never the less it could be considered a text that supports dysfunction and disunity and does not encourage happy families – quite the opposite in fact!
So, what is it saying to us? Well some would say that this text is a fine example of the biblical word’s not saying what, at first glance, it seems to be saying. It is an example of a text that is designed to shock us. It is also an example of where context is important. I would argue that we need to take context seriously in every text and indeed everything we do. Context is everything…, but I am bias being a contextual theologian!
Anyway, back to our Gospel reading. What does the context of Matthew chapter 10 look like? Well, the context is speaking into the experience of judgement and persecution. Jesus is addressing the faithful who seek to live into their Christian faith while facing conflict and discouragement, and even the threat to their physical wellbeing, because of the Gospel’s calling of justice. Sent on a mission of preaching and healing, the disciples have quickly learned what it means to face opposition and struggle. The cosy days of breaking bread with Jesus seem far distant when in response to sharing the Gospel they are rewarded with persecution. And sometimes we can feel a little like this – clergy and laity alike. When we stand up for justice, when we make ourselves vulnerable and go on a protest march – like I did, and many of you did, last week in the BlackLivesMatter march to stand up against racism and violence – or when we share some of our deepest concerns and insights with the people around us, we can be made to feel stupid. Or even worse – we get abusive words and sometimes violent actions thrown back at us. I am sure all of us have experienced times in our lives where we have felt persecuted or judged for standing up against violence or standing up for promoting healthy societies for all people. And some of the judgement comes from those who are closest to us – our family and our friends. I am sure I share experiences with many of you of leaving a family dinner or occasion furious because a specific justice issue is raised and very different opinions to yours are expressed. Maybe an unconscious bias raises its head and we try to highlight it. And believe me, and you will know, parents and brothers and sisters, let alone aunts and uncles do not take well to be being critiqued on such issues.
In our text today the point, or emphasis, is about the overarching importance of continuing to stand up for the Gospel of love and justice – even when we are judged. The individual, and the family structure, must be of less concern than the fight for justice. Because – and this is the important point – individual lives, family structures, and the whole of society will thrive when the Gospel of love and justice is heard and embraced. Jesus is not against the family. Rather he acknowledges that there will be times when allegiance to the Gospel causes a crisis of loyalty and forces a decision.
The Gospel shakes up values, rearranges priorities, and reorients goals. Following the way of Jesus does not mean a passive acceptance of the injustices and misery of this creation. Instead, we must model a way that gives signs of the realm of God that is to come, a strength that can be known by those who respond positively to the call of God in their lives – that brings freedom and love. We are a people who are called to shake up values, rearrange priorities and reorient goals. And violent events over the past weeks have highlighted that we need to do this more than ever. Thinking particularly today of the shooting of Constable Matthew Hunt, which is a deep tragedy.
In one of the online commentaries it reads:
‘The church that always manages to glide through life without ever rubbing anyone the wrong way may have reason to question whether it is truly Jesus whom it follows and honours.’
I know that this is ‘good news’ for many of you here at St Matthews in the City who have worked hard over many years in raising awareness of social justice issues across our city and nation. It is reassuring for me too, as I reflect on my ministry within the Anglican Church across this province. Because at times it has felt like we are ‘rubbing people the wrong way’. In other words, that through our stand for justice we have made people feel uncomfortable or very angry. And of course, this is precisely what this Gospel text is about. It is not about being quietly peaceful when it comes to justice, but rather it is about loudly challenging the injustices of our world. It is about bringing about change, and we all know that changing any institution let alone a mother or father’s unconscious bias is the most difficult thing in the world.
The sword language in our text today is not about chopping people’s arms or heads off, but rather it is a metaphor for cutting through the attitudes and actions that are unhealthy for our society. Words and actions that support racism, gender-based violence or any violence for that matter, homophobia, white collar privilege, to name a few. The Gospel is not about making people comfortable. You could say that it is about standing up against – not the people as such – but the opinions and attitudes and actions that speak of privilege and power over. It is about stirring people up to bring about positive change so that ALL people can flourish. In doing so, there is a risk that people get hurt and we fall out with our family, friends and church members. But I think that there is hope in these relationships when justice is realised.
To continue thinking about the metaphor of the family structure, I find it helpful when speaking into why we are shaking up values, rearranging priorities and reorienting goals. It is not just to annoy our family members, although sometimes we might secretly enjoy doing that. Rather the intention for change is so that the whole of society will thrive, not just the privileged ones. And when the whole of society thrives all relationships thrive, including our family relationships. In saying that, there is always work to be done. If we consider the context of our Gospel reading, the same overarching stories of abuse, persecution, unconscious bias and the falling out with those around us are with us today. Maybe the way we live and work together might be different from our biblical context, but the struggle for justice particularly for the more vulnerable in our society remain.
So, please do not give up on shaking up values, rearranging priorities and reorienting goals. It might feel at times that your family members in other parishes or dioceses or provinces are not always with you, but in order to bring about positive change there is always the fine line of keeping in relationship, which is important, but more importantly challenging values, priorities and goals in order to seek justice. But in doing this our text reminds us that there is often a personal cost. I don’t need to tell any of you here today about that. Many of us have experienced pain and extreme criticism in our striving for justice.
I cannot finish without mentioning verse 30 that we do like in our Gospel reading this morning: ‘Even the hairs of your head are all counted’. This brings it back to highlighting the attention and care that each one of us receives from God. We are all valued, no matter how frail, or afraid, or passionate or inappropriate we are – we are all deeply loved. When we fall out with others, or say things we regret, or don’t get the timing or phrase quite right in trying to articulate our ideals – we are loved. When our loved ones don’t get us, and we feel the pain – we are loved. For God loves us first. What we do in return is in response to that love.
So, may our response be about standing up for those who are vulnerable, and persecuted and who are not valued for who they are. In the name of God let us shake up values, rearrange priorities and reorient goals so that all may know and experience both the love of God and of one another.
Te Pouhere Sunday is a celebration of partnership across cultures.
“Pou” means post, like the large posts that hold up a whare nui; and “here” means to guide. Te Pouhere is the framework that guides how the church lives, prays, meets together; and how we give freedom to each partner to join in Christ’s mission in their own cultural context.
Our three tikanga of Maori, Pasifika and Pakeha are woven together and free to pursue our own ways of being. This constitution of our church was created in 1992 and it was a radical vision for its time. A vision of partnership and sharing of power, in particular at General Synod. As with all institutions it is far from perfect but it strives to create a more just and equal way of being the Body of Christ together.
We are being challenged to look again at our own cross cultural relationships in Aotearoa as we watch the Black Lives Matter movement sweep the world. After the horrendous murder of George Floyd the fires of protest have swept the US. And it does seem that even though there have been protests before and change has been promised before, that this time change is more possible. In conversations I have had in the past week with friends and colleagues in the US they are saying this time is different.
But also the craziness of “fake news” is also present. One friend told me about theories going around that the video of the murder of George Floyd was fake. And Trump followers are hanging on to their belief that the president is doing a good job. It is very easy for us to look from a distance and say how terrible it is in the US. And how their history of slavery has crippled their society and their race relations. And it is terrible and they need the support of the whole world to bring about change. We should always speak up about injustice when we see it.
I know our Episcopalian colleagues have appreciated the support of the worldwide Anglican Communion in condemning the photo op visit of President Trump to St John’s Lafayette Square. You know the one where he is holding up the Bible – quite why we do not know.
Bishop Mariann Budde, the Bishop of Washington said this:
The President just used a Bible and one of the churches of my diocese as a backdrop for a message antithetical to the teachings of Jesus and everything that our church stands for. To do so, he sanctioned the use of tear gas by police officers in riot gear to clear the church yard.
I am outraged.
The President did not pray when he came to St. John’s; nor did he acknowledge the agony and sacred worth of people of color in our nation who rightfully demand an end to 400 years of systemic racism and white supremacy in our country.
We in the Diocese of Washington follow Jesus in His Way of Love. We aspire to be people of peace and advocates of justice. In no way do we support the President’s incendiary response to a wounded, grieving nation. In faithfulness to our Savior who lived a life of non-violence and sacrificial love, we align ourselves with those seeking justice for the death of George Floyd and countless others through the sacred act of peaceful protest. 
And so we support them with our messages and our prayer and our marches. But we do so while looking at ourselves and allowing ourselves to be challenged. We need to learn our own history; we need to ask our own questions. Why is 51% of our prison population Maori? Why is there so much income and health disparity between Pakeha and Maori?
In the church why are most of the Maori clergy unpaid? We need to be open to challenge and to learn; to catch ourselves if we rush to make assumptions about someone from another culture; and to dig into the concepts of “white privilege”, colonialism and systemic racism.
In our faith tradition one of the places we can look for inspiration is the OT prophets. The prophets call out those in power and challenge the people to wake up and change their ways. The prophets are not polite; they call it as they see it. We heard from Isaiah this morning – Isaiah living around 540 BC when the people of Israel were in exile in Babylon but hoping to return.
Isaiah says to the people “Sing to the Lord a new song … let the sea roar …let the deserts and its towns lift their voice”.
Walter Brueggemann says that Isaiah is teaching the people “disciplines of readiness” to be ready for their homecoming to Jerusalem. 
The homecoming will not happen if the people are not living as people of hope, open and ready. He says first the people have to retell their “dangerous memories”, the truth of their own failings; and the truth that God has always been with them since the beginning of creation. And then they have to speak out against the empire that currently oppresses them – that too is dangerous. Then come the dangerous promises – the promises that God has made to the people of a return to home and the promises the people make to keep their hope alive.
“Sing to the Lord a new song … let the sea roar …let the deserts and its towns lift their voice”
And what will they sing?
They will sing praise to God who can be described as a soldier going to war; and then in the next breath a woman crying out in labour.
“For a long time I have held my peace … now I will cry out like a woman in labour … I will lay waste to this land and any who trust in false gods will be put to shame.”
Brueggemann says “The important point is that Isaiah’s poem is outrageous and unreasonable. It invites exiles to sing against reality, to dance toward a future not even discernible, to praise the faithful God who will not be held captive by imperial reality. The singing and dancing and praising is an act of hope, a betting on God’s capacity for an inexplicable future. It is the sort of hoping serious, baptised people must always do, always against the data, with trust in God’s promise.” 
So when we sing and pray and recite the story of our faith in the eucharistic prayer; when we march in a BLM march, or cheer marchers on from the sides; we claim that dangerous promise. We claim the hope that we can do better and be better; that we can look at ourselves and our history with the unflinching and searing eyes of the prophets.
And when we are found wanting we can pick ourselves up and sing to God a new song, praising the God who has created us good and created us better than we are.
Hannah Skinner, a chaplain at Manchester University in the UK wrote this:
And when a black man that I never knew suffocates beneath the knee of an oppressor that I’ll never meet…when life is crushed and death prevails… when the strength of the mighty is felt yet again upon the neck of those judged less safe, less precious and – ultimately – less human because of their skin colour…
Then anger surges like labour-pain, deep within my bones and forcing me to my feet. I am not black, but I am minority. I am not man, but I am sister. I will not meet George Floyd or lay my flowers where he met his curb-side death, but I live among my black and brown neighbours and encounter maybe something of his experience in them each day. So I will bring my minority anger, and I will stand as a sister-in arms – bright anger coursing through the fingers I use to weave each word and web of solidarity. From my own privilege I will offer up my anger alongside others, still dreaming that together we can create a world where children will be judged by the content of their character.
