I can’t believe I’m back in this pulpit again this week. Nor can I believe anyone is here this morning. Boxing Day sales are still on and the beach is beckoning, but since you are you can enjoy along with me God’s sense of irony. After the ruckus “The Billboard” caused, I get to preach on what the church has proclaimed the Feast of the Holy Family. Although I suspect many think our billboard has said more than enough already about the Holy Family’s family life. So I will give it a pass even though I love the story of Jesus being a precocious scamp who misbehaves. I seriously doubt it happened, but it still sounds “true” to my ears.
Instead I want to ponder in my heart the holy family here at St Matthew’s.
Have you ever heard of the Law of Unintended Consequences? No, it’s not really a scientific law like laws of gravity, but instead a humorous expression according to which any purposeful action will produce some unintended, unanticipated, and sometimes unwanted consequences.
The law was in full force last week. The intended purpose of the billboard was to have a little fun laughing at some notions of God that really don’t stack up anymore for many, but also to cause people to think about and discuss a deeper meaning of Christmas. By all indications it appears we were successful beyond all expectations. We have discussed this already in the media and here in church so there is little need to elaborate further.
It is the unintended consequences that have got me pondering in my heart, in particular the level of offense taken around the world. Some online polls suggest that we have offended half the planet give or take a few percentage points. While initially email tended to be overwhelmingly positive, as the story got legs we heard from more and more of the offended. So let me say clearly, offense was not our intent. However, I’m not sure that was the intent of those who commented on the website, emailed, wrote, faxed, texted and called to express their outrage. Many went beyond being offensive to abusive and threatening. This must be the “two wrongs make a right” school of Christianity as opposed to the “turn the other cheek” school I attended.
What has brought me up short was not how nasty believers can be but why I was surprised. I realize now it is because of you. St Matthew’s long before Glynn and I arrived on the scene has been unafraid of controversy and new ideas.
I will never forget Palm Sunday in 2006 when I proclaimed for the first time in the pulpit a belief I have long taught in private: Jesus was just a man. That was the same week the new website and iGod went live, so I knew I was going out on a limb, one that might be used to burn me as a heretic some day. My heart was in my throat. My anxiety was probably quite evident in my delivery. Then a miracle happened, you not only didn’t burn me, you were incredibly supportive of the sermon even if you didn’t agree with it. What’s more, you challenged me to keep it up.
I have done my best ever since, with your encouragement, to preach my truth unafraid. I’ve taken on biblical literalists, creationists, homophobes, Republicans, theists, Anglicans, Brian Tamaki, and traditional understandings of creeds and even the appropriateness of corporate creeds themselves. I’ve taken to heart the brief I gave M & C Saatchi, if the billboard could go up easily in front of any other church it isn’t for us. Likewise, as I reflect on the readings while preparing a sermon, I try to look at them from outside the box. I avoid preaching them the way they have traditionally been preached. The downside of this approach is it is impossible for me to plagiarize other sermons — a not uncommon practice in the church. The sermons I want to preach are hard to find. Sometimes I wonder if you are just giving me enough rope to hang myself from that limb I’m out on. If so, it may now have worked.
Before the billboard Glynn and I were flying under the radar. Although our progressive theology has been out there for all to see and hear on the website and in iGod podcasts, apparently the only people who were paying any attention were those who were appreciative of our different take on Christianity. Since the billboard went up an unintended consequence is our opponents have discovered us, scouring the site for heresy and calling for our heads.
While I know Glynn and I are intentionally “out there,” we are not blazing new ground theologically or scholastically within the Christian community. We follow in the footsteps of theologians and scholars like Marcus Borg, Karen Armstrong, Elaine Pagels, John Dominic Crossans, David Jenkins, Don Cupitt, Lloyd Geering, Jack Spong, and the folks who make up the Jesus Seminar and the Center for Progressive Christianity to name only a few of the more contemporary trailblazers. Those who criticize us know of these people and their scholarship. They may not agree with them, but they know we are not outside the big tent of Christianity that includes them. What I think annoys them most is that we are telling you and the world about a dialogue occurring outside the imposing wall protecting the church’s doctrines and dogma. Our sin in their eyes is inviting everyone into the discussion, not just theologians.
However, that said, as I read their comments, I realize they are right. We don’t belong to their flavour of Christianity anymore. Because we have been evolving together as the holy family of St Matthew’s we have not noticed how far we have strayed from traditional Christian beliefs. Like Jesus, we have not noticed that the extended family left without us while we were asking questions of the priests, scribes and Pharisees. When rebuked by parental authority we have challenged their preconceived notions about where we should be. We are truly naughty, but unlike Mary’s memories of Jesus, we are not likely to be any more obedient in the future. We think that at the heart of Christianity we are called to ask difficult questions and seek a truth that makes us one with the divine not a human institution; that like Jesus we might grow in wisdom and in divine and human favour.
I have tried to think of ways to do this Christmas sermon without referring to our billboard. As a congregation we dealt with it last Sunday. But I suspect that for many who visit us more occasionally it is still on your mind. If I don’t mention it, it will be the elephant sitting on the pew next to you whispering in your ear and you will never hear my message. So let’s deal with it and get it out of the way. Besides, since I daresay it will be mentioned in Christmas sermons around the world why not in this one?
Since a big part of my mission at St Matthew’s is promoting progressive Christianity, going “viral” on the internet is the illusive holy grail. As our friends and foes alike know, Glynn and I’ve tried repeatedly in the past to get people’s attention with controversial sermons, articles in the Herald, billboards, media releases, and some of the events we permit to happen here. It hasn’t happened in a significant way-- until now. It may never happen again. It is like winning the Lotto. While I have heard from many about how angry it made them, interestingly enough their anger only fueled the story. If our opponents were honest they would thank us for our Christmas gift: the opportunity to express their opposing opinion to millions. Frankly, without the billboard no one would’ve listened to them. On the other hand, contrary to Garth George, one of New Zealand’s more conservative columnists, non-believers I’ve heard from not only found humour but hope in it. They are the ones for whom the gift was intended. Because of them, I don’t feel bad in the least about our decision to put it up.
The advertising team I work with is both gob smacked and over the moon about the worldwide reaction. They are an international company and no one on the team has ever experienced this kind of reaction. To some degree we are all a little bit mystified by it. It was just a billboard after all. The total time it was up after being vandalized and stolen twice was less than twelve hours, but the image will live on in cyberspace forever as well as in our imaginations. It will be in a prominent museum of poster art in Switzerland, in print media, on t-shirts, coffee mugs, Christmas cards and refrigerator magnets for many years to come. While untold numbers condemn us for that, the fact that there is a market for the billboard speaks loudly that there were many, in and outside of organized believing, who understood it was about love, not performance, and thought it was a hoot. One Anglican online news site called it “Virgin Mirth.” The only thing I regret is how the reactions of some within the church confirmed for others outside the church that religion too often prefers to reside in self-righteous and self-satisfied indignation. What I had hoped they would learn is that true faith practices eutrapelia.
I know eutrapelia sounds like just another kind of perversion that the church needs to cover up, but it is a wonderful Greek word that Aristotle used to describe a wittiness somewhere between buffoonery and boorishness. He considered it a virtue. While Paul’s use of it in Ephesians (5:4) is often translated as “coarse jesting,” I like a friend of mine’s definition best: it is the great big belly laugh of God. He thinks the divine played giggle belly with Adam and Eve in the Garden and God had so much fun his laughter spilled out into all of us. As my friend has written, “God’s laughter [is] the stuff of our fiber, and our home address.”[i] Thank God for the gift of laughter, even when it is at our own expense; even when not everyone gets the joke. For apparently gift-giving isn’t always as easy as it should be, even for God and according to the news, not for Santa either.
While our attempt at humour was to get us to think beyond Santa to the true meaning of Christmas, in Great Britain Santa tried to live it out and it wasn’t quite so funny. The Guardian reports “it started out as a well-intentioned attempt to bring festive cheer to some of society's most neglected members – the hundreds of children who each year are caught up in the UK's asylum system.
“But when the Anglican church's leading expert on Father Christmas, dressed as St Nicholas himself, arrived with one of Britain's most distinguished clerics to distribute presents to children held at the Yarl's Wood immigration removal centre in Bedfordshire, things took a turn straight out of Dickens.
“An unedifying standoff developed that saw the security personnel who guard the perimeter fence prevent St Nicholas, the patron saint of children and the imprisoned, from delivering £300 worth of presents donated by several London churches.
“In a red robe and long white beard, clutching a bishop's mitre and crook, St Nick – in real life, the Revd Canon James Rosenthal, a world authority on St Nicholas of Myra, the inspiration for Father Christmas – gently protested that he was not a security threat, but to no avail.
“Then as St Nicholas, accompanied by the canon theologian at Westminster Abbey, attempted to bless the gifts, the increasingly angry security guards called the police.
“The row comes amid mounting concern about the treatment of children in [these] centres. Last week senior doctors called for an immediate end to the "profoundly harmful" detention of children in immigration removal centres.
" ‘St Nick has never been turned away from anywhere before,’ Rosenthal said. ‘I hope the kids realise that they will be firmly in my prayers.’ "[ii]
This story begs the question of what is truly blasphemous: our billboard lampooning the Virgin Birth or imprisoning immigrant children? This story with accompanying videotape now on YouTube has gone viral on the web just like our virgin mirth. It is interesting that while Jesus’ birth did not make headlines in either of the centres of power in his day, Jerusalem or Rome, those inspired by his birth today can make a worldwide impact in a matter of hours. That is the nature of God’s love. It gets up the nose of those seeking to maintain the status quo. Otherwise Garth George would not still be taking notice of us nine days after it hit the wires.[iii] The joke is that the more they try to contain that love, the further it spreads. Even before the internet, it was always thus. That’s how a baby in a manger changed the world. It is how we continue to do so.
A little girl walked to and from school daily. Though the weather that morning was questionable and clouds were forming, she made her daily trek to school.
As the afternoon progressed, the winds whipped up, along with thunder and lightning. The mother of the little girl felt concerned that her daughter would be frightened as she walked home from school and she herself feared that the electrical storm might harm her child. Following the roar of thunder, lightning would cut through the sky.
Full of concern, the mother quickly got into her car and drove along the route to her child's school. As she did so, she saw her little girl walking along, but at each flash of lightning, the child would stop, look up and smile. Another and another were to follow quickly and with each the little girl would look at the streak of light and smile.
When the mother's car drew up beside the child she lowered the window and called to her, "What are you doing? Why do you keep stopping?"
The child answered, "I am trying to look pretty. God keeps taking my picture."
We know God doesn’t live up in the clouds, is human or man-shaped, and takes photographs. Yet the story is appealing – especially the lack of fear the little girl displays.
The Christmas stories are about alternative concepts of God, the power these concepts have, and the virtue of fearlessness.
There is a great distance between Rome and a Bethlehem hillside. In kilometres its 2,657. In power it’s the distance between authoritarian power, with large resources and armies throughout the Empire, and the powerlessness of a Palestinian pregnant teenager and her soon to be born child. She has no resources and no army. In theology it’s the distance between the god called Caesar, that is the Emperor cult that Rome promoted, and little baby Jesus whom no one called a god and yet whose later followers would find in him divine truth.
The angelic choir sang words identifying Jesus as Lord and Saviour, plagiarizing titles belonging to Caesar. Who is the real Lord and Saviour? And, probably more importantly, what on earth can Lord and Saviour mean when used of Jesus? For he neither sought nor exercised power over others. He neither sought nor had an army. He never wanted to be worshipped, but wanted people to follow a topsy-turvy God who could turn the world upside down.
So these are the first two concepts of God: Caesar worship sanctioned and underpinned the hierarchical and oppressive authority of Rome. It was male, distant, and powerful. Manger worship though was something else. It was lowly, marginal, and without power.
Then there is the distance between the Jerusalem Temple and the defiled barn. In kilometres it’s 9.6. In power it’s the distance between an authorized religion that provided worship, sanctuary and order for most Jews, and the unauthorized Jewish religion that would grow up around Jesus. The Temple was holy. The barn, with animals and faeces, was defiled. The Temple was ordered. The barn deliberately upset the social order.
