Reconnecting with Poverty at Christmas
December 29, 2002
First Sunday after Christmas John 1:1-18
Now that the song of the angels is stilled
Now that the star in the sky is gone
Now that kings and princes are home
Now that shepherds are back with their flocks
the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost
to heal the broken
to feed the hungry
to release the prisoner
to rebuild the nations
to bring peace among the people
to make music in the heart.
Now that our gospel text has Jesus leaving Bethlehem with his family, so we must leave that place of exhilaration for the stark reality of our world.
The arrival of Jesus in Jerusalem is heralded by the sacrifice of turtle doves by his family. In this act Jesus is made public. Turtle doves were sacrificed as a concession to those who could not afford lambs. So, once again we are reminded that it is in our poverty that we serve the good of the world. I'm not talking here about money, I'm talking about poverty as an openness to finding faith and wisdom in others; that is an acknowledgment that we are not alone, that we need others. It is what Buddhism would call Sunyata, a self emptying which acknowledges the interconnectedness of all things.
The best definition I have heard of poverty comes from Oscar Romero, who places poverty in the context of Christmas for us; "No one can celebrate a genuine Christmas without being truly poor. The self-sufficient, the proud, those who, because they have everything, look down on others, those who have no need even of God - for them there will be no Christmas. Only the poor, the hungry, those who need someone to come on their behalf, will have that someone. That someone is God, Emmanuel, God-with-us. Without poverty of spirit there can be no abundance of God."
Jesus is heralded in Jerusalem by Simeon, a Jew who opens the possibilities of the Jesus revolution even to Gentiles. Once again we are reminded of the universal scope of the Christian mission. The drawing together of religion and race is central to the story from its beginning. In our poverty we are open to the insight of new and different ideas.
Jesus is announced also by Anna, the ageing Prophet, yet also a widow. Widows were in that world synonymous with poverty, and the insight which poverty brings. Once again we are reminded that the least likely people become our teachers and inspiration.
So, with New Year around the corner, we reflect on our lives today in the light of Christmas. Our new years will have an abundance of God presence when we have our own poverty in focus; our need for others, even the least likely guide.
One last thought - over the past days there has been further violence in Bethlehem, shooting of Palestinians, and a renewed curfew on the streets. Of course Israel claims that this is counter terrorism; we are told that the violence is necessary. In Jesus' day, the tyrant Herod ordered the killing of all male babies under the age of two in Bethlehem and its vicinity. All that violence to satisfy Herod's insecurity. Once again we are expected to believe that the violence was necessary. It makes you wonder about the search for Osama bin Laden, and the pursuit of Saddam Hussein. All this violence to satisfy the insecurity of the power elite.
Is it really necessary, and is it the only way? Surely the Jesus mission which began in the violence of Bethlehem, and came to its climax in the violence of Jerusalem was all about another way. It was about the bringing together of people of difference, reconnecting with poverty and interdependence, and seeking non-violent resistance to power politics.
In rediscovering the roots of this Jesus story, we begin to see at this most significant time in human history the work of Christmas laid out for us. Now because the song of the angels is dimmed by the self righteous rhetoric of politicians; now that the star in the sky is clouded by the smoke of warfare; now that civilians are kept in their homes by oppressive curfews, the work of Christmas is all too clear:
To find the lost
To heal the broken
To feed the hungry
To release the prisoner
To rebuild the nations
To bring peace among the people
To make music in the heart.
Ian Lawton Vicar, St Matthew-in-the-City
December 8, 2002
Advent 2 Matthew 3:1-12
"Rave Culture" has been with us for well over ten years now, and although some may deny it, the transition from underground subculture to mainstream youth industry occurred many years before the millennium.
Ravers did not spontaneously appear, like all cultures they have a clear and traceable heritage. Rave culture was a product of its time; the strands of its DNA can be unravelled to expose the social, political and technological climates which germinated the "new" youth culture echoing traditions from the earliest histories of man. In the words of Melbourne composer David Cox "it's the same Dionysian urge, although instead of going into the woods with jugs of wine and lyres and harps, it's technology providing the music and the substances are designer drugs."
It is generally agreed that Rave Culture sprouted from the death of Disco but with a rebuttal of the materialistic "greed is good" mentality of the 80's. On a simple level, all of the basic qualities of "Rave Culture" are opposites of the narcissistic vanity present in the Nightclub (and previous Disco) culture. In the boom period of the 80s nightclub culture, image was everything. If you didn't look cool, or if you didn't wear the right clothes, you didn't get in. The implied aim of going to a club was to drink alcohol and seduce a partner for a one-night stand. Many nightclubs had advertisements which were more explicit than some Brothels. Besides alcohol, the drug of choice was cocaine, which increased the user's ego. Nightclubs were not primarily about music, which was generally mainstream and banal, and the lighting and décor were also secondary - the point of going to a club was to drink and potentially have sex.
Raves, contrarily, are based first and foremost on the music. The lighting and visual displays became just as important. The fashion was initially based on comfort, for long periods of dancing, before developing into "anti-fashion" - in which the designer-label pretension of Nightclub culture was parodied with deliberately kitsch op-shop bargains.
Around the same time, technology delivered a new form of electronic music with exciting possibilities - songs could be seamlessly cross-faded without breaks, so the listener could not tell when one song finished and another began, and they could be mixed together by DJs to form new songs. And because the instruments were electronic, the beats could be faster and more consistent than ever before. The same beat could be maintained indefinitely, something live performers could never do.
Just as importantly, the music was non-vocal which instantly overcame the language barrier. For the first time music from obscure European countries was being listened to and played alongside local artists. Composers with a home computer could produce international best-sellers. Compared to mainstream Rock and Pop music, the dominance and politics of local Record Companies and Distributors was not only reduced, it was simply irrelevant. The technology not only produced and delivered the music, but the emergence of the internet provided new distribution channels and a global network of underground musicians.
But identifying the genesis of modern-day Ravers doesn't tell the whole story. What makes Ravers distinct from other youth cultures are the "spiritual" elements - the tribal atmosphere, the shaman-like power of the DJ, the hypnotic power of trance music and the communal harmony. In this respect, what makes Raves interesting is their massive growth in popularity - suggesting that there's more to them than just loud music and baggy clothes. It would seem that Raves are fulfilling a need in today's youth which has not been identified or met by other industries.
With Ravers shunning the depressive qualities of alcohol, a major factor in the popularity of Raves is their accessibility to teenagers under the age of 18. Some of the younger Ravers wouldn't have been born when the first House Music was being composed in Detroit and the Happy Mondays were grooving Manchester. There is now a generation of adolescents who have grown up alongside Rave culture, oblivious to its "underground" origins and rebellion against the "sex, drugs and rock'n'roll" lifestyle.
Raves continue to revolve primarily around the music, supported by lighting arrays and visual exhibitions designed to augment the trance-inducing qualities of the music. Fringe art is also emphasised, along with vendors supporting all strains of mysticism. Cynicism is left at the door.
But even ignoring the majority of Ravers who attend simply because of the fun factor, or because of the hype generated by the massive industries now driving the culture, the allure of a Rave cannot be wholly attributed to commercially driven marketing campaign and the absence of a segregating liquor licence.
Rave culture is media friendly - it not only has colour and movement, but the over hyped shock-value of naïve teenagers admitting they take drugs, and considering themselves to be different from previous teenagers. The drug issue is so poorly represented that it's hardly worth noting. All youth cultures have a drug of choice - Raver's with their ecstasy and LSD are no different to the skater/surfers drinking VBs and passing the bong around, the Nightclub Queens with speed and cocaine, or the Rock Music industry's obsession with alcohol. The only difference with Ravers is their openness about consuming drugs, and their apparent denial of the potential harm.
Subsequently, the ease with which Raves can be discussed, analogies made, and all sorts of wonderfully colourful metaphors constructed has meant that Rave culture is usually credited with more depth than it deserves. When it comes to looking at the popularity of Rave culture, too many journalists fail to see the woods for the trees.
Rave Culture began by shunning the materialism and vanity of the 80s, creating an environment free from social hierarchies and the need to conform. A Rave event had a specific focus - the music - presented in a non-threatening environment. There were no sexual overtones and the fashions evolved into an androgenous style which further reduced any implication of seduction. The drugs involved, for those who chose to take them, did not invoke aggression or arrogance but rather feelings of love and openness. A core element of Rave Culture was a promotion of the Christian ethic to "love your neighbour as yourself".
In really simple terms, Raves were free from the angst and insecurities of adolescence; an event in which there was no pressure to fit a commercially driven social image, and where thousands of like-minded individuals could come together through their common love of music and dancing. No matter how many Ravers are interviewed, across all countries and age-groups, the same words and themes continue to recur - Raves are "safe", "non-threatening" and "secure", your appearance is irrelevant, everyone is friendly, and time and time again - "No one judges you".
The world of a modern, media-aware teenager is bombarded with images of how they should look, dress, act and think. The whole concept of advertising is based around creating desire, so it's little wonder that the idyllic portrayal of adolescents across all mediums is so different from the truth. It is interesting and slightly worrying that so many young adults feel as though they are constantly being judged, and although this egocentric behaviour is a hallmark of young adulthood, the modern teenager seems to be faced with increasingly unrealistic expectations.
Raves are regular events where young adults can mix with reel peers, free from the pretension still evident in nightclub and other youth cultures, and the pressure to conform to mainstream media images. In once sense, Ravers aspired to non-conformity, creating a paradoxical security by defining themselves through their rejection of a definition.
This security-through-mutual-insecurity is possibly why the Rave culture became so popular amongst the Gay and Lesbian communities, providing a safe and non-judgemental environment for young adults struggling with their sexual identities and the growing realisation that they did not conform to a societal norm.
The true average teenager, in every sense of the word "average", has no firm understanding of what they want to do with their life. They almost certainly don't enjoy school but feel pressured to complete year twelve. Their subject choices and university selections are more likely to be determined by their parents opinions about secure careers rather than their own vocational desires, so those who do progress from High School to University quickly feel as though their life is locked into a path which they have no interest in pursuing. For those who don't continue an education, the shock of leaving school can induce "career vertigo" - with the sudden glimpse of an entire life as an adult inducing nauseating feelings of either helplessness or simply emptiness.
A Rave can easily become the most significant, meaningful but most of all fun event in a young adult's life. It's a regular chance to forget about the real world and let loose with thousands of people who feel exactly the same. The regular Rave is an opportunity to empty the mind and embrace a music-induced trance with the security of knowing that all of those around are experiencing exactly the same thing.
With large Raves regularly attracting thousands of punters, not just locally but globally, it is foolish to pigeon hole or label every single Raver as an insecure teenager. There are all sorts of Ravers, across all demographics, age groups and social classes, and the popularity of the large events has the obvious link to the popularity of the music being played.
However it is impossible to ignore the majority of Ravers who share similar feelings of trepidation about their emergence into adulthood. It's a simple fact that teenagers who know what they want from their future and have a basic feeling of happiness are in the minority. We live in a time where youth suicide and the incidence of depression amongst teenagers is at a record high, yet something as simple as a warehouse party can provide an essential release from the pressures felt by today's youth.
The question of whether a Rave is a spiritual event really comes down to the definition of the word "spiritual". Although Rave Culture is certainly not a religion, with no God-like figure or even a universal belief system, Raves seem to give the Ravers who attend a sense that they belong to "something larger", or simply alleviate a feeling of loneliness and solitude.
It would be interesting to consider how many church going Christians find the after-service coffee to be more stimulating than the service itself. Perhaps Ravers are simply the first mainstream culture to openly embrace an environment in which complete strangers can talk to each other without any sexual overtones.
Rave culture is relatively young, and will probably always be tarnished with the irrelevant connotations of rampant drug use. But realistically, a Rave is just a great big party, free from stress, worry, anger, aggression, and where openness, honestly and friendliness are key values.
So they can't be that bad.
The Sky is Falling: Apocalyptic Literature in the Bible
December 1, 2002
Advent 1 Matthew 24:37-44
Of course, Henny Penny had a point. After all, she had evidence. The sky was falling, and Goosey Loosey and Chicken Licken and friends ran to hide. As a kid, I loved the story, but it always made me curious. If the sky fell, and if somehow I could survive the sky falling, what would be on the other side? How different would reality be without a sky?