Power with those who protest, and power to them to bring change. Power with all us who are angry today, and power to us all to bring change. 
On this Te Pouhere Sunday we tell our story of partnership, of good things achieved and failures too, and hope that we can do better.
As the young people of the Diocese lead us in prayer before the BLM march we commit to looking at our own nation while calling for change in other nations.
We claim against all the data to be people of hope and faith who trust in God’s dangerous and wonderful promises.
Just then, in front of him, there was a man who had dropsy. And Jesus asked the lawyers and Pharisees, ‘Is it lawful to cure people on the sabbath, or not?’ But they were silent. So Jesus took him and healed him, and sent him away. (Luke 14:2, 3)
I am that man. I have had dropsy and it seems that Jesus (with the help of pharmacy companies) has healed me. Dropsy, hydropsy, is oedema which is fluid retention or swelling, it is the build-up of fluid in some part of the body. I have had dropsy because I have lymphoma, it’s a terminal aggressive kind of lymphoma. I retired and went away. Against predictions I made it to my own birthday last weekend and this birthday, 100 years since the Mission’s nativity here in this church. Two great weekends I did not expect to have.
So, I happily stand here and honour all those who have gone before us who have given the Mission its life, been its limbs and lungs, who have served and sorrowed in our doorways, those who have been donors and those who have been the diners, most of the names lost to memory, some of them were real saints and all of them sinners, all of them in some way part of the fabric Mission down the century.
I acknowledge this building, this sacred space, my fellow bishops Ross and Kito, Helen, Cate, Wilf and Linda clergy here at St Matthew’s, Chris our current Missioner (and through you Chris, I’d like to honour all of the Missioners who have served faithfully in that role, beginning, of course, with the notorious and wonderful Jasper Calder) and then all of you, …those from the St Matthew’s whanau, the Mission whanau, … all of you who have gathered here to offer thanksgiving and worship today. May the Good God be with us all.
Really, if you were to count all that I have said as not really sermon, but an introduction, it shouldn’t be counted as part of my eight minutes. Arguably, eight minutes should be the limit on any speaker or preacher this week after the eight minutes it took to extinguish the life flame from George Floyd.
The virus of racism has been surfaced around the globe and some are fearful, some are full of rage, mostly there is a blessed rage for justice and equality. In 1961, author James Baldwin was asked by a radio host about being Black in America. He said:
To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a state of rage almost, almost all of the time.
I am aware that the virus of racism is not so much background but foreground for us today, along with the virus unimaginatively called Covid 19, which is also killing people in all sorts of nasty ways even as I speak. 40,000 dead in Britain! Numbers unimaginable.
It all presses in on us.
But this is the place and the work of the Mission, always has been, to be standing right there, with those who are staring into the faces of death – homelessness or health issues or are just plain hungry – hungry for food for themselves or their family; those who yearn for a different way than the no exit lines of unemployment, and choked lanes of welfare benefits.
And we might ‘tut-tut’ about the US of A and, say, the mass incarceration of black Americans, and the death penalty that is still legal in a number of States is shocking and shameful but the statistics that has the mass incarceration of brown people in this country is not much better and it all boils down to a matter of justice.
Justice delayed and delayed and deep justice that is plainly denied.
One can’t work at the Mission for long and not feel the words of Amos well up within us “let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream."
But Amos is not our text, not the Gospel appointed for today (Luke 14:1-14), that comes from Luke. By the grace of God it is my task to crack open the Word with my words.
The Gospel passage has Jesus going to the house of the leader of the Pharisees. It is surely a companion piece of Luke 10 and Parable of the Good Samaritan where Jesus is being questioned by scribes and Pharisees. That story is possibly the best-known pieces of the New Testament; in it Jesus is quizzed by a lawyer about what he must do to inherit eternal life and the answer: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind and your neighbour as yourself’. The answer only leads the lawyer to ask: but who is my neighbour? and the parable of the Good Samaritan is Jesus response, the neighbour is the one who acted as the neighbour namely the Good Samaritan who crossed the road to help the robbed and beaten man. The story is so well known that it as entered our everyday lexicon to refer to anyone who does good for others.
So, today some chapters later Luke has Jesus off for Shabbat dinner with the good synagogue going folk – what we might see as the church going, pious well to do and well educated of town – and the question of neighbour relations resurfaces because Jesus up and heals the man with dropsy right there and then without so much as a by-your-leave. So, the implicit questions become:
When should we help the sick? Who should we help? … and because we are at a dinner: Who should we have over to our place for dinner?
You might say that Jesus gets right up in the Pharisees grill – remember there is no actual grilling going on because pious Jews would have prepared all the Shabbat meals ahead of time – and he says don’t just care for your friends and family or those who society honours; you are to care for those with whom you have no relationship, no obligations.
If care is a synonym for love, and I think it is here, this is about neighbour love where the neighbour is somebody we have, what is called in philosophy, no special relationship.
I have a special relationship with my brother or my daughter. To love and care for them mostly arises from that special relationship. It was the Christian philosopher Soren Kierkegaard who first suggested that the love in special relationships was ultimately self-serving and therefore not a Christian love.
Similarly, some writers have questioned whether Jesus was interested in the question of justice at all. You see, justice is about giving and honouring the claim rights that someone else has over you or over society in general. According to Anders Nygren’s, seminal book, Agape and Eros, justice is a matter of duty and has nothing to do with Christian love. More radically Jean-Luc Marion argues that justice always ultimately belongs to an economy of exchange and love, what Marion calls the Erotic phenomenon, looks for no exchange. Love makes possible the true gift, a gift with no return. Charity if you like.
Now this is not the time or place to argue the details about Kiekegaard, and Marion, and the other who have attended to the question of Love and Justice. What I do think is that there is something in the insight about the difference between love for family and the spontaneous love and care for the other – the complete stranger. This is what Jesus speaks of in today’s Gospel. It is love that reaches across and beyond any reasonable limits we might have, a love that goes where no relationship exists – no relationship except the most basic bonds of compassion for another human being.
If you can recall, When the Samaritan first sees the beaten man by the side of the road we are told in our English translations that he is ‘moved with pity.’ Pity is such inferior translation here precisely because pity conveys a kind of dominance. Compassion is the better word. God has compassion on us as mother for her child, the bonds of compassion are as the umbilical cord, a fundamental gut connection between one life and another.
Jesus tells us that where that compassion is all there is, when the other is not a family member, or someone I have any kind of special relationship with, go to their aid too. If someone in need is ‘other’, help them, watch over them, care for them, be part of their healing, love them too. Deep down this is what drives the work and witness of the Auckland City Mission. It is what has driven it for a century, I pray it will drive it for another.
In the name of the loving, liberating, life giving God; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Holy Spirit poured out Pentecost Sunday, poured out on the faithful Jews gathered in Jerusalem for the Feast of Weeks. The tradition proclaims the disciples gathered were filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke in languages able to be understood by people from every nation under heaven. We, gathered now, are we also filled, empowered to speak in ways that can be understood by every nation under heaven? If so, what are we doing with this gift? Taking the good news, being witnesses to the ends of the earth, proclaiming a new way of living and being, made real, for this Spirit’s poured out on all flesh? Are we to stay revelling and comforted in the echo chamber of our own rhetoric? Or are we called and compelled to go from here, from ourselves, into the world, for the world, not for us to make the world like us, in our image, according to our liking?
For us to do this, to go into the world, we need to know the world into which we go. To see and recognise the world as it is. Be willing to stay with the way the world is, even if we’re not sure we like what we see, even if we’re not sure we can bear to hear the way it is. If we can do this, we give ourselves chance to discern the spirit of our world. We give ourselves chance to discern how we participate and contribute to this spirit and to choose other-wise. After all, it’s a part of us, as much as we’re a part of it. As we pay attention to our intention we become more able to listen, more willing to learn, to grow to understand how the good news we say we bear is good news for those we go amongst. Did not Jesus name the spirit to come the Advocate? The Spirit that pours forth at Pentecost is expressed in every unique language, welling up from the heart it desires to flourish.
How are we to gain knowledge of our world? The lock down time gave us many things. It gave us time to attend to our intention – to reorganise, reorder and reflect, to notice what’s important. I read a bit in that time, I listened to voices in and beyond the usual disciplines I explore. With the Covid-19 pandemic centre stage, many of these voices talked to or around the effect of the virus. I was interested in what I heard. Interested to learn at least a bit about the way things are in the world. Disconcerted at times I’ll admit but, heeding my own advice, I tried to stay with what I heard, to discern the spirit in and of our times. I want to share with you some of the voices I heard. As you listen I invite you to keep in mind the challenge before us – what does the good news we bear look like in our time, as Spirit sent people into the world what does an Advocate of good news look like?
First the voice of a journalist “The developed world’s response to the pandemic is imperilling health systems, economies and livelihoods already on the edge. … For many of the most vulnerable, the developed world’s cures are proving worse than the disease. At the extreme, families must choose between going hungry and getting ill. And their plight is exacerbated by Covid-style “underlying conditions” – chronic, pre-existing political, security, economic, and climate problems that grow ever more unsustainable. The pandemic is providing cover for malign governments to pursue or accelerate policies that place lives at risk, regardless of Covid-19. Right now, western responses to the virus are imperilling more people worldwide than the virus itself. 
From a young Pasifika leader: COVID-19 didn’t create inequity. It exposed it. “our decile 2 sch opened today. spent it watching ppl swap leavers notices for CV’s cuz money is low & mouths gotta eat. remembered every joke bout high school dropouts from the mouth of higher decile school kids that didn’t work a day of lockdown. it’s ironic. watched our teachers try their best with what they have while richer schools have unused resources locked away in unused labs. it’s ironic. when lvl 3 came, watched my friends bury their youth in every graveyard shift. day after day they were told they were essential but those chromebooks never came so i guess they were at the bottom of the waiting list. it's ironic. how ppl say “South Auckland broke the lockdown rules the most” when we ask to unarm the police. as if walking outside my house is reason enough to be shot in the street. it’s ironic. how we didn’t break the rules, our mobility rates are so high cuz while u work from home on zoom, we have the most essential workers. packing ur shopping, driving the buses, cleaning ur classrooms. it’s ironic. how Pasifika have one of the lowest infection rates but were put at the most risk. it’s ironic. turned on the TV to hear our domestic violence rates rose, then 5 mins later heard NZQA won’t lower credits cuz the time we have is enough. like any kid wants to write essays when they have to deal with being beat up. it’s ironic. they want us to earn credits but they never give us ours when it's due. it’s ironic. poorer brown kids living the life of the hard knocks, while white girls from Epsom are making racist tiktoks. it’s ironic. & no matter how hard i keep my head in these books, i’m reminded there are things only the streets can teach you. if education is key, why do our locks keep changing? if knowledge is power, why does it come at a price we cant afford? every problem of society taught in class can be found in the hood. 𝔡𝔬𝔫𝔱 𝔫𝔢𝔢𝔡𝔞 𝔡𝔢𝔤𝔯𝔢𝔢 𝔣𝔬𝔯 𝔢𝔪𝔭𝔞𝔱𝔥𝔶. it's ironic. how NZ wants to rebuild, but it's on our backs.” @rascal.gal on Instagram. Shared with permission. 