At the barn shepherds, best known for their crooked thieving habits, were welcomed. Keepers of the law, security and military personnel weren’t invited. At the barn Zoroastrians, regarded as heathen foreigners, were welcomed. Priests, the keepers of ordered certainty and orthodox faith, didn’t get an invitation. Outside of the safe and acceptable precincts of religion the Christmas stories point to a different God – one who is at home with the marginalized.
The Bethlehem saga was written by early followers of Jesus. Bravely they dared to question the assumptions of others’ religion. They challenged the entrapment of God in Roman finery and priestly piety. They challenged the power of that God over their lives. They wanted to set free people to recognize God among the little people, the ostracized, and the rebels. They believed in the last being first, and the first last. They believed that poor widows were more acceptable to God than the church-going well-heeled. They believed in the vision of a topsy-turvy God for a radically re-ordered world, and they [like the story of the little girl] exhibited fearlessness when clouds darkened, the heavens thundered, and lightning cracked.
When someone meets me on the street, in a café, or in my office I’m often asked about how one can experience the spiritual today. They are people who have often been bruised by religion, by the moral standards of others, and by life itself. In many cases the Gods of authorized religions have been the bruisers.
Barbara Brown Taylor once wrote, “Jesus said when we welcome children we welcome… God. So, get down on the floor, laugh like a train, and forget about earning a living. For this is God time – nurturing your soul.”[i] Many of us don’t have such opportunities with children, but the principles of playing, getting down, laughing, and forgetting other responsibilities are still good advice.
God is not just to be found among the serious and grown-ups. Indeed I often think God gets bored and goes outside to look at the trees or play in the dirt. God is not just found in churches, temples and mosques, but in backyards, community centres, and collecting cockles at the beach. God is not just found among those doing social and community work, important as those are. God is found among the unpredictable things, surprising us.
Christmas says that a suckling babe is a sacred site, a heart open to possibility is the playground of God, and a questioning mind is a holy one … no matter how tainted, rejected, and despised you might have been or feel.
So, as the angels said, ‘Don’t be afraid’. Don’t be afraid of being different, thinking differently, laughing and causing offence. For the caretakers of certainty, power, and religion will find anyone offensive who doesn’t conform.
Here’s another cute story of someone who isn’t afraid:
A Kindergarten teacher was observing her classroom of children while they drew. She would occasionally walk around to see each child's work.
As she got to one little girl who was working diligently, she asked what the drawing was? The girl replied, "I'm drawing God." The teacher paused and said, "But no one knows what God looks like."
Without missing a beat, or looking up from her drawing, the girl replied, "They will in a minute."
A funny thing happened as I began preparing this sermon earlier in the week. I thought I was going to talk about Mary’s visitation to her cousin Elizabeth. I wanted to focus on this young teen who had found herself with child. While her faith was great that God was involved in this miracle of new life, her reaction to the news was to take off for the hills in haste--and for good reason. She was in danger of public censure, repudiation by Joseph and possibly even stoning.
Then the billboard went up. Suddenly I could fully identify with Mary. For a moment I thought of taking to the hills in haste myself. Stoning doesn’t appeal to me any more than it did for her. But Glynn and I are still here, still processing what has been an unprecedented week in our lives, the life of St Matthew’s, and perhaps even for Christmas as well.
Who would have thought our little bit of irreverent Kiwi humour would have gotten such a reaction. Let me give you a little taste of what it means to go viral in an internet age.
If you used the keywords St Matthew +billboard +Christmas this morning you will get 56,300 hit. That’s 5000 more than yesterday morning. Glynn and I have lost count of the number of interviews we have done for newspapers, radio, tv and online news sources and they haven’t stopped. From the time it went up until Saturday morning our website was visited by 20,322 people from six continents and 127 countries (101 visits have come from Italy. I wonder if one was the Pope?) and it isn’t slowing down much. Our podcast iGod has jumped to second in its category and 109 overall out of the thousands on the site. I have received over 600 emails and counting and I’m sure Glynn has received many more. Mine have run the gamut from abusive and harshly critical to gently remonstrative and pleasantly surprised to laudatory. I was relieved that there were more supportive ones than ones questioning my mother’s marital status when I was born. Then there have been the many phone calls and texts that Glynn, the entire staff team and I have had to field. But whether or not people appreciated our approach, one thing is certain, for a big part of the planet people have been discussing Christmas outside the frame of Santa and shopping and they know about St Matthew-in-the-City and progressive Christianity.
So Glynn and I have decided that we need to take some time this morning to reflect with you on the experience. Certainly we are not the only ones here this has impacted. We imagine that you have not been able to escape the fact that you worship here, so we will open this up to you as well to share your experiences and reflections.
So, I will hand off now to Glynn for his thoughts, I will share an experience or two of mine and then we will open it up to you.
So Glynn I know you haven’t been interviewed for maybe a whole 12 hours now, so I thought I’d try to keep you in your groove and ask you a few questions this morning.
To make the news at Christmas it seems a priest just needs to question the literalness of a virgin giving birth. Many in society mistakenly think that to challenge literalism is to challenge the norms of Christianity. What progressive interpretations try to do however is remove the supernatural obfuscation and delve into the deeper spiritual truth of this festival.
Christian fundamentalism believes a supernatural male God who lived above sent his sperm into the womb of the virgin Mary. Although there were a series of miraculous events surrounding Jesus’ birth – like wandering stars and angelic choirs – the real miracle was his death and literal resurrection 33 years later. The importance of this literal resurrection is the belief that it was a cosmic transaction whereby the male God embraced humanity only after being satiated by Jesus’ innocent blood.
The Christmas billboard on a local fundamentalist church sums up this thesis. It reads: “Jesus born 2 die 4 u!” His birth was just an h’orderve before the main Calvary course.
No doubt on Christmas Eve when papers print the messages of Church leaders a few of them will serve up this fundamentalist thesis wrapped in a nice story.
Progressive Christianity believes the Christmas stories are fictitious accounts designed to introduce the radical nature of the adult Jesus. They contrast the Lord and Saviour Caesar with the anomaly of a new ‘lord’ and ‘saviour’ born illegitimate in a squalid barn. At Bethlehem low-life shepherds and heathen travelers are welcome while the powerful and the priests aren’t. The stories introduce the topsy-turvy way of God, where the outsiders are invited in and the insiders ushered out.
Progressive Christianity doesn’t overlook Jesus’ life and rush to his death. Rather it sees the radical hospitality he offered to the poor, the despised, women, children, and the sick, and says: ‘this is the essence of God’. His death was a consequence of the offensive nature of that hospitality and his resurrection a symbolic vindication.
The Christmas billboard outside St Matthew-in-the-City lampoons literalism and invites people to think again about what a miracle is. Is the miracle a male God sending forth his divine sperm, or is the miracle that God is and always has been among the poor? The billboard has a sombre Joseph and a consoling Mary, with the caption “Poor Joseph. God is a hard act to follow.”
On Christmas Eve when papers print the messages of Church leaders one or two of them will offer up this progressive thesis, encouraging laughter, generosity, and maybe even controversy.
Fundamentalism believes that Christianity is essentially about individual salvation and admission to an after-life off the planet. What one believes rather than how one behaves is paramount. This planet is merely a testing ground.
Progressive Christianity however emphasizes behaviour above belief. How one treats ones neighbours, enemies, and planet is the essence of faith. The celebration of the birth of Jesus is a celebration of God in every birth and every person.
For fundamentalist Christians the incarnation is about the miraculous arrival of a baby soon to die and by his blood save us. For progressive Christians the incarnation is about the miracle of this planet earth and all life that exists here.
Although fundamentalist and progressive Christianity stand in marked contrast to one another there are many other distinct and interesting theologies on Christmas. Yet the culture of the Church is such that differences are downplayed and commonality extolled. Variety is synthesized into a supposed unity creating a mushy middle way. Most church leaders follow this middle mush approach, trying to say something pertinent without offending anybody.
Progressive Christianity is distinctive in that not only does it articulate a clear view it is also interested in engaging with those who differ. Its vision is one of robust engagement. If every Christian thought the same not only would life be deadly boring but also the fullness of God would be diminished. This is the consequence of its incarnational theology: God is among us; even among those we disagree with or dislike.
One billboard that expresses middle mush reads, “I miss hearing you say ‘Merry Christmas’, and its signed ‘Jesus’. No one can take offense because no one is being asked to do or think anything particularly different, except say ‘Merry Christmas’.
No doubt on Christmas Eve when papers print the messages of Church leaders most of them will serve up this middle mush. Jesus will be born in a palatial sanitized barn and every king and crook, religious and irreligious, will be surrounding him saying ‘Merry Christmas my friends!’ No reader will be asked to do or think anything risky, no reader will be offended, and no reader will write a critical response. They’ll just yawn and turn the page.
On my Facebook page is a video that asks “Did you know that the top ten in-demand jobs for 2010 did not even exist in 2004? We are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist using technologies that haven’t been invented in order to solve problems we don’t even know are problems yet. The amount of technical information is doubling every two years. For students starting a four-year technical degree this means half of what they learn in the first year of study will be outdated by their third year of study.”
In such a world what does it mean to prepare for anything? How can you prepare when the week’s newspapers you put out for recycling contains more information than a person living in the 18th century would come across in their entire lifetime?
When I was eight my teacher who was approaching retirement age stunned us one day when she shared that when she was our age she rode to school in a horse and buggy. We could not wrap our minds around a world without cars or how old she must really be. Now that I’m about her age, my eight year old grandson would be equally stunned that when I went to seminary only half my lifetime ago I used a quaint device called a typewriter to write papers and went to a place called a library to research them.
Beyond things like preparing a meal or preparing to go to bed, being prepared for what’s coming in life is nearly impossible and only getting more so. If we are not careful we could spend all our time preparing for life instead of living it. Yet on the Second Sunday of Advent every year God tells John the Baptist in the wilderness it is time. Time to prepare a way for the Lord.
Granted, Luke didn’t live in the digital age, so preparation may have been a little easier when folk didn’t have an inbox full of email. But for the sake of argument, even today he might have written this because some things never change, especially power and those who wield it.
Luke seems to be suggesting that there are political implications to preparing the way for the Lord. Look at his introduction of John: "In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness."
He could’ve just said, “On the 10th of December in the year 30 the word of God came to John?” Why does he say more? Well, let me change the names and let's see if it gives you a feel for how it might have sounded at the time: “In the second year of the prime ministership of John Key, when Barack Obama was President of the USA, and Gordon Brown was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, and John Banks was Mayor of Auckland, during the pontificate of Benedict XVI, and while John Paterson was the Bishop of Auckland, the word of God came to Bertie Boggs in the bush, and she went everywhere announcing that it was time for people to wake up to themselves, turn things around, and get things back on track.”
Changing the names evoke real life associations for us. We see that locating John's message in the midst of it is making a direct challenge to the status quo maintained by those in power. All these folk together think they are in control of every square inch of the world. They seek to make sure it is their word we listen to. Luke challenges this notion. Luke is suggesting that established political and religious powers are not going to come up with a strategy for preparing a way for the new life Jesus represents. They may be able to build a bike path from Cape Reinga to Invercargill, but no matter how many hills they can level or valleys they can fill doing it they are not going to prepare a way for us to live as fully as we were created to live.
No, according to Luke, God didn’t speak to the political and religious powers of the day to announce something radically new. God knows that’s the last place to announce something like that. They would just seek to distort it, contain it, tame it; use it to maintain control. God needed a John in the wilderness. God needed to go bush.
It isn’t just that the wilderness isn’t in the city where governments, universities, media outlets, cathedrals and other mainstays of the status quo reside; the wilderness is more than a geographical location. It is a state of being that is beyond the fringes of normal certainties. It is a place where we can see with different eyes; a place where the new and unimaginable can happen; a place where divine love might break through and change us. The wilderness is a mysterious place of transformation.
