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.
Next Sunday marks the launching of the first “World March for Peace and Nonviolence. ”The March officially begins in Wellington on October 2nd - Gandhi’s birthday, takes 90 days, goes through 90 countries, over 6 continents to end in the Andes mountains in Argentina on January 2nd 2010.
But it all really starts to happen right here where the engine begins to roar into life - here at St Matthew’s in the City, 6 days before that. The International marchers will arrive and celebrate with supporters here on Sunday from 12.30 to around 3pm. There will be a marquee outside and banners - inside will be students from AUT creating the peace symbol on the floor in candles (for those of you who remember the labyrinth). Many different groups concerned with peace and nonviolence like Amnesty will be represented here, there will be music and food. It sounds very exciting and a cause close to our collective heart for it was September 23rd 2007, here at St Matthew’s, that Auckland declared itself a Peace city. On the website for the march there are many famous people who put their names and faces to this happening from Sir Paul Reeves to Desmond Tutu to Helen Clark and the female President of Chile. Many of the marchers will fly to the Chathams for a very spiritual event celebrating the ancient forbears of this land who espoused peace and were just about annihilated because of this. Next Sunday augurs an international event dedicated to peace.
This is Peace from war, from violence, so that people may be safer and happier, to try to build a better world that does not include the building of gigantic military institutions with star wars scenarios and all the horror and ugly power that these indicate. To condemn the promotion of the hatred and conflict that leads to war, and to the massive and unconscionable suffering that seems to have become part of the air we breathe, to brutal cruel and unnecessary death.
When we think of peace it is generally seen over against war, the weapons of war, might and military power. We know it is all about power, vested interests, greed, prejudice. It is very hard to believe any more the myths of our childhood – that we in the west do battle to save the world or to rescue the village. We are far more sophisticated and aware of the machine that grinds on and on relentlessly for all of the major global powers and shadowy elite interests that want to maintain preeminence power and control. It is a savage and inhuman creation that is able to kill and maim and imprison thousands and millions of people with impunity and lack of conscience.
This World March for Peace and Nonviolence is a concerted global protest against this insanity.
Today, our readings from James and Mark bring it down to the particular.
James is wisdom writing at its finest. He speaks of two different kinds of Wisdom – one comes (euphemistically) from above and one from below – and shows that only one is true wisdom. It is defined by desire for goodness, for peace and rests in human compassion - for spiritual values. The other is the kind that is rampant in our society where selfish ambition, greed and insatiable desires are slaked and whetted. We are manipulated darkly and it can be seen to be like a bit of a game for the economically powerful. The same sort of minds that create the nuclear bombs and the bullets seem to think it is acceptable to mercilessly exploit resources and people in poverty, to condone and thrive upon injustice. This is rather neatly accompanied by the rivalry and need for accumulation that we wealthy nations have all been seduced by - which seems to claim or create a restlessness or emptiness in our soul or psyche that needs constant filling.
Well, James is right – I too am not impervious to the lure of stuff nor am I a saint - I know what it is like to really want, long for that red leather jacket that I know is too expensive, too unnecessary, too indulgent! Is being aware any excuse? It is also obvious that ambition is a normal and useful human trait. Where would humanity be without the burning desire to discover and to find a solution – a cure.
James gives us a sort of version of ‘by their fruits ye shall know them,’- he refers to qualities like wisdom and understanding that grow from a peaceful heart and how these show in your life And he gives us the recipe - “Draw near to God, and he’ will draw near to you.”
I know what James means. When I am more attentive to my inner world, when I try to discern, to give space to my God, to hear the still small voice in my heart, to long and pray for peace and harmony in my orbit – when I take the time to dwell within I am more together, more peaceful and certainly much wiser. I believe that to be true for most people.
Mark deals with ambition and worldly status too. The disciples are hanging out with Jesus and privately arguing about whom was the best among them - echoing the honour and shame culture of the time which is still so very prevalent in middle-eastern cultures today.
Jesus demolishes their transparent ambitions, overturns all they understand about social standing and the pecking order, and tells them to be humble and not to concern themselves with personal gain – to deny themselves for all others, for each other – that to be the last is to be the first.
Just think of this swarthy band of eager young men being told to be humble like a servant. Radical! Beyond belief! Crazy loco some would still say.
Jesus uses the image of little children to illustrate his point - children had the status of a slave in the ancient world. They were nobodies and here Jesus asks the disciples, us - to be humble and kind enough to give room to, to stand up for the nobodies, the voiceless, the vulnerable in our society and now in our world.
It is no stretch of imagination to think of the imminent World March for Peace and Nonviolence in these terms. People are representing and calling for justice for those who cannot speak, who have no names or status, whether in the ongoing tragedy that is Darfur, in the senseless destructive military action in places like Afghanistan, to women who are raped as a weapon of war, - or for an ecologist – the destruction of forests and the poisoning of seas that sustain all life.
As philosopher Spinoza remarked in our sentence for today; ‘Peace is not the absence of war; it is a virtue; a state of mind; a disposition for benevolence; confidence; and justice.’
This reflects what James says about wisdom and peace, and also what Jesus is calling his disciples and us to be. If we can be boldly compassionate and caring enough to be concerned about our fellow humans rather than be driven by titles and money and all that junk – it is the old biblical maxim about one way bringing life and the other death. Being here today means that we try to choose life, that we do care, that we support and welcome important events like the Peace march next week – who knows – we might even come along.
All my bags are packed, I’m ready to go. I’m leavin’ on a jet plane. Well, not immediately, but in a couple of hours. So my thoughts are on the country of my birth, the home of my children and grandchildren. They are sad thoughts.
When Barack Obama got elected many of you asked if I would go back now that Bush was gone. My answer then was no, I’m proud of my country overcoming its racist past. I’m hopeful that the damage done to it and the world in the last 30 years will begin to be undone, but Aotearoa New Zealand is my home now.
If you asked me today, my answer would be “No way! Not on a bet.” As I read on the web of the hatred and self-destructive ravings of the conservative minority at town hall meetings resisting health care reform that would be in their best interest I shake my head in disgust and despair. I am appalled by a media giving credence to Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck and their ilk as they challenge Obama’s birth certificate or denounce his encouraging speech to school children. I am chagrined when a member of congress calls the president a liar during one of the finest speeches I’ve ever heard. I can’t imagine living in the middle of such lunacy again. It is hard enough watching it on Fox from 5000 miles away. It seems too many of my fellow citizens have learned nothing from their support of Bush. Then there are the many progressives who are battering Obama from the left because he hasn’t waved a magic wand and made the world an enlightened nirvana in eight months. They only solidify my appreciation of my adopted home and my resolve to stay. Visit? Yes. Move back? No way!
But those feelings have not changed my feelings about President Obama. If anything, his refusal to triangulate his opponents by demonizing them or to play politics as usual has only made me more appreciative. His unflappable belief that we are all in this together convinces me that he is our first Zen President. And by “our” I mean the world’s. He has an understanding of today’s gospel that even the disciples didn’t have.
Let me put that in context. Last week Moana told us how the Syro-Phoenician woman got in Jesus’ face with her plight. It was a transformative moment for him as she engaged him in a place that was as far as he could be from Jerusalem spiritually, the land of the Gentiles. After that Jesus turns around and begins heading back to meet his uncertain fate. In the week since that distraught mother pointed out that even dogs get crumbs Jesus has fed the 5000 near Peter’s hometown of Capernaum. The crowds are growing with each healing as he continues south. We are half way through Mark’s Gospel and the miracle worker is as popular at this point as he is ever going to be. A day’s walk from Capernaum is the Roman outpost of Caesarea Philippi. While after his death it would become the intellectual centre of Judaism when Jerusalem is destroyed, on this occasion it is still an unclean place housing occupation forces that no good Jew would enter. It is here at the height of his popularity and face-to-face with the powers of oppression Jesus asks his first question of the disciples. “Who do people say that I am?”
It is a safe question, as it requires little from the disciples. They answer, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” I can imagine Jesus thinking or even saying aloud, “Is that so?” His follow up question is a more demanding, “But who do you say that I am?”
It is a question a wisdom teacher would ask. It is a trick question because his disciples think the question is about Jesus. Do any of us think Jesus was having an identity crisis and needed reassurance from his followers? No, inside his question about him was one about them. He is challenging them to know themselves. Who are you?
Before approaching the oracle at the temple of Apollo on the Greek isle of Delphi the seeker of answers to life’s questions would see carved over the entrance the Greek words for “Know Yourself.” Simple words often understood differently. It could simply mean know ourselves objectively. What are our habits, morals, temperament, ability to control anger, and other aspects of human behavior that we struggle with on a daily basis? Useful, but such knowledge will hardly answer the question of life’s meaning.
A deeper understanding requires exploring our perceptions of reality. Both how we perceive it and what we see. Based on our previous examination of Wisdom for Dummies, we have learned that to have a true revolution of the spirit requires moving beyond seeing the world dualistically where we see only its parts and not the whole. Only by suppressing our ego will we discover our I AM consciousness.
It is to this level of consciousness that Jesus hopes to bring his disciples when he asks his question within a question. While preachers for millennia have praised Peter for his answer, “You are the Messiah,” as if he finally got it, I think Jesus groaned, “Is that so?” That they still didn’t get it is why I suspect Jesus told his disciples to keep it a secret.
It was the wrong answer because it revealed that Peter still didn’t know himself. He still thought he needed a saviour. The messiah in Jewish thought was not just God’s fair-haired child, he was going to save the oppressed from their overlords. He was going to end hunger. He was going to be the ultimate answer to health care for all. For Peter it was all about Jesus doing the doing, not Peter. While he liked sitting close to power, he did not see himself as the seat of power. He did not yet know his “I AM” consciousness.
At this moment Jesus probably wished he could have used Obama’s line during the campaign, “Contrary to popular opinion, I was not born in a manger.” Instead he chose to give a discourse on denial of self in which he never once referred to himself as the Messiah, a saviour. Even that we get wrong. We too often hear self-denial as being about giving up earthly things; as some kind of undesirable loss. A story told about Mother Theresa gives us a different insight.
A plump businessman, dripping with gold and diamonds, came one day to visit Mother Teresa, fell at her feet, and proclaimed, "Oh my God, you are the holiest of the Holy! You are the super-holy one! You have given up everything! I cannot even give up one samosa for breakfast! Not one single chapati for lunch can I give up!" Mother Teresa started to laugh so hard her attendant nuns were concerned. She was in her mid-80s and frail from two recent heart attacks. Eventually, she stopped laughing and, wiping her eyes with one hand, she leaned forward to help her adorer to his feet. "So you say I have given up everything?" she said quietly. The businessman nodded enthusiastically. Mother Teresa smiled. "Oh, my dear man," she said, "you are so wrong. It isn't I who have given up everything; it is you. You have given up the supreme sacred joy of life, the source of all lasting happiness, the joy of giving your life away to other beings, to serve the Divine in them with compassion. It is you who is the great renunciate!" To the businessman's total bewilderment, Mother Teresa got down on her knees and bowed to him. Flinging up his hands, he ran out of the room.
This story points out that denial of our ego is not what’s hard—it is its own reward. What is difficult is living in a world where many have not and may never understand you when you have, even those who are your family and friends. It is likely, through their ego induced dualism, they may see you as a threat. They may condemn you for not meeting their self-centred expectations. They may flee from you like the plump businessman or seek to do you harm. You may become an object of hatred; despised and reviled. In my last sermon I said enlightenment isn’t all its cracked up to be because we can never see the world as we once did. There is another reason; crucifixion is not covered by your health plan.
Unlike Peter, I think Obama understands this. May we someday as well. He has managed to do what is the primary life task of us all. He knows himself, damn the price. He knows what Jesus showed us about our true selves in his intentional walk to Jerusalem. With that knowledge he can’t walk away either. Like Jesus he knows this is not about him. He knows the truth of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s opening words of his poem with a title borrowed from the temple on Delphi, Know yourself:
She has no name; she is neither wife of a man nor mother of a son. She has a daughter with an unspeakable disease. She is Greek–racially and linguistically inferior and despised by Jews. The woman is described as Syro-Phoenician Woman. Two words that tell us she is marginalized, she is an outsider; she does not belong.
To you my sisters and brothers in Christ…kia ora mai tatou… it is good to be here in St Matthew-in-the-City. I am among you today as one with you, not only because of our shared whakapapa/genealogy in Christ but by one whose life has been immeasurably enriched by the many women in my life and the women from within these sacred texts. The story before us is a woman’s story, and, my papa told me once, if women stories are not told, the depths of women’s souls will not be known. So this morning I invite us all to enter into a space of a “woman who does not belong” and to look at this passage through the experience of the “Outsider”.
This morning I am preaching Mark’s story with a spirit of boldness, the one I assume the woman had when she encountered Jesus on land that once belonged to her tupuna/ancestors. But I am hoping we can re-claim this text and rescue it from its patriarchal influence, marginalized, genderized and misunderstood rhetoric. However I am conscious that I am also an indigenous woman, living in a post-colonial setting. And, it is only by listening to the voice of the “Outsider” in the text, the one who has suffered, the unjust invasion and oppression that I can construct a liberating story.
In 1840 in the Bay of Islands, New Zealand, two peoples from two different worlds; Maori and Pakeha came together and signed a treaty of risk, of promise, of hope and faith. In today’s narrative over 2000 years ago, in the district of Tyre and Sidon, two people from two different faiths, also entered a covenant of uncertainty – a covenant of faith - Jew and Gentile.
Like the Syro-Phoenician Woman; I too, am caught in a space of in-between-ness" a person straddling two cultures, Maori and Pakeha. It is an association that in many ways connects me to both the colonized and the colonizer. So when I read the text I hear the voices of my tupuna/ancestorsthe colonized who constantly reminded me about the generations of Pakeha/Europeans who handed them exploitation, poverty, diseases, inequality, searing bullets and a foreign text (the Bible). Then I remember my grandmother Maryanne Edmonds. She was of English ancestry and had strong family links to the early missionaries of the CMS (Church Missionary Society), who traveled across the seas with faith, hope and love to bring the gospel, the good news to the Gentiles in Aotearoa, New Zealand in the early 19th century.
On Sunday, Christmas Day, 1814, the gospel arrived in the Bay of Islands. The Church mission to New Zealand represented a Christ figure that had absolute and universal authority who commissioned its missionaries to teach the new nation, the Gentiles to obey what was commanded of it.
The Syro-Phoenician Woman meets Jesus as an equal in her tenacity to be true to her mission, as much as Jesus feels the need to be true to his mission to the covenant’s community. Because of her tenacity, her commitment to her daughter’s healing and her ability to use the “power of the weak” in a positive and life-giving manner, she also becomes the catalyst for moving Jesus to acknowledge his ministry to the Gentile people.
I am listening to the Syro-Phoenician woman’s cry. I hear her pleading for justice and fairness. It is a voice from the back asking for mercy, for equality, for compensation. It is a voice representative of indigenous people who can only survive as a colonized mind. But this woman does not remain silent instead she crosses the border not to worship the dispossessor but to demand compensation. She is actually fighting back against the oppressor by disrupting and invading the geographical space from which she has been displaced. She refuses to be dominated; she is desperate and wants her daughter healed.
Yes this is a powerful story of an unholy alliance, a Syro-Phoenician Woman and a Jewish man. A Greek woman comes into a public place and asks what a Jew can do for her that her culture disallows. In the encounter with the Syro-Phoenician Woman. Jesus is challenged. She has positioned herself in a male space kanohi to kanohi/face to face with a Jewish man. She enters Jesus’ personal space. And, she demands the right to be treated as a human being, not a subordinate creature and definitely not a dog. I hold that the Syro-Phoenician woman is not a humble dog begging for crumbs, she is a dispossessed woman who has awoken from her position as oppressed and is coming to confront the empire and demand her right to be treated as a human being.
Here is a woman who has something to give to Jesus by enabling him to see his role in a different way. Daring and self-assertive, it was she who opened up the relationship and enabled him to act in a new way. Her gift was not submission or obedience. Rather it was the gift of the sharp insight of the “Outsider” the “Other”. She breaks the boundaries of ethnicity, of the empire, of gender, of culture and speaks for her daughter, the one who cannot speak. She cannot and does not respect either human boundaries or divine boundaries that go against the human value of life. The crux of the story lies in what each of the main characters brings to it. The woman has a need – a desperate need to have her daughter healed. Jesus had a mission to heal, to restore, to forgive. Two people who recognize they have more in common than they realized. They form a covenant – a treaty with each other. Both partners have taken a very high risk.
I love the Syro-Phoenician Woman - she sits in the grand old city of Lahore holding her baby girl who will one day be a victim of sex trafficking, acid attacks, bride burnings and mass rape.
I love the Syro-Phoenician Woman - she is the Black African woman who is a survivor of colonialism, and now lives in the deep shadow of death – watching helplessly as her daughter shrivels while the HIV/AIDs virus gnaws at her.
I love the Syro-Phoenician Woman - she is the teenage Cambodian girl who sells her body to pay for food, so her starving malnourished infant brother will not die
I love the Syro-Phoenecian Woman – she breaks the boundaries of ethnicity, gender and old certainties. She speaks for those who cannot speak, for the one who cannot move, for the one who has not strength to fight back.
Two thousand years ago, Jesus gives the Syro-Phoenician Woman space to show us the power of justice. He gives her love to show us how to reclaim humanity and dignity. In a new relationship, a covenant of understanding these treaty partners can sit down and break bread.
The story today is a challenge not just to those with whom we disagree, but to ourselves as well. It is time my treaty partner, my friends, my sisters in Christ to reassess ourselves. We know in our beloved Church there are pockets of marginalization, sufferings and injustice. We know we have been called by God to speak out against injustice. We too like the Syro-Phoenician Woman can stand out there in the open space and daily commit to creating Church where men and women can all sit at the table as equals with faith and confidence in the Risen Christ.
Enlightenment isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be. The downside to having a moment of enlightenment is you can never see things again as you used to no matter how much you might want to. A couple of weeks ago in my struggle with wisdom for dummies I shared my newly gained awareness that the Wisdom Jesus didn’t see his mission as saving us but as raising our consciousness. He was a spiritual teacher calling us to life-giving awareness not a sacrificial lamb paying the price for our sins. Specifically he sought to move us from a world seen dualistically where everything is black or white, good or bad to a unitive world where everything is singular. In this new world it is not me and everything else, there is just everything and no me. Our human task is no longer to differentiate the world into its parts but to integrate the parts, including ourselves, into a whole.
