'One's True Love' is costly. One Partridge in a Pear Tree $105; two Turtle Doves $40; three French Hens $45; four Calling Birds $400; five Gold Rings $325; six Geese-a-Laying $300; seven Swans-a-Swimming $4,200; eight Maids-a-Milking $410; nine Ladies Dancing $4,580; ten Lords-a-Leaping $4,040 [ladies are more expensive!]; eleven Pipers Piping $2,050; and twelve Drummers Drumming $2,220. Total: $18,350. Traditional Christmas, with poultry, people, and pear trees, is not cheap!
The twelve days of Christmas begin at midnight Christmas Eve and conclude at midnight Epiphany Eve. It's a time of merrymaking and feasting. Wonderful! This is the time when you are meant to sing Christmas carols and have your tree up. However many of us bring out the tree and crank out the carols as early as November. Not that I mind elongating a decent party, it's just that by starting Christmas so early the season of introspection, Advent, gets swamped and sunk. Without taking time to pause and reflect, the meaning of Christmas can be drowned, along with our own souls.
Take “The Twelve Days of Christmas”. On the one hand it's a pleasant holiday nonsensical ditty. Not unlike tinsel, Santa, and reindeer in downtown Auckland! On the other hand it has a more profound meaning. “The Twelve Days of Christmas” was written in 16th century England by a couple of wily Jesuits who were playing a dangerous game. Anything Roman Catholic was prohibited and, if found out, was punishable by imprisonment and death. As a result the Roman faith was forced underground. Still there was, as you can imagine, a need to encourage and teach fellow believers. So these Jesuits came up with a code, and set it to music.
The twelve days of Christmas is the time period. “My true love said to me” is God speaking to the anonymous Roman Catholic. “Twelve lords-a-leaping” are the twelve beliefs outlined in the Apostles Creed. The “eleven pipers piping” are the apostles, minus Judas. The “ten ladies dancing” are the Commandments. The “nine drummers” are the choir of angels. The “eight maids a-milking” are the beatitudes. The “seven swans” are the sacraments. And so on it goes down to Jesus, the partridge, in the pear tree. Today this codified catechism is a little quaint and quite bizarre: Jesus a partridge in a pear tree?? – yeah, right.
The song, however, can remind us that a lot of Christmas is encoded. Christmas is not primarily the celebration of the birth of a great man, or even the birth of a man in whom God was uniquely present. The Christmas stories rather are code for God being among, with and within us. God is not stuck on a throne in heaven, but sticks to us on earth. Christmas is not only about celebrating a birth long ago, but the births which happen every day and night.
The Christ child is special for what it says about all children being special. The barn is important for what it says about the breadth of God's embrace, namely that holiness is not confined to sanitary hospitals or churches but is present among the unclean and smelly. The crooked shepherds with their propensity to acquire things off the back of trucks remind us that sacredness is there among the less desirable citizens. The foreign Magi encourage us not to be blind to the spirituality of immigrants and followers of other religions. The angels alert us to the wonder of holiness and critique our urges to control it.
While Santa mythology at its best encourages us to give, especially to those in need, it does not address the heart of Christmas. The heart of Christmas is that the holy is in our midst, among and within you and me. Santa can be appropriated by almost any culture, making the rich feel good about giving whilst their politicians give nothing away, like in the recent world trade negotiations. Holiness however has always been wary of wealth, receiving or giving it. Like refined sugar wealth it is sweet, addictive, and can rot one's soul. The great spiritual traditions have placed a higher value on justice than on giving. For justice is premised upon treating every citizen of the globe as a holy child of God deserving of respect, dignity, and the means to contribute.
This Christmas let us find time to think about the code behind the carols, candles, and celebrations. Let us find time to pause and give thanks for all prophets, teachers, healers and revolutionaries, living and dead, acclaimed or obscure, who have rebelled, worked and suffered for the cause of justice and love. Let us also pause and give thanks for that holy part of us, that part within ourselves, which has rebelled, worked and suffered for the cause of justice and love. For this is Emmanuel.
One of our greatest and beloved Christmas carols, “Silent Night”, holds this truth. On Christmas Eve, 1818, Fr. Joseph Mohr sat alone working on his sermon in an old village high in the Austrian Alps. The text was: “Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy… to you is born this day… a Saviour.” Just then someone knocked on his door. He opened it to a poor peasant woman who asked him to come and bless a new born child. The woman and the priest trudged through the knee-deep snow. At last they came to a ramshackle hut. A big, awkward man, a charcoal maker by trade, greeted the priest and asked him to enter. The low room was filled with wood smoke and poorly lit, but on the crude bed lay the young mother and new born. Fr. Mohr gave them his priestly blessing.
Joseph Mohr pondered as he went down the mountain again, alone. The smoky shack did not really resemble the Bethlehem stable. Yet somehow the words of his gospel text seemed to come alive. It seemed to him as though the Christmas miracle had just happened, again, here in the mountains. He felt the promise of peace and goodwill in the forest silence and in the brilliance of the stars. There was serenity on that Holy Night. Later the next day he put his feelings into words, and with his friend Franz Guber, the words into music.
On the one hand “Silent Night” is about the birth of Jesus. On the other hand however it is about the birth of the charcoal maker's daughter. God has come among us in both. On a deeper level it is about your birth, and my birth, and the continual conceiving within and growth of our souls. If we only celebrate the birth of Jesus at Christmas we lose the meaning, the code, of Christmas.
A Christmas story written for St Matthew-in-the-City by Joy Cowley.
Alright, I said I would tell you about the fish. Well summer was early that year and there was no going to town on Christmas Eve because of the hay, you see. Mum was driving the tractor, Dad was on the trailer, and us five kids were helping Uncle Pete load.
Hard work in the heat. Bales like big Weetbix tied with green twine. We had tough hands but the string still cut, and there were thistles to be dug out of fingers. Boy, were we pleased to see Uncle Pete’s wife Aunty Roimata bouncing across the paddocks on her motorbike. It was a BSA Bantam with a spring clip on the carrier, and a box with two flagons of lemon cordial and some sandwiches, and I forget what else. (No, not the fish – I’ll come to that!)
So we all sat in the Macracarpa shade, us kids still moaning about town. It was the shopping, you see – we hadn’t bought anything for Mum and Dad. The tree was up in the bay window. We’d made our own decorations – ping pong balls painted with glitter, silver bells from milk bottle tops, crepe paper streamers … but what about the presents?? It was all right for our parents – they’d got stuff for us kids weeks before. We’d seen the parcels at the back of the garage. It was them who were going to miss out.
I said we should all drive into town when the hay was finished, but Mum said we’d be too tired. Forget it, said Dad – getting the hay in the barn is the best present you could give us. And Uncle Pete and Aunty Roi said Yeah, yeah, too right! But they didn’t understand how us kids felt. You couldn’t put hay under the tree with a card, Merry Xmas Mum and Dad. And they were spot on though about us being tired. We didn’t get the last bales in until dark, and by then we were just about asleep on our feet. If I remember rightly I didn’t even get into my pyjamas. Oh, the fish! – No, I haven’t forgotten about the fish. We’re coming to that.
I guess we woke up early – kids always do, don’t they. Our toys were by the tree and they were corker. Mum and Dad had been around the auction mart, bought second-hand stuff and cleaned it up. I got a tool kit with real tools and a pump-action oil can. The others had a bike, a scooter, cricket set and a music box. Mum got some of us to help her pod the peas. My sisters sang –
While shepherds washed their socks by night
all seated on the ground
a cake of Lifebuoy soap came down
and soapsuds splashed around.
Mum told them off but she really wasn’t mad. It was when she opened the meat safe that she got upset. No fridge in those days, you see, and with the hot weather the leg of lamb for Christmas dinner was as high as a kite. It smelled like it had been lying in the paddock for three weeks. Poor Mum!! She threw the stinking meat out to the dogs and said, That’s it, that’s it – I give up! Dad put his arm around her. He’d kill another sheep, he said. He’d shoot a couple of ducks. We could have dinner later. But Mum wouldn’t cheer up.
And while they were talking there was a knock on the back door. I went out, and there in the porch was this little kid with this sugar sack in his arms. Honest, he could hardly hold it. His skinny brown legs were bowed with the weight, and I waited for him to say something and he didn’t. We just looked at each other, and then he pushed the sack at me – For your Mum and Dad, he said. And I tell you, I nearly dropped it. There was something inside - heavy, kind of floppy, the kid nearly dropped it. He walked backwards across the veranda, then turned and ran over the paddocks. I put the sack down and opened it. Yes, it was the fish – a huge thing, blue and silver, still wet and smelling of the sea.
Well, you should have seen my mother, and Dad too – they couldn’t believe it. Dad thought the boy was someone staying with Pete and Roimata, and he phoned to thank them, and Uncle Pete said he didn’t know anything about it. Come off it Man, he said. You think if I got a fish like that I would give it away?!
So we never found out who the kid was, or where the big fish came from. Like I said, it was fresh caught – and the sea was more than 30 miles away. All I know is we had a 14 pound snapper with peas and new potatoes from the garden, and it was the best Christmas dinner I ever tasted.
One of great disputes in the Hebrew Scriptures was between ' Temple ' and 'tent'. Although the authors tried to paper over the differences it is clear that one faction preferred to keep with the tradition of the Ark of the Covenant being located in a tent and the one other preferred it to be in a Temple. The Ark of the Covenant was said to be holy, where God's presence dwelt.
The Temple group saw the need to centralize worship. A temple in Jerusalem would bring worship into a central locality, close to the King, and under his watchful eye. The Temple, when it was eventually built, functioned as a “royal chapel”. This befitted a monarchy and the hierarchical arrangement that went with it. Such an arrangement had God on top, then the King, then the priests, and then the people. Religion served the state, legitimizing its activities. The state funded and sanctioned the religion. This royal mode of religion dominated Israel from 1000 B.C.E. to 587 B.C.E.
Temple theology was therefore centred largely on the aspirations of the King. Conquest of foreign lands, wars and the like, were 'God's will'. The King was seen as warrior, leader and priest. Power coalesced around him. The Temple priests were to carry out rituals, do the holy housekeeping, but not to question the King's rule. Indeed to question the King's rule was to question God's rule. Religion served the stabilization of power and knowledge around the monarchy.
David, the first king to really unite the tribes of Israel, saw the need for such a Temple and theology. Yet it would fall to his heir, Solomon, to do the constructing. This building project receives numerous accolades in the Scriptures. However, between the lines, we can also read how it was financed by severe taxation and press-ganged labour. It was not surprising that following Solomon's death there was upheaval, and the Kingdom divided in two.
Those of the 'tent' faction, on the other hand, remembered the days without a king. They favoured the independence of the tribes. When the need arose, like an external aggressor, God would raise up a leader to unite the people and drive away the problem. The leader would then return to his or her home. There was no hereditary dynasty. The tent leader par excellence was Moses. If we date him to 1250 B.C.E. this theology and practice dominated until David ic rule in 1000 B.C.E. Israel was nurtured and shaped in this period by the Exodus story – that concrete disengagement from the monarchical power structures of Egypt. It was a radical and costly break from the dominant social reality.
For 250 years there were no stable institutions or civic leadership. It had to make everything up as it went along. It was a community that had to improvise. They borrowed enormously from the cultures round about, but transformed what was borrowed according to their central passion for liberation. It was also a segmented community of extended family units and tribes. There was no central authority or treasury. Nor were there necessarily blood ties. They were communities bound by a common commitment to a central story and a distinctive social passion.
They were also communities that were socio-economically marginal. One of the central metaphors was the wilderness. The tribes depended in times of threat on the movement of the Spirit to give energy, courage, and power sufficient for the crisis. Tent theology had a God committed to a story and liturgy of freedom. God was on the move. God was on the side of slaves. God was doing new things. Leadership was based on merit, not class or connections.
Symbolically tent theology spoke of questing, vulnerability, and transience; whereas Temple theology spoke of stability, power, and permanence. It was during the time when Temple theology was in the ascendancy, and only during that time, that prophets arose challenging and criticising the powerful.
In John 1:14 we read “And the Word became flesh and lived among us”. A more correct translation of 'lived' is tented. There was a deliberate attempt within the Christian Scriptures to not only infer that Jesus was the presence of God, in the way that the Ark of the Covenant was, but to align Jesus with tent theology.
Although some tried to give Jesus a Davidic lineage, the truth is that he wasn't related. Nor did he receive the throne of David in any literal sense. Indeed despite the efforts of those who still want to put a crown on his head and enthrone him in majesty, Jesus subverted and parodied the whole notion of kingship. He never was a Lord and he never owned a sword.
Like in tent theology, however, the liberating Spirit of God did the unexpected. She chose a young girl, without money or connections, unmarried even, to be the mother of the new leader. The Spirit chose Mary. The Magnificat, known as Mary's song, is one of the earliest pieces of Christian writing and hymnody. It is thought to have been written by socially marginalized followers of Jesus, the anawim, who saw him as the new liberator who would cast down the kings from their thrones and raise up the underclass. It is overtly political.
Much of the Jesus story correlates with tent theology. God was on the move. God was doing a new thing - a surprising, upside-down thing. God was pushing the powerful, the priests, or the pious off the top of heap; then flattening it, so the little ones, the least, and the last could have access. God was liberating those in political, social, and spiritual slavery. Jesus was openly critical of Temple theology and the hierarchical arrangements that excluded women, the sick, and the poor. He did not aspire to a leadership role within Temple thinking, but sought to overturn the pervasiveness of such thinking for the sake of the marginalized.
