Not all Christmas traditions are created equal. In the country of my birth a new tradition has arisen – regrettably. It is the annual “War on Christmas.” In America’s defence, war is kind of our thing. Most of my life we have been at war with someone. When there weren’t enough “someones” to war with we had wars on things: poverty, drugs, terror and now Christmas. This latest tradition became popular with the rise of Fox News who begins beating the drums of war sometime each September. Fox doesn’t believe it began the hostilities. Those who choose to greet others with “Happy Holidays” or “Season’s Greetings” rather than “Merry Christmas” fired the first shot in their view. Fox would have us believe it is defending Christianity against liberals and atheists and implicitly, Muslims and Jews. If you don’t say “Merry Christmas” you are probably a terrorist. In truth Fox could care less what is on your Christmas card. Fox’s only stock in trade is dividing people. When people are polarized by fear of another’s race, creed, colour or Christmas greeting it is easier to keep power in the hands of the rich and powerful.
My fear is that this conflagration could expand beyond US borders thanks to cable television, which broadcasts Fox News around the world. Thanks to fear mongering, Christmas may spark World War III.
In the interest of peace on earth, goodwill to all, I have a suggestion. Let’s take the angels’ message seriously, “Don’t be afraid.” Let’s take away their talking point and wish everyone a merry Christmas. Let’s refuse to be an enemy combatant. Some might think this is a capitulation to evil. But I would argue that it is an act of defiance. The spirit of Christmas is universal and belongs to everyone. To wish your humanist, pagan, progressive, Jewish, and Muslim friends or anyone else for that matter, a merry Christmas is not only an act of generosity it is a reminder that Christmas doesn’t belong just to those who proclaim Jesus as their personal lord and saviour.
In fact, if Christmas belongs to anyone, it belongs to the Pagans. It wasn’t until the 4th Century that the church started celebrating the winter solstice with the birth of Jesus. Pagans have been celebrating it for 4000 years. It is the Pagans who gave us holly and mistletoe; Yule logs and Christmas trees. The Egyptians symbolized the return of the sun with the birth of a baby boy. Our candlelight services go back to the priestess bringing sacred fire out of the cave and passing the flame to her pagan congregation.
All this was too tempting to the church. They borrowed all of it and Christmas was born. But even then Christians didn’t universally celebrate it. The Puritans outlawed it in Massachusetts because of its pagan roots. There are Christian sects today that still refuse to celebrate it for the same reason.
For Pagans there is no embarrassment about keeping this season - keeping alive the wisdom that the light that shines on in the darkness, our darkness, cannot be extinguished. The pagan in us all – and all of us have some – will not be offended by a greeting of merry Christmas.
After the Pagans, Christmas probably belongs most to the Jews. Of course, wishing the Jews a merry Christmas presents a dilemma. Here is a story that has been the excuse for persecution and pogroms. For not accepting Jesus as THE Messiah, Jews have been subjected to great evil. For a Jew to sit out Christmas is not a surprise.
Still, the irony is, Jesus never of course, saw himself as anything but a Jew, one after reform, to be sure, but a Jew. The word “Christian” never crossed his lips. That anti-Semitism tries to hide this fact is another matter.
Jesus’ message was simple enough: the religion of his day had become lost in formalism. The letter became more important than the spirit. Forms that were to enhance human life were used to pound it down.
It is a hypocrisy found in every religion, often among those who claimed to found a new church in Jesus name. In our celebration of this Jewish prophet’s birth we do well to remember that. Strange as it may seem, there is room for a Jew in the stable. On that holy night, other than the magi, that is all there were at that stable. For that matter there is room for a Muslim as well, as the Qur’an venerates both Jesus and his mother. So the least we can do is thank them for our merry Christmas.
Humanists present more of a problem. Certainly in the last century they have stood firmly in the camp of “reason” against what they consider the superstitions of religion. The myths and stories around Christmas give them little reason to celebrate the season. Wishing them a merry Christmas, may get a “Bah! Humbug!” in response. But Christmas has something to offer them as well.
Humanists have traditionally held that it is to the human, not to the divine, we must look for help. While early Christians squabbled about his nature, the “human” Jesus showed us what a human can do. He turned things upside down. His public life of only three years changed the world. While it may seem an impossible contradiction, Humanists can celebrate the birth of someone who showed us the full extent of our human powers. More than that, the ethic that Jesus taught, love for our fellow beings, is at its heart humanistic, as is his call to serve humankind.