I seriously doubt I will ever fully grasp that concept. I’m running double time to keep up with Jesus the wisdom teacher and I’m still being left in the dust. But I’m in good company. With the possible exceptions of Mary Magdalene and Thomas, the disciples didn’t fully get him either and neither did Paul or the writers of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John or the early church fathers and so neither did the western church that shaped me. However, I get enough of it to know I hear today’s Gospel with new ears. My problem is that I was happy enough with how the old ones heard it.
As someone who by nature is not reluctant to test boundaries, I’m heartened by Jesus’ response to the Pharisees’ objection to his disciples eating without washing their hands. Since, as good Jews, swine flu was hardly their concern, this wasn’t about good hygiene. It was about ritual purity. Jesus was challenging a system of rules intended to separate people. It put people into groups: clean or unclean, saints or sinners, insiders or outsiders, powerful or powerless. I hear his response as a clarion call for justice and inclusiveness and it is, but I now find his charge of hypocrite leveled at the Pharisees leveled at me as well. While I champion his message in one breath, in the next I condemn with enthusiasm those who oppose my own standards, separating myself from them by labeling them homophobes, fundamentalists, bigots or Republicans. Before chapter one of Wisdom for Dummies I could live with that. I could nurse past grievances of injustice with relish and long in self-righteousness for a day when justice reigns. Not anymore. I still do it; I just can’t enjoy it like I once did. So it is time to read chapter two.
This chapter focuses on my propensity to cling. I cling to past wrongs and injustices. I cling to my hopes for a better world. I cling to my ego invested in being a progressive Christian calling for justice. The problem is Jesus, the master of consciousness, demonstrated in his life that clinging prevents being. Letting go is part and parcel of letting be. It is the creative act. We’ve heard that before. In Genesis, when God spoke, “Let there be…” our world tumbled into existence.1 What Jesus challenges us to create by letting go to let be is the “Kingdom of Heaven.” What I am coming to think of as the “Holy Now.” It is the conscious act of living fully and only in the moment. Dragging the past and worrying about the future won’t get me there. In fact, not living in the now is at the root of all that, in the words of today’s Gospel, defiles us.
An example might help make the point. Two monks are traveling together; both are sworn to a strict celibacy that prohibits any interaction with the opposite sex. They come to a deep river and see a woman standing beside it, obviously desperate to get across but unable to swim. One of the monks simply slings her up on his back and swims her across. When they reach the other side, the woman goes her way and the monks continue on theirs. Two hours later the first monk notices that his brother is silently fuming. “How could you have done that?” the second finally explodes. “You are under vows never to touch a woman. Do your vows mean nothing to you? Don’t you care that you have contaminated yourself?” “My brother,” replied the first, “I picked her up and put her down. You’re still carrying her.”2
At this point I need to clarify a difference between traditional wisdom streams and the radical wisdom offered by Jesus. The former sees the path away from dualism to singularity as one of renunciation. Push things away from you. Just say “no” to anything that distracts you from higher consciousness or might contaminate you. It is the path of the ascetic. It can work for the few who can do it, but for most of us we have to live in the world. We have to get our hands dirty. If it weren’t for Jesus we could excuse ourselves then from the inconvenience of seeking higher consciousness. But Jesus, except for his brief time in the wilderness before beginning his ministry, was no ascetic. He was no John the Baptist, wearing animal skins and eating bugs. He embraced everything and everyone, but took nothing for his own profit. Quite the opposite -- he extravagantly gave all he had. And when it was time to let go, he did it with the same freedom he had shown in the embrace. He had no trouble getting his hands dirty in the messiness of life. In doing so, he took away our excuses. Living life fully and generously without clinging to is to live in the Holy Now.
J. Krishnamurti, an Indian philosopher and spiritual teacher traveled the world for fifty years attempting to convey in words that which was beyond words: how to live in the now. In his later years he would surprise his audience by asking if they wanted to know his secret. Some of his followers were still trying to understand the essence of his teaching after twenty or thirty years. So, of course, they were eager to hear. “This is my secret,” he told them, “I don’t mind what happens.”3
At first hearing it is a shocking statement. How can he not mind injustice, poverty; oppression? How can he not mind the ignorance, cruelty, bigotry, and violence that are found every day at every level of society in every culture -- not just at American town halls. Certainly Jesus minded.
The story of Zen master Hakuin may clarify. Hakuin was greatly admired in the town and was often sought out for his spiritual teaching. Then it happened that the teen-age girl who lived next door got pregnant. Her parents were furious and demanded she tell them who the father was. She resisted at first but eventually told them it was Hakuin. The parents in great anger ran next door and with much shouting and accusing told him their daughter had confessed that he was the father. All he replied was, “Is that so?”
The scandal spread quickly. His reputation was ruined. No one came to see him anymore, but this did not trouble him. When the baby was born the parents brought the child to him and said, “You are the father. You take care of him.” Hakuin took loving care of the child. A year later, the mother remorsefully acknowledged to her parents that the real father was a young man who worked at the butcher shop. The parents rushed to Hakuin to apologise for the wrong they had done him and to ask his forgiveness. “We are really sorry. We have come to take the baby back. Our daughter has confessed that you are not the father.” All the old master said was, “Is that so?” as he handed the baby to them.4
Hakuin’s capacity to transcend his ego and stay in the moment and respond in the moment no matter what happens is the Holy Now. He is unfazed if the moment brings good or ill. He is not made a victim by events outside his control. He simply becomes one with them taking away their power over him. By not resisting the moment, he is free to change it. He redeems an ugly situation by taking care of the child and when the moment requires giving him back.
If I put myself in Hakuin’s shoes I shudder at how it might’ve played out if I let my ego with its dualistic outlook be in charge. There would’ve been no Holy Now just defilement as I responded with outrage, defensiveness and possessiveness. The potential harm I might’ve caused by not “not minding what happens” causes me to shudder. In my indignant self-righteous victim-hood, who and how many would I have victimized?
Hakuin shows that “not minding” is not the same as “not caring.” By not minding what happens moment to moment we lose the illusion of “self” allowing us passage into the oneness that is all. In that place that Jesus calls the Kingdom of Heaven we are one with justice. We are one with love and mercy. We are one with the creative process of “letting be.” It may only be a moment but it is there we have eternal life.
1 Bourgeault, Cynthia. The Wisdom Jesus, Shambala, Boston: 2008. P. 68.
2 Ibid. p. 79.
3 Tolle, Eckhart. A New Earth: Create a Better Life, Penguin Books, New York: 2005. p. 198.
Pentecost 12 1 Kings 8 (1,6,10-11) 22-30, 41-43 John 6:56-69
Imagine you are in outer space looking at our planet Earth. Imagine you are alien to the ways of our world – you are a space-woman – or a space man - think I’ll go for spacechick! You are coming to this incredible planet for the first time. Imagine your spacecraft hovering over this very place – St Matthew in the City, downtown Auckland, New Zealand. Just imagine.
There are these earthlings sitting in rows paying attention to some other earthlings up in front of them, and they are looking down at funny little bits of white stuff in their hands with black marks on it. They make noises together – sometimes the noise changes when that earthling who sits at a special box runs his fingers over the box and a different noise comes out. They stand up and then they sit down together. And so on.
It’s a bit like a scene from ‘The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy’ for those who remember that crazy zany and fun book or the TV series. But all fun, wacky imagery and sci-fi aside, this scenario presents very real demands upon us because it asks us to explain and to try to give voice to what we do here in church and why.
Here we all are in church about to share in the unique and primary sacrament of our faith. We are about to kneel down - perhaps we draw strange sorts of lines across our chest - one way across and the other way going down. Sometimes our head is bowed. We open our hands into a cradle or cup ready to receive something precious. We take a metal receptacle from an unusually dressed person and raise it to our lips. Often we stay there for a few seconds with our heads bowed and our eyes closed. Then we get up and go back to where we were sitting before in this big space.
So what’s the deal here that space-chick would be sure to ask.
We call it Eucharist, Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper, the Heavenly Banquet, the Eucharistic Feast. Here we embrace and affirm the incarnational mystery of our faith. It is a thanksgiving for all of creation, the universe and for our unique relationship with Jesus Christ. We believe that by participating in this rite that we are part of something powerful wonderful and miraculous, something that defies normal human rational understandings, something that affects us all profoundly at a level that is deeper than our thoughts.
Eucharist translates as ‘thanksgiving,’ communion is a translation of the Greek ’koinonia,’ which in other contexts means fellowship. Thanksgiving and community are the basis of what we enact today.
We have been reading the 6th chapter from John’s gospel over the last five Sundays. The final verses that we heard today allude to this great and unfathomable yet intensely real mystery. As you heard in these verses, Jesus tells us that it is his flesh and his blood that will give us life. We eat the bread which signifies his flesh and we drink wine which signifies his blood.
The space-chick, with a look of consternation would certainly ask - how does this work?
There are various understandings of what happens. Historically and to this day Roman Catholics and some high Anglicans and Anglo-Catholics believe in transubstantiation where the consecrated elements of bread and wine change into the actual flesh and blood of Jesus as they receive them. In general the range of understandings in our Anglican tradition is broad. Some hold to the idea of remembrance or a memorial of the death of Jesus - the life he lost and his blood that was spilt on our behalf. Many others believe in a real spiritual presence of Christ by the power of the Spirit. It is very personal and I am sure that even here in our gathering today there are a variety of understandings of what happens and more importantly what it means in our own lives. Ones understanding and experience can also change as we travel along our particular faith journeys and as we move through the various stages of our lives. For myself I do not hold with transubstantiation but in presence – the presence and the place or space into which I willingly enter to honour and to receive that which touches me and resonates in my life at a very profound and deep level. At times this has given incredible solace and hope, sometimes a piercing revelation - always a giving over to something mysterious and real that gives and offers me more than I will ever understand. As we are different our experiences are also different.
Traditionally and up until the middle of last century Eucharist was not something that we did every Sunday – it was at various times only celebrated by the upper classes (while the hoi polloi drank gin no doubt), or perhaps irregularly throughout the year, and for some a monthly celebration. This might intimate that it was, therefore, not as important as it is now.
But that is not so. Eucharist has always been crucial and utterly central to faith from its apostolic beginnings. In churches where it is an infrequent celebration, Eucharist can be seen to become even more significant as it maintains a sort of ‘scarcity value.’ Closed communion, where only members of the church or the baptized can partake, is still common. But here at St Matthews we lavishly practice open communion where anyone who wishes to commemorate the life and teachings of Christ are welcome regardless of faith or affiliation.
The vital ingredients of Eucharist are the Ministry of the Word and the Ministry of the Sacrament: the former prepares for the latter. They are both critical to the celebration for without the Word we are left with a mystical enactment which could degenerate into pure subjectivity and without the Sacrament we remain in our conscious minds. Together they culminate in what I believe is a ‘kairos moment.’ It is a sacred moment, a movement of the heart towards God, where the past, the present and the future fuse and there is only ‘now.’ This is where the mystery resides – in that moment when everything stands still, when we participate in this living instance of God’s invisible grace. Eucharistic worship is renewing and healing to our minds and souls, it transforms and gives hope and rest, we emerge refreshed and revived again and again and again.
As for space chicks and the like – I believe that these ‘kairos’ moments are there for everyone just as we practice here at St Matthews. And just maybe that space chick might, if she came along, get a glimpse of another space, another universe, another world – one filled with the grace and mystery of a moment that gives life and hope, where we connect with something mysterious and holy, where hearts are opened and we glimpse our God.
 I Corinthians 10:16
 Hugh Montefiore, Credible Christianity. 260.
 From the Greek, biblically we inhabit two kinds of time – chronos, which is the linear clock time we inhabit, and kairos, which are special existential moments in time. In Eastern traditions, when a person meditates upon a holy Icon, losing oneself in the Icon is to enter eternity, which is kairos time or God’s time. Kairos time is common among mystics and poets.
When I was sixteen I read King Lear for the first time. In it there is a scene, which has haunted me all my life.
In this most tragic of all tragedies, we first see King Lear as an old father, a king – almost a god – with awesome authority, absolute power. We see him terribly demanding. Which of his daughters loves him most, he demands to know. His two older daughters profess to love him “dearer than eyesight.” His youngest daughter – and his favorite – Cordelia, “cannot heave her heart into her mouth.” She can say nothing. In awful anger Lear thunders “Nothing can come of nothing.” He curses her and disowns her. “Better thou hadst not been born than not t’ have pleas’d me better.”
You may remember that the two older sisters act horribly toward their father, and actually throw him out in a terrible storm. The scene I remember features Lear, now “a poor, infirm, weak, and despised old man,” raging “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child!” To which Lear’s Fool admonishes him, “Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise,”
At sixteen my goal was to avoid Lear’s fate. Sadly, at sixty it appears I have missed my deadline. But if Lear can eventually get it, perhaps so can I.
When I read the story of Solomon’s rise to power and his prayer for wisdom I roll my eyes. How can a man who allowed his mother to manipulate him into killing off his half-brother, his father’s priests and advisors to solidify his power be considered wise? It is baffling that this same person who after praying for wisdom would drain his kingdom’s resources and oppress his people to build a Temple even God did not want. That this despotic ruler is promoted as the embodiment of wisdom, makes me wonder what the hell wisdom is anyway and how do we know our prayer for it is answered?
I’ll give those questions a go this morning, but given I am still seeking illusive wisdom, when I finish I suspect none of us will be the wiser. I really do need to order from Amazon a copy of Wisdom for Dummies.
Lacking that I turned to Google. I asked it what the hell is wisdom anyway? It told me, “Wisdom is an ideal that has been celebrated since antiquity as the application of knowledge needed to live a good life. Beyond simply knowing or understanding what options are available, "Wisdom" provides the ability to differentiate between them and choose the one that is best.” I said fine, but how do we become wise?
It told me that, “depends on the various wisdom schools and traditions claiming to help foster it.” Oh, thanks a lot. That’s helpful. But what do we need to achieve it? Google answered, “Various combinations of the following: knowledge, understanding, experience, discretion, and intuitive understanding, along with a capacity to apply these qualities well towards finding solutions to problems.”
Since that was not as helpful as I might have hoped, it occurred to me that maybe I was asking the wrong question. If the wisdom of Solomon was bankrupt maybe I should ask about the “wisdom of Jesus.” The Google oracle only gave me 600,000 hits – apparently “wisdom” is not often ascribed to Jesus. But the first item listed was a book entitled The Wisdom Jesus. It had a familiar ring to it. Where have I heard that before? I looked to the left of my computer and on the top of a pile of things to do or read was the very same book by Cynthia Bourgeault. Could it be a sign? Wisely I thought maybe I should at least skim it. I tried, but it was so engrossing, I couldn’t put it down. There is too much wisdom in it to be shared in one sermon. Even Cynthia could not articulate it all in the one talk she gave here not so long ago. Let me just say it offers a key to unlocking the wisdom of the centuries. If only kings Lear and Solomon had read it as young men. If only I had.
Her premise in the book 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. We see him primarily as our saviour. He did it all and we need do nothing but receive his gift.
Bourgeault points out that our understanding of him has been shaped by only one of four streams of Christianity. Roman law, order and hierarchy shaped our theology, but there are three other streams that see Jesus not as our saviour but as our teacher. They are all Eastern in flavour and they all focus on the wisdom of Jesus. Aramaic doesn’t even have a word for salvation. For them Jesus was a master of consciousness seeking to raise our consciousness.
Cynthia explains this in a way that even this geek priest can understand it. She argues that every human being is born with a level of consciousness. She equates it 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. We were born to see the world dualistically. It is 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 Denise and I are both Anglican priests, but you can tell us apart because her dog is brown and mine is white. We identify ourselves to make us unique and special, but this operating system also separates us from one another. It makes us the centre of our known universe. My reference point is fixed within me. I understand the world from that experience. 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 repent. 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 God; 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 because from his level of consciousness he knew we would never know an abundant life without living it generously and the joy of love without squandering it wastefully. He needles and wheedles his disciples and us with his actions, sayings, and parables.
I am convinced his intention was to invite us to wonder and question--to come and see a new way of being. Perhaps by confounding our present operating system he thought he could cause it to freeze up and make us reboot into a new reality. A new reality where the wisdom of Solomon grasping for personal power is forsaken for the wisdom of Jesus. A wisdom where clinging to the false reality that we are the centre of the universe deprives us from knowing we are the essence of the God with whom we are one.
That is chapter one of Wisdom for Dummies…so much to let go of; so little time.
I am indebted to the ideas and teachings of Cynthia Bourgeault presented in her book The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind — a New Perspective on Christ and His Message. Shambhala, Boston: 2008
Over the last 10 days or so along with the thinking, reading and preparation for theology courses I am teaching in this 2nd Semester through the School of Theology at Auckland University I have been reading, thinking and beginning to write portions of an application to begin the first part of a Diploma in Spiritual Direction at San Francisco Theological Seminary in January 2010 whilst on a period of study leave.
The application has required me to somewhat introspectively consider what is important in my inner world, the systems and structures which hold meaning for me and in particular reflect on pivotal faith understandings that have been part and parcel of my spiritual formation.
So it is along with these dual layers of thinking, reading, contemplating that I have come also to the Lectionary Readings for today, which drawn from the lectionary used in Methodist churches may well be slightly different from that used regularly in worship here.
In a somewhat serendipitous manner the now three layers of thought have managed to coalesce drawing me to think and speak today of the centrality of grace – the pull as a person growing in grace, as a member of the body of Christ seeking to dwell communally in grace, and give flesh as a citizen of the world – of the world growing in its capacity to dwell in grace. It is this theme of dwelling in grace and so becoming imitators of God that I want to particularly reflect on today.
The writings of CS Lewis – in particular his Narnia Chronicles have made another comeback into public consciousness through the filming of the first two portions of the grand Narnia narrative. The very conversion of CS Lewis to Christianity is a most superb example of an encounter with grace at the deepest level. Lewis, a deeply complex man had succeeded over many years in resisting the invitation to embrace the God who had already embraced him. It was only to be in his later years that Lewis allowed himself reluctantly to embrace this knowable yet unknowable God.
