Jenny Plane Te Paa
Ordinary Sunday 19 Luke 12:32-40
I really like St Matthew's - I always feel at home here - I always feel a sense of belongingness in this place - I like your sense of hospitality, your unapologetic liberalism and your very public theological witness for those marginalised, disenfranchised, vilified and despised. I like your critical analysis of our political institutions and I like your intuitive sense for effective and relevant contemporary urban mission. I think your communications efforts are simply wonderful and certainly if I were not constrained by my role as Ahorangi and therefore by having to virtually live and work at St John's College, this would indisputably be my choice of parish home.
I am deeply appreciative of your invitation to be with you this morning - and so after all that effusive flattery I hope you don't mind too much if I bring a somewhat depressing message - but I bring it to you with clean hands and an open heart and I bring it to you because I know I need help and to be honest I don't actually know where or who to go to for that help- so I figured it might be as well for me to start asking around wherever I am and St Matthews feels like a very safe place to start …
Just on 10 years ago I found myself teaching at St John's College. I didn't ever plan on a teaching career and certainly I did not plan on one in a theological college but time and circumstances and the loving hand of God all conspired against my own strongly held personal and professional determinations and so it was, that the week after the revised Constitution of our Church was blessed into existence, I began down the path which led eventually to my appointment as Ahorangi or Dean of Te Rau Kahikatea, one of now three Heads of College - the College being St John's, the Church's prestigious residential theological college - the College known for it's elitism, it's rich legacy of ecclesiastic greats.
It is true that over the years many fine church leaders began their careers at college - many attribute their 'success' in ministry to the quality of their 'formation' at St John's College.When I first went to teach at St John's College I assumed that everyone who went there was taught 'proper' theology - a sort of theology for life, a theology for sustaining prophetic public witness against injustice, a theology for compassionate and pastoral service among those who suffer in our communities, theology for young people, theology for our increasingly pluralistic society … I was in absolute awe of theological educators - I never ever imagined I could or would be one - I mean why would I? - lay Maori women don't 'do' theology so why would I ever imagine I could or would teach in the discipline? Well, as I said earlier, for reasons known to God alone, I have taught and studied theology, specifically theological education for the past 10 years and together with just a handful of courageous colleagues have attempted to transform the college from its former state of institutional imperialism to becoming a site of intellectual endeavour where theology might assume its rightful place as the 'queen of the sciences', where a diverse community of teachers and learners might celebrate the life of the mind through intentional engagement with deep theological wisdoms drawn from across the spectrum of religious thought, where the richness and uniqueness of our own ecclesial tradition can be creatively adapted into the context and multiple social and political contours of this beautiful land - so what's my problem?
My problem is that I don't know whether or not the transformative struggle occurring within St John's College is ever going to make a difference or if it really even matters to our church. I don't know whether or not it matters to our church that the assumptions popularly held about St John's College might just need significant critical re-evaluation. Is it really a site of three tikanga equality - can it ever truly be? Is it true that Te Rau Kahikatea has become effectively the dominant force within the College and that this reversal of power is proving disconcerting to many?
The College has over the past ten years been a crucible for intense struggle as the impact of the revised constitution has resulted in not one but three Deans. Each of us leading one of three constituent societies, each of us attempting to create space and opportunity for cultural expression and yet together remaining committed to holding to a fragile and often undefinable sense of unity. The substance of our unity is in fact the taonga of theological education.
My own feeling is that in our church's understandable haste to redeem its legacy of racial injustice it has, by default, given undue emphasis to uncontested race politics while simultaneously abandoning its precious residential site of teaching and learning to the predatory interests of right wing cultural purists and of theological conservatives (of all colours). As a result, in spite of the Constitutional imperative toward bicultural partnership and the hoped for resultant relationships of mutuality and interdependence, our only fulltime residential theological college still finds itself unable to confidently and biculturally teach a coherent theology for life, a theology for sustaining prophetic public witness, a theology for compassionate and pastoral service among those who suffer in our communities, a theology for young people, a comprehensive theology for our increasingly pluralistic society?