What could be more appropriate for a humanist than to celebrate the most human of holidays? The themes of Christmas reflect the deepest yearnings of the human heart: hope and light, birth and joy and love and peace. There is a lot here for the humanist to celebrate. So we wish them merry Christmas.
Then there are the free thinking progressives who do not follow a “Jesus saves us” Christianity, but an ethical and spiritual Christianity, following the teachings of Jesus, the religion of Jesus, rather than the one about Jesus. They take in stride all the assurances that they are going to hell, and noting the fine people who are going to hell with them according to the orthodox, say, “Go to Heaven for the weather and hell for the company.”
Progressives are found in many traditions including Anglican, but some of the first were Unitarians. One was Charles Dickens, whose story of human transformation, A Christmas Carol, helped give Christmas the popularity it has today. Another was John Pierpont who captured the joy of Christmas in his song Jingle Bells.
Sadly, some do not see them or their successors as part of the Christian tradition. Fox does not wish progressives a merry Christmas because progressives do not see the Christmas story as factual history, but as a myth that in the telling reaches deeply into our hearts. Progressives hear a tale of a child born in the commonest circumstance, revealing the holiness of every birth; declaring that even among the shunned, in a place of dung, divinity has a perch; that in the most wretched place we find that reality has a heart.
Progressives celebrate this subversive truth of Christmas. Thomas Merton, Catholic writer, monk and progressive thinker put it this way:
Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for him at all, Christ has come uninvited. But because he cannot be at home in it, because he is out of place in it, his place is with those others for whom there is no room. His place is with those who do not belong, who are rejected by power because they are regarded as weak, those who are discredited, who are denied the status of persons, who are tortured and bombed and exterminated. With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in the world. He is mysteriously present in those for whom there seems to be nothing but the world at its worst ... It is in these that he hides himself, for whom there is no room.
Part of us chaffs at the idea that among those whom we shun and reject, is the holy. It is a hell of a note... No wonder so many are tempted to believe the story literally and miss the implication – the holy is among us.
For the progressive this truth is what makes Christmas merry. Here is the affirmation that the birth of God's love is possible in all times and places, even in our dread and doubt.
So as an act of peacemaking I wish you all a merry Christmas. For all of us are what make Christmas what it is, whether we believe the story literally, mythically, or not at all. We are all actors in the story and without any of us it would lose power to transform a world of darkness, pain, loss, and injustice. Without any of us the world would be less holy.
So my message of peace to Fox is from a child repeating the Lord’s prayer as he understood it: “forgive us our Christmases as we forgive those who Christmas against us.”
It was a few days before Christmas. A woman woke up one morning and told her husband, "I just dreamed that you gave me a pearl necklace for Christmas. What do you think this dream means?" "Oh," her husband replied, "you'll know the day after tomorrow."
The next morning, she turned to her husband again and said the same thing, "I just dreamed that you gave me a pearl necklace for Christmas. What do you think this dream means?" And her husband said, "You'll know tomorrow."
On the third morning, the woman woke up and smiled at her husband, "I just dreamed again that you gave me a pearl necklace for Christmas. What do you think this dream means?" And he smiled back, "You'll know tonight."
That evening, the man came home with a small package and presented it to his wife. She was delighted. She opened it gently. And when she did, she found-a book! It was entitled, "The Meaning of Dreams".
I think it is safe to say that our dreams fascinate us. It is one activity that transcends all human differences. We all dream, even those of us who don’t remember them. It transcends not just human differences, but species as well. I know my canine mate Zorro dreams, which makes me wonder if the fantail and tui dream as well? How about field mice and rabbits? How about insects? Does the weta have nightmares of being naked in church like I do?
While our dreams sometimes seem deranged, they apparently keep us mentally well. People deprived of dreaming for lengthy periods begin to exhibit mental illness. Their sense of reality becomes impaired.
Yet dreams themselves can often disturb our sense of reality. Have you ever awaken from a dream, and then realized that this is not real awakening, but that you are still within a dream. These dreams within a dream raise the question: do we live in reality, or in a dream of reality? Is the real hidden behind a dreamlike apparent reality? The Taoist philosopher of the Fourth Century BCE, Zhuangzi, once described such a dream:
Once Zhuangzi dreamt he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering around, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He didn't know he was Zhuangzi. Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakable Zhuangzi. But he didn't know if he was Zhuangzi who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Zhuangzi. [i]
Douglas Adams, author of A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, put it more succinctly: “He felt that his whole life was some kind of dream and he sometimes wondered whose it was and whether they were enjoying it.”