Hear him speak in his own words as he writes of this moment in his book Surprised by Joy.
The odd thing was that before God closed in on me, I was in fact offered what now appears to be a wholly free choice. In a sense. I was going up Headington Hill on the top of a bus. Without words and (I think) without images, a fact about myself was somehow presented to me. I became aware that I was holding something at bay, or shutting something out. Or, if you like, that I was wearing some stiff clothing, like a corset, or even a suit of armour, as if I were a lobster. I felt myself being, there and then; given a free choice. I could open the door or keep it shut; I could unbuckle the armour or keep it on. Neither choice was presented as a duty; no threat, no promise was attached to either, though I knew that to open the door or take off the corset meant the incalculable. The choice appeared to be momentous, but it was also strangely unemotional. I was moved by no desire or fears. In a sense, I was not moved by anything. I chose to open, to unbuckle, to loosen the reign.
Such was the moment of Lewis’s conversion.
A turning towards a fuller sense and source of life.
A turning to embrace grace – as gift of God.
With Christ at the centre the compelling ethical power becomes that of grace and grace alone.
Grace is more than a word, more than an idea. Grace is a way of life.
Grace is about God and God’s movement towards us and our movement toward our neighbour. About who we are and who we can become.
My firm conviction is that we can only speak meaningfully of God if God emerges from within the experiences of humans and their way of life with others and the world.
Grace can be grace for us today only if it emerges from within the world in which we ourselves are immersed. Grace appears within our concrete world, liberating us from a decadent human situation – where so easily we can become self absorbed – and for a world more reflective of the divine possibilities.
We must never separate reflection on grace from reflection on the world. Grace is always given in mediations, negotiations, relations and social structures.
To speak of grace in this way is to acknowledge that grace has a sacramental structure, i.e. referring to all the mediations through which we arrive at God.
Leonardo Boff, Brazilian Franciscan Brother – silenced for a time by the Vatican – speaks of grace as a; mode of being that things take on when they come into contact with the love of God and are suffused with God’s mystery. In that sense the whole world is related to grace.
If grace be the gift of God, then we are surrounded by signs of what can only be called signs of dis-grace.
Dis-grace is present in all the mechanisms of social oppression that humans have devised – this week – further taking by force by Jewish settlers more Palestinian settlements on the West Bank, further loss of civilian life in Afghanistan, the silencing of dissident voices in Iran…and many such other signs of dis-grace in God’s world.
Dis-grace is present in social systems that perpetuate social inequality – how gracious will be the pulling of special funds for children with special needs whose bodies and equally bear the gracious incarnational presence of the divine, for young people uncertain of what future awaits them, how gracious are budget cuts for those already severely disadvantaged socioeconomically.
Dis-grace is present in human egotism and competitive grasping individualism gone wild.
Grace is revealed in its power to criticise and unmask these sign of human sin – these signs of dis-grace-ful ways.
The power is grace is revealed when and where ever we refuse to believe in our enacted living that dis-grace is not the last word. When as a counteraction we passionately embody the imaginative reaching towards the possibility of God’s realm becoming embodied, present in God’s human world.
These embodied yearnings are yearnings prompted by the grace of God, motivating us, drawing us towards the tasks of becoming change-agents deeply reflective of our growing capacity to be imitators of God.
Grace is not only the action of God in our personal lives. It is also the action of God within our world drawing us towards a grace-filled society as incarnational imitators of God.
How well we know that life so often presents itself as a conflict between the possibilities of grace and the lived realities of dis-grace. The hope we must draw upon in the most despondent and despairing moments that can so easily distract and paralyse us must be that founded upon the belief – that despite the power of all that would mar this world – this world God pronounced good – there is always a surplus of grace.
We are the carriers of that surplus - called to be imitators of God. Gordon Rupp, Wesleyan theologian speaks of this surplus in terms of an optimism of grace. An optimism of grace is not the shallow belief that we will make things better because we are heroic or clever. Rather an optimism of grace is that of a deep seated confidence that God’s grace is at work in life and there is always a surplus of grace.
Always a surplus of grace. We search for more just structures in society. We must. Such is our calling. It is the way of the realm of God – the fulfilling of God’s dream for God’s world.
But we must remember and take to heart that the justice we seek is always to be a graced justice. Graced justice as I understand it is a justice which is alive with forgiveness and mercy, generosity and hospitality. It is a justice always open to new possibilities. Graced possibilities which witness to life and life in all its fullness.
Gustavo Gutierrez, Roman Catholic Priest and theologian from Peru – writing in one of his many books, We Drink from our own wells. The Spiritual Journey of a people (one of the texts I am using this semester) says quite bluntly; we are to situate justice always within the framework of God’s gratuitous love. In his writings Gutierrez expresses his fear of the development of a new Christian legalism which though impeccable in its desire easily can become graceless.
In all that I am saying and offering as my reflections there are implications for the manner in which we contribute graced justice to the ongoing work of transforming New Zealand society where the fullness and flourishing of life is available to all. There are implications for the way in which we seek to relate across the diversity of cultures that make up Auckland, New Zealand. There are implications for the way in which we pursue the partnership and communion of men and women in the church, beyond gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation – in our journey of becoming imitators of God, gathering together in gracious communion around a common table.
I draw to a close with the words of Roman Catholic theologian Dennis Edwards:
We live in a world of grace, a world in which God is present; in self offering to human beings at every point….grace is the heart beat of the universe. It is God bent over us in love…
On the way then towards the actual creation of a more just world, let us then as those growing in the capacity to be imitators of God graciously bend over God’s world in love.
For we do so in the manner of imitating the God of Covenant who speaks with us of what is required… And what does the Lord require of me… To do justice, love mercy, and walk graciously with one’s God. (Micah 6:6-8)
Many have claimed the phrase “Speaking Truth to Power.” Some are pretty powerful people justifying their own beliefs. But a Quaker first coined it in 1955 as a title for a pamphlet calling on the US to change the course of the Cold War by unilaterally disarming.
It is a phrase that resonates for us. It rings of courage and righteousness with more than a hint of danger. I think it is why the politically satirical Daily Show with Jon Stewart who does this nightly, is a global phenomenon. Few of us would be displeased to have it said of us at our funeral… “She or he spoke truth to power.” Yes, that sounds like high praise, and it is why the story of Nathan confronting David’s adultery with Bathsheba grips us. We see Nathan in heroic terms, cloaked in righteous indignation pointing his finger at David and springing the trap, “You are the man!”
The appeal of the story lies in our being hard-wired to be outraged by abusive power. Even David felt it, to his later regret. When the abuser is confronted and condemned, we find it wholly satisfying, not unlike being served a heaping plate of comfort food. The meal in this case is revenge, which everyone knows is best served cold.
But this is a meal that can give us indigestion. While outrage may motivate us to speak truth to power, outrage is not a very good indicator of what is truth. If it were, the same things would outrage all of us. This week in New Zealand there seems to be universal outrage over a conflict between MP Paula Bennett and two young mothers on benefits that assist them in going to school. But our outrage is not in agreement. Some are outraged that a person in power released private information to intimidate her critics and others are outraged at the amount of the benefit the women received and the nerve they had in complaining about its insufficiency. While people on both sides are savouring their righteous indignation, the truth they seek to speak seems to be more about their personal motives, experiences, values and prejudices than some external universal truth.
The problem with truth is how do we know it when we see it that we might speak it? Clearly trusting our gut is not sufficient. Perhaps it is in trusting authority.
Let’s look again at David and Nathan’s encounter as an example. We know in our gut that David’s actions were horribly wrong. We know Nathan was courageous to confront him. And if our gut didn’t tell us, Holy Scripture makes it clear. But is our gut or Scripture equally appalled at God who directed Nathan to confront David? Or did it escape our notice that the God calling David on the carpet for betraying Him (this is definitely a male deity) helped David betray Saul, and then gave him his wives and kingdom. Did we notice that the God who condemns David’s murder of Uriah punishes him by murdering David’s infant son? What is truth? Is betrayal, murder and adultery wrong when David does it on his own, but OK when God condones or facilitates it? If we are outraged at David shouldn’t we be equally outraged at the one who condemns him? Scripture doesn’t seem to think so.
This double message as to truth in the story raises questions about the story’s veracity. Why was it told in the first place? Is it factual history or is it propaganda? Who is telling the story? Certainly no one who is a friend of David’s or seeks to curry favour from him.
One of the things that makes the story suspect is that it is unlikely Nathan said these things to any king at the time. He would not have survived longer than it took for the words to leave his mouth. Never mind, being able to tell of the encounter later. So if the story was manufactured who benefited? Some scholars think it was Bathsheba who was in a power struggle with David’s other wives over who should succeed David as king. When Absalom, David’s favourite, was killed, Bathsheba and her ally Nathan were not likely to have shed any tears. It left the door wide open for her son Solomon. This story may have been about giving his rise to power legitimacy. Later it may have been useful for Solomon to justify building the Temple that David failed to build and which many objected to building. No one really knows the truth. It is lost in the political intrigues of the day and power struggles of later editors.
So if the truth we feel is too subjective and the truth we are told by authorities lacks our own input or ability to verify, perhaps reason will lead us to truth. Reason’s virtue is that it relies on our intellectual resources but can be subjected to external test. If I tell you this morning it is Sunday in Auckland it can be tested by the calendar and the opinion of others. It is the middle position between relying on our passions and relying on authority. It is particularly attractive to the likes of Christopher Hitchens and other secular humanists as they see it as a means to dismiss belief systems all together. I don’t have to consult the Bible or feel that it is Sunday. Reason gets me to the truth.
The downside is that reason is based in logic and logic requires assumptions based in experience. But when experiences vary assumptions vary bringing us to different conclusions that are logically true. Truth appears to become relative. Furthermore, when truth is beyond our experience it cannot be attained through reason for we will have no words to describe it. All this makes reason exceedingly flexible for us when we argue our position in the marketplace of ideas. To quote Shakespeare, “I have no exquisite reason, but I have reason enough” [Twelfth Night]. If we are persuasive we can make our reasoned truth widely accepted. It is therefore the kind of truth favoured by both revolutionaries and demagogues throughout history. Ironically, this truth can become the abusive power we wish to speak to. Before speaking reasonable truth we should remember G.K. Chesterton’s observation, “Reason is itself a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relationship to reality.” [Orthodoxy]
That leaves us with the truth of our senses, empirical truth. This is the truth that under girds the sciences. Science has given us many truths. Some have even stayed true over the test of time, while others have been set aside by new discoveries. The seekers of scientific truth will have much to do for many generations. We know much less about our world than we do know. Much of the world’s oceans have yet to be explored. Our knowledge of climate change is in its infancy. We know more about the cosmos than do about what is under our feet having barely penetrated the earth’s crust. But as great as having that knowledge will be there are still great truths that will be forever beyond our five senses and the instruments we have created to enhance them. Truths such as what are the ethical uses of that knowledge? The mystery of life: science can neither create nor explain it. Clone, genetically engineer, or facilitate it, yes -- but create it, no. Love will never come out of a test tube any more than courage and compassion can be concocted in a Petri dish.
These are our fundamental ways of knowing a truth we might speak to power. All allow us to strive for truth, but none get us there. In our post-modern age many have thrown up their hands saying there is no objective truth to strive for. While some might accuse me of being in denial, I can’t accept that. I can accept not attaining it, but for me what matters is the striving. If I ever come to believe I have attained it, please put me somewhere I cannot harm others or myself.
How do I strive for it? Certainly I utilise the limited means I have described but our Gospel reading suggests to me how best to speak to power.
When the Johannine Community reflected on what was so special about Jesus, they described him in sacramental terms by having him declare himself the bread of life, clearly a reference to the Last Supper we celebrate at communion. The American Book of Common Prayer catechism has a beautiful description of a sacrament: It is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. That grace is for me ultimate truth. In his healing of the outcasts, feeding of the hungry, compassion for the poor; fearlessness in the face of oppressive authority he was an outward and visible sign of the inward and spiritual truth that divine love is within, between and beyond us.
That grace is the truth for which I strive to live. To the degree I embody that love I speak it. Now to whom should I speak? A poem I love by Edward Sills points the way. It’s called The Fool’s Prayer:
Three people look at nature – one finds mystery, one finds fate, and one finds love.
The One Who Finds Mystery Says:
Scientists listen to the calls of a male deep-sea whale for over a decade. Using deep-sea microphones they also record the changes in his voice as he matures over time. His call for a mate or a companion is sent out over and over and over again over a decade. It is never answered.
Scientists hypothesize that his call was never answered because he may have been “biologically miswired”; his call may have been transmitting on the wrong frequency. He may have been the hybrid product of two mating whales of different species making him unique and unrecognisable or undesirable. Whatever the reason, he remains a scientific mystery. I can imagine him, lonely; swimming deep in the heart of the ocean back and forth sounding his call seeking companionship for all of his life. Scientists have described this image as “hauntingly lonely”.
How do we understand a world where even one of the most basic of needs, companionship, is craved and denied to some beings?
The One Who Finds Fate Says:
Tina lays motionless, dead in the brutal sun of West Africa’s Ivory Coast. She is the victim of a leopard attack. Tina’s lifeless body is surrounded by twelve members of her community, made up of six females and six males. Tina is a chimpanzee.
Usually when a member of a chimpanzee group is injured but still alive, the others in the community will attempt to help by licking the wounds. None of Tina’s community attempts to lick her wounds though some groom her and many stay by her side for hours after her death.
Brutus, the alpha male of the community, stays by Tina’s side for five continuous hours with only a seven minute break. He chases away other chimpanzees who attempt to get close to Tina’s body while allowing Tina’s infant brother, five-year-old Tarzan to come near. Tarzan grooms Tina’s body and pulls on his dead sister’s hand gently over and over again.
How do we understand a world where some beings die brutally and the most vulnerable are left behind?
The One Who Finds Love Says:
One spring day a female goose is brought into an animal rescue centre from Pinto Lake in California with a fishhook in her leg. She is treated and when she is well enough she is allowed to swim freely in a small pool.
A few days later she is swimming in the pool when a man brings another goose into the centre, a male this time. He had been found on a busy road called Freedom Blvd. far from Pinto Lake. The man feared he would eventually be run over. Once the male goose saw the female goose in the pool he begin to honk loudly. Leaping from the man’s arms he headed straight for the pool. The female goose reacted excitedly too. Once in the pool with her, the male goose puts his neck over her and begins hissing at the staff in an attempt to keep them away. The staff believes the pair were mates and had become separated. The male had been searching for his partner from Pinto Lake to where he was eventually found all the way on Freedom Blvd.
How do we understand a world where love and chance co-exist?
Mystery, Fate & Love
At the heart of all major religions are empathy and compassion and a sense of belonging. However, we can see by the stories I’ve just told you that these are not purely human or even strictly religious qualities but are also evident in non-human nature.
Brutus the alpha male is possibly able to experience empathy and project himself into what little Tarzan must be feeling at the loss of his big sister. The lonely whale instinctively searches the deep ocean for many years for a partner. The pair of geese loses each other and by an injury and mere chance are reunited.
All these creatures illustrate to us that in nature; life and suffering are bound tightly and wound deeply together for whatever reason or no reason at all. This is the world we live in. What does this mean for us?
I remember a particularly difficult time in my life. It seemed at one point that the emotional pain and tears would never stop. Well intentioned friends all around me sometimes clumsily struggled to find the right words. Some knew their presence alone was a great comfort to me. These empathic beings nurtured and nourished me with love and helped bring about much needed healing. Some of them used beautiful metaphors to assure me that this too would pass.
One friend reminded me that through the tears everything looks different, notice how through your tears the light bends and blurs dramatically. Shapes and colours are transformed.
Another friend told me about Yellowstone National Park in the 1980’s where one-third of the park was devastated by wildfires. People hadn’t realised that not only is it natural for lightning to cause the forest to burn but it is also healthy. The scarred earth brings forth new life and attracts new species. Suppressing the fires reduces dramatically the number and variety of animal and plant life that are attracted to an area. Yellowstone now allows most natural fires to burn because of the healthy benefits to the earth. The burning forest was of course a metaphor for the broken heart.
That all suffering comes to an end is a sure sign of a merciful creation, a merciful Creator. One who transforms us and has gifted us with the power of compassion and empathy. One who transforms us through the awesome power of love.
I’ve learned a great deal from all of the metaphors that come out of our natural world. From lonely whales to romantic geese, our living earth has much to teach us about community and belonging. Nature can be seen as a reflection of the human heart, the human condition. To me this is not evidence of a fallen humanity but of an incomplete one. Creation is ongoing. Creation is happening right now.
And now I find it impossible to say that my life is blessed or that I am blessed. To say I am blessed means that an all-loving god shows favour to some and not to others and that is an absurdity. Why should my life be blessed any more than a child on the African continent who is starving? To look at our natural world and see divine favour in it is to see a distorted reality. That doesn’t mean that a living God isn’t present, it means that God relies on us as social, relational, self-conscious and loving beings to help bring about the Kingdom here on earth.
If God is on any side, it is always the side of the suffering. Our responsibility to each other and to all beings is to relieve suffering where we are able to. That is how we are truly blessed, that is where our power truly lies, and that’s what love truly is.
Three people looked at nature – one found mystery, one found fate, and one found love. I pray you find all three.
And finally, like Paul’s prayer to the Ephesians, I pray also; “that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” (Ephesians 3:18-19) Amen.
Absolute power corrupts absolutely,’ ‘power is the ultimate aphrodisiac’ - such common expressions. We all know the truth in those statements and we also know how perverse and insidious the allure of power and the powerful can be. I have met, as I am sure we all have, people who appear and probably are quite ordinary and unremarkable but the power they hold, whether it is political, financial, social, or even religious I might add – whatever their claim to notoriety or fame or position – the powerful are seen to be gilded with an allure and carry a certain indefinable aura of prestige. They inhabit a space that makes them fascinating, desirable, frightening, loathsome, tiresome - take your pick – however we feel, publicly powerful people usually elicit a response of some kind.
