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.
My reaction to this gospel today is really? Seriously? Be perfect?
If last week’s gospel wasn’t enough – Jesus carries on with “you have heard it said, but I say to you” – stating and then redefining the law and the expectations of his followers. And the kicker at the end “Be perfect therefore as your heavenly Father is perfect”. Give me a break!
If you ever had a romantic view of the sermon on the mount – Jesus there sitting on a rocky outcrop with his disciples all gathered around listening to poetic blessings – today’s section finally puts paid to that idea. So today we are “turning the other cheek”, “going the extra mile”, “giving someone the coat off our backs” – interesting how this section of the sermon has found its way into the sayings of the English language.
As Cate said last week there are different ways to approach passages like this – we can go down the rabbit hole of explaining each line and understanding its cultural context – for example
39 Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also;
Striking someone on the cheek was done by a slave owner or someone of higher authority to indicate submission; to turn the other cheek could indicate that you were not being submissive but standing up and looking them in the eye; and saying bring it on!
Or 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.
This one is for the Romans. In Roman law any citizen could be conscripted and made to carry the heavy gear of the soldiers for the distance of one mile (think Simon of Cyrene carrying Jesus’ cross).
They restricted it to one mile to stop the resentment of being forced to march with the soldiers over long distances – not good for the levels of civil unrest. To carry two miles would mean the soldier had violated his own law and could be subject to discipline. So we could do fun facts about tricky bible verses.
Or we could avoid these verses altogether because like last week’s gospel they have been used in the history of our church to suggest people should put up with unjust suffering. Women suffering violence from partners have been told to “turn the other cheek” and “pray for those who persecute you”. People enslaved and oppressed have been told to “love your enemies”. Oppressors will use any tool at their disposal including sacred scripture to corrupt. Watch out for the prime example of that in next week’s reading.
Or also as Cate said last week, we can allow ourselves to be confronted by these tough words, confronted by “the notion of a God of accountability with expectations” .
Jesus is very confronting in this passage – he says to his listeners “You have heard it was said … but I say to you.” You have heard it said – not just by your neighbor up the street – but you have heard it said by Moses, in the Torah, in the book of Leviticus and other books of the law – but I say to you… So Jesus’ listeners are quite rightly going to say – who is this who thinks he is better than Moses and our ancestors who passed down the law and interpreted it for us generation by generation. Confronting all right – this is what got Jesus killed. Claiming to have a new teaching a new way.
Can we in our time and culture allow ourselves to be confronted and find what it means to resist evil and violence in the way that Jesus meant. Not by being walked over but as Myer Boulton says: looking for “a deeper, more radical resistance; non cooperation in the underlying paradigm of hate and brutality involved in evildoing.” 
Stanley Hauerwas says this is not just about Christian ethics, doing the right thing. There are plenty of good people who abhor and work against violence who are not religious.
“The sermon (on the mount) is not a list of requirements, but rather a description of the life of a people gathered by and around Jesus.” 
So if we are a people gathered around Jesus we will seek and grow within ourselves the ability to live out this new paradigm, this new way of being. We will fail all the time but we will believe it is possible to get up and try again. We will believe that because of Jesus, and because of the cross.
As we get ready to enter Lent and begin to walk the way of the cross we will be reminded again that in the cross Jesus faces all the violence of the world and does overcome. On Ash Wednesday we are marked with the sign of that cross on our foreheads “remember you are dust and to dust you shall return; turn from your sin and be faithful to Christ”. We take time to be real about the sin and sorrow of our world, and our myriad failures as a community and as a people; and we seek to reset, to start over. This does not make us perfect but it does join us to Christ’s overcoming of evil and to the hope that the world will one day see an end to violence.
Hauwerwas again “Perfection does not mean that we are sinless or that we are free of anger or lust. Rather, to be perfect is to learn to be part of a people who take the time to live without resorting to violence to sustain their existence.” 
When Jesus says: Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. The translation is a bit limiting – commentaries say the word telos means goal or end or purpose; so something which is brought to its completion; lacking nothing; perfection as in fulfillment or reaching one’s intended outcome. 
I had a look at different translations to try and understand this word and the Maori translation uses “tika” which means correct, or on a straight path; it can mean truth or justice. I think “tika” is better than “perfect”.
The Message version of the Bible says “Grow up. You are kingdom subjects; now live like it; live out your God created identity.” 