Our world has its share of Henny Pennys, those doomsday geniuses, who state the obvious and expect the rest of us to run and hide. They notice that global tension is rising, that disease is spreading, they even notice El Nino. The sky is falling they tell us, and fill the falling sky with their own prejudice and hatred, but they never fill the vision out. Whats it like on the other side? If they ask that question they see only another world of perfection, never a transformed present. And they so often fail to ask sensible questions as to why the sky is falling.
One of these doomsday characters is Pat Robertson in the US, who warned the city of Orlando Florida that if it continued to fill its streets with gay pride flags it was risking a natural disaster such as a tornado. Janis Walworth looked for the evidence of this modern day Henny Penny theory. She studied the correlation between the occurrence of tornadoes and the gay population in particular places. She found that higher proportions of gay people lived in areas with very few tornadoes. She went on to ask the question, if God is not after gay people, who is God after?
Jews and Catholics are safer it seems, but Protestants are at greater risk of tornadoes. Within that group, Lutherans are safer, but Baptists are in trouble. She suggests that Texas could cut its number of tornadoes in half by sending a few hundred thousand Baptists elsewhere. Would you believe that gay Protestants are less likely to suffer a tornado than straight Protestants? Janis suggests so. She concludes by pointing out that there is another explanation to God bringing disaster on particular people or places; its possible she says that Baptists and other Protestants may flock to places where there are more tornadoes, illustrating the possible link between IQ and religious affiliation.
A sensible look at the current state of our world would show that the sky is falling, but if anyone is making it fall it is people and tired structures, and not some manipulative divine force. The environment is wilting, but mainly under the pressure of consumerism. Nations are in conflict but mainly over intolerance and economic and political gain.
A sensible look at the apocalyptic literature of the Bible would show it was far more than Henny Penny scaremongering. It was a literary genre especially for oppressed people, for people who believed that nothing would improve until all was lost. It was in your face, like a Nelson Mandela fist raised in defiance. It was an inspiration for a people who were persecuted, doubtful and lost, waiting for their Messiah to return. Apocalyptic literature said to them, "Don't give up. Goodness will triumph over destruction. But also be realistic- the destruction will get worse first."
Apocalyptic literature is a genre which oppressed people through the ages have identified with longing for a world turned upside down. Liberation Theology drew heavily on the book of Revelation for protest images. The anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa was comforted by the message of Revelation that injustice could not last forever.
Apocalyptic literature such as our gospel text today is a statement of the way things are, rather than an attempt to explain God's role in the world. It is an attempt to explain the opposite nature of the universe; the tendency to extremes. It is a theme captured well in the Tao Te Ching.
If you want to shrink something
You must first allow it to expand
If you want to get rid of something
You must first allow it to flourish.
If you want to take something
You must first allow it to be given.
This is called the subtle perception of the way things are.
The soft overcomes the hard.
The slow overcomes the fast.
Apocalyptic literature is a call to persistence, a reminder that justice will win out in the face of awful tragedy, and so often with a reversal. Justice will win, as it turns the current system on its head.
When asked how one best overcomes evil, the Dalai Lama said, "By valuing, truly valuing compassion and love, and conducting ourselves with restraint out of our responsibility for others' well-being."
So as we move through Advent, we watch for signs of the arrival of God in our lives. We look for signs of God in the gentle revolutions, the ordinary moments of authentic persistence where we see shifts in the status quo. We are well aware of the despair in our lives and all around us. We need no Henny Penny. Yet we endure despite and to spite the evidence.
The sky is falling. We own the parts we play personally in the falling sky. We see the systems and tyrants who rule by violence. We acknowledge the social interconnection of a falling sky. Yet our Advent vision is whats on the other side and I don't mean another world. I mean the gentle revolution of life with a new sky. The gentle revolution of authentic lives.
"The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light. The stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken."
GOD HELP US TO CHANGE,
TO CHANGE OURSELVES AND TO CHANGE OUR WORLD
TO KNOW THE NEED OF IT,
TO DEAL WITH THE PAIN OF IT,
TO FEEL THE JOY OF IT,
TO UNDERTAKE THE JOURNEY
WITHOUT UNDERSTANDING THE DESTINATION.
THE ART OF GENTLE REVOLUTION
What we do to these, we do to Jesus
November 24, 2002
Ordinary Sunday 34 Matthew 25:31-46
As we honour today the lives lost in the Erebus plane disaster, the question which arises again is 'Where is God in tragedy?' 'Where is the Face of Christ in the midst of suffering? I want to explore that question in the light of today's gospel text.
On plain reading, it is a text that calls us to compassion. Leaving aside the sheep and goats analogy, it is a text which suggests that to show kindness to the one in need is to display the universal love of God and to reveal the face of Christ. Yet there is a detail here which needs to be emphasised. The acts of kindness are to be expressed especially for the least in society. What do we make of this detail?
In my previous parish in inner Sydney one of the more useful activities of the church was a Sunday morning breakfast for local homeless people. There were hundreds who came in and many significant connections were made over baked beans and toast. It was a program I inherited when I arrived, and I enjoyed it greatly. I also inherited the awful pattern of beginning the breakfast with prayers and ending with a voluntary church service. I tried as hard to avoid this as many of the homeless people did.
It often struck me that the face of Christ in this place was seen more in the food shared, lives lived alongside than in the prayers and Bible readings. It seemed to me that the meal was far more sacred than the church service. As it turned out in that parish, my suspicions became a reality. I was only ever treated with respect by people on the street, and with contempt by some of the religious. It confirmed for me what I had read in Liberation Theology; that poor people often have greater spiritual insight than religious people.
In a sermon on Christmas Eve 1979 in El Salvador, Archbishop Oscar Romero said: "We must not seek the child Jesus in the pretty figures of our Christmas cribs. We must seek him among the undernourished children who have gone to bed tonight with nothing to eat, among the poor newsboys who will sleep covered with newspapers in doorways."
Three months later, Romero was assassinated by a death squad while celebrating mass in the chapel of the Divina Providencia. He was considered a threat to the new order of capitalism as he dared to advocate on behalf of the poor.
In November 1989, six Jesuit priests were murdered by the Salvadoran military on the campus of the University of Central America (UCA) in San Salvador, El Salvador. Their housekeeper, Elba Ramos, and her daughter Celia Marisela Ramos, were murdered there as well. The Jesuits were labelled subversives by the Salvadoran Government for speaking out against the oppressive socioeconomic structure of Salvadoran society. The Jesuits were six of over 70,000 victims who died in El Salvador's civil war, which raged in the 1980's and early 1990's. The vast majority of these victims were civilians killed by El Salvador's armed forces and paramilitary death squads.
The events in El Salvador were mirrored in other places, especially Argentina, Brazil and Mexico. The church's public role and theology were shaped by international social and political changes. As populist governments in these places sought industrial development, it was the middle class that benefited while the peasantry delved into a deep spiral of poverty. This led to popular uprisings, which in turn led to military dictatorships. The violence, poverty, corruption and in some cases civil war were the spark for the theology which became known as liberationism.
Whether we consider local or global matters, the gospel challenge is to find the heart of Jesus for the oppressed person or group.
Immigration is a current hot issue. Last year, it was Australia under the spotlight for its lack of compassion towards refugees. Now, in this country, there are suggestions of tighter regulations and restrictions. Of course it is complex, and there need to be limits. Yet as a nation, are we acting with compassion? As followers of the God who has special concern for immigrants, minorities and poor people are we advocating as we should be?
When an infamous weekly columnist in our national newspaper peddles hatred and racism (and so often in the name of the Christian God) the words of Matthew 25 need to be heard. When we welcome new arrivals to our country and when our national policies on immigration are compassionate and balanced, we reflect the face of Jesus.
We must not seek the child Jesus in the pretty figures of our Christmas cribs. We must seek him in the faces of those who struggle, those with broken English and unfamiliar customs, those who have left home and family for a new land.
What we do to these we do to Jesus.
When we fail these we fail Jesus.
Ian Lawton Vicar, St Matthew-in-the-City
November 17, 2002
Ordinary Sunday 33 Matt 25:14-15, 19-29 1 Thessalonians 5:1-10
I was intrigued to read in yesterday's paper of a Christian man who heads up an ethical investment fund; a born again Christian man, no less.
He invests according to what he sees as the morals of the Bible. So he'll have nothing to do with products tied to alcohol, tobacco, gambling, pornography or abortion. Gun makers and arms contractors are alright because the Bible says you should defend yourself. And instead of the alcohol, tobacco, pornography and abortion products, he invests in McDonalds, Burger King and Wendys because (I guess) they are wholesome family companies. It seems his Bible's morals have no issue with slave labour or the health of our children, nor with a globalised economy where the rich get richer.
Its no wonder that society generally holds the belief that Christianity has a black and white, if inconsistent, morality. And so it was no surprise that a journalist rang me yesterday to ask more about my attitude to the decriminalisation of prostitution, after our latest e-zine hit the streets. She wondered how a Christian could support such a move in the light of the morality of our faith. Isn't it like night and day, she said, to foster sex work? I suggested to her that the morality question is secondary, that this is about an ethic of retrieval. Prostitution, and gambling for that matter, are here to stay. The question is how we can retrieve fragile situations and regulate them for the safest and healthiest outcome?
Today's Epistle reading is a lead-in to Advent, and uses analogies of light and dark, as if there are such neat categories. Morality is not central, as it changes constantly. Our Advent challenge is to live reality, to allow the edges to shift and change and to hold on to what is the centre.
Having just had six weeks off, I stand before you today with new energy and greater clarity. The past weeks have been filled with reflection on what is the centre for me. It came in the form of a word. The word was 'authentic'. With nothing to prove, no-one to impress, simply living in the present. Other people's expectations, stereotypes, judgments in their rightful place. A church which is authentic enough to stand naked before each other in our struggles.
On September 11 2001, The then Archbishop of Wales, Rowan Williams, was in New York to deliver the Hobart Lecture at Trinity Cathedral on Wall St. He arrived for a television interview at 9am, to begin at 9.30. Moments after arriving the unthinkable took place. The Archbishop was herded with the crowds into a stair well where the smoke almost overwhelmed them. As an indication of the desperation one of the guests turned to Rowan and said, "I can't think of anyone with whom I'd rather die." They all thought it was the end.
The Archbishop was asked to pray, and he read the anxieties of the group and put them in words which filled the room with calm. It was the first of a series of impromptu prayers and speeches and dialogues he was to engage in that week. They all spoke to pain and doubt as he opened his own life to these people. His was an authentic presence in New York City that fateful week. Fred Burnham from Trinity wrote about his experience of the Archbishop in an article entitled The Power Of Authentic Theology: "Following the Eucharist and lunch, he got up to deliver an endowed lecture on "Pastoral Theology," that he had probably spent weeks preparing. Once again, he set his text aside and spoke to the moment. He admitted that he had been scared to death the day before. Then he proceeded to argue that the apprehension of death and the experience of vulnerability are the wellspring of compassion and the rudimentary teachers of sound and authentic pastoral theology. Throughout the rest of the week as Archbishop Williams visited our seminary and other parishes, he continued to put his text aside and practice the authentic theology which he had espoused in the Hobart Lecture. When I put him on the plane back to Wales on Friday, I knew that his powerful presence in New York during that angry and fearful week had brought healing to many a shattered soul."
As we approach Advent we are reminded of the God who arrives into our world, always and constantly into our present when we least expect that it is possible to find calm and walks alongside us through the dark moments of pain. In that we might just have our centre regarding sex work and the law. Not morals, but walking alongside a minority group who face great oppression due to a lack of regulation in their industry. Walking alongside in authentic humanity.
Enough about social issues. We have our own personal issues currently. We face the possibility of church without Michael Earthy at the helm of so much which is crucial to our future. There is nothing I can say to ease the anxiety that we feel about Michael at the moment. There's nothing we can say to him which explains why he is suffering. There's no glib reassurances that St Matthew's will be fine without its rock of so many years. All we have is our ability to live authentically, acknowledge our fears and walk alongside one another through to clarity.
I offer to you as an Advent theme for this year - the power of authentic living, here and now in the present, God's way.
Allow the edges to shift and move, hold on to the centre.
Ian Lawton Vicar, St Matthew-in-the-City
Render Unto Caesar
October 20, 2002
Ordinary Sunday 29 Matthew 22:15-22
"Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's" [Matt 22:21].
It begs the question: 'What is Caesar's?' and 'Who decides?' Invariably Caesars have lots of ideas about what is theirs. Give them an inch, and they'll take a mile, or rather they'll take over the whole measuring system.
I find it interesting how the further up the power chain politicians go, the more inclined they are to succumb to the belief in their own infallible egos. The Major-Currie affair in England reveals something of this. Of course church leaders too are not immune.