Such dreams are an invitation to consider the nature of reality. Such experiences encourage us to contemplate the deep structure of the universe and perhaps where to find the divine in it. As we do, Zhuangzi reminds us in another teaching that our lives are limited, but knowledge is limitless. [ii] There are things we cannot grasp or understand. Thus we live with mystery, with limited knowing. Every night, our dreams tease us with the limits of our knowing, inviting us to a place of mystery and humility. But on occasion they provide us with the gift of new creative insight or new wisdom. Niels Bohr, the founder of quantum mechanics, was given the critical insight of discrete quantum levels in a dream. He dreamed of horses in a horserace, having to stay in their tracks. [iii] Albert Einstein had a dream about travel at relativistic speeds, leading to his theory of relativity. His dream was about what the stars would look like, while sledding at high speeds. [iv]
Sometimes the gift of dreams is not just new insight but a call to action.
After World War I, in a time of increasing British oppression in India, Mahatma Gandhi was a relatively new participant in the efforts for independence. He and other leaders met to plan opposition to the Rowlatt Bill, which was the continuation of wartime martial law into peacetime. Violent protests had broken out, and Gandhi's appeals for non-violent action were ignored. During this meeting over several days, Gandhi had a dream, which he describes in his autobiography:
“Towards the small hours of the morning I woke up somewhat earlier than usual. I was still in the twilight condition between sleep and consciousness when suddenly the idea broke on me – it was as if in a dream. … we should call upon the country to observe a general hartal [a day of fasting]. … Let all the people of India, … suspend their business on that day and observe the day as one of fasting and prayer.” [v]
We know how that dream played out in reality. The country was shut down by this interfaith fast, essentially a strike, and the Rowlatt Bill was repealed. Moreover, this action launched Gandhi as a leader in the fight for independence for India. We also know such dreams inspire others to dream. Gandhi’s dream led Martin Luther King, Jr. to dream of equality for black Americans obtained through nonviolent resistance.
Anthony de Mello once noted that the shortest distance between our humanity and the truth is a story. Today’s Gospel is one such story. I have a fondness for the story of Joseph’s dream – and not just because it was the biblical underpinning of last year’s Christmas billboard. It hints at truths we sometimes only glimpse in our dreams. They are the kind of truths that have the capacity to transform us. Sometimes they transform the world as well.
Today’s story is not historical. Its deeper truths get lost when taken literally. The truth it speaks of is not the nature of Mary’s conception. It’s truth lies in the scandal revealed. Not Mary’s scandal – Joseph’s. Joseph is a dreamer, like his namesake, Jacob’s son, the one who provoked sibling envy with his coat of many colours and saved Egypt and his family from famine through his dreams. Not so coincidentally, later in Matthew, Mary’s Joseph will save his family from Herod with a dream to go to Egypt.
Joseph is a dreamlike figure. He never has a spoken part in the story and disappears entirely from the Matthew and Luke after the birth narratives. He doesn’t show up at all in Mark and John. His story is a literary device that sets the stage for the scandalous life and death of the child to be born.
In my imagination Joseph has a voice. Mary has just told him she is with child by preposterous means. “I am a cuckold,” he laments. He considers his options. “It being a man’s world, I should publicly denounce her for her betrayal. Of course she and the baby will be stoned to death. Sad, but that’s the law. But if I do what is righteous I will be the laughingstock of the village. I’m already snickered at for taking a child bride. “Am I up to the task?’ they tease. No, a better option is to just break off the engagement without explanation. But of course the reason will be evident soon enough. Oh what to do, perhaps I should sleep on it.”
The importance of the dream that follows is not so much its content but that it moves Joseph to violate the norms of his culture through a loving act. It teases him with knowledge beyond his own experience. It gives him insight into the mystery and nature of the divine. Because of it he chooses to defy societal standards and the purity laws of his faith and humble himself. He puts divine justice first and protects Mary and her unborn child. If he hadn’t, Matthew’s Gospel would have been quite short and we wouldn’t be here anticipating the child’s birth one more time. If he hadn’t stoning unmarried pregnant girls might still be considered righteous. If he hadn’t followed his dream we might not know that it takes courage to reflect divine love. It often causes a scandal. May we all have dreams of a scandalous Christmas and may they all come true.
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”. Thus read the opening words of the Bible in Genesis 1.1. But Professor Stephen Hawking’s latest research has led him to the conclusion that ‘the universe can and will create itself from nothing’ by ‘spontaneous creation’, and thus there is no need to find a place for God in the creation of the universe.