If we are created in the image of God we have it within us to love our enemies; to not accept the premises violence, greed and oppression which sometimes seem to rule our planet. We cannot change the whole world and stop war and famine. But we can control how we behave at work, at home, in community. Is there violence in our home/ or the home of someone we know? What do we do about it? Is there bullying in our workplace? Do we stand up to the bully look them in the eye and say enough? Or do we collude with their behavior?
In this election year will we pay attention to policies around child poverty or the living wage, or climate change; or will we just look for the best tax cut for ourselves? Is there someone we cannot forgive; someone we hate; someone who has control over our hearts?
Be perfect as God is perfect; be tika; be the people we are created to be.
I want to begin by asking you whether, when you know you’re listening to scripture it changes the way you listen. Whether it changes what you expect of the text.
Scriptural text is most often the foundation, sets the theme, if you like, for someone such as me to pay attention to. From which a sermon, a reflection, a wondering, perhaps a sharing of mutual not knowing is spoken. Often preparation includes a closer examination of the scriptural text. Using biblical criticisms in their various guises a studious dissection of the linguistic, historical, cultural and/or religious influences on the text takes place. As if, by doing so we will disinter a deeper meaning, uncover what was really meant.
Yet, at the same time we speak of scripture as a living word not fixed in meaning and form. Rather of scripture as a relational companion, a source of inspiration forever revealing new insights of how to live as those beloved and called to speak this into life. It’s as if on one hand we want to pin scripture down, be able to set it apart, admire it, and also have it handily available to dissect, determine and control it. On the other hand we delight that scripture eludes our capture, a living word it speaks freshly to us and draws us deeper.
I recall, when at theological college, one of the lecturers in biblical studies inviting us to consider when we read or hear scripture that what’s significant in the text may not be what the text says but where it takes us. As if to suggest a scriptural text has integrity that we might discern as we pay attention to our response. Maybe this is what it speaks to us; perhaps we take the text apart to fulfil our own needs.
Today’s gospel we’ve heard only in part, the lectionary includes a longer passage. For some reason, and I suspect I can imagine why, a choice was made to omit verses from the full gospel text. I want now to read the omitted verses. Remember today’s gospel verses and their admonitions follow closely Matthew’s beatitudes. Immediately preceding them is Jesus’ declaration he’s come not to abolish the law or the prophets but to fulfil them. That not one letter or stroke of a letter will pass from the law until all is accomplished. As you listen I want to ask you to notice what arises in you in response, just watch your inner landscape and notice.
The gospel continues thus, “You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.
‘It was also said, “Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.” But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
‘Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.” But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be “Yes, Yes” or “No, No”; anything more than this comes from the evil one.”
On hearing this text, where have you been taken? What response or responses have arisen? Where have you gone in your inner landscape?
Upon hearing it, do we find an urge to go into the text?
We can do this of course. We can go into the text, unpack it, pull it apart and put it safely in context. That would help to distance it from us. That would give us space to consider the content more objectively, be perhaps curious and more wondering than reactive. It also might mean we can choose to disregard it. See it as outdated and no longer relevant, applicable perhaps in its time and place. Or, perhaps we choose to gain perspective by following Jesus directives. Spoken first in the beatitudes and then that the law and the prophets would not being abolished until all is accomplished. It causes us to look deeper, to the heart of what the law demands – more costly to us than negotiating relationship contractually even if correctly, according to the letter of the law.
But I invite you to resist the habit of burrowing into the words in the text. Instead, let’s ask why we’d exclude these verses from today’s gospel. It was their exclusion that attracted my attention. Was it to protect ourselves and/or those among us who’ve had them used against them/us, who’ve found themselves abused by such verses? Is that because such texts have been misused by the institutional church? The church who claims to stand in the lineage of this Jesus who insists the vulnerable, most powerless has priority of care. A text misused within the walls of church institutions and as the church has influenced opinion in wider society.
The law and prophets of which Jesus speaks arise from a hierarchical, patriarchal context. One we inherit and largely still inhabit, inside and outside the church. Taking such scriptural text literally, the institutional church has chosen and still chooses in many places, to perpetuate a legalistic application of such literal interpretation. An interpretation and application that continues to privilege those with power, (and this is still mostly men), to the enormous cost of those this makes powerless. The very thing against which Jesus speaks, acting against the very ones with whom the church proclaims it stands.
Like it or not we, here, are part of this lineage. Is it easier for us to simply stop reading these bits so we’re not reminded of this, made uncomfortable or accountable? Or maybe we should ditch the idea of being answerable to some notion of a God who commands, declares through law and prophets there are ways we can live well together and there’s repercussions for not. Ways we so fallibly enact in edicts to keep those with power safe from threat of change. Maybe we want to avoid the difficult bits, prefer to keep only the good, reassuring bits of scripture.