King David has ultimate power. Having vanquished his enemies and fought his way into a divinely predicted future – the house of Israel is now a nation and his own predicted dynastic legacy, the house of David is come. Significantly in our story today, for the very first time this warrior king does not lead his army into battle but stays back at the palace. And I wonder, does that indicate change of heart as well as change of fortune. However, David can, it could be said again for the first time, relax a bit - maybe while away a bit of time strolling about in the cool of the evening musing and idly checking his city out. He spies Bathsheba, wants her, takes her, impregnates her, and to cover up has her husband, who is one of his loyal soldiers fighting at the front, killed. Perhaps murdered is a better word. Power, desire, corruption, death - that’s what this story is telling us about.
Jesus, the healer, the miracle worker, the rabbi – the teacher, attracts crowds, numbering up to five thousand. They are hungry. He makes miracles out of five loaves and two fishes – he feeds all 5000 of them and there are still twelve full baskets left over. Jesus can see that the people want to make him a leader, a king maybe, so he skedaddles. Later, in the evening, he walks miles across the stormy sea to the disciples in their boat who are terrified to see him in the middle of the sea. This sort of power is astonishing and miraculous - it defies our human understandings.
Power, generosity, miraculous love.
Both stories are about power but reveal vastly different uses of it.
The power of David is the power we see in much of our world today – we want it so we will have it. Blow the cost in financial, human or environmental terms. We want – I want – individual desire rules. Material wealth and accumulation are the signs of success.
The collective, the communal, the neighbour, the other, the hurting, the hungry – all pale beside the rapacious and brutal desires of powerful corrupt leaders, bankers and businessmen, corporate sharks and wealthy elites, gangsters, warlords and suchlike who plunder, murder and maim with impunity, for their own gain and to maintain their preeminence. Power makes them think that they are invincible, like David. This sort of power feeds upon fear and abuse and finds its home in deceit, greed and violence.
David, the hero, the warrior king begins to fall with this story. He has broken four of the commandments – murder, adultery, lying and coveting your neighbour’s wife. Subsequently his family goes to pieces and the nation of Israel is plunged into chaos and begins to crumble. David’s behaviour descends into that of an oriental despot desperate to maintain power rather than his call to be a ‘man of God.’ He has been seduced by power of the worst kind.
In contrast, the wondrous power of Jesus is open, compassionate and giving, wanting nothing for itself. It tells of the divine wealth of a loving empathetic heart that brings life joy and radical amazement. It is about miraculous power of gift – the gift of life and of love – from Jesus to the five thousand and his disciples, from me to you, from you and me to our own individual worlds and beyond.
This story of Jesus feeding the five thousand is the only miracle story that is in all the four gospels so it is worthy of closer examination. There is no traditional last supper in John’s gospel. This is it. Jesus takes the loaves and fishes and uses the Eucharistic symbolism of take, give thanks and distribute. With such abundant results that there are 12 overflowing baskets of bread left over. In many interpretations this is seen as alluding to the 12 houses of Israel - people who were hungry for justice over against the corrupt priestly powers, the ruling classes who supported them and the might and empire of Rome. Jesus assuages their hunger and gives them abundant new life and hope. We too are on that mountain.
These Jesus stories are, like many stories in the gospels, directly related to corresponding events in the Old Testament. Feeding the hungry masses and stilling troubled waters – remember Moses wandering in the wilderness and the manna that fed his people. The stilling of the waters and the deep darkness upon the sea recall the creation stories found in the opening chapters of Genesis. When Jesus says ‘it is I’ in response to the disciples fear he is really using the same words for God in the Old Testament – ‘I AM.’ This phrase ‘I AM” indicates a theophany, an appearance of God. Here, in Jesus, we are given a new creation, a new way to live, a new and abundant life. It speaks of the wonder and miracle of divine grace between us, and which permeates all of life if we choose to embrace it.
We are here in church today because we believe in the ultimate mystery of life that we call God. The mystery of this incredible and beautiful and painful life that calls us to goodness and hope, that we see most perfectly in Jesus and that we live between each other. The Bible chronicles wonderful and dastardly deeds and stories - ordinary human stories of our faith history that teach us how precious and fallible we are and how to live and not to live. We could say, quoting Mary Daly in our sentence for the day, that God is in and is seen in how we live, how we are together, what passes and moves between us. God is the dynamic of life and is here amongst us as a verb, rather than as a object or a noun.
Most moving for me this week is today’s epistle from Paul to the Ephesians. Our prayer for the day is a paraphrase of this reading. While the progressive theology which St Matthews espouses does not hold to the literal interpretation of biblical texts, nevertheless therein contains such wisdom and beauty. This passage is one of them. Paul exhorts us to go within, to seek our inner voice humbly and in love, as this is where we learn to find the Spirit to live strongly in love and in faith. This is the power we seek, the power that enables us to transform our lives within and between, that stretches beyond, that brings us here together where we share in the deep and inexplicable power of the Eucharist. We do not, like David, fall into chaos and crumble – we are given the power to see clearly in strength with faith, the power to give and forgive, the power to love.
The keys to the kingdom, allegedly given by Jesus to Peter, I think are the courage and tenacity to unlock the past and open it to the future. It is as simple and as difficult as that.
Peter’s courage is best exemplified in our epistle reading this morning from Acts 10. The whole chapter is a great little story. It begins with Cornelius, a Gentile, therefore unclean, and therefore outside of God’s blessing and favour. He has heard about the Jesus Movement and wants to get into it. So he sends messengers to Peter who is residing in the port of Joppa [Jaffa].
In the middle segment of the story Peter is on the rooftop at Joppa praying and therefore falls asleep (which I can empathize with) and in his sleep he has a dream.
Now the deep unconscious background to Peter’s dream is precisely the debate that’s going on in the young Jesus Movement about whether to admit Gentiles - people like us. Until then the Jesus movement was merely a sect within Judaism. The debate had its radical, Paul, it had its conservative, James of Jerusalem, and it had Peter stuck in the middle - like your average bishop - who didn’t know which way to go, so he went both ways at once. When he was with Paul he was a radical when he was with James he was a conservative and didn’t know how to decide. “On-the-one-hand-and-on-the-other-hand-it is”, you know that kind of psychological disease that can afflict church leaders.
Let’s pause for a second here before we start hailing Paul as the good guy and James as the bad and think about rules and regulations. We need them. We need our rules because we are a potentially chaotic people, we humans. We do terrible things to each other. We need discipline and order. We need road rules in order not to kill each other, but we still manage to anyway.
The history of human culture is the history of the rules that we have devised to keep ourselves from destroying one another, to keep some kind of co-operation and peace and love and human community. But there is something else that we also learn, that the rules themselves are means to ends and never should become ends in themselves, because otherwise they become stupid.
Jesus said to people that he was arguing with about the Sabbath (which is a good example of a good rule, because people need a rest): it was made for us, not us for it. There may come times when we have to cast aside or abrogate the rules in order to respond to the God demand of love. If we don’t have the courage to do that the rules can become tyrannous and actually imprison us. For Jesus the purpose of rules was to hold them firmly enough for them to guide us but not so tightly that we can’t discard them when the need arises.
Back to the story: Peter has this dream. A great sailcloth is let down from heaven and on it there are all sorts of things that are impure to a Jew, things he may not eat, and he hears the voice, and it’s the voice of God. It says, "Rise Peter, kill and eat".
One of the most interesting things in this story is that Peter then quotes God back at God. He says, "I’m sorry God, you have already forbidden Jews to eat this stuff. I can read it to you in Leviticus: you’re supposed to have dictated it, and I can’t eat this stuff, it is forbidden, it’s unclean, it’s profane." To which God replied: "Thou must not call profane what I have cleansed". This dream encapsulates Peter’s struggle in trying to understand the authority of scripture in relation to the imperatives of the God known in Jesus Christ.
The dream ends and, of course, if you’re a good Freudian you’ll understand what’s going on. Peter is wrestling sincerely in his unconscious with this great issue that is to confront him. He wakes up. There’s a knock on the door and the servants from Cornelius are down at the gate asking to come in to the nascent Christian community.
In the dream stage the admission of the unclean into the Jesus Movement is all theory, just as we the Church over the centuries have theorized about including people outside our boundaries. But then there’s a knock at the door. And there’s a person there who says, “What you’re theorizing about is me. Your theory, this theology you struggle with, is actually about me and it’s causing me to suffer. Your theology hurts me, gets me beaten up, sometimes killed: Think about it!”
Do you see what’s happening here? God is coming to Peter, not from the past, but from the future. Will Peter provide the leadership to unlock the past and open it to the future? Change is knocking at the door, asking for entrance, and the old rules don’t provide an adequate answer to this challenge.
The history of the Christian religion is precisely the history of a God who comes to us from the future. As an institution we are not capable of recognizing this God because we are fixated on the God who is come to us from the past. We quote the God of the past at the God of the future.
The history of change in Christianity is a history of groups knocking at the door, seeking entrance, and we quote at them the old scripture. Slaves knocked at the door for 1,800 years before we realized that the scriptures that appeared to justify slavery contradicted the scriptures that made love the primary element in Christian living. We finally heard that knocking at the door and we abolished slavery 1,800 years after Jesus came to tell us not to be imprisoned by rules.
Two hundred years later there was another knocking at the door - this time women, because scripture, God in the scripture, clearly tells us that women are subordinate to men. They are instruments of temptation, gateways to sin - all of those things because, of course, it was Woman that plucked the apple, tempted by Satan. Men have been blaming women ever since. “The woman gave me and I did eat” - and so we kept them subservient. We allowed them in the sanctuary (if they wore their hats) to do the flowers and to scrub the floor but never behind the altar. Never in the nice frocks and glittering garments.
What’s the next group? The gays and the lesbians. They’re knocking at the door. They’re downstairs while the Church is upstairs struggling with the issue. The primates at Lambeth Palace, up on the roof at Joppa - downstairs gays knocking at the door – “Call thou not unclean what I have cleansed.”
Right now in New Zealand there’s another knock at the door. The old scripture said you could give your kids a right thrashing: “He who spares the rod hates his son” (Proverbs 13:24). “You shall beat him with a rod and deliver his soul from hell” (Proverbs 23:14). Kids have been hit, beaten, strapped, caned, in church and out. I know it. I’ve seen it. Those who’ve hit them have often been well-meaning people. They thought violence is a necessary part of discipline. Just as in times past well-meaning men thought that to love a strong-willed wife meant at times to physically discipline her. Just as in times past good masters thought an occasional beating of an uppity servant was necessary. When the law changed preventing such things the men and masters decried the loss of their rights. Similarly this upcoming referendum is a cry from the past to lock out the future.
The Jesus challenge to us is to know when the old rules are over and finished. The Jesus challenge is not to accept every movement of social change, or the Vicar of St Matthew’s so-called liberal agenda. Rather it is to weigh carefully, as Peter did, the demands of love as revealed in the radical outsider Jesus. It is also to be alert to a knock on our door downstairs as God comes to us out of the future.
So, like Peter when he opened the Joppa door, this is the day of decision, a moment of decision for our Church. Will we go into God’s future or will we simply lock ourselves into the past, into the old ways of understanding? The past is comfortable and secure. If we block our ears we might not hear any knocks at the door. Or will we be like Peter and have the courage to open the door, and unlock the past to the insights and critique of the future? You see the keys for the kingdom can be used to lock down the past and secure it, and its God, against change; or they can be used to unlock the gates of the past in order that the future comes into the Church and disrupts it with change.
It’s certainly back on the agenda internationally, with our awareness of the political power of both Islam and Christianity.
At the more personal level it’s spirituality that beckons many people. Institutional religion isn’t the thing so much as a search for spiritual awareness and a source of values.
In this context, how do we ‘progressive Christians’ shape relevant personal spiritual lives and a vibrant form of Christianity? Beliefs are something we need to focus on as we consider this.
Both our readings today speak about ‘believing’ [these are the readings set for today as Bible Sunday, and they raise some interesting issues about the way we use and understand texts, and their relationship with spoken words]. And core beliefs are often seen as the defining mark of a religion, and the cause of conflicts between religions. And beliefs easily get in the way of a more open spiritual outlook as well.
For both religion and spirituality the force of ‘what you believe’ has to be confronted and thought-through.
1. Origins of Faith – Beyond Belief
It was in 4th century Christianity, under the pressure of the Roman Empire, that set beliefs – understood as ‘doctrine’ or ‘true teaching’ – became the mark of a genuine adherent of the Christian religion.
But the earlier layer didn’t see it like that: I’m sure Jesus didn’t see it like that. He’d be horrified to think we had to believe he was the Son of the Father of the Trinitarian God! Such beliefs are not what Christianity is about – as either a religion or a source of spirituality.
Language is part of our problem. The word ‘believe’ has come to mean “ideas you agree with” – an intellectual assent. That’s pretty recent, and doesn’t reflect earlier usage. What’s more, English doesn’t have a verb for the more open concept of ‘faithing’, and doesn’t speak of ‘faithers’. ‘Believing’ and ‘believers’ suggest adherence to defined ideas presented as ‘truth’. In the first verse of the Timothy reading and the last verses from John the word translated ‘believe’ comes from the Greek root usually translated ‘faith’.
It’s faith that’s central to the earliest Jesus-followers – and that sense of ‘faith’ more akin in our thinking today to spirituality than to structured religion, and is helpfully the mark of ‘being Christian’ today.
2. Components of Faith/Spirituality
But faith and its contemporary expression as spirituality are tricky ideas to unpack.
Years ago, when I was working with children in the church, some of us asked what might help the development of ‘faith’ in pre-school children, and encourage them to remain part of the Christian community as they grew older. We didn’t think it was learning Bible stories – but what was it?
We came up with 3 ingredients:
First, the young child needs to feel safe, to be confident that this place and its activities are OK – that’s about trust.
And they need fun: they’re not going to hang around or see the value of something if it’s boring – and the heart of fun for young children is about exploring their world.
Above all, children need to sense they are valued, that they belong – they need love.
Trust, fun, and love: core components for children to want to be part of any group or activity. Might they be relevant as we consider Christianity today?
Think about trust and faith. In its everyday usage, faith means that we trust despite direct evidence – like having faith the floor will there when we put our foot out of bed in the morning.
Faith is about trust, not certainty. In fact, faith exists where certainty cannot. The moment we’re certain in our beliefs, we’ve moved outside of faith. So, contrary to what we’ve often been told, certainty – not doubt – is faith’s opposite. And that’s so with spirituality, too. If we think we have the answers, or the perfect set of spiritual exercises, we’ve lost it. It’s become rigid, bounded by certainty rather than trust.
It’s my view that that sense of trust, not certainty of belief, is the core of faith, significant for spirituality today, and a relevant emphasis for contemporary Christianity.
The young child needs fun – and finds it in exploring the world. That fun component continues to point us towards exploring our world and the ideas that help us live it it, and to thinking carefully about the world and its core needs. In traditional faith, that includes doing theology – not simply receiving its teaching. In spirituality, it includes openness to new insights – not simply relying on a guru or a set of rules.
“Why?” is the child’s basic tool in exploring their world. To which the most helpful response is, “why do you think?” A closed answer shuts down curiosity. It’s the next question that keeps explorative openness alive.
Fun as a component in spirituality and faith is about openness and curiosity, about keeping on asking questions of what we have been told or have discovered. It pushes us away from reliance on specific beliefs; towards the next question, the next possibility, the next exciting adventure in faith or spiritual experience.
Love, in this setting, speaks of our lifestyle, the way we act to care for others and our planet. Contrary to “faith is what you believe” or “spirituality is what goes on inside you”, I’m saying that Christianity is not simply a set of ideas to believe – things in the head – but a way of living. The core of Jesus’ teaching – if you give a bit of distance to John’s Gospel and Paul’s theology – is about what we would call ‘ethics‘. How we live and relate and act express our faith as nothing else can, and form the goal of spirituality.
In this, we might not be all that different from other people – with different religious traditions or none. And we’re not that different.
Today – in this newly international religious and spiritual environment – that’s a critical insight, if we’re to stop fighting over our different religious traditions or styles of spirituality.
Both religious faith and spirituality are shown most clearly not in our stated beliefs but in our lives and actions.
In our current environment, with religion back on the world’s agenda and the search for spirituality a contemporary interest, I think that those of us in the Christian religious stream who seek to be ‘progressive’ do best to abandon concern for secure beliefs. We hardly even need to debate such things!
Instead, let’s open ourselves to a spiritual awareness that explores our world openly, trusts where there is no certainty, and acts out love, justice, and hope in the world.
Whomever said church is boring has never attended on this particular Sunday. There is nothing boring about a whirling dervish David, dancing nearly nude before the Ark, making his wife mad as a meat axe. Nor is there anything boring about the gruesome details surrounding salacious Salome’s suggestive pole-dance for her daddy, Uncle Herod, to get her ahead. This stuff makes reality TV look tame. My problem is coming up with a sermon title worthy of such stories. Israel’s Got Talent has possibilities, or perhaps Dancing Queen… and King.
As choreographer, Kristy Nilsson has pointed out, “dancing is the world’s favourite metaphor.” Perhaps it’s because there is an element of danger involved—by danger I mean sex. George Bernard Shaw observed that dancing “is the vertical expression of a horizontal desire legalized by music.” Its undercurrent of sexuality is certainly offensive to some fastidiously religious types. For them, perhaps, I should entitle the sermon: Dirty Dancing or Saturday Night Fever.
But there are other aspects of dancing that make it dangerous. In this case I don’t mean Dancing with Wolves or letting Simon Cowell judge my impersonation of Michael Jackson moonwalking. As ill advised as that would be, I’m thinking more of how dancing changes things. That is Risky Business.
Do you remember the movie classic Footloose? It’s about a teenage boy and his family moving from big-city Chicago to a small town in the West, where he experiences a real case of culture shock. Though he tries hard to fit in, he can't quite believe he's living in a place where rock music and dancing are illegal. It turns out his new girlfriend’s father, a Bible-thumping minister, is responsible for keeping the town dance-free because his son was killed in an auto crash on the way home from a dance. The gist of the story is that the boy has the courage to initiate a battle to abolish the outmoded ban. He begins by dancing alone in a warehouse. Then he starts teaching a few friends how to dance. It ends with him in a scripture-quoting duel with the preacher at a city council meeting. Dancing wins the day. A repressed town is liberated and their children have a Senior Prom. Watching the final scenes of joyous, unrestrained dancing is like hearing my heart sing.