Professor Hawking raises an important question. Is it essential to our faith to find a place for God in the physical creation of the universe? If our image of God is of a pre-existent being endowed with all the human qualities of thought and action writ supernaturally large, then inevitably God must have done something to kick it all off. And if scientists talk about the Big Bang or evolution, then obviously God must have set everything up for the Big Bang to take place.
Never have I heard a public debate between religion and science where the theologians have questioned the image of God as a pre-existent supernatural being. The image may be nuanced as intelligent design or in some other way, but always the assumption that “God” had a hand in the physical creation of the universe is the position to be defended. Always the religion vs science debate is predicated and critiqued on that premise. And always it goes nowhere.
Now I want you to notice that I am using two words very carefully. I am talking about the physical creation of the universe – the planets, earth, sea and sky and all the physical aspects of life around us. And I am talking about our images of God: no human image, words or pictures can ever capture the fullness of God’s mystery. The traditional image of God is long-established but is nonetheless an image of God, not the inexpressible reality. There are other equally worthy images that don’t land is into the ongoing debate with science which comes when we adhere literally to the traditional image.
In my view, questions to do with the origins and development of the material world, its, are essentially scientific ones. I’m interested in the Big Bang, in evolution and whatever else scientists may discover about the physical origins and evolution of Planet Earth.
But faith is about something else. Faith offers wisdom as to how we understand the world in which we live, our relationships with God, with each other and with the earth. To read the Genesis account of creation as science is a category mistake, and one which sets up an unnecessary conflict between religion and science.
And yet there is no shortage of defenders of the position that God had a hand in the physical creation of the universe. Today in some quarters there is a renewed emphasis on Genesis as providing a scientific and historical account of Creation. This leads in turn to the relentless attacks by Richard Dawkins on religion. Dawkins ignores contemporary theology, but nonetheless has a legitimate target in the promoters of creationism as a scientific theory.
We need to think of Genesis in a different way. The world in which the biblical writers lived was one where it was natural to think of a heavenly realm inhabited by gods, or God, who created and controlled the earth and all forms of life. God was conceived anthropomorphically so that all the attributes of human thinking and action were ascribed on a much larger scale to God.
But is this the only image for the 21st century? There are other concepts of God, equally biblical, such as God as love, or God as spirit, that remain at the heart of religion. My own faith and experience of God has these features:
· A sense of being part of something bigger than myself, an otherness that transcends human experience but yet holds all humanity and all creation in an inseparable unity. Here is mystery, something in the face of which we stand in awe, and an antidote to any tendency to self-centred arrogance. Psalm 8 captures it in the words ‘O Lord, our governor, how wonderful is your name in all the earth; … who are we that you are mindful of us?’ This is not humanism.
· A sense that life and creation is a gift, unmerited goodness and grace, and that all life is to be treasured and sustained.
· I experience the divine mystery as love, and we are called as disciples to express that love through acts of compassion, in reconciliation, in working for justice and peace, and in caring for all people and the earth itself.
· The nature of the mystery, which we name as God, is expressed in the person of Jesus Christ, whom we name Son of God insofar as God’s nature is seen perfectly in him.
· A sense of connectedness to God and all life so that even in the darkest of times we are never alone. We are part of something bigger than ourselves, and this sense sustains us in distress, and guides us in every choice we make.
Now you will notice that I continue to use the word “God” as though God is a person, and here there is a paradox for me. My experience of God through prayer and worship, in all the encounters of daily life and in my contemplation of creation, is intensely personal, and yet the image of God as a person is not one I find helpful. In prayer and worship I use personal language about God, because my experience of God is personal, intimate and warm. God is not some cold intellectual or philosophical concept. God is mystery, yet a warm and loving mystery which embraces each one of us.
I imagine many of us would experience God in the way I have outlined – a mystery of love expressed fully in the person of Jesus Christ. But our creeds, our liturgies, our images of God are all at best inadequate human attempts to express the mystery. They are pointers to God, like road signs pointing to a city, but they cannot capture the fullness of God, any more than a road sign can be confused with the city to which it points.
The image of God as pre-existent being is traditional and widespread. Yet there are other images, such as the Celtic images of God as spirit, as love, as life, flowing through all life and creation, which do not require a place for God in the physical creation of the universe. One treads carefully where images of God are concerned. No image can be right or wrong. We must each find an image of God that works for us and best expresses our experience of God.
All civilizations have their stories of origin. Maori have the story of Rangi and Papa. We have the Genesis story. Neither should be seen as scientific accounts of how the world was made. But each story is rich in meaning as to the spiritual dimensions of life, and to how people relate to God, to each other and to the earth.