Keep bits like the passage from Deuteronomy, which is one of my favourites. One I often use in marginally religious occasions, but when I do I take out the God bits. It makes it comfortable but what does this passage mean if it’s without conditions? Are we able to know which choices lead to life and which to death for the generations yet to within the limit of our few years?
We need only look at our world stage to see how easily and quickly truth’s become a negotiable ideal. Commenting on Trump’s avoided impeachment, Andrew Gawthorpe of the Guardian writes, “If [the Republican party] stuck by the president through the Ukraine affair they will stick by him through anything. They have acted like the totalitarian functionaries who Hannah Arendt said view the difference between truth and falsehood as something which “depends entirely on the power of the man who can fabricate it … [and further] those who use their power to construct a world of falsehoods for their supporters eventually have to destroy the power of those who would challenge it with the truth.” 
“Such phenomenon”, George Monbiot, also writing for the Guardian proposes, “is not confined to the US. … A culture of impunity is spreading around the world. “Try to stop me” is the implicit motto in nations ranging from Hungary to Israel, Saudi Arabia to Russia, Turkey to China, Poland to Venezuela. Flaunting your disregard for the law is an expression of power.” 
What has this to do with listening to where a scriptural text takes us? Do we avoid certain biblical passages because they offend or because they confront? Maybe this is one of the places today’s scripture takes us – to confrontation. It confronts us with religion – how humans, human religious institutions such as churches use or misuse the power of holy writ to control. It confronts us with the notion of a God of accountability with expectations. Expectations of relationship that we’re to enact live out in real time. What we do makes a difference if there’s to be life and a future.
Human constructs or no, religions that have stood the test of time tend to be confronting. Not because of what they do to us but because of what they cause us to recognise. Life is a gift and we are vulnerable. A fearful proposition! We prefer religion that’s nice, consoling, perhaps comfortingly disturbing. But religion’s not always nice, it’s often confronting. Maybe that’s part of its point. But religion as we know it’s been colonised for so long and we’ve been colonised for so long have we forgotten? Do we even want to know we’ve responsibility to enact this religion of expectation that confronts and reveals how we can live well together?
Today’s scripture confronts us with the notion that we know how to choose for death or for life as we live in fidelity to expectations of living in ways that enhance relationship. In risky, vulnerable ways that have curious integrity with our real – that life is a gift and we are vulnerable. Confronts us with the notion we’re accountable for the consequences of our choices and actions. Whether we, one another, our world have life now and into the future depends on the choices we know how to make. In light of the dis-ease that’s besieging our world at the moment it seems to me we do not protesteth too much, neither do we proclaimeth enough in word and deed.
Anyone feeling chronologically confused this morning? Our gospel reading has Jesus as a baby again – over the last month we had Christmas, then the visit of the Magi, then his baptism as an adult, and last week he was out and about calling disciples for the team.
So what’s going on?
Well, today is 40 days since Christmas; and Jesus would have been presented in the Temple 40 days after his birth so this feast day gets dropped in where it belongs, 40 days after Christmas, and this year it happens to be a Sunday.
In the account, the gospel writer Luke actually seems a little confused about Jewish rituals – the 40 day rule was actually for the “purification” of the mother after childbirth. (It would have been 80 days if Jesus had been a girl – the mother of a baby girl was doubly unclean – but let’s not go there.) So Mary and Joseph go to the Temple for Mary’s purification ceremony; and to offer a sacrifice in thanksgiving for their firstborn son, (they offer two birds rather than a lamb which tells us they were people of limited means).
Waiting for them at the Temple are two people: Simeon and Anna.
Both in their senior years; both we are told people of prayer and devotion to God. Luke says they have been waiting for God to reveal the Messiah – the one who would save the people – to them.
But I imagine it was not really as clear cut as that.
I imagine Anna and Simeon were ordinary people going about their lives. Anna spent a lot of time at the Temple, she may have lived there as one of the women attendants; Simeon lived in Jerusalem.
Think of older family members you admire – or some of our congregation in their senior years – Anna and Simeon would have been like them.
Anna and Simeon were alert and watching; observant of the world around them; seeing God at work in their daily lives and the lives of those they met. They noticed things, they gave thanks, they prayed. They brought the good and the bad to God. They would have been reciters of the psalms which offer praise and lament, joy and sorrow, in equal measure. They would have listened to the words of the prophets who promised a better future.