Nowadays I've heard the juxtaposition between tent and Temple thinking explained in personal, apolitical terms. Temple has become wealthy mainline churches, like Anglicanism, that has property, robed clergy, and elaborate rituals. Tent has become t-shirt worshippers who gather in any old warehouse where a drum set will fit. Temple has become university theological degrees, and tent the joy of self-interpreting your own bible.
Regardless of where and how you want to worship or study, such a private interpretation misses the point. The prophets of old, steeped in tent theology, sought to keep its radical edge but criticising those who exercised political leadership. The prophet Nathan, for example, who fronted up to King David, wasn't criticising his music, his worship, or even his money. Nathan was criticising the way David robbed from the poor and stole a soldier's wife. Nathan was declaring that David was accountable to the wild, free, liberating God who led the people out of slavery. This was not a God who was a pet for David to pat, admire, and then ignore. Both Temple and tent theology are overtly political. Both have a vision of the world. Both have a place for the rich and the poor, the powerful and the weak. Both have a place for the pious and the prophets. Different places mind you!!
Almost invariably when a political leader or party allies themselves with religion it is of the Temple variety. And those who pretend to be apolitical, who think their religion is solely a private matter not to be mixed with politics, usually end up doing likewise. Almost invariably, however, movements for social change, when allying with religion, choose the tent variety. Just like Jesus.
Hope Is Not Found in a Sword or a Lord or He with the Biggest Roar
December 11, 2005
Advent 3 1 Thess 5:16-24 John 1:6-8, 19-28
Aslan arrived in Auckland on Friday. C.S. Lewis' fantasy story The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe has been digitally and wonderfully enhanced bringing all those well-known characters to life.
Earlier in the week our letterbox was the recipient of Christian advertising about the new movie - large glossy things, including sermons on a CD. Invariably these promotional Christians locate hope in the character of Aslan, the talking lion. He with the big mane and bigger roar has Christic associations, not least in his dying and coming to life again.
Yet, I wonder whether they've got it wrong. Sure old Clive (Jack to his friends) was not of my theological hue, but I'm not sure he was of theirs either. I wonder whether hope was not, first and foremost, in the hearts of the little ones. People like the young child Lucy who bravely walked beyond the limits of the wardrobe into Narnia and then allowed her sense of goodness to guide her; or like Mr Tumnus who dared to speak of what shouldn't be spoken.
It is tempting in Advent to locate hope somewhere supernatural. That God will come out of the skies incarnated (incarcerated?) as a mighty Saviour or a powerful Lord with his legions of mythical creatures to battle the forces of darkness and despair and free us from the grip of all that is evil. That God will come as a Lion of Judah, a Messiah, and a liberator.
It is tempting to believe that we can do nothing; that the forces that oppress us are too powerful to overcome; and that our protest will be puny, and severely punished. Religious authorities often use this feeling of defeat as evidence of our alleged sin and general unworthiness.
Yet the message of the Gospels is that God in Jesus turns this thinking upside-down. Hope is not found in a sword or a Lord or he with the biggest roar. Hope is rather found amongst those ordinary people who believe in goodness, risk loving, are kind to the different, and are politically threatening to those in the oppression business. Simple stuff.
Hope is not off the planet. It is among us. Sure, sometimes we need help in finding it, believing it, and doing it, but it is here. Just as God is here and has always been. I want to tell you now one of the great stories of Christian hope . Listen for where hope comes from – and what that might tell us about where we should look. Listen for how hope transforms despair – and what that might tell us about how we should live. Most of all let the story have its way with you – for your imagination is the playground of the sacred.
Once upon a time there was a famous monastery that had fallen on very hard times. Formerly, its buildings were filled with young monks and its big church resounded with the singing of the chant, but now it was deserted. People no longer came there to be nourished by prayer. A handful of old monks shuffled through the cloisters and praised God with heavy hearts. Clearly it was a dying order.
In the deep woods surrounding the monastery there was a little hut that a rabbi from a nearby town occasionally used for a hermitage. Through their many years of prayer and contemplation the old monks had become a bit psychic, so they could always sense when the rabbi was in his hermitage. "The rabbi is walking in the woods," they would whisper to each other. As he agonized over the imminent death of his order, it occurred to the abbot to visit the hermitage and ask the rabbi if by some possible chance he could offer any advice that might save the monastery.
The rabbi welcomed the abbot at his hut. But when the abbot explained the purpose of his visit, the rabbi could only commiserate with him. "I know how it is," he exclaimed. "The spirit has gone out of the people. It is the same in my town. Almost no one comes to the synagogue anymore." So the old abbot and the old rabbi wept together. Then they read parts of the Torah and quietly spoke of deep things. The time came when the abbot had to leave. They embraced each other. "It has been a wonderful thing that we should meet after all these years," the abbot said, "but I have still failed in my purpose for coming here. Is there nothing you can tell me, no piece of advice you can give me that would help me save my dying order?"
"No, I am sorry," the rabbi responded. "I have no advice to give. The only thing I can tell you is that the Messiah is among you."
When the abbot returned to the monastery his fellow monks gathered around him to ask, "Well what did the rabbi say?" "He couldn't help," the abbot answered. "We just wept and read the Torah together. The only thing he did say, just as I was leaving --it was something cryptic-- was that the Messiah is one of us. I don't know what he meant."
In the days and weeks and months that followed the old monks pondered this and wondered. The Messiah is one of us? Could he possibly have meant one of us monks here at the monastery? If that's the case, which one? Do you suppose he meant the abbot? Yes, if he meant anyone, he probably meant Father Abbot. On the other hand, he might have meant Brother Thomas. Certainly Brother Thomas is a good and holy man. Certainly he could not have meant Brother Elred! Elred gets crotchety at times. But you never know? Then there's Brother Phillip. Phillip is so passive, a real nobody. Yet he somehow is always there when you need him. Maybe Phillip is the Messiah. Of course the rabbi didn't mean me. He couldn't possibly have meant me. I'm just an ordinary person. Yet supposing he did?
As they contemplated in this manner, the old monks began to treat each other with extraordinary respect on the off-chance that one among them might be the Messiah. And on the off-chance that each monk himself might be the Messiah, they began to treat themselves with extraordinary respect.
As time went by a gentle, whole-hearted human quality was present in the monastery, which was hard to describe but easy to notice. They lived with one another as people who had finally found something, but they prayed together as people who were always looking for something. Occasional visitors found themselves deeply moved by the life of these monks. Before long, people were coming from far and wide to be nourished by the prayer life of the monks, and young folk were asking, once again, to become part of the community.
In those days the rabbi no longer walked in the woods, and his hut had fallen into ruins.
May the hope we seek this Advent be this sort:
Hope that listens to wisdom beyond the borders of its own
Hope that arises out of respect for one another
Hope that finds the Messiah not off the planet but within each of us.
The four Sundays of Advent, in case you haven't noticed yet, have this overarching theme of preparation. Advent's poster child is a Boy Scout with his motto “Be Prepared”. But I have to say remembering to “be prepared” doesn't do a thing to get me in the Christmas spirit. I think it's because of the guilt. I'm never fully prepared for Christmas. Procrastination is my forte -- not preparing.
With so many to choose from it is hard to choose just one example, but one I'm struggling with now is that I need to paint our new place. But I keep putting it off. I like choosing the colours. I like stroking the paint on in quiet meditation. What I hate is preparing to paint. It takes longer than the painting itself, and it isn't very satisfying. So I tend to take short-cuts. I delude myself into believing that I have a steady enough hand that I won't need to tape around the window frames. No need to spread drop cloths if I am careful. As a result, my efforts at painting tend to have less than satisfying outcomes.
So when Advent arrives I treat it like painting, I seek quick, easy ways to prepare for Christmas. I haven't stepped into a mall to do Christmas shopping in years. I shop online. I especially like those internet sites that wrap the gift, include a card and ship it directly to the gift's recipient.
Spiritually, the easier the preparation the more I like it. In Advent I like to prepare by listening to Christmas music. But going through the CD collection is a drag, so my collection is now downloaded to my iPod. I brought it this morning with its 195 Christmas songs, so you could share in my Advent preparation. Well, in truth it only has 194 songs. I deleted Bing Crosby's I'm Dreaming of White Christmas. Now that I live in New Zealand, what's the point?
You may not know, but an iPod can also be used as an alarm clock waking you to music. In Advent mine wakes me each morning with Isaiah's words of comfort to his people in captivity. “Comfort ye, Comfort ye my people”, the beginning of Handel's Messiah is a beautiful way to wake up, but it is what they promise I long for, what I can't wait for — his Halleluiah Chorus.
But just like Handel isn't satisfied with ending the Messiah with Christmas and insists in telling the whole story, crucifixion and all, Mark reminds us that the birth isn't the end. It isn't even the beginning. He begins his Gospel with John baptizing an adult Jesus. My God Mark what happened to the nativity pageant? Where are the shepherds watching, angels heralding and wise men worshipping? No cute little baby in nappies surrounded by farm animals for Mark. No, none of that. Mark gets right down to business. Through John he harks us back to Isaiah and puts us to the work of preparing. And it is just as bad as I feared. John the Baptist calls for us to start doing road work for the Lord, filling in valleys and levelling hills and straightening motorways. He tells us it is all about preparing and I feel like singing Ol ' Man River with America's black slaves instead of the opening words of John the Baptist in the Musical Godspell, “Prepare ye the Way of the Lord”.
I am even less comforted when I learn through John that Mark says the way we do this road work is by repenting. Repent. Now that's a word guaranteed to ruin a progressive theologian's Christmas. It conjures images of revival preachers scaring heaven into people with hellfire and damnation. It reeks of judgment. Too many Advents I have heard about my unworthiness to receive the gift of Jesus. If I want a Merry Christmas I better get my act together and be quick about it. Santa's coming. “You better watch out / you better not cry, / you better not pout / I'm tellin ' you why, / Santa Claus is coming to town, / he's making a list / checkin ' it twice, / he's gonna find out who's naughty or nice, / Santa Claus is coming to town”.
But I shouldn't be getting up Mark's nose about the word repent. It is all the years the church and people in my line of work used it to control people. Like Mums and Dad's everywhere trying to negotiate some good behaviour from their wee ones for at least one month of the year. The bottom line is my human nature resists and resents repentance almost as much as it protests preparing by procrastination.
Frankly, if it weren't for my vows to preach the Good News I'd just tell you to stuff Advent. Just keep yourself busy shopping, wrapping, decorating, baking, partying, and wondering if you will get that special gift you have been hinting for. Limit your preparation to listening to Christmas muzak in the malls and pretty soon it will be the night before Christmas and you and I can sing Silent Night with 800 fellow Aucklanders here at St. Matthew's. Once again we will have survived the Christmas rush. But then what? After the Christmas BBQ is over and the Boxing Day sales have maxed out what's left on our credit cards is anything different? Are our lives and those of the ones we love any better? Is the world a better place? In my experience, it's not likely.
We all know the definition of insanity, doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome. So if we'd like Christmas to last longer than the needles on our Christmas tree for a change, is there anything we can do?
It seems to come back to preparing by repenting. Damn!
Being a properly trained theologian I now resort to my Greek grammar and check out the word “Repent”. It turns out it is the word metanoia. Now that probably clears it up for you. But in case it doesn't, it literally means to turn around, to face a new direction. It turns out those revivalist preachers are the ones who made it useless to me. For them it was Lordship salvation. Accepting Jesus as Lord and Saviour was all you needed to do. That was enough of a turn for them, and oh, yes, forsake sin. That language turns me off instantly. It is the language of the inquisition and the religious right. Believe as I do or else.
My other objection is that it is the kind of turn that goes full circle. Fail to quit sinning and we are back where we started. We are no better off. Next Christmas will be just like the last one. I need the kind of repentance that recognizes my imperfect humanity. That recognizes my weaknesses honestly and lovingly says try again. I need the kind of repentance that makes me feel better about myself. That is about becoming the kind of person I was created to be and want to be. I don't want the kind of repentance that pleases revivalist preachers and takes me off Santa's naughty list. And here's the really heretical part, trained theologian or not, I am not even interested in the kind of repentance that pleases God -- at least not the paternalistic, anthropomorphic God of my childhood that looked a lot like Santa without the red suit.
A call to repent can get my attention, if it leads to my liking what I see in the mirror shaving each morning. Repentance that leads to self acceptance and appreciating others sounds pretty good to me. Repentance where judgment rarely rears its ugly head sounds like something even I could muster up the energy to prepare for. Repentance that leads to rejoicing in life's little pleasures, exchanging a smile with a stranger, reading to a child, comforting a friend over a cuppa, snuggling with a loved one, listening to Michael Bell's Voluntary after the dismissal and the ensemble's anthem during communion… and so much more. But how to rejoice is then the question. I don't have a nice neat answer for you, but I think it has something to do with preparing.
At some point preparing becomes the goal and not what it leads up to. It becomes a way of living, like it does for our boy scout. The good news is that it is the kind of preparing Mark and John and Isaiah are talking about. It is the kind of preparing for Christmas that discovers on Boxing Day that the best present you unwrapped was you. It is the kind of preparing that discovers that you are a gift that keeps on giving. It is a pretty moving gift. It is why I interrupted writing this sermon to keep a very important part of my Christmas preparation ritual by watching Jimmy Stewart in It's a Wonderful Life. It reminds us that we are the gift that we and the world are awaiting. It is each of us for whom we need to fill the valleys and level the mountains and make straight the motorway. For we are the ones who will make all the difference. It is our birth the world awaits and it is to us Jimmy Stewart and our family and friends will all sing Auld Lang Syne in the New Year.