The movie is a reminder that we are born to dance. Toddlers do it to music only they hear. We fall in love dancing and the first thing we do as a couple after getting married is dance. It is at the core of our being and no matter how dangerous we must dance. Even people who can’t dance, those who are rhythm-challenged like me, dance. It takes a lot to keep people from dancing. I’ve watched people in wheel chairs cut a rug with the best of us. Even quadriplegics dance in their hearts. The Japanese have a saying that we are fools whether we dance or not, so dance. It is universal. There is no tribe or ethnic group that doesn’t dance. We waltz in Vienna, salsa in Rio, tango in Paris and Hip Hop in Harlem. We do so for all kinds of reasons. The Maori Haka on different occasions to celebrate, to honour or to intimidate. But we also dance to woo, entertain, seduce, exercise, and worship. We dance in circles, in squares and in lines. We do it barefoot, in toe shoes, with taps, and even on roller skates. We do it in groups, as couples and alone. We do it around bonfires, on polished floors, on beaches and in pools. About the only place Pakeha Anglicans aren’t likely to dance is in church. Well, that is not exactly true, at least at St Matthew’s. I do have photos of parishioners Elena Philp belly dancing and Irene Grove doing interpretive dance, but they haven’t done it at a service…yet.
All this makes me wonder if dance is our favourite metaphor what is it a metaphor for? Could it be for something intangible, transcendent, life-giving, and beyond words, yet is rooted in who we are?
Frederick Nietzsche, who is more famous for writing God’s obituary, once said the only God he could believe in was one who knew how to dance. But perhaps it is more than that. Maybe God is the dance. If so, when we dance, it becomes an act of transformation. We become not only the image of God but also one with God. For dance is the only art form that doesn’t require an instrument, a brush, a chisel, or a pen. When we dance we are both the artist and the art. We become one with the metaphor.
Sounds good, but that is the rub. To be one with God is to be fully alive. But to be fully alive is to dance on a wire. Life is an uncertain thing. We may awake to blue skies only to be drenched in an afternoon downpour. To be fully alive is to dance anyway, whether the music playing is joyous or sorrowful, serene or frenetic.
As David is bringing the Ark to Jerusalem to spiritually bolster his political aims there is a mishap that was cut out of the reading. When the oxen pulling the cart carrying the Ark stumble on rough ground, one of the priests, Uzzah, reaches out to steady it and dies. The story suggests that God kills him for touching the Holy of Holies--not very nice of God to strike down a well-meaning, presumably pious priest trying to prevent a catastrophe. While today we might not make such an assumption as to his cause of death, it gives David pause about bringing the Ark to his capitol. It gives us pause as well. Walking along side God can be harmful to our health, never mind dancing. David doesn’t dance into Jerusalem until he has tested whether of not having God hanging about can be a blessing as well as a risk.
To make the point more strongly we have Mark’s account of John the Baptist’s death. Herod doesn’t like John. He is nuisance and a pest stirring up unrest. But Herod is more afraid of offending God by killing one of his prophets, so instead he has locked him up and thrown away the key. When he is cornered by his step-daughter after promising her anything as a reward for turning him on, he executes John to save face. Even being God’s mouthpiece does not protect us from the capriciousness of life.
Mark tells this story in the middle of an account of how well Jesus’ disciples are doing in their new ministry of healing and casting out demons. They are on a roll, so what better time than to remind them about John as a cautionary tale. Since Mark’s readers already know about the fate of Jesus they will quickly pick up the similarities of John’s death to his. They will begin to understand that walking with God, speaking for God or revealing God are no guarantee that we will live happily ever after. The Gospel is not a fairytale--it’s a dance.
There are preachers out there who make a good living preaching a “Gospel of Success.” People pay these pipers and dance to their tune in hopes of good things happening to them for following Christ. I don’t know what tune they dance to, but it isn’t Gospel music. But it is probably legitimate to ask though, if dancing to the Gospel doesn’t protect us from the evils that might befall us or bless us with wealth or health or whatever we strive for, why dance to it?
D.H. Lawrence’s answer was, “that we might be alive... and part of the living, incarnate cosmos.” If we learn that, it will be worth blistered and tired feet. Tripping the light fantastic with Jesus may not change how the world operates. It may not change our luck or our prospects, but it changes us and that can make all the difference.
In his final visit as Bishop of Auckland to St Matthew's, John Paterson reflected on experience of seven years at the helm of the Anglican Consultative Council. He could relate to the disciples in a boat on a stormy sea of Galilee as the issue of ordaining a gay bishop toss and turned the Anglcan Communion.
Children throughout most of recorded history have been seen as the property of their fathers, similar to women and slaves. It was the father in the ancient Roman world who determined whether a child would live or die. It is estimated that 20-40% of children were either killed or abandoned, with some of the latter surviving as slaves. A child was a nobody unless the father accepted him or her within the family. It was girls who were more often the victims of this rejection.
This is the context for the story of Jesus overriding the objections of his disciples and blessing children. In Mark’s Gospel Jesus takes the children in his arms, lays his hands on them, and blesses them. These are the bodily actions of a father designating a newborn infant for life rather than death, for acceptance not rejection. Scholars think there was a debate going on in the early Christian community about whether to adopt abandoned children, with some leaders staunchly opposed. Mark aligns Jesus with adoption. Jesus was good news for children.
Children in the ancient world were generally viewed negatively. They were physically weak, understood to lack moral competence and mental capability. The Christian notion of original sin as developed by Augustine underlined this negativity and provided the imperative to beat the child in order that it grows up aright. Further, Augustine saw no distinction between a child and a slave. The discipline of slaves had always been more severe than for freeborn, even to the extent of the availability of professional torturers to do such physically demanding work. The doctrine of original sin was bad news for children.
History generally has been bad news for children. In ancient times children in many cultures were victims of ritual sacrifice, mutilation practices, sold as slaves or prostitutes, and were sexually and physically abused. In the Middle Ages abandonment and infanticide were common. It was common too for children as young as seven to be sent away as apprentices or to a monastery. Severe corporal punishment was normative. The apprentice system continued into the 16th and 17th centuries. Although the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance saw changes in how society viewed children, abuse was still common. The Industrial Revolution was also bad news for children. They were made to work in mines, mills, and up chimneys for 14 hours per day – and of course punished if they didn’t work hard enough.
Slowly though changes came. The Enlightenment of the 18th century drew heavily on writers such as Locke and Rousseau. It was an age that challenged the orthodoxy of religion, seeing a child as morally neutral or pure rather than tainted. In response to the wider economic and social changes of the Industrial Revolution there arose a philanthropic concern to save children in order that they could enjoy their childhood. The 20th century understanding of child development evolved in the context of falling infant mortality rates and mass schooling. With these changes also came an emphasis on children’s rights culminating in the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child in 1989.
The Bible generally has been bad news for children too. In the Book of Proverbs we read “He who spares the rod hates his son” (13:24) and again “You shall beat him with a rod and deliver his soul from hell” (23:14). For the most part the Bible is unsupportive of non-violence and children’s rights, or for that matter the rights of women and servants.
Throughout history it has been considered self-evident that all people were not created equal. Only men, particularly those of wealth and high-class, were considered fully human. Women, slaves, servants, and children weren’t. Being less than fully human they belonged to a man. They also needed to be corrected and disciplined by that man or his surrogates. Physically punishing and beating children, women, and servants has been normative for centuries.
Men administering such punishment were not considered to be errant or criminal. From time to time there would be those who acted brutally and cruelly and most societies and religions admonished them for it. In 13th century England, for example, the law read, “If one beats a child until it bleeds it will remember, but if one beats it to death the law applies”.
In this context it is helpful to understand the Crimes (Substituted Section 59) Amendment Act 2007 as deleting an escape clause for the brutal and cruel. The question in the upcoming referendum, whether a smack should be a part of good parental discipline, however raises the broader issue of the acceptability of New Zealand’s culture of physical punishment of children.
Those who administered the violent correction in times past were usually thought to be well-meaning and understood their actions to be a necessary part of their responsibilities. In times past supposedly well-meaning men thought they were entitled to physically discipline their strong-willed wife. Likewise in times past many masters thought beating an uppity servant was necessary. When the laws changed preventing such things the husbands and masters decried the loss of their rights. Likewise this upcoming referendum is a cry from those well-meaning adults who see their right to use violence on their children being eroded.
Today in New Zealand we are in the midst of a cultural change. It is similar to the change regarding the rights of women and the rights of slaves and servants. We have ample evidence from paediatricians, child psychologists, and educationalists about the detrimental effects of any violence meted out upon a child by an authority figure. Although society has sought to restrain and punish adults who are brutal and cruel it has also condoned a culture of medium to low level violence towards children.
Christianity has been complicit in this, citing selective texts from the ancient past, and giving them a divine imprimatur. With an adult male God it has implicitly supported all the human male ‘gods’ in their homes and workplaces to the detriment of others. With the destructive doctrine of original sin the Church has harshly dealt to children and other supposed inferiors. Yet the only texts Christianity has regarding children and Jesus show its founder to be unfailingly kind, compassionate, and non-violent. He never smacked anyone.
From the practice of spirituality many Christians have learnt that what they do to others in effect they do to themselves. The kindness offered to others does something to one’s own soul. Similarly hitting or hurting others is detrimental to one’s own spiritual well-being. It harms one’s capacity to love.
We know from psychology that one method we humans adopt to minimize the self-harm of being violent towards others is to categorize the recipient of the violence as in some way deserving of it. There are numerous examples of women, gays, and people of non-European races being categorized as intellectually and morally inferior in order to justify the physical or institutional violence meted out upon them.
In recent decades science has discovered the impact of childhood experiences on brain development. Whether an adult is generous and loving is determined not only by their genes, but also by how they have been treated as an infant and young child. When a baby is cuddled, treated kindly, played and laughed with, their brain produces certain hormones. On the other hand when young children live with fear, violence, and insecurity their brain produces excessive levels of different hormones such as cortisol. These hormones influence which pathways develop in their brain – its architecture and the adult’s ability to be kind and considerate or angry, sad and distressed.
Cultural change is always hard work. The evidence for the need to change may be there but we adults like the certainty of what we’ve known. There is a sense of security in replicating the past we know, even when we have been harmed by it. There is also a sense of fear that the unknown future may be detrimental to our family and us. Will our children prosper, respect and love us when we raise them without the threat of physical harm?
There is overwhelming evidence that violence has the capacity to change relationships and individuals for the worse. All violence produces fear, and fear is the antithesis of love. We have stopped sanctioned beatings in prisons, psychiatric hospitals, workplaces, and schools, and towards wives and partners. History is changing. Children, maybe the most vulnerable of all the vulnerable, are last. The real question with the upcoming referendum is do we have the courage to create a violence free society?
 Albrecht Peiper, Chronik der Kinderheilkunde, Leipzig, Germany: Georg Thieme, 1966.
Saul and Jonathan are dead. David, anguished and bereft laments three times “How the mighty have fallen.”
As King in waiting and challenging the power and position of Saul he had been banished from the Israelite court. David became an outlaw, a ‘soldier of fortune,’ a mercenary one could say. He took his men and went over to fight for the other side – the Philistines, who, excusing David from the battle ‘just in case,’ killed Saul and his sons in battle. Yet David loved them both deeply and laments their deaths, particularly that of his soul-mate Jonathan. Even so, David knows that his time has come. He will now fulfill his destiny to become King and will go on to carve out an unparalleled empire founded upon the house of Israel.
David is an enigmatic, complex and terribly romantic figure. Chosen by God, he comes to prominence in slaying Goliath, is accepted at court as the sweet psalmist, as a soldier he twice spares his adversary Saul’s life, and he becomes the great King and commander able to consolidate warring and diverse tribal allegiances and forges the nation-state of Israel.
He is also ruthless in battle and treacherous and deceitful in his desire for the woman he wants. Limpid images waft before our eyes of a beautiful woman bathing on the rooftops in the moonlight and deep down we see and understand too, even though we know that the shadows of the image hold a yet unseen story of trickery and death. It is the stuff of legend and is our story too – part of our faith history that stretches back 1000 years before the birth of Jesus.
Fast forward to last Friday morning. On the way to a conference entitled the “Theological Meaning of Evolution” I heard a snatch on BBC radio telling of the death of Farrah Fawcett. Instantly it took me back to the days of Charlie’s Angel’s and all the pregnant beautiful fun life that beckoned. The glittering sun and sand and beautiful girls running around doing their girly derring-do that we were entranced by - that invites us back into the frothy and optimistic world that has become a memory. My sombre reverie included those impossibly perfect and beautiful locks of wavy blonde hair and that toothy gleaming smile that was everywhere, that somehow epitomised an era that was so much simpler and less worrisome than what we inherit today. This too is part of our own albeit more recent history.
Later in the day I heard from my daughter that Michael Jackson was dead. I felt such a bolt of shock, and I too am, with much of the world, inwardly lamenting. The King of Pop is dead. The global sensation, the musical genius, the performer and mover par excellence is no more. It is hard to believe. In spite of all the controversy surrounding him Michael Jackson was, like David, a legend. So many memories rush in and swirl about in my mind and his music and energy invades my space. My children and I grew up with Michael Jackson. We danced and danced and sang and danced to his music – they would get up on the lounge coffee table and do their groove thing in the mirror to the magnetic and irresistible music Jackson created. I must have bought at least 3 or 4 copies of the album ‘Thriller’– they always went missing in a house with dancing and teenagers. I remember too my daughter playing his song “Heal the World,” heal the world make it a better place – so it went…. She played it at All Saints in Ponsonby when the Sunday school did a number within the church service. Michael Jackson has a special place in the heart of my small family and along with millions worldwide we lament his passing. He truly is a testament to the fact that music transcends all boundaries and seizes our souls and inspires us to celebrate, to dance and to sing and to be glad.
Shall I go on with my lamenting and celebrating I ask? It is part of life, this dying, I tell myself in the midst of interior tears and joyful memory.
Before Friday my lamenting, inspired by the David story, centred upon two men, one who died earlier this year and another on June 1st.
The first was a man called Arne Naess. A Norwegian Professor who was the founder of what is termed Deep Ecology. This form of environmental ethics claims that all the living environment has as much right to live and flourish as humankind which is merely a part of the diverse whole. Humans therefore have no claim to a superior place and no right to devastate and plunder the earth unless it is for vital needs. All things are part of the ecosphere, there is no ranking as all things are intrinsically connected and have their own interests – even plants and fleas. Deep ecology holds that spiritually, as we expand the self to identify with others including people, animals and ecosystems alike, the more we self-realize and become whole. Naess criticised the Judeo-Christian idea of stewardship as placing humans as middlemen between Creator and Creation, which leads to the continuing domination and devastation of the environment that we witness today. His vision was much closer to that of St Francis of Assisi where all creatures and nature are equal and part of the whole. He was 97 when he died and has inspired a particular form of ecological wisdom that has growing traction in today’s world.
Second is Thomas Berry. He was a Catholic priest but preferred to be called an ‘earth scholar.’ He saw the universe as the primary story overarching all of our stories and as the ultimate referential context for everything. In his vision the fundamental sacred community is the universe. Therefore every being, every other community is sacred through its participation.
His was a cosmic prophetic and mystical spirituality. Creation theologian Matthew Fox saw him as a new Moses" leading religious people out of "bondage of a land of anthropocentrism to a land of cosmology and ecology.” Berry’s passion found expression in what he termed the coming ‘Ecozoic Era’ in which human societies would live sympathetically in the natural world.
In 2005 he said “The catastrophe of our time is the loss of any real human connection to the natural world. That’s why ecology itself is not the answer because it’s a ‘use’ relationship to the natural world. The earth is saying, ‘You used me.” Trees, birds – all living things have rights, he wrote. If nothing has rights but humans, then everything else becomes the victim.” He was 94 when he died on June 1st.
You might ask why I lament these two men who lived to such a great age. I lament and celebrate because they were courageous visionaries who had the courage to go where the church largely does not in its unique particularity. They are prophetic about eco-justice and cosmic storytelling set within the sacred of which we are all a divine part. They address those difficult things that we can find hard to understand and articulate – our place in the vastness of the universe, our concepts of God, how we can look at life in a different and truly majestic and creative way, how magnificent we are and how blessed we can be if we live with sensitivity for each other and all life. God is in there, no doubt, but such divine ultimacy and mystery becomes beyond definition, beyond words and is within us and all creation.
And so lament and celebration, music and moves, optimism and beauty, visions and courage, love for one another, sensitivity – these are our favourite things.
 Anthropocentrism regards humans as the most important and central factor in the universe. Consequently this has, in ecological views, lead to the rape and depredation of the earth, its ecosystems and resources.
Kurt Vonnegut once said, “The only proof I need for the existence of God is music.”
Music does something to our spirit. It has the capacity to calm us, excite us, move us, and take us out of our thinking and into our feelings… It has the capacity to stimulate the imagination, and thus to bring change and hope into the world. Music is the natural language of spirituality.
The adaptation of John 1:1 used in our liturgy today, ‘In the beginning was the music, and the music was with God’, invites us to think deeply about our theological origins. In this verse the usual translation of the Greek logos is ‘word’ rather than ‘music’. ‘Word’ however is a limited translation.
Logos was neither an utterance of speech nor a jotting of a scribe. It was rather the Greek concept of a living divine spark merged with the Hebrew concept of wisdom [Sophia]. The writer of John’s Gospel understood this divine wisdom to be uniquely manifested in Jesus. The 16th century reformers unfortunately took the translation of logos as ‘Word’ literally to mean the writing in the Bible, and came to revere the written text. The sense of a living Jesus wisdom got lost in translation.
My use of the word ‘music’ is an attempt to reclaim that living wisdom tradition. It appeals to the senses, to our imagination, to wonder and awe rather than intellectual analysis, moral laws, and theological systems. This is what is meant in the prayer:
There is a music beyond all things on earth, beyond us all, beyond the heavens, beyond the highest heavens. This is the music that plays in our hearts. O God, open our ears that we might hear what lies in our hearts.