For myself I am happy to leave it to the scientists to explore how the universe began. Religion has a different task, and that is to help us experience the divine mystery that lies at the heart of life, and to experience and pass on the love of God which was seen so completely in the life, death and rising again of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is a complementary task to that of science. We should never allow science and religion to be at loggerheads. Our faith points us to a God whose life-giving spirit flows through all life, including science.
The imagery in our gospel today could have been written for the cinema. We have the wilderness in Judea, dry barren and rugged and the Jordan River this precious and symbolic water to the people of Palestine. John the Baptist is barely clad and living on adiet of locusts and honey, and there are crowds of people coming from Judea and Jerusalem including the Pharisees and Sadducees. John the Baptist is in the background shouting “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near”, pure Cecil B. De Mille.
Over the last few weeks I have heard the words sin, repentance and forgiveness numerous times, especially at my ordination service and from my fellow ordinands. Today’s Gospel has John the Baptist, talking about repentance and the need for baptism to be prepared for the ‘kingdom of heaven’ which is at hand. But what does this word repentance really mean?
The original Greek word is metanoia which means to open and expand, to change one’s mind. It doesn’t mean feeling sorry for doing something wrong or bad. It means to ‘go beyond the mind’ or ‘go into the larger mind’. So what is John the Baptist talking about by going beyond our mind?
John and Jesus are asking people to approach life with a different mind-set, a more encompassing mind-set. In fact, the whole of Matthew’s Gospel is a story about transformation, turning around not just confessing our mistakes one week receiving forgiveness and returning next Sunday with the same or similar confession. It’s much more; it’s a realignment of how we live, how we engage with the world and with each other.
It was in the third and fourth century that Jerome when he was translating the Greek Scriptures into Latin that the word repentance was translated as to be sorry for our human shortcomings. This translation was based on a doctrine of original sin. However, Martin Luther wrote about this in the fifteenth century stating that metanoia clearly signifies a changing of the mind and heart not just a confession of wrong doing andasking for forgiveness. Sadly this error of interpretation has been with us for centuries, resulting in countless generations missing the point of this gospel and for many this error has caused immeasurable misery.
John is asking us to expand of our minds into the mind-set of Christ, to approach life differently here and now. Not just a turn around for eternal salvation, but a turn around of our lives and ourway of thinking. John was telling the people to turn their way of living around and be baptised in the Jordan not in the Temple at Jerusalem.
It would have been impossible to have a baptism in the temple by the time this gospel was written because the Romans had destroyed the temple some ten years previously. There was good reason for the gospel writer to be talking about turning around your mind-set. The Romans were as oppressive as during Jesus’ ministry if not more so, it was time for a new life perspective for the people of Palestine. John’s language challenges the priestly aristocracy; the Sadducees were high priests from Jerusalem and the Pharisees were the priests who made sure the Mosaic Law was being kept everywhere else. The Pharisees and Sadducees as the elite were working with the Romans, allowing excessive taxation, confiscation of ancestral property and chronic food shortages. This society was in need of a turn around and in needof a new way of being and living.
John’s appearance symbolically links him to Old Testament figures such as Samson, Samuel and especially Elijah. These prophetic men represented resistance to injustice and offered a revolutionary model of renewing society. John has crowds from Judea and Jerusalem, the people are not happy with the current status quo. John demands that his followers change their ways, they must live in ‘right relationship’ with God. John makes it clear that no one is exempt from this change required to be in the ‘kingdom of heaven’. This meant a radical conversion putting them and us back in a right relationship with God.
Advent is a time for renewal, new possibilities and hope, an invitation to participate with God in creating a new way of being. With all the media hype that comes with our commercialised Christmas season this seems a very difficult choice in fact something that we probably feel too busy to even contemplate. We have the Christmas cake to make, presents to buy, a tree to decorate and the all-important Christmas dinner to prepare. We don’t have time to think about changing our lives around.
But that is what this Advent tide is all about, being ready, being prepared, living in open expectation that we will be surprised by the gifts being offered by realigning and expanding our minds to a new way of living. One cannot expect to be cleansed by the water of baptism without first washing away the old way of living. We prepare the way of God when by our choices we open possibilities for God’s creative, transforming love.
John the Baptist's message is one of hell fire and brimstone, his message is uncomfortable, its not Christmas, not pretty lights and tinsel, it is challenging. John was preparing the people of first century Palestine for the coming of one so different to the age, a message offering love, hope, acceptance and compassion.