I don't think books contain wisdom. At best they are spurs, reminders, and prods. Wisdom, as distinct from knowledge, is found when words strike against experience, creating a spark of life.
The Commander of the Occupation troops said to the Mayor of the mountain village: “We are certain you are hiding a traitor in your village. Unless you give her up to us, we shall harass you and your people by every means in our power.”
The village was indeed hiding a woman who seemed good and innocent and was loved by all. But what could the Mayor do now that the welfare of the whole village was threatened. Days of discussion in the Village Council led to no conclusion. So the Mayor took the matter up with the village priest. They spent the whole night searching the Scriptures and finally found a text that said, “It is better that one die and the nation be saved.”
So the Mayor handed the woman over. She was tortured and killed.
Twenty years later a prophet passed by that village, went up to the Mayor and said, “Why did you do it? That woman was appointed by God to be the saviour of this country.”
“What could I do?” pleaded the Mayor. “The priest and I looked at the Scriptures and acted accordingly.”
“That was your mistake,” said the prophet. “You looked at the Scriptures. You should have looked into her eyes.” [i]
Wisdom isn't contained in holy books. A wise person looks into the eyes of the other, and into their own heart. Then on the basis of compassion they act. There is also usually a cost involved.
I experience old libraries as comforting places. They surround the pilgrim with the mystique of the past and the illusion of wisdom. With a hospitable Chesterfield they invite one to pause, read a little, and remember all who have wandered these shelves before. They are similar in this respect to many churches. Majestic old buildings, decorations and ideas, dressed in the grandeur of the past, yet now collecting dust, the habitation of a faithful remnant, valued by society more for their cover than their substance.
Churches have long pretended to be repositories of wisdom. They have pretended to be dispensers of the truth, when really they have been concerned to control. They have tried to contain God, restrain their parishioners, and to train outsiders. I don't think it was dissimilar in Jesus' day. He once told a story about how the treasure called wisdom increases when it is opened and used, rather than protected and hoarded.
The story began with a ruler giving one servant five chests of booty, another two chests, and another one. Those who received five chests and two chests opened them, used the treasure, but remarkably it did not vanish but grew. However, the servant with one chest was afraid of opening it. He decided to bury it, and its contents never saw the light of day.
Despite what the proponents of capitalism might surmise, this story is about the treasure of the Torah, the holy book of wisdom. It was the task of Israel to protect and preserve the Torah and its commandments. By burying the treasure the servant denied wisdom a future. By burying the treasure the servant gave in to his fear.
The servant's actions were not unlike the Mayor's. Both were afraid, both wanted certainty, and both failed to understand the nature of wisdom. The holy words of the past, enshrined in volumes gold embossed on the spine, can be largely ornamental. These holy words are ancient holders of wisdom, but not wisdom itself. If the holy words of old fail to have any connection with the gutsy issues that gnaw at people's lives then they are simply dusty old books, the food of silverfish.
Wisdom invites us to look into the eyes of strangers, and into our own. Wisdom invites us to open ourselves and our treasure to others. It invites us to learn from the past but be courageous with the future.
The sombre sanitary season of Advent in our fair land is largely lost and gone forever. The tinsel has been up since mid-November and shops are already serenading us with carols. It's the season to be jolly, or so we are told. Trying to keep some liturgical integrity, to say nothing of sanity, some forward-thinking churches begin Advent in October trying to fit in a sober preparatory season before the Christmas rush. Such attempts, while well meaning, largely fail.
Let's face it; the end of the year is a frantic rush. At work we are rushing to meet deadlines, financial and other, before the holidays. There's usually a party or two thrown in. If you have children it's a busy time of end-of-year concerts, prize-givings, and school holidays starting when no one else is holidaying. At home we are deciding the where's, and what's, and who's of Christmas. Advent-tide has meant staying up late to finish things, worrying about money and how much to spend, trying to find time to join the shopping madness, and thinking about who and which relatives, if any, to spend Christmas with. For some all this is a frenetic yet joyful task. For others it is a rigorous ordeal.
In times past it wasn't like this. Advent was a penitential time. The readings would remind us that the apocalyptic end was nigh, that judgement was coming, and that one needed to get one's life and the life of one's community in order. It was as if big fierce Mama had been away for a month and was returning home to her brood of teenagers who had been rather messy and intemperate during her absence. “Quick guys, sober up, get the beer out of the fridge, clean the dishes, vacuum, scrub, aerate, above all aerate!”
In Advent in times past people would come to confession. They would remember their sins, their shortcomings, ask God's forgiveness, and undertake acts of penance. It was in order to gain, or re-gain, a spiritual cleanliness before the Feast of Christmas. The Feast of Christmas being not about presents and food and family but about, above all, the incarnation of the holy God in our midst. People spiritually cleaned up their act in order to meet in a spiritual sense the holy child of God.
Sin, particularly in Progressive Churches like ours, isn't fashionable. It is a loaded word that implies that people are born bad, become worse, and need the forgiveness even if they are living decent lives. It is a word that has been used by the Church to prop up a system where God is holy and therefore unapproachable, we are sinful and therefore can't approach God, and only the Church and its understanding of Jesus' death can guarantee us access. It is a system that alienated people from God and bolstered the Church's power.
Some of us have tried to re-fashion sin. Instead of individual failings we talked about corporate greed, foreign policy that serves the rich and uses the military for their capital gains, the misuse, nay abuse, of our environment, and the refusal to address the causes of poverty. We talked too about the sins of omission as well as the sins of commission – things we didn't do when we should have, not just what we did do when we shouldn't have. But the stain of the sin word continued and in our society it has irredeemably become a word that Church uses to condemn people it disapproves of. It is so loaded with presumptions, laced with guilt inducement, and likely to support I-know-better-than-you attitudes; that I rarely use it. The word communicates disempowerment not empowerment.
The heart of Christmas is love - in the great words of Christina Rossetti: 'Love came down at Christmas time'. That love, that unique Christian definition of love, was writ large in the baby Jesus. He was born to unmarried, and therefore to 'sinful', parents. He was born into poverty, vulnerable, a refugee, homeless, and pursued by a tyrannical killer. At the heart of Christmas everything is in reverse: the mighty one is weak, the holy one is born out of wedlock, the wealthy one is poor, and the sovereign one is a scantily clothed babe. At Christmas our understandings of God and love and holiness are turned upside down.
How then do we prepare our selves, our homes, and our communities to receive and be receptive to this manifestation of God at Christmas? How do we clean up our lives and make room this Advent for the weak, sinful, poor one who is the incarnation of God?
Here's one recipe, not always guaranteed, but sure to get a rise: When the world around is running fast, stop. Then look and listen. 'Stop, look, and listen' is a child's safety code for crossing a busy road. If you don't want to be spiritually run over at Christmas you may want to put time aside in the midst of your day to stop, breathe deeply, look at the world with a sense of thanksgiving, and listen to your own soul. Imagine a road sign: “ 'Slow down: incarnation ahead”.
Secondly, when the world is telling you to buy, and buy more, think about giving more and getting less. Over-consumption is a disease. Not dissimilar to other addictions. It's though for most not a disease of the bank balance but a disease of the soul. Watch fewer commercials, and less TV, this Advent. Put signs on your letterbox asking that advertising be directed elsewhere. Send a picture of a beautiful Christmas hamper to all your family telling them it would only cost $20 each. Then tell them we're giving the money for this hamper to the City Mission. Yes, the Mission needs money, but more importantly for your own spiritual well-being you need to give.
If you are hosting a Christmas meal in your home think of one non-family member you would like to invite. Then invite him, her, or them. Again this is not about being charitable to someone else, this is about soul survival. When Christmas is reduced to an in-house party it is in danger of ceasing to be the Mass of Christ at all. The stranger or visitor at the table is as traditional to Christmas as lamb and pavlova, and spiritually much more essential.
What I would ideally have liked on St Matthew's tower this Advent was not a Santa climbing it, like on the old Victoria Park furnace, but King Kong. The caption would read, “Guess who's coming for Christmas?” Kong not only represents that which we fear in nature, others and ourselves [the untameable subconscious and all that], but he also represents the holiness of modern creativity. At the St Matthew's table of edgy church and exploratory theology we welcome the creativity of our society, the sacredness of the imagination, and want to party together. There was no secular/sacred division at the first Christmas and there still isn't – save only in religious places which want to keep others out and stay safe.
Lastly, let's prepare for Christmas by thinking political. The arrival of Jesus was a political act. King's don't go and slaughter countless numbers of babies for the hell of it. Jesus was a political threat. The message of peace that the angels sang was making a mockery of Caesar's pretensions. Caesars always use words like 'peace' and 'freedom' when they are invading others' lands, stealing their resources, and killing their citizens. Just listen to how George Bush pollutes our vocabulary. If you believe in the peace of Christ it will lead you into conflict with those who profit from war, poverty, and the suppression of non-aligned independence. When we cease to think politically and reduce our world to the parameters of our own vision, then we spiritually shrink. Our concerns might become God's concerns but God's concerns don't become ours. We cut ourselves off from the bigger vision of God.
So choose an issue this Advent: like America 's unquenchable thirst for Iraqi oil, dreaming democracy in Burma, or the circus that keeps Tibet caged. Search out two or three good articles on the subject and read them. Then tell me what the issue and articles are so I can recommend them to others. Advent should bring us to our senses. 'Stop', it signals. 'Look both ways before crossing'. Don't be lured by tinsel and piped music into soulless consumerism. Think about giving and hospitality as spiritual exercises. Read some politics rather than Ezibuy catalogues.
There is a saying that the two most important days of our lives are the day we were born and the day we know why. Advent invites us to ask why.
In the Anglican Prayer Book the phrase “We shall all be one in Christ” is re-expressed as “Ko te Karaiti te pou herenga waka.” The Maori text describes Christ as the one mooring post to which many canoes are tied. It is a rich image that pictures unity not as being assimilated into an undifferentiated 'one' but rather as a place where each person, or culture, can rest and meet, with a secure mooring, before and after setting out on whatever voyage they are endeavouring.
One of the traditional marks of the church is catholicity. By that we don't mean that the church is trying to build a huge uniform, everyone-think-the-same global culture. Rather the opposite. As Archbishop Rowan Williams recently said, “Catholic is about wholeness, about the wholeness of the person, the wholeness of local culture and language, therefore it's not simply opening the same fast-food shop in every village on the globe, and it's not like the global economy, in which people are drawn into somebody's story and somebody's interests which in fact makes others poor and excluded.” Catholicity recognizes the importance and integrity of each canoe tied to the mooring post.
Many years ago I mediated a dispute between an English speaking congregation and a Tongan one. Both used the same buildings. The English speaking groups, who were largely elderly, had different cleaning standards from the Tongan group and felt that they were being used. They were also afraid that the Tongan group, being younger and more numerous would take over the church. The Tongan group felt that they were being treated as second-class citizens in what they considered was equally their church. Finally the Tongans decided to buy another church down the road. The English-speaking congregation, by providing a worship home for the Tongan group for many years at minimal cost, contributed to the new building. While some might see this outcome as a failure of Christians to get along with each other and share a common resource, both groups prospered in the outcome, with morale and numbers growing. Both groups needed the security of a place of their own. However, without the friction of sharing a building the motivation to carry on a relationship with each other evaporated.
Cultural interaction can be likened to a rose bed: beautiful, full of possibilities, and prickly. When cultures meet together there is the potential for the dawning of new ideas, relationships and vision. There is also the potential for misunderstanding, mistrust and power games.
My story of the two congregations is not dissimilar to the story of the Anglican Church in Aotearoa New Zealand. The first Anglican Church was Te Hahi Mihinare, the missionary church, made up almost entirely of Maori members and speaking te reo Maori. When Marsden arrived in 1814, bringing the first CMS missionaries, he already knew something of the language having been schooled in Australia and welcomed in this country by Ruatara, a Nga Puhi leader. While we may be familiar with the names and deeds of Henry and William Williams, Thomas Kendel, James Kemp, Robert Maunsell and others, there were also a number of Maori missionaries including Piripi Taumata-a-kura, Nopera Pana-kareao, Wiremu Nera Ngatai, and others. Both Maori and the CMS, while not always attuned to each other, worked hard for the establishment of this church. By 1845 it was estimated that out of a total population of 110,000 Maori, 42,000 regularly attended Anglican services.
After 1840 Te Hahi Mihinare was to find itself increasingly in competition with the second Anglican Church in this land, the Settler Church, with its different constituency, order and language. An emerging ordered English colony wanted urgently an ordered English church. Enter George Augustus Selwyn. With his prodigious energy he pioneered the establishment of church institutions in the colonial environment. The Settler Church grew and flourished. Selwyn created an ecclesiastical and management structure based on how he thought the Church in England should be, and more suited to this colony's needs. In 1857 at St. Stephen's Chapel in Judges Bay that structure was enshrined in a constitution that lasted until 1992. Not one Maori signature was on that first constitution.
Selwyn's relationship with the Maori Church changed over the 27 years of his episcopacy. Initially Maori respected him for his willingness to learn the language and travel great distances. Selwyn worked hard at trying to blend the churches together. However, with civil war in the 1860s, Selwyn's relationship with Maori Anglicans radically changed. Selwyn was seen as a bishop who sided with the Pakeha.
In 1877 the Revd Thomas S. Grace, one of my predecessors at Epsom, wrote to the CMS: “We may come to the conclusion that the Natives, as a body, if they survive will never again submit to us as they have done! Even the Native Clergy who may appear, and are very submissive owing to our holding the purse strings, are beginning to feel they ought to be treated differently. I heard lately of one who, with reference to attending the English Synod, said, “What is the use of going there to stand like a post?”… Maori have minds and tongues of their own; to have expected the native to be present at a Synod where only English is spoken was an affront, and clearly this man felt it to be so.”
