A u c k l a n d A o t e a r o a N e w Z e a l a n d
a n g l i c a n c h u r c h
St Matthew-in-the-City Centenary Service Sermon
September 25, 2005
It wasn's quite a Katrina or a Rita, the damage it did wasn't as obvious, but last weekend's general election was a sort of hurricane. A week later we're still wondering what hit us and what kind of political community might be salvaged from the wreckage, once the special votes have been counted and the posturing of winners and losers is over. What did happen to us on September 17? Why did 30 years of educating the Pakeha people about the Treaty disappear into the ether? Why did the Epsom constituency suddenly develop a love for the underdog? What upset Winston Peters immortality in Tauranga? Will middle New Zealand see the Maori Party victory as a whim or a sea change? And who is middle New Zealand anyway?
In all the hundreds of hours of media coverage prior to the election there was very little to prepare us for this outcome. Most people are wandering around in a daze saying what on earth does this mean for our future?
This morning's gospel has something of that same dislocating mystery about it, starting with the abrupt way your patron saint is summoned to the job. There he is at work minding his own business and ripping off his clients as tax collectors do, in walks Jesus, follow me, is the word as terse as any Clint Eastwood movie, and up Matthew gets and follows.
If that's all you have to go on as a role model, you don't have much. So its just as well that churches like this one are skilled in filling in the gaps and writing your own script, because you don't get much help from your patron saint. That remains a background figure.
But there's more going on here than the written word allows. We're talking about an oral culture rich in complexity of language, laden with irony, word play and double, triple, quadruple meaning. You'd need a video of the dinner party at Matthew's house to get a glimpse of what was really going down in this extraordinary encounter with the Pharisees. Imagine what Matthew was thinking? He'd just signed up with the young rabbi from Nazareth and here were the religious leaders of the days slagging him off again, though not only him this time but his new teacher as well.
And the issue at the heart of this sharp edged exchange was community – God's community – who is entitled to belong, and who doesn't deserve to be included, who can stand proud and belong and who is on the sideline because that's where they deserve to be in God's eyes.
The arbiters of these questions, until Jesus came along, were the Pharisees. Don't knock them because they were good people, Jesus may have been a recruit himself for a while. They were the moral guardians of the day, not in any narrow sense but on matters of public policy as well. They were OSCH and ERO and Broadcasting Standards all rolled into one, they gave out the good housekeeping seals of approval. They policed the purity laws that sorted everyone out into the good, the bad and the ugly, morally speaking. The Pharisees kept the order and balance of society so everyone knew their place. First century Jewish culture survived by keeping everyone in their place.
And it worked if you were on the inside – one of the mainstream, well connected, healthy, properly married with a quiver full of children, religiously devout paying your dues, ready to accommodate the latest military rulers.
If you were righteous according to the law, and kept your head down, life was OK, despite everything – the Roman occupation, the rampant poverty and lawlessness in the countryside, the oppressive tax system, the breakdown of land tenure, the foreign ownership, the religious corruption of the Temple cult.
Jesus knew all that. He represented a prophetic tradition of Israel that the Pharisees respected but chose not to follow. They knew only too well it could create mayhem to the existing social order they promoted.
When Jesus talks about health and mercy and virtue, rather than sickness and sacrifice and sin, he's talking about who belongs in the mainstream. This is not a debate about who's misbehaved and who hasn't, certainly not about who's ill and who's well. This is a debate about identity – who belongs in the community of God's people, who's entitled to enjoy the favour of God, who is in and who's outside the circle of grace, who has a right to belong.
Jesus demonstrates his answers to those questions by who he chooses to eat with which in this society was almost as intimate as who you slept with. To share a meal was to share the most sensitive contact because it involved food and drink and utensils and physical touch and proximity. All the things that the purity laws and the kosher standards were designed to manage by separation and distance. Jesus broke all that by sitting down with tax collectors and sinners which could include a raft of possibilities – from foreigners to sick people to criminals, from people with physical disabilities, huge debts, victims of accidents and crime, religious heretics, political radicals, everyone in fact who didn't fit in, who wasn't mainstream. Jesus built his community from the overlooked, the ignored, the unwelcome and the dispossessed, cultural misfits, those who had fallen from grace and those who had never tasted it in the first place.
The Jesus community was counter cultural but never hidden away from the mainstream; always gathered in the middle of the mainstreet, in the house of a prominent tax collector, no less. This alternative dinner party took place with the front door open so the moral police could wander in freely and ask what on earth do you think you're doing mixing with this lot. What sort of a community do you think you could scratch up from this lot?
In our election campaign of not so blessed memory we were asking the same question. What sort of a community do we want to belong to in Aotearoa New Zealand? And some of the answers we were hearing were disturbing, especially as the election wore on and the bigger issues of foreign policy and poverty and health got smaller and the lolly scramble of favours for us got bigger. It would have been easier and cheaper for the parties to each offer a draw to their supporters – a new car and fly away holiday to every 500th voter.
But some of the answers being touted were scary:
A community built on Pakeha values with colour added, even though in 30 years Pakeha will be the minority culture in Aotearoa.
A community built on rising material wealth, the more the better.
A community that defines spiritual as a private feeling of something extraordinary, optional and a little odd rather than a public dimension of the ordinary, essential and everyday.
A community in which respect, dignity and the human essentials of life are not equally deserved but determined by some hierarchy of moral worth related to economic earning power.
A community where the debt you owe as a guardian to the natural world and to your neighbour can be postponed, even avoided for a while if it proves inconvenient to honour.
The coalitions that might emerge from election day could challenge the worst of these answers, worst in the sense of selfish, materialistic, greedy, myopic, reactive, racist, especially racist. There are some glimmers of promise ahead.
But the glimmers will only be sustained if the political community we build in Aotearoa is supported, critiqued and encouraged by smaller, diverse communities of faith like this one here. For a hundred years, St. Matthew's has been saying to the city that surrounds it, wait a minute Auckland and wait a minute New Zealand, there might be a better way, a more just and generous way of building community, a way that makes more room for people being left out, left behind, with nowhere to belong.
I'm always amazed by how many people know about St. Matthews, have met its people, heard its stories, checked out its website. And the more subversive the community here has been, the more people have heard about it. Subversive in the sense of this gospel reading, through creating a community of unconditional acceptance and hospitality, where difference, eccentricity, even contradiction, is not simply tolerated but relished and savoured, where there is room to ask the hardest questions even at times when there is no possible answer in sight.
I first joined this community in the early seventies and for seven years we belonged here and helped the gay and lesbian church assemble here, along with the weekly gathering of solo parents who drank sherry of all things, and an alternative kind of children's church, all sorts of music and drama and art events, plus an outrageous mixture of very conservative and very out there Anglicans who only co-existed at times by breathing deeply. We suffered some disasters and survived most of them.
But that experience of community has shaped my life for ever. I left thirty years ago but in another sense I never left. And it is this enduring power of community that ministry in this place has formed that we celebrate today. 100 years of it. Horribly uneven of course, but unbroken for all that, and enduring through worse elections than the one we've just seen, and worse prospects for justice and peace in Aotearoa.
But enduring because sometimes without knowing it clearly, we have tapped into the source of that subversive, indiscrimate love that Jesus models in our Gospel story and lets it seep into the St. Matthew's story, a love that cocks its snoot at hierarchy and laughs at moral superiority of any kind, a love that mainstreams those who have been sidelined and turns the measurement of worthiness upside down.
When you see that happening at St. Matthew's, you know that the next century in this place is in good hands.
Rt. Rev. John Bluck, Bishop of Waiapu and former Curate of St. Matthews