I wonder what you’re hearing. I wonder on this first day back in church, Pentecost birthday celebration day whether you’re thinking I shouldn’t be so grim. Maybe you’re right. But I want to invite to reflect for a moment. The voices you’ve heard speak of our world as it is. We live in that world and we happen to be people of enormous privilege by compare. With privilege comes responsibility, there’s something biblical about that, covenant of blessing and responsibility. So we know a little more, what are we to do? Let’s listen some more.
Top scientists ask “Regarding the future, should we be depressed or excited? Optimistic or pessimistic? The best approach is to be realistic and pragmatic. It is inevitable that humans will continue to develop technologies, but … we have to put boundaries around them – even though … we will disagree over where the boundaries should be. We need processes that assist us to reach consensus on such matters. … This requires much more sophisticated dialogues than those concerned simply with short-term political expediency. We need to take one of those forms of ingenuity that evolution has given us … the ability to be self-reflective – and synthesize what we can from the multiple of disciplines of science and the humanities to understand out nature and apply our ingenuity wisely. 
A moral philosopher thinks: “the period we inhabit is a critical moment in the history of humanity. … The next century will be a dangerously precarious one. If we make the right decisions, he foresees a future of unimaginable flourishing. If we make the wrong ones, he maintains that we could well go the way of the dodo and the dinosaurs, exiting the planet for good.
Not a pessimist. He sees there are constructive measures to be taken. Humanity … is in its adolescence, and like a teenager that has the physical strength of an adult but lacks foresight and patience, we are a danger to ourselves until we mature. … In the meantime … slow the pace of technological development so as to allow our understanding of its implications to catch up and to build a more advanced moral appreciation of our plight.
It’s vital that, if humanity is to survive, we need a much larger frame of reference for what is right and good. At the moment we hugely undervalue the future, and have little moral grasp of how our actions may affect the thousands of generations that could – or alternatively, might not – come after us.
Our descendants … are in the position of colonised peoples: they’re politically disenfranchised, with no say in the decisions being made that will directly affect them or stop them from existing. Just because they can’t vote … doesn’t mean they can’t be represented.” 
Journalists, young leaders voice concern for the disenfranchised, the consequences of choices made. Scientists, philosopher’s advocate for mutuality and accountability, voice whether there’ll be a world to live in depends on the choices we make. Nary a religious word between them. It’s time to wake up. To heed the call to live beyond ourselves, beyond our niches and echo chambers, to take each other seriously. For those of us who find ourselves in religious places like this remember, we are Advocate/Spirit bearers. We go into the world in and with the Spirit - it asks certain things of us, demands certain things be made real. Let the eloquence of a Rabbi speak, “I am disinclined to pessimism. I prefer hope. Love your neighbour. Love the stranger. Hear the cry of the otherwise unheard. Liberate the poor from their poverty. Care for the dignity of all. Let those who have more than they need share their blessings with those who have less. Feed the hungry, house the homeless, and heal the sick in body and mind. Fight injustice, whoever it is done by and whoever it is done against. And do these things because, being human, we are bound by a covenant of human solidarity, whatever our colour or culture, class or creed.
These are moral principles, not economic or political ones. They have to do with conscience, not wealth or power. But without them, freedom will not survive. The free market and liberal democratic state together will not save liberty, because liberty can never be built by self-interest alone. I-based societies all eventually die. … Other-based societies survive. Morality is not an option. It’s an essential.” 
We are here in our church, in our sacred space. Stones, coloured glass in the windows, candles, altar, the organ. We have been gone 9 weeks. 9 weeks which included Holy Week and Good Friday and Holy Saturday and Easter Day. We have proclaimed Alleluia Christ is risen every Sunday of Easter from our homes. And finally we proclaim it here today, this last Sunday of the Easter season.
We are here, but only a handful of us; we miss all of you who we hope will soon repopulate these pews. So while we are here we wait with anticipation for the day when we can all gather, around the table, to share the bread and wine of the eucharist.
We want life to be normal again. No social distancing and signing in at cafes. We want to have weddings and parties, and funerals. We want to be able to sing together, share the peace by shaking hands, and kneel together at the altar rail.
But I fear that in that longing we are like the disciples looking up to the clouds trying to find Jesus – where did he go – where did our “normal” lives go? The angels who come and ask the disciples – why are you staring at the clouds - are like the angels at the tomb in Luke’s gospel who ask “why do you look for the living among the dead?” (Lk 24:5) They also ask us – why are you looking for your “normal” lives. You can’t look back; you have to look forward.
We would rather return to our old ways; they were familiar and secure. We knew our routines, our jobs, our way of doing things. We want them back! And yet I think we are all finding the re entry a little strange. Some are not sure they want to leave their bubbles; others couldn’t wait, but find the people and the traffic a bit overwhelming. Students have to readjust to school routines. Parents miss their children (or maybe not so much).
We all need to take things at a slower pace while we readjust and not expect everything to be done in the first weeks of the return. We have to take time to find our new balance, our new way of being. And not lose all those things we enjoyed: the quiet and the birds and the lack of traffic. Can we weave those things into our new way of being?
Once the disciples realised they couldn’t hold onto the old way of being with Jesus, they gave up staring at the clouds, and returned to Jerusalem, to the upper room. And they gathered with their community, prayed, and listened and waited. They had no idea what the future would bring but Jesus had said to wait and so they did. Next week at Pentecost we find out what happened.
Had they known the enormity of the experience and the challenge awaiting them they might have quietly slipped back to their homes and lives. Instead they waited. We also need to take time to wait, to reflect, to see what this time has meant. As we go about rebuilding our economy and our communities we need to reassess our priorities both personal and national, and even global. At St Matthew’s we are taking time to listen to each other by way of a survey (please be sure to answer it) and in our Zoom discussion groups. We have been enjoying the small groups, and getting to know each other in a different way.
We have found too that of course Jesus is not contained in this space, beautiful as it might be. We knew that before, but we have really had to experience it these last 9 weeks. Finding God in our homes, and gardens, and in the peace and simplicity. Now we can continue to find God in all those places as well as in our workplaces and schools and cafes and shops. And then when we finally do return to our stones, windows, candles, altar, organ we will bring God with us from the world outside these walls into this space, and we will be the richer for it. So we wait, and give thanks for the presence of God with us wherever we are. We pray with the disciples and the women and the community of faith which stretches from their time to ours. Until the Spirit chooses to come amongst us.
Quite often when we introduce our speaking in church we refer to a date from the liturgical calendar. It can seem like a special code or something for anyone unfamiliar. The church has a calendar year, running alongside the regular one, populated and punctuated with events, framed around the birth, life and death of Jesus. Its imagery often matches nature’s seasons, at least as they occur in the Northern Hemisphere as well as the imagery, and energy of many already existing rituals from the life of the communities into which Christianity spread. Having lived with it for a while it seems to me the cycle of the liturgical season – with its seasons of celebration and lament, of reflection and ordinary time also maps the experience of life and living – the human landscape of life.
At the moment in the liturgical calendar we’re coming to the end of the season of Easter. The feast of the Ascension occurs this week, with gospel reading depicting Jesus withdrawing and being carried up to heaven. Ascensiontide then ensues until the feast of Pentecost on Sunday week. So today is the next to last Sunday in the season of Easter. An Easter season that began with gospel readings of resurrection appearances, then had imagery of Jesus as good shepherd, before speaking of the Father’s house of many dwelling places and Jesus as Way, truth and life.
Each of these Easter season narratives promise familiarity, care, reassurance of continuity in a way the disciples can grasp. They include disciples who are slow to comprehend, or maybe ones brave enough to say what everyone else was thinking. They include disciple disbelief and doubt. They include the need for solid, easy to understand, spelled out explanation. Last week Jesus was heard telling a bewildered Thomas he already knew the Way. Maybe because been living with Jesus had been the way – in their waking and walking, eating and drinking, laughing and weeping, arguing and reconciling, in their incredulity and unbelief at the unexplained taking place in ordinary life. Of course significant words were spoken, but maybe the way was known even more surely through the solid, walking together and with this Jesus. Known in their meeting Jesus who called them to know their unique, potent beautiful selves and gained them courage to express it. In experiencing Jesus insistent determination to live as he proclaimed, to speak plainly and bluntly at times, to name inequity, to live with enough. Known in Jesus’ raging at injustice, his weeping out of love and irresolute naming of power misused. In Jesus frustration and patience with overzealous disciples who walked doubtfully, trustingly, disbelievingly with him – enthusiastic yet uncomprehending a good deal of the time. The Way wasn't magically somewhere else. Perhaps more unbelievably it was with them, in them, where they were, with who they were, together.
Today’s gospel continues from last week, for reassurance sake, or as future promise Jesus now tells of the Advocate, the Spirit of truth, who is to come. Jesus will go from them, no longer be seen, but continuity will be known in the spirit who abides with, in, among them, as they love and keep Jesus commandment to love. Because we read retrospectively, or hear this through the filter of many years of interpretation and tradition, we doubtless hear this intimating Pentecost, the festival soon to come. Pentecost with its great outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the sometimes named birth day of the church – it can be tempting to get exclusive again. As if the Holy Spirit, breathing life into creation, hadn't been there until now (at least not in this special way). But perhaps today is a reiteration, a reminder, a reassurance that Jesus stands in continuity in the flow of divine breathing life into being. Perhaps this small gathered Jewish community hears echo from their tradition, when the Shekinah took leave of the Temple. The remembered visceral experience of divine absence, yet also knowing it wasn’t the end. In time faithful community reformed, changed for and by context, simpler yet as served the needs for their time, place and context. Jesus will die, they will viscerally experience his absence, yet they will, in time, know continuity that will reform, reshape them for their place and time.
Reflecting on the disrupted lockdown times we’re living through there seem parallels with the season of the church year the lockdowns began in. Lockdown level 4 began in Lent, almost at the end of Lent. In a curious way Lockdown Level 4 was like an enforced Lent. For 5 weeks there was little we could do and it gave us time to reflect. Reflect on what was most important, required us to turn to those we found ourselves closely housed with and learn out how to live together. Perhaps uncomfortable truths about relationships were revealed – that they didn’t match our ideals. It hasn’t been easy yet it has been possible. The ripple effect of this time will be played out in the days, years, decades to come and not just in fiscally.
As we transition through Level 3, post Lent, post Easter, we emerge into what may now feel a very uncertain world and discover we’re different somehow. Some of us emerge with a greater awareness of what is important and what can be lived without. Others of us face the stark reality of relationships disrupted or of life without work. For some of us it’s something we’ve never known – life that’s been a particular way is so disrupted we’ve no familiar signposts, or life road markers to negotiate life and this unknown, frightening landscape is overwhelming. And others of us will have to return to life on the streets as winter sets in. Some of us can resume daily pursuits, if in modified form yet many of us are still shut away.
Hidden for so long, fearful behind our locked doors, as we emerge perhaps we’re looking for signs of normalcy to break in and reassure. Like those post Easter resurrection appearances that broke into the reshaped, remade world of the disciples. But they're fleeting, heart-warming in the moment, yet equally bewildering because they don't quite fit us or our changed world anymore. And so we begin to talk together about embracing this change and the opportunities opened up by this break with usual. Like minded interest groups are gathering and activating this way. It can be tempting for this to become more about particular causes than for a greater good. Having been so closely guarded, we might need reminding of the need to lift our eyes beyond the parapet our isolation has created.