What is Caesar's? Even a cursory examination of Christian history will reveal the chess game that Caesars and Church have engaged in. There has been almost a perpetual struggle over territory - physical, spiritual, and moral - both interested in the hearts and minds and wallets of the populace.
When a politician declares that the Church shall stay out of the politics, we should hear it for what it is, namely one over-used move in a long territorial game. It has always been difficult to discover the demarcation line between the two sides. In Anglicanism our English roots include the involvement of Parliament and Monarch in decision-making, albeit rather circumscribed today. In New Zealand, Anglicanism does not have that formal political involvement, yet it does not mean that Church and State have not tried to influence each other's claimed territory.
If, for example, as some believe, the Church should restrict itself to 'spiritual' matters should we remain silent about the filming of a birth for pornographic purposes or any matter concerning the future welfare of a human being? What about land issues? Is there not spirituality involved with land? What about tax, especially when it is perceived as unjust?
Jesus was asked about tax, and he didn't dodge it. He didn't say, "No comment, this is not a spiritual matter." It was very much a spirited matter.
A little background on 1st century Palestinian taxes, that coin, and that question: Taxes, while always a pain, especially when your country is being milked by a foreign power, were particularly onerous in the Roman period. Rome wanted bulk milk; the local governor [Pilate] expected some cream off the top; as did the managers of the tax districts [whom the gospels call 'Publicans']; and, of course, as did the tax collectors. There were tax quotas to meet - which meant if someone in the community effectively evaded paying others had to make up the difference! It's estimated that some 60-70% of a person's income was taken in tax!!
There were multiple types of taxes, some considered much worse than others. Probably paramount among those was the poll tax,(1) calculated on the census in which every resident was registered along with complete information regarding occupation and assets.(2) The penalty for failing to comply was death. The poll tax was loathed by the religious leadership on three grounds: it was excessive; it caused people to worry and be constantly distracted from religious and ethical obligations; and, above all, it was interpreted theologically as a form of idolatry.
Which leads on to the coin. Coins are icons of authority. They carry the implicit, but potent, recognition of a government's authority over those who use the coins. The use of the coins implies the user's consent and submission to that authority. Most of us don't think about it. However, Judaism, based on Big C no. 2 [thou shalt not commit idolatry], objected to images, especially when the word divus [read 'divine'] was attached. The coin was a denarius - one side revealing the head of Emperor Tiberius Caesar and the other the words divus et pontifex maximus.
The problem, in short, was that paying the tax meant committing idolatry. Not paying the tax meant choosing not to live. As the Torah was explicit about idolatry, so it was implicit about encouraging life, not death or martyrdom. The question asked of Jesus therefore was: "Are we permitted by our religious laws and understandings to pay the poll tax given that it implies that we have chosen the way of Caesar over against the way of God?"
Jesus' answer, 'Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's', was a polite, covert, way of saying 'Give Caesar not one darn thing!' For all Jews knew that everything was God's, and therefore nothing was Caesar's. Indeed to try and divide the universe into a sacred God realm and a secular Caesar realm was to make Caesar a god and therefore to commit idolatry.
"Yet," Jesus says in effect, "play along with Caesar's illusion, giving him what he thinks is his, for the way of God is the way of life and not death. Oppressive government has no authority over us, but it is oppressive! Publicly appear to be obedient, in order to remain free to serve the true source of power and authority: God."
In the long politico-religious chess game this story sides with religion not the regime. What did you expect? God doesn't play second fiddle to any government. Religion will always encourage its followers to hold fast to a higher allegiance while in oppressive contexts often encourage its followers to survive by saying one thing publicly and quite another privately. Or as Rabbi Shemaiah once said, "Love work… hate authority, and do not make yourself conspicuous to the government."(3)
In the 1st century Palestinian context instead of choosing to align himself with the repressive regime or to align himself with those choosing revolt and therefore martyrdom, Jesus chose a strategy of non-alignment.
Another way of understanding Jesus' response is to ask 'Who owns the coin?' One answer says God, because everything is God's. Another answer says Caesar, because the coins bear his idolatrous imprint. But another answer is your self. True power is not in the coin, but in the hands of those holding the coin. You decide where to align. We do not live in an oppressive context like Jesus', but we do need to consider where we are aligned.
Once upon a time there was an old woman who used to meditate early every morning under a large tree on the west bank of the Ganges River. One morning, after having finished her prayer, the old woman saw a scorpion floating helplessly by, caught in the strong current of the river. As the scorpion was swept closer to the tree, it caught hold of one of the long tree-roots that branched far out into the river. The scorpion struggled to free itself, but it got more and more entangled in the complex network of tree roots.
When the old woman saw this, she immediately stretched herself out on the extended roots, and reached out her hand to rescue the drowning scorpion. But, as soon as she touched it, the animal jerked aside and stung her with its long lashing tail. Instinctively, the woman drew back her hand, but then, recovering her balance, she once more stretched out to lift the scorpion from the water. But every time the woman touched it, the frantic scorpion lashed out to sting her with its poisonous tail… so that the woman's hand became swollen and bloody and her face contorted with pain.
A passer-by who had watched what was happening yelled out: "Hey! Stupid old woman! What's wrong with you? Only a fool risks her life for the sake of a vicious, useless creature. Don't you realize that you are risking your life to save that miserable, ungrateful thing?"
Slowly the old woman turned her head and looked calmly into the stranger's eyes: "Friend, because it is in the nature of the scorpion to sting, why should I give up my nature, which is to save?"
We are being stung by terror. Bali is very close to us. It is a holiday destination for many in our community. Today, scattered about New Zealand people will be coming to church feeling shocked, grief stricken, and fearful.
The scorpion story asks of us why should we, while exercising through appropriate authorities due vigilance, allow the tactics of terror to compromise our Christian nature, which values tolerance, human and minority rights, and transparent, fair, and just processes - as our New Zealand courts, police, and government usually exemplify.
I suspect in the months ahead as incidents of terror strike, and we continue to feel the pain-filled sting, we will have to choose where to be aligned: with those who want to strike back, regardless of a strike's precision or legal justification; or with those who want to preserve their true nature, which knows the long-term futility of revenge.
The debate will be in Caesar's realm [or in what Caesar considers his realm]. God though may well have other ideas.
Glynn Cardy, Vicar, St Andrew's Anglican Church, Epsom
1. The other contender for the 'most hated tax' award was the estate tax.
2. The census was taken approximately every six years. Every resident between ages 14 and 61 were expected to comply.
3. Culbertson, P. A Word Fitly Spoken: Context, Transmission, And Adoption Of The Parables Of Jesus, New York: State University Of New York Press, 1995, p.157
Dwelling at the Edge of Expectation
September 22, 2002
St Matthew's Day Ordinary Sunday 25 Matthew 20:1-16
Being the day of St Matthew, it seemed a worthwhile exercise to see what other St Matthew's churches were doing around the world. I did an Internet search, and found St Matthew's nestled in the Hollywood Hills, St Matthew's on the famous Manly Corso in Sydney, St Matthew's in the Turtle Mountains in Canada, St Matthew's in Fairbanks Alaska, and - my favourite - St Matthew's on Paradise Island in the Bahamas. When I leave St Matthew-in-the-City maybe I hope to work in St Matthew's in the Bahamas!
I came across a fascinating St Matthew's in Cobo, Guernsey, UK. They claim to have set up the first web site in their diocese. It caught my attention because its beginnings were a wonderful story of faith. St Matthews in Cobo came about because a five-year-old girl had a vision. In the 1830's a young Marianne Carey was holidaying with her family, and found herself atop a hill. She looked down on a town of mainly fisherfolk, and noticed that there was no church or school. She discovered that their nearest church was a 2 mile walk. She asked her father if they could build a church in Cobo, and he suggested she wait until she was older. Marianne didn't forget her dream. At the age of 17 Marianne began by selling a series of pictures which she had bought, framed and sold for 2 guineas.
Gradually the money came in and culminated in a total of £1600, which in those days was sufficient to build a good church with 300 seats. Other gifts were offered - a vicarage, bells and a churchyard. You can only imagine that the equivalent of what the girl raised in today's terms would amount to millions of dollars. The church flourishes today, is very proud of its heritage, and all due to the dream of a young girl. Isn't it so often true that miracles occur in surprising places and through the least likely people?
Jesus said, the first will be last, and the last first. He also said the least will be the greatest in the kingdom of Heaven. He said, become like a child if you want to become great.
In a similar vein, philosophical Taoism says,
The path into the light seems dark
the path forward seems to go back
the direct path seems long
true power seems weak
true parity seems tarnished
true steadfastness seems changeable
true clarity seems obscure
the greatest people seem unsophisticated
the greatest love seems indifferent
the greatest wisdom seems childish
Our Patron Saint Matthew teaches us much about these sayings. He was the greatest and the least simultaneously. His role of tax collector was one of the most coveted economic positions in the Empire. He was part of what Marx called the 'comprador bourgeoisie'. His pockets were lined by all but stealing from his own people. Of course the ruling class profited even more healthily by the work of the Matthews of that world. It was a high position, yet one which led to being despised by the people. It depended on which perspective you came from. Matthew was both the greatest and the least. Jesus, being enlightened, didn't perceive reality from the position of social status. He saw the heart of people and responded accordingly. 'First' and 'last' were simply social creations, changeable categories of prejudice.
The call of St Matthew's churches everywhere is to see people as they are, and not according to the perception of the day; their social status, their job, their age or sexuality. The call for St Matthew-in-the-City, is - like the first Matthew - to dwell at the edge of expectation. This means pushing theological boundaries, refusing stereotyped social perspectives and seeking the heart of people and things. In this we will get to the core of Jesus mission; the obliteration of categories such as first and last, greater and lesser, gay and straight.
It means being inclusive, but not in a sentimental sense of the word. We do make discernments about people. The young guy who regularly storms into my office, a street preacher, who condemns me to hell alongside all gay people, is not welcome in this church. I have issued him with a trespass notice, and I will have him arrested if he returns. We are inclusive in the sense that people of all backgrounds, faiths, beliefs, sexualities and cultures have equal footing in this church. Our inclusiveness has its limits, because hate mongers - those who deny the very inclusiveness we strive for - are not welcome.
St Matthew's Day is a time to celebrate our position at the edge and to acknowledge our long history of occupying this uncomfortable and sometimes lonely space. We honour those who have gone before us; those who fought to keep this church open, those who fought for the rights in the church of women and gay and lesbian people, those who had radical engagement with the city and its people, those who took a stance even if it was unpopular.
St Matthew's Day is also a time to seek solidarity in this calling. Because the edge can be a frightening place, we need each other. I see myself as a good match for St Matthew's as my journey through the church has been an uncomfortable one, as many of yours have been. All through my time in the church (and Auckland is no different) I have found more connections with people outside the church than in. I have found people who are attracted to church but only at the edge and no further in. I have met people who say to me if they weren't at St Matthew's they wouldn't be in the church, and I feel much the same.
The nature of dwelling at the edge of expectation is that most opposition comes from within the institution. I received a letter from another vicar in Auckland (who I haven't met) who opposed our recent service with the Buddhist monk, Tenzin Chosang, speaking. It was an intriguing letter. He hadn't checked his facts. He accused us of fraternising with Muslims. He tried to threaten me and used the Bishop as back up. Most interesting was that he referred to me as "Mr" Lawton and himself as "Rev". He obviously has his own ideas about who is least, or greater in that relationship. I receive regular hate mail these days, and always from people in the church, while people outside and at the edge constantly encourage me to keep at it. We need each other if our journey at the edge is to be sustainable.
Life at the edge is not all paranoia and persecution. It is also a constant delving into the bounds of possibility. Its an exciting place to be, and one which we should look forward to; as at the edge the only limitation to the life affirming ministry we can offer is our own imagination. It is exciting because here even the vision of a five year-old can inspire us to new possibilities.
Next week we elect our new Vestry and begin another year in the church. I invite all those who share a vision for being at the edge of possibility, pushing the boundaries of expectation, exploring radical and life affirming theology - those who seek the heart of people above social structures - to join in taking the long and radical history of this church to its next stage. We don't know exactly where we will end up, but together we can be sure it will be somewhere exciting.
I invite all of you to come on a journey, to dwell in possibility, to work for life and people, to stand up and be counted.
Costly Grace: Freedom Through Forgiveness
September 15, 2002
Ordinary Sunday 24 Matthew 18.21-35
"Peter came and said to Jesus, 'Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?' Jesus said to him, 'Not seven times, but I tell you, seventy-seven times…."