Luke suggests if we want to hear God, the wilderness is the place to go because it is by definition a place beyond human control. The problem is when most of us think back at our times in the wilderness we don’t think of it as a desirable vacation spot we wish to return to precisely because it is a place where we are out of control. It is often a place of loss; a place of grief; a place of disappointment. It is where our lives have unexpectedly been turned upside down by a bad medical prognosis, a family death, a lost job, a broken relationship to name but a few. Usually we are thrust into wilderness spaces, but what Luke implies is that we should go there voluntarily as well.
Social theorists have a term for the wilderness. They describe it as “liminal.” The term was first coined to describe worship and rituals that are rites of passage. Baptism, Confirmation, Communion and Marriage are all liminal rites. A liminal place or time is where boundaries dissolve a little and we stand there, on the threshold, getting ourselves ready to move across the limits of what we were into what we are to be. It is the space where we are cut loose from the normal realities and we take the risk of living beyond the bounds of the known and safe and predictable and explainable. If transformation occurs, we don't just return to the old realities. We come out as new people in a new place. We are changed. The old is gone, and all things are made new. The wilderness is that risky and uncertain place where we might hear something new and be radically changed by it. In Luke’s story, John not only lives in a liminal place, he is a liminal person. He is the last of the prophets. He is the best of what we were. Yet, from the wilderness he calls us to what we can be, Jesus. His message, God’s message, is that the way things are is not the way things have to be. We have the power to make that shift. We are not helpless in the face of all that would diminish us.
Too often the liminal place seems too risky, too outside the norm; too uncontrollable. When we are outside the wilderness it seems too much of an ask to embrace it. Why upset the apple cart? One reason to do so is pragmatic. Life’s circumstances will thrust us there anyway. Embracing it instead of living in the illusion that proper preparation can help us avoid it changes our whole mind-set. The wilderness becomes a sanctuary where we seek more of life. It is where we can remember, no matter how bad it gets, I’m still alive; I might as well give living it fully a go.
God, through John, is calling us to always give it a go. But embracing the wilderness means embracing its transformative power. That means it will be hard work leveling hills and filling in valleys. It begins with opening ourselves to the wild possibilities that are beyond the reach of the powers that be, in their arrogant belief that they have the territory all carved up and labeled and under control. It begins with letting go of the notion that the state or the church or a superman god can magically change our circumstances. It begins with listening to the god within us. It begins with opening ourselves to the absurd possibility that we can live life fully alive no matter what happens next. We proclaim that Word every time we break bread and share wine together. By embracing the wilderness we become a liminal people offering more hope to the world than all the politicians and scientists and theologians can ever prescribe. As a liminal people we become the Way of the Lord. We become the rite of passage for love to enter the world.
The following sermon was preached at the Auckland Unitarian Church.
Earlier this month the world celebrated the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall—the end of the Iron Curtain. That was a momentous day for many of us who remember it, but walls don’t always go away so easily.
Deep in the thickly wooded mountains along what once was the fortified border between West Germany and Czechoslovakia, a red deer called Ahornia still refuses to cross the wall.
At the height of the Cold War, a high electric fence, barbed wire and machine-gun-carrying guards cut off Eastern Europe from the Western world. The barriers severed the herds of deer on the two sides as well.
The fence is long gone, and the no-man's land where it stood now is part of Europe's biggest nature preserve. The once-deadly border area is alive with songbirds nesting in crumbling watchtowers, foxes hiding in weedy fortifications and animals not seen here for years, such as elk and lynx. But one species is boycotting the reunified animal kingdom: red deer. Herds of them roam both sides of the old NATO-Warsaw Pact border here but mysteriously turn around when they approach it even though the deer alive today have no memory of the ominous fence. Ahornia, a doe with a grayish-brown winter coat and a light patch around her tail, was born 18 years after the fence came down. Wildlife biologists who track her and other deer via electronic collars know that she has never ventured beyond the strip where the fence once stood.
The fence has been replaced with a narrow footpath in the woods, marking the border between Germany and the Czech Republic. On a misty October afternoon, the sound of a distant woodpecker was all that disturbed the mountaintop silence. A small white sign in German said "State Border." Ahornia grazes on the Western side but stops when she nears the border, her world ending where the Free World once did.
The wall in the head is still there.[i]
Ahornia and I have a lot in common. I never thought about having walls in my head before, but they are surely there.
We build physical and virtual walls for a variety of reasons. We use them like a dog to mark our territory. We use them on computers to keep out spam and viruses. They keep nosy neighbours at bay. They give us the illusion that we are safe from the incursion of others as on the US-Mexican border or on Israel’s West Bank. Lastly, they spare us the inconvenience of new ideas.
We are clearly drawn to building them to wall out the dangerous and distasteful, real and imagined, but we don’t always realize until finished that they also wall us in.
Unitarians have a long tradition of breaking down walls. At its birth it breached the wall between orthodoxy and heresy. It has gone on to challenge the walls of racism, gender and sexual orientation. It questions the walls of conformity and challenges the walls of hate constructed by fundamentalists and extremists. So it may be hard to hear that we might be guilty of constructing some walls of our own because of our uneasiness at the boundaries between the divine and the human, the holy and the humane.
It has been 13 years since I joined the Unitarian Society of Santa Barbara. In that time I administered two UU churches, taught classes on Unitarian history and theology and joined the Ministerial Fellowship. In those years the most frequent question I heard is how can you be a Christian and a UU? I hate the question because I never call myself a Christian in spite of being ordained as an Anglican priest for 27 years next week. Too many Christians embarrass me for me to be comfortable with the label, but all the same Jesus’ story is part of my story. I resent the question because it reminds me that the church I represent and rail against and consider to be teetering on the cliff of irrelevancy (if it hasn’t already toppled) has shaped me for good and for ill.
I also hate the question because of the antipathy and suspicion that lies behind it. In spite of roots in the Judeo-Christian tradition too many Unitarians and Universalists, when they merged, saw free thinking and Christianity as antithetical to each other. So while being perfectly comfortable with other hyphenated UUs: Buddhist-UUs, Jewish-UUs, Wiccan-UUs, Humanist-UUs, Pagan-UUs—Christian-UUs are often viewed skeptically. Considering that many UU’s suffered at the hands of toxic Christianity, I understand. Yet still I hope that UU’s will not throw Jesus out with the church.
Sometimes when I reflect on my frustrations with this question I feel like that Hasidic Jew who every day for twenty years went to the Western Wall in Jerusalem to pray for peace. A local TV news station heard about his faithfulness and sent a reporter to interview him. She asked if he felt God heard his prayers for peace? He responded, “Hell no! I feel like I’ve been talking to a damn wall.”
But every once in awhile I have experienced some hope.
Once I was asked by a very close friend to officiate at his wife’s funeral. He was a life-long, hard-boiled humanist-UU, as was his wife. I carefully constructed a service that reflected their beliefs. After the service, the matriarch of the congregation, who had concerns that a Christian-UU was conducting the service, showered me with praise. She proclaimed it the most UU funeral she had ever attended and was particularly pleased I had not talked about Jesus once. Shortly afterwards, other friends of the deceased, who were from a conservative Christian background, came up to me to express their surprise and delight at how “Christian” the UU service was.
Over time I’ve come to understand that they were both right because today Jesus might choose to be a UU. He’d be as embarrassed as I to be a Christian. Beside the obvious problem of being culturally Jewish, he would be as appalled as I am by the Christian arrogance reflected in its dogma and exclusive claims to salvation. Never mind that he never suggested he was anything other or more than a human being and would be flummoxed by the Nicene Creed. He would consider the institutional church no improvement on the Temple culture of his own day in its love of power and control.
As an opponent of the Purity Laws of the day, I think he would find the welcoming inclusivity of the UU culture appealing. He would applaud the democratic and non-hierarchical governance. He would read the Seven Principles and think, “Thank God, someone heard me.” Lastly, he didn’t like walls either.
However, if he did join he might be a source of some discomfort for those members who are uncomfortable with a consciousness that goes beyond the rational and observable. But I would like to make a case this morning for welcoming Jesus as a UU.
I think it is pretty easy to make the case that Jesus wasn’t religious. He didn’t foresee his ministry as being used to create a religion. If he did, he might have gone back to carpentry. Jesus’ was interested in our spirituality and how we live it out. Now I don’t mean by “spirituality” lighting candles or a chalice, praying, meditating, singing hymns, sharing joys and sorrows--those are behaviours. Put all in one place at one time, that’s church--not spirituality. Spirituality is the yearning and groping that may lead to those behaviours. It might be a motive for being here on Sunday, but it is much more. It is a primal, vague, diffuse and incomplete need, often indefinable at first.
Our spiritual needs get expressed often like the young man who came to my office this week and began, “I’m not sure why I’m here. My life seems to be going pretty well. My job’s OK. I just got a promotion. My marriage is cool and I love being a father. I just feel like there’s something I’m missing.” He may not have been sure why he was there, but I was pretty sure we would be talking about spirituality. His very vagueness at the outset betrayed the seriousness of the enterprise at hand.
I welcome such conversations, because it isn’t one-sided. We will both be trying to bring shape, and form to the yearning deep within us, ever mindful that longing and desire does not per se bring fulfillment; the hunger does not automatically lead to fullness. The longing, the desire, and the hunger must be focused and answered with some form if they are to grow and achieve lives that match our yearnings.
It’s like music. Almost everyone can enjoy music and create music, but there is no generic “music.” To enjoy and create one must focus on a form—folk or jazz, punk rock or showtunes. The need for music must be answered through specific forms. And so does spirituality. To go deeper, we must focus.
This is where Jesus can be an invaluable member of the community. He was a master at focus and he did it as a wisdom teacher.
I would like to commend to you a book that has transformed my understanding of Jesus and his importance to us, The Wisdom Jesus by Cynthia Bourgeault.
Her premise is that Jesus was a wisdom teacher.
With our 20/20 hindsight we have trouble seeing this. Not just because he did not live his life very wisely by our standards. He didn’t keep good company. He was something of a party animal. He was shiftless and unemployed, moving from town to town. He was extravagant and a chartered accountant’s worst nightmare telling his followers not to store up treasures for tomorrow. He defied authority and recklessly crossed boundaries. Eventually he even gambled his life, choosing not to cling to it but rather to squander it. As a result we fail to see his wisdom, but rather his love and compassion. The western church chose to see him as a saviour. He did it all and we need do nothing but receive his gift.
Bourgeault points out that this understanding of him has been shaped by only one of four streams of Christianity. Roman law, order and hierarchy shaped Christian thought in the west, but there are three other streams that see Jesus, as I think he saw himself, not as a saviour but as a guide or mentor. They are all Eastern in flavour and they all focus on Jesus’ wisdom. For them Jesus was a master teacher seeking to raise our consciousness that our spiritual selves might have more form and focus.
Cynthia explains this in a way that even this geek priest can understand it. She argues that every human being is born at about the same level of consciousness. She equates that level to a computer’s operating system. It is probably not Microsoft’s. It works. It was not installed broken. However, it operates like all computers. It is dualistic in nature.
Have you ever wondered what a byte is? It is either a 1 or a 0. Those are the only two choices. A program has millions of such bytes. It is that dualism that is similar to our human operating system. The level of consciousness we came installed with sees the world dualistically. Everything in our reality represents either a 1 or a 0. We operate by either/or. It is up or down, black or white, before or after, good or bad, right or wrong; cold or hot.
This operating system’s purpose is to make sense of what we see. It is how we know a chair from a table and cat from a dog. Very early on it helps us to determine our identity. I am not you; I am I. Each of us using this operating system knows how we are distinct and different from others. For example, everyone here knows they are distinct and different from everyone else in the room, because everyone knows no two UUs are alike. We identify ourselves to make us unique and special, but this operating system also separates us from one another. Like in Ahornia, the red deer, it builds a wall in our heads. Behind my side of the wall I can pretend I am the centre of the known universe. My reference point is fixed within me. I understand the world from that experience and believe that is the only way to truly understand the world. This operating system seems to function well when the world makes sense to our experience, but what happens to our sense of self when it doesn’t?