What has happened to quell the emergence of a radical, free thinking intellectual sector within our Church community? Where is the constant challenge to the life of the mind emanating from our theological academicians? Have we as church capitulated to the pragmatism of our times? Is this why we are suffering a concomitant loss of vision within our theological education enterprise? Has the prior agenda of becoming a three-tikanga church compounded the problem? Has our preoccupation with pressing contemporary complexities to do with 'highly distributed knowledge production systems' or 'receptive cultures', or even 'positive value systems' - all those jargon terminologies and ideologies which overwhelmed us as the Knowledge Wave circus came and went? Has any or all of this effectively silenced or muted our finest theological thinkers and teachers? As a theological educator, my concern is to ask: can St Matthews, can any of our parishes, our places of worship and ministry, continue to offer transformative and socially just ministries without a 'production centre' - without a theological college upon which it can depend for a steady stream of critical thinking, theologically literate, prophetically bold compassionate graduate agents committed to social change?
I feel so sad sometimes when I ponder the enormity of the problem and when I experience the paucity of tangible and passionate church support for the college. Yes, of course, I wonder about whether or not its time has perhaps come. Newer forms of education mean that access to theological education is no longer restricted. Regionally based training is now extremely popular in the Pihopatanga and within Dicoeses. The old residential pseudo-seminary model is no longer attractive nor perhaps pedagogically sound. Those of us responsible for teaching may well be the real problem - too radical, too dull, too academic, too gay friendly, too evangelical, too liberal - we hear it all.
What I do know is that among the Heads of College there is a deep and commonly held resolve that fidelity to the task of quality bicultural theological education entails a serious, sustained and intentional response to the new situation in which God has placed us.
In our efforts to respond well to the intense and often unclear demands of our various Ministry Boards and various hierarchical bodies I think perhaps those of us with leadership responsibility, and I am talking specifically about myself, may have failed to take good care of crucial community based relationships such as those with places like St Matthew's. Relationships which were often originally established by mutual friendship and were nurtured over many years of commitment and association. I guess I realise that in responding to your invitation to be here I want first to honour the history of relationship between our institutions by genuinely acknowledging you as I understand you to be. Secondly, because of the history of friendship and mutuality which does exist between us, then I figured it would probably be OK to lay before you something of the ongoing struggle confronting those of us entrusted with leadership within our College - and to ask in all humility, can we help one another?
When I said earlier that I do wonder about our preoccupation with tikanga politics - I find an analogy in my understanding of the Isaiah text - here is God's legal suit against God's people for their apparent breach of the Mosaic covenant. The most potent aspect to this prophetic tirade is essentially God's rejection of ritual worship unless that worship is reflective of a profound and genuine change to the moral behaviour of the people. So I ask, has our Constitutional revision ever led us to examine whether or not what we now do as Anglicans is perhaps little more than culturally specific tikanga performance pieces - ritualised enculturated liturgical worship? Have we as church ever bothered to critically examine whether our moral behaviour toward one another has fundamentally altered as a result of the new Constitutional covenant established some 10 years ago? Isn't it true that, in some ways, we have arbitrarily racialised our relationships in order that we can avoid confronting the ongoing moral dilemma posed by race politics - 'when you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you' - and sadly, I believe we have inadvertently created structures which actually enable us to avert our gaze from one another with ease.
How can we 'cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan and plead for the widow', when we begin from a position of racialised indifference to one another?
While I wish in no way to minimise the outstanding problem of racism, I also believe that in the myriad ways in which we daily encounter one another as human beings, it ultimately ought not matter to which tikanga either of us belongs. It ought to be sufficient at a profoundly theological level that we are simply sisters and brothers in Christ! That has to be the goal because we must not forget that whoever we are as created beings, it is only through our encounter with the stranger that our tendency toward self-absolutism can be broken. The encounter with the stranger at the Lord's table is the beginning of life, the possibility of justification before God, the stuff of redemption. There are two ways to encounter a stranger or someone who is radically different - Sartre claims we encounter the stranger when we come upon a look, a look that threatens us because the other might define us and take away our identity and freedom. Thus Sartre claimed that 'hell is other people'. On the other hand Levinas claims we encounter the stranger when we come upon a face - the face is the expression of the way another person is in the world - while the face of the stranger may shock us, it is the only true way of ourselves becoming fully human. Our salvation is wrapped up in the face of the stranger. We do not discover ourselves and our salvation by looking deeper into ourselves but in encountering the face of the stranger. The other's call or appeal is the beginning of life - it is this call which gives me the opportunity to be free and just, instead of allowing myself to be self-absorbed in terms of institutional form and policy.