As we tentatively move to Level 2 we become even more reliant on the cooperation of one another. Ascension this week marks the time the disciples discovered, experienced together an absence of guiding presence, of being left to depend on their mutual resourcefulness. They chose to take time to pray together, to trust themselves to the rhythm and ritual of prayerful presence in the place of faith known to them. Maybe it was a way of processing, integrating, giving time for their experience to change them, for them to learn the language in body and word they needed, or the world needed from the gift given them.
We’ve experienced a rift in the world, with Covid-19. The response in most parts of the Western world has been to shut down, to flatten the curve so not overwhelm medical resources. The closed door syndrome when we're afraid is normal and probably necessary for a time. But it isn't real. We’re globally interconnected, it’s vital to be aware beyond our parapet. As Arundhati Roy, writes from India, “Whatever it is, coronavirus has made the mighty kneel and brought the world to a halt like nothing else could. Our minds are still racing back and forth, longing for a return to “normality”, trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture. But the rupture exists. And in the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality.
Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.” 
Maybe we can allow Ascensiontide wisdom to speak to us. We need time to still ourselves, to step into rhythms and rituals that call us back to ourselves, remind us of what’s most important. We need time to process, to integrate our experience and be changed by it so we act in new ways for the life of the world.
Some of the lines from our reading today may be familiar to you – “Do not let your hearts be troubled; there are many rooms in my Father’s house” – this is often read at funerals.
And Jesus saying “I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to God except through me” is one of those bumper sticker phrases which aims to exclude anyone from God’s love who is not a Christian.
Both of these passages we assume we understand because of those contexts which have been imposed upon us over time.
“There are many rooms/ or dwelling places in my father’s house” is heard as a reassurance for those mourning – “I go there to prepare a place for you.”
It is seen as a reassurance about the existence of heaven, and life after death.
And with apologies if this has been an important passage for you but John the gospel writer did not have funerals in mind when he wrote these words.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled” is not actually about sadness at a funeral, but about deep distress, fear, and agitation in the face of persecution and suffering.
“John” is writing in the late first century for a community struggling to come to terms with their identity as people of Jewish descent who are being rejected by their own because of their new beliefs and practices.
Do not let your hearts be troubled in this context is – it will be ok – you can step out on the Jesus road – and it will be alright because God will be with you just as Jesus was with you.
Jesus is telling the disciples to stand fearless in the face of persecution, as he stood fearless in the face of death.
He tells them there are many rooms, or many places to dwell in his Father’s house which is not “heaven” – but about being in relationship with God.
The awkward translation “dwelling places” is trying to get at the double meaning of the word meaning a place, and as a metaphor for the “indwelling of the Holy Spirit”.
So when the disciple Thomas, who is ever practical and can’t think in images or metaphors, says “we do not know the way to this house, where are you going, get the map out and show us the way.”
Jesus replies – I am the way – I know God, God dwells in me, and God dwells in you too, because you have known me.
Exasperated Philip joins in “show us the Father and we will be satisfied” just show us already! where, how, what, on the map, in a place.
Jesus, also rather exasperated, says “Have I been with you all this time and still you do not know me?”
Knowing, abiding, dwelling, being in relationship; these are the things John writes about.
There are many rooms in my Father’s house; there are multiple ways to be with God because this is about relationship, not about a physical place.
The disciples know Jesus, he has said to them: abide in me as I abide in you; be with me, walk with me, to the cross, follow my way, and you will know God.
The line “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” has been used over the centuries as an exclusive line, to exclude other religions, and to claim Jesus as The (only) Way to God.
But again the context we use scripture in can distort the original meaning.
Remember John’s context of persecution and opposition and struggle.
They have to find their “way” through this.
The word used for “way” can mean a road, or a journey, or a course of conduct, the way we behave.
In the Book of Acts the early church is described as people of the Way (19:23, 22:4).
The followers of Jesus lived and acted a certain way; they followed a path laid down for them.
And that way was far from exclusive; Jesus never excluded people from his table, his teaching, his followers. Instead he went out of his way to welcome the outcasts and the “sinners.”
So what might these overused and seemingly familiar, but not familiar, lines have to say to us today?
“Do not let your hearts be troubled” might not go down to well – really? when 100s of 1000s of people across the world are dying and when our neighbor has lost their job and when the kids are truly driving us crazy after 6 weeks of lockdown.
Our hearts are rightly troubled by all of these things and more; we are experiencing something life changing and world changing.
If our hearts were not troubled we might be concerned!
Yet perhaps we can hold that sense of trouble or distress within the container of our relationship with God.
Jesus who went to the cross, Jesus the good shepherd holds all of that distress.
That doesn’t really seem possible does it.
Like Thomas and Philip we want to say – how, show us how?
And Jesus replies – stay with me; be in relationship with me; walk my way and I will show you, step by step.
So our challenge now is to discern what the next steps will be for each of us in the Jesus Way.
What will be the path; where will it lead?
As we move out of lockdown (we hope!) we need to take the time to reflect – what have we discovered about ourselves in this time?
what do we want to retain?
our sense of Sabbath time, more time for family and walks; the birds, the lack of pollution.
And what are we looking forward to most – not just takeaways – but seeing people, family, and enjoying the offerings of our local businesses – the hard work of our neighbours.
And what are the hard things we need not to lose sight of; the stress and worry for those losing jobs and businesses.
And what do we want to see on the other side of all of this?
I want to see the homeless who have been housed stay housed;
I want to see us tackle homelessness and poverty with the same energy we have tackled covid 19;
and can we apply the same worldwide energy to climate change.
When Jesus invites us to follow his Way – these are the things that we can do in our context.
At St Matthew’s over the next few weeks we are going to be having conversations together about our new world that we are entering. What do we want to leave behind; what do we want to embrace; what role can we have as people of faith in the public conversation that is evolving?
As we do this Jesus invites us all to walk the Jesus way, being held, and abiding together in the many dwelling places of the house of God.
So far on Sunday’s in our Easter season we’ve been hearing stories of disciples’ experiences after Jesus death. Experiences of encountering a presence, a companion with them, they come to recognise as Jesus. Almost every time this presence appears, breaks into their world, they’re gathered, with another, going about their normal activities. Today the focus in our gospel shifts. Perhaps this ragged band of gathered followers is trying to make sense of things. Put some explanation around, some flesh to the one they’d gathered around. To strengthen and make meaning of the curious draw Jesus had, that he called out from them. Remember we’re embedded in a Jewish community here, a tradition replete with shepherd and sheep imagery narratives. Imagery used to evoke meaning and response, to enable understanding and stimulate action. I wonder the response arising in us to images of shepherd and sheep. I think there’s value in noticing and paying attention to the response these images engender in us, especially if we attribute them to God/Jesus. Unintended or unattended images of God can have potent impact on us and in us, especially if we’re cast as a sheep.
Lynda Patterson, a late Dean of Christchurch humorously illustrated this in a reflection included in a 2015 Lenten Bible study. “Once I was talking to some Catholic friends in Auckland, they invited me up for their little daughter’s first communion celebration. Little Casey was very excited about is and grabbed the phone to tell me about how she held out her hand and the priest put a wafer in it and then he said the special words. Her Mum took the phone and said that Casey had been particularly taken with the words, “God be with you” when she received the host. So much so that she marched home, sat her mother down, presented her with a pink wafer biscuit from one of the packets in the pantry and whispered to her mum in her most reverent voice, “God will get you.”
Out of the mouths of babes … It struck me that that’s a reasonable assessment of what some people think of God. [God] is out to get us.
[Lynda’s] grandmother was a keen embroiderer and [her] first encounter with theology was in the texts she embroidered and illustrated and left in various significant spots around the house. One of her favourites was “Thou God seest me” from Genesis 16:13. It was in every room of the house, accompanied always with an enormous and rather threatening eyeball. As a child it made [her] quite anxious. It was particularly disturbing to sit in the bath with the eye of God gazing down from slightly to the left of the bathroom mirror. [Lynda] always found [her]self adding an awful lot of bubble bath.”
She reflects, “I wonder how many of us secretly believe God is out to get us. God is the looming presence which makes itself felt whenever we’re doing something slightly dodgy; God is the admonitory finger which waves whenever we have an unworthy thought. The eye of God watches at the keyhole and sits under the bare light bulb interrogating us about our failings. We build up the image of God who is high up and far away – too high up to tolerate our slightest weakness and too far away to feel a great deal of sympathy for us.”  I wonder if this resonates with any of you. Even a more benign shepherd image is still other than a sheep and a sheep’s still need fully dependent.
Today’s gospel from John seems, in this Easter season to be moving us from resurrection revelation toward a naming, a validating of Jesus’ identity. The gospel passage is ever so slightly confusing. We hear of sheep and sheepfold, gatekeeper and gate, of thief and bandit, shepherd voice calling and sheep hearing, shepherd entering and sheep going out. Jesus explicitly claiming to be the gate, then explicitly claiming to be the shepherd and, depending on how you look at it, he might at the same time even be the gatekeeper.
So Jesus-the-shepherd enters Jesus-the-gate because Jesus-maybe-the-gatekeeper opens it for him ... so that he can get to the sheep. Confused? Perhaps he’s having an identity crisis, mixing metaphors … or maybe he’s trying to make a larger point.
Jesus as shepherd, well that’s familiar but Jesus as gate, how are we to understand that? There’s an interesting little detail, easily missed, which may help to clarify. But we have to visit Gospel of Luke, in the 13th chapter Jesus tells his disciples to “strive to enter through the narrow door, for many I tell you will seek to enter and will not be able.” This teaching from Luke is much better known than the gate-teaching in the John that’s often lost. This can create a problem because, if we’re not careful, we’d read “I am the gate” in John and think it’s Jesus talking about the same thing as in Luke. It isn’t.
The teaching from Luke tends to be remembered because of its moralistic overtones, as if to say you must walk the “straight and narrow,” and strive to make it into God’s Kingdom. It may be what the writer of Luke’s gospel is having Jesus say. But this differs from what the author of John has Jesus saying. This is a very different teaching.
I don’t know whether you noticed but the sheep aren’t the ones entering the gate (door) – Jesus is going in the gate (door). The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. Notice Jesus goes in to lead the sheep out. Not in. The sheep’s coming and going to find pasture is secure when they hear their name and respond to being called. But first Jesus goes in to lead the sheep out, it makes you wonder: if we’re being led out, where are we being led out from? And, maybe more importantly, where are we being led to?
So if you understand yourself as one who’s chosen to respond and meander towards the one who knows your name, what’s it feel like to be called a sheep? A sheep’s become symbolic in our culture of someone who’s a mindlessly compliant follower of social norms. Many an Internet commentator has delivered withering, independent-minded diatribes against the unquestioning masses they deride as “sheeple.” Even if you’re comfortable with being compliant, there’s the discomforting reality that sheep are none too bright.