When we see white light refracted through a prism for the first time we discover, contrary to what we see, white is not white but the spectrum of the rainbow. It can be disconcerting to discover that what we know to be reality is a mirage.
That our perceived reality is an illusion created by our operating system is a teaching found in all the great wisdom traditions. The reality the mirage blinds us to is that there is no self. There is no inside and outside. Nothing is separated from everything else. That we think otherwise is an illusion created by our operating system’s tearing everything to bits and pieces so we can perceive it.
Jesus calls us, like all wisdom teachers, to upgrade our operating system. He calls us to tear down that wall. Today he might say upgrade and reboot. He is challenging us to a higher level of consciousness. The upgrade is to a non-dual or unitive system. The good news is we don’t even have to purchase or download it. It lies latent within us waiting to be booted up.
This upgrade does not operate by differentiation. It doesn’t divide by inside and outside or subject and object. It harmonizes instead. It hears chords instead of single notes. It sees the world in its relatedness not its differences. It doesn’t conclude, “I think therefore I am,” it begins with I am therefore I think, feel, intuit, reflect, and connect. I am one with the cosmos. There is no separation between me and all that is, knowable and unknowable; between me and my neighbour; between me and the planet.
This raised consciousness is the beginning of wisdom. Jesus devoted and gave his life to this cause. He needles and wheedles his disciples and us to move beyond the wall. It is an illusion. It not only isn’t there, it never was. Don’t listen to those who use the illusion of walls to restrict our freedom. The example of his actions, sayings, and parables all point to this truth.
To the degree we are able to tear down the wall of dualism our spirituality begins to become more focused. We begin to understand losing self to oneness is the key. It is how we come to know we will never know an abundant life without living it generously and freely and the joy of love without squandering it wastefully. For in the reality Jesus calls us to nothing is lost except the illusion.
It is not an easy thing to do. And it won’t get any easier as long as we let Christians define Jesus as they want him to be rather than how he wanted us to be. We need to welcome him warmly into the UU fold so he can constantly remind us to stop talking to that damn wall in our heads. It may be slow to happen, but if the red deer can begin to do it, there is hope for us.
In the seven years since wildlife biologists began tracking the deer, only two, a German stag named Florian and a Czech stag called Izabel, have crossed the border to stay. Lately, some young males have begun to explore the pastures on the other side, but they always come back. Females don't set foot in the once-forbidden area.
Yet there are signs that cross-border traffic may pick up. The former border was in the minds of the animals. But some of the young animals are searching for new territory. They are more and more deleting the border behavior that was there before.
In David V. William’s sermon for Aotearoa day, he reflected on the names of our controversial MP for Te Tai Tokerau: Hone, a favourite New Testament Christian name [John]; Pani, an Old Testament name, one of King David's warrior heroes [Bani] - those OT warriors were rather admired by many Maori; Tamati Waka Nene [Thomas Walker Nene] - Nene was a Ngapuhi chief at the time of the Treaty, he was baptised by the Wesleyans at Pakaenae in 1839 and named after Thomas Walker, a CMS lay patron; and Harawira is a name taken taken by many Maori to honour Octavius Hadfield, CMS missionary to the Kapiti Coast and later Bishop of Wellington and Primate.
So Hone Pani Tamati Waka Nene Harawira is (in English) John Bani Thomas Walker Nene Hadfield. His point is that Maori know a lot about and have embraced a great deal of our Christian heritage, and that most Pakeha remain rather ignorant about most matters Maori, including Maori names! His hope for Aotearoa Sunday is that more Pakeha will engage with and embrace aspects of the indigenous culture of this land in a spirit of generosity and inclusiveness that reciprocates the historic and contemporary generosity and inclusiveness of Maori.
David V. Williams is a law professor, priest, expert on the Treaty of Waitangi and treaty settlement issues, as well as a Rhodes Scholar. After viewing his sermon you will understand his popularity with his students.
Walls surrounded the Temple that Jesus knew, the 2nd Temple in Jerusalem. Inside were an Outer Courtyard, then more walls and an Inner Courtyard. Within that was the Holy Place, and within that – separated by a thick curtain – was the Holy of Holies. This was where God was said to dwell. There were lots of walls protecting God. There were lots of priests and guards protecting the walls. And there were lots of rules and regulations protecting the priests and guards. God was safe and secure.
“Do you see these great buildings?” said Jesus. “Not one stone will be left here upon another, all will be thrown down.”
Jesus, like other reform-oriented Jews, was critical of the Temple. The Temple was the dominant symbol of ecclesiastical power and authority. This was where the pious and their pet God ruled. This was where the chosen, those who had wealth and influence, could appease and please God. The Temple symbolized spiritual stability and protection. It was indeed an imposing and beautiful structure.
Yet for Jesus it symbolized the imprisonment of God and the spiritual impoverishment of the common people.
In 70 CE the walls of the Temple came down. Imperial Rome destroyed it and killed all within. The Temple’s demise was a cataclysmic event for Judaism and the nascent Christian sect.
Although the inflammatory sentiment of wishing the Temple destroyed was backdated and placed upon Jesus’ lips, it was consistent with his theology. Jesus did not wish for the destruction of Judaism but its reform. He did not wish the priestly cast to give up their lives but to give up their power. He did not wish the rule of God to be cast down but to be a matter of the heart. He did not wish God to die but God to be free.
This week Europe remembered and celebrated the destruction of the Berlin Wall 20 years ago. On November 9th 1989 East Germans poured through the wall into the West. On that cold night, years of separation and anxiety melted into the unbelievable reality of a new freedom. It was a potent symbol of the collapse of the Communist dream.
What toppled the wall was the build-up of popular discontent in East Germany, the example of passive resistance in Poland, a series of chance errors by the East German leadership, as well as the Kremlin’s refusal, or inability, to use force to preserve its empire. And so the wall came crumbling down.
The wall, 155 kilometres long, had stood for 28 years supposedly keeping East Germans safe from the advances of the West. To prove just how safe it was East German guards had over the years murdered at least 136 fellow citizens. Its real function was to protect the power of the ruling elite and the weakness of its pet God called ‘the greater good’.
It is convenient to forget though that for the poorest of citizens the support services under Communism were significantly better than the support services under a capitalist re-united Germany. Unfortunately the virtue of individual freedom does not favour the poor, as many millions in the United States know.
Yet ultimately the East German state died because it tried to fetter the human spirit. It had created a society where fear of difference, fear of criticism, and fear of free thought reigned. The fearful were in control. They believed it was their right to access and determine every facet of human behaviour in the name of the greater good.
The greater good was a God that did not brook dissent. Any act of creativity, spontaneity, or random kindness was deemed potentially subversive. Spirituality was usually suspect too because it is so devilishly hard to control. Gods, like the Christian one, didn’t answer to the Party. They weren’t accountable to the greater good. Even if you could control church leaders the message of Jesus and the working of his spirit continued to be subversive. This is why churches were at the forefront of the desire for change.
So in time, after much protesting, suffering, and praying, the spirit of freedom triumphed over the spirit of fear. The wall came down. The wall that had meant to provide safety yet really symbolized control came down. Stone by stone it was dismantled. The God of the greater good was also dismantled, as was its priestly caste. It was replaced by the God of ‘my good, “I’m good”, and ignore thy neighbour’. This new God is that of capitalism.
There is an old Gospel story about casting out demons and new ones coming in. The God of ‘my good’ has significant advantages over the God of ‘the greater good’, yet at the end of the day both have demonic consequences. This is why the followers of Jesus need to always have a critical relationship with prevailing ideologies and political systems.
Coinciding with the anniversary of the destruction of the Berlin Wall a group of brave Palestinians tried to make a dent in another wall. In the town of Qalandiya in the occupied West Bank, a group of masked activists using a lorry pulled down a two-metre cement block before Israeli security forces confronted them with tear gas grenades.
This wall is called the Security Wall and it divides off much of the Palestinian population from its neighbours. This wall has further alienated people from their ancestral land, and provided fresh sites for Jewish Zionist setters to make new dwellings. The Palestinians have fiercely opposed it. Unfortunately though the hapless protestors won’t be successful in removing this wall in a hurry.
Rather than increase security, walls are an indication that other methods of engagement have failed. Walls do not create solutions. Indeed all they create is resentment. The ferocity of that resentment will come, wave upon wave, to break upon those walls. And break they will. Only the hard and painful work of reconciliation, peace building, and forgiveness finding can create solutions.
Similarly a religion that is over-burdened with rules and regulations is indicative of a religion that does not trust the Spirit of God working in the hearts of everyone. A religion that only allows its knowledgeable elite to interpret God does not trust God. Indeed it sees its duty as containing God, leashing God. It is a religion that is wary of humanity, wary of public scrutiny, and wary of those who are difficult to control. Walled countries and walled religions have this in common: both are fearful.
Pope John Paul II once said, “What [Israel/Palestine] needs is not more walls but more bridges.” It doesn’t need more security, separation, and continued alienation of land. It needs the bridges of understanding, tolerance, and acceptance of difference. He could have also been talking about the Christian faith.
There is a parable told by Anthony De Mello called the Lost Sheep. In brief the story has a wandering and errant sheep that escapes through a hole in the fence, enjoys his freedom, and then is chased home by a wolf. The wise shepherd though, despite the advice of his friends [or is it the Sheep and Wool Control Board?], decides that the hole in the fence serves a good purpose and refuses to repair it. It serves the purpose of offering an escape. To remain with the flock is therefore a choice.
To be truly free one must have a choice. To have a truly faithful congregation one must encourage exploration, venturing beyond the fence, so that to remain is always a choice rather than a duty, compulsion, or threat. The God of Jesus is not a God who can be imposed or who controls people against their wills. Such a God is not the God of Jesus.
When Jesus died, so the Gospel of Matthew tells us, the thick curtain in the Temple separating off the Holy Place from Holy of Holies was torn in two. It is a striking symbol for the escape of God. Jesus’ God ripped open the barrier, ran out of the pen, and jumped over the walls of institutionalised religion to freedom.
I wonder whether they repaired the rip, or left it as a symbol of the utter freedom and sovereignty of God.
It was a rough couple of weeks for Bill English. He’d just explained his way out of the living expending, family entrusting tangle when a row breaks out over a not very plain tv promo for a programme called Plain English.
But things are looking up for Bill, unlike Rodney Hyde who usually dances his way lightly through the media wonderland. But he’s been stumbling about in a controversy over his partner’s travel costs and his throwaway lines about the prime minister. He won’t be winning any bonus points this month for nimble footwork.
Nor will Bishop and now becoming King Brian Tamaki with his claims to divinely bestowed royalty in the Old Testament model of David and oaths of allegiance from followers in the model of the Mafia.
But Graham Henry will do better because all he has to do to silence the carping from the twilight world of radio talk back is to win a game. And the All Blacks have awon two in a row. Winning is believing.
It’s hard to become a public figure and be heard in this country. And its even harder to stay credible and believable.
Which is why politicians and sports promoters and even some church leaders spend so much money on media managers and image consultants.
A whole science has developed on how to manufacture credibility, believability.
When I was a student in the States a year or 40 ago, a naïve young Kiwi newly arrived in Boston, I met this science for the first time. If you had a degree from Harvard, and a suit from Brooks Brothers, a button down collared shirt and loafers with tassels, and drove a European car, then you could walk through almost any important doorway and find a job and a wife, even if you were a clod of a guy.
Now we’ve taken that science and made it our own, ten times more sophisticated. All those public figures I talked about have media minders telling them how to look positive and cheerful, even though Graham Henry doesn’t seem to pay much attention to his.
But daring to be grumpy and successful is the greatest trick of all. If you follow the rules of manufacturing credibility, if you have your strategic plan in place and your performance outcomes ticked off, then you don’t have to smile all the time.
You don’t even have to ensure your arms aren’t crossed when you listen and you don’t have to lean forward when you speak. The rules of credible communication are very subtle and very flexible.