They were Advent people, expectant and hopeful. They would have seen the Temple rebuilt in their lifetime, the Temple of Solomon that had been destroyed in 587BC was rebuilt by Herod in 20BC, so it is still new in the minds of the people when Jesus is born. The building of the Temple was seen a sign that the Messiah might be near. And so they watched and waited.
How well do we do at watching and waiting? How well do we do at noticing and naming God at work in our lives and in our world?
We have been to the beach at Long Bay Beach twice in the last week – yesterday for our families’ bbq and last week on Akld Anniversary day. On Anniversary Day the beach was pretty crowded by NZ standards, but still plenty of room for everyone! A gorgeous day and as we walked along the beach I would have loved to be able to take a census of the people – Moslem women dressed modestly from head to toe, with heads covered, swimming next to pakeha girls with virtually nothing on! A group of Sikh men playing beach soccer in their turbans; Chinese people wearing the widest brimmed hats against the sun; large family groups of people of Polynesian descent;
children of all ethnicities digging sandcastles ….
An amazing array of God’s rainbow people as Desmond Tutu would say. Everyone happily enjoying the day – an image of the way God created the world to be if ever there was one.
So I give thanks for that day and the image I now carry in my head of God’s creation.
During the week, here at the church, we were reminded of how tough life can be as a group set up camp in the church garden and despite help from the City Mission we had to call on the police for help to move them on. An example of how we fall short every day of delivering on the world God has created for us.
Like Anna and Simeon we can offer words of praise and lament, joy and sorrow, in what we see in the world around us.
Next Sunday our reading is about salt and light – us in particular being called to be salt of the earth and light to the world (no pressure). 5 of our parishioners are going to offer a short reflection on how our worship and life as a community supports the work or volunteering that they do. When I asked, a couple of people responded to me saying – I am not sure I have ever really thought about that – all the more reason to, I said! Our worship and life of faith is not something that exists on its own, as a segment of our life. My prayer is that our worship life is usefully connected with the rest of your week. That it helps you with the task of being able to notice God at work in the world.
Barbara Brown Taylor says our liturgy is training and practice for our lives
“We pray, we listen to God’s word, we confess, we make peace, we lift up our hearts, we hold out our hands, we are fed, we give thanks, we go forth. We practice the patterns of our life together before God, rehearsing them until they become second nature to us.” 
Then we go out and do the same in the world: We pray, we listen to God’s word, we confess, we make peace, we lift up our hearts, we hold out our hands, we are fed, we give thanks, we go forth. That is what Anna and Simeon did and they were blessed to see God in the form of the baby Jesus.
Lucy Winkett, the vicar of St James, Piccadilly in London puts it like this;
“there is no way for a Christian community to become clear sighted without committing itself to prayer – every day for some, most weeks for others - to return to the source of life in Christ – and …, pray in the knowledge that everything – all the tragedy, joy, confusion, hubris, kindness, fury and violence – all of it – is held in the clear sighted gaze of God; the only one who sees us and everything as it really is.” 
God sees us clearly and we are called to see God – clearly or not so clearly as best we can. The important thing is to be waiting and watching and looking and noticing.
What might you notice this week? Your task for the week is to notice one thing – one time or place or person that you give thanks for; and another time or place where you and others have fallen short, or where we as a society have fallen short.
Like my examples of Long Bay and people camping in the garden.
And bring those images in your head with you to church next week.
God sees us clearly and we are called to see God – clearly or not so clearly as best we can.
Like Simeon and Anna in the courtyards of the Temple, the important thing is to be waiting and watching and looking and noticing.
It is Anniversary weekend, so we are at the end of January 2020 only eleven months left to the end of the year. Most of us are back at work and planning our year ahead. This is a time of hope and opportunity, a time to consider a new occupation or project and a time of renewal or change.
Matthew tells us, Jesus begins his ministry after hearing of John’s arrest, with no other explanation.
According to Reza Aslan, in his book Zealot, the economy of the fishing town on the shores of Galilee, Capernaum had become almost wholly centred on serving the needs of the new cities, “especially the new capital, Tiberias”.
The majority of Capernaum’s residents had been left behind by the new Galilean economy.
It would be these people whom Jesus would specially focus his attention. Those who found themselves cast to the fringes of society, whose lives had been disrupted by the rapid social and economic shifts taking place throughout Galilee.
Unique to Matthew, these words indicate that Jesus’ move to Capernaum, “in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali”, took place so that “what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled.”
The Romans rule Galilee with the assistance of the client rulers such as Herod and landowners. The population is suffering.