As many of you know Peter and I have had to move out of our apartment next door and put thirty-seven years of belongings into storage. We have experienced a radical turn around in the way we live. We are enjoying living in the countryside with just enough to get by on. We have no idea how we will celebrate our family Christmas dinner and we are not worrying about it.
Last week prior to my ordination I went on a silent retreat, I will admit I was not looking forward to the silence. To my amazement it was the best time I had had at Vaughan Park in three years. I really enjoyed the peace, I felt restored by the quiet, mediation and the gentle rhythm of retreat life. While it seems impossible to try and have quiet and peace in this time of parties and shopping it seems to me that this is what we should be doing. Listening and feeling that small voice within us all allowing each of us to be transformed into a humanity that challenges wrongs in our society, that cares for creation and each other.
We are being called during Advent and indeed through our whole lives to transform ourselves, to break out of our old habits and begin life again as new people. We will make mistakes and fall back into old ways, to respond continually to the invitation to repentance that is the expansion of our minds and hearts.
This week the country has waited, praying, hoping for a miracle, yet expecting and fearing the worse for the 29 men within Greymouth’s Pike River Coal Mine. We are now told they are dead.
‘Praying’ in this context means a variety of things. It’s a way of upholding the families, friends, rescue teams, police, and West Coast community. It was a way of hoping that Chile’s Los 33 Mine experience would be replicated and all would come out alive. It’s a way of saying that most of us are helpless to do anything, save send literal or telepathic messages of support to the families and people involved.
Some believe that there is an omnipotent deity who hears our pleas and intervenes in human affairs to rescue those we care about. When the Los 33 miners surfaced this God was a hero. When the news came on Wednesday that the 29 were dead this God was nowhere to be found.
Rather than the omnipotent deity I think God is the name we give for those sacred moments we have experienced and hope for. This God is known in the tears, in the aching hearts, in the kindness of others, and in the supportive actions of many.
I think of praying as opening one’s self to all that is sacred rather than petitioning a paternal being. In the context of Pike River to open oneself is to let the compassion in the community and the compassion in our own hearts flow through us and out to others. For in being together, in grieving together, in loving together we are strong. In this community of compassion a deity that is best known as Love can be felt.
Advent is a time of waiting, praying, and hoping. Despite, says Isaiah, the circumstances of the present – no matter how tragic and terrible they might be – what we say or believe about the future bears heavily on the way we live.
Isaiah speaks metaphorically of a mountain where ‘heaven is joined to earth’; a place where what is human and what is sacred mix and mingle, where God’s tears and ours flow mingling down. And in that togetherness a vision is born.
Matthew’s reading, loaded with code phrases [i], is also a meditation upon the future. He cautions against speculation, for none of us know what the future brings. And to not know is face our vulnerability.
Yet in that mixing and mingling of the human and sacred hope is born – a hope that lifts our gaze from our present pain, the turmoil of our lives, and our fears for the future, and instead invites us to dream, to imagine, and to work towards a better world for all.
The Christian community has used these Advent readings for centuries to ready us for Christmas. Instead of buying presents, sending cards, and organising holidays Christians are asked to contemplate upon what we hope for in the future.
Primarily Christmas is not about a baby, his mum, or his visitors. It’s not about God coming to save us, or about being generous to others. Rather it’s about Isaiah’s mythical ‘mountain’ being right here – in the Aucklands and in the Greymouths – where the sacred and the human mix and mingle, and where new hope might be born. That blending is called the incarnation and its here, as it’s always been here, in our tears and fears and hearts.
Daniel Rockhouse, one of the two Pike River miners who escaped, suffering the ill effects of carbon monoxide poisoning groggily made his way out of the mine. Yet he didn’t hesitate to stop, assist, and for a while drag his fellow miner, Russell Smith. For Daniel it wasn’t a deliberate heroic decision, weighing up the likelihood of survival if he dropped him. Rather it was simple case of ‘that’s what you do’. Underground you rely on one another, you take responsibility for one another, and when necessary you carry each other. It’s a code, and a vision, we could do well to emulate on the surface.
Visions start to build around our values. Here are some starters:
“Love your neighbour as yourself”. This verse points to a notion of community where we are responsible for one another, seeing each other literally as brothers and sisters, caring for one another in a way so that poverty, war, and human rights violations would be unthinkable. When one suffered we all would suffer. We would not, of course, be close friends with everyone – families aren’t like that. But good families are loyal to each other, avoid hurting each other, and do what they can for each other.