As the rabbis and religious leaders of Jesus time knew all too well. They were masters in the art of being believable. They dressed immaculately to fulfill every detail of the law – from the length of their tassels to the cut and curl of their beards. They waited to be greeted by those socially inferior to them, which was pretty much everybody, their prayers flowed beautifully and endlessly and they knew exactly where to sit at synagogue (close to the sacred scrolls) and the banquet table (close to the best food).
These leaders and scholars, these holy men made our attempts to manage and manufacture credibility look like amateur night. We can’t begin to imagine how impressive they were in the first century Jewish world; how deeply respected they were for their scholarship, their piety, their observance of every jot and tittle of the law. You criticized them at your peril. Everyone respected them. Everyone listened to them.
But Jesus didn’t. He called them hypocrites and condemned them. But even more devastating, in this morning’s gospel reading, he says that God doesn’t listen to them at all.
This is a reading about how to speak in a way that God hears and respects. Not how to speak in a way to win votes and ratings, test matches, record attendances, followers and offertories. Not how to be the voice that attracts the most attention?
What is it that convinces God? That pleases, honours and gives God delight? That gives glory to God?
Jesus answers the question by contrasting the voice of the religious leaders with the voice of a widow, which at the time was the hardest of all voices to hear.
Because a widow in first century Israel was poorest and most vulnerable of all people, especially if her oldest son was unmarried and she therefore had no income.
The Hebrew word for widow is the one who is silent, unable to speak. This voiceless, invisible women with no credibility according to the rules of the movers and shakers is the one who Jesus holds up as the model to follow. She has nothing yet she gives it all away. She has nothing to say yet she is heard by God more clearly than those who have all the words and make the most noise. She counts for nothing in the social standing stakes, she’d never make the society pages in the Sunday Herald, yet in God’s eyes she will inherit the kingdom.
We’re electing a new bishop this weekend. Pray that he or she when newly robed and consecrated for this office of leadership will remember this gospel and promote and protect the voices in our church who speak with the authority of sacrifice and generosity, out of the experience of dispossession and suffering.
Pray that we might find the wit and the courage as Anglicans to rediscover the hidden silent corners of our story as a church, held in the lives of men and woman, Maori and Pakeha, who found faith and kept the faith against the odds, who gave of themselves generously in remote places, who served the sick and the desperate and the unlovable, without recognition, or acceptance or thanks or praise.
And let’s remember that this widow woman Jesus honoured is not alone. She leads a whole army of silent and forgotten people who have kept the faith and the church alive when it was unpopular, persecuted, or simply ignored as it is so often in New Zealand. She belongs to that great host of beatitude people – the broken hearted, the dispossessed, those who hunger and thirst for justice and never seem to enjoy it.
If we know people like this widow we need to pay attention to them, because God does.
I’m spending a lot of time these days listening to a potter I’ve met whose work is made distinctive by crooked lines and broken forms and rough surfaces left unsmoothed.
Much of his work would be rejected by many just as much of our story as a church is about failure rather than success, about silence rather than a lot of noise.
This morning’s gospel is directing us to ask who God listens to, and try again to listen to those voices ourselves.
Voices outside us and all around us. And inside us too. Whenever we are generous and get no thanks for it; faithful and get no reward; and bear our brokenness with courage and grace, this story tells us God listens when no one else is hearing, remembers when everyone else forgets, and blesses us.
This year marks the 91st anniversary of the Armistice that ended the First World War. Most of the people who fought in that war have passed on. All we are left with now are the thousands of white crosses marking their graves in Flanders and elsewhere, and their poems, diaries, memories, films, aging photographs, paintings, histories, and stories. All a mute legacy to a cataclysmic paroxysm in history.
New Zealand mobilised and dispatched 110,000 men and women to that war. 18,000 New Zealanders were killed and 55,000 were wounded. This meant that there were 73,000 casualties in total or 66% of all those who were dispatched to the front. Almost every family in New Zealand was touched directly or indirectly by someone who was killed or wounded. Those who returned were the walking wounded. They were mentally and physically traumatised and all were scarred for life. They returned to New Zealand and elsewhere legless, armless and many were facially scarred for life.
The First World war was one of appalling slaughter. From all around the world 65 million men and women were mobilised , 8.5 million killed, 21 million were wounded 57% of all the mobilised were killed or wounded.
When my wife and I visited the Ramparts Cemetery near Ypres a few years ago (it’s a small cemetery in the town not far from what was known as sniper alley) we stood in silence before the graves of three Maori soldiers –aged between 18-23. They came from places like Gisborne, Te Araroa and Whakatane. We wondered what on earth each of them had hought about the war. We could imagine the excitement as they set off as warriors to fight in foreign places. But when the reality of war set in. What did they then think about being so far from their own homes, away from family, hapu and iwi? What did they think about their cause. Were they fighting for God, King and Country or were they simply trapped in an Imperial adventure over which they had absolutely no control? They had barely emerged from adolescence and their short lives were terminated, along with those of thousands of others , as they were ordered up sniper alley to front lines. Most who started up that road in Ypres never made it to the end.
So why are we commemorating and remembering the First World war 91 years on? There are a number of reasons.
First, many of us baby boomers are linked to that moment in history. My father, for example, was born in 1914 and my mother in 1918. They spanned the cataclysm. It’s consequences affected their perceptions as they tried to make sense of the turbulent years of the 1920s and 1930s and as they confronted the challenges posed by fascism and the Second World War. We who are left still have to make sense of their experiences /memories /histories as they in turn have had a powerful impact on our own.
Second, it was a war of absolutely unimaginable misery and carnage. The fact that human beings emerged from the carnage with some measure of dignity intact is a testimony to the power of the human spirit in the face of appalling adversity. We need to learn from these experiences so that we understand something of the capacity of individuals to protect their humanity in the face of powerful dehumanising forces. We need to understand this carnage as a way of learning how people deal with the imminent reality of death and survive.
Third, it was the first example of what we now know as total war, fought with modern technology and with devastating consequence It gave us the Vickers Machine Gun, Tanks, Poison Gas, War Planes and other Weapons of Mass destruction. It obliterated the distinctions between civilian and soldier and the doctrines that went with this distinction.
Fourth, those who returned from that war to New Zealand, people like John A Lee, Ormond Burton, and others, people who had distinguished themselves on the battlefield -were appalled at the huge gap between political rhetoric and the soldiers realities. This was not a glorious war. It was a messy, bloody and in the end unnecessary war serving very particular imperial interests as are a number of recent wars-especially those thought of as wars of choice rather than necessity. The First World War placed a question mark over war as a means of settling any disputes and yet 21 years later the world was embroiled in another world war. So the world did not learn, it was not the war to end all wars. It was a precursor to even more sophisticated slaughter. It is salutary to remind ourselves of the hopes that emerged from the First World War to see what they might tell us about dealing with conflict in the future.
Fifth, the military men and women who fought in that war and in all the wars that have afflicted the world since understand better than their political leaders something of the challenges that war poses to their profession. This is why serving military are often much more prudent and less jingoistic than their political leaders when it comes to understanding the hazards of violent conflict and of the challenge of keeping their humanity in the face of military challenge.
Finally, the First World War, the Second World War, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the on going wars in Iraq and Afghanistan all stand in a relatively uninterrupted line of 20th and 21st century violence. If this century is to be the age of maturity it is vital that we learn from the mistakes of the past so that we are not doomed to repeat these in the future.
So irrespective of what we might think about the political merits of all these wars we must respect the memories of those who fought in them and survived and we must especially remember those who fought in them and did not return. Both have lessons to teach us about life, death, survival and the retention of humanity.
I would also like to take advantage of this moment to honour those who did not fight, This act, which was so often misunderstood at the time, also required a certain kind of courage-namely the courage to say no to the state and to public opinion at a time of national crisis. The actions of those who said no added to our freedom by creating a space for dissent which is also essential to a flourishing democracy.
I would like to honour both the warriors and the pacifists. The old testament reading from Ecclesiastes reminded us about seasons, and times for war and peace. The new Testament reading, raises the bar a bit more and reminds us of the imperative for Christians to be peacemakers. Both perspectives are vital for a balanced understanding of the complexities of war.
My own family embodied these tensions. My Uncle, Owen Gatman, for example, chose to fight in the Second World War and was killed at Siddi Azeiz in Libya. His letters have been published in a book entitled “On Active Service” In 1940 he was much cheered by the King’s Empire broadcast in which the King said “ Keep your hearts proud and your resolve unshaken. Let us go forward to that task as one man, a smile on your lips and our heads held high. With God’s help we shall not fail”. Of course German soldiers went off to war with the same thought that God was on their side as well.
My father, on the other hand, chose to conscientiously object to war and spent the duration in detention. As the war progressed and he became aware of the specific evils of fascism he was constantly plagued by anxiety about whether his decision was the right one. In the end he decided that his stand did generate a creative tension between the violent/non violent options but he always felt conflicted. Uncle Owen wrote on April 11 1941 “ I truly hope that Les Clements will change his views about Pacifism-what he sees in his glorious stand does not work very well here at the present time!” This was written from Greece just before Owen was evacuated to Crete.
One can see in these exchanges though that there was a deep tension — and still is — between those who wish to pursue Peace through force or peace through friendly persuasion. These are truly cosmic questions. What is the best path to peace is something that has engaged men and women of goodwill, from all the major faiths for millennia. Indeed the bible is, to some extent, one long record of violence and how Jews and Christians have grappled with that violence.
Yahweh, the god of the Hebrew tribes, for example was viewed as a warrior God. All of the Prophets and religious teachers, however, acknowledged that they could not live in a state of war and were equally concerned with how to generate the conditions for a just and peaceful society In particular they were overwhelmed with the dehumanising and evil effects of war and could see how it divided and brutalised people.
Then along came Jesus who said Peace be with you. Who also said “You have heard it said an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth….but I say to you love your enemies, do good to those who wish to do ill and do not be overcome by evil defeat it with goodness”
So we have two very contradictory impulses that lie at the heart of all Abrahamic faiths- the warrior and pacifist traditions — even Jesus said “I have come not to bring peace but a sword, to bring division into families, right into the heart of the people of Israel”….what all these prophets and others are reflecting is that the search for truth, for righteousness, for justice and peace ( or what we might call the Kingdom of Heaven) will be divisive, it will generate conflict….the challenge is how do we deal with that conflict and this is what we are grappling with in our faith traditions it is also what we are grappling with in the newly developed National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Otago. We are looking at the relationship between development and peacebuilding; how to build capable, effective and legitimate state systems that do not need to rely on force and coercian in order to generate law and order; We are focusing on how to grapple with violence in the home, violence in schools, violence in the community. How do we ensure that we can celebrate ethnic and cultural diversity instead of being challenged by it? How do we deal with terrorist threat without declaring a war on terror—which is an oxymoron anyway given that it is hard to fight against an abstract noun! This is what we are focusing our academic attention on but it’s a challenge as well for all the Abrahamic religions as well.
How do we balance the demands of church and state/Caesar and Jesus/peace and justice? There have been a variety of answers to this through history—When the Roman Emperor Constantine became a Christian there was a fusion of Church and State which meant that defence of the state was also a defence of Christianity and vice versa.
Nowadays there is much more likely to be a division between Church and State and this is how it should be. There needs to be a tension between the claims of both. Given weapons of mass destruction we can no longer claim that the interests of communities of faith are served by the interests of the state.
We need to be able to adopt a more critical stance-we need to understand something about the causes of violence and how these might be addressed non violently. In other words we have to acknowledge that as long as there are human beings there will always be conflict. The challenge is how to deal with that conflict creatively and non-violently. If, heaven forbid, that conflict cannot be dealt with non violently then we need to know when and how to stop the violence and war and when the guns have ceased how to heal and reunite those divided by violence. How do we deliver social and political healing forgiveness and reconciliation in order to ensure that wars become less likely in the future?
What we do know from a lot of research, however, is that once people have experienced a violent conflict-the chance of lapsing back into violence within five years is doubled and if they experience two violent conflicts in 5 years the chances of a third incidence is quadrupled. This is known by the world bank as the conflict trap.
Our challenge as Christians, as human beings, as members of human communities is to work out how to prevent such violence in the future.