The quote, “The people who sat in darkness”: reflects the darkness of this imperial Roman control that is contrary to God’s purposes.
Jesus ministry is to manifest God’s salvation by transforming personal misery; by announcing God’s empire; by forming an alternative community; and anticipating the future establishment of God’s empire.
Jesus began to preach a word of metanoia: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” The word metanoia, or repent, means to turn around, change or become new. These are positive words coming from Jesus.
Not the usual interpretation of repent because you have done something wrong.
The light is Jesus presence, which manifests God’s empire. His pubic ministry of preaching, teaching and healing is about to commence.
As a light to the world, the community of disciples will continue his message of transformation.
Matthew continues by relating the call of the first disciples, fishermen who unconditionally obeyed Jesus when he told them to “follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”
One hundred years ago Jasper Calder answered a similar calling and commenced a ministry of “winning souls for Christ” under the name of the City Mission of the Anglican Church. Jasper saw the church as not only an evangelical entity but also a social establishment. The Mission quickly became a ministry of social support, advocating against injustice due to the economics of the time.
Within ten years we were experiencing the trauma of the Great Depression.
This mission is now known as the Auckland City Mission and we continue to offer social support and advocacy against injustice to the desperate people of Auckland.
Over the last one hundred years the Mission has adapted to the call of Auckland’s social needs in many ways: Selwyn Village opened in the 1950s and we had Herne Bay House during the Aids epidemic. If anyone is interested there is a timeline of the Mission’s services on the wall on Hobson St where our new building Homeground is being constructed.
While in our temporary home in Union St, we continue to develop to meet the needs of Auckland’s society who are on the margins.
We are offering new hope with the opening of a new wahine service: Te Whare Hinatore, the house of light, curiosity and a desire for change.
Let me share the story of Hinatore from the Maori creation story.
During the period when Rangunui (Rangi) and Papatuanuku (Papa) were still in a close embrace, two of their tamariki, Te Maamaru and Peketua, glimpsed a light under the armpit of their mother Papa.
They went to investigate as they were unhappy living in a dark, cramped place but were stopped by Whiro (another child of Papa and Rangi often represented by having a negative and/or obstructive attitude).
The light they glimpsed was Hinatore.
Through the brothers’ adventure to find out who or what she was, they experienced curiosity, the desire for change, hope for something better and the awareness of something new.
Within our new wahine programme Hinatore represents each individual wahine’s personal dream or vision of what their life could be and their journey towards it. This service opened on Friday in their own building in Union St offering fifteen bedsits for the wahine who has been referred.
This is a very exciting and positive programme with a new team and vision for the Mission.
Our world has need for metanoia, we need to turn around and change for our environment. We need to embrace each other regardless of gender, race, class, faith or sexual orientation.
The message of Jesus’ ministry is relevant to us now and as it was to Te Maamaru and Peketua.
The Mission is looking into all their services in preparation to our return to Homeground. We are changing where change is needed to respond to the needs being faced in our own community.
Similar to the inhabitants of Capernaum 2000 years ago, social and economic changes have meant we have an increasing population of the marginalised.
I often wonder if Jasper Calder envisioned his Mission would be working for social change into a second century with no sign of need ceasing in sight.
This is the Sunday when we take up, once again, the Advent story that we began to tell back in the beginning of December. Now we reach the part where the main character, the one we have been preparing to meet, the one we have been waiting for, is revealed.
Over recent weeks we have taken a bit of a side-trip from the main story-line and been focused instead on the story of the birth of Jesus with all the attendant glorious music and rituals that have grown up (in the Western Christian church) around that birth story. Today we take up once again the main thread of the story of the one who was to come and lead a fragmented community, an oppressed and persecuted people, back together, the one who was to offer reassurance that they were still ‘the people of God’ (or could be if they chose to be).
Once upon a time Epiphany was a major festival, a sort of culmination of the Advent waiting and preparation. It was much more important than the Christmas festival with its association with the Roman festival of Saturnalia, and the feasting and merrymaking that were the hallmarks. The earliest gospel to be written, Mark, doesn't even have the nativity story in it. But when the Roman emperor Constantine got involved in institutionalising the Christian movement early in the 4th C the date of both Epiphany and Christmas were agreed, and set at either end of the 12 days that marked the period of the new year and the turn from winter dark to the lengthening again of the hours of light. These days, Epiphany, as a significant festival and liturgical season, has almost lost its significance (in the Western Church) and is overshadowed by Christmas and the baby Jesus story that precedes it, and Lent and the crucifixion that follows; it is sort of sandwiched between birth and death stories.