To ‘love your neighbour’ is also to open yourself to the change that your neighbour will inevitably bring into your life, welcomed or not.
This verse uses the term ‘self’ – of which there is a long philosophical history. You may be familiar with Descartes ‘I think therefore I am’, and others’ attempts since then. Personally I prefer ‘We are therefore I am’. It intertwines identity and community. In this definition we all belong.
Learning is not a means to an end; it is an end in itself. Learning does not have a quota to keep within. There’s no such thing as ‘too smart’. Learning is a value in itself – not to pursue a career, or money, or status – but simply to expand one’s horizons and see beauty and wonder where you’ve never noticed it before. Education should be about the absorption of knowledge, the ‘opening eyes, ears, minds and hearts’, and the development of reason, rather than a curtailed and streamlined skill package for a particular vocation or task.
A friend the other night told me an amusing story. She had received a prize for Religious Education at her school many decades ago. Religious Education consisted in those days of the teacher dictating notes and the pupils writing them down. She won the prize for the neatness of her handwriting. It’s a sad reflection upon an education that doesn’t prize engagement, and a religion that is afraid of the thinking of young girls.
Kurt Vonnegut once said, “Reading and writing are in themselves subversive acts. What they subvert is the notion that things have to be the way they are, that you are alone, that no one has ever felt the way you have.”
Learning is one of society’s foundations and when we effectively bar groups from acquiring further knowledge we impoverish us all and impair our freedom.
Third, and last for now:
Live honourably. ‘Honour’ is an old classical word that embodies not only deeds but also courage. This is the courage to take the less popular path, to support the outcasts, and to receive praise from few and ridicule from many. This is the path where our immediate needs are sidelined in order to hear and respond to the concerns of others. This is the path where we close our ears to the clamour of the baying crowd, we show mercy, and we value what’s in another’s heart – even our enemy’s. A honourable life is not one motivated or marked by acclaim, recognition or wealth. Rather it is a life where one does what is right, come what may.
To love widely, to learn broadly, and to live honourably… these both contain and build my vision.
As we remember those grieving today I leave you with a prayer of Michael Leunig’s that encompasses life, death, and vision:
Let us live in such a way
That when we die
Our love will survive
And continue to grow. Amen. [ii]
[i] “The Lord is coming” is a code phrase for saying that we don’t know what’s going to happen in the future but it belongs to God. Of course ‘belongs to God’ is just another way of saying that we don’t know but still wish to be hopeful.
It is a pleasure to be with you this morning and to be amongst these beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God. Is it right to hope that some of it will be standing at the end of this sermon? I hope so.
I am here because when Glynn was first ill I made the offer to assist in some way and, in the mysterious workings of the St Matthew’s office, this was the time and occasion of my assistance. I don’t have any real idea if there is some significance of this time at St Matthew’s, maybe there is a complete lack of significance in this day and that is why it was picked. I don’t know.
Let me tell you what time it is where I live. As many of you know I am on the staff at St John’s College. We are at the end of our academic year. Students are about to leave to fieldwork placements or maybe leave leave – they have just a little waiting before ordination and their first appointment in holy orders.
This end of the year is perfectly matched by ending of our liturgical calendar which comes to an end next week. So, we are at this ending and on the edge of a new beginning kind of time.
Now, one of the joys of being at St John’s is the daily chapel services – every day prayer happens and I love the rhythm of the ride and I particularly enjoy the flow of the reading of scriptures. For the last week or so we have been trekking through the book of the prophet Daniel. Fantastic end of the year stuff because it is all so end of the world and crisis stuff. There is my all time favourite – Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego – thrown into Nebuchadnezzar’s fiery furnace. Then there is Daniel thrown to lions. It is the decline of the Babylonian empire and things seem dangerously out of control. Will the faith and fortitude of these heroes be enough? The students are no doubt asking similar questions of themselves: will their faith and fortitude be enough for that which lies ahead of them. Daniel is great stuff. Epic. It might be about today?! Old empires in decline and are at war. As has been said, “Didn’t we prefer the US when it was just morally bankrupt?”
Anyway, the appointed scriptures are superbly fitting at the end of the academic year as the students, like birds, stand at the edge of the nest.
What will I do and what will I be? Will I plummet to the ground and die? Will my wings and that breath of God, which I can only just feel in my face, hold me up?
I think is where to locate the readings that you have just heard. They belong as part of the same time and space. I mean they both belong a time of ending and, at once, on the edge of a hoped for, not yet, beginning. I think they address the question of what we shall do and be.