We need the support of all faith communities and all who are interested in preventing the sort of carnage that we remember on Remembrance Day. To do this effectively we need what my father called love, courage and hope.
These were the qualities that enabled individuals to survive the carnage of the First World War and all subsequent wars. It is the power of love, kindness, humility and compassion that enables us maintain our human integrity, our wholeness, our aliveness our humanity. This is what enables us to live meaningful lives in the face of almost certain death.
My Uncle Owen’s letters, for example, were all about friends, family, lovers, community and the memory of better times. They were also about the boredom of war and its nerve breaking tensions. To my great Aunt Alice just after the horrors of Crete he wrote:
“Stories of hopeless and desperate soldiers lying side by side with the hellish enemy breathing their last hours away. The sin of it all! Never again do I want to fight under such conditions. What a terrible tragedy this beast of Berlin has cast on his people and ours? What a lot he will have to account for before his maker! What a golden thread of courageous faith is this for us who recognise our ability to see beautiful things amidst the trials of battles-the beauty is sunset and dawn made one by nature. Bombs, shells, poison gas, cannot and will not wreck our faith in human nature or our love for this everlasting right. We know that whatsoever sorrows have darkened this world, beauty still remains. Beauty still remains and beauty is an expression of the mind of God. Cheer up! Dear one, be hopeful, life will not be in vain, after the storms of winter roses will bloom again. I am supremely thankful that in the kindness of loved ones, even if we are separated for a while, we can find rest and security. ”
Thus we remember on Remembrance day so that we can find that deepest source of love, life, security and fearlessness. This source does not flow from powers and principalities or from the most sophisticated bombers, missiles, and submarines. Rather it comes from that deep affirmation of all that binds us together as human beings. In particular it flows from an enhancement of our capacity to take delight in the beauty that exists all around us and in the creative responses we make to this beauty; it requires an ability to see ourselves in webs of relationships and in communities that sustain and nurture our ability to be fully alive and fully human. Most of all it requires courage and an acceptance of the risks in peace-building.
Two weeks before my Uncle was killed he wrote (after three days of desert battle):
“It is now that I often think of home and wonder what everybody is doing, for I feel you all very near and dear to me. I appreciate the life-like pictures that are painted for me within the pages sent so regularly. I can see in my minds eye all the beauty and splendour of blossoms, flowers, roses-they bloom again within my central being, and the dullness and the loneliness of this wild desert waste disappears from my view. I am uplifted to greater and nobler hopes and desires of things that will emerge out of this chaos. I look forward to my return home with a wild longing… Lots of love Owen xxxxx”
In the face of this sentiment we who remember have a responsibility to ensure that never again will there be such chaos. We have to learn better ways of building peace. We have to celebrate life as though we are all to die tomorrow. We have to learn forgiveness and compassion and most of all we need to acknowledge that our capacity to be who we are rests on the quality of our relationships with others. There is a poem by Alistair Campbell called Journey from Despair--but it works well with a call to Christian peacemaking.
Having been brought up as a skeptical protestant I didn’t think saints were of much use. They seemed to be idealized figures from the early centuries of Christendom that some wanted to venerate. Their shortcomings were ignored. A good dose of historical realism was needed.
Yet, on the other, heroes and heroines have at their best had the capacity to lift our vision, to invite us to dream of the impossible, and urge to get off our backsides and give it a go. At their best they can reach out across time and culture to encourage our faith.
Most of the traditional saints, when viewed with historical-critical tools, are less than inspiring. By modern standards many would need the support of the mental health services. Unconstrained by religious convention however we can think about ‘saints’ more broadly as those who encourage and inspire us in our faith.
Personally I find it hard to go past Nelson Mandela. He is a modern exemplar of perseverance, courage, humility, and reconciliation. He’s also someone who would be appalled by the honorific of ‘saint’ being attached to his name. He has never walked the path of self-glorification that Brian Tamaki, and others before him, thinks is the route to spiritual wisdom.
As I lift my eyes there on one of our office walls hangs Nelson’s picture. It commemorates the time he stood here in the pulpit of St Matthew’s and thanked those New Zealanders who tried to stop the South African rugby team touring in 1981. It was one a great moments that has blessed this place. His cheeky grin continues to be a blessing.
Nelson was born in 1918 in the Transkei. Groomed for high office he was sent off to a Wesleyan secondary school. “Without the church,” he once said, “I would never have been here today. We grew up at a time when the government of this country owed its duty only to whites. It took no interest whatsoever in our education.”
Mandela began a university education but was suspended for joining in a protest. It was while studying for a law degree that he joined the African National Congress. In 1944 he was part of a small group who set themselves the task of transforming the ANC into a more radical mass movement. It was this group that inspired the ANC conference to adopt the strategies of boycott, strike, civil disobedience and non-cooperation.
Nelson had exceptional organizational abilities that came to the fore in 1952 when he travelled the country organising a mass civil disobedience campaign. Also in that same year he opened with Oliver Tambo the first black legal practice in South Africa.
Two qualities of leadership are very apparent in this period. They are firstly a passion for the plight of his people. Through his legal practice and his travels he heard time and again of the misery and oppression that apartheid foisted upon them, and he felt that deeply. Secondly, Nelson was willing to fearlessly stand up for what he believed was just and right and to suffer the consequences.
In the 1950s he was banned, arrested, and imprisoned numerous times. In 1960 the ANC was outlawed. Mandela was now the leading figure in the movement. He continued to speak out against apartheid. He lived evading the police via constantly travelling and using disguises – and hence he was nicknamed ‘the Black Pimpernel’.
Around this time the ANC started preparing for an armed struggle. As Nelson said, “It was only when all else had failed, when all channels of peaceful protest had been barred to us, that the decision was made to embark on violent forms of political struggle.”
In 1962 Mandela was arrested and sentenced to five years in prison. However the length was later increased to a life sentence for sabotage. Throughout all his trials Mandela used the opportunity to proclaim his message. In 1964, for example, he said, “I have fought against white domination. I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society... It is an ideal which I hope to live for [and] an ideal which I am prepared to die for.”
Nelson spent nearly 27 years in prison, most of it on Robben Island. He and his colleagues were subjected to hard labour and dehumanizing treatment. Yet prison had a spiritually maturing effect on him preparing him for the reconciling tasks he was ultimately to accomplish. He read widely, particularly on religion. Any arrogance and self-righteousness fell away, while perseverance, patience, and compassion ripened. As Mandela later said, “to appreciate the importance of religion, you have to have been in a South African jail under apartheid, where you could see the cruelty of human beings…”
In those 27 years the authorities tried to make Nelson into a non-person. He could not be quoted, no pictures of him were allowed, and it was hoped that he would disappear into the limbo of amnesia. But he became instead the world's most famous political prisoner, an unassailable icon of struggle against racial injustice.
When it was eventually decided that he would be released unconditionally, there were fears that the country would erupt in turmoil. But although there was overwhelming reason for him to be a bitter and aggressive person, the years in prison had changed him. On emerging from prison he defined the task he had set himself as one of “reconciliation, of binding wounds of the country, of engendering trust and confidence.”
Nelson was released from prison in 1990, elected President of the ANC in 1991, oversaw the end of apartheid in 1994, and was elected President of a democratic South Africa in the same year.
There is physical courage and there is spiritual courage. Physical courage is facing the possibility of pain, weighing the consequences, and yet still proceeding. Nelson did this time and again in the 1950s and 60s. Spiritual courage is harder to define. When you are losing – being physically, mentally, and emotionally assaulted – it is tempting to give up and get out. It is not easy to persevere. Similarly when one is winning – receiving accolades and expectations of those for whom one is a champion – it is not easy to be humble, magnanimous, and forgiving towards one’s enemies. Mandela chose these less easy routes. This is what I mean by spiritual courage.
It also took enormous spiritual courage to come out of prison and walk the path of reconciliation. The white man’s fear was always that if he took his foot off the black man’s neck then the black man’s foot would soon come down on his own. That didn’t happen. It didn’t happen because the black leadership of South African, and here I include others like Desmond Tutu, had the courage to walk the path of reconciliation. In this respect, and in many others, Mandela has followed the example of Jesus to whom he gave his allegiance in a high school many years ago.
As some of you are aware because you are fans, St Matthew’s has a Facebook page where bits and pieces about our parish life are posted and people can make comments. While on holiday one of our fans, Ali in Vancouver, Canada, asked if I was going to continue my Wisdom for Dummies series. While gratified by this “overwhelming” demand for more such sermons, I haven’t answered her. I have no idea if there will be more or not.
What I do know is that after reading Bourgeault’s The Wisdom Jesus, I feel like the two young fish who while swimming along happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way. He nods at them and asks, "Morning, boys, how's the water?" The two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, "What the hell is water?"[i]
Jesus, the wisdom teacher has brought me up short. By asking about the water, he changed my beliefs. I no longer believe I am the absolute centre of the universe as we were all hardwired at birth to think. I now believe Jesus’ intent was to wise us up; not to become our personal saviour. He wanted to challenge our assumptions about reality. He wanted to raise our consciousness to a level where we see the falseness of “otherness.” The idea that life is all about us versus everything else. He wanted us to discover that we are part of a greater whole: one with each other and our environment, and all is divine love.
I now believe this, so now I see it. It colours everything for me. It alters my response to the challenges of daily life. It impacts how I relate to others. In essence it shapes my experience. And Ali, I suspect it will filter how I read the Gospel and nuance how I preach it as I continue to explore it’s meaning and live into its reality.
That was certainly true when I read the story of Bartimaeus this week. While I’ve read it many times before, this time I couldn’t stop laughing. Mark is a masterful storyteller, but I hadn’t fully before appreciated his capacity for humour.
Blind beggars are not exactly at the top of the social ladder in Jesus’ day or ours. Bartimaeus was not on the “must invite” list of the social climbers in Jericho. In fact to the upright moral folk in the town he was invisible, at least until he starts yelling for attention. Nice twist Mark! They try to shush him, but then the guy who can’t see tells those with sight but no vision that Jesus is the Son of David. You have to love the irony.
Since the poor can’t afford good manners, Bartimaeus keeps yelling. All he has is his need, so he keeps on yelling. And yelling. So Jesus takes a deep breath and does what he does best. He asks Bartimaeus a question. The same question he asked the rich young man two weeks ago, “OK, relax mate. What do you want?”
Biblical scholar John Dear wrote a book called The Questions of Jesus. It turns out that while the powers that be want there to be known answers to difficult questions, common answers that bind the people and quell dissent, Jesus had a different idea.
Jesus was about helping us live life abundantly; not parceling out answers. He was not the answer man. He wanted people to think things through for themselves.
Jesus only directly answers three of the 183 questions that are posed to him in the four Gospels. Only three! In contrast, Jesus, the wisdom teacher, the guide; the respecter of persons is recorded as asking 307 questions of others.[ii]
To Jesus’ question, Bartimaeus who had little to lose asks for the seemingly impossible, “I want to see!”
Now Mark is really twisting the ironic knife. The only one in the crowd who has the wit and wisdom to see that Jesus is the Messiah, says to this same Messiah, “I want to see.”
In essence, Jesus tells him he does see. His faith in the possibility of a new reality has been realized. This new consciousness that exceeds even the disciples’ has done the trick. He believes so he can see. Then unlike the rich young man and the crowds swarming Jesus, his belief changes his experience. He moves from sitting and being by the Way to being on the Way-- living into this new reality.
While Bartimaeus’ belief gave him the vision to see that healing love was within reach, beliefs can easily cause us to become blind to the obvious as well. Research has shown that even minor tweaks to one’s expectations can cause a form of blindness. A simple experiment developed by University of Illinois psychologist Daniel Simons provided a dramatic demonstration of this effect.
Simon’s experiment consists of a twenty-five second video clip of six people playing a basketball game. Three are dressed in white T-shirts and three in black T-shirts. The white team is passing a basketball amongst themselves, and the black team is doing likewise. During the game, a person dressed in a black gorilla suit calmly walks into the middle of the game, beats its chest, and then walks off. The gorilla is not understated or camouflaged – it’s blatantly obvious. And yet the majority of people viewing the clip do not see the gorilla provided they’re asked a simple question: how many basketballs are tossed between the members wearing white T-shirts? [iii]
While asking questions can lead to improved vision, clearly not all questions are equally good. Some invite us to miss the obvious.