Franz Joseph Haydn, whom we remember today 200 years after his death, was one whose heart, and God, and music were closely aligned. One catches glimpses of this alignment not just in his beautiful compositions and amazing creativity music, but also in the way he related to others and in his humour.
Haydn was born in 1732 in a tiny Austrian village. Until he was six, his musical background consisted of folk songs and peasant dances but then his eager response to music was recognized and he was given training [as well as lots of floggings and little food!]. At eight, he went to Vienna to serve as a choirboy in the Cathedral of St. Stephen. When his voice changed, Haydn was dismissed, penniless. Like many musicians Haydn knew hardship.
He found lodging with a friend, gave music lessons to children, struggled to teach himself composition, and took odd jobs including playing violin in street bands – even the best busk! Gradually though aristocratic patrons of music began to notice his talent; and in 1761, he entered the service of the Esterhazys, the richest and most powerful of the Hungarian noble families. For nearly thirty years, most of his music was composed for performances in the palaces of the family.
As a highly skilled servant, Hayden was to compose all the music requested by his patron, conduct the orchestra, coach singers, and oversee the instruments and the music library. This entailed a staggering amount of work; there were usually two concerts and two opera performances weekly, as well as daily chamber music. While in the employ of the Esterhazys, Haydn composed eleven operas, sixty symphonies, five masses, thirty sonatas, one concerto, and hundreds of shorter pieces.
Haydn's positive attitude and sense of humor made him a favourite among musicians. Music students valued his knowledge and skill and considered it an honour to learn from him. One such musician was Mozart. Although Mozart was much younger than Haydn, the two men treated each other with a mutual respect reserved for the obviously gifted. Haydn made and kept many friends, generously gave of his time to others, and avoided the negativity that competitive relationships usually produce.
Haydn's sense of humour often came into play during his thirty-year tenure with Prince Esterhazy. The prince had become complacent when listening to Haydn's symphonies, even falling asleep during them. This was something that seared the feelings of the diligent composer, especially when the prince emitted a loud snore. Haydn decided to create a new symphony for the prince, a symphony that he hoped would "get Prince Esterhazy's attention." This particular symphony was written with a long slow movement, designed to be so soothing that the prince would surely fall asleep. On the evening of the performance, the prince did indeed drift off. Then, suddenly, a loud chord shattered the serenity of the murmuring movement. The prince awoke with a start and almost fell off his chair! Haydn adeptly gave the piece the name "Surprise Symphony."
In time Haydn’s musical fame spread and his music became immensely popular all over Europe. In 1791-1792 and again in 1794-1795, Haydn traveled to London and was wined and dined by the aristocracy, given an honorary doctorate at Oxford, and received by the royal family.
At this time, in his late sixties, he composed six masses and two oratorios, The Creation (1798) and The Seasons (1801), which were so popular that choruses and orchestras were formed for the sole purpose of performing them. He died in 1809, at seventy-seven.
Franz Joseph Haydn was a brilliantly gifted and versatile musician. He enjoyed great music, encouraged good friends, and had an impish sense of humour. These are signs of someone whose music, heart, and God are aligned. These are signs of a delightful spirituality, which in turn is reflected in his music.
In J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone Harry and his friends face the imposing obstacle of a large aggressive dog called Fluffy who has three heads and is pacified by music. In popular Christian culture God is similarly portrayed as a three-headed deity called Trinity.
Each head, or face, of the Trinity has its own peculiarities. The First Persona  of the Trinity is traditionally called ‘God the Father’. It is the unbegotten source and creator of all, as well as the abba to whom Jesus prayed.
The problem with this First Persona is that as scientific knowledge has grown its head has shrunk. We now know that a creator did not make human beings as a potter makes a pot, or put stars in the sky like a parent hangs mobiles from a child’s ceiling. Life took billions of years and billions of mistakes to evolve. The evolutionary force is neither kind nor cruel, it is indifferent. The craftsmanship of a consistent loving creator is not obvious or verifiable.
Further, the gendered labelling of this Persona as ‘Father’ has brought its own problems. Initially the problem was that ‘Father’ inferred prior existence and superiority to, not co-eternal and co-equals with, the 2nd Persona ‘the Son’. In the last century the problem has been with this God’s masculine gender and the tradition’s affirmation of patriarchy. As Mary Daly famously said, “When God is male, the male is God.” The notion of Trinity elevated and sanctified male power.
Yet despite these problems this first head of the God when stripped of some of its antiquated metaphor holds before us something spiritually important. Within our human experience there are glimpses of wonder, mystery, and unfathomable beauty both beyond us and yet, inexplicably, reaching out to touch us. We can look at, describe, and despair of the crude theological instrument called ‘the First Persona of the Trinity’. However its like being fixated upon a musician and their instrument as if they are of ultimate and eternal importance when what is really of value is the sublime music that can reach out and into the far corners of our soul.
The second head or face of Trinity is Christ. The early disciples experience of Jesus shaped their understanding of God. They experienced Jesus as a loving friend, as a prophetic boundary-breaker, as inclusive of women, foreigners, and other outsiders, and as courageous suffering. ‘God was in him’ they said. In Jesus they touched God.
The Council of Chalcedon [451 CE] asserted that Jesus was ‘truly God and truly a human being’ without attempting to say how such a paradox was possible. The philosophical debates around and following the Council all failed to affirm both Jesus’ deity and humanity. The combatants either came down on one side or the other; and have continued to do so down the centuries. Was he divine, human, a blend, or did he put on his humanity like an overcoat just for our weather?
Trinity was an attempt by the Early Church to put the Jesus of experience into the heart of divinity. Traditionally this has been portrayed as the earthly Jesus being elevated into the heavenly God. However it is more accurate to understand the incarnation as locating and grounding God in human experience. Instead of a King Jesus sitting on a heavenly throne, we have God suffering at Calvary, Auschwitz, Deir Yassin, and Guantanamo Bay.
God was fully God in humanity. God was not just fully God in Jesus’ humanity but actually and potentially in our humanity too. All those God attributes of love, power, creativity, suffering, forgiveness and grace were in Jesus and are, if we allow them, to be in us. Our relationships are the locus of divinity. God is earthed, as God has always been. There is no extra-terrestrial God.
Again music, poetry, and the creative arts are more and better able to express this dance of divinity and humanity, this blending and enrichment of love, this merger of heaven and earth, this majesty of humanity and commonness of divinity.
A brief comment about the use of the term ‘Christ’ in relation to Jesus: Jesus refers to the man who lived and died in Palestine some two thousand years ago. Christ refers to that essence of Jesus that transcended death and is in the heart of God. It’s not a male historically-limited being that is in the heart of God, but a transformative suffering love that can be portrayed [as artists frequently do] as a child, a woman, or a man.
In 1984 a sculpture called Christa was hung in the Cathedral of St John the Divine, New York. It was a crucifix with a woman hanging on it. We need to understand the 2nd Persona of the Trinity much more broadly and radically than another male lording it over the earth.
The third head or face of Trinity is that of the Spirit. In the Bible She first appears as ruach hovering over the chaos. The bird imagery persists, but breath, fire, and wind are also associated with Her. In the Greek Her feminine tense is neutered as pneuma, but never made male. The Spirit darts in and out of biblical scenes and is never wholly tamed. On some She alights, on some She plops, and some She drives wild.
Not surprisingly She has been the most controversial of the Trinity threesome. Initially the Spirit wasn’t taken as seriously as the male duet of Father and Son. She was God, but not fully God. Thankfully those latter crafters of the Trinity doctrine, the Cappadocians , insisted upon her inclusion.
Throughout history the Church has usually wanted to restrain the Spirit with their biblical understandings and restrict Her to the dictates of Church councils. It is interesting though that within the make-up of what has largely been an authoritarian male God-head there has remained this free Spirit: creative, feminine and potentially anarchistic.
In 1410 the Russian Andrei Rublev painted a famous icon. On the one hand it portrayed the scene from Genesis 18 of Abraham and Sarah’s three visitors at the Oaks of Mamre. On the other hand it was an insight into the Trinity, three distinct androgynous beings communing together. Yet the mystics tell us that in this icon the Trinity is not what we see in the foreground. Trinity is not the three beings but a way of being. It is not the beings of Father, Son and Holy Ghost but the background ‘betweeness’ that is God.
I began with J.K. Rowling’s Fluffy the fictional three-headed dog. The way of thinking of God as a three-headed being is similarly fictional. Trinity arose from reflecting on a singular way of being [Jesus] and grew into three God-beings. Yet the Trinity is not about three beings but rather a way of self-giving being. It is a flow of love energy.
The three Persona [Source, Christ, and Spirit] are signs pointing to a way. They are not what is signified, or the destination. They are not God. A three-headed God-being is too static, too fixed, and ultimately becomes an idol. People are seduced into sitting and worshiping a stationary signpost.
On the contrary it is better to think of Trinity as a piece of music, a movement of grace, gift, and transformation. It is wild, passionate, forgiving and free. Trinity points to God as a verb rather than a noun, loving rather than the lover, giving rather than the giver, and shedding rather than accumulating power.
For too long Trinity has been used to maintain a patriarchal image of three hierarchical beings - two of whom were male - as the Christian presentation of God. For too long it has been used to justify the elevation of ‘fathers’ to reign over women. For too long it has been used to denigrate Jews and devalue the insights of people of other faiths. It has become a three-headed monster.
We need to remember, listen to, and play the music rather than look at old musicians and analyse their instruments. We need to pull our God back down to earth, toppling all the gods off their thrones of power. We need to pray our God into the pain of living and into the reality of love. We need to humbly dance transformative possibility with those of any faiths. When there is no difference between heaven and earth, between hope and reality, between the powerful and powerless, then the music will have done its work.
 Note that the Greek persona does not translate into our English word ‘Person’. A persona was a mask that an actor/actress wore to play a part. Hence why I use the word ‘face’.
 I refer to what was called the heresy of subordinationism. The use of the metaphor ‘father’ inferred that the father preceded the son, begat the son, and was superior to his child [a normative ancient understanding]. St Paul clearly had this understanding in 1 Corinthians 15:23-28. Orthodoxy, in trying to assert that the 1st and 2nd personas of Trinity were co-equal and co-eternal were metaphorically impeded by the use of ‘father’ and ‘son’.
 The Cappadocians were Basil the Great, his brother Gregory of Nyssa, their sister Makrina, and their friend Gregory Nazianzus, Patriarch of Constantinople.
Something is happening today that has only happened once before in my lifetime. It will only happen once more if I live to be 71. After that, even if I live to twice that age it won’t happen again. This year, the church and I are sharing the same birthday. Today is Pentecost, what is traditionally celebrated as the birthday of the church. The Church according to the Gregorian calendar is a venerable 1,976 years old today if Jesus died at the age of 33. I am a more modest 60.
Considering my well-documented love-hate relationship with the institution I affectionately but cautiously call “The Beast,” I’m not sure how I feel about sharing my birthday with it. As the Church and I are both Gemini’s this year, part of me would like to be the evil twin who forgets his twin’s birthday. But I do know that like all birthdays that end in zero I am feeling reflective about my life--where it has been, where it is, and where it is going. But this year those ruminations are overshadowed by thoughts about where the church has been, where it is and where it is going.
The week before last Glynn, Margaret Bedggood and I were three of about a 100 bishops, clergy and lay folk from the three Tikanga of Maori, Pasifika, and Pakeha at a Hui in Wellington that focused exactly on those questions. It was the second of three annual meetings that arose in response to the trauma the Anglican Communion is experiencing because the American church consecrated an openly gay man bishop and the Canadians began officially blessing gay and lesbian unions.
As you might guess there were about 100 different opinions on the subject, but ardent fundamentalist Evangelicals and St Matthew’s represented the two extremes. In brief the Evangelical position is that Holy Scriptures, the “Written Word of God,” calls homosexuality an abomination. Including gays and lesbians is tantamount to secularizing the church. The Church is called to holiness. There is no room in it for gays and lesbians or those who would include them because God said so.
In case this is your first Sunday at St Matthew’s, the Progressive Christian position is that Scripture is a human document that has to be read in its historical and cultural context to be applied with integrity to our present day. The Gospel message distilled from the early church’s need to validate Jesus’ importance in a Hellenistic world is one of liberation and inclusion. To exclude gays and lesbians on the basis of Scripture violates that message just as much as when it was used to justify slavery, colonialism, and the oppression of women. To continue to do so is to grease the slippery slope the church is already on to becoming fully and perhaps, deservedly irrelevant to the vast majority of New Zealanders.
We won’t know where Aotearoa New Zealand Anglicans will stand until next year, if then. But this might be a time to take a breath and consider the long view. We have the fortune or misfortune, depending on your perspective, of living in a time of major transition on many fronts. This is especially true for the church. It is hard to say how it will play out. Perhaps our great, great-grandchildren will have a clue. But being clueless, does not give me the excuse to give my shoulders a “she’ll be right” shrug. I do believe the decisions we make today can have a profound and permanent effect on human life. The church exists to worship. What we worship, and how and who we do it with, matters. It is a matter of transformation, individually and communally. But the question is will it be a transformation that gives us abundant life or death.
To make my case I would like to go back a wee bit in our human story to the Garden of Eden. I have never thought of the story as history any more than I do of Luke’s Pentecost story, but it turns out the fundamentalists may not be as wrong as I thought, but not as right as they think.
In 1994 a Kurdish shepherd tending his flock found unusually large stones peeping from the arid soil in the rolling hills of eastern Turkey. Since then archaeologists at a place called Gobekli Tepe have unearthed 45 limestone monoliths with many more to be revealed. They are arranged in circles and quite massive. Some are four meters high, weighing seven tons. They are covered with carvings of a wide range of animals and human forms. All this would be pretty astounding in itself, but what has made Gobekli Tepe profoundly important to our knowledge of human history, is how old it is. Carbon dating has determined that our pre-historic ancestors assembled these stones 12 to 13 thousand years ago. To give you a sense of how ancient they are, Stonehenge is only 5000 years old and the Pyramids are a youthful 4000 years old. It is even 7000 years older than creation itself according to some biblical literalists who believe the seven days of creation began on October 23rd, 4004 BC.
These builders were still in the Stone Age. Making pottery, using the wheel, writing and just about everything else were still waiting to be invented well into the future. Yet what truly astounded and surprised archaeologists is what they built. Gobekli Tepe is a temple. According to the prevailing theories this didn’t make any sense. It was thought that only after people settled down into farming and building communities did they have the time and resources to build temples. Yet nomadic hunters and gatherers built this temple. And archaeologists aren’t the only ones confounded. It appears that they built it in Eden, a place most biblical scholars previously considered mythical. It turns out that this temple sits in an area broadly defined in Genesis as the location of the Garden of Eden. While the area today is arid and unfertile, when our ancestors gathered there it was lush with a wide variety of vegetation, birds and animals. Clearly the site was chosen because it was paradise.
Their decision to build the temple in the midst of this garden of plenty was an immense undertaking. With only flint tools and not even the simplest of machines it took hundreds of labourers and their extended families to accomplish such a feat. Evidence suggests that our forebears gathered at the site periodically to build and to worship over a span of time longer than Christianity has existed. Then for reasons known only to them they buried the temple never to return, preserving it in pristine condition for us today. It certainly sounds like the Garden of Eden story. All that is missing is an angel with a burning sword guarding the entrance. Even the outcome of expulsion for Adam and Eve is included.
With so many people to feed and house, eventually even the Garden of Eden surrounding Gobekli Tepe was depleted. There is DNA evidence that over time these hunters and gatherers were the first humans to domesticate animals and wild grains. While we don’t know whom, how or what they worshipped we know their worship had consequences. Humans began the journey from being nomadic hunters and gatherers to settled farmers and city-dwellers. Worship led to civilisation.
In this particular case, worship also led to environmental disaster. By 8,000BC the local landscape began to alter. As the trees were chopped down, and the soil leached away, the area became arid and bare. What was once a glorious pastoral region of forests and meadows, rich with game and wild grasses, became a toilsome place that had to be worked ever harder.
It may also have led to human sacrifice. Nearby archaeologists unearthed a hoard of human skulls under an altar-like slab, stained with human blood. Evidence suggests that victims were roasted in huge death pits and children were buried alive in jars.
This is inexplicable human behaviour unless we understand that the people had learned to fear their gods in the face of paradise lost. So they sought to propitiate the angry heavens.
So, no surprise to us, they learned early that civilisation is not always civil and religion is often at the root of its worst excesses. While no one will ever know for sure, perhaps this is why our forbears with an effort equal to that of building it, buried the temple in 8000 BC.
Now jump forward 8,033 years to the first Pentecost. The disciples had a transforming moment. Fresh from their experience with Jesus and his radical ideas about a loving God, they came to a new understanding of faith. Empowered by his full embodiment of love, they felt compelled to share their experience. Faith did not have to be lived out in fear, even in the face of death. Being faithful was not about being exclusive or tribal, for love knows no boundaries. It wasn’t even about religion, often used by the powerful to oppress. Faith was not about purity but compassion, healing and justice. It did not have to be destructive if it heightened our awareness that the creation of which we are a part is an interconnected web. To heedlessly harm any of it is to harm all of it. And lastly, it is not best practiced in temples but in an enlivened heart.
1,976 birthdays later that message is surprisingly still with us, considering religion has done its worst to mute it. In 2010, I pray that New Zealand Anglicans will reaffirm it by its full inclusion of gays and lesbians into our common life. That will be a transformation worthy of whom we worship. That will be a happy birthday for the church. If we don’t, perhaps, we are approaching a time when the most loving thing we can do is to do as our ancestors did and do civilisation a favour. Bury the church that the Gospel might live. If our species survives for a few more millenia, it might then at least serve as a cautionary tale.
The Ascension never happened. It was not an historical event. If a tourist with a handicam had been present at Bethany they would have recorded absolutely nothing. The re-present Jesus of resurrection faith did not elevate into heaven whilst his disciples looked on.
The important question for most biblical scholars therefore is not whether it happened but what it meant. There is also a further question: Given what it meant does it continue to have any relevance at all for today?