Time doesn’t allow me to pause over the wonderful Isaiah passage. (Clay told me that you try and keep sermons under the hour here.)
I’ll focus on the Luke passage. But like the Isaiah passage we can locate Luke’s gospel as belonging to a time of tremendous tension of endings – of endings and unknown beginning. The temple that was not getting built fast enough in Isaiah’s time has been built and is now, at the time Luke is actually writing, the temple destroyed. Maybe that is why Luke remembered the words of Jesus, “not one stone will be left upon another.”? Who knows? This is time and space of destruction all around – things were not going according to any kind of happy plan; rumours of wars and dreadful portents abound. What is going to happen next? What shall we do? These press in with extra urgency.
Can you sense this space and time?
The question arises: What will happen? What will we do?
Now you will understand that I don’t like the advice that we are offered in the gospel. Oh, to be sure I like it that Jesus directs our attention away from the fear mongers, those who delight in the rumours of wars, – “do not go after them,” he says, and,” do not be terrified.”
(I like that, I have never felt very warm about those who stand on street corners and barrack us about the end of the world.)
[Have you noticed that folk who create apocalyptic visions most often imagine that it is just them wandering around at the end of the world and it is just up to them to start a new heaven and new earth. Their visions are so self-absorbed. “Don’t go after them.”]
What I don’t like about Jesus’ advice is the instruction: “Make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance.” I have something like an allergic reaction to these words. This is counter to so much of what I try and impress upon the students, which is to prepare them, over years we prepare them, to have some defense, some reason for the hope that lies within them.
[You know, I did think that I could just turn up this morning and see what happened. I did think I should resolve to prepare nothing and just see what words and wisdom came.]
This Gospel advice runs counter to so much of what I teach.
‘You don’t just turn up.’
Except ... the message that really rests in this piece of the gospel is surely true: that we have to trust that God’s Holy Spirit will give us what we really need.
You know how it goes: we are justified; we are saved, by our faith.
St Matthew’s has always been thoroughly protestant church – by faith alone – you know this.
It is not by our own efforts, not by heaving on our own bootstraps that we haul ourselves out of the miry clay. It is by faith in God’s grace, by the gift of God … not our gifts, by the gift of God we are saved.
I wonder how much we believe this?
The strange thing is that the gospel actually ends on quite another note:
“By your endurance you will gain your souls.” (v19) Puzzling.
I can tell you, people don’t much believe in “endurance” these days.
The key reason Christian folk say they don’t like “endurance” is it is apparently advocating a gospel of works – by our doing comes our salvation – and this is message made of straw. We are meant to reject this, let it burn in the fires of hell.
The other reason people don’t like endurance is because it is about is about our effort over time. People do believe in themselves and their own effort, but prefer instant results and immediate gratification. It is not a pretty word ‘endurance.’
It is like perseverance, endurance.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith … (Hebrews 12)
People don’t like to hear that the life of faith is about perseverance and endurance.
Keeping at it, day after day; but that is how it is, I reckon … the life of faith is seldom one great and glorious sprint effort, over in a few seconds with the glory and prizes coming quickly.
Mostly the life of faith is getting up, saying some prayers and going into the day and there is no halo waiting with a fruit digestive at morning tea. It takes all day in the heat of the day, and day after day. Endurance.
“By your endurance you will gain your souls.”
So, you can see that today’s Gospel confronts us with one of the great paradoxes in Christian life.
On the one hand it is not about our effort, it is about trusting God’s grace, it is about our faith and this amazing grace that saves wretches like me.
On the other hand, it is by our endurance that we will save our souls. Run with perseverance the race that is set before us ... be doers of the word.
It is about us living lives that are worthy of our calling, the Christian life is not just sitting in church of a Sunday and waiting for the gift of grace to land like the perfect little something in our laps.
What are we to do? How do we resolve this tension between two different answers? Which is it ‘grace’ or ‘works’?
I reminded of the story of child coming out of Sunday school with a gift all wrapped. It was something that the children had been working on for a weeks. There she was running towards her waiting parents, juggling spare clothing and a biscuit and the gift and, you know it, she trips and there is the unmistakable sound of breaking pottery. A sharp intake of breath from the parents, a long eternal silence, then wailing … utter grief.
The boldest parent goes forward and attempts to gather up all the pieces, “It doesn’t matter love.” “It doesn’t matter. It is the thought that counts.”
And the wisest parent gathers the child up and says, “Oh, it does matter honey, of