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a theologian and Lutheran pastor. He was central in the Protestant church struggle against Nazism. Because of his involvement in the plots to assassinate Hitler he was arrested, imprisoned, and finally executed by hanging at Flossenburg concentration camp in 1945, at the age of 39.
The parallels between his own experience and that of Jesus are remarkable. His age, his courage, his death by hanging, the radical nature of his civil resistance, his compassion towards people are all features which bring to mind the life and death of Christ. Bonhoeffer was also known for popularising the phrase 'costly grace', the idea that freedom through forgiveness only ever comes at a cost. No life or death has ever captured the notion of costly grace more powerfully than Jesus'.
Bonhoeffer, like Jesus, was a man who had plenty to forgive, or as today's gospel puts it, plenty of accounts to settle. He suffered so profoundly for his beliefs and had plenty of reasons to hate. While in prison he wrote this; "The person who despises another will never be able to make anything of him. Nothing that we despise in the other is entirely absent from ourselves. We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer. The only profitable relationship to others is one of love, and that means the will to hold fellowship with them. God did not despise humanity, but became human for our sake." - Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Letters from Prison, 1945)
With these words he pointed to two of the key elements of settling accounts - recognising our own fallibility, and empathy for the other person's suffering. If he was indeed able to get to a point of forgiving his tormentors, that is grace and there would be nothing cheap about it. Forgiveness is not about happy endings. It is not about warm feelings. It is about restoration, and often with less than ideal outcomes. It is often about finding creative means to restoring a situation, especially when the other party is indifferent to your suffering. It is so often about finding a workable compromise. These are some of the themes pointed to in today's gospel text. Again it is a text which challenges our view of God, and our attitude to those who are our neighbours, whether local or global.
The most intriguing feature of the gospel for today is the structure that is in place. It is a structure that is built on a view of God as retributive (i.e. God deals with people in the measure which they deal with neighbours), a structure which is so hard to change. It is paternalistic, which means that mercy is shown at the whim of the highest authority. Mercy is given and taken away to maintain control. It is essentially a parable about power. The king controls the servant who then finds another servant to control. It is a vicious cycle. It is a system which like ours, is a hierarchy with a reward and punishment foundation and prison as the ultimate method of social control. However, in the story there is no trial, which is the ultimate in disempowerment. It is a story about a world, like ours, where more often than not there is no happy ending, where the social solutions are not straightforward.
Consider one of our contemporary dilemmas; the issue of developing nations and debt repayment. With 70 million people predicted to die from AIDS in the next 20 years, nations will be destroyed because they can't afford basic health systems while their money is channelled into debt repayment. Yet the reason debts are rarely dropped is because the system hasn't been changed; the ideology of benevolence is still firmly in place. Even the dropping of debt might be seen as a paternalistic solution as it leaves poorer nations in dependent relationship with wealthy nations - the debt of gratitude.
There is however another option, which is offered seriously by some social change agents. Rather than drop the debt, they say developing nations should simply stop paying the debt. It sounds outrageous. It sounds like flirting with death, as the risk will be withdrawal of poverty reduction money - biting the hand that feeds it. Yet consider the situations in Poland and Bolivia. In the 1980's these two countries refused to pay their debts. Instead, they put the money towards internal development. In time the World Bank did indeed drop their debt. They had shifted the nature of the crisis with surprising and self-empowering tactics. They had taken initiative, they were no longer dependent on the grace of their power lords. They made their case powerfully.
I am reminded of Jesus life - his challenge of elitist and oppressive structures, his call for creatively non-violent resistance. I am reminded of the Tao saying, "Give evil nothing to oppose and it will disappear by itself."I am reminded of any number of social justice heroes over the centuries, who acted counter culturally, even illegally, to bring about change.
I reflect on the current global situation. The self-righteous bravado coming from the US for so long now must surely have sparked fury. Two opposing forces running headlong into a full-scale showdown, where loss can be the only outcome; again, I wonder about a creative alternative in this situation. I am heartened to see Nelson Mandela, at 84 years of age, calling for a thorough UN investigation into the situation. Again the disarming approach works as it takes the heat out of both tense sides of the dispute.
So often the reality is a compromise. I am reminded here of the many victims, even victims of the church, who try so hard to turn their lives around, yet find no liberation as they continually run up against structures which beat them further down with red tape and indifference. Consider your view of God. Contemplate the presence of God not so much in the response of your oppressors, as in the courage you find to seek a way through to liberation.
The example that comes to mind is that of the Holocaust. If ever there were people who had too much to forgive it was the Jews in Europe who faced Hitler's attempts at genocide. Friends and family went back and visited historical sites of the slaughter, which you might expect to have been demolished out of respect for those who suffered. Yet they remain and are visited, almost in defiance, by many to this day. Nothing will change the injustice, the tragedy or the pain. God is neither questioned for allowing the Holocaust to happen, nor redeemed by the miraculous survival stories. God is found in the faces of those who return to the site of the destruction and find somewhere within them the courage to move on.
The challenge of today's gospel is ultimately a challenge to our view of God. From there we will form an ideology which will inform our opinions and attitudes. We will face our own suffering with courage and seek liberation. It will be a costly grace if it is worth anything. We will acknowledge the suffering of those around us. It will in part help us to understand the suffering inflicted on us. We will understand the nature of systems which abuse. We will stand against their oppression. We will work against their indifference.
I finish with a quote from another who knew deep suffering from the Holocaust; "Take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented." Elie Wiesel
God give us the courage for radical restoration. Empower us to empower others. Give us strength for the loss which is so connected to grace. Give us your heart for the tormented. Costly grace. Amen
Food and Body Image in Young Women
September 8, 2002
Ordinary Sunday 23 Matthew 18:15-20
Anyone who keeps half an eye on Shortland Street will have worked out several weeks ago that Delphi is becoming anorexic, though her family are just starting to cotton on. But the storyline goes back several weeks further, with the attempt to pass as a boy to join the rugby team, followed by the traumatic onset of menstruation. This is one example of a girl developing anorexia around the time of menarche, and the link is not accidental. In Delphi's case the overt cause of her distress at this irrefutable sign of femaleness is a rejection of the female roles imposed by society. For many others the bodily changes that accompany puberty are the trigger for eating disorders.
In a culture obsessed with an ideal of female beauty that dictates a body shape given by nature to pre-pubescent children, and healthy teenage boys, (with the addition of perky little breasts), puberty becomes a dangerous time for the health of young women. Developing fleshy curves around the hips and buttocks is regarded as 'getting fat'. When the taut, childish stomach turns into the rounder, natural stomach shape of the adult woman, the scene is set for total paranoia. All this is true for those children who are naturally slim. For those whose genetic makeup tends towards plumpness, the trauma begins much earlier. (I do not have room here to explore the issues faced by those young women with genuine weight problems.)
As well as the changes listed above, puberty is a time when young people also grow very fast, and are often very active, and therefore need relatively large quantities of healthy food to maintain energy levels. Although young girls now do just as much physical activity as their male counterparts, the myth that boys eat more than girls prevails. When young girls respond to the fear of gaining weight by eating a bare minimum, it is often not recognised as a health issue, because of the belief that girls don't need to eat large quantities.
The ready availability of junk food does not improve the situation either. All too often parents grasp at the "fear of fat" as a last straw to get their adolescent daughters to eat a vaguely healthy diet. To some extent it does work in reducing the sugar and fat intake, but it also validates the mostly fantastical fear of gaining weight. Making a huge issue out of what is eaten, in the totally admirable attempt to promote a nutritious diet, also sets the scene for secretive bingeing. In this way the foundation stones for anorexia and bulimia may unintentionally be laid. (I am not advocating that parents abandon the attempt to teach nutrition, but highlighting the problems raised by socially defined ideals of body shape.)
In the church context, a single-minded dedication to spiritual purity is also a frequent characteristic of the early teens, as is a literal interpretation of much of what is taught by youth leaders and preached from the pulpit. Sophisticated interaction with metaphor is a skill that is gained during the teenage years. Therefore the apparently more straight-forward teaching of the evangelical Christian traditions will often appeal more to this age group, especially as it is mostly combined with an emphasis on spirituality as individual experience. Whatever one's own theological standpoint, young people brought up in a Christian environment in New Zealand today, are likely to engage with evangelical theology at this age, one way or another. (Either that, or they will reject church altogether).
The one element of more evangelical theology that is particularly relevant to this topic, is the emphasis on fasting as a form of spiritual discipline. Indeed, fasting is not absent from the more liberal theological traditions, though it is seldom as central. For many young women, this teaching provides the ultimate divine sanction to self starvation. In this way the young women of today are following an age old tradition of female spirituality. (Have you ever wondered why many of the female saints are recorded as being spared the female indignity of menstruation? Some are even described as "becoming like men". Flat breasts and facial hairs are signs of severe malnutrition in women.)
There are no simple answers to these issues - if there were, eating disorders would not be so frighteningly prevalent. However, an embodied Christian theology can provide a helpful balance to societal pressures. How often do we celebrate human physicality, when we sing praises of the "goodness of creation"? Does our theology of the Eucharist promote the enjoyment of sharing food? What messages about the health and beauty of their changing bodies do young women hear at church?
Love Growing Out of Compassion
September 1, 2002
Ordinary Sunday 22 Romans 12:1-8 Matthew 16:21-27
Helmut Thielicke said - 'Tell me how much you know of the suffering of your fellow humans and I will tell you how much you have loved them.' Quite true. And I would add - tell me how much you know of your own suffering, and I will tell you how much love you have to give. I have a wonderful memory of being seven years old and learning this lesson from a group of Vietnamese kids my own age. They were what we called then 'boat people', and my parents involved our family in a series of picnics which offered the opportunity for these new arrivals to meet some locals. You might expect that the point of me telling you this is to show that our loving them gave them strength for settling into life in a strange land. That may have been true. Yet my point is that their loving us taught me a lesson in digging deep into tragedy and finding compassion.
I took my skateboard to the picnic to share with the kids. It had never crossed my mind that they had never seen a skateboard. In fact it had surprised me that some of these kids couldn't speak my language. It shocked me that some of them couldn't speak at all; traumatised by the escape, the journey and their treatment on arrival. These kids had packed more tragedy into their short lives than I would ever know. They were the innocent victims of war.
The lesson for me came in seeing a boy my age ride a skateboard for the first time; sheer uncontainable joy as he careered down the hill, complete freedom of expression as he squealed in delight, enormous appreciation for my willingness to share my board.
Whether it was the kids or the adults, what was most striking was the patience, and gentleness of these people. Seemingly untainted by the horror of their lives, yet that would not be possible. They were digging deep into their despair and fear and finding compassion for us. They were ministering to us. It was their compassion to us which is the point.
Jesus was reeling from the loss of John the Baptist. It could have spelt the end of the movement. It certainly warned of what was to come for him. The violence, the injustice, the public mockery of John all served to sink Jesus into a depression. He withdrew to take stock and mourn the loss of a man and a dream. Crowds came and in spite of this despair, the text says ' he had compassion on them'. Again, it was compassion growing out of a personal despair. The result we are told in the text was healing.
Much could be said of this passage. It warns against placing limits on generosity. It was a miracle of quantity, not just enough. It warns against charity in social welfare, as this was a miracle just as much of wealth creation, as it was distribution. It was a miracle of creating a loving environment. It was about the spread of a generous spirit; from Jesus to the disciples to the hordes, and all originating from the depths of Jesus despair.
Environments of compassion can be created. A sociology experiment I heard of pointed to this as a group of students decided to see whether pleasant smells could make people more loving. They went to a mall to carry out their experiment, much of which was conducted in the food court, right next to the Cinnabun booth and Mrs. Field's Chocolate Chip Cookies. The rest of their tests were carried out in other areas of the mall. In the first test, shoppers were asked if they had change for a dollar. In the second test, one of the students dropped a pen to see whether anyone would pick it up and return it. The group found that in the part of the mall with the pleasant smells, people were much kinder and more caring. If they couldn't change the dollar, they sometimes suggested other places to try or offered to take the tester somewhere to get the dollar changed. In the second test, people almost always picked up the pen and chased down the person who had dropped it. In the other areas of the mall, however, people hadn't done that.
A little cheesy as an illustration, yet I think we are allowed to be a little romantic with a text such as the wonderful cheesy miracle of Jesus. Feeding 5000 men, plus women and children, with a piece of bread and a fish. That's the stuff of fairytales. Again we see the truth of the growth parables; from tokens or tastes of life, greatness will grow.