The Ascension meant firstly that the heart of Jesus is for all time in the heart of God, because the heart of God was experienced in Jesus. Luke symbolises this with the going-up-into-the-clouds scenario. The disciples’ experience of Jesus was so overwhelming that they saw in him ‘the human face of God.’ All Christian understandings of God derive from this initial experience of Jesus.
Secondly, given that Jesus was now dead and gone yet his presence still seemed to be with them, the Early Church used the Hebrew story of Elijah and Elisha to construct a belief about the Spirit of Jesus continuing to be powerfully among them. Luke paints a picture of a re-formed bodily Jesus going up [the Ascension] and a windy, fiery spirit coming down [Pentecost]. The Gospel writer John doesn’t use the same paint. For him the resurrected Jesus simply breathes on the disciples and tells them to receive it. For Matthew and Mark the bequeathing of the Spirit doesn’t happen. They just expect believers to get on with it.
The formulation of the Trinity three centuries later would pick up these Ascension and Pentecost themes. However it would be a different painting altogether using Greek colours to radically revise the Jewish canvas.
Both the understandings of the biblical authors and the 3rd and 4th century church shared a common belief in a three-tiered universe. Earth, the middle tier, was flat. God lived above on the top floor, and hell was in the basement. That’s why Jesus went up – up was where God was said to be. That’s why traditional Christian liturgies still use the flat-earth language of God up top sending Jesus down then taking him up in order that the Spirit might come down in order that believers might be able to go up.
I think the notion of a God up top grew out of our human longing to be rescued. There are many people who have felt like they are drowning in pain, misery, and depression. They have cried out for help. The life support of family, friends, and caring agencies haven’t always met their needs. They don’t feel they have the resources within themselves. They pray for a heavenly God, especially a friendly-looking Jesus-God, to come and save them.
I understand that prayer. I empathize with those who pray it. I just don’t think it’s an accurate depiction of the God known in Jesus. That God, to continue the metaphor, was in the troubled waters with those drowning rather than plucking them out. That God did not and does not defy the laws of gravity but rather encourages people to swim and help those who can’t.
Rather than a three-tiered universe I think it’s more accurate to say that God has always been here. Jesus was conceived, born, and buried here. The Spirit of Jesus lives on here in us. There is no top floor and basement. There is just this beautiful, wondrous universe in which the power of love lives, moves, and has its being. This therefore is an earthed theology rather than a cloudy one. Such earthed theology gives rise to an ethic that treats fellow humans, other creatures, and our environment compassionately and respectfully.
On the other hand theology with God on top, above and over us, gives rise to an ethic of trying to live up to what that God wants - as interpreted by an ecclesiastical elite. Almost inevitably these elite elevate themselves by means of wealth and power to also be on top, above and over us. They maintain this power by telling us how bad and disobedient we are. The heavenly rescuing God will only save us they say if we are good and do and believe what we are told.
The Ascension was a 1st century, flat-earth, theological picture of the heart Jesus being in the heart of God. It was trying to express the relationship between God and Jesus. In this it was a precursor to the Trinity. Every Christian and church I know tries to express what they understand to be the relationship between God and Jesus. We continue trying to paint pictures that our true to our experience, hopes, and understandings of the world.
The church of my childhood seemed to me to emphasise that Jesus was kind and benign. Apart from the gender he was like the Queen of England going round smiling, doing apolitical good deeds, and living in heavenly splendour but still mixing with commoners. Why anyone would kill him was mystifying. His death was just a random act of violence.
The church of my teenage years emphasised Jesus’ crucifixion. Rather than his death being a random act of violence it seemed it was a deliberate God-inspired scheme to save us from evil. Like in Harry Potter the death of the innocent willing victim [Jesus] would magically rescue us from the consequences of cosmic evil and our bad deeds. I learnt what Jesus allegedly died for; but not what he lived for.
The church of my twenties emphasised Jesus the revolutionary. Jesus had seemingly done a course in structural analysis and knew all about racism, sexism, and indigenous land rights. He was the protester par excellence, carrying in his body and soul the pain of the oppressed, living and dying for the cause. He was a serious fellow and didn’t seem to enjoy life.
The Progressive Christian movement in general also paints Jesus from a particular angle. We think that Jesus correctly identified the human propensity to fix its God ideas in the concrete of incontestable truths. A by-product of this fixing was the condemnation of beliefs and social arrangements deemed to be outside of sacred texts. Prophets, like Jesus, were therefore needed to crack and break through that concrete in order that both new insights and innovations and marginalized and oppressed people might be treated justly and/or included by the religious and political institutions. The breaking however was of the notion of certainty, and the power structures that maintain certainty, rather than a wholesale destruction of the inherited texts and traditions.
All of these experiences of Church with their different understandings of the relationship between God and Jesus have this is common: they promote an ethic of empathy, compassion, and courage. As Bishop Richard Holloway says, “It is in its work of organised care for others, whatever its theological basis, that Christianity is at its most compelling.”
I preached at the Cathedral for Evensong a few weeks back. I offered the congregation a similar theology to that which I regularly inflict upon you. Afterwards one gentleman berated me. I was intrigued that not only did he think I was wrong, but he seemed deeply and personally aggrieved that I could think differently than he. I tried to say, ‘There, there, it’s alright. Most Christians think more like you than like me’. It actually doesn’t worry me all that much if he thinks Jesus was a Martian, or if he tries to convince others this is so. What worries me is whether Martian ethics prioritize and promote empathy, compassion, and courage.
The life of Jesus seems to me to be bigger than any single interpretation of that life. God is among us, beating in other hearts, and in places we haven’t heard of. Tolerance and intellectual modesty are therefore important when trying to understand the relationship of God and Jesus. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t question, critique, and challenge one another’s interpretations. More importantly though we should build bridges across the bounds of religious, cultural and national differences in order to promote the ethics of empathy, compassion, and courage.
 P.49, 55 Holloway, R. Looking Into The Distance Canongate, 2004
Bishop Richard Holloway – author, broadcaster, and former Archbishop of Scotland – gave a sermon on Easter 6 that gave a whole new twist to the parable of the Good Samaritan. The Priest and the Levite were not hypocrites. They were faithfully following their religious code. It was religion that failed.
I love gardening and I especially love this autumn time of year. Everything is changing; the colours of the leaves are beautiful even here in the city. The abundances of the summer are over and it is time to clean up and prepare the garden for the winter and the new growth of spring. Therefore today’s Gospel with its metaphor of the vine, vinedresser and pruning resonates with me.
Jesus is the vine and his relationship with us and we (the church) in him represent the branches. This image of the vine or tree invites spiritual reflection to feel God as the sap within us, rising up through the trunk to the branches. We need to let our spirituality flow like the sap to reach the branches and generate new growth and fruit. Fruit bearing is a time consuming beautiful process, first the leaves then the flowers, then the fruit. This process in nature takes time; from the pruning of autumn to late summer’s harvest.
The vine is a metaphor for the way of Jesus namely Christians endeavour to live our daily lives. This ‘abiding’ language reminds us to be open to the presence of God in our midst wherever and everywhere. To find this we need to stop being so busy. We can do this when we are in our garden, at the beach, on our daily walks.
As a gardener I know how beneficial pruning can be to a vine or tree, it encourages new growth, new life. Pruning guarantees the plants survival by restoring its beauty and harmony. The pruning that God provides is part of the nurturing process provided to all the branches to strengthen them.
At present our Western World is immersed in a financial crisis of unimaginable proportions.
The amounts of money lost by the financial sector, for most of us, are incomprehensible to the point of having no reality to us as individuals. Nevertheless we are being told that we will suffer and many millions have already lost their homes, jobs and investments.
The world’s finance sector is facing a mighty pruning. Some of the largest companies in the world, such as General Motors and Chrysler, are considering the option of bankruptcy protection and some will disappear completely.
The problem arose from greed. Ill-conceived incentive schemes encouraged financiers, brokers and their ilk to strive to maximise their personal wealth at the expense of good commercial sense.
The finance industry lent massive amounts of money on loans that had insufficient security and ultimately threw the worldwide balance of debt and equity out of balance.
The American, European and Asian governments have had to invest huge amounts of money to keep these banks and finance companies solvent.
All available credit around the world is being used to replace that which has been lost by the money lenders rather than being invested for future growth. In the medium term we are going to see weaker companies fall by the wayside through a lack of financial support and consequently unemployment will rise.
While the media takes delight in talking about this crisis with doom and gloom it may be time to look positively at this as an autumnal moment.
However how do we go about pruning our selves and our society?
Resurrection gave us renewed life; the opportunity for change to live life as Jesus had preached one of compassion for each other. We now have the time to consider what is more important personal wealth or social justice for everyone regardless of race and social status.
After the Great Depression of the 1930s many countries adopted a social welfare system including New Zealand. Then during the 1980s these social welfare systems were dismantled by more conservatively minded governments. Governments who were more concerned with cutting taxes for the very rich at the expense of the poorest members of society.
As a result we have poor social services, a struggling health system, poor social housing and an inadequate education system. This is worldwide not just in New Zealand. The rich have got richer and the poor poorer and the middle class have shrunk.
During our World history we have accepted slavery as a God given right, seen women as property, racial discrimination based on ones ethnicity and homosexuality as evil. For most of us such discrimination is abhorrent.
Great changes have been achieved by individuals following the way and believing in a loving and compassionate God through Jesus; think of Martin Luther King Jr, Ghandi and Nelson Mandela. From a conviction and love they achieved change and just as new growth takes time their desire for change also took many years. Nothing happens instantly but with a desire for something better such as a new economic vision for our world with time, energy and nurturing renewal could be achieved.
Barack Obama has said; “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”
What an intimidating task; what can we as individuals do?
We can remember to bring some food for the offertory basket on Sunday; spend the winter reflecting on new growth in our own lives. Someone in our family or neighbourhood may be out of work, they may appreciate some of our time to listen and share how they feel. Social agencies like the City Mission could use our help so they can help those in greater need. We need to engage with our community, get out and notice the branches that have been bruised and need some loving and nurturing pruning.
While it may be difficult to have faith that world leaders will adopt a new more just business model we can pray that they do so, because right now the old one is not working. For the church, the whole church regardless of denomination; now is the time to put aside it’s petty squabbles and look at the wider issues facing the world unite and use their influence to call world leaders’ to prune the economies with fairness, equality and compassion.
ANZAC day is a strange choice for New Zealand’s main commemoration of war. The battles on Turkey’s Gallipoli Peninsula are not examples of a few ingenuous brave kiwis defying and triumphing over the odds. They are not examples of ‘Lord of the Rings’ style victories where the hardy cohort defeats the vast sub-human armies of the evil one. Gallipoli was not about triumph, nor even really about bravery. Instead it was about constant death and dogged survival. It was and remains an example seared into our country’s memory of the total futility of war.
Last year I visited Gallipoli. Like many New Zealanders our family has its names on the white monuments that adorn the hilltops. We heard how the dead lay piled in No Man’s Land - 10,000 dead - an incomprehensible number. Imagine the flies... and the disease... and the despair. One white tombstone said, “For God, King, and Country”. The Turk tour guide, a knowledgeable revisionist, added, “For nothing.” Nearly 500,000 young men died on those ridges, gullies, beaches, or in the hospitals beyond.
For the British and their allies it was predominantly a failure of leadership. For the Turks it was the success of leadership and the commitment to one’s home. As an inscription said the Turks weren’t fighting for the Ottoman Empire on some foreign shore, but for their own country. For the ANZACs they were fighting for an empire on foreign soil – an empire that sacrificed them.
Was it racism that led those British Officers and politicians, including the venerated Sir Winston, to underestimate the Turks? Probably. Yet quickly it became evident the Turks were no fools. Was it the ideology of sacrifice, entrenched as it was and is in Christian European culture, which imagined that a few lives were worth it to shorten the war? Yet how many lives – a hundred, a thousand, ten thousand?? The end, military victory, was believed to justify the means. ‘Preserve, endure, and the victory will be ours’ was the myth. It is reminiscent of St Paul running the race with his eyes on the goal, suffering en route. It is all myth, powerful, persuasive, and as deadly as any fusillade.
This thinking continues today. The brave in Iraq or Afghanistan aren’t considered to be those who run away, who question orders, who tell their officers what fools they are to continue, who refuse to glorify war, who weep alone in the night for their brothers, lovers, and their own selves frightened by the ghosts. When will we value disobedience, criticism, and love of neighbour? War is such folly.
Interestingly there seems to be little judgementalism reported in the Gallipoli stories. To be traumatized, to break down, or to be stretchered away as a mental wreck… was seemingly not judged harshly. It was as if the insanity of what was happening required some to personally internalize it, and a number did. To run away would also have been sane. Only there was no where to run: the guns were in front and the tide was behind.
The language of sacrifice is misplaced. It is a retrospective word said by those trying, understandably, in their grief to make sense of the carnage. Like most soldiers the boys at Gallipoli were there because initially they believed in goodies versus baddies, in the glory-of-battle propaganda, and in duty. And like most soldiers as time went on they were there because they were ordered to be, they killed because that’s what was required, and they hoped and prayed that it would end before their end. There was nothing glorious about Gallipoli.
Christianity, and particularly certain understandings of Christ’s death, feed the myth of sacrifice. So let me speak plainly. Firstly, the Hebrew Scriptures as they evolved and were refined clearly disdain the idea of human sacrifice. The Jewish God did not want humans to kill themselves or others in order to appease the divine temperament. Abraham’s threatening of Isaac is not an exemplary story of obedience to a bloodthirsty deity, but as the next chapters show an abuse of Isaac and the tragic death of a father-son relationship. Abraham got it wrong. He should have had the courage to disobey. That’s what the Scripture tells us!
Secondly, Jesus did not sacrifice himself for our sins. That is a retrospective interpretation, one way how the early church tried to understand his death and their loss. Historically however I think it is more accurate to say Jesus was killed for his politics and piety. He would not, could not, deny those politics and piety – for they were grounded in who he was and who he knew God as. This is what the text ‘He set his face towards Jerusalem’ means. It was not a death wish. It was not, contra the 4th Gospel, a laying down of his life for others. It was rather a total commitment to the God of his being. An integral part of which, mark well, was a commitment to non-violence.
Thirdly, Jesus did not ask his disciples to sacrifice themselves for others. The verse in the Fourth Gospel, compiled some 80 years after Jesus’ death, ‘no greater love has a person than this: that they lay down there life for their friends’ [Jn 15:13] sounds a noble sentiment. It is an interpretation of Jesus’ death being re-interpreted as a general principle. And as a general principle it is wrong. There is a greater love: it’s called carrying on living in the spirit of Jesus. It’s called being committed to fathering your children and loving your wife/husband/partner throughout most of their lives. It’s called being a friend to others through good times and bad. It’s called contributing to the betterment of society by changing unjust laws, defending the despised, and working for the dignity and wellbeing of all. Dying on a battlefield is not ‘the greatest love’. We should not allow Scripture to be misused for the purpose of military propaganda.
“Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you,” said Jesus.
When will Christianity unequivocally renounce war as a means, a strategy, and a last resort? The trial has been held. The witnesses have presented. The jury has deliberated. The judge has ruled… all so long ago... But we refuse to put away our deadly toys of death.
When will we protest and rebel against the distortion of our faith the war mentality promotes? When will we say that loving our enemies is incompatible with killing them?
Do you think that Jesus lived in a nice bourgeois neighbourhood and the only violence he knew was on a TV screen? No, the enemies he asked his followers to love were the same ones who assaulted, killed and raped his relatives – Romans, their stooges, Herod’s thugs, bandits. Jesus asked his followers to transcend their enemies’ inhumanity by inviting his followers to offer their humanity.
War though is seductive. Memory of the dead quickly moves on to postulating on soldiers’ courage and then extolling it. The language of sacrifice creeps in – ‘they did it for us’ is the myth. Before long the dead are idealized and war is glorified. With the politicians, priests, and the general populace we make noises about the horror of war and the necessity of peace but at the same, in some secret corner of our hearts, we believe that killing may be necessary to defend what we hold dear. We call this realism. We call it a ‘just war’. We give theoretical examples that have little resemblance to war’s reality.
To remember soldiers who have died and suffered in war is futile if it does not serve to strengthen our resolve to resist the glorification and seduction of war.
Dwight Eisenhower, a five-star general and commander of all the US armed forces in WWII, in his latter years said “I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity.” Eisenhower also said, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.” It’s nice to think that occasionally a US President speaks the unadulterated truth.
May we honour the dead by telling the truth. In the truth-telling may we refuse to participate in the myths of sacrifice and glory. In refusing to participate may we have the strength to withstand those who think we are disrespectful and traitorous. Above all may we have the courage of faith and the strength of its conviction to simply love our enemies and not kill them.
To say that I had been terrorised by the god of evangelical Christianity in my adolescence would not be an overstatement. I grew up in an evangelical single-parent home. The local church we attended was made up of the family and extended family who had adopted my mother, my younger brother and me upon our relocation to the town. My mother had become a widow at the very young age of twenty and this was to be a new start for us.
My family attended church twice during the week and twice on Sunday. The sermons preached from the pulpit were hellfire and brimstone messages. The services could last anywhere from 2 to 4 hours and at their height, the congregation would erupt into a wild frenzy of dancing, shouting and prophesying.
At every service we were offered the opportunity to “surrender” our lives to Christ. Upon asking Jesus to be our personal Lord and Saviour, we would be offered forgiveness for our sins. None of this was possible if you didn’t believe in your heart that humans were inherently evil sinful beings in need of saving. The human body was the prison of the soul and would only be freed upon Christ’s ‘second coming’. The second coming, the rapture was the day we all looked forward too. On that day, Christ, who was god, would separate the good from the bad, the good getting to spend an eternity in constant adoration of god and the bad would spend eternity in constant torment in the fires of hell.
As a child I used to lie awake at night sometimes till all hours of the morning with anxiety of the prospect of burning in hell. I struggled to reconcile the images of Jesus that hung on the walls of our Sunday school room with the Jesus who would send people to eternal torment. I tried to imagine what might be different about this Jesus’ appearance and his demeanour on the day of judgement. Would he look as gentle and meek and kind while doling out righteous punishment?
When I was 12 years-old I knew I must be gay. My anxiety about hell significantly increased. Something about my being had alerted several members of the congregation to my homosexuality; maybe it was that I had always preferred dolls to toy guns, preferred staying indoors baking with my mom instead of outside playing war. I was not being my gender correctly.