Thomas espoused the views, unpopular among the Pakeha community, of Maori economic independence, opposition to the sale of Maori land, and the appointment of a Maori bishop (and the congregation at Epsom grew from 10 to 60 during his brief charge!). The appointment of a Maori bishop, and thereby recognizing the mana, status, and episcopal autonomy of the Maori Church, was struggled for over the next century. Bishop F. A. Bennett was consecrated in 1928 but as an assistant to the Bishop of Waiapu. It was not until 1986 that Te Hahi Mihinare [by now renamed Te Pihopatanga o Aotearoa] had a bishop who was able to minister among Maori without first having to gain permission from the local Settler Church [or diocesan] bishop.
In the years leading up to the revised 1992 constitution attempts were made to understand this history of two canoes within the one Anglican Church. Understanding was a necessary first step in developing a constitutional arrangement that gave both Te Pihopatanga o Aotearoa and the seven dioceses of the Church of the Province of New Zealand, the recognition of their own place and belonging, proper authority to provide for ministry, and a joint collective structure that expressed their unity. A strong spirit of aroha drove this process and defined what we mean by partnership.
Both canoes, moored to Christ, can now share their gifts with each other. Language is one such gift. The Anglican Church in this land has two primary languages, English and Maori. Both are for the purpose of enriching our faith and worship. Each culture is invited to use the wealth of the other's language in worship. Financial resources are another gift, which we are slowly learning to share. As a precursor to sharing we need to continue to find ways to meet and listen to each other. Places where we can tie up together for a while.
Some would like to change the canoe metaphor and put us both in the same boat. That hasn't worked so well for Maori in the past. To be inclusive, to be Christian, to value catholicity, does not mean we all have to be the same or have the same structures of governance.
I like the canoe metaphor because it infers we are still on a journey. We will leave the comfort of this mooring and set off again, sometimes separately sometimes together, until we come to a new place and a new mooring post, which again will be a Christ mooring.
Ordinary Sunday 32 2 Thess 2:1-5 Luke 20:27-38 Mark 10:13-16
Blessings. One of the things priests do is bless. It's probably the most important thing we do. And it's probably one of the least understood.
Let's begin at the beginning: God is love. Always was. Always will be. God loves us. Always has. Always will. There is nothing we can do to change that love. No matter how naughty, wicked, or depraved we are God loves us. It is unconditional. Another way of saying this is that God has blessed us, and keeps on wanting to do so.
This is the paramount truth of our Christian existence, celebrated at baptism. The call, or challenge, of baptism is to live into that blessing of love and imitate it in our own lives. "Become what we are" as the Anglican theologian F.D. Maurice once said.
When a priest says a blessing upon a congregation, on a couple, or a baby there is no spooky, magical stuff involved. The priest is simply declaring what is, namely the love of God. The priest is publicly stating, and the gathered community is concurring, that God loves each and every one of us.
There is a story in the gospels of the disciples trying to prevent adults bringing children to Jesus [Mark 10:13-16]. Jesus rebuked the disciples, then took up the children, laid his hands on them, and blessed them. We need to remember that in the 1st century children had no rights. A child was a nobody, a non-person in the Mediterranean world, unless the father on the family accepted it. If the father didn't accept the child it was dumped, condemned to slavery or worse. By touching these children Jesus, in a parental role, was designating them for acceptance.
Jesus wasn't blessing the children because they were cute, or because they were innocent, or trusting, or showed potential. Jesus blessed them to declare that God unconditionally accepted them. It was a radical move in a society where people were categorized and condemned. Jesus proclaimed that God's love was for the powerless, as much as it was for the powerful.
To bless or not to bless is therefore on one level not a moral decision. Jesus was not making a comment on the morality of children. Just as by dining with tax collectors and sinners he was not making a comment about their morality. He was rather making a comment about God's morality. God loved them. Once that love had been experienced they were then free to respond however they chose.
"Hey, Glynn, what about a murderer? Should a priest bless a murderer?" My answer is simply "Yes." The priest is not making a statement about the person's morality. The priest is simply declaring God's love, and that God wants the very best for him or her. Of course offering a blessing in some situations is not easy. And I can think of one or two times in my own experience. Yet we do it. In season and out, we proclaim the love of God.
"What about buildings?" you might ask. "Is the priest saying that God loves buildings?" My answer is that the essence of the blessing is the same - God's love for us extends into the environments we live and work in.
There is, at this present time, an Anglican international fuss about blessings. The Diocese of New Westminster, Vancouver, after much debate, authorized a public Rite for the blessing of same sex unions. Conservatives have roundly criticized this. The recent Windsor Report, commissioned by the Archbishop of Canterbury, criticizes the lack of international consultation prior to the decision to proceed. I hope the fuss is centred more on the public Rite than on the blessing. The public Rite could, if you have a conservative imagination, be mistaken for marriage. And marriage, in both the laws of state and church, is exclusively heterosexual.
The blessing, however, is a different matter. Any couple, gay or straight, saintly, sinful or somewhere in between, should be able to come to a priest for a blessing. The priest is not judging the morality of the couple. The priest is declaring the unconditional love of God.
I would consider it a violation of my ordination vows not to bless someone who asks for it.
Five Courageous Women and the Miracle of 'Godness'
October 30, 2005
Ordinary Sunday 31 Ex 1:8-2:10 Rom 12:1-8 Matt 16:13-20
Some outcomes are so wonderful it seems they have a touch of godness about them. Take the story of baby Moses. Condemned at birth to be killed. Hidden in the house for the first three months. Then, under the watchful eye of his sister, placed in a basket among the bulrushes. Pharaoh's daughter chances to see the baby, has pity, takes and names the child as her son.
Thank God! A baby has been saved from death. That's always a miracle in my book. Yet while I can say 'Thank God' and call it a miracle I am hesitant to say, "God saved Moses". For such a statement raises the question, 'Why didn't God save the other Hebrew babies slaughtered by the repressive regime? Has God got favourites? Is God therefore unjust?'
There is a difference between saying 'God willed it, a miracle happened!' and saying 'Moses survived, so miraculously, God was surely in it'. The former has God as a heavenly C.E.O. apportioning miracles in order to fit with a grand strategic plan. The latter has God as a synergy, a spark that emerges when humans endeavor to protect and provide for those who are vulnerable. The former has an anthropomorphic God in control. The latter has an empowering spirit God who works through and beyond us.
To say that God saved Moses can also detract our attention away from the courageous feats of five women:
Shiphrah and Puah were Hebrew midwives. On the one hand they were slaves, part of the Hebraic minority oppressed by their Egyptian masters. On the other hand they were health professionals who were personally instructed by the Pharaoh and personally disobeyed him. Pharaoh wanted them to murder the male babies. Shiphrah and Puah, however, believed in God and refused. The penalty for refusing would have been death. When summoned by Pharaoh, they lied: "The Hebrew women are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes." It is doubtful that Pharaoh believed them. Instead he circumvented them in order to carry out his murderous intent.
I think those who work in the health sector need to remember the ethics and courageous leadership of Shiphrah and Puah. They are the only women in the Book of Exodus to act in an overtly political sphere. They are the first to assist in the birth of the Israelite nation, the liberated people of Yahweh their God. Shiphrah and Puah understood that God's priority, and the priority of their profession, to save life was a higher priority than the dictates of Pharaoh, or the Egyptian Metropolitan Area Health Board. Loyalty to management is secondary to loyalty to those within your care. Also, in this story we have two women who were prepared to face the Pharaoh and lie to him. Honesty is sometimes not the best policy. The ethic of preventing the death of children has a higher priority.
We are next introduced to two nameless women: Moses' mother, whom we know from other texts to be Jochebed [Ex. 6:20], and his sister, whom we know to be Miriam [Num. 26:59]. Bravery is again to the fore. After his birth Jochebed hides Moses in her house for three months. Think of the fears - that every little cry will be alerting someone, that every neighbour or stranger may betray them, … Then, in time, the family considers another option: place baby Moses in a basket, down by the riverside [ironically fulfilling Pharaoh's requirements that babies be thrown in the river!!]. There Miriam stayed and watched over her brother. Note the bravery of Miriam when the Egyptian Princess finds Moses: coming forward, rather than scuttling off, and bravely offering a wet nurse [that is her mother] for the babe. The Princess could have easily have had the baby thrown into the deep. It would also have been easy to surmise [or see!] the connection between Moses and Miriam, and deal with Miriam as one would with a lawbreaker. Instead Miriam's bravery enables Jochebed to carry on feeding, bonding with, and enjoying her infant son, until such time as he was admitted to the palatial environs.
Lastly there is the bravery of the unnamed Princess: Walking along and finding the baby. Realizing that he is one of the immigrants that her father despises. Knowing that her father has asked every Egyptian to throw these babies to their death. Feeling her heart moved to pity and daring to act on the basis of that feeling.
The stunning part though, the part that alerts us here we have a princess worthy of that title, is her claiming and naming Moses as her son. To save the baby's life she could have taken him as a slave. That would have been enough to get daddy's attention! If she liked Moses she could even have had him castrated and elevated to the status of a royal eunuch. Yet instead she takes this outcast, immigrant child, of the race her father detests, and invites him into the royal inner sanctum as her son.
Biblical commentators often compare birth stories in different traditions. The closest parallel is the birth of Sargon of Akkad, founder of the Assyrian empire, whose mother bore him in secret, and set him in a basket of rushes, sealing the lid with bitumen. A certain Akki lifted him out and reared him as his own son. The strikingly difference is the role of the five courageous women in the Moses saga, compared with the absence of women [save his mother] in the Sargon account.
Theologically speaking we could say that the enlivening, hopeful Spirit called God was incarnated, manifested, in this story of Moses in the bulrushes, in the solid and confrontational ethics of the midwives, in the love of his mother, the solution engendering bravery of his sister, and the daring inclusivity of his adoptive mother. This Spirit was part of the spirit of these women, whether they were part of God's so-called 'chosen people' or not. ['Chosen people' is always a dubious accolade as it implies some are 'unchosen.'] This Spirit works from below, in partnership with the brave, in contrast to the kingly God who orders from above and oversees it happening.
A God in control, the heavenly C.E.O. or even a more modest loving, nurturing 'daddy up above' is problematic. Simply put, how can an all-loving, all-powerful deity allow those little Hebrew baby boys to drown? Explanations like freewill, the power of evil, etcetera, just don't wash. We know they don't. We put the problem in the 'too hard' basket. When some hyped-up preacher rolls into town proclaiming a God of miracles, judgment, and salvation we politely distance ourselves. We know what we don't believe, even if we aren't sure what we do believe.
Yet, although problematic, there is something persistent about a God in control. We want to believe that there is some order, despite the disorder all around; there is some security, despite the multiple insecurities; and some powerful love, despite the absence of it. God as enlivening Spirit doesn't seem to have the same muscle when fronting up to the Pharaohs of this world. The biblical narrative though disagrees. 'Don't be fooled by Pharaoh', it says. 'The power of five can topple the intentions of the Mighty Muscle'. But it takes faith. Faith in the little things, the little sparks, rather than the big power show.
A chap said to me the other week, "If God wants it to happen, God will have to make it happen." He'd given his best, in the face of significant odds, and it didn't happen. Sometimes I hear the Romans 8:28 quoted: "Everything works together for the good" - a first century rendition of "always look on the bright side of life." It's one of those wonderfully hopeful verses.
Yet you know and I know people whose lives consist of one tragedy dumped on another. The gurus of 'get-ahead' say it's all about attitude, re-arranging your thoughts, and running for gold. There is some truth in that of course, but it's not the full story. It's hard to win any race when you're little, racially discarded, floating on a river of death.
These hopes of God helping it to happen, of things working for the good, can be understood as a primal, positivist, life urge. Something like physis - that 'whatever' in plants that keeps them seeking the light, not matter how many big trees are blocking the way. That urge in humans that wants to embrace life, and feel life embracing us. That urge that helps a rejected people, and women of heart, strive to save at least one baby.
The Church has taken, adopted, and named this life urge, attaching God's imprimatur to it. And, maybe, rightly so. For can't the ordinary be extraordinary, the chance happening be holy? Can't grace break into the mundane? Godness pervades our lives and surprises us. It is transformative. It often takes us, working collaboratively with spirit to make it happen. It is miracle bubbling from below.
Oh, we try to make love much more expansive and attractive. Love, from our experience we say, is losing and winning. It is heartache and pleasure. Love is sleepless nights and shattered dreams, yet also commitment and deep contentment. There are huge rewards in love. This is indeed the experience of many.
Yet when the Bible says out of all the 613 commandments there are only two upon which everything hangs, and those two both use the word 'love', we need to ask what is being talked about. To “Love the Lord your God with all your heart… and to love your neighbour as yourself,” begs the question: what is the love being talked about?
The second part about loving your neighbour is spelt out in practical detail in Leviticus 19. Don't render unjust judgements. Don't be partial to the poor or defer to the great. Don't slander or hate him or her. Don't take revenge or bear a grudge. It's a potage of prohibitions. Winning isn't mentioned.
The Christian Scriptures in answer to the loving neighbour question relate the saga of the Good Samaritan. Loving neighbour means going out of your way, at considerable cost, to look after his/her needs. Apart from incurring God's favour, and what that might practically be is anyone's guess; the helpful Samaritan doesn't win anything. There is no payback.