As we approach our communion celebration, we approach the token of God's love for all people and we are reminded that God's love grows out of God's understanding of suffering.
Today we acknowledge World Peace Day, and are challenged to live out the life giving message of the gospel to create environments of love and non violence. We find the strength for this compassion out of our own understanding of suffering.
'Tell me how much you know of the suffering of your fellow humans and I will tell you how much you have loved them.'
Tell me how much you know of your own suffering, and I will tell you how much love you have to give.
The Parable of Hope Admidst Despair
July 28, 2002
Ordinary Sunday 17 Romans 8:26-34 Matthew 13:31-33, 44-49a
Brazilian liberation theologian Archbishop Helder Camara says, "When you give food to the poor, they call you a saint. When you ask why the poor have no food, they call you a communist."
Today's parable raises the issue of destruction and asks where it comes from. It suggests that getting to the root cause of the problem is the heart of finding solutions.
It is one of the parables which for a city boy like me is difficult to come to grips with. For someone like me who grew up in a suburb which makes Ponsonby look like a National Park, a parable about weeds and wheat is a little beyond my realm of experience. However I did see what looked like a luscious tree growing in our backyard this week, only to be told by Meg that it was a giant weed.
There are three things I know to be true about weeds, and I want to explore these with you this morning. The first is that it is hard to tell the difference between weed and plant, especially for me. The second is that the only way to eradicate weed is at the root. This I know from experience. The third I have no experience of, yet believe to be true; that weeds exist in some kind of tension with plants, and need to be disposed of carefully, lest the ecosystem becomes unbalanced.
It's a parable which has had its meaning hijacked by dualists who would have us believe that there are good and evil people, that life is simply black and white, that God is good and the devil evil and that if we give the devil an inch he will take a mile; or as one corny bumper sticker said - 'Give the devil an inch, and he will become your ruler'.
Leave all that behind for now, and let's explore a complex situation which is full of wheat and weed, hope and despair. It is that of El Salvador which has been the centre of international politics and natural disaster. El Salvador is a land of rich and fertile soil, yet such devastation.
More than 32,000 indigenous people were killed in a 1932 military campaign meant to exterminate El Salvador's native population, yet members of many native groups continue to live according to their traditional ways. A story of despair and hope mingled together.
After the decade of the 1980's and after America had spent more than four billion dollars funding a civil war that had lasted twelve years and left seventy-five thousand Salvadorans dead, local people attempted to resurrect life in that place. Hope and despair intermingling.
90 percent of Salvadorans living in conditions of extreme poverty, violence, many forced from their lands, death threats, human rights violations, the murder of so many activists and then last year a savage earthquake. The recent history of El Salvador seems like a tragic case of weeds having taken hold and choked the life out of the place. Yet not so. Hope remains.
El Salvador remains for the rest of the world a cold war parable of the weeds and wheat.
The villagers of El Mozote found themselves in the path of the Salvadoran Army's anti-Communist crusade and what was left was scattered ruins, battered structures -- roofless, doorless, windowless, half engulfed by underbrush - rapidly being reclaimed by the earth, their walls cracking and crumbling before an onslaught of weeds.
As you listen to this account of regeneration hear the echoes of today's parable.
"Into a quiet clearing arrived a convoy of four-wheel drives and pickup trucks. They took up machetes and began to hack at the weeds, being careful not to pull any, lest the movement of the roots disturb what lay beneath. Chopping and hacking in the morning sun, they uncovered, bit by bit, a mass of red-brown soil, and before long they had revealed an earthen mound protruding several feet from the ground, and barely contained at its base by a low stone wall.
They began to dig. At first, they loosened the earth with hoes. As they dug deeper, they exchanged these tools for smaller, more precise ones. Slowly, painstakingly, they dug and sifted, making their way through the several feet of earth remnants of a building's walls. Then, late on the afternoon of the third day, as they crouched low over the ground and stroked with tiny brushes to draw away bits of reddish dust, darkened forms began to emerge from the earth, taking shape in the soil like fossils embedded in stone; and soon they knew that they had begun to find, in the northeast corner of the ruined sacristy of the church of Santa Catarina of El Mozote, the skulls of those who had once worshipped there. By the next afternoon, the workers had uncovered twenty-five of them, and all but two were the skulls of children."
A tragic story, yet one which warns of recklessly pulling up weeds. The path to recovery needs great care. It requires a journey to the centre of the destruction.
Where is hope found in El Salvador? It is found partly in the peace accords of 1992, although the devastation continues to this day. It is found partly in the Truth Commission, which exposed many acts of violence, yet so many remain hidden to this day.
But the real hope for El Salvador's resurrection lies in the heart and spirit of the Salvadoran people, especially the children. A local woman who had lost her son to the violence was asked, "How have you experienced God's presence?" She described a vision of her son appearing at her bedside after his death, when she was undergoing serious surgery and her life was in danger. "The men who killed my son not even they nor death could separate us," she said. "It is only thanks to God that I'm still here. I'm still here, alive, and fighting for my people despite beatings, torture, the murder of my family, and illness. This is enough for me to know that God is true and real."
At El Mozote there is a simple, wooden memorial to those who were killed in 1981. Like the Vietnam War memorial in Washington, D.C., the El Mozote memorial contains the name of each martyr killed there 15 years ago. The memorial reads, "They did not die, they are with us, with you, and with all humanity."
Through the children of El Mozote, yesterday and today, we can know that God is not dead, but ever with all Salvadorans, with each one of us, and with all humanity. Today's parable is about maintaining hope in the face of overwhelming despair. It is about the tendency in each one of us for weedlike and wheatlike behaviour and attitudes. We have the ability for growth and stagnation. According to the parable they are not clearly distinguishable categories, like pure and impure thoughts, the holy and the profane. Rather the weeds and the wheat dwell alongside one another in some kind of tension.
It is a parable about personal journeys and international tension, as well as the unsettling of nature's patterns. It is about chiselling away at injustice and oppression and working persistently and courageously for new life.
It's a parable both about giving food to the poor and asking why the poor have no food. It's a parable about going to the heart of despair, feeling it, questioning it, and moving on in hope; the quest for life.
Ordinary Sunday 15
July 14, 2002
Sir Paul Reeves
Ordinary Sunday 15 Genesis 25 Matthew 13:1-2,18-23
The book of Genesis is about beginnings. It tells of a small group of people who set out on a long and dangerous journey to another land that they believed God had promised them.
Chapters one to eleven set the scene. First God had to create order out of the primal mess called chaos. This is a story of disobedience, rebellion and judgment. Chapters 12 to 36 concentrate on the founding fathers, the Patriarchs, through whom God establishes the People of Israel.
Our reading this morning is from Genesis Chapter 25. Isaac's wife Rebecca is having a difficult pregnancy and ominously her two children are fighting within her even before they are born. Esau is born first but with his brother Jacob clutching his heel. Jacob became a smooth man; crafty, patient, fearful, a sinner and a sufferer. Esau was a hairy man, generous, impulsive, and quick to forgive and forget an injury. The point of the story is that the future of the People of Israel lay with Jacob, not Esau.
These are people for whom the past was never past and could return when least expected. In the beginning God had created from chaos that was clearly evil, threatening, unstructured and out of control. But as we read Genesis it's clear that chaos had not finally disappeared and had a frightening tendency to claw its way back and destabilize everything. And clearly here was a God who could be flawed, unpredictable and capricious
Is this the sort of God you would want to journey with? The People of Israel decided it was. It was a risk worth taking and the chance was that along the way they would learn more about this compulsive and compelling God. But Christians are also on a journey where we have to struggle and in the midst of our uncertainty God will be revealed. In fact uncertainty and discovery may be two sides of the one coin. You can't have one without the other.
For us, religion is a cable of meaning stretching throughout the length and complexity of life. You could say it is our whakapapa. For some, like the Buddhists, it may not require the presence of a creator but is still a religion because it offers meaning and a rationale for why we are here.
This cable is made up of strands woven together. There is the visible part of religion, the rituals and the real estate, the clergy, the creeds and the rules. Then there is morality where meaning and values are applied to me as an individual as a member of the community and as a citizen of the country. Lastly, there is spirituality where the essence of who we are meets with the greater essence of who God is. Everything we do in prayer and meditation is an attempt to make that meeting or exchange with God real.
The great development of our age is that we can now look at each of those parts separately from the other. In 1517 Martin Luther, sensing that change was in the air, nailed his 95 Theses to the door of a church. That Reformation is all but complete and the Church will never be the same again.
The pressing moral issues are still to come and they will center on the question, what is human life? The controversy over genetic modification and whether we know enough about the web of life is just the beginning. How much should we intervene in the formation of life just because stem cell research has now given us tools and techniques we never had before? Should I share with my cousins what genetic testing tells me about the thread of life and the genetic makeup we have in common and which I now know includes a predisposition to bowel cancer? Do they have a right not to know?
I met an American whose mother was a Jew, his father an Iraqi; he said he was a self-made millionaire before the age of 25 and was now offering courses in non-religious spirituality. He had been in New Zealand eight weeks. People's sources for spirituality are as wide as human experience itself. More and more, I am convinced that the current emphasis on spirituality arises from the death of hierarchy. People who hurt are often better able to help each other than those above them can help. So now without the assistance of theology, priest or counselor, people are 'self--medicating', if you will, on spirituality.
So where does that leave Christians? We should take heart from the People of Israel, who on their journey discovered that they were the product of God's love and intention. It was a journey of faith. That can be our experience too.
So what is an indigenous expression of my faith for today's world? Regular prayer at a fixed hour so that we might ponder on what God is doing may be one? Domestic ceremonies like the sharing of a meal so that we can keep the Sabbath and honour it, as God's day of resurrection, may be another. But above all, there is the Eucharist where the community of faith gathers to understand that our life and death and whatever is valuable about us is in the hands of our neighbours. We must honour each other.
I want to finish on a brighter note and tell how my wife and I reached back to what was a chaotic time in our lives and dealt with it. In the early 1960's we lived in Lowestoft, a fishing port in the east of England. Our first child did not survive the experience of birth and he was buried in a churchyard in the presence of another priest, the funeral director and myself
For years we have gone back to that place and stood where we thought our child was buried. Three years ago we obtained a copy of the entry in the burial register and last year we learned that the site of the grave was marked. This year we returned to Lowestoft and the Rector of the parish blessed a headstone we had erected in the churchyard to commemorate a human life that briefly flickered and was commended to God's care forty years ago. Next morning was the Feast of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, two of our most fallible saints. I celebrated the Eucharist in the parish church and sensed that in this comer of England we were joining with all of God's people, both living and departed, including our son, in an eternal round of worship.
The point is we have the means to deal with chaos when it threatens to overwhelm us. In this century we will become smaller in number, we may have to distinguish between observant and cultural Christians, the moral and ethical challenges will be complex, but the essentials of faith are there and no one need fear the journey to which God calls them.
Take Control of Your Own Destiny!
July 7, 2004
Ordinary Sunday 14 Romans 7 Matthew 11:1-19
After a major global event, there are usually jokes doing the rounds of emails within days. The recent corporate scandals in the US are no exception. I came across a joke this week entitled - "Remaining US CEO's make a run for it! A Band of Roving Chief Executives Spotted Just Miles from Mexican Border."
"Unwilling to wait for their eventual indictments, the 10,000 remaining CEOs of public U.S. companies made a break for it yesterday, heading for the Mexican border, plundering towns and villages along the way, and writing the entire rampage off as a marketing expense. Their catch cry along the way- 'You'll never audit us alive!'
Calling themselves the CEOnistas, the outlaws bought the city of Waco, transferred its underperforming areas to a private partnership, and sent a bill to California for $4.5 billion.
Those pursuing have had some success, however, by preying on a common executive weakness. "Last night we caught about 24 of them by disguising one of our female officers as a CNBC anchor," said U.S. Border Patrol spokesperson Janet Lewis. "It was like moths to a flame." So far, about 50 chief executives have been captured, including Martha Stewart, who was detained south of El Paso where she had cut through a barbed-wire fence at the Zaragosa border crossing off Highway 375.
"She would have gotten away, but she was stopping motorists to ask for marzipan and food coloring so she could make edible snowman place settings, using the cut pieces of wire for the arms," said Border Patrol officer Jennette Cushing.
While some stragglers are believed to have successfully crossed into Mexico, Cushing said the bulk of the CEOnistas have holed themselves up at the Alamo.
