This particular Sunday begs pausing to reflect on journeys. Where we have been and where we are going and what do we seek? In the life of the church it is New Year’s Eve. Next Sunday Advent begins. A new journey along that ancient road from cradle to cross will begin anew.
This Sunday is also Aotearoa Sunday. It is a day to reflect on the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia. It is a time to ponder from where we have come and to where we are going. What is our mission? What is our gift to the world?
Today is also a milestone for one of our own. Yesterday, the church acknowledged her priesthood and today Denise will consecrate for the first time bread and wine with words that are 2000 years old. In her journey, all our journeys are intertwined in te taura tangata, the powerful Maori image describing the people of this land as a plaited rope. In the rope each of us as strands are strengthened and give strength – Maori, Pakeha, lay, ordained, male, female. It is for me the ultimate image of journey for it encompasses all of our journeys connecting us to all who have come before and to all who will come after.
Yes, it is a perfect day to use that rope to tie up our wakas, our canoes, and have a Hui, a conversation about journeys.
Journeys are complicated. Sometimes the destination is not clear, but the need to journey is. Lewis Carroll captured this element in a conversation between Alice and the Cheshire Cat:
Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
"That depends a good deal on where you want to get to," said the Cat.
"I don't much care where –" said Alice.
"Then it doesn't much matter which way you go," said the Cat.
"– so long as I get somewhere," Alice added as an explanation.
"Oh, you're sure to do that," said the Cat, "if only you walk long enough."
Journeys are more than a need; they are a fact of life. Frankly, in this life there is nothing else to do with our time. A journey of a thousand miles may begin with a single step, but it also begins while standing still. Even a couch potato is on a journey to nowhere.
As we have no choice but to be on a journey, like Alice, most of us want it to take us somewhere, but not just anywhere.
When I was a boy we were on a family trip that took us through a particularly desolate part of the state of Washington. There was little besides sagebrush and an occasional tumbleweed to amuse me mile after mile. I looked on the map to see what was ahead. Perhaps I could convince my parents to get me a treat at the next stop. The map showed the next town still an hour a way was George. My 12-year-old self thought it hilarious that people lived in George, Washington. I couldn’t wait to see it. I hoped they had a place I could get an ice cream. It was hot and the next town after George was hours away. Finally we approached George. It was a trailer park. There were no trees. There were no lawns. There was no ice cream. But there was a billboard. It said in big smug letters, “If you lived in George, you’d be home now.” Hot, tired and bored, and with many hours still to go, living in George didn’t sound as bad as it looked.
From this I learned that caring where we want to go is important, if we don’t want to end up in the middle of nowhere. As journeys can be exhausting, full of hardship and dangerous, not pursuing a longing, a promise, a dream can lead to a place of desolation with only blisters on our souls to show for the effort. We may not have a choice about being on a journey, but we do have the power to choose a direction and walk with a purpose that lengthens our stride. But it is best to carry that purpose lightly for there can be many a surprise along the way we wouldn’t want to miss.
Maori legend tells us that Kupe, Aotearoa New Zealand’s first immigrant, did not travel from his distant home seeking this gem of a land his forbear, Maui, was said to have fished up from the sea. He was simply chasing a giant wheke, an octopus that had been eating all the fish back home. He caught up with the monster at the northern tip of South Island. Discovering a new land had not been his purpose, but without a pursuit it would not have been found.
It is pursuit that it is at the heart of the church year. Each year, Sunday after Sunday, we take a journey with Jesus. We follow the star to the stable. We wander in the wilderness. We join him at the Jordan for his baptism. We pursue him through the rural backwater of Palestine. We watch incredulous as he heals outcasts and offends authorities. We hang on every word of his parables and sermons. And finally, we share a last meal before he is betrayed, arrested, tried and executed.
Making this journey every year may seem like we are covering old ground. We know the plot. But while the story may seem the same we are not the same person this year who began the journey last year, for the journey itself transforms us. Someone new will be walking in our shoes as we set off to walk it again. This time what will we see? What will we hear? How will we react? While the external itinerary is the same, within each of us, the journey will take us deeper into unexplored territory. So while we know the plot, the ending remains a mystery.
While we know not where it leads, it is a journey filled with hope. Our hope is to discover within us the power Jesus revealed is there. A power rooted in love and compassion exercised with a forgiving hand. A power that does not fear how long or arduous our individual journey from birth to death might be; a power that transforms us, and in doing so makes the world a little more gentle; a little more just. A power that is synonymous with living life abundantly, no matter how disappointing and full of suffering.
It would be nice if we could just hear about this power and claim it, but it is a power beyond words. It must be experienced. To claim it, it must be exercised on a journey. On this Aotearoa Sunday we reflect on our unique way of exercising it as a church in this land. We continue Kupe’s voyage of discovery seeking to slay the nga wheke of racism and sexism; homophobia and xenophobia; violence and poverty, mindful that like Maui we might also pull up from the depths a whole new land.
As a national church we are choosing to approach this daunting task with a power that is counter-intuitive to the world’s idea of how it should be acquired and exercised. It began in a surprising way. Contrary to the advice of some lawyers, who said the predominantly European Pakeha Church would be subject to the tyranny of the minority, the Pakeha church, rich in numbers, power and resources, gave up sole power to govern. Voluntarily those in power accepted the governance structure where Pakeha, Maori and Pacific Islander streams of the church had equal power. All must agree; any one of the three can veto. At the time, fear of the consequences of the loss of Pakeha majority power was quelled for the sake of justice and a Three Tikanga church was born. What has been learned since is that letting go of our death-grip on power made all of us more powerful. Fear and suspicion are being subdued; mutual respect and honour are growing deep roots. It has also led to unexpected places like having bishops from each of the Three Tikangas share the role of Primate, a unique arrangement in Anglicanism. This, too, has led to greater justice. When the Pakeha primate, David Moxon supported by the other two Tikangas, recently denounced the on-going and inexcusable incarceration of Ali Panah, it led to his release. When Maori primate, Brown Turei, demanded an apology from the government for raids on the Tuhoe tribe on the grounds of terrorism, he did it with the full support of the Pakeha and Polynesian Tikangas. Such strong moral authority impacts upon and helps shape political change, in this case having those arrested released and terrorism charges dropped.
Yesterday the church in this land on its journey for justice intersected with Denise’s journey to ordination, and both are forever changed. When the bishops and representatives of the clergy laid hands on her head, sacramentally acknowledging her as a priest, we all extended to her the power and authority normally identified by a collar. She is now forever woven into the church’s te taura tangata.
Here at St Matthew’s Denise brings all her effervescent passion for life, her raves and rants, her Maori and Pakeha DNA, her deep love of God, her past successes and failures, her desire for community, her gender, her diverse life experience, and all the power her love and compassion affords her and we are weaving her into who we are, have been and will be. She and we are no longer the same. We are transformed and transforming. As te taura tangata, a rope of individual journeys woven tightly together in shared power, we will continue our pursuit of gna wheke, and in the process may fish up from the depths a new land, perhaps not of milk and honey, but one filled with peace and justice.
Before we return to our canoes to take up the pursuit, take a moment to remember where we were last year at this time. We were just recovering from a U2charist, an innovative new Eucharist composed by Glynn with U2 music played by a rock band. We were still anticipating blessing Teddy Bears, hosting Bishop Spong and inaugurating a virtual church on the web. Because of that journey we are not the same church we were then and now with Denise aboard it is certain we will not be the same church next year. I’m not sure exactly where we will be a year from now. Our journey may be demanding, difficult and even discouraging, but I’m pretty sure we won’t end up in George.