Today is Aotearoa Sunday. It is not celebrated everywhere, not even here where it is the Maori name for New Zealand. No one outside the Anglican Church here celebrates it today, and not even the majority of Anglican churches. It is an alternative to celebrating what most of the Christian world celebrates today, Christ the King Sunday: the last Sunday before Advent, when we begin our lead up to Christmas. We celebrate the alternative here because we think Jesus never saw himself as a king. That is a post-Easter understanding of him that nurtures a patriarchal understanding of Christianity. After the Church of England’s failure to approve women bishops this week, I definitely don’t want to reinforce that understanding of Jesus. We don’t want to be party to the Anglican Church’s attempt at assisted suicide. I certainly don’t after my sermon last week blasting patriarchy.
But Aotearoa Sunday presents a problem for an American, who as a priest still mangles the pronunciation of some Maori words, including the word Maori. That embarrasses me after more than seven years here, but I will keep trying to get it right, because the biculturalism of New Zealand was one of its appeals to me.
Normally we invite a guest preacher, who is knowledgeable about our history and culture to speak on this occasion. Circumstances this year leave you with me. So, you are left with an outsider who loves his adopted country and is married to a fifth generation New Zealander and has Maori grandchildren through that union to try and find the spiritual importance of this Sunday.
When I begin a sermon I actually begin by trying to find a sentence of the day that captures what I want to talk about. Google is great at helping to find quotes. This week I found a Kiwi site that had collected the quotes of visitors to New Zealand. While I didn’t choose any of them, I got a kick out of them even though most were not how I experience New Zealand.
My wife has been visiting North America for about 20 years to see her daughter. Over the years she has been impressed that more and more Americans and Canadians know something about us and have even visited and lived here. I think we need to thank Sir Peter Jackson and The Lord of the Rings for that, but on our last trip there was a security agent at one American airport that thought she lived on an island off of the coast of the Netherlands and a customs agent in Canada that thought she needed a visa because she was travelling on a Cambodian passport (He was black and he still turned bright red when he discovered his mistake).
Knowing of the rest of the world’s ignorance of our existence makes me appreciate Mark Twain’s observation back home after his tour of New Zealand, “If it would not look too much like showing off, I would tell the reader where New Zealand is.”
Many have not been impressed. Charles Darwin visited the country on his famous voyage around the world. Four years after this congregation was formed he said in 1860, “I believe we were all glad to leave New Zealand. It is not a pleasant place. Amongst the natives there is absent that charming simplicity… and the greater part of the English are the very refuse of society.”
Sir Clement Freud, the grandson of Sigmund, must have visited us in January. When asked his opinion of New Zealand replied, “I find it hard to say, because when I was there it seemed to be shut.”
But my favourite quote was from an American entertainer, Eric Sharp, “The United States invented the space shuttle, the atomic bomb and Disneyland. We have 35 times more land than New Zealand. 80 times the population, 144 times the gross national product and 220 times as many people in jail.
“Many of our big cities have more kilometres of freeway than in all of New Zealand, our ten biggest metropolises each have more people than all of New Zealand, and metropolitan Detroit has more cars on the road than in all of New Zealand.
“So how come a superpower of 270 million people got routed in the America’s Cup, the world’s most technically oriented yacht race, by a country of 3.5 million that out produces us only in sheep manure?”
I found out the answer to his question this week. It is provided in the Maori proverb, “It’s the people, the people, the people.”
Lynette’s son is partnered to a woman who is part Maori and part Chinese (the mixing of races is so Kiwi). We love her to death. They have given us two beautiful granddaughters. Her name is Trudy. She has had very few breaks in her life, but she is determined to give our grandchildren a different life and not to let the circumstances of her life dictate her future. With no qualifications she enrolled in Te Wānanga o Aotearoa. That is roughly translated as the University of New Zealand.
This week she graduated and we went to the Telstra Clear Pacific Event Centre to witness her graduation. It was the most amazing graduation I’ve ever seen. The graduates entered to a Karenga chant instead of Pomp and Circumstances. There was a warrior at the back with spear swinging daring loudly those inside to just try and stop these graduates from achieving greatness and the response from a choir on the inside welcomed them in. Or at least that is how I interpreted what was going on. As I watched the graduates enter I found myself tearing up. They did not wear traditional caps and gowns. They all wore their Sunday best, but for some their Sunday best were second hand clothes and crocs. Some wore traditional dress from their country of origin. In their faces I saw determination and pride that they had against all odds achieved academic goals that could change their lives. I saw hope, courage and faith in their eyes. And my eyes welled with tears in admiration. They humbled me. For me they are heroic. Against all odds and huge barriers to their success, they were able to hope and dream and work hard to become all each of us is intended to be.
I confess that while I was aware of Trudy’s taking classes, after seven years here I had never heard of what is now New Zealand’s largest tertiary institution of higher learning. It has been around since 1984 and how it came into being says a lot about this country. Two members of Te Awamutu College wanted to provide a “marae of learning” as an educational alternative for the large number of predominantly Maori students being expelled from the college. In 1993 the Ministry of Education granted them tertiary status. In 2000 it had 3,127 students but in four years it had 66,756 students. In 2010, 50% of the students identified as Maori and 10% as Pasifika. Sixty-eight per cent were women and 52% were older than 40 years of age. Thirty-eight per cent had no qualifications when they entered and 30% were unemployed when they began. Of those who began, 70% graduated. All of the early levels are free and the higher levels of qualification are modestly priced and many scholarships are available. While originally created for Maori the names of those graduating came from around the world. While we went to cheer Trudy, one of our own members, originally from Russia was also proudly graduating. After the ceremony, someone Lynette nursed many years ago in mental health recognised her and eagerly came to greet her, glowing over her achievement.
This is Aotearoa. We don’t just know how to win yacht races and shovel sheep manure. It is a place where hope can spring up anywhere and give shelter to all the birds of the air. This institution that is changing lives, breaking the cycle of poverty by opening doors, is much like the mustard seed Jesus compares to God’s realm. It is the smallest of seeds and like weeds can spring up anywhere. Aotearoa, at its best, is fertile ground for such seeds. Maybe it is because of all that sheep poo.