When I first read the Gospel for this morning what struck me were the unambiguous themes of preparedness, reassurance, humility, sacrifice, self-emptying, servitude, hospitality, compassionate leadership. When I examined the first part of the text I realised it comes at the end of an admonition by Jesus to the disciples to stop worrying themselves needlessly about clothes, life, money, food and so on. 'Do not be afraid for it is your Father's pleasure to give you the kingdom; sell what you have and give the profit to the poor, make a metaphorical purse for yourself into which you might place the unbounded "riches" which inevitably accrue from acts of kindness, generosity, unselfish love, hospitality, friendship, compassion and tenderness because no-one can steal these things from you and ravenous vermin have no appetite for these things - these incalculable riches are without doubt simply things of the heart'.
Luke demonstrates unerringly the symbolic function of possessions in human existence. It is only out of deep fear that the acquisitive instinct in us grows monstrous. Why is it that regardless of our cultural backgrounds our lives seem so frail and contingent that we imagine we need many possessions in order to be secure? It is only when the fear is removed by the reminder and the acceptance that life is a gracious gift from God that we can begin to exemplify the spiritual freedom symbolised by the free and generous 'giving away' of possessions.
Then the Gospel turns quite sharply to the second piece which cautions us to be alert, vigilant, ready to serve, ready to act. The shift to a more eschatological framework reminds us of the nature of living in expectation - the fulfillment of God's promise will happen but the timing remains uncertain. I love the image of the servants or slaves waiting 'so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks'. Regardless of the hour here are these lowly people ready to serve and then appears the boss and instead of exploiting the workers, this boss, this leader, this master, sets about serving them: 'he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them' - a stunning example of authority being expressed as service to others - beautiful theology - transcendent theology - not dependent upon tikanga nor class, nor clerical status, nor sexual preference. This is the kind of servanthood theology which ought to permeate any self-respecting theological educational institution because it is this sort of theological wisdom and praxis which can assure the St Matthews of this city and of our church in Aotearoa New Zealand and Polynesia, of the continuation of a group of future church leaders in whom we can all have the greatest confidence.
I believe the time has come for us to name that - if it is in fact a shared vision. If quality future church leadership is what we want then our theological college must be empowered to take its rightful place. I have no wish to minimise the task ahead of us all in attempting to ensure justice prevails for all and not just for some. I realise also that within each of our institutions there exists unresolved tensions, hurts and anger - occasions like this are life-giving opportunities and I thank so very, very sincerely for providing me this precious moment to share just a little of the St John's situation with you. I remain hope-filled as I encounter some very dear friends among you.
I feel very much as Alice Walker does as she concludes her wonderful new book entitled The Way Forward is With a Broken Heart. In this powerful semi-autobiographical novel, Walker deals with the pervasive sadness she feels over the loss of a relationship she once knew with the man to whom she was once married and with whom she shared children.’ I certainly feel this. I also feel, as though someone I know has said, that there are losses that mature us. We are no longer young, Stranger who was the husband of my youth. It is as elders that we are left behind by the young who are everywhere dying ahead of us, whether from starvation, war, suicide
We are not the only ones not speaking to each other. Across this land elders are not speaking to each other, though most will find we have a lot to say, after we've cried in each other's arms. We are a frightened and at times a broken hearted nation, some of us wanting desperately to run back to the illusory 'safety' of skin color, money or the 1950s. We've never seen weather like the weather there is today. We've never seen violence like the violence we've seen today. We've never seen greed nor evil like the greed and evil we see today. We've never seen tomatoes either, like the ones being created today.
There is much from which to recoil. And yet, Stranger perhaps who I am never to know, the past doesn't exist. It cannot be sanctuary. Skin colour has always been a tricky solace, more so now the ozone has changed. After nature is destroyed, money will remain inedible. We have reached a place of deepest emptiness and sorrow … we see that everything that is truly needed by the world is too large for individuals to give … we find we have only ourselves … our experiences …. our dreams … our simple art … our memories of better ways … our knowledge that the world cannot be healed in the abstract … the healing begins where the wound was made.
Now it seems to me we might begin to understand something of the meaning of earnest speaking and fearless listening … in the sure knowledge that our people, lovers who falter and sometimes fail, are nevertheless, all good. Amen.