Hilariously commented on in the Monty Python skit, Flying Sheep , in which a tourist begins talking to a farmer leaning on a gate, looking into a field. The tourist is shocked to see sheep up in the trees – nesting – the farmer has come to the conclusion. They observe the sheep trying to hop two-legged around the paddock, unsuccessfully trying to perch and to fly. The trouble is, the farmer explains, that sheep are very dim. Despite all the evidence to the contrary they’ve been convinced by a sheep named Harold that they are, in fact, birds. Harold, the farmer explains is “that most dangerous of all animals: the clever sheep. He’s realised a sheep’s life consists of standing around for a few months and then being eaten, a depressing prospect for and ambitious sheep.” Might this suggest being clever is a problem? I don’t think so. But you might want to ask where Harold’s cleverness left the sheep? Harold’s doubtless correct in wanting there to be more to life than being eaten, but that doesn’t mean a sheep can make itself a bird – make itself something other than it is.
Do you sometimes wish you could be different, or your circumstances changed or that life in the world were different? I wonder whether the call in us is not toward being something different, but rather toward being more truly who we are. As we uncover this we change, our world changes and we become part of changing our world. The shepherd imaged today doesn’t round up the sheep with a whistle, or herd with whips and prods and dogs. This shepherd calls the sheep by name. Is our wisdom to recognise, to know our name when we’re called? Our skill as sheep is to listen – to listen from the deep place in us from which we recognize who we truly are.
Maybe when we’re called from the sheepfold, we’re called from ways of living that limit or entrap us to abundant life. Inside or outside the sheepfold there are risks and there are many clamouring voices. Choosing to respond and align our life toward the one who knows our name may not lead to a life miraculously made easy, certain and secure. But it may be known in the nature of the life engendered in us – we find ourselves opened to possibility, in some way freed, with courage and a passion to enquire and explore life beyond our familiar bounds. It’s strange to think we’d recognise our name being called. It might almost suggest we’re uniquely intended, honoured and respected. Our choice to respond and follow the one who calls enacts this, brings it to life and makes it real. Once called we’re not to stay in but to go from the sheepfold to give as generously as we’ve been given, to risk granting others the recognition, honour and respect already given us. Even as their being who they are is different from us, even as we may be changed in order that sufficient space is created for them so that they can share pasture with us.
The story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus is I think my favourite Bible passage.
I love to wonder about Cleopas and his unnamed companion – women tend not to be named in the Bible so maybe she is Cleopas’ wife or daughter.
I love to imagine their conversation, a mixture of grief and also hope as they talk about the strange tale of the women and angels and Jesus being alive.
I love the mystery of the stranger who appears and walks with them, listening, and then explaining the scriptures to them.
“Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”
They are engaging with their hearts more than their heads.
But they still don’t recognize him.
The day draws to a close and Cleopas arrives at his home and so invites the stranger to stay – an absolute obligation in the culture of the time. 
Then I love the account of the meal “When he was at table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them”
You might recognise there the actions of the eucharist, of our communion service, where we take the bread, bless it, break it and share it.
The words are the same ones that the writer of this gospel will use of Jesus at the Last Supper (22:19) and the feeding of the 5000 (9:16).
He took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them”
It is then that Cleopas and the companion recognise Jesus.
I love this part of the story because it is about the eucharist – the sharing of bread and wine which we normally do every Sunday together as a community.
During lockdown we cannot gather, and we cannot share the bread and wine. We can’t even invite a friend, let alone a stranger, over for dinner.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to cook dinner for a friend tonight.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to share in the eucharist together.
I think I have felt alright up till this Sunday about not sharing the eucharist.
I have missed it – but today as we hear this story my heart has started to long for the bread and the wine.
At St Matthew’s we have real bread for communion, made to a secret recipe, from the late Puppe Wall, the recipe passed down to her granddaughter who makes it for us still.
The bread has a perfect texture and a slightly sweet taste.
When Puppe was with us the bread would arrive warm on a Sunday morning. There are a couple of loaves in the freezer at St Matthew’s, waiting for us to warm them up, bless them, break them and share them.
In this lockdown season while we long for that bread we can also pay attention to the other part of the Emmaus story. The part where our hearts might burn as we read and absorb the word of God.
Like the prophet Jeremiah who said “Your words were found, and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart” (15:16)
or the psalmist: “How sweet are your words to my taste; sweeter than honey to my mouth” (119:103)
As Anglicans we are people of the word and the sacrament – equally.
Now is a time when our being fed by the word is coming to the fore; while our hearts also yearn to be together and to break bread together.
As we take time to slow down and focus on what matters in our lives we can also notice the sacrament of life all around us.
The word sacrament simple means a sign – a sign of God’s presence with us. So the bread and wine are signs of Jesus; water is the sign of baptism.
One writer, Claudio Carvalhaes says this:
The whole universe can be a sacrament. Everyday every person will be grateful for something.
One day we will listen to the birds as a sacrament and we will sing back to them in gratitude.
Another day we will tell a story to a child either in our house or online to somebody else and count this storytelling as a sacrament.
Another we will eat and say to the earth how grateful we are for our bountiful meals and save some for the hungry.
Another we might celebrate the rain we receive as God’s sacrament.
If there is no rain, our shower will be a sacrament, our washing of the dishes will be a sacrament of who we are.
On the seventh day we gather together on our online worship service, count the thousand sacraments we experienced and tell each other how our gathering can be enriched by so many other sacraments, keeping our hearts positive all week long! 
What signs of God’s presence have you seen this week?
What sacrament can you give thanks for?
How might you continue to give thanks, until we can gather again and break bread in community.
We come now to the story of the final ‘witness’ to the events of Easter.
To the story of the last disciple to experience the resurrection of Jesus – he hadn’t believed what he’d been told.!
This gospel reading, the week after the hype and excitement of Easter, is a thudding back to reality... dead men don’t get up and walk ... to say they do is ridiculous.
This year, in my mind, the ‘doubt’ the writer of John’s gospel tells us Thomas experiences in the face of stories about Jesus walking about, resonates with a question raised by the book ‘Searching for Sunday’ which was the book, the group I was part of, was reading in Lent.
In it the writer raises the question “What if we made this up because we’re afraid of death?” (p.187). (This being the resurrection). She was reflecting on her own Easter experience, noting the bravery it requires to raise doubts.
I’m not really concerned with trying to investigate the background of Thomas. Cate has noted previously that although he has been named in other gospels, he is likely to be simply one of the characters in the story John wants to tell.
It would seem ‘John’ has imaginatively created the character of Thomas for the purpose of this story – he is a symbolic figure. The story itself does not appear in any of the other three gospels – nevertheless, it raises a very important issue about faith!
We need to remember here that historical accuracy is not this writers main concern, but rather faith and theology are.
We have heard many times that doubt is not the opposite of faith but rather an essential component of faith.
It may seem counter intuitive to say this, but certainty has no part in faith!
If we are certain about something we don’t need faith!
This is what John is reassuring the persecuted community of early Christians, who were his audience, about. While they could have no certainty about how the future would unfold, they could have faith there would be life after the pain and difficulties – albeit a different life from the one they had become used to.
Scholars suggest to us, that though the story of doubt is focused on Thomas, he represents all the disciples, and the communities of followers – and probably us too, if we are honest.
I would hazard a guess most of us have wondered at some time or other, and perhaps still do, what the our Christian faith is all about;
what the good news of God is all about; ...
what it is we struggle to have faith in ...
what the resurrected life is that the disciples, and Thomas, with all his doubt, point us toward?
It seems a pertinent question today as we try to live with some sense of normality while the Covid-19 virus rages and our normal everyday ‘life support systems’ are not available to us and we have to keep our distance from friends and family, stay home as much as possible.
How, now, shall we live?
It is easy to be fearful that we too might succumb to the virus, and even die because of it. It is very easy to be fearful of leaving the security of home and the walls that keep ‘others’ out, it’s easy to be suspicious of ‘others’ to worry they might inadvertently bring illness and perhaps even death as a consequence.
Ordinary expectations are being shaken – we cannot buy just what we like when we like because others have stripped the supermarket shelves before we arrived. There is not even one tin of bake-beans for us an there is no flour, nor any certainty!
How now shall we live?
Life is in danger of being reduced to isolated self-protection while the enemy rages.
The authors of the book we call John’s Gospel (scholars tell us there more than one author) in preparing their material probably in the mid 70s CE – in that time of Roman persecution of Jewish people, a Jewish leadership collusion with Roman overlords, and the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem – may well, like us, also have asked “How now shall we live?” while hiding themselves away in their homes and isolating themselves from others in fear.
The locked room we can understand, the frightened disciples we can empathise with, Thomas’s response to their fantastical story of having seen Jesus risen from the dead, might well be our response – who wouldn’t dismiss such a thing!
But John was not setting out facts of history. He was not describing an event, he was telling a story to inspire the frightened early Christian community. He was offering reassurance, drawing attention to the way life continues even in the face of fear and death.
He was emphasising ‘life overcomes death’: locked doors and solid walls cannot keep life from happening; nor the walls of fear and doubt.
Jesus moves through those walls in this story. Not a resuscitated dead man who will die again one day, but a life resurrected from despair, set free from fear, and fear of death.
The risen Christ is the image John uses of life inviting us to live boldly to live without fear even in the face of death and an uncontrollable world.
Our world will likely be different from the one we have known.
This is how we will live now: boldly, considerately, kindly, taking care of each other and telling stories of hope.
I’ve been struck this year by the different characters that populate the scriptures that lead to Easter. I know they are the same texts every year and so the same cast of characters yet what I noticed this year is who gets included in this story that leads to Easter. Who is included and what is included.
Jesus wept at Lazarus’ death before raising him; a man born blind given sight and Pharisees and Jews portrayed as intransigently resistant, Palm Sunday procession, triumph to tragedy in a week. The sensory opulence of Mary at dinner table, squandering scent, anointing then wiping Jesus’ feet with her hair; of disciple Judas community, breaking of bread included, and darkness, and betrayal. Water and towel and servant washing of feet; commandment to love as we’re loved by Jesus in so doing we reveal ourselves as his disciples. Soldiers with lanterns and weapons, ear slicing, high priest trials and disciple denials, questions of truth, sentencing and soldier flogging, thorn tearing crown wearing, cross carrying, inscription bearing, soldier lot casting and clothing dividing, sour wine, agony of dying, side piercing, Joseph and Nicodemus spice bearing linen cloth wrapping burial custom and in new tomb laying.
These are the things we’ve heard that have led to this day. Easter day when we proclaim the story did not end there, that was part of the story, not the whole. But before we pass quickly to such glad tidings I want to pause. This story is not a fun story but it would not be the story it is if it did not include the characters, their parts, their actions it does.
This year in noticing the characters this story speaks to me as one of radical inclusion. Please do not hear me suggesting this as some colonising claim of all people under the Christian banner, no not at all. Rather I notice that this story includes a whole cast of characters we might usually deem outsiders, scapegoats for us to exile. Especially those with role we decide cause this death.
But this story is not just an over there, or back in time, or a carefully scripted drama to entertain. This story, this type of story is being enacted now. It’s a fundamentally human story. It’s a story of each one of us. It is our story. If it’s a story of radical inclusion, then it tells of the radical inclusion of all of who we are, as we are. Including those parts of us we’d prefer not to acknowledge or face too often.
Just as each of the characters has necessary role for this unfolding narrative of divine presence, so, then, does each part of us that make us who we are.