As for loving God, the dividends are even more elusive. Think of the heroes and heroines of the Bible. Did Abraham and Sarah lead happy, contented, love-filled lives? Did Moses or the prophets? Did Mary, Jesus, and the disciples? Does loving God mean you'll be happy, or happier? Does it mean you'll be rich, or richer? Does it mean you'll be powerful or more powerful? Does it mean you'll be one of life's winners? I doubt it. Loving God has more to do with losing.
There's a line of J.K. Baxter's from the Jerusalem Daybook that reads: 'The God they imagine, and pray to very often in churches, is a God of sugar compared to the terrible One who grips our living entrails, who drives both good and evil from our souls, as if both were enemies…' [i] There is a truth in Baxter's prose: the cost of engaging with God is not easy, or pleasant, or repaid. If you commit yourself to following God in order to win in life you will be disappointed. To love God is to lose.
Using the word 'love' in relation to God is a little weird. What does it mean to love God? Is this a friendship; or a love affair? Yet reciprocity and mutuality are not part of the God-human relationship. If loving God means unswerving allegiance and devotion, we need to ask is this love or just infatuation?
No, the word 'love' in relation to God needs a whole different way of being understood. Although there are many false prophets around who will tell you about all the marvellous benefits that can be accrued if you sign up to God Corp., my experience, and the experience of the Biblical authors, is that more often loving God is about losing. It is about letting go of pride, possessions, hopes, fears, and dreams.
At this point I want to tell you a story. I'm not going to explain it. When the story is finished so is the sermon. It encapsulates for me what love in relation to God might mean, and where the neighbour fits into that. Primarily it is about losing.
Once upon a time there was a great man who had many followers. They came from all over to listen and to learn wisdom, leadership, and service. At the end of their training with him the great man would send them out into the world to share their knowledge and learning. Just before they left, he would give each of them a gift - some secret, special words of tremendous power.
The great man told his followers that these special words would bring blessing into their lives. The powerful words would give them insight and clarity. The powerful words would keep them from despair and give them hope - even in the midst of hopelessness. The powerful words would strengthen their faith in God and give them everlasting life.
The followers were grateful and humbled by the gift. But then the great man always warned them never to share these powerful words with anyone else - they were for them alone, those who had completed the training. And so for years and years followers completed their training, were given the special words, and went out into the world to share their wisdom.
One day a young woman came to the great man, ready to go into the world. She, too, was taught the special words and was humbled by the enormity of the gift that she was given. When the great man warned her to share the powerful words with no one, however, she asked why.
The great man looked long and hard at her. “If you share these words with others, then what it was to do for you will be handed over to them. And you will live in darkness even when light is all around you. You will know only despair and misery of body and soul. You will stumble over the truth and be confused endlessly. Worst of all you will lose your faith in God. You will be damned forever.”
The young woman turned white and shook visibly and nodded, then left the great man's presence. But she was troubled in spirit. Finally she decided what she had to do. She went to the nearest large city and gathered a multitude of people about her, teaching and enthralling them with her stories and wisdom. Then she taught them the special, powerful words. There was a hush, and people left whispering the words to themselves.
A number of the great man's followers were in the crowd, and they were horrified at the woman's actions. She had disobeyed the great man. She had betrayed the training institution and all it stood for. She had given away the powerful gift to the ignorant and uneducated. They immediately went back to the great man and told him what had happened. They asked him: “Are you going to punish her for what she has done?”
The great man looked at them sadly and said: “I do not have to. She will be punished terribly. She knew what her fate would be if she shared the special words with those outside of our institution. She will live in darkness and despair, without hope or knowledge of the truth. She will live isolate, alone, without comfort or faith in God. How could I possibly punish her? She knew what she was choosing.”
And with those words, the old man rose and gathered some belongings and began to walk away. “Where are you going?” one follower asked. And the great one looked at all of them sadly and spoke, “I am going to that young woman who gave away my gift of power.” “Why?” they chorused. “Because,” he said, “out of all my followers, she alone learned true wisdom and compassion. Now I go to follow her.”
And he left to follow the woman who walked now in darkness and despair, who had chosen wisdom and compassion over power. [ii]
In the early 1980s the then French Ambassador wrote to the Warden of St John's College, Meadowbank, complaining about the protest actions of certain staff and students. At Mururoa Atoll, Tahiti, the French Government was testing nuclear weapons, violating land, sea, and the health of the indigenous populace. A significant, and ultimately successful, international campaign was underway to stop it. The Church was a part of that campaign.
I remember the Ambassador's letter: “Render unto God what is God's,” he wrote, ”and to Caesar what is Caesar's.” He thought the Church should not meddle in politics, the realm of Caesar. It should keep out - out of Mururoa, out of French jurisdiction, and out of sight. The Ambassador did not want the Church condemning the actions of his State and challenging its power.
The Ambassador's interpretation of Matthew 22:21 is not original. It is one of those gagging texts used by both parliamentarians and other powerful personages when disapproving of religious political action.
Fellow Christians, when you are out marching on the streets, and you hear this verse been quoted against you, take heart. This is the way our forebears in action were criticised. Take heart – for when you hear this verse, you know you are doing something right!
To understand Matthew 22:15 ff we need some background information regarding taxation, coinage and pharisaic debate.
Taxation in the Second Temple Period [500 BCE - 70 CE] was excessive [i], and as is the nature of taxes, seemed to escalate as the period progressed. It is estimated that the sum of these taxes ate up between 40-59% of one's income. Civil taxation [ii] was a primary source of those tensions that fed the revolts in 70 and 132 CE. One of the most hated civil taxes was the poll tax: the annual tribute to Rome. Apart from considering the tax excessive, the tax was interpreted theologically as a form of idolatry.
It was this tax that Matthew 22:15 ff. is referring to. It was a hot issue. Josephus [iii] tells us that sometime, within approximately 25 years of the life of Jesus, more than 6,000 Pharisees were murdered because of their refusal to pay the poll- tax.
Coins were, and to some extent are still today, icons of authority. From approximately 100 BCE Roman coins carried the image [iv] of the Emperor, thus serving to inform the provinces who was in power. It was also the practise for the Emperor to be referred to as a god, and Emperor Worship was practised.
For the righteous Jew [and Christian], to stamp the world and all that is in it, even its currency, with the image of a ruler, or any other symbol which suggests that human power has a claim equal to or greater than God's, is to deface the image of God stamped upon creation, and actively to promote idolatry.
While the Pharisees disagreed among themselves over whether this idolatry was serious enough to justify martyrdom, they apparently did agree that for most of the religious community there was no choice. The only expedient option was to pay the tax so that they could continue to live, all the while focusing on the truth that life belongs only to God, and that the internal commitment of religious people should be to God alone.
The third piece of background information is the nature of Pharisaic scholarly debate. While this passage seems to paint a picture of Jesus being in opposition to the Pharisees, it is more likely that we are witnessing an in-house debate between people who were committed to very similar truths. The questioning by the Pharisees was to see where Jesus stood within the broad range of argument inside the Pharisaic movement itself concerning the tax.
Some of the English words used in the translation such as "trick" [v], and "hypocrite" [vi] are rather misleading. One only seeks rabbinical opinions from those already known to be committed to the rabbinical tradition. Recent scholarship has given us a much clearer picture of Jesus, a devout Jew, who was committed to many of the same understandings as his pharisaic peers.
Well, what was the issue and where did Jesus stand on it? V.17 simply reads "Is it permitted to pay taxes to the Emperor?" The implication of the question is really: "Are we permitted rabbinically to pay the poll-tax, since it implies allegiance to Rome."
Jesus begins his answer with a piece of gamesmanship, which characterized this very Jewish form of debate. He requests a coin and asks whose image it displays. There is an Aramaic word play here between "image" and "idol", making it clear that Jesus had every intention of reminding his listeners that the coinage of Tiberius Caesar was the currency of idolatry.
Then he tells them to render unto Caesar what is Caesar's. For those who can hear the level of meaning, what is due to Caesar is nothing. Out of prudence, the tax must be paid, for the way of God is the way of life, and not of death. But all that Caesar believes to be his is no more than Caesar's illusion. The faithful know that neither the idolatrous coins nor the oppressive government have any power or authority at all.
The critical question is what belongs to God? Or rather is there anything that doesn't belong to God? To a Jew or an early Christian there was only one world and it belonged wholly to God. There was only one ruler and that was God - everyone else was, at best, a servant of God. The state was only a dependent and provisional reality - answerable to God. Although Caesar may imagine that he owns this coinage, or this land, or anything... and we Jews, in order to stay alive pay lip service to this illusion of Caesar's... the truth is, as the scriptures have long proclaimed, that everything - every ruler, political system, community, individual... belongs to God and is accountable to God.
The meaning of this passage is therefore that followers of Jesus, while maintaining the appearance of compliant loyalty to the Roman authorities were to hold fast to a higher allegiance that recognised ultimately all earthly forms of government to be exploitative, idolatrous, and deluded.
Jesus, like many of his pharisaic contemporaries, is advocating covert civil disobedience, here taking the form of dramatic illusion: a coin with neither power nor authority is returned to a government with neither power nor authority. The public appearance of obedience is to be maintained only so that the faithful remain free to serve the true source of power and authority, God.
The challenge of this text for us today is to not be content with anything less than God's reign of justice and peace coming in our midst. Yes, at times we are to be ambiguous; at times we are to compromise; and at times we must keep our heads down. But this can never be at the cost of losing our vision and our belief in a changed world – a world that reflects the inclusive love of God.
I am indebted to Philip Culbertson 's A Word Fitly Spoken.
[i] Among the regular taxes mentioned in the sources are the head or capitation tax; the salt tax; the corvee ; the coronation or crown tax; the tax of one third of the grain produced in a field; the tax of one-half of the fruit of a tree; the estate tax; the revenues tax; the tax on movable property; the imperial gifts tax; the buying and selling tax; the crafts tax; the tax on dwellings in Jerusalem; the change of domain tax; the military defence tax; and numerous port duties, road and bridge tolls, not to mention fines and bribes.
[ii] The civil taxes are to be distinguished from the obligatory religious gifts and offerings. These obligatory gifts produced far less controversy within the Jewish community.
[iii] Refer to Josephus' Antiquities 17.32.
[iv] Deuteronomy 5:8 forbids the construction of any image, although there is of course debate regarding what this in fact means.
[v] What we have here is rather the sort of "trick" typical to rabbinic argument, that is, a clever learned argument in which equally matched opponents try to cause each other to falter in their logic. It was a way in which the "academics" of the period behaved with each other.
[vi] Hypocrite is not an adequate translation of the Greek hypokritai. The American Heritage Dictionary carries three possible meanings: a respected person, an impartial person, or a person who seeks simplistic answers.
On the occasion of the Golden Wedding Anniversary of the Reverend Jenny and Pat Blood
October 15, 2005
Life is like a clothes dryer: the tumbler variety that accepts all manner of apparel and tosses them around. I'll leave it to your imagination who or what might be the old socks, or bright knickers. In 50 years the clothes dryer of your life has seen a great variety of garments.
So, with apologies to the author of Ecclesiastes, I name the following:
There is a time for laughter, a time for sorrow, and the quiet joy that can flow through good times and bad.
There is a time for having children, having enough of children, having not enough of children, and a time for savouring the adults one's children have become.
There is a time for quiet, a time for noise, and a time for finding the peaceful places one needs.
There is a time for birth, and a time for death, and for supporting one another through both.
There is a time for God, a time for no God, for losing and finding God, for utterance and silence, holiness and wholeness.
There is a time for the mundane and a time for the unexpected, and a time for contentment with whatever life brings.
There is a time for money, a time for no money, and a time to give thanks for the wealth you have.
There is a time for doing little things and wanting to do big things; for doing big things and pining for little things; and a time for not to do but to be.
There is a time for starting and a time for starting again; a time for falling and not being afraid to fall; and a time for celebrating both.
There is a time to hold on to things, for letting go of things, and of holding and being held by everything and nothing.
There is a time for being young, a time for growing old, and a time for valuing the wisdom in both.
There is a time for patience, a time for haste, and a time to match the pace of your heart.
There is a time for companionship, for aloneness, and a time for family and friends who respect our need for both.
There is a time for bubbling love, a time when love is flat, and a time when committed love is the only thing that sustains us.
Love is the beginning and the end, the comfort and the challenge, and the joy and purpose of our life.
May your clothes dryer keep spinning with the energy and potency of that love.
Which God will you follow? The story of the Golden Calf
October 9, 2005
Ordinary Sunday 28 Exod 32:1-14 Matt 22:1-14
There was a small community, way out in the country, who finally managed to raise the money to build their own church. When it was finished two of the team made a two-hour trip to buy the paint for the exterior. When they were half way through the job they became concerned that they were going to run out of paint before they finished. As neither felt up to travelling such a long way to buy more paint, they decided the obvious thing to do was to thin it down with water. This worked, and they had just enough to finish the job. They were very happy, but as they stood back to admire their handiwork, a big black cloud appeared over the church. The rain poured down upon the church and left a streaky mess. As the men gazed at the church in horror a voice came from the heavens: “Re-paint and thin no more!”
The moral within this joke: the obvious thing is not always right.
The obvious thing to believe from this morning's Exodus reading is that the Israelite people messed up big time. They made an idol - a golden calf. They made it because Moses was taking his time. And they used the calf to worship “the Lord.” Then they had a feast. In other words they had grown tired of waiting for not only Moses but also Moses' God. You may recall that this God had appeared on Mt. Sinai with an electrifying light show. There was thunder, lightning, cloud, explosions and smoke [19:16-24]. Moses was summoned to the top of the mountain to meet with the volcanic One. Then Moses disappeared for some forty days and forty nights.