For the early eastern Christian church the feast of Epiphany was focused on Jesus' baptism, and the manifestation of who Jesus was as a ‘son of God’. In Matthew’s telling of the story of Jesus' birth, it is the magi from faraway places and their gifts – echoing the prophet Isaiah – and the baptism of Jesus that are important. This story identifies the baby with 'the one who is to come' and lead the way into the promise of God. Matthew’s telling highlights the meeting between Jesus and his cousin John at the Jordon River where, John baptises Jesus and we hear that God says” behold, my son, in whom I am well pleased”. (Note, this Jesus was an adult, not a baby.)
It seems to me, Epiphany is in continuity with Advent, with John the Baptist’s call to prepare the way for the one who is to come. Now, in Epiphany, we hear the story of how John baptises the one whom they have been waiting for, Jesus; and following his baptism, Jesus' ministry proper gets underway, with God’s blessing.
Christmas is bit of a distraction, an interspersed winter festival, bit of a nod if you like to Roman religious sensitivities. It is no wonder that it was not significantly observed in much of the Protestant church – it was even banned in some places as unbiblical and was only celebrated as in Britain as a major Christian feast by Roman Catholics until Victorian times.
Matthew however realigns our emphasis. He shifts us from Christmas, with all the Victorian rituals and glorious music that have come to shape it, back to the main story of establishing who Jesus is, and a different way of being a people together. He backs up his assertions with blatant connections echoing Isaiah to 'prove' that Jesus – and the stories that had grown up around him by the end of the first century when he, Matthew, was writing – were 'truly' in continuity with the Torah and Jewish history. He wanted the Jewish people to know who Jesus was.
Matthew’s context, like Isaiah’s, was troubled: the temple had fallen and the people of Israel were looking for hope and reassurance that God had not forgotten them. Matthew (in the story that was read last week) sets a star over Jesus at his birth and in its light the men from the east come bringing gifts of great value. But rather than succumbing to the power of king Herod, and his threat to kill the boy-baby, they defy him in an act of civil disobedience and leave by another route – thus thwarting his plan. The Jewish people could not help but hear in this story those echoes of Isaiah Matthew was offering as validation: the light on the mountain, the nations from afar streaming toward it bringing their wealth, the promise of God’s favour, and of course the story of Moses raised in exile to avoid Pharaoh’s slaughter of the male babies. The one they were waiting for had come, Matthew was convinced of this!
Matthew narrates how Jesus' ‘true’ identity was revealed at his baptism – Jesus, son of God, servant of justice in whom God is well pleased – whose ministry, following his baptism, begins in earnest with his purpose and intention set out clearly in 'the sermon on the mount', which we will hear in a few weeks. In this sermon we learn what it means to be part of God's people. In Isaiah, scholars tell us, the 'servant' is Israel, the whole nation, not any singular individual. The nation must be actively justice-focused, the whole people. So too for us: together we are a servant people charged with bringing light and justice.
The prophet Isaiah before him, prefigures the agenda Jesus sets out according to Matthew in that famous sermon. Isaiah tells how God will gather together all who have been lost and dispersed and promises justice with peace and righteousness in their relationships; there will be no more violence, salvation (healing) will be their purpose. Jesus’ own ministry agenda and purpose follows this pattern.
Jesus' identity and purpose is made manifest for all who have eyes to see and ears to hear.
In both stories. Isaiah and Matthew, the impact is great on the community who hears and takes the story to heart.
As a community of faith, that is us. We too are baptised to become the 'servant' of God's justice.
Both the reassurance of light in the darkness and the promise of justice and salvation are offered to us. These promises define us as a community because they bring with them the expectation – no, the demand – that we witness by the way we live our lives and shape our relationships that we are part of the community committed to bringing God’s vision into being; part of the community that serves God's justice agenda.
Today we are on the brink of disaster: a climate crisis burning up lands, droughts, famines, mass migration, disease, and perhaps a pending war. It seems God's vision for the earth, as set out in the stories of the Bible, is very far away. But the promise of life comes into being as we invite everyone into the way of peace with non-violence, love, right-relations, and wholistic-wellbeing: as we get involved in doing things differently. We are not specially privileged as we go about this work, but we can be extraordinary because we witness to the unexpected, to the turning inside out and upside down of what has become entrenched in our way of life, and in so doing has lost its god-life. We need to look for these all these aspects of our world and seek another way instead of simply retracing the path we have already taken and ending, eventually, in the same place – further entrenching the greed and power that has brought us here.