"No, not the fort, the car rental place at the airport," she said. "They're rotating all the tires on the minivans and accounting for each change as a sale."
It's a basic human response to trouble- run for your life and hope no-one comes chasing. This morning I ask the question - When a mistake has been made, whether a corporate billion dollar mistake, or a piece of inappropriate behaviour from an individual, what is the best response? I want to look at our epistle reading, Romans 7, to explore this matter.
It seems to me that Paul gets the first half right, and the second half all wrong. The first step is an acknowledgment of wrongdoing. Honesty! Transparency! A recognition that all is not well! So Paul says- 'What a wretched man I am!' "I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out!' Heartening honesty. We could do with a few press releases along those lines from corporate leaders.
Having seen the root of the problem, if the next step is to point fingers elsewhere, then the road to recovery goes all wrong. So, Paul says- 'It is not I who do it, but it is sin that is living within me that does it.' A slave to sin he says.
There is a dangerous traditional Christian teaching that all of life is a cosmic battle between good and evil, God and Satan and that we are somehow trapped powerless in this battle. In fact there are two dangerous assumptions- 1. That all of life is black and white, that good and evil never overlap and are easily categorised. 2. That people are passive puppets in a heavenly power play. It is captured best in the expression 'The devil made me do it!'
I was recently sent the transcript of a counselling session for comment, as the client had raised some spiritual matters. In it the client, who was struggling with depression, distinguished between his experience of being in the shared lounge room with his room mates who listened to what he saw as 'evil' radio stations. In this he felt the presence of the devil. In his bedroom when he was on his own, he sensed Jesus presence which felt like peace.
In talking about his depression he said this - "I don't know when the devil's gonna strike. Can't really have any plans if I have to deal with it …Oh in some cases I might know that I'm feeling bad and I might say to Mum and Jesus, "I need help quickly" but sometimes I don't have any warning at all.'
The danger it seems to me is that both the depression and the help are taken out of his hands. He is simply a pawn. It seems so powerless. The devil causes it, faith in Jesus fixes it. If the devil causes it, all the social, psychological and medical origins fail to be explored. If faith in Jesus fixes it, all the social, psychological and medical therapies are often bypassed in favour of prayer and warm fuzzies. The potential for destruction with this powerless worldview is enormous, with chronic and untreated depression.
Of course it is no surprise that Paul saw life this way. He was after all a student trained well in a law which categorised all people as either clean or unclean. It was a law of black and white and clear judgement. He was well-trained in Greek ways with the dualism of body and soul, body as impure and soul as immortal. He was truly a man of his time.
Which makes the attitude of Jesus even more remarkable. He was a man way ahead of his time. Into a world of law, and dualism and debilitating cosmic fatalism Jesus offered a message of power. People were affirmed, and given the inspiration to take control of their lives and their destinies.
In the gospel for the day (Matthew 11:1-19) Jesus turns dualism on its head. The basest of human preoccupations, eating, drinking and playing the flute are held up as models of life lived well. The basest of people, tax collectors and sinners, become the friends of Jesus without judgment. Jesus gave every impression of being unclean and impure himself; at least in the eyes of the worldview of his day.
He was offering power to the powerless. He was living a life freed from pre determined categories. He showed the way of repentance, a concept filled with power; repentance as an active step of recognition, heart felt sorrow and change. Which brings us back to the starting point. The gospel is a call to active moving forward. Mistakes honestly addressed and restored. Illnesses honestly treated. Lives of integrity and wholeness.
I finish with a quote from the Tao Te Ching, a text which draws together the corporate and personal….
"A great nation is like a great man
When he makes a mistake, he realises it.
Having realised it, he admits it.
Having admitted it, he corrects it.
He considers those who point out his faults
As his benevolent teachers.
He thinks of his enemy
As the shadow that he himself casts."
There will be companies to follow Enron and Worldcom with announcements of fraud, malpractice and bankruptcy. There is no doubt about this. The choice will be theirs to choose to function with integrity now and with honesty at the time of crisis. Theirs will be the choice of empowerment, taking control of their own destinies and not looking elsewhere for blame.
Ian Lawton, Vicar, St Matthew-in-the-City
Set Free From Literalism for Life: The Bible and Child Abuse
July 1, 2002
Ordinary Sunday 13 Matthew 10:34-42
Today I want to do the good evangelical thing, and give a three-point sermon, or reflection. My three points will be 1. That literalism is absurd 2. That literalism is convenient and 3. That literalism is tragically dangerous. Overall I want to suggest that literalism runs counter to the style and content of Jesus life, which was a triumph of freedom, reform and contextualised teachings.
Literalism is absurd. There is a radio personality in Canada whose name is Dr Laura Schlessinger. She made some recent comments that the clear teaching of the Bible is that homosexuality is a sin, leading her to be censured by Canadian anti hate laws. A lecturer in religion at the University of Sydney posted an open letter on the Internet to Dr Laura. The letter exposes the absurdity of literalism. Here is an extract……
Dear Dr Laura
Thank you for doing so much to educate people regarding God's law. I have learnt so much from your show, and I try to share that knowledge with as many people as I can. When someone tries to defend the homosexual lifestyle, for example, I simply remind them that Leviticus clearly states it to be an abomination. End of debate.
I do however need some advice from you, regarding some of the specific laws and how to best follow them.
a) When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacrifice, I know it creates a pleasing odour for the Lord (Lev 1;9). The problem is my neighbours. They claim the odour is not pleasing to them. Should I smite them?
b) I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as sanctioned in Exodus 21;7. In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her?
c) I know that I am allowed no contact with a woman while she is in her period of menstrual uncleanliness (Lev 15;19-24). The problem is, how do I tell? I have tried asking, but most women take offence.
d) A friend of mine feels that even though eating shellfish is an abomination (Lev 11;10) it is a lesser abomination than homosexuality. I don't agree. Can you settle this?
e) Lev 21;20 states that I may not approach the altar of God if I have a defect in my sight. I have to admit that I wear reading glasses. Does my vision have to be 20/20 or is there some wiggle room here?
f) Most of my male friends get their hair trimmed, including the hair around their temples, even though this is expressly forbidden by Lev 19;27. How should they die?
g) I know from Lev 11;6-8 that touching the skin of a dead pig makes me unclean, but may I still play football if I wear gloves?
h) My uncle has a farm. He violates Lev 19;19 by planting two different crops in the same field, as does his wife by wearing garments made of two different kinds of thread (cotton/ polyester). He also tends to curse and blaspheme a lot. Is it really necessary that we go to all the trouble of getting the whole town together to stone them? (Lev 24;10-16) Couldn't we just burn them to death at a private family affair like we do with people who sleep with their in-laws? (Lev 20;14)
I know you have studied these things extensively, so I am confident you can help me. Thank you again for reminding us that God's word is eternal and unchanging.
Your devoted disciple and adoring fan
Literalism is absurd!
I had a religious nut in the church during the week; in fact I had several. It must have been the full moon. One of the first questions a young guy asked me was 'Did I read the Bible literally?' He asked whether this was the church that accepts gay and lesbian people? When I said yes, he told me that the NT expressly forbids this and that I was going to hell because of it, and all the gay and lesbian people were going to hell as well. Lest we think it is only the non-mainstream churches which read the Bible literally, think again. A leader in the Anglican church in Sydney was heard by a friend of mine recently saying that no candidate for ordination who supported the ordination of woman would be accepted, as it was clearly against the teaching of the Bible. In fact it was more serious an issue than whether the candidate believed in the resurrection of Jesus. It would seem that literalism is a moveable feast of absurdity. Literalism is not only absurd; it is used as a tool of convenience to justify just about any ideology.
Yet most significantly of all, literalism is tragically dangerous. Take for example our Genesis reading for this morning. (Genesis 22:1-14) Literalistic interpretations of this text would suggest that nothing is more important than obedience to God's law; not even our children's lives. It would most likely go further and suggest suffering is in some way connected to redemption, so justifying any manner of evil and abuse in the interest of salvation. The son would become collateral damage in the interests of the purification of the Father. Of course if literalists are honest they will admit that their ideology involves a dualism of men on the one hand and women, children, animals and the environment on the other hand. The one group serving the needs of the other. Literalism is a political position to take on the text. It is an ideology.
A literal interpretation of this text offers particular offence to families who have suffered the tragedy of abuse either within the family or in the church or some other social group. Here was Abraham, the great patriarch of many nations, standing at a point of power, at the point of abuse. We can only wonder whether that darkness permeates the life of the church today in the discovery of power abuses amongst the church patriarchs. Such a reading of the text is unthinkable, as it leads to the view that God is an abusive God who demands abuse in the interests of salvation. The cross would be tainted in the same way by such literalism.
I prefer a symbolic understanding of the event which may or may not have actually occurred in the way it has been reported. Abraham stood at the point of decision. He stood over the ultimate symbol of his own immortality; his only son, Isaac. It wasn't as much about the sacrifice of his son, as it was about the giving up of his own need for permanence. Freed from that need, Abraham would be free to live life now and live fully without the need for a place in history. In the process the son Isaac might be freed from the need to fulfil his father's immortality and simply live his life as it unfolded.
This of course is a symbolic attempt of mine to reconcile the text to our Gospel passage which speaks again about the value in caring for the little ones. It fits for me with the liberation message of Jesus, as well as with my experience of being a father. The gospel message of care for children, freedom from legalism, liberation from darkness make a literalistic interpretation of Abraham and Isaac dangerously tragic. Families' experience of abuse make a literalistic interpretation of Abraham and Isaac unthinkable. This God would have to be abandoned as cruel and manipulative.
Literalism is absurd, convenient, legalistic, dangerous and tragic in its consequences. The gospel is liberating, life giving, common sense affirming, always open to change and context. It's a message which moves you forward rather than holding you in the past. It opens up possibilities rather than locking you into rules and systems. You choose which makes sense for you. You choose which offers the most to life. Today in Catholic churches an apology will be offered to all victims of abuse at the hands of church leaders. It could well be done in Anglican churches as well, and in most denominations. We can only wonder at the role of the ideology of literalism in such devastation.
The church too will choose; choose to follow literalism or the gospel.
Love, Self-interest and an AGM
June 30, 2002
Ordinary Sunday 13 Luke 14:12-14
One of the more interesting times of my life was spent in a Kings Cross Parish in Sydney which, for those who don't know, is the K Road of Sydney; much action and some of it less than legal. It's a place where the laws of the street are unambiguous and followed to the letter. The amusing point is that street law is set much as it is for many organisations; at an AGM. In Kings Cross the place on the ladder was everything, and the group set the ladder up and guarded its rungs corporately. A person's value was the value the group gave.
I want to tell you about an AGM I attended, but first let me tell you of some of the laws of the streets of Kings Cross. Transsexual and Transvestite prostitutes work the south side of the road, men work the wall and minors work the side streets. Certain corners are prime positions and not to be moved into unless you are of a certain class of street worker. Misdemeanours, such as accepting freebies and lowering the tone for others are punishable offences. The sentence is to be resigned to working the North side of the road until the lesson is learnt.
The parish I worked in ran a coffee shop in the heart of the transsexual prostitute patch. It was a home, a warm place, a haven for street kids and street workers at night. It was in the café that the AGM of the transsexual prostitutes collective was held and I was invited. The main purpose was to elect the Madam for the year. There was the chance to reaffirm the laws of the street, set standard prices and publicly rebuke certain workers for misdemeanours. Pretty much like any St Matthew's AGM no doubt. There were some questions from the floor about the performance of the Madam that upset her. She put on the most extraordinarily dramatic display of false humility I had ever seen. With her hand to her brow she declared that if she had been such a failure that she would stand down immediately, never stand for election again and she marched from the room in tears. She didn't go far, in fact just outside the door, which many of those present seemed to be ready for. They then began to chant that they wanted her back, they needed her, and as if on cue she waltzed back in. She was immediately re elected, sat in her throne and not another word was said about her.
It was this event which came to mind as I reflected on today's gospel passage. Jesus at a First Century Palestinian meal. Customs which were changeable, yet significant. People who used the customs to both impress and to display false humility. In Palestine group meals were an important community event. Among the 'rules' for common meals of this kind were correct order of seating. There was a place for the most important and the least important and everyone in between. Some groups made a special point of reviewing the pecking order of seating every year. For example the people of the Dead Sea sect conducted a kind of Annual Performance Review for such placements, an AGM if you like. Society was strongly hierarchical. There was a place for everyone on the ladder. For many it was a matter of survival to make sure they either stayed where they were or climbed higher. Position was not just a matter of individual achievement. It was a community value. It was in some sense given by the group. Your value was inseparable from what others thought about you. Most to be feared was to lose your place, to be embarrassed, to be publicly humiliated by having to take a lower place. Losing face could not be shrugged off as easily as for many of us who have grown up in a strongly individualistic culture. Losing face was almost like losing one's life.