What do you do when God is truant? When God doesn't show? What do you do when you are sick and tired of waiting and want to get on with life? The people wanted to worship. They wanted to celebrate. They wanted to move on. So, being practical, they made a visual aid, the calf, to help them worship God's presence when God was absent. Sort of like a cardboard cutout of a police officer to remind us of our innate honesty.
In the book of Exodus however God isn't as benign as a New Zealand police officer. Rather God is a conglomerate of violent warrior, lawgiver who gets bound up with his own laws, and friend of Moses. In our reading, and indeed throughout most of Exodus, the violent warrior is to the fore. This is the God who drowned the Egyptian army. This is the God who “ethnically cleanses” the Hivites, Canaanites, and Hittites [23:27-33]. Unlike the Egyptians who supposedly enslaved the Hebrews, these peoples committed no crime, save being in the spot that the genocidal God wanted the Israelites to settle.  This is a God who also seems to like blood - buckets of it. And, surprise, surprise, this God hasn't much time for women [e.g. 19:15].
Well Warrior God and his mate, Moses, return from up the mountain and are not impressed with the bull. The One-with-the-temper wants to barbeque the Israelites on the spot. Moses tells him to cool it. Moses, however, is pretty steamed up himself. He gathers the sons of Levi, gears them into thug mode, and has them go back and forth through the camp killing brothers, friends, and neighbours. Three thousand are murdered. Moses applauds the Levites, not for helping identify the ringleaders of the calf controversy, but for their willingness to indiscriminately kill. However, while this is going on, Warrior God is feeling left out. So he comes sailing in with a bit of germ warfare to further afflict the corpse-strewn camp. The text doesn't tell us how many people died in the resulting plague.
For some the obvious thing about the gold calf is that the Israelites disobeyed God and were punished. For others of us the obvious thing is to ask some searching questions about the morality of this exterminator God. The golden calf was a response to the people's needs. I'm not saying it was right or wise. But it was understandable. Less understandable to my mind is a God who sees such a response as disobedient, disobedience as threat, and threat as meriting violent retribution.
My observation, without being too simplistic, is that those who worship a God concerned about disobedience and threat, and prone to retributive violence, are or become in time threatening, retributive, and violent themselves. Likewise those who have a God who is compassionate, loving, and tolerant of the variety of human response are, or become in time, compassionate, loving, and tolerant people. The Bible contains both Gods. We have the choice of which God we want to give allegiance to.
It is tempting to believe that the violent judgemental God lives in the Old Testament and the compassionate loving God in the New. But unfortunately it is not so simple. The truth is that both Hebrew and Christian scriptures contain both sorts of Gods.
In our Gospel reading, for example, Matthew serves us up a banquet God who has not totally lost the killer instinct. As Matthew tells it, the parable of the banquet involves a king [read God] who sends his servants [Jesus and followers] to invite guests [some of the chief priests and Pharisees] to a banquet. The guests all have excuses. Some even kill the servants. The king's response is to send in troops, kill the bad mannered ones, and burn their city [read the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E.]. Then the king extends his invitation to anyone who wants to come [read tax-collectors, sinners, gentiles...]. However, when all are assembled, one hapless fellow isn't dressed in the right apparel and gets short shift with the “weeping and gnashing of teeth” bit [read admission is no guarantee you'll stay]. The God in this story has no qualms about judging, killing - even using the heathen Romans to do the job - and expelling aspirants to the “outer darkness”.
The parable of the banquet is also found in the Gospel of Luke [14:16-24]. There, however, the emphasis is quite different. We have a king [read God] sending his slave [read Jesus] to invite guests [read chief priests and Pharisees] who all have excuses. So far so good. Fairly similar. But then Luke's text goes on to have the king tell the slave to invite in the “poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.” Once they are all in the slave is sent to invite whoever is still left out [read gentiles]. In other words all the killing and expelling bits are deleted, or rather never REPLACEed.
The God of Luke 14 is very different from the God of Matthew 22. This is a God of radical hospitality that does not worry about who doesn't take up the invitation – they are just left to their own devices. This is a God of radical hospitality that does not worry what the guests are wearing. This is a God who isn't interested in exercising power so people will know who's in charge, but rather is a God who is interested in giving away power so people will know they are loved.
One of our tasks today is to re-paint God. The violent, judgemental lawgiver has been exposed by the weather of time. It is true that this warrior God is in the Bible. It is also true in the Bible that this God has sinned against humanity. It is a dangerous God, hazardous and destructive. In a number of guises this God still wields power today – in the religious undergirding of militaristic US foreign policy, in the so-called 'family' morality of Destiny Church, in the violation of human rights by theocratic leaders…
If this were the only God the Bible contained we would have given up long ago. But it isn't. Right from the earliest days there has been people who believed differently. They were people who believed that God was far greater than our warlike projections. When a baby smiled they saw the smile of God. When a person reached out their hand to a stranger or enemy the pleasure of God erupted. When power was shared, when reconciliation was more valued than being right, when giving was preferable to getting, God was being incarnated in their midst.
This is the God our world needs to know. This is the God we need to paint boldly and proclaim in bright colours. This is the God we celebrate, and to whom we give our allegiance.
 How different this is from the Book of Genesis where a mixing of peoples is taken for granted. Even when the land of the Canaanite tribes, for example, is promised to Abraham and his family, the assumption is that they will receive it as they know it - i.e. with its inhabitants.
It wasn's quite a Katrina or a Rita, the damage it did wasn't as obvious, but last weekend's general election was a sort of hurricane. A week later we're still wondering what hit us and what kind of political community might be salvaged from the wreckage, once the special votes have been counted and the posturing of winners and losers is over. What did happen to us on September 17? Why did 30 years of educating the Pakeha people about the Treaty disappear into the ether? Why did the Epsom constituency suddenly develop a love for the underdog? What upset Winston Peters immortality in Tauranga? Will middle New Zealand see the Maori Party victory as a whim or a sea change? And who is middle New Zealand anyway?
In all the hundreds of hours of media coverage prior to the election there was very little to prepare us for this outcome. Most people are wandering around in a daze saying what on earth does this mean for our future?
This morning's gospel has something of that same dislocating mystery about it, starting with the abrupt way your patron saint is summoned to the job. There he is at work minding his own business and ripping off his clients as tax collectors do, in walks Jesus, follow me, is the word as terse as any Clint Eastwood movie, and up Matthew gets and follows.
If that's all you have to go on as a role model, you don't have much. So its just as well that churches like this one are skilled in filling in the gaps and writing your own script, because you don't get much help from your patron saint. That remains a background figure.
But there's more going on here than the written word allows. We're talking about an oral culture rich in complexity of language, laden with irony, word play and double, triple, quadruple meaning. You'd need a video of the dinner party at Matthew's house to get a glimpse of what was really going down in this extraordinary encounter with the Pharisees. Imagine what Matthew was thinking? He'd just signed up with the young rabbi from Nazareth and here were the religious leaders of the days slagging him off again, though not only him this time but his new teacher as well.
And the issue at the heart of this sharp edged exchange was community – God's community – who is entitled to belong, and who doesn't deserve to be included, who can stand proud and belong and who is on the sideline because that's where they deserve to be in God's eyes.
The arbiters of these questions, until Jesus came along, were the Pharisees. Don't knock them because they were good people, Jesus may have been a recruit himself for a while. They were the moral guardians of the day, not in any narrow sense but on matters of public policy as well. They were OSCH and ERO and Broadcasting Standards all rolled into one, they gave out the good housekeeping seals of approval. They policed the purity laws that sorted everyone out into the good, the bad and the ugly, morally speaking. The Pharisees kept the order and balance of society so everyone knew their place. First century Jewish culture survived by keeping everyone in their place.
And it worked if you were on the inside – one of the mainstream, well connected, healthy, properly married with a quiver full of children, religiously devout paying your dues, ready to accommodate the latest military rulers.
If you were righteous according to the law, and kept your head down, life was OK, despite everything – the Roman occupation, the rampant poverty and lawlessness in the countryside, the oppressive tax system, the breakdown of land tenure, the foreign ownership, the religious corruption of the Temple cult.
Jesus knew all that. He represented a prophetic tradition of Israel that the Pharisees respected but chose not to follow. They knew only too well it could create mayhem to the existing social order they promoted.
When Jesus talks about health and mercy and virtue, rather than sickness and sacrifice and sin, he's talking about who belongs in the mainstream. This is not a debate about who's misbehaved and who hasn't, certainly not about who's ill and who's well. This is a debate about identity – who belongs in the community of God's people, who's entitled to enjoy the favour of God, who is in and who's outside the circle of grace, who has a right to belong.
Jesus demonstrates his answers to those questions by who he chooses to eat with which in this society was almost as intimate as who you slept with. To share a meal was to share the most sensitive contact because it involved food and drink and utensils and physical touch and proximity. All the things that the purity laws and the kosher standards were designed to manage by separation and distance. Jesus broke all that by sitting down with tax collectors and sinners which could include a raft of possibilities – from foreigners to sick people to criminals, from people with physical disabilities, huge debts, victims of accidents and crime, religious heretics, political radicals, everyone in fact who didn't fit in, who wasn't mainstream. Jesus built his community from the overlooked, the ignored, the unwelcome and the dispossessed, cultural misfits, those who had fallen from grace and those who had never tasted it in the first place.
The Jesus community was counter cultural but never hidden away from the mainstream; always gathered in the middle of the mainstreet, in the house of a prominent tax collector, no less. This alternative dinner party took place with the front door open so the moral police could wander in freely and ask what on earth do you think you're doing mixing with this lot. What sort of a community do you think you could scratch up from this lot?
In our election campaign of not so blessed memory we were asking the same question. What sort of a community do we want to belong to in Aotearoa New Zealand? And some of the answers we were hearing were disturbing, especially as the election wore on and the bigger issues of foreign policy and poverty and health got smaller and the lolly scramble of favours for us got bigger. It would have been easier and cheaper for the parties to each offer a draw to their supporters – a new car and fly away holiday to every 500th voter.
But some of the answers being touted were scary:
A community built on Pakeha values with colour added, even though in 30 years Pakeha will be the minority culture in Aotearoa.
A community built on rising material wealth, the more the better.
A community that defines spiritual as a private feeling of something extraordinary, optional and a little odd rather than a public dimension of the ordinary, essential and everyday.
A community in which respect, dignity and the human essentials of life are not equally deserved but determined by some hierarchy of moral worth related to economic earning power.
A community where the debt you owe as a guardian to the natural world and to your neighbour can be postponed, even avoided for a while if it proves inconvenient to honour.
The coalitions that might emerge from election day could challenge the worst of these answers, worst in the sense of selfish, materialistic, greedy, myopic, reactive, racist, especially racist. There are some glimmers of promise ahead.
But the glimmers will only be sustained if the political community we build in Aotearoa is supported, critiqued and encouraged by smaller, diverse communities of faith like this one here. For a hundred years, St. Matthew's has been saying to the city that surrounds it, wait a minute Auckland and wait a minute New Zealand, there might be a better way, a more just and generous way of building community, a way that makes more room for people being left out, left behind, with nowhere to belong.
I'm always amazed by how many people know about St. Matthews, have met its people, heard its stories, checked out its website. And the more subversive the community here has been, the more people have heard about it. Subversive in the sense of this gospel reading, through creating a community of unconditional acceptance and hospitality, where difference, eccentricity, even contradiction, is not simply tolerated but relished and savoured, where there is room to ask the hardest questions even at times when there is no possible answer in sight.
I first joined this community in the early seventies and for seven years we belonged here and helped the gay and lesbian church assemble here, along with the weekly gathering of solo parents who drank sherry of all things, and an alternative kind of children's church, all sorts of music and drama and art events, plus an outrageous mixture of very conservative and very out there Anglicans who only co-existed at times by breathing deeply. We suffered some disasters and survived most of them.
But that experience of community has shaped my life for ever. I left thirty years ago but in another sense I never left. And it is this enduring power of community that ministry in this place has formed that we celebrate today. 100 years of it. Horribly uneven of course, but unbroken for all that, and enduring through worse elections than the one we've just seen, and worse prospects for justice and peace in Aotearoa.
But enduring because sometimes without knowing it clearly, we have tapped into the source of that subversive, indiscrimate love that Jesus models in our Gospel story and lets it seep into the St. Matthew's story, a love that cocks its snoot at hierarchy and laughs at moral superiority of any kind, a love that mainstreams those who have been sidelined and turns the measurement of worthiness upside down.
When you see that happening at St. Matthew's, you know that the next century in this place is in good hands.
Rt. Rev. John Bluck, Bishop of Waiapu and former Curate of St. Matthews
Ordinary Sunday 25 Exod 16:2-15 Phil 1:21-30 Matt 20:1-16
Mathematics is interesting. The answer to any equation is always dependent upon the number of components in the calculation. If the components are my family, my interests, and I, one type of answer will be arrived at. If, on the other hand, the components are the world, our vitality, and I another answer will be arrived at.
I grew up in Birkenhead. Over the road from our home was the bush. When the area was landscaped for roads and houses in the 1950s the gullies were largely left alone. There the native bush remained. It was a playground par excellence.
When I was young I took it all for granted. I took it for granted that koura [native crayfish] could be caught in the streams. I took it for granted that native birds serenaded our play. I took it for granted that I could run barefoot through the tracks.