Perhaps we’ve had sense at times of falling short, disappointed, perhaps, frustrated at ourselves. As a species on this planet, we’re increasingly aware the ways we live are not sustainable, do not benefit our world, each other, our planet. At the moment we’re made even more aware of our vulnerability with this virus arising from within our natural world.
Let us sit honestly with all of this. Feel its weight and heft, acknowledge the burden of it. Let us let it be, put it down for a moment. Sitting with it, let us relinquish our strategies, our ways to try to fix things. They’re oriented and informed by the very impetus that got us here. Instead of thinking we have to be different, other than we are, let’s be still and take some time to listen to our story. Notice the way we tell our story, notice the character parts, the actions, the decision and choices made. They all have part in making us who we are. They’re a rich resource.
As we acknowledge them and see the part they play in enacting the drama of our life, we see they also impact our world. Perhaps we’re not happy with what we see. Perhaps we’d prefer to live differently. But before we attribute to ourselves the mantle of knowing from ourselves how to do that let’s stop for a moment. We know not what we do – I think this is the season for such quote. Let’s turn to our gospel, look to Mary weeping, bereft, seeking the Jesus she’s lost. Mary knows it’s Jesus when he names her. She comes to herself and sees the Rabbouni she’s known from that self. Do not hold on, let me go, she’s urged.
Like many things in our life, we want to hold on to what we know, to a story that fits us. We want to hold onto the story of faith that we know, that is familiar to us, that reassures and comforts us. But in so doing do we seal the story off. The expansive openness we proclaim in reality is open to include those who see and tell the story our way. Open to those who enact life within the boundaries we set for belonging. Inadvertently we seal ourselves off from it. We cease to hear it continuing to speak to us, teach us, disrupt us.
Easter dawns this year in a new world of Covid-19 that’s broken open our familiar world immediately and radically. Everywhere we’re scrambling, politically, financially, medically, perhaps most immediately socially. Words are being spoken of being in this together, behaving in ways for the good of our community, our nation. One hopes these are signs of hope and change. But they’re also times of honest revelation. In his article in the Guardian, Kenan Malik quotes Michael Gove saying “‘The virus does not discriminate, but,’” Malik continues “societies do. And in so doing they ensure the devastation wreaked by the virus is not equally shared.
Last week, tens of thousands of Indian workers, suddenly deprived of the possibility of pay, and with most public transport having been shut down, decided to walk back to their home villages, often hundreds of miles away, in the greatest mass exodus since partition. Four out of five Indians work in the informal sector. Almost 140 million … are migrants from elsewhere in the country. Yet their needs had barely figured in the thinking of policy makers who seemed shocked by the actions of the workers.
All this should make us think harder about what we mean by community. The idea of community is neither as straightforward nor as straightforwardly good as we might imagine. When Donald Trump reportedly offered billions of dollars to a German company to create a vaccine to be used exclusively for Americans, when Germany blocks the export of medical equipment to Italy … each does so in the name of protecting a particular community or nation.
The rhetoric of community and nation can become a means not just to discount those deemed not to belong but also to obscure the divisions within.
“We’re all at risk from the virus,” observed Gove. That’s true. It is also true that societies both nationally and globally, are structured in ways that ensure that some face far more risk than others – and not just from coronavirus.” 
This is the way things are, let us be present, be honest, be open to the pain and the desire arising in us for things to be other-wise.
When we claim rhetoric of triumphal victory at Eastertide, of death vanquished and overcome we can forget this is a story of vulnerability, of deception, of deep betrayal, of failure, of death. And a story of our human capacity to love so deeply we're willing to forfeit our very life. It is our story. It reveals a way to live letting go, present to our fundamental vulnerability yet unafraid, present to the way things are without deception.
What happened at Easter? What happened to cause Easter to be so pivotal for us? To make our faces light with smiles and our hearts unburden?
At Easter, in the story we tell, there is trust, letting go, death. Then there is a deep reassuring knowing, an embodied experience of continuing presence.
Today we hear of Mary’s embodied experience. Mary, mind full occupied with grief and despair couldn’t see the Jesus she knew, intimate, until he called her to herself. She was re-membered, could see things as they were and could see the one she loved, Rabbouni, Teacher. Could see in time to let him go, to let her way of knowing him go, so new ways of understanding could arise.
In Christ’s suffering and cross, the words in one of our NZPB liturgy’s say, God’s glory is revealed.
Could it be that God’s glory is revealed through the muddle of inchoate pieces we accumulate and name as who we are – through our perfect imperfection? When we sit down, are honest with ourselves, able to accept that we’re cracked and chipped and imperfect, we open ourselves to restoration and healing, for divine grace to be known through us. We’re opened to want a world of this, like this.
with material from The Last Week Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, 2006 Harper Collins
two processions entered Jerusalem on the day we call Palm Sunday
it was the beginning of the week of Passover – the most sacred week of the Jewish year
the Passover celebrated the time when Moses and Miryam led the children of Israel to freedom from being slaves in Egypt
Jerusalem is crowded with pilgrims; everyone who can travels there to worship at the Temple
from the east rode the procession we all know about with Jesus on a donkey riding down from the Mount of Olives cheered on by his followers
the other procession from the west from Caesarea Maritima, came Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor; he entered Jerusalem at the head of a column of Roman imperial cavalry; Pilate rode a horse, high above the crowds
the Roman governor always came to Jerusalem at the time of the Passover, in case of trouble, after all this was a Jewish celebration of the people being liberated once before from an oppressive ruler
and the governor came to remind the Jewish people who their ruler was – Rome.
“a visual panoply of imperial power: cavalry on horses, foot soldiers, leather armor, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold. Sounds: the marching of feet, the creaking of leather, the clinking of bridles, the beating of drums. The swirling of dust.” (Borg and Crossan p3)
just think of any Netflix series on the Roman empire and you get the idea
remember the emperor of Rome was seen as a god; often called the son of god or Lord or savior; these inscriptions would be in the banners the soldiers carried
I think we usually imagine Jesus’ arrival into Jerusalem as something spontaneous but Jesus had planned his arrival – the disciples are sent to get a donkey, whose owner is expecting them and in Matthew’s gospel they are given a password “The Lord needs them”
Jesus has planned his procession to be the polar opposite of Pilate’s procession – challenging the empire and its theology
so from the east comes Jesus in contrast – on a donkey –an echo from the prophet Zechariah (9:9) “look your king is coming, humble and mounted on a donkey”
Zechariah goes on to detail what kind of king Jesus will be: “he will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations” (9:10)
and the people welcome Jesus, cutting branches from the trees and laying them on the road
they shout “Hosanna” which originally meant “save us” and along with “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” is a line from Psalm 118 (25-26) always sung at Passover.
the gospel writers are definitely setting up this entry into Jerusalem as the arrival of the Messiah, so long waited for down the centuries
and the war horse Zechariah speaks of is Pilate arriving on the other side
so this is no cute family festival we reenact today
this is political, dangerous; two kingdoms confronting each other – the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Caesar
“A kingdom of peace, a kingdom of justice, a kingdom of radical and universal freedom. A kingdom dramatically unlike the oppressive empire Jesus challenged on Palm Sunday.” 
our palm crosses that we make and keep are symbols of protest, symbols of standing up to the Caesars of our world – the things that burden and dehumanize us and the peoples of our world
in this time of pandemic our palm crosses can be a source of comfort but let’s not lose their political purpose, reminding us that we follow the One who challenged Caesar and was killed for it. These crosses take us through the way of suffering and to the resurrection.
Our world is suffering, we are suffering. This Holy Week we will walk beside Jesus to the cross as he embodies our suffering. We will walk this week always knowing that resurrection has already happened and that the resurrected Christ is with us.
On a day when we are worried about our loved ones and our community and our world what earthly use is a story about Jesus raising someone from the dead?
What are we supposed to do with that? It all seems too fanciful.
What was so special about Lazarus?
Nothing really – Lazarus was brother to Mary and Martha.
They were family, they grew up together.
Jesus knew them well, he stayed with them often, they were close.
Mary sat once at the feet of Jesus to listen and learn,
Martha complained to him and said, make her come and help me in the kitchen.
Jesus declined, he was happy to teach Mary.
So Jesus is called to Bethany when Lazarus is ill, but when Jesus arrives in Bethany Lazarus is dead and buried. Martha and Mary are angry “if you had been here my brother would not have died”. Jesus weeps, and is disturbed in spirit.
What does that mean, he is disturbed in spirit? He is upset, he sobs. Jesus at his most human. But then he goes to the tomb and tells them to roll away the stone from the entrance to the cave. Martha, ever practical, points out that it might be a little smelly. And Jesus says “Lazarus, come out”.
How did the crowd react? Gasps? scoffing? silence? And Lazarus comes out.
He is wrapped in the grave cloths (wrapped up like an Egyptian mummy). “Unbind him, and let him go.”
Unbind him, unbind him and let him go.
Why does the gospel writer John give us this story? Well, there is the tomb, there is a stone which has to be rolled away, days have passed, there are grave clothes left behind, and the women are there. Is this about Jesus’ own death and resurrection?
Maybe; but I am drawn back to those words: Unbind him.
Unbind her and let her go.
What is it that binds you?
What are the grave cloths that hold you down, or hold you back.
I am pretty sure today it is fear and anxiety,
also disappointment at your cancelled life right now,
also fatigue and worry,
also being addicted to the news feeds
could also be boredom and cabin fever
worry about finances, jobs and the future
worry about family members.
If you are an essential services person you will be worried about your contact with others.
All of these are heavy burdens we are carrying.
We are at risk of getting bound tight in our grave cloths of worry and fear and anxiety.
But even now, even in the midst of these very real and reasonable worries in our isolation bubbles, Jesus calls us to stand up and walk out of that grave.
We hold out our arms as he unwinds the grave wrappings and sets us free.
Because we can still claim life every day.
We claim life in the face of death.
And we can claim life because Jesus has been there before us.
Lazarus and Martha and Mary have been there before us.
Jesus wept, Mary and Martha wept.
It wasn’t a game or a pretence, it was real.
They wept, they suffered, they knew pain and sorrow.
“Lazarus come out” he said. “Unbind him and let him go”.
Can we hear those words for ourselves and know they are spoken to each of us?
Can we embrace our limited, lockdown life with confidence knowing that God is with us, loves us and weeps with us?
Even if the worst happens and we lose a loved one, remember Jesus weeps with us. And love carries on beyond the grave.
There is a Taize chant we have been singing in Lent at St Matthew’s – “within our darkest night you kindle the fire that never dies away”.
We can’t sing those words together right now but we can sing them at home.
We live out those words by living our lives of faith.
By protesting and lamenting and saying to God, this virus that is sweeping our world is so wrong, and believing in God anyway.
We can walk free from the tomb of death every day.
Hear Jesus calling you out.
Unbind him and let him go; unbind her and let her go; the words are spoken for you.
On Thursday evening I popped into Pak and Save in Albany, just for one or two things. Not such a good idea, I’d not witnessed anything quite like it. 10 minute wait for a trolley, 30 minute wait at the checkout. But what really struck me was the feeling, the palpable experience of almost panic, it felt as if there was a thread, only a thread holding people back from stampeding into it. It’s swirling around, this disruptive unsettling feeling. It’s hard to imagine the reality of the Covid-19 virus. We hear of its effects overseas in frightening detail, which, though distanced, can be overwhelming. And the very time we want to reach out and touch, to comfort is the very time we must refrain.