There once was a man who wanted to know all about the creatures that lived at the bottom of the sea. So he created a huge net with weaving that left openings of only three inches wide. He laid it down upon the ocean floor, let it set awhile, and then pulled it up, capturing all in its grasp. Then he examined the contents and prepared a report on his meticulous research.
It was all fascinating, he said, so many different creatures and varieties. The thing he found interesting though, was that there are no creatures smaller than three inches that inhabit the ocean floor.
There are all kind of questions I ask with gaping three-inch holes in them. They tend to be unfocused, mild, eclectic, even harmless and entertaining. But mostly I know them because I already have an easy answer for them. Why don’t I ever win the Lotto? Because life is unfair. Why does he or she act like that? Because they are (fill in the blank) …a woman …a man …gay …straight …an American …naïve …nasty …a jerk. Since I already have an answer they require no further thought or action.
Jesus’ questions are different. What do you want? What are you looking for? What’s holding you back? What will you risk? These are the kind of questions that try to net what is essential to our lives. They are deep and probing. Seemingly simple, they are focused and threatening to the status quo of the familiar. These are the questions that are the work of faith. There are no quick and easy answers to them but they move us along the Way. But there are roadblocks.
As we grow in our awareness, we become clearer on what is essential, more centered on the simple power of our oneness and less subject to manipulation. But our change can be a threat to others who sense the change and react in irritation and dis-ease. It seems we can stand almost anything except a loved one’s new life that requires us to examine our own.
As the diffuse potential of being on the Way comes into focus, we begin to see what we might lose—the illusion of control over our lives, the comfortable quilt which has excused so little transformation, the identity of victim, half-competent, or cripple which has left us sitting by the Way irresponsibly lost in our blindness.
Our hope is to have the courage of Bartimaeus. To go forth trusting in the divine love that surrounds and infuses us like fish in water. If we believe it we can see it. Better yet we can experience it.
Denise Kelsall speaks to the bonds of affection between animals and animals and humans. She shares the fate of Jack who has featured in past services. A moving homily punctuated by an Amen Corner of canines in the congregation.
This last week Auckland’s attention has been focused on the fate of a little two-year-old girl, Aisling Symes. There by her mother’s side one minute, and gone the next. As the search widened so did the speculation. We imagined the worst – snatched, abused, tortured, killed… Yet we hoped for the best – found unharmed and returned to her parents. As you know neither of these was the outcome. Instead she was found drowned in a drain.
The parents were churchgoers, and their pastor was impressive. He and the Ranui Baptist community, as well as numerous others in the neighbourhood, surrounded this family with significant support and prayer. It was great to see and feel the caring connections between people. It made me feel like joining – for I too wanted to belong, to care, and to be connected.
I imagine some of the pastor’s prayers would have been directed to that saving God who lives somewhere above ready to intervene in human affairs when the right people cry out loud and long enough. You can certainly find that God in the Bible, and in most religions. It’s a comforting God, and one that many of us when in dire circumstances, regardless of our beliefs, hope might come and save the day.
Well as neo-atheists like Dawkins and Hitchens would point out that God didn’t save the day. Aisling wasn’t miraculously found alive and well. Sure, maybe the outcome was better than the torture scenario or the never-finding-out scenario, but it still wasn’t what was being prayed for. God didn’t intervene and rescue her.
Were the prayers therefore pointless? I would empathetically say ‘No’. Although many might have been ineffectually petitioning the interventionist God, the prayers were also having another more potent effect. They were weaving connections between all who cared and who grieved and who worried. From those who put flowers at the gate, to the police who worked tirelessly, to the communities far and wide who sent messages of support, bonds of compassion were being woven. These connections or bonds can be the source of grace. Indeed I would argue that the connections or bonds of grace-filled mutuality and affection, whether in trouble or in joy, are the very substance of God.
The love of the community that surrounded the Symes family revealed the love of God. The aroha and goodwill that was extended to the family will be the balm to aid their healing in the years ahead. Like a deep cut the memory and scar of Aisling’s death won’t go away, but with the love and support of many hopefully the wound will heal.
Today we remember St Luke, commonly thought of as a physician. It is timely to think about health and healing. Usually healing is thought as a miraculous cure wrought by a divine source. Such thinking is too narrow for me. Similarly the limitation of healing to the insights and application of Western medicine is too narrow for me. There is a tremendous, largely unheralded power in the bonds between people, in the gentle touch we can offer each other, and in the hospitable presence of the grace we can extend to friend and enemy alike.
I’m reminded of a story recalled by Malcolm Gladwell[i] of a working class town, Roseto, in Pennsylvania, populated from its inception in the 1890s right through until the 1950s with Italian immigrants from a town by the same name in Italy.
Roseto might have remained largely unknown save for a professor at the Oklahoma medical school called Stewart Wolf. As chance would have it in the mid-1950s he was in Pennsylvania when a GP from the Roseto area told him, “You know, I’ve been practicing for 17 years. I get patients from all over, and I rarely find anyone from Roseto under the age of 65 with heart disease.”
Wolf was taken aback. This was the 1950s and heart attacks were epidemic in the United States. It was the leading cause of death in men under 65.
Wolf decided to investigate. Colleagues and students from his medical school were enlisted. They analyzed doctor’s records. They took medical histories and constructed family genealogies. The mayor of Roseto and the townsfolk were very cooperative. The entire population was tested.
The results were astonishing. No one under 55 had died of a heart attack or showed any signs of heart disease. Indeed the death rate from all causes in Roseto was 30-35% lower than the country’s average.
Wolf’s team broadened their research and brought in sociologists and members of other academic disciplines. They found there were no suicides, no alcoholism, no drug addiction, and very little crime. What was going on in this town?
So they checked the diets. But the locals were cooking with lard not oil. They were eating plenty of sausage and salami. The researchers found that a whopping 41% of their calories came from fat.
Nor was this a town where everyone was out running or doing yoga. Indeed many Rosetans smoked heavily and struggled with obesity.
Next they checked genetics. They tracked down relatives living in other parts of the U.S. to see if they shared the same remarkable good health. They didn’t.
What about the region in Pennsylvania where Roseto was? Was there something there in the climate and soil? But the two closest towns, just a few miles apart, didn’t share the same good health.
Eventually the researchers realized that there was something in the way the people of Roseto related to one another. How they visited one another. How they stopped to chat. They saw how 3 generations lived under the one roof. They saw the calming and unifying effect of the local church. They counted 22 separate civic organizations in a town of just 22,000 people. They picked up on the egalitarian ethos that discouraged the wealthy from flaunting their success and helped the unsuccessful obscure their failures.
How people relate to each other and the bonds between people are wellsprings of health and healing.
When I read the Bible this week about seventy people going out into the community, travelling lightly offering peace and goodwill, communing, and healing I thought of Ranui and Roseto. Rather than understanding the seventy as a bunch of delegated miracle workers delivering doorstep salvation I understand them as normal people building bonds of affection with those they visit. The grace, the substance of God, is in the two-way connection.
Sure I understand what biblical scholars say about the text – the 70 being reminiscent of Moses and the elders, the going out being an allusion to the early Church’s mission to the Gentiles, etcetera.
But today, this week, I just hear connection, bonds of affection, and their possibilities for healing and wholeness.
[i] Gladwell, Malcolm Outliers: The Story of Success Australia : Penguin, 2008 p.3ff.
Mark chapter 10, verse 17: A man asked, “Good teacher what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“Well, firstly mate, drop the goodteacher prattle. I know some leaders love lapdogs, but generally speaking sycophants make me ill. Whatever you do don’t elevate me to lordly status. Just take the few clues you might get from listening and watching, and then work out the solutions to life for yourself. And remember: don’t blame me if you screw up.”
“Secondly, it’s a good question you ask – although you don’t inherit eternal life. Sure, you might inherit some of the ol’ man’s gold, even his membership in the big boys club, but in the eternal life stakes those things aren’t worth a darn. In fact it’s impossible to buy your way into the godly good books.”
“Talking of good books, have you tried doing what they say? You know following the rules: paying your taxes, not beating up on your kids, only going 10 kilometres over the speed limit…”
Verse 20: He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.”
“Yeah, well, serves ya right. It’s not what you do but what’s in your heart that will get you traction.”
“Look, mate, I know it’s hard for a guy like you. You’re used to wealth and its associated power. It might get you an audience with the Prime Minister, even the bishop, but with God it just doesn’t cut it. A streetie, with aroma to share, will be ushered in before you. It’s all that first last, last first stuff. Bummer eh?”
“Same with philanthropy. Throwing dollars away will get you on the nightly news. It might get you a knighthood, as well as eternal praise from hard-pressed charities, but in the God business you might as well be a widow with a 10-cent coin for all the difference it will make. You can buy power, prestige, even religion… but you can’t buy God.”
“My advice mate, and its tough, is that if you’re a serious seeker ditch the gold, glamour, and glory. They are just gonna weigh you down.”
Verse 22: When the man heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
But the disciples couldn’t believe their ears. ‘How could wealth not get you an audience? How could power not give you influence? If these rich dudes can’t get in, well there’s just no hope for plain guys like us!’ They just stood there, mouths agape, looking like stunned mullets.
v.24b Jesus said to them again, “How hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
It’s more difficult than finding a sickness beneficiary at an ACT Party conference; or a mining engineer at a Green one.
26 They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?”
Well… dieting camels with access to big needles?
Of course it’s all hyperbole, code for the impossible. It’s not about William Barclay’s make-believe ‘needle gate’ that admits only camels on bended knee. Humility isn’t going to get the rich man in either.
This biblical text is talking about divestment: giving money away.
It doesn’t mean stop making it – although some methods of money-making are not commendable. One can think of alcopops, cigarettes, non-biodegradable plastics, semi-automatic rifles, body ‘enhancement’ surgeries... Just because something is legal doesn’t make it good. Just because there is a market for your product doesn’t mean you should produce it. Just because you are making lots of money doesn’t mean you have what is truly worthwhile.
Money is not neutral. Money has a corrosive effect. It says, “I’m really important.” It says, “If you have lots of me you are successful.” It says, “If you have more of me than your neighbour has then you are not just better off you are better.”
And we Kiwis are seduced by money and its myths. We believe that wealthy people are more important, more successful, and better than the rest of us. Indeed critics of wealth are derided as naïve socialists, destructive of the entrepreneurial spirit.
There was a meeting in 336 B.C.E. between probably the most powerful and richest ruler of the day, Alexander the Great, and the philosopher Diogenes who had no possessions save a staff and a tunic.
When Alexander asked Diogenes to name anything he wanted, he replied: “Just now stand a bit away from the sun!” Alexander had apparently interfered with his basking in the heat.[i]
There are scholars who believe Jesus followed in the same philosophical tradition as Diogenes. This story involves a calculated questioning of power, rule, and kingship. Who is the true ruler: the one who wants everything, or the one who wants nothing; the one who wants all of Asia, or the one who wants only a little sunlight? Was Alexander being ‘real’ and Diogenes being ‘naive’? Or was it the other way round?
Money is a means not an end. Money at its best is a means to assist in the building up of human communities.
An employer told me the other day, with a note of pride in his voice, that it was not profit that motivated him but the fact that their business could support fifteen families. Sure, he was proud of his products too. But he understood the purpose of money to be supporting others.
Similarly the Norman family – who own companies like Farmers and Pascoes – where they were quoted in an interview recently as “not being in it for the money”. I had to read that line twice. They were in it for the satisfaction of serving their customers and supporting their staff.
Divestment is not just about giving money away to charities – although that’s a great start. Divestment is about looking at society and our environment as a whole and thinking about what will make it better. What products will benefit the common good? What services will promote values of love, loyalty, and altruism? What innovations will help the land, the sea, the animals and plants benefit from the human imprint?