I venture to say you know, as do I, that there is much in our world that needs to be different –
greed and grasping for power seem to me to be at the heart of most of those things from the climate crisis to workplace poverty, from violence toward women and children to the abuse of old people, from housing obesity to the increasing wealth gap – to name some off the top of my head.
As I have noted many times before, it takes courage to do things differently, it takes courage to risk change. Stepping outside what has become entrenched as 'common sense' is to risk ridicule and censure. Justice and righteousness for all will come by a different route… 'the prophets write on subway walls' (Simon and Garfunkel) we can see the different way if we will but look; those who show the way are amongst us! We just have to find the courage to recognise the way, and the bravery to step into it telling a different story from the one centered on greed and power.
These weeks, between what was and what will be, these weeks of the Epiphany season, are weeks in which we can wonder what the year will bring once it gets underway, and wonder what we will do and say to ensure it is a year that brings life to planet earth and to people and to all who inhabit it.
January 5, 2020
Isaiah 60:1-6; Matthew 2: 1-12
Good morning. Are you all happy to be here? …. Well that’s a good start.
I am Gregory, I’m an Anglican priest and I’m married to an angel …. anything else I might say about myself may be prejudicial so I’ll leave it at that.
Today’s Gospel is the story of the Three Kings or three Wise Men. I’m sure you’ve heard this story a myriad of times and seen church pantomimes about it, ad nauseam.
Apart from the feel-good factor, ‘though, I wonder what you have taken from it all? Of course, traditionally, this story underlies, in the Christian calendar, the feast of The Epiphany, epiphany meaning the manifestation. That is, the occasion that Jesus Christ is made manifest or revealed to the gentiles. Gentile, again, meaning nations and people who are not Jewish. The feast originated sometime in the 4th century in both the Byzantine and Roman churches.
So far so good; are you still with me … or has the pew sheet suddenly become more interesting?
Today, let’s take this story in a slightly different perspective than the usual and more traditional perspective. Let’s see if this text can open up some new and different possibilities for us, possibilities that are a bit more useful in our contemporary climate than this story being just some sort of annual pantomime concoction.
Before going further, I’d like to draw out a difference between a Jewish approach to scripture and the Christian approach to scripture. In Judaism there is a strong current of scriptural appreciation that is interpretive, that is dynamic, allegorical and flexible whereas, in Christianity, interpretation tends towards the dogmatic and the doctrinal. Today I am taking a leaf out of that Jewish stream and asking the text to show us something new, something relevant to our contemporary context and situation.
What we have with this story is a convergence of two quite different streams of social and religious understanding. That is we have the worldview of Judaism and the worldview of Persian seers or astrologers, magi. Both are important to the story and both are necessary to birth the new understanding that was to take shape through the ministry and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth. The Jewish people provided the raw material, the resource in the form of an auspicious child and the three kings provided a worldview that gave the child the recognition of his future stature, i.e. he was to be spiritual royalty, something Judaism was disinclined to endorse as was eventually played out in the execution of Jesus some thirty odd years later.
Today, we are in unprecedented times!
Wars and famines have always been with us but the awareness of possible global extinction is a new ingredient in the mix of human history, notwithstanding the aberrant fantasies that have been concocted over time through fear-induced scrutiny of the Book of Revelation and the like.
Christianity, as we know it, is stuck, or worse, irrelevant in it’s response to this global situation. Church Christianity simply doesn't have the necessary functional apparatus to meaningfully engage in conversation and activity that will contribute to the sort of change necessary to effectively induce the humanitarian response needed to become globally sustainable and regenerative. This is because the shift needed for human survival is a change, a paradigm shift of consciousness, of worldview and church Christianity lacks the ingredients and imagination to be instrumental in this.
I think popular Christianity has three significant limitations.
One, is that it reads and has read its own headlines for centuries and has come to unequivocally believe them and think that they are inextricably and self-dependently true. In other words Christian church thinks that it is right, that it has the correct answer and the only truth, even 'though that truth is not overly clear. This is not the case. Christian doctrine, for this is the form these headlines take, is a bunch of ideas that people have had at particular times in history and we, for a variety of reasons, some quite deeply rooted, are reticent to radically change them.
The second limitation I see is that church theology, language and liturgy is primarily self-referencing. It’s lexicon is entirely limited for an age such as ours in the 21st century and our shop-fronts, our liturgies, often lack structural integrity and/or real-time meaning. An Anglican liturgy can convey many differing theological perspectives in one sitting, some of which directly contradict others and some are just plain confusing and/or nonsensical.