While driving home I decided to pay attention to the unsettled disruption in my belly, to try to understand its cause – fear was the word that came to mind, yet of what was I afraid?
It may not be made real yet, here, immediately in our lives, but it’s closer day by day. This was to be our last chance to gather on Sunday for a while. Helen may be cross about it but I think it unlikely we’ll be able to gather in one place on Easter day. We can decide to do something in common in our scattered places on that day so we know ourselves connected. Perhaps intentionally enact a darkness to light ritual, or decide to pay attention in a particular way. We can decide to do something in common even as we cannot be in the same space. Prayer fully we can know we companion one another. And we plan for there to be virtual, live feed connectivity.
This new real is hard to imagine.
We have to change our behaviours to prevent the spread of a virus. A virus we cannot see, that can be carried and communicated even as the one carrying is unaware for they’re asymptomatic. It’s hard to get your head around.
Right now it feels as bit as if we’re neither here nor there. Adversity can bring out a spirit of innovation, tenacity, collegial creativity. But we’re not quite there yet.
Anxious and distracted we have to face this new way in a world of distanced togetherness.
Today we were to listen to scripture enacted, the gospel from John of the man blind from birth being healed and the ensuing “argument/discussion”.
How do we make connection between our experience of being a gathered community of St Matthew’s, this gospel and the ‘real’ world we know we’re going to walk into, necessarily separated, that’s not like we’ve known before? Do St Matthew’s and this gospel text simply fulfil a religious need in us? Or might we find them to have application beyond, to be deeper than religion’s possession?
As I’ve listened to this gospel over the week it seems to me to speak quite a lot about resistance to change. Within the narrative of the text the resistance, of those with religious power, to change the way they interpret the world, or rather to change how they interpret what happens in the world, despite the evidence before them.
A man born blind does receive sight but I’m not sure this narrative’s about miraculous healing per se. The blind man seems almost a pawn, a character used to reveal something, for John’s Jesus to make a point.
From the outset we’re introduced to a world view. Jesus and his disciples meet a beggar, a man blind from birth we’re told. The explanation for such condition, so the disciples interpret it, is because of the sinfulness of either the man or his parents. “Neither” Jesus declares, but the interchange provides opportunity for Jesus to reveal the effect of their unquestioned/unexamined interpretation. Without actually asking the blind man what he wants (which is a bit presumptuous), Jesus proceeds to spread mud and spit on the blind man’s eyes, sends the man to wash in the pool of Siloam and the man can see.
Then a whole number of arguments and interrogations ensue about the man’s identity, about the genuineness of his blindness, about who’s permitted to be named as the source of such healing. Over and again the statement of facts of what happened, of identity, is repeated, whether by the man born blind or by the parents of the man born blind. Leading questions from such factual response receive blunt response, I don’t know, we do not know. I/ we only know what happened.
As the text unfolds, with holy humour the farcically untenable position those with power insist on holding is exposed. Even so, with spluttering bluster they claim their hold of the holy high ground and with it the right to sin accuse, diminish and dismiss the personhood of another.
Holy humour, perhaps it’s a good reminder for us to laugh at ourselves more often. If we took ourselves less seriously perhaps we’d be open to see things as they are and let them be. Resist the temptation to impose our flights of interpretive fancy upon what is plainly before us.
In the times we find ourselves in, we can be tempted to overuse our access to information. To interpret it in a way to rationalise our fear and anxiety, even to the catastrophic.
Let’s be reminded to stick to what we know. We know the Covid-19 virus is rapidly moving across our world. Without underestimating the effect of Covid-19, statistically most people who get infected by it will recover. We’re fortunate to know, from the experience of countries whose management of this virus has minimised its impact, there are ways we can socially organise that will inhibit its spread. So we’ve been asked to accept the mantle of citizen responsibility and change the way we live.
The beginning conversation around Covid-19 was about not letting it be communicated. Was about living as if you had the virus, was about avoidance and prevention. This remains the intention, to slow its spread, to try and prevent a community outbreak. But increasingly the language is changing. Increasingly we’re being asked to live for one another. To live in socially responsible ways out of care for one another, especially those most vulnerable to the Covid-19 virus. We’re being asked to actively notice and care for our neighbour, to change for the good of one another and for the good of our society.
But it doesn’t remove our anxiety and our fear, that thin thread of almost panic among us. We’re being asked to live differently, unaided by the systems and structures that order our lives, without the distractions and diversions we use to cope and stimulate meaningfulness. And for many there’s no reassurance of economic or career continuity. We live present to the effects of the unseen Covid-19 virus and we know it’s not going to end anytime soon. Anxiety and fear are appropriate reactions.
What might the gospel narrative have to speak into all of this? Did you notice the somewhat enigmatic ending of today’s gospel, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains”? Maybe being blind is just being blind, if you’re honest about it. But if you’re blind and insist you’re not your responses inflict others with your shortcomings.
Anxiety and fear are appropriate reactions in the times we find ourselves. Yet they need not be our response to one another.
We need each other in these times. We need to hear and to speak how we are. We need to hear the resonance of our honest selves in the honest self of another. Communities of trust and deep care such as St Matthew’s matter in such times when we, together, are sensing, feeling and finding our way, negotiating how to live fully as who we are in a world changed. Let us, in our keeping safe distanced way, continue to be such community for one another that we may be valuable and rich resource to those who come into our care in these times.
March 15, 2020
Lent 3 John 4:5-42
Cast your mind back to last week’s reading – about Nicodemus.
Nicodemus comes to speak to Jesus at night; he is educated, a man held in high esteem; a leader and an insider in the Jewish world, and he does not understand what Jesus is trying to teach him.
Today’s passage which follows after the Nicodemus passage in John’s gospel is like a mirror opposite.
The Samaritan woman has no name; she meets Jesus in the noon day heat; she has no education; she is an outcast in her community; she is a Samaritan (hated by the Jews of Jesus’ time).
Jesus initiates the conversation and at first she has no understanding of what he means but by the end of the story she is gathering her neighbours to hear this man. “He cannot be the Messiah can he?” Two contrasting stories about two encounters with Jesus.
Back to our unnamed woman. She had come to draw water, at noon, the hottest part of the day, and she had come alone.
Women usually gathered at the well in the cool of the morning or the evening, and they went as a group. They went as a group to protect themselves from the embarrassment of meeting a man by accident alone; and to help each other lift their water jars onto their heads once they were full.
This woman comes alone and at noon when no one else will be there because she is not part of the group – she has had “five husbands”, so the other women will want nothing to do with her.
And Jesus, a Jewish teacher speaks to her, breaking all the rules of propriety and crossing the traditional line of enmity between Samaritans and Jews. Jesus is thirsty, and he has no bucket to draw water.
She is surprised and shocked. “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” Instead, he mysteriously offers her living water.
“Everyone who drinks of this water from the well will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty.”
What kind of water can that be? She wants some of that, but how, and what is it?
This water is like the waters of creation at the beginning of time,
like Noah’s flood washing away the sins of the people, like the waters of the Red Sea parting for the people to cross to safety,
like the storm on the Sea of Galilee stilled by a word from Jesus,
like the river of life in the Garden of Eden and in the book of Revelation, like the river Jordan where John the Baptist called people to a new beginning.
It is like the first drops of rain a farmer feels on his skin after a drought; it is like a hot shower after a long day’s work;
it is like a waterfall in the middle of the bush; it is like the sea at your favourite beach on a summer’s day; it is a water tank or well built in a village in Fiji or in Tonga; it is like clean drinking water brought into people following a flood; it is a cool cup of water drawn up from Jacob’s well in the heat of the noon day sun.
Jesus offers this water to our nameless Samaritan woman and when she has tasted of this water which quenches the thirst of her soul she rushes to get the whole village.
She no longer cares that they think she is a woman of loose morals; she forgets the accusations and the gossip and the ostracizing looks.
She rushes to tell them. “He cannot be the Messiah can he?”
And they come and he stays two days and they also believe.
They also drink deeply at the well.
Are we thirsty? Are we parched? Do our bodies and souls cry out for water? For living water that never runs dry?
Today on this first anniversary of the Mosque shootings in Christchurch our souls have been fed again by the example of our Moslem sisters and brothers and their example of compassion and forgiveness. Their compassion quenches our thirst.
One of our book groups are reading Barbara Brown Taylor’s book Holy Envy. “Holy Envy” is when you look across at someone else’s religion and wish you had some of that – like the Muslim commitment to prayer, or the Jewish commitment to Sabbath.
BBT says instead we need to learn from each other and strengthen our own faith as a result.
The book group reading her book noted her use of water as an image when describing sitting alongside people of other faiths.
“I do not imagine two separate yards with neighbours leaning over a shared boundary.
I imagine a single reservoir of living water, with two people looking into it. One might be a Muslim and the other a Christian, but there is nothing in their faces to tell me that. I see two human beings looking into deep waters that does not belong to either of them, reflecting back to them the truth that they are not alone.” 
As the world deals with the Covid 19 pandemic it is very tempting to give into anxiety, paranoia and panic.
Instead we need to sit together and reassure each other we are not alone. We need to listen carefully to sources of information that are trustworthy and to listen carefully to each other. How are we doing?
What do we need from each other? How we can drink of living water and not the poisoned well of misinformation and xenophobia.
On Friday we had a gathering of some of our pastoral carers in our congregation and we made some plans for how we can stay connected and support each other as we weather the Covid 19 storm. We will keep working together and journey together.
When Stephen and I were in the US a few years ago we travelled to Arizona to go to the Grand Canyon. We drove from Las Vegas to the Canyon via a bit of a loop through the Arizona desert. It was only the beginning of June but the forecast was for 40 degree heat and we had read the warnings about taking plenty of water even on the main highways. We were very glad we did indeed buy many litres of bottled water and copied some people we saw at a gas station getting ice and chilly bins to keep their water cold.
The Arizona desert is I think one of the most beautiful places I have ever been, incredible colours and rock formations spreading as far as the eye can see. On our way up to the Canyon we stopped at an ancient Pueblo Indian village and stepped out of the airconditioning into the most searing heat; we managed maybe 20 minutes walking around this fascinating place, drinking every step of the way, but you could feel your body dehydrating as you went. How the original inhabitants survived there is a miracle.
Standing in that heat that day and desperately wanting cold water, not the hot water in my water bottle, is the nearest I can come to understanding how thirsty the Samaritan woman was, when she met Jesus that day by Jacob’s well.
Are we thirsty? Our world is thirsty.
“Everyone who drinks of this water in the well will be thirsty again but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”
Drink deeply today and then offer to help another find their source of water, of strength, of hope; sitting alongside them and looking deep into the waters that belong to none of us and then drinking together from the well that is God.
Stillness, dark, night… together in silence we’ve breathed together. In stillness the rhythm of our heart settles, stills. We have settled, stilled.
Into this quietness I speak – in a way I’d rather not – it seems loud, breaks into our gathered stillness, yet it is asked of me here.
Hearing the narrative of scripture of this time of year through the voices of different people speaking the parts of the characters who appear is a potent bringing to life of this Jesus story. Actual people looking at actual people with flashing eye and engaged verbal exchange lifts words off the page, puts us into, places us in the dynamic of interchange.
Under cover of dark, of night, quietly Nicodemus comes to Jesus.