Yet the prevalent form of mathematics in our society is my family, my interests, and I. So over the years people built new houses and sub-divided for more houses. Invariably inorganic waste went over the fence into the bush. Drainage, and occasionally not just storm-water, went into the bush. Trees that provided inconvenient shade were dealt to, usually at their base.
Not surprisingly the koura are no longer there. The native birds have been severely reduced due to feral cats. It is no longer safe to play in bare feet. Indeed it seems children seldom play there anymore.
At some point the good people of that neighbourhood, like they've done elsewhere, will do the maths differently and realize what they've lost. Then they might galvanise themselves into action and address the problem. Hopefully it won't be too late.
Unlike 30 years ago we can no longer pretend to be ignorant. We now know that what goes down the drain doesn't disappear. It turns up somewhere for someone or no one to deal with. We now know that we can't chop down any or every tree without impacting on the life of birds, animals and insects, or on a larger scale our climate. We now know we can't dump our storm water or sewage into the sea without it having an effect. We now know about polystyrene, global warming, the ozone layer, nuclear waste, extinct animal and bird species. There is a prayer about pollution by Michael Leunig that has the refrain: “God do not forgive us, for we now know precisely what we do.”
It's about mathematics. We need to factor into our equations the component of the health and well being of our earth. If our planet is our home we can't keep soiling the carpet without creating a stink. I tire of hearing small-minded politicians and other leaders that want to preserve our country as a little South Pacific paradise regardless of the rest of the planet. Their equations are too small, and too self-centred.
The gospel reading today is also about mathematics. Jesus told of a farmer who hired people to work his vineyards. Some clocked in at sunrise, some at morning teatime, some at lunchtime, some at afternoon teatime, and some an hour before finishing time. Everybody seemed content until the wages were given out. The stalwarts who had worked twelve hours under a blazing sun learned that the sweatless upstarts who had put in barely an hour would receive exactly the same pay. The boss's action contradicted everything known about employee motivation and fair compensation.
The farmer, a.k.a. the God figure, seemed to have made a big mistake. He got the arithmetic wrong. Or did he? Maybe the sum was different. Instead of asking what was fair for the individual, maybe God asked what was fair for all those dependent upon the workers. If you begin your enquiry into this parable with the need of the community to have its unemployed men engaged in work in order to support their dependents you might sympathise with the conclusion. Maybe this was the component that influenced God's mathematics.
Yet, when you bring the God factor into any equation you get anomalies. Think of that divine accolade 'infinite', and the mathematical sign for it! God's sums are very different from ours.
One of my favourites is the story in Luke  where a shepherd leaves his flock of ninety-nine to search for one lost sheep. A noble deed, to be sure, but reflect for a moment on the underlying arithmetic. The text says the shepherd left the ninety-nine “in the wilderness”, which presumably means vulnerable to rustlers, wolves, or a feral desire to bolt free. How would the shepherd feel if he returned with the one lost lamb slung across his shoulders to find twenty-three others now missing? Is this a story of care or neglect?
Or how about in John's Gospel , where a woman named Mary took 500 grams - worth a year's wages - of exotic perfume and poured it on Jesus' feet. Think of the wastefulness. Would not 10 grams of perfume have accomplished the same purpose? Even Judas could see the absurdity: the treasure now running in fragrant rivulets across the dirt floor could have been sold to help the poor. This is not an example of caring for the well being of the whole community!
What these biblical stories have in common is revised mathematics. They are not extolling casual work habits, or wayward wanderings, or wastefulness. Rather they are stories about the God whose calculations are bigger than ours, who values and loves each individual whilst carrying a vision of a planet community who care for one another and how we live.
In order to meet the challenges of caring for our planet, addressing the needs of all species, thwarting the greed of large seemingly unaccountable global companies, and undoing the destruction wrought by generations of in the past, we will needbetter maths. We will also need, alongside our calculator, an iron and passionate will.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, I greet you in the precious name of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is a great joy to be with you this morning. Thank you for your invitation to join you here at St Matthew's in the City.
For my sermon today I want to begin with some words from our Epistle reading: The gifts and calling of God are irrevocable. (Rom 11:29) The Good News version of the Bible puts it another way: "God does not change his mind about whom he chooses and blesses." This is Good News indeed!
It is Good News for us, and it is Good News for the world around us - yet it also brings with it a challenge to us to be part of that Good News to others. Our starting point is, as it should be, with the character of God. All our lives are lived in response to him: his Father love created us in the first place; the Son in his love died to redeem us from the power of sin and death; the Spirit breathes new life and holy love into us.
This is our God. He is faithful and true. His commitment to us is irrevocable. He does not change his mind. His gift to us is the promise of new life in Christ. His calling is the message of reconciliation. It is a call that goes out to all who are near, and all who are far off. It is the calling to be reconciled - to him, and in him, to each other.
This underlies all three of our readings today. They declare that our God crosses divide; breaks down barriers; and establishes new and lasting relationships. And he does so against the odds. Thus, in our first reading, we had Joseph reconciled to his brothers - to those who had, in selling him into slavery, effectively condemned him to death. Yet in all those years in Egypt, he had held fast to the Lord and known his blessings - and now he in turn was able to share that blessing with his brothers. He saw the irrevocable hand of God at work in all the twists and turns of his life story. So he was able to say to his brothers, 'God sent me ahead of you, to preserve life.' Even in expectation of death in captivity, Joseph had known that the Lord's call was irrevocable. That had given him courage to remain faithful to the Lord who was faithful to him.
Our epistle goes even further. In the face of what appears to be a breakdown of relations, the Lord does not just seek to restore. He also draws in those who had never properly heard the call in the first place. His faithfulness reaches far beyond what we can imagine. His faithfulness is demonstrated most fully as a result of the unfaithfulness of both Jew and Gentile.
Our gospel reading also contributes to our understanding of God as one who reaches across existing barriers. We must admit that this account of Jesus and the Canaanite woman sounds strange to our ears. Jesus seems to be stressing that Jews are like God's children whereas Gentiles are no better than dogs. It is the woman's persistence that wins the day in the face of his narrow attitude; her faith that God has a gift, a blessing, that he will not withhold from her sick daughter.
What is going on here? The first point is to note that Matthew records the incident to stress the importance of her faith, not as a commentary on relations between Jesus and Gentiles. Second, this Jesus who speaks of taking children's food and giving it to dogs has, in the previous chapter, fed the multitudes and provided twelve baskets of left-overs. In the verses that follow his meeting with this woman, he feeds another crowd, and seven more baskets are filled with overflowing surplus.
Here it is more than clear that nothing has to be taken from the children. Nor is it just scraps and crumbs that are there for everyone else who wants to be fed. No, for them there are overflowing baskets provided by the one who is the Bread of Life. The woman has faith. Her daughter is healed. The baskets overflow.
God's gifts and calling are irrevocable, and they are for everyone. God works beyond our categories. He breaks down barriers. His generosity overflows to all - to preserve life. The God who does not change his mind still does these things today. We are called to bear witness to this - in our words and in our lives.
Today, I am conscious of the role that St Matthew's has played in breaking down the barriers of social injustice - and especially in the struggle to end the divisions of apartheid. I want to pay tribute to you today - and to all the support we received from New Zealand during those dark years. I know it was not always easy. I particularly remember the challenge that came to this rugby loving nation when the Springboks toured. The nation was divided - not for or against apartheid - no, there was no question of where your political loyalties lay. But the pain of having to choose to boycott a rugby match! I appreciate how much it cost some of you to oppose that tour. And now, of course, we have the joy and of being able to play in freedom.
Last weekend I was at Newlands for the match between the Boks and the All Blacks - and the gift and the blessing were I am glad to say, on our side! Last evening however in the match between Australia and the All Blacks, the blessings were all with New Zealand! It was a blessing and a gift to be witness to both joyous events.
There are other areas of life where we must declare and work for the breaking down of barriers. One of these is poverty. In many ways, poverty is the new apartheid. It causes vast divisions between countries and within countries.
The statistics for global poverty are horrendous: Half the world's population live on less than two dollars a day; indeed, over 300 million people in sub-Saharan Africa live on less than one dollar a day. That includes 84.3% of all Ugandans, 69.9% of Nigerians, and 65% of the population of Sierra Leone. The number suffering extreme poverty in sub-Saharan Africa has actually risen by 72 million in the last ten years. Global hunger has been rising since the mid 1990s. Between 1999 and 2002 it increased by over 10 million people; now 852 million people face hunger every day.
Yet I am optimistic. In 2000 the international community adopted the Millennium Development Goals - the most comprehensive undertaking ever made to reduce absolute poverty and huger by half, by 2015. This year has also seen the Commission for Africa report, and a G8 summit that put Africa and poverty at the head of its agenda, along with the environment. Next month is the UN Special Millennium Summit, to review the MDGs. Progress is mixed - especially in Africa, which at the present rate is likely to miss every single target. But the will-power to do better is growing. In the week before the Summit, I am hosting a Consultation on Global Poverty among Christian leaders, which will issue a clarion call to world leaders to meet their commitments, and where necessary, do more. Then in December we have the World Trade Organisation's Doha Round - which is billed as having a focus on development.
Sometimes in the face of such overwhelming need, it is easy to feel powerless. But we need not be. Ever since the success of the Jubilee 2000 campaign to bring down debt, we have found that global public opinion can make a difference. There is nothing that moves politicians further and faster than knowing that their electorates demand change! So be encouraged, and continue to lend your support to these campaigns.
May I particularly draw your attention to the Micah Challenge, which aims to harness global Christian opinion in support of the MDGs. It takes its name from that famous verse: 'What does the Lord require of you? Only this: do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with our God' (Mic 6:8). You may know of the Challenge - I know that a national campaign is being launched in New Zealand. You can find out more on line, at http://www.micahchallenge.org.
Within the Church we must also live as those who have heard the call of a God who breaks down barriers and brings reconciliation in the face of division. This is a particular message that the Anglican Communion needs to hear at this time. I am not saying that the matters over which we disagree are not important. Though I would like to say that the real issue is not about the complex question of human sexuality, particularly in relation to gay and lesbian Christians. This has become the presenting issue. But, I am ashamed to say, they have been made a political football for other people.
The present row, particularly within the American Church, has deep roots that go back many years into disagreements over what might be seen as various forms of liberalism, but it now seems to draw its energy from fights over power, property and politics. This is the real field of this regrettable battle. It has nothing to do with gays and lesbians. It grieves my pastoral heart that those who have received such terrible treatment from the Church in the past, should once again find themselves scapegoats for others. This is why I am so outspoken against such discrimination. You can imagine that after the experience of apartheid, I am always dismayed by any attempt to discriminate on the basis of characteristics over which we have no control - whether race, colour, gender, sexual orientation - even IQ and attractiveness!
Now, I am not denying that human sexuality raises difficult theological, pastoral, even personal, questions. But I want to say that we must not allow the genuine wrestling with these matters to be hijacked by those with other agendas. I also want to declare that the way that we conduct our disagreement should far better reflect the nature of the God whom we claim to serve. He can break down the barriers that currently threaten us. We should not doubt or fear that these divisions are too great.
In South Africa we learnt what this meant, as we held together through the apartheid years. We had huge and terrible differences - over how to oppose apartheid; over sanctions; over whether Anglicans should be chaplains with the army that was illegally occupying and oppressing Anglican parishes elsewhere in our Province, in Namibia and Angola, and raiding others. Some of these were real life and death issues.
Yet we argued face to face - we were not afraid to recognise each other as brothers and sisters in Christ, members together of his body, united in him no matter what our differences. We were not afraid to kneel at the altar rail together; and to keep on arguing, yet praying all the time as we did so, that Jesus - the Way the Truth and the Life - would lead us into all truth.
His calling to each of us is irrevocable. It is not for us to choose who is or is not our brother or sister in the Lord.
So let us not be afraid when there is talk of division - but let us hold fast to the Lord who holds each one of us safe in his grasp; let us hold fast to one another; and let us celebrate his gifts and his blessings, and keep working to share them with his world, which he longs to reconcile to himself.
The Road to Reconciliation. The Story of Joseph and Judah
August 7, 2005
Ordinary Sunday 19 Gen 37:1-4, 12-28
Power does not bring peace. Peace comes with the willingness to forego one's own self-interests for the good of all. The Bible calls this wisdom. To be a peacemaker it is important to discern the difference between power and wisdom.
In those pre-Jungian days, when the Book of Genesis was compiled, dreams were powerful. They were sources of divine insight. The dreamer and, more importantly, the dreamer interpreter, had significant power. Yet there is a world of difference between having power and having wisdom.
Part of Joseph's problem was that he never seemed able to distinguish clearly between power and wisdom. Joseph was the first-born son of Jacob and Rachel, and the 11th born son of his father. He was his father's favourite. His father, Jacob, was indifferent to and neglected his other children. Joseph was also the recipient of dreams - dreams that had Joseph in the centre and his elder brothers bowing down to him. He broadcast and boasted of these dreams.
So began Joseph's journey to power. Joseph believed from the outset that he was born to greatness, and he continued throughout his life to assume that he was unquestionably the leading character in the scenario that unfolded around him and that he was directing events. The dreams would come to pass. The dreams were power. What Joseph did not have, and didn't realise he was missing, was wisdom. This point is totally absent from Lloyd-Weber's musical. The Technicolour Dream Coat is a rags to riches story. Joseph is a victim of jealousy, nearly murdered, and then, through the goodness of God and his own abilities he makes it to the top of the Egyptian power tree. At the top he tests his brothers, forgives them, and they all live happily ever after due to the magnificent, God-blessed, Joseph. Or so it seems.