Such is the setting for what appears at first as a bit of practical advice. Like many sages of the day Jesus instructs the would be go-getter to avoid getting in the position where a demotion might occur. It is better to play it safe and be shifted up a notch than the reverse. If you want to be exalted, humble yourself! Yet isn't this a contradiction in terms, because such strategies usually result in a put-on humility because the motivation is self interest and personal success. The self interest continues unabated in Luke 14:12-14. It is best to put people in your debt who cannot repay you, because then you will be repaid by God. What a pity if people square the ledger here! We help the poor and needy so that we can build up capital for our own future. These are dangerous concepts. Where applied the needy are often used and abused. It is spiritual capitalism at its worst.
Alternatively, Jesus' words may be heard as totally absurd. It was a crazy idea, designed to subvert the games being played. Try losing and see how much you win! If we hear his words like this and not as a serious strategy, which would reduce them to just a more creative way of exploiting others for your own good, then Jesus is subverting the whole enterprise which was driving his culture and its values.
This is a text fraught with danger - It raises the issue of absolutism versus cultural relativism - yet offers the interesting answer 'neither', and rather points to common sense as the key. However it is interpreted, it opens up the possibility for critiquing culture and law from within. More importantly it focuses the hearers to reflect on their own attitude to love and generosity, no matter what the cultural norm.
It makes a point about love and self interest. People who claim to be acting in love without any self interest are frequently in a state of denial, so much so at times that they fail to recognise and control their self interest - to their own harm and that of others. The gospel is not an appeal to abandon self love, but to believe in being loved and loving and to engage in it fully in all directions, including towards ourselves.
The lines of love - for God, for others, for self - need to converge. Destruction comes when any one element fails. Falsehood sells us the idea that our own best interests can only be served by denying the interests of others or by exploiting them to our own ends, for this life or for the next. It teaches us we can only win by beating others. Whether in materialist mode or spiritual mode, it leads to exploitation and abuse. The answer is not the opposite: self hate or self neglect, because more often than not that ends in self-deceit and destructive behaviour towards ourselves which also destroys others. Rather it is an inclusive love, all embracing, which is its own reward.
The table at which we share celebrates a poured out life, even in brokenness, as the true source of nourishment and before which we can let go our anxieties and the hierarchies of power they create - easier said than done as our church and history demonstrates. The church in which we worship celebrates many poured out lives, no doubt some self-interest, and a dose of common sense. The answer is neither false humility nor grandstanding, but self-assurance, common sense and a sense of love which integrates self and other and God. The question is 'where does each of us find our own focus for loving and being loved in this community?'
I leave you not with the answer but with the question!
Living the Future in the Present
June 23, 2002
Ordinary Sunday 12 Isaiah 55:1-5,10-13 Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
Isaiah offers a wonderful glimpse of a time of perfection, where disease and death are no more and where the lamb and the wolf will feed together. Of course we assume that it is a future time, and hence Christianity so often becomes a faith of future hope. Christmas challenges such a preoccupation. After all it is the story of the arrival of a baby, and part of the psyche of the baby is that there is no future. There is only the beauty of the present moment. Just possibly Christmas is about living fully in the present, 'being' more than 'doing' and realising all your hopes in present moments. Contemporary Christianity faces a crisis of time. Is it going to be a religion based on future hope, or on realised love? Is it going to live well in the present or yearn for the better time to be?
Let me tell you two stories which illustrate the distinction. The first is a true story, a black story, a stark story.
A Little Rock woman was killed last month after leaping through her moving car's sun roof, in an incident which has been described as a mistaken rapture by her husband who was driving. It led to a 20 car pile up and 13 other injuries, as a mass of cars tried to avoid the woman who had become convinced that she had seen 12 people floating up into the air at the same time as seeing a man on the side of the road she believed to be Jesus. Her husband told the story - 'She believed it was the rapture, he said- She was screaming 'He's back! He's back! And she climbed onto the roof of the car. I was slowing down but she wouldn't stop. 'As it turns out the Jesus look-alike on the side of the road was on his way to a toga party. He had stopped his truck by the side of the road, when the tarp had become loose and released 12 blow up sex dolls filled with helium which floated into the air. The man who had been told by several friends that he looked like Jesus pulled his car over and lifted his arms in the air in frustration.
The dead woman's husband gave his statement, and finished by saying- 'My wife loved Jesus more than anything. She believed that was the end. She wouldn't miss out on Jesus kingdom for anything.' Police said it was the strangest incident they had ever encountered. A stark story of future hope. We have all seen the tragic consequences of this type of extreme religion. Yet for many Christians there is an element of future hope. So how does it work?
The second story is much closer to home. Recently I have been spending the day on Fridays with my two year old son. He doesn't yet speak a dialect which is intelligible to me, which is part of why he makes for such good company. On Fridays Darcy and I walk. We just walk the streets and see what is happening. We walk and sometimes for a change we run. Sometimes we walk backwards. Occasionally we walk with our eyes shut. We smell flowers. We poke cats sleeping on the footpath. We sit in coffee shops and we both talk. One of our favourite tricks is running sticks along the metal fence of the Jehovah's Witness Kingdom Hall in our street. It occasionally disturbs the meetings taking place inside, and briefly the attention of these pious people is diverted from their future hope discussions to the reality outside. They probably expect trouble, yet when they turn to look all they see is a young child and his dad simply being kids. I often imagine that they might pity us as people who have no future hope according to their religious beliefs. If only they knew. If only they realised that this is one of the times of life when I feel most alive and hopeful; precisely because nothing is further from my mind than the future.
No credit to myself. Left to my own devices I would obsess with the future. Credit to a two year old boy who has innocently offered me a conversion experience. I wondered during the week whether the term realisation could be a synonym for conversion. Realisation implies the bringing together of past and future into a present moment of clarity. Its about connections. Conversion may simply be realised love.
Which takes my mind full circle to Advent and Christmas. The story of Christmas is the story of the birth of hope. Surrounded by drama and intrigue, enormous expectation and apprehension, after all this is the Messiah, a situation which says 'forget the future' because right now the wonder is the birth of new life, a small baby. The lead up to this story is Advent where we wait for the arrival of hope, yet knowing all the time that it is right there before us in the ordinary moments of beauty and joy.
'Forget the future'. In fact the truth be known there is no future, only ever and always the present. That's all we can control. That's all we can experience. The present is our reality. The present lived well and fully is our opportunity. Where to for religion? Each to their own. My desire would be for religion which is positioned firmly in present reality, tussling and testing the boundaries of possibility. Religion which needs not worry about the future, and which directs people to the astounding possibilities of their present and to the challenging reality of the world's present.
The Gospel text points to the signs of the age; wars, famines and earthquakes. Are these signs which lead to a yearning for the future, or are they reminders which drive us more deeply into our present? I would suggest that since Sept 11, the great sign of our time, we are led to appreciate more fully that which is most precious in our lives.
In that we will be living the gospel of hope.
In conclusion, yesterday is already a dream, a mix of memory and necessary unreality. Tomorrow is nothing more than an unrealised vision. Today well lived makes every yesterday a dream of joy and every tomorrow a vision of hope. Today well lived is realised love. Today well lived we will realise that little else matters. In that we will experience conversion.
Take a Risk, or Risk Death: A Personal Story of Leaving Church
May 12, 2002
Easter 7 John 17:1-11
Which is the greater risk? - To consider that God may not be an interventionist Being 'out there', thereby calling into question every aspect of your belief system, and setting out on an unfamiliar path of discovery - or to avoid thinking about it as much as possible and remain in a secure religious system, ignoring the nagging doubts that something is not all it could be?
Kia ora! My name is Brendan and I have joined the staff team here at St Matthew's as the Marketing / Communications Manager as of one week ago. Already it has been an exciting and challenging ride. I am enjoying putting my mind to work in the genuine, positive atmosphere of freedom and progressive-ness that surrounds this church in the city.
I imagine I feel this more palpably than some might. In beginning at St Matthew's, I have made a decisive break from the conservative faith tradition of my upbringing - and more recently, my employer. Until one month ago, I was a member of the Lutheran Church of New Zealand (LCNZ), facing the risky questions in the paragraph above.
Anglicans might not be aware of the existence of the Lutheran Church in this country. Though existing in New Zealand for well over a century, the LCNZ is today small (less than 1000 members) and has been slowly contracting for many years. It is a dying Church. Some try to deny this fact, but the statistics show that every year, fewer and fewer people are worshipping in Lutheran Churches in New Zealand.
Opinions about reasons for this decline are many and varied. I speak only for myself when I say that my consistent experience of the LCNZ was that it was unwilling to think about Christianity in a progressive way, and even oppressive to those who would explore such ideas publicly. I include myself among those people. I think this is why, among other things, the LCNZ has not stopped its decline.
I have many friends in the Lutheran Church, so in spite of the reasonably trouble-free process of leaving, it was still a difficult decision. I wondered whether I was just being a coward and "jumping ship" instead of staying on and working for change. I wrote about my experience in the LCNZ in my final editorial for their national magazine. Here are some excerpts from that piece. I called it "My Lutheran 'confession'."
"I remember when I left home at age 18 to begin a Bachelor of Arts course at university. It was exhilarating and terrifying at the same time. I recall leaving with a strong sense that I had received a wonderful upbringing by loving parents who had given me a solid grounding of faith that would see me through any difficulties and challenges I would face 'out there' in the big bad world. And it has.
"University opened up for me new ways of thinking and ideas about reality, life and God that energised my faith anew. I felt my faith becoming even more important to me as it was stretched and challenged. Yet, at the same time, I found the Lutheran Church I was attending to be seemingly unaware of the kinds of revolutions in thought that I was experiencing. It persisted in articulating a worldview that was to me outdated and disconnected from reality. I stopped going to church.
"Ironically, it was at the same time I made this decision that I found my faith growing again. Reading new expressions of Christian theology brought me back to seeing the church as being a potentially vital, energising community of faith. But yet again, the Church of my upbringing didn't seem to have grasped these possibilities, to my sadness and frustration.
"The late Chuck Meyer in his book Dying Church Living God (2000) articulates it best for me. He writes: "The Church is dying. Its structure and theology make no sense today and haven't for decades. Far from being innocuous, their outdated uselessness goes beyond a nostalgic irrelevance to purposeful insidiousness, not just taking up space, but monolithically standing in the way of the spirit. The Dying Church impedes God's various attempts at theological and liturgical progress, obviates meaningful spiritual communication and change, and squanders the precious time of people desperately seeking nurture, affirmation, and God."
"I am deciding to leave the LCNZ. I am glad for the journey I have taken. If it were not for the Lutheran Church, I would not have the faith I do today. I will always treasure it and the joy it gave me as I experienced the reality of God in Jesus Christ. Thank you and farewell. I hope we meet again on the journey some day."
Today, I am excited about being a part of the St Matthew-in-the-City community - one that is willing to take risks and explore the Christian faith in such depth, and take it out to a city that is wondering whether Christianity has anything left to offer. I look forward to serving you and the people of Auckland by making a significant contribution to this effort right now and in the years to come.
God in the Clouds, or Clouded to God in Our Midst?
May 12, 2002
Easter 7 John 17:1-11
A wise person once dared to suggest to me: 'Live your life as if there is no God!' That's right. You heard it correctly. From one Anglican Priest to another... Live your life as if there is no God! Rid yourself of all past assumptions of God; live as if there is no deity watching, ready to bring wrath on you. Live as if there is no 'hell', no guilt, no supernatural puppeteer-God pulling your strings or the strings of history. Live your life without the manipulation of the Bible hanging over you. Live as if there is no interventionist God!
I was later to discover that my sage was in fact quoting the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer who uttered these words from his prison cell, incarcerated for his opposition to Nazism. I was also to discover that another theologian, Paul Tillich, had suggested putting a moratorium on the word God for 100 years until we had put meaning on what we meant by 'God'.
When I was willing to enter this journey privately I was surprised at the results. I began to recreate a God who made sense to me and found this God in surprising places. I found a God who is not necessarily in conflict with science and technology; a God who is willing to change with the times, because the times could even be good. I revisioned a God who is in my quietest thoughts and way beyond my imagination in the sounds and movements of life.
I posed a series of questions about life and meaning: What if it is true that the world began 5 billion years ago and not 6000? What if human experience as we know it is neither the first nor the last style of existence? What if it is true that the Bible was written by human beings deeply prejudiced by the prevailing world views of their day? What if some of these teachings offer little to our post structuralist issues and crises? What if the events surrounding Jesus life and death were the interpretations of a group desperate to put meaning on their frightened existence? What if? What if God is not external, supernatural and interventionist in nature?
I now refuse to accept the ancient manipulation that I either believe the supernatural interpretations of first century events or I don't. Rather I see it as quite possible to be unmoved by the magic, yet hugely moved by the power I see in lives which are connected. I refuse to bow to a God created by another age, and opt rather for the God of the third millennium.
A family lived in a small village with two young boys who were always up to mischief. If there was ever trouble in town, fingers were pointed in their direction. So their parents spoke to the local Vicar who arranged to speak with the boys. They were left at the office of the Vicar who first called the younger boy in. He sat the 8 year old down and asked him calmly - Where is God? and Have you been talking to God lately? The boy sat in silence so the Priest asked again- Where is God? And have you been talking to him? The boy still gave no answer, so the Vicar raised his voice and shook his finger in the face of the boy - Where is God? at which point the boy raced for the door, grabbed his brother and dragged him home. The older brother asked him anxiously - What happened? The younger brother replied- We're in big trouble this time. God is missing and they think we did it!
Today I want to pose the question - 'where is God?' and I want to explore how it is that this question might be explored without a finger being shaken in our faces. Let me frame the question for you another way - Is God in the clouds or are we clouded to the God in our midst?Or in more detail - Is God a remote, untouchable, force to be reckoned with, or is God no further away than our touch and sight, the spirit of compassion and inclusiveness?Or finally, is God both these opposites, held together in some kind of tension, both a mysterious and remote force and an ever-attainable experience? If this is the solution, is faith then about living with the inconsistencies?
Lest you think that I am merely having fun with words and ideas, allow me to hint at some of my life experience which has led me to this point. The first is the very nature of the place I came from, where these were for the most part private explorations. I found very few people interested in taking this journey with me and felt vaguely under threat for asking the questions. It was in fact this perceived threat which sparked for me the realisation that a God who was under threat of being destroyed by my questions was not a God worth pursuing.
The second experience was walking alongside a loved one in a long battle with chronic illness. This sparked for me a crisis of Faith - Faith which could no longer believe in an Almighty God. God either lacked compassion or lacked power. Either way my framework had to change. Let me tell you that story another day.
The third was a relationship crisis which sparked for me anxiety about searching for ideals in a far away place. God as an ideal had to be attainable or revisioned. Let me take you to that place another day.
My hope is that, by even hinting at some of these life lessons, and some of you will know what I am talking about, you will understand that this is not just a rational exercise. This is the very practical stuff of life and meaning.
We at St Matthew's are a diverse group. Some of us hang on dearly to an Almighty God who is able to transform our lives because this God is separate and somehow removed from the harsh realities of life. Some of us have taken the sort of revisioning process I have described as my journey. Some of us hold to a belief in God who is both and either and more and less and neither depending on our stage and experience of life.
One of my hopes this morning is that you might see the thinking behind some of the changes to hymn words I have made since being here. It has very little to do with political correctness, and it has little to do with an interest in change for change's sake. It has everything to do with being offended by an ancient view of God that has neither worked in my life, and more seriously has wreaked havoc in its manipulation and guilt.
My problem is that many of the hymns of the church focus on this older view of God. The opening hymn this morning captured much of what I find difficult. Let me take you through my reactions to the hymn, with apologies to those who particularly like it. It teaches that the Almighty is found in a temple, reigns over creation, protects from harm all those he befriends, ordains the course of history and there is a little Protestant work ethic in there for good measure.
Overall my problem is that it urges us to look elsewhere for power in life when it may be that this power is found in our own hearts and in the support of those around us. God is predominantly a remote controlling force, rather than a personal, sensory and human experience. It also teaches of an exclusive God, who chooses to befriend some and not others.
Add to this the obsession of some hymn writers with the blood of the lamb, the darkness of all that is earthly, and the attainment of a higher experience when we die … - the message for me is unaffirming of life and humanity and history. This, for me, is completely inconsistent with the divine affirmation of all that is in creation.
Of course there is room for the older lyrics. There must be space also for new concepts and images. My conclusion is that we have to keep striving to be accepting of each other's views of God, which ultimately will mean, in worship living with inconsistency. It will mean a little give and take. It will mean singing hymns that make little sense to some, and the changing of some words which will seem sacrilegious to others. And it will mean a search for hymns that capture some elements of our life together without sacrificing musical and poetic quality.
Music is hugely important to us here at St Matthews. It is central to our 10 am Eucharist, and, as I have discovered over the past month, is pivotal to many parishioners as an outlet and an expression of faith. I have also discovered that music is capable of wrenching us apart as a group. That has surprised me. Yet this has made more sense when I placed music in the context of our image of God. If we are all willing to give and take a little we will get it right.
Let me finish with a quote which, for me, captures the essence of what music is all about in worship. It may offer also a comment on the God in our midst; "Music is only music because of the space between the notes. Without those spaces between the notes there would only be noise."
May we enjoy the rest and refreshment of some space between the notes as we meet together, and find even a hint of God in those spaces: God may exist in the clouds, yet don't be clouded to the God in our midst.
Near Death and New Life Experiences
April 28, 2002
Easter 5 John 10:1-10
When the bleeding wouldn't stop, Bill knew he was dying. "I was going, but I felt totally at peace', he later explained 'There was a golden kind of light, brighter than the sun, but it didn't hurt my eyes. I never wanted anything as much as to go into that light, but something or somebody - it felt like my dad, who died when I was a kid - communicated to me, 'It isn't your time. You must go back to finish what you have to do in your life.' The next thing I knew, I was slammed back into my body. It felt like a wet sock, and the pain was just awful."
This account is amongst millions of such stories. Some of the common themes in near death experiences include the bright light, conversations with deceased loved ones, and life flashes. More importantly there seems to often be a heightened sense of the meaning of life, and how it all connects; a revision of priorities and what changes need to be made.
It was Woody Allen who said - 'I'm not afraid to die. I just don't want to be there when it happens!' In recent weeks many people around the world have paused to ponder the nearness of death, their fear of death, and hence the point of life. Of course much of the world has never stopped thinking about death. It has always been an ever present reality. Yet recently the Western world, believing it was untouchable in its progress, has had cause to stop and reflect. It has been what I would describe as a global near death experience.
It seems to me that this is the time, above all times, to offer a message of hope. Where people expect the church to speak of God's role in this or that world crisis, and this or that national cause, we speak of the unconditional love of God for all people; the unifying God. Where people expect the church to speak of dying well, and to hope in an after life, we speak of living well and finding hope in this world. I want to offer a positive message, one I would call a new life experience.
I wonder if you have ever considered the Bible in this light. The writers and composers of the Bible, as well as the early church, lived so under the perceived threat of fatal persecution. They believed that their days were numbered, and that possibly the situation in their world was so dire that it could spell the end of history. Allow yourself to entertain for a moment the possibility that the Bible was written as a collection of near death experiences. The factual details become unimportant. Far more important are the attempts of a group of frightened people to make sense of their lives and how the universe might gain some purpose.
So, come to the Gospel text for today. Hear it not as a description of hell or of purgatory or of any actual out of body place. Rather hear it as a story of agony and ecstasy. The agony of reviewing your life, only to realise that at points you have not lived at all. The ecstasy of knowing that it is not too late to make changes. There is time to repent; a word we have become ashamed of, yet in reality means making changes or turning around an attitude.
My definition of repentance - 'Refocusing our priorities, restoring our vision and regaining purpose in life.'
Then a curious story about Abraham and the Prophets. The point I take from that is that we need not be motivated by fear of death to make changes in life. We need no near death experience to appreciate life. Rather the wake up call comes in the midst of life, in the inspiration of those who have gone before us and lived to the full and offered us the resources to live life to the full, to engage in a lively faith.
There exists a great chasm between life and death. I don't mean physically. In fact the line between the two is torturously fine, as we have recently been reminded. Rather the chasm is the gap between living life to the full and going through the motions in a state of death, without meaning and hope. This is hell. It is a state many of us have known. It is agony and can be described many ways, even as the indignity of having dogs lick the wounds of life or being forced to dine off the worst that others or society has to offer.
The agony can be so painful and Jesus knew this agony. He knew its pain so acutely that for him at this point in his journey, he saw it as a chasm which could not be crossed. Of course we know that at other times the message of Jesus was the hope of always being able to choose to cross that chasm.
And so my message today - in the face of agony, personal agony, global agony, anxiety, fear, the agony of loss of hope, I offer the possibility of a new life experience. The belief that there is time to make the changes which will lead to a full life and a hopeful future. That time is now.
Each in our own way:
The passion for living and loving
The courage for daring and hoping
The freedom for growing
The capacity for giving and receiving
The humility for learning
The tenderness for understanding
The strength for enduring
And trust for believing
May God's grace and peace
the presence of all that makes life whole
be with us and go with us. Amen
Prayer in a Non Theistic World View
April 7, 2002
Easter 2 John 20:19-31
There were four Rabbis who were constantly in theological debates, where three would always agree against the fourth. One day the odd Rabbi out became sick of this situation and decided to appeal to a higher authority. "Oh God," he cried, "I know that I am right and that they are wrong. Please give me a sign to prove it to them." As soon as the Rabbi finished his prayer, a storm cloud rolled over the perfect blue sky and rested above the group. "You see," he said. "A sign from God." The others wouldn't accept it, arguing that storm clouds can form on hot days.
So the Rabbi prayed again, "God, this time I need a bigger sign to show that I am right and they are wrong." This time four storm clouds formed, and a bolt of lightning struck a nearby tree. "I told you," he said. His friends still refused to accept his case. A third time the Rabbi began to pray. "Oh God… Yet before he got the words out, the sky turned pitch black, the earth shook and a deep booming voice intoned, 'HEEE'S RIIIIIGHT!" The Rabbi put his hands on his hips, turned to the others and said, "Well?" "So," shrugged one of the other Rabbis. "Now it's 3 to 2."
Sounds like any number of church meetings I have been to! Prayer often becomes a safety blanket for us, not so much because we believe in the results, rather because it shows that we have God on our side. So what is prayer? And what are some of the different ways of making sense of prayer even if God is no longer seen to be in the clouds pulling the strings of history?
Of course in Hebrew religion there was every reason to believe that God was pulling the strings of history, or at least a certain nation's history. Even if only as mythology, God had a habit of speaking to Israel's leaders and hearing their pleas for mercy. They prayed for the kingdom, which for them was a political and social victory; it was God led therefore invincible.
It was no wonder then that first century followers of Jesus would have expected that prayer meant something similar, and that the content of their prayers would likewise have been nationalistic and zealously political. When Jesus said to pray for God's kingdom, they would have certainly imagined he meant a victorious raid on the Jerusalem temple. And maybe he did intend that for the prayer. Jesus, too, was influenced by a Hebraic view of God and prayer. Yet he built on it. I will come back to that point.
First, let me tell you of a story which horrified me no end. I received an email, an international chain message, which was in response to a school shooting in America. The email was an encouragement to prayer and trust in God. It recorded the survival of a teenager who was very pious, and always resisted peer pressure because of her faith. This young girl was in the firing line during the shooting and had a miraculous experience while she prayed. Bullets passed above and around her, bullets which hit and killed other teenagers. The message - we were supposed to praise God for delivering this girl.
What sort of a God would save one person and not another in a tragic situation like that?
What sort of a God would favour the pious over the ordinary human struggler?
What sort of a God would answer the prayers of some and not others?
What sort of a God would bring devastation on some nations more severely than others? Quite simply, a racist God, a prejudiced God, a God worthy only of being abandoned.
For some people prayer is all about asking God to fix situations. At its best this type of prayer has compassion on others' situations and channels positive energy in their direction. At its worst it is an avoidance of personal responsibility and practical care. If you pray in this way, my plea is that you see it is a channelling of positive energy and not as a list from which God can pick and chose compassionate intervention. Jesus, I believe, still had some notions of shopping list prayer. He too was affected by the piety of his day. Yet he had also a radical approach which moved on from a theistic view of prayer. He offered a distinctive teaching on the presence of God.