Why does he come? He doesn’t appear to come with a question. He does ask some but latterly, in response to Jesus, arising from his puzzled confusion. No, Nicodemus comes and makes a statement.
Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.
It is slightly odd that Nicodemus does so. Why? Well, we’re listening to the story of Jesus as the gospel of John constructs it. We depend on what we're told, we don’t have any inside information that might come from being on the ground in Nicodemus’ historical time and place. And thus far Jesus has done little publicly that could be construed as a sign of which we hear Nicodemus speak.
Maybe this passage is, as some suggest, misplaced. That it would be better if it were positioned toward the end of the gospel. Someone representative of a religious authority of the day is acknowledging Jesus – that the signs done by him testify he does indeed come from God and is in the presence of God. Further that the representative of the religious institution comes in darkness, in confusion and incomprehension. The passage unfolds to claim those who acknowledge and accept Jesus authority, his unique status and way of being and knowing will emerge from darkness to light. Meanwhile Nicodemus remains in the shadows, quietly slipping out of the scene as he did into it. But this account isn’t placed there toward the end of the gospel, it doesn’t conveniently fulfil a logical progression as we might expect.
We could also explore that John’s gospel has a consistent rhetoric against the Jewish establishment. Diarmund O'Murchu, commenting on the violence in the Biblical scriptures quotes Thomas Yoder Neufield describing "John as dangerously dualistic and anti-Semitic”.  The Pharisees, of whom Nicodemus is one, were actually quite progressive, willing to include people into the chosen people fold provided they kept the letter of the Law in practice and life. I’ve read it proposed, with reference to this passage, that Nicodemus was a Pharisee on the up and up, who wanted to learn what Jesus did so he could get an inside running on success in the God business. Only to have revealed that he had no idea, or rather the idea he did have – that God revealed looked a lot like signs and wonders, was not God.
You see Nicodemus names and gives Jesus identity as one who comes from God. John has Nicodemus recognise something in Jesus early on in this gospel – before Jesus actually does anything. I wonder how that redirects us when Jesus then proceeds to do signs. Do we too look to them as proving Jesus’ “Godness” or do we remember Jesus words to Nicodemus. No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above; no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. Do we remember Jesus' response, or non-response, to Nicodemus?
I read a piece by Brandon Ambrosino in the Huffington Post this week. He was reflecting on Lent, the discipline of Lent. Ambrosino began by recounting an interchange with a teacher he named as Dr. P., a philosophy lecturer at college. Dr P had asked his class if anyone had heard of Nietzche, Ambrosino responded, wasn’t he the one who said ‘God is Dead’. “Dr P laughed, “Nietzche did say ‘God is Dead’ that. But do you know what he meant by it? Do you know the story of the madman?” Dr. P told us Nietzche’s parable from The Gay Science about a madman who rushes into a marketplace, carrying a lantern and announcing the death of God. When his listeners respond with mockery and laughter, he realizes that he has come too early, and that no one is ready to hear his message. He smashes his lantern and leaves the marketplace, and breaks into several churches, where he asks the chilling question, “What after all are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchres of God?”“
As a young, earnest Christian he and his classmates were much distressed by this and rushed to Dr P’s office to remonstrate. Then, a year later, “in a different class with Dr. P, [Ambrosino] discovered that maybe Nietzche was right. Dr P professor began the lecture, he recounts, by writing two Greek words on the blackboard: eikon and eidos. The first he translated as “image” or “icon,” and used it to refer to God as a wholly God – tout autre, wholly other. The second, the Greek term for “idol,” Dr. P explained was what happens to God when we comprehend [God] firmly in intellectual hubris. Dr. P told us that when we’ve finally understood all there is to know about God, then all we’ve really understood is a God we’ve created in our image. “Whenever you think you’ve arrived at eikon,” he warned us, “you’ve really only gotten to eidos.” 
We’re to be born again, so we’re admonished, being born again it sounds quite lovely doesn’t it? Many a born again Christian have expressed their delight and wonder at their experience. And yet, being born is a messy, difficult, life endangering experience. It’s one of those liminal, life thread-hanging moments. And for the most part we don’t remember it, don’t remember being born. Influenced as I am by the birth of a granddaughter this week and the stunned, slightly freaked out experience of my son who while at same time as recounting the birthing process had a wondering delighted grin across his face as he cradled his new-born. Giving birth is painful, being born is … messy, air gasping, warm fluid embrace to cold air separation shocking. Birth isn’t something we’re in charge of, not something we can of our will decide to do. It thrusts us into an unknown in which we’re entirely vulnerable. Into an unknown upside down world where we require the touch, the nurture and care of those who’ve negotiated this world ahead of us.
According to today’s gospel to see, to enter the kingdom of God requires us to be born again, from above, in spirit and water. If this is something we desire it requires us to be willing to be born again – messy, life endangering, utterly upending us. Nicodemus expresses his incomprehension. And John has Jesus express his dismay that Nicodemus lacks familiarity with something so foundational, “And you a teacher yet you don’t know this?” We speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen, Jesus further proclaims.
This faith business is grounded in our experience, it's not simply theoretical. When we still ourselves, when we pay attention to the beating of our heart – whether this is in literal stillness, or perhaps when engaged in something more physical – gardening, exercising, creating or appreciating art in image or word or music – in those moments when your body, mind, being seems as one, you step into a flow. Perhaps you understand, name this as experiencing a sense of presence. Perhaps you name this as divine presence. Why? What have you learned that causes you to name it this way? Are these signs?
Which brings us back to the beginning, why is Nicodemus a character that appears at all? He comes from nowhere, is granted caricature status as a Pharisee. He doesn’t lead with a question and yet is cause of a Jesus tirade, sorry, soliloquy and disappears. The occurrence seems misplaced. Yet this event is well loved, the riddle-like essence of it tweaks something in us. Are we equally puzzled, equally discomfited because we've no more idea of what Jesus is talking of than the baffled confused Nicodemus character?
Are we willing to face, pick up the challenge laid down. If we think what we name and nail as God, as coming from God is God, maybe it's time for upending rebirth. Maybe seeing, knowing God, living in a way to be included in the kingdom of God, is like being born, it thrusts us into the unknown, upends us, makes us vulnerable, needful of those who've been here before, for its nothing like we know.
 Murchú Diarmuid Ó. When the Disciple Comes of Age: Christian Identity in the Twenty-First Century. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2019, 76
Jesus is in the wilderness, in the desert for 40 days; alone, hungry.
Jesus goes into his wilderness time straight after his baptism.
He has heard the words “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Words of affirmation, words of love, words of promise. A good start for Jesus and his ministry. But then …
“Then he is led into the wilderness to be tempted.” oh. Doesn’t seem like a promising start.
Jesus spends 40 days fasting in the wilderness – what is this supposed to remind us of? The 40 years the people of Israel spent in the desert after escaping from Egypt. The time of the exodus, absolutely crucial and formative for the people of Israel. So this is to be a time of formation and preparation for Jesus too. And also the 40 days Moses spent on Mt Sinai before being given the law and the 10 commandments. (Ex 34:28) Jesus is the new Moses.
So then the “devil” comes along with three challenges.
If you are the Son of God – if you heard correctly – this is my son the beloved with whom I am well pleased – if that is right – then what is to stop you turning these stones into loaves of bread – after all you are hungry …
hey you could feed the hungry of the world at the same time.
Jesus replies with words of scripture from the book of Deuteronomy 8:3 “one does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”
– words of Moses to the people of Israel reminding them that God fed them in the wilderness, and showed them they were completely reliant on God. Just as Moses taught the people so Jesus is teaching the devil. He will rely on God thank you very much; not on his own power or desires.
The devil responds with like – he then quotes scripture back at Jesus – he takes him up to the top of the Temple and says well,
let’s see if this scripture you quote is worth anything and he quotes some lines from Psalm 91
For he will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways.
On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.
But the devil doesn’t quote the next line of the psalm
You will tread on the lion and the adder,
the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot.
(Hidden humour from the gospel writer Matthew I think)
Jesus says – do not test God (Dt 6:16);
I the human Jesus am not God, and I will not put myself in God’s place. Adam and Eve made that mistake way back at the beginning of time.
The devil tries one last time; I will give you all the world if you will worship me. Angry this time, Jesus quotes Deuteronomy (6:13-14) “worship God alone” and sends the devil away “Away with you Satan!” And the angels came and waited on him, fed him, helped him.
The temptations of Jesus are all things that will take him away from who he really is. The reality of how much he believes that he is beloved is what is being tested here. Will he rely totally on God to supply his needs? Will he be tempted to have a go at a few magic tricks? Will he trade the kingdom of God for the kingdoms of the world?
Or will he remain the faithful and beloved one. It is the human Jesus who is being tested here; he was hungry, tired and might have been very ready to try a different way.
The temptations are also all things that we want Jesus and God to be or do. We want to be able to pray that God will magic away all our problems; stop the Covid 19 virus; stop the bushfires; stop war; stop people from dying.
Turn stone into bread – feed the hungry. Intervene when are foolish enough to have thrown ourselves from the Temple by destroying our planet – we are in freefall and we expect God to hold us up.
We want Jesus to bless our kingdoms and their splendor – our successes, rather than the Jesus way of humility and love.
Stanley Hauerwas says “the devil is but another name for our impatience. We want bread, we want to force God’s hand to rescue us, we want peace – and we want all this now. But Jesus is our bread, he is our salvation, and he is our peace.” 
In Take this bread Sara Miles recounts her unexpected and totally surprising encounter with Jesus as bread.
She opens her book with: “One early, cloudy morning when I was forty-six, I walked into a church, ate a piece of bread, took a sip of wine. A routine Sunday activity for tens of millions of Americans – except that up until that moment I’d led a thoroughly secular life, at best indifferent to religion, more often appalled by its fundamentalist crusades. This was my first communion. It changed everything.” 
Later she says “I couldn’t reconcile the experience with anything I knew or had been told. But neither could I go away: for some inexplicable reason, I wanted that bread again. I wanted it all the next day after my first communion, and the next week, and the next. It was a sensation as urgent as physical hunger, pulling me back to the table at St Gregory’s through my fear and confusion.” 
Those of you reading Sara Miles’ book this Lent will follow her journey from this amazing day and she what she does as a logical next step – feed others, from the altar of the church.
Which ends up being a bit shocking for the regular churchgoers.
Thinks about today’s passage and who the devil might be, as you read her story.
Those of you reading Climate Church, Climate World by Jim Antal may have read his commentary on another bread story – Jesus feeding the 5000.  He comments that Jesus used what he had – a basket of fish and bread – gave thanks and began to share it.
And Antal assumes others then did the same. Working with what they had and then joining with their neighbor, piece by piece, person by person. We do not need Jesus to turn stone into bread, or miraculously feed 5000 people. We have been given the tools to use, the bread to share. It is our choice what we do with it.
As we begin our Lenten journey our world is facing the anxiety, not just of climate change but of the Covid 19 virus. There are many temptations in front of us: panic, obsessive reading of accounts in the media; denial; fear. Let’s help each other with those temptations; help each other to stay calm and real. Stay connected and tell each other what we need – and be a community to each other. It feels like we might be entering a wilderness time; but we can be the angels who waited on Jesus. We can attend to each other and journey through to the other side.