How can we help not just the well-off but everyone be happier, everyone be more content, and everyone live a life they can be proud of? One of the surest ways to feel happy and content is by helping other people achieve happiness and contentment. We are communal creatures. The good of the whole affects our soul.
The potent combination of money, individual fulfilment, and greed destroys the soul, and destroys the lives of others round about. This was the malady behind the prime mortgage and banking catastrophes that recently swept our world. The answers don’t just lie in regulations and controls. The answers needed are soul answers, and they affect all of us who aspire to have more.
The answers also lie in making a stark choice: Are we going to spend our lives striving for money and influence? Or are we going to divest ourselves of these attractive idols and seek that which is beyond price?
Diogenes was once reprimanded by the philosopher Aristippus: “If you would learn to be subservient to the king you would not have to live on such garbage as lentils.”
Said Diogenes, “If you had learnt to live on lentils you would not have to flatter the king.”[ii]
Or as Jesus once said:
“No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” [Matt 6:24]
[i] Crossan, J. D. Jesus a Revolutionary Biography p.116
Pentecost 18 St Francis' Day Job 1:1, 2:1-10 Mark 10:2-16
Suffering and injustice – life is bound up in suffering somewhere all too close. It is a truism to state – ‘it comes to us all.’ It might be you or it might be me, someone we know, something we read, see or hear about - it might be long and drawn out or short and desperate. Whatever its origin, suffering is part of being human, alive and sentient. We suffer because we love and care, because we are deeply attached to something or someone, because we hurt.
The ancients believed in a God who smote their enemies and rescued them from their oppressors, a God who rewarded the good and punished the bad. The book of Proverbs is full of maxims about how to live and not to live so that we reap the rewards of a good life. Our reading from the book of Job today debunks the myth that we get what we deserve.
Job is an obedient pious guy – honest, faithful to God, prosperous and upright. God brings him down on a whim, because of the goading and the wager with a member of his heavenly court, Satan.
Job has already lost all his possessions and his family, and in our reading today is now further afflicted with repulsive itchy suppurating boils that cover his body. Job is left with only his tortured craven and diseased body, and a wife who tells him to curse God even if it means he will die. He tells her off and philosophically states that we must take the good with the bad – how can we expect to have one without the other. He maintains his integrity with God.
How can we expect to have one without the other? Good and bad. We mitigate against the bad by being careful and aware, and we try to be as kind and ethical as possible. But then something happens, an accident maybe, a frightening prognosis, a close personal tragedy, and we too are lost in a place of grief and pain. We are filled with why’s and what ifs’ – and knowing inside that it is all useless, that the deed is done and that our pain will mark us always. We wonder what sort of God allows things like this to happen, we ask ourselves what is the point of it all, we rail against the injustice of it, we struggle with prayer in our wordless agony.
And we wonder where God is in all this. It is the perennial theological question. And it is a hard question to which no one answer will ever do. If we believe in an interventionist God who acts directly in our world, then why does God allow the dreadful horror and suffering that crushes life and destroys goodness and beauty. It is easy to understand why the notion of heaven is so desirable. There must be a place, somewhere, where all this misery and pain is transformed and reconciled to the love that causes our searing loss. Our yearnings too mark us.
The question ‘does God play dice’ has a familiar ring to it. We cannot believe in a capricious God who acts only sometimes - on a whim maybe. And yet we pray for God to act, we intercede for others, and we pray and long for miracles. We pray for love and life and justice to triumph over death and destruction.
The book of Job is a text that is believed to have come from a very ancient ‘once upon a time’ folk tale. In turn this brilliant philosophical poem is based upon the most profound of questions - why God lets good people suffer. The book does not give specific answers. It gives voice to an angry and indignant Job who swears oaths to his innocence and calls upon his accuser, God, to provide the evidence against him. He challenges God, and God answers him out of the whirlwind. God does not respond to Job’s demands for evidence but overwhelms him with his vast and raging might and power, citing the creation of the world and all that dwells in it. Job is silenced. It appears that experiencing God is enough.
Job gives voice to an experiential reality and a conundrum we all confront if we believe in God. And we continue to ask where God is when we suffer. Is it the same place as when we rejoice, the same place as when we are dallying away time with a friend? Is it all about faith in good times and in bad?
There are so many different takes on these questions as you can imagine - and I am sure that even here at St Matthews today there is a huge variety in the understandings of God and the locale or nature of the presence of God in our lives. And this too alters as we change and grow, just as it did for Job in his suffering. The story goes that Job saw things differently through his suffering and experienced God intensely in response to his demand. This does not solve the question and I doubt that it will ever be solved.
Suffering and its counterpart pleasure are existential realities - they are part of what it means to be human. There has never been a time when all was perfect and blissful forever.
When we were children many of us believed in a remote and fearful male deity/God on high who judged and by whom we were measured for our worth. He was, in good Old Testament style, forbidding and to be feared. For some reason I recall Julie Andrews singing “and somewhere in my wicked miserable past I MUST have done something good” or something similar - indicating her innate sense of being bad (or maybe naughty in her case) and her amazement when something good happens to her. This is representative of some pretty awful theology that many of us grew up with and is to be condemned. It echoes the good behaviour brings reward, bad behaviour brings punishment scenario with nothing in between and depicts a punitive subjective God that is part of the cultural background to the book of Job and most of the ancient world.
Most of us play about quite a lot in the ‘in between.’ And that’s where I believe God is.
In the ‘in between’ you and me, and in all that happens to us in our lives. To believe in an object God, a personality who somehow resides out there in the heavenlies someplace, who throws thunderbolts and raptures people to heavenly kingdoms, which is again out there somewhere, is limited and hard to embrace when we see deep space through the Hubble telescope and search for traces of life on other planets. This does not negate or refute the notion or the reality of the experience of God and the numinous – rather it moves to a more intrinsic and cosmic reality within ourselves and all creation, and it reinforces the deep mystery that is life and the preciousness of our every experience – even our suffering if we can rise to that, however difficult. It takes, as we read in the book of Job, suffering and torment to drive a self-satisfied wealthy devout believer like Job to truly experience God. When we are brought home to the moving reality of our beautiful aching and painful frailty, our broken and scarred vulnerabilities, our smashed lives and hopes – then we too can learn in our depths what it means to enter truly into our God.
On St Matthew's Day Sir Paul Reeves, former archbishop and Governor General of New Zealand, reflected on the similarities of both Matthew, the disciple and parish of St Matthew-in-the-City. Both are slightly less than respectable and inherently impetuous. That is why as bishop of the diocese he considered St Matthew's a haven.
Today is our Patronal feast day where we celebrate our namesake the apostle Matthew.
When we read the Bible, the New Testament begins with Matthew. We see him as a good guy, the first gospeller because of his place in the New Testament but wait on – as we discover in life – all is not what it seems.
Matthew was a tax collector - an outcast, reviled and loathed – a Jew working for the Romans – collecting money for the oppressors of his people. These tax collectors were usually rich because they charged far more in tax than the law required and they had the Roman legions to act as heavies if people protested or reneged on payments. Thus these tax collectors were hated by the Jews because of their cheating and their support of Rome.
There he is, according to the story, in his tax booth – and Jesus comes by and beckons – he says something like ‘come on man – come follow me.’ Matthew immediately responds and follows Jesus. It reminds me a bit of those old B grade movies where an alien would invade a human body or it would be taken over by some mysterious force and at the right signal – would walk robot like to wherever it was led. But that is as far from the truth as we can imagine.
Something happened that gave Matthew such hope- that responded to a longing we can only guess at – for him to cast aside a lucrative position for no tangible reward or future. Maybe he was sick of being reviled and spat at. Maybe he was sick of ripping off his own people. May he was sick inside at what he had become. We don’t know – but we do know that he walked away from a life that traded in betrayal, misery and greed to a life of hope. To a life that took no count of money or possessions, that rested in the possibility that there was another way for him to live – for him to believe in.
Later in the evening, as we hear in our gospel reading, Matthew invites fellow tax collectors and his seedy lowlife mates along to have dinner with Jesus and his disciples. The Pharisees, the epitome of correctness and adherence to the Law, are horrified. ‘Why does your teacher eat with such scum?’ they ask the disciples.
It is an interesting question. Our understanding is that we mix with decent people – that we are, to an extent, defined by those we are friends with. Mostly we like to be associated with good people and it’s always good for business to know the in-crowd – those who have reputations and power. We associate with people who are like us generally – we don’t go out of our way to make our lives difficult or invite unwanted guests into our homes.
This is where the teachings of Jesus get hard. Jesus replies to the Pharisees question and says – ‘hey dudes, your life is OK. Why should I hang out with you when there’s a heap of people whose lives are bad news – who are doing it all wrong – who need to see that there is another way to live – who need to feel OK too.
As I said – it is a hard call. We all live good lives I think – we espouse the right attitudes and beliefs – in truth and justice, in freedom and love. Even in mercy and compassion. But in our society and I am sure, in most societies, we cleave, we congregate together in our small packs of securities and similarities. We don’t hang out with the unwanted underbelly of our city.
It’s totally understandable and I am mostly no different. We see that underbelly, for example, as people from the City Mission and we can drop off our food, we can pray and we can smile and give a dollar or two for a habit maybe. We know that to effect any real change in these lives is a task that takes more expertise and knowledge than we own.
But what about the modern day tax collectors, the rip off merchants, people who trade in money big time and therefore trade in death. I am coming to the conclusion that in our deeply interconnected world that there is no possibility of being super rich without being part of death – that the more and more accumulation that riches bring means starvation, prostitution, disease, death somewhere in our world. There is no rule that says that money continues to grow of itself – it is the result of production somewhere – of work – of resources………..That is the fallacy that the latest crash and recession have shown us. And yet those with the most continue to blatantly harvest the most, and death and disease and pain and suffering ensue endlessly. There is no gain without cost and the super rich feed upon the flesh of their fellow human beings.
So what and how do we read the message of Jesus today in this light. Revolutionaries would want to blast them into the stratosphere, to annihilate the perpetuators of rottenness and systems that advantage those who already have it all. Again, we understand this.
But what does Jesus say. To my reading he says they are sick and that they need compassion and mercy in their sickness. While that sounds wonderful and true it is a bitter pill to swallow if you have lost everything, if you are dying painfully because you can’t afford health care, if laws and shonky lawyers prop up the rich because they can afford them, and therefore they can get even more. These are scenarios that we are all familiar with.
When I was reading around this subject I read the story of the Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker.
They had an extensive PTL ministry – supposedly “Praise the Lord” but the press called it ‘pass the loot.’ In 1986 their income was $129 million and they had all sorts of major assets- theme parks and TV channels begging for funds for ‘the Lord’s work.’ It was a scam and Jim Bakker was convicted for fraud and went to jail. He was deserted by everybody. Billy Graham came and visited and remained his friend and took him to church when he was released. And did he do it all again but differently I wonder?
In the same manner many big corporations in New Zealand in the 1980’s and in the US just recently scammed enormous amounts of money from people who could never recover it – whose lives were devastated by these fraudsters – only to have them pop up later with the same lifestyle with riches and possesions galore. We wonder frustratedly – where is the justice and we become cynical and a sense of hopelessness begins to creep in.
Jesus rebukes the Pharisees because they are hardhearted – they have lost their sense of mercy and compassion. That mercy and compassion are not just for the physically wounded, the voiceless, the poor, hungry and disenfranchised but for all people.
And here is the hardest call for me – to have compassion on the limited senses of these mega rich titans of our world, to be aware of their impoverishment as they actively gorge upon the flesh of their fellow humans, as they condone every vile atrocity in their greed for more and yet more. That the lust for power, for prominence, for accumulation are most dangerous traits of all – that it in their wake they threaten the destruction of life – Jesus asks us to feel compassion and mercy for the sickness that invades dark souls such as these.
And it is right that we do – it does not mean that we have no voice to protest, no arm to write – but to keep our own humanity we must, and to realize that we too are imperfect and forgiven and that we are called to live the immeasurable grace that is God amongst us. That if we do not we too become like the Pharisees – hardhearted and lacking in mercy for the sick and the blind such as these.