Thirdly, traditional Christianity has, and promotes, a dualistic understanding of God. That is, we understand God as another and separate to ourselves. Unfortunately, or you might say, fortunately, we don't have time to unpack this today but this dualistic appreciation of God, that is to have an understanding of God that is other than the phenomenal world, including ourselves, is neither rational nor theologically sound. It just doesn’t make logical or faithful sense and it completely disenfranchises the Church to be an effective contributor to the global crisis we face.
These limit Christianity’s ability to engage in meaningful and beneficial activity that will assist a global change in human consciousness. However, I might add, Christianity doesn't have a monopoly on introversion, elitism and self-referencing, other religions are just as good at it. Church, in whatever form or religion it takes can be, socially, a blessing or a curse. It is a blessing when it holds open inclusive sanctioned and sacramental space. It is a curse when it is prescriptive, exclusive and elitist.
However, as we are all aware, globally, we are running out of time. And religious institutions no longer have the luxury of being self-serving, introspective social clubs with their own self-interests at heart.
This does not seem to be what Jesus of Nazareth had in mind, nor did he apparently teach or live this way.
And so, allegorically, let’s go back to a Bethlehem with a star over an auspicious manger. The church of the time, that is institutional Judaism, is stuck in many ways. It is factional, oppressed, elitist and not able to address the crises of the time. Nevertheless it is still a rich and powerful resource.
In our allegory, or Three Kings story, two things happened on that auspicious day. One was that a powerful energy entered human history and the other was that a worldview or perspective from an alternate narrative, a narrative brought by three Persian holy men, gave it a language, lexicon and theological nuance to address the dire needs of the time. Also, the worldview and wisdom of the Magi was co-equal to the holy birth, both were necessary to establish a new consciousness needed for the age.
Scrolling forward to 2020 and wondering how this ancient allegory might help us now, we might ask who the Wise Men might represent today to institutional Christianity. Who are the alternate voices necessary to loosen church Christianity’s limitations?
Let’s take one of the examples above to reflect on, let’s take the idea of a God separate from the created universe. This idea induces and endorses in us also, as human beings, a sense of separateness. The ‘I’ that I seem to know as who I am looks upon the world and people around me as separate to me. That is there is me and it, me and you.
In the religions of the Asian East, and particularly in some Buddhist schools there is a teaching about no-self. In other words, if we really try to find that ‘I’, that self, that I perceive myself to be as a separate, permanent, unchanging and substantial reality we are doomed to failure, it simply doesn’t exist. Sometime, when you are bored and have nothing to do, have a go at finding such an ‘I’. You might be interested in what you do find.
This is a difficult notion for materialists at all levels to get our heads around. For us it runs very close to nihilism, which it is not and which, by all accounts, is rather an uncomfortable place to be.
The Vietnamese, contemporary Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh realised this, particularly for his Western students and he invented another term that had a more positive sense to it. He called the Buddhist notion of no-self, interbeing, we, and all around us, inter-are. For Christians this could be a Three Kings phenomenon. It is a piece from an alternate narrative that assists us to experience ourselves as an integral part of all that exists. In other words the universe, nature and creation isn’t separate from us but we are all part of the one being. Whatever we do to any aspect of the universe or phenomena immediately impacts on ourselves because all that exists is part of who I am. We are in a dynamic process of interbeing. We have no separate self apart from this.
None of this is foreign to Christianity, it is all in our history. We have just lost sight of some of it over the centuries.
Epiphany, then, in this sense, isn't about including the outsider, the foreigner, the gentile as is traditionally understood. Epiphany is about going out and becoming part of that gentile world, a nation among nations, coequal and codependent. Recognising that there are things in this world, in the other religions and in all human thinking that Christianity desperately needs in order to become a real-time force in changing human consciousness for global survival, in the same way that Jesus of Nazareth, aided and abetted by the Magi, became a real-time force in changing the consciousness of his time.
Jesus of Nazareth doesn’t belong to, or is owned by, the Christian Church. Jesus of Nazareth belongs to everyone. It is our responsibility to allow that to happen.
Finally a postscript: And what about God? Where does that leave God?
Perhaps we can leave God to look after and manage God-self. Perhaps Divinity doesn’t need our rules and prescriptions to feel good about Themself or have a good sense of identity. Perhaps Divinity is perfectly able to have a healthy self-esteem in spite of us as well as because of us. This is good …. because it frees us to get on with the work that is ours to do, what we are called to do, and to let God get on with being the business that is for us all to do.