Finally at one worship service the preacher called me forward. And in front of the entire congregation, the words of god came through him, warning me that I was playing a deadly game with god. He made clear this was a warning about my disordered sexuality and the price, should I pursue that lifestyle, would be god withdrawing the spirit from me for good. Eternal damnation would then be inevitable.
I didn’t know how to react to this prophecy. My instincts told me that I better do something to show that I took god’s words seriously so I immediately knelt at the altar as I had seen others do after a prophecy. I was soon surrounded by several parishioners who came and laid hands on me to pray for the spirit to come into me, to deliver me. Two hours later still kneeling at the altar, I decided that I had better start faking some tears and fast because it was becoming apparent to me that the spirit was going to be a no-show and these prayer “warriors” weren’t letting me go anywhere anytime soon. Then relief, the tears finally came fake as they were. There were shouts of thanksgiving all around me that my 12 year-old soul had been delivered and I was finally allowed to leave with the warning, “no more games”.
From that point onward and well into my teenage years, I lived in a constant state of fear, shame and guilt. For the life of me, I couldn’t understand how a god who was supposedly all-loving and merciful could allow me to be born with such a defect as homosexuality. This was a defect for which the responsibility fell to me to overcome if I didn’t want to burn forever.
I prayed constantly for god to help me overcome the same-sex attraction I felt. Much like some girls dream of getting married to a prince, so were my dreams, but mine were not signs of a time-honoured fairytale, they were signs of a disordered being.
By this point, I felt like an empty shell, a body in a tomb, no life. The happy child who use to run around like a clown performing for laughter had died that night and gave way to the miserable being I had become. I felt numb and believed god had really withdrawn “his” spirit from me. School become unbearable too because again something about my being had alerted my classmates to my homosexuality. There were no safe places.
So it came to pass that eventually, my mother who had had enough fled with my brother and me in tow from the little white church with the big tall steeple that had once symbolised our hopes for a new life. Our little family limped away beaten and battered, wounded and exhausted from the experience. We were from then on known by the congregation as “backsliders”. We had turned our backs on god and not a moment too soon. Walking away never felt so good or so right.
Even in the midst of that experience, the Jesus story had never left me. I knew that I had not experienced his Gospel in its true form. I had experienced someone else’s diluted and distorted version of it. I had never stopped calling myself a Christian but it wasn’t until several years later I happened into a big stone church and I experienced a quickening. A quickening-- that moment in pregnancy when a mum to be first feels new life moving inside her. For me, in spiritual terms, this was the precise moment when the old god started to pass away and I embraced not a new god but God with a new understanding.
My quickening happened almost four years ago when I walked through the doors of St Matthew’s for the very first time. It was the 8’o’clock service. I had heard about these “gay friendly” churches but I was, for obvious reasons, very suspicious. I thought there must be some gimmick. I know! They get you in the door; make you feel really comfortable by being all nice to you. Before you know it, the 8’o’clockers are wrestling you to the ground while the priest makes a mad dash for the holy water and a crucifix so you can be the victim of yet another exorcism. Pass! But what did I have to lose? I had succesfully faked deliverance once before, I was confident I could do it again. Besides, this church had more fire exits to escape out of than my last one.
So in I walked with my King James Bible in hand. I remember being mildly appalled after the service that I had not once the opportunity or need to open it during the service. It was the evangelical in me that had made me feel like a fish out of water. Glynn preached a sermon called “When Buffoons Become Bishops.” By the last sentence of his sermon, somehow I knew I was in the right place. After awhile I no longer feared going to hell myself. However after that first service I was worried for Glynn. I had been baptised into St Matthew’s theology. This theology said that God didn’t require me to surrender my intellect or reason. These were gifts and that was Good News!
St Matthew’s was a beacon to me and the place where my quickening was allowed to happen and nurtured. I realised that the Jesus message wasn’t a message of oppression; it was a message of new life. It was a doctrine of hope not one of control. I begin to understand the miracle of what happened in Jesus’ tomb. I realised that dark places are sometimes where new life comes out of. Resurrection is ongoing and it’s amazing what can come out of an empty shell, an empty tomb.
Today I don’t believe that I have been blessed by God to be able to stand here sharing my wounds. To say that implies that the queer youth who didn’t make it were not blessed. It would mean they were out of divine favour and I don’t believe that’s what God is or how God works.
I do know however what a struggle it can be to try to find reason in the journey. What answer can we give for why things happen the way they do if our understanding of God means we cannot call it divine providence? In Paul Ostreicher’s simple words, “it is what it is.” That doesn’t mean to say that God isn’t active in our lives. It simply means that God is active in our lives in different ways.
So finally, if I had one last thing to say to that little white church with the big tall steeple, it would be, “it is no longer the threat of hell that controls me but the threat of hope.”
Today is Low Sunday and is also called the Octave of Easter as it is the eighth day after the paschal feast of Easter. Historically and still extant in the Eastern churches it is called St Thomas’s Sunday because the reading on this day is always the one about ‘doubting Thomas’ where we hear of his very understandable questioning and doubt about the resurrection of Jesus. As we hear, the change to absolute conviction is rapid and complete. The pinnacle of this gospel passage, and to which the whole of the New Testament points, are the foundational words Thomas speaks to Jesus, “my Lord and my God.”
Today is also called Quasimodo Sunday. This comes from the first two words of ancient antiphons or sung responses of the eucharist celebrated this Sunday that speaks to those newly baptised at Easter - it goes:
Quasi modo, geniti infantes, rationabile - which translates “as newborn babes, alleluia.”
And yes, this is the origin of the name of the hunchback, Quasimodo, in Victor Hugo's famous novel "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." Quasimodo was a foundling who was discovered at the door of Notre Dame cathedral on Low Sunday and so was named after this day.
In the early church Easter was the time when catechumens - those who had gone through a lengthy training and instruction in the Christian faith, were baptised. It was an elaborate ritual of preparation, with a succession of ‘scrutinies’ through Lent and then, presumably, if they passed muster, they were baptized and admitted at the Paschal feast. It was a long and careful process. I can remember reading where the catechumens were publicly baptized completely naked……… I found this bizarre at the time and still do, but if the faith is that if we really believe we are being reborn into God in Jesus emerging as like newborn babes it is more understandable. I guess.
All of these foundational aspects of Christianity are light years away from us here in the 21st century. Not just time-wise but more particularly on an intellectual and evolving sense of who we are and who Jesus is, and who or what or how God is or might be and is in our lives. The stories of our faith that we read each week together here in church looked at rationally or without any faith background can look all very speculative and subjective - just like plain old stories really. Maybe that’s how Thomas thought too.
We are physical creatures and for us on a primal level seeing is believing. However, it is an abstract notion like faith that establishes us as more than merely physical sensate creatures. It is also in the telling of stories that we find meaning that can lead to faith. We are sometimes referred to as the storytelling animal - all of our own personal and public lives are wound into stories that we inhabit, think about, dream about, talk about and hopefully learn from. We are our own text - we contain our family stories, our work stories, our faith stories - stories and dreams and hopes that reside and emerge from within each of us.
We are the stories we tell ourselves. Some psychotherapeutic models see positive change being effected by changing or reframing one’s own story – looking at it from a different perspective, perhaps so that glimmers of hope and new visions of life can arise in a gray and unhappy heart.
It can be illuminating to look at the Bible as a collection of stories – originally oral and told around the campfire to entertain, to inform, to keep alive the history of a family or a people, to bind together - always to give meaning and shape to life within the unique heart of each individual listener.
Our Christian story is the Easter story. One day we remember and mourn a gruesome death and we wait in anticipation of the next installment of the story a couple of days later, which is about life and hope – newborn life resurrected from the ashes of the old. It is, as we all know, a truly wonderful story that gives us too, over 2000 years later, hope and courage for the fleet race that is life in all its beauty and agony. The story is about beauty and agony – the terrible beauty of an uncommon common man who will go to death for his convictions and thereby change the whole world, and the searing agony of betrayal and death that leaves ashes in our mouths.
Thomas doesn’t believe that dead people can become alive again. Nor do we. But something unfathomable mysterious and miraculous happens and Thomas does believe because, as we hear, he is convinced of the reality of Jesus himself and proclaims “My Lord and my God.” This uncommon common man is, in five words, transformed into a God. “My Lord and my God” - it is a powerful evocative phrase that thrills and burns within the hearts of Christians worldwide, and speaks so very deeply to the poetic and longing part of the soul that yearns for union with the divine.
“My Lord and my God” is the defining statement of the Christian story. It is The article of faith.
It is also something in which there is a giving over of something indefinable. To say this phrase, to believe it and make it central to your life/your story involves a giving over, a surrender to something mysterious and pervasive. You are changed. They are beautiful words and resonate unusually when spoken. That is why they are part of an ancient and common Christian mantra for those who meditate for prayer.
But how do you really feel about that phrase? Modern day sensibilities, vast acres of post enlightenment knowledge, the validity of other faiths, scientific and cosmic awareness, the problem of evil and much more all impact upon our interpretation of our faith story.
We deconstruct language and reject ‘Lord’ as being patriarchal and class ridden. Do we really intellectually accept the deity God of the Bible story? Is Jesus God? And the questions go ever on and on.
What is really important about today is that we are here as a faith community that comes down through time from those very people in that room, perhaps those very actions and those very words that herald Jesus today. Today is a special Sunday that arrives in the wake of our tumultuous Easter story that we live into year after year. We have had time to digest the special services that reenact the early church and to listen to the stories of our faith. We have heard how Passover turned into Easter with the life and death of Jesus. We have heard today how people in 1st century Palestine experienced Jesus a week after his death. These are our stories - we are living part of them too.
And that somehow, somewhere, sometime, you –we, have felt that indefinable pull, that surrender, that touch that made Thomas open his eyes and his heart in a new way, that makes us more aware, that continues if we have faith and endurance to resurrect us from our ignorance and folly.
We, like those newly baptized of old on the first Sunday after Easter, we quasimodos.
In his Easter sermon, Canon Paul Oestreicher, retired Director of the Centre for International Reconciliation at Coventry Cathedral;founding Chair of Amnesty International; Vice President, Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament; Quaker Chaplain to the University of Sussex and a lifetime worker for peace and social justice, preached about a resurrection that while a mystery is not about triumphalism or power or the majority. It is like a New World supermarket.
Self-Love, Self-Belief, and a Burning Desire for Freedom
April 11, 2009
As was recently printed in the New Zealand Herald, my understanding of the death and resurrection of Jesus is in part shaped by the motif of freedom. Jesus was a free man. Free in his mind and spirit. Those affronted by freedom killed him. The resurrection celebrates that freedom actually can’t be killed. When freedom is repressed it goes underground only to emerge later in the lives and actions of others. The spirit of freedom is more powerful than all the machinations and weapons of human control and repression.
What are called ‘The Appearance Stories’, those post-Easter encounters that Mary, Peter, Thomas and other disciples had with a form of Jesus, address primarily the issue of fear. The ‘form of Jesus’ that the disciples and Paul encountered was not a resuscitated corpse. It was a symbolic representation of the power of God’s freedom over the bondage of oppression’s fear. This ‘re-present Jesus’ engaged with disciples like Mary, Peter, and Thomas calling them into the spirit of freedom (their ‘resurrection’) and out of fear (their ‘tomb’). Another way of talking about this – and a point where conservatives and I can use a similar metaphorical language – is that ‘Jesus’ lived on in his followers, and continues to do so today.
The hope of Easter therefore is not in the revivification of dead people in some sort of afterlife but in the irrepressible spirit of freedom, as revealed in Jesus, that triumphs over self-serving religious and political systems of domination. St Paul encouraged his Galatian converts to abide in their Easter faith when he said, “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherein Christ has made us free and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage” [Gal 5:1].
The question then arises, ‘How?’ How do we ‘stand fast’? How do we encourage ourselves and others into freedom? Tonight my response hinges around three words: love, believe, and rebel.
You’ve heard it said by the Church to ‘Love God and love your neighbour’. How often have you been told to love your self? Indeed the notion of self love has been so derided by the Church it has become a euphemism for egotism or masturbation.
The seeds of freedom are planted every time you encourage someone or thank someone. They are planted every time you tell someone they are a wonderful, beautiful human being worthy of respect, dignity, and praise. They are planted every time you encourage someone to be proud of who they are.
Pride is another one of those words derided by the Church. Yet pride in one’s self and one’s achievements is very important, as hopefully every parent and school teacher knows. Every movement of liberation has started with pride – black pride, gay pride – pride in the wonderful person you are.
For freedom to flower and thrive we need to nurture people’s sense of self worth. We also need to love and care for our selves. We need to be kind to our selves. We need to look in the mirror and give thanks for all that we are – for we are a precious part of God’s body.
You have heard it said by the Church to ‘Believe in God, believe in Jesus’. How often have you been told to believe in your self? Time and again the Church has put down and derided humanity - ‘the flesh’, ‘the world’ - as sinful, corrupt, or evil. Time and again the Church has told people they are worthless and in its liturgies told people to recite the same. Time and again the Church has devalued the human body and the natural environment which is its home.
Enough! It has gone on long enough. We have had enough – more than enough! We are sick and tired of hearing our humanity devalued.
Believe in your humanity. At its best the doctrine of the incarnation is not about an external saviour coming to earth to rescue us, but about the presence of God being in our humanity. We have life-giving strands, threads of hope and grace, woven into our DNA. These are God threads. We are God-enriched, God-infused. Jesus said in effect, ‘Here I am, no different from you, a human being who is aware of God in and through me’. The incarnation is an affirmation of divinity being indivisible from humanity.
We don’t need to believe in saviours from outer space, nor in the dictates of an unaccountable king-god, neither in that god’s self-appointed messengers who want our minds and usually our money. We can instead believe in our own self and trust in our own self, the same one in whom God already dwells, believes and trusts in. Then we can use our self-belief to create the conditions for others’ self-belief to emerge and be emboldened.
You have heard it said by the Church, ‘Trust and obey for there is no other way to be happy in Jesus’. How often have you been told to disobey and rebel?
If you older than 20 and have received a Sunday School education you will in all likelihood have been raised to obey. Religious education used to involve writing down from the blackboard all the things your teacher told you. ‘God is our Father’ you would write. You were meant to believe this, not to question it. Questioning was seen as a sign of disobedience. I remember in the 1970s one of the trainee priests at St John’s Theological College was dismissed by his bishop because he had the temerity to question the appropriateness of his accommodation. The bishop, when asked about this, said he did not want argumentative priests. When I was involved in Land Rights protests in the 1980s the Bishop of Wellington sent a letter to all his theological students telling them not to associate with me. He saw me as a rebellious anarchist. Depending on your definitions the Bishop was probably right.
On a gloomy day I am tempted to think that the whole purpose of religious education is to tame, to channel, and to control the fiery unpredictable spirit of God. When Baxter says the spirit ‘blows inside and outside the fences’ the institution’s response is to build a bigger fence and try to ignore what’s beyond it.
I long for a day when all are taught to not only question our teachers and institutions but to practise disobedience. I long for the day when students are rewarded for courage of thought and deed. I long for the day when we are taught about all our rebellious forebears who dreamed and wrote and marched and suffered. I long for the day when prayer will not be thought of as a bow-your-head-to-the-boss recite-what-you-are-told exercise but a preparatory discipline for the unleashing of love/justice infested change.
In the meantime these three remain: self-love, self-belief, and burning desire for freedom.
On Good Friday Canon Paul Oestreicher of Coventry Cathedral, a tireless worker for peace and reconciliation, reflected pwerfully on the different crosses that have influenced him or been meaningful in his journey.
The truth of the founding parable of the Hebrew nation was their yearning not to be slaves. As the story goes the Hebrews were a servile class in the Egyptian empire until a leader emerged to galvanise that yearning and head their protest. With pluckiness, divine feats, and tenacity the Israelites led by Moses exited Egypt, allegedly walked through the Red Sea, and embarked on a circuitous route towards Canaan where they would eventually kill the locals and reign supreme. How much of the Exodus is fact and how much is fiction is difficult to tell, and is actually unimportant. What is important are the values, remembered in the ritualised history of both the Passover and the Last Supper - values of risk, rebellion, and freedom that the parable extols.
In the course of time the observance of the laws developed by the Hebrew community led to a new kind of slavery – enslavement to the written word of the law as interpreted by an ecclesiastical elite. At least that’s how the early Christians saw it. They saw their Jewish faith as largely bound to the letter rather than the spirit of the Law, and wanted to break free of it. The New Testament writers portray Jesus in conflict with the scribes and Pharisees over the issue of allegiance to a strict legal observance. Jesus, time and time, is said to break the rules – rules that kept men and women apart, healthy and sick people apart, Jewish and non-Jewish people apart. It seemed that Jesus’ relationship with God was one that required scant attention to rules.
Paul the paramount author of the New Testament - though someone who had never met Jesus - battled hard to uphold a freedom of spirit from the constraints of the Jewish Law. He urged, for example, his Galatian converts not to revert back to their previous religious ways but to ‘stand fast in the liberty wherein Christ has made us free’ [Gal 5:1]. They were to stand fast in the truth of their experience of God and of God’s grace, to risk the wrath of those who didn’t understand and were offended by their actions, to rebel against leaders who wanted to take them back, and to live lives free of imposed rules being guided instead by the Spirit within.
One way to understand the resurrection is with the motif of freedom. Jesus was a free man. Free in his mind and spirit. Those affronted by freedom killed him. The resurrection celebrates that freedom actually can’t be killed. When freedom is repressed it goes underground only to emerge later in the lives and actions of others. The Spirit of freedom is more powerful than all the machinations and weapons of human control and repression. That’s the Easter hope.
As the Exodus led in time to an institutional religion with rules and regulations so the praxis of Jesus and the preaching of Paul led in time to an institutionalised religion of power, control, and a surfeit of rules. Once again the God of freedom had been bound. It was an Augustinian monk, Martin Luther, in the 16th century who broke free of that religion and suggested that access to God is possible without ecclesiastical brokers and their boundaries. Yet that freedom too was curtailed in time but another form of bondage – enslavement to the written word of the Bible.