While Joseph was journeying up the Egyptian pyramid of power, back in Israel another journey was underway, a journey towards wisdom. In chapter 38 of Genesis there is, suddenly, an interruption. A story, seemingly totally unrelated to Joseph, is REPLACEed. It tells of Tamar who is married to Judah's eldest son. The son dies and, as is the custom in order to protect Tamar's right to progeny, she marries the next born son. This son also dies. Judah as you can imagine is devastated. Of his three sons two are now dead. It seems as if Tamar is jinxed. So, instead of following the custom, protecting Tamar's rights, Judah refuses to let his third son marry her. Tamar is left on the outer.
But Tamar, in the great tradition of Hebrew women, doesn't take this lying down. When Judah is out walking, Tamar disguises herself as a prostitute, and offers him her services. As surety in lieu of payment Tamar keeps Judah's ring and staff. In time, Tamar conceives from her encounter with Judah and the proverbial hits the fan. Tamar has taken a frightening risk. Judah condemns her to death. In response she produces the ring and staff. Judah allows himself to perceive the truth. "She is more right than I," he admits, "since I did not give to her my [third-born] son." Judah humbly acknowledges that he is wrong.
While this is a story of a woman's courage, it is also an important part of Judah's journey - a journey that would take Judah from selfishness and ignorance to wisdom. He learned from Tamar that it is impossible to save what he loved by holding on to it, in defiance of what he knew to be right. To save what we love there are times when we need to let go. This truth is at the heart of reconciliation.
Meanwhile, over in Egypt, Joseph's journey to power continues. He uses his abilities. He is politically groomed in Potiphar's house. He has sound boundaries when it comes to sex. Although he spends some time in gaol, he goes to the top - becoming Pharaoh's 'right hand man'. But Joseph had buried rather than dealt with his animosity towards his brothers. He also had not overcome the arrogance of his youth. Joseph was an excellent C.E.O. with great talents and economic insight, yet in Biblical terms that didn't make him wise.
Then came the encounter with his brothers. Due to the famine they travelled to Egypt to seek help. They didn't' recognise Joseph and bowed down to him [thus fulfilling Joseph's egocentric childhood dreams]. Joseph is awash with the past. He remembers its pain and his anger arises: "You are spies!" he yells. Joseph has three concerns, none of which have to do with spying. Firstly, his past - he wants his brothers to feel remorse and repent for wronging him. Secondly, his brother Benjamin [Rachel's only other son] who is back in Canaan. Lastly, his father Jacob.
Joseph sets himself up as a kind of therapist. He metes out a bit of shock treatment - the brothers are thrown into jail for three days. And then one of them is kept captive while the others return to bring Benjamin back to Egypt. The therapy does seem to begin to work. "Alas we are paying the penalty for what we did to our brother [Joseph]," they cried. Joseph, in private, also cried. The therapy was working on him too.
The brothers return to Canaan where, surprise surprise, Jacob is not keen to lose his favourite Benjamin. So the brothers stay at home until the famine strikes again. Then Judah [note well!], who is not a favourite son or a firstborn [he is actually the fourth born], re-enters the picture. It is Judah who persuades Jacob to let them take Benjamin to Egypt. Judah had learned from his own experience that it is sometimes necessary to let go.
When Joseph sees Benjamin he is overcome with emotion. The pain and rage that had hardened during Joseph's 22 years in Egypt were beginning to melt. But he was not so transformed that he had lost all his old desire to dominate. Joseph engineered yet another test for his brothers, which ended with his threatening to keep Benjamin behind with him in Egypt - a loss that their father Jacob would be unable to sustain.
Finally, it was Judah, not Joseph, who brought about the reconciliation and final outcome. In an impassioned speech Judah accepted full responsibility for the crimes of his family. Twenty-two years earlier he had been ready to sell his brother into slavery. Now he was prepared to remain in Egypt as a slave to ensure that Benjamin was free. He offered his own freedom. He had learned what it was like to lose beloved sons; he had learned to empathize with his father, Jacob, and to forgive Jacob for the years of indifference and neglect. His own suffering had enabled him to enter the inner world of the father who had wronged him. Judah had also learned from Tamar that it is only when we admit we have been wrong that we can take full control of our lives and stop the ongoing cycle of violence, deception and reprisal.
Twenty-two years earlier Judah had stood silent as Jacob wept over the loss of his son Joseph. Now he could not endure the thought of his father going through that again. At last, after three generations one member of the family had learned compassion, and was prepared to give up his freedom for it. Joseph was profoundly moved by Judah's plea. He burst into tears. "I am Joseph," he told his astonished brethren. Suddenly Joseph understands the meaning of his life. A light bulb comes on in his head. He could forgive his brothers, he told them, because they had only been "God's tools". Had he not risen to power in Egypt the whole family would have died of hunger.
It's a great Lloyd-Weber finale: hugs, tears, and kisses all round, brother loving brother... or so it seemed. Actually the only person weeping, save Benjamin, was Joseph himself. Joseph's speech has a number of disquieting elements about it. It is still full of the egotism that helped to cause his suffering all those years before. He, Joseph, was the chosen deliverer; he, Joseph, would be the provider! Joseph had not confronted his own faults in relation to the past but, still possessed by dreams of power, he set himself firmly at centre stage. There is something insulting in the way he completely discounted his brothers' responsibility for their crime - turning them into pawns of God. Indeed for all Joseph's sudden talk about God, he really believed he was the one in control.
The silence of the brothers' response to all this is telling. When seventeen years later their father Jacob dies the brothers were filled with fear. "What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back...?" All those seventeen years they had worried about his intentions and never fully trusted him.
Joseph had tremendous power, but not tremendous wisdom. The wise one in the story, the one who brought reconciliation and peace, is Judah. Judah had through painful mistakes learnt integrity. Judah had learnt compassion - even towards those who had hurt him like his father. Judah had learnt the humility of accepting responsibility for, and the consequences of, his actions. Judah had also learnt the importance of letting go of what one loves: the journey to wisdom requires us to hold lightly to many things.
May we be always attentive to wisdom and careful of power.
(I am indebted to Karen Armstrong's work on Joseph in In The Beginning Great Britain : Fount, 1996)
God walked into heaven one day and was surprised to find that everyone was there. Not a single soul was sizzling in hell. This disturbed God, for was not God the righteous judge? And what was hell created for anyway, if no one was going to be cooked? So God said to the Angel Gabriel, "Gab, summon everyone before my throne and read out the Big Ten." Everyone was duly summoned. Gabriel read the first of the Commandments. Then God said, "All those who have broken this commandment will betake themselves to hell immediately." A number of persons detached themselves from the crowd and shuffled off to hell.
A similar thing was done after the second Commandment was read…and the third… and the fourth… and the fifth… By now the population of heaven had decreased considerably. After the sixth Commandment everyone had gone to hell except one old man who was muttering to himself in the corner. God looked up and said, "Gab, is this the only person left in heaven?"
"Yes," said Gabriel.
"Well," said God. "It's rather lonesome here, isn't it? Tell them all to come back!"
When the man who was muttering heard that everyone was welcome back he was indignant. He yelled at God, "This is unjust! Why didn't you tell me this before?"  The story begs the questions, 'What is justice?' and 'How does God judge?'
When I first told this story nearly two decades ago, I got a fiery response. A leading evangelical minister took umbrage at the suggestion that God did not differentiate between those worthy of heavenly rewards and those who were not. I think the point of the parable is, as Isaiah said a few millennia back, God's ways are not our ways. God has an understanding of justice that is different from ours. God sees the bigger truths of life and living.
Two little Biblical parables come to mind. Matthew 25 - the Sheep and Goats - God judges people not on their piety, or productivity, or pleasantness, but on how they care for the most vulnerable ['the least of these my brethren and sisteren']. Matthew 13 - the Wheat and Tares growing up together - our job is not to judge between those who we consider wheat and those we consider weeds, but to leave all judging to God, and learn to live together.
These parables were not told in order for us to build a judicial system upon them. Rather they were told in order to make us think, to make us uncomfortable, and to remind us that ultimately God is the definer of justice. Justice is a word best not left to parliamentarians. Justice in the hands of a politician quickly becomes what the majority wants, or more accurately, what will get him or her re-elected. Occasionally a politician will hold out against the majority on a matter of principle. But then he or she won't be in Government for long.
Take the Foreshore and Seabed debacle. The mood of the majority of New Zealanders, believing Maori were asking for too much and that access to beaches was under threat, swung behind Mr Brash. The Government, anxious to get the polls on side, jumped in to muddy the waters and assure the non-Maori majority. What's 'right', 'fair', or 'just' were secondary considerations to political expediency. Minority rights were swept aside by the incoming tide of majority assumptions.
I can see something similar happening with the so-labelled anti-smacking bill. Allegedly 71% of the polled adult population want the right to hit kids. Kids don't get polled. They don't get to vote either. Is it a human right of any person of any age not to be physically assaulted because they get something wrong? Right and wrong though quickly evaporate when a cane and riding whip is used. In the Timaru case the wielder of the whip got off. Jury democracy said she was using 'reasonable force', as stated in section 59 of the Crimes Act. What wrong justifies a person three times the size of the child using this so-called reasonable enforcer? Was the kid cheeky? Did she smile at the wrong time? Did the milk get spilt, the chores not done, or the homework not finished?
At the end of the day in our justice system, despite the goodwill and integrity of many in the legal profession, might makes right. What the majority wants translates into legislation. The rights and views of minorities are dependent upon the magnanimity of the majority. While I may bemoan aspects of our legislative and legal system, I am also sceptical of those who view the Bible as a rulebook on the subject of justice.
This morning's story of Jacob and Esau is a case in point. They were twin brothers. Only one however, Esau, came out of the womb first. Culture dictated that only that one would receive the irrevocable blessing from the family patriarch. So we read about trickery and deceit. Jacob, the younger, cooked up a stew. He was scheming as he stirred. Esau, returning home from hunting, was famished. Esau, ruled by his stomach as some young men are, agreed to sell his birthright to his brother in return for a bowl of broth. Later Jacob, aided, encouraged, and abetted by his mother Rebekah [who of course was also Esau's mother!!], tricked the patriarch Isaac, into giving him the blessing.
Why did God tolerate it? Why didn't God speak up for what was right, fair and just? God is absent in this story. God is absent in many stories. Jacob reaped the consequences of his actions. Sure, the familial line of inheritance would run through his blood and offspring. Yet equally surely Jacob condemned himself to a life of looking backward over his shoulder. He lived in fear of his brother. Instead of sibling harmony and cooperation there was loathing, fear, and flight. Was it really worth it Jacob?
I read another little parable last week about two brothers. Both were called by God to serve society's most vulnerable. The first brother did so, boots and all. The second brother didn't. He led a more normal life - job, kids, etc. When the brothers died they appeared before God. The first brother was thanked for his thousand talents worth of service and given a billion billion talents worth of reward. The second brother was thanked for his ten talents worth of service and was also given a billion billion talents worth of reward. On hearing of the same reward the first brother was pleased and said "God, knowing this as I do, if I were to be born and live my life again, I would still do exactly what I did for you."
Again some might accuse God of being unjust. I think though it's a case of asking ourselves, 'What is the bigger truth?' Is the bigger truth that one brother lived a more generous godly life than his sibling and therefore should receive a greater reward? Or is the bigger truth that they were brothers and both are held equally in the embrace and love of God. When considering justice we need to remember bigger truths. Like God's love can't be earned - it is just given freely. Like judging other people is fraught. Like caring for the most vulnerable and upholding minority rights is important. Like bad deeds have a way of repeating on the perpetuator. And like the fathomless compassion, generosity, and grace of God.
1. Adapted from De Mello, A. The Song Of The Bird, p.153
Marian Fountain has brought a mackerel into church. Along the spine of this fish humanity is emerging. In ancient times the fish spoke of mystery and meaning in the depths. It was also a fertility symbol. The early Christians appropriated this ocean image and incorporated it into our symbiotic culture.
I've known Marian [Maz] since University days, and Christianity is a major influence in her art. The mackerel plays with the border between outside and inside. Is spirit something within, or is it without? What's spirituality's relationship with creatures and their environment?
Of course this is my interpretation. Art lends itself to many interpretations. There is no one correct meaning. There is only the invitation to enter into the feelings evoked by the art, and let your imagination swim free.
In times past the Church has dogmatically tried to capture and restrict understandings of God by using words. Words can release the imagination, but they can also imprison it. Art however is usually different. It takes license to push and prod us with images when words seem inadequate or heretical.
The Trinity is maybe the clearest example. It is a difficult concept for the wordsmiths. Artists though have played with it. I'm reminded of a keystone in the Benedictine Abbey of Luxeuil that has three fish, like spokes on a wheel, with their heads overlapping in the centre. Trinity is a doctrine that is better left to artists than theologians.
God as a fish flicks my mind back to Maz's mackerel and the human community emerging from its spine. It makes me also look again at Bing Dawe's victimized eels. Are they likewise an image of the divine vulnerability? When we irresponsibly pollute and destroy, we kill godness.
Art plays with the border areas. Like the area between what is accepted and what is not. Like the area between what is and what might be. It is no surprise that art and social change have frequently cohabited. Art, like religion, can be used to sanctify the way things are - for good or for ill. But frequently it breaks those fetters inviting us to widen our vision, ignite our compassion, extend our generosity, and above all set our imagination free. Religion, at it's best, does likewise.
I enjoyed the playfulness in Paul Hartigan's Colour-ist. It critiques the neon bombardment we experience in the city, inviting us to envision something better. It also toys with the border between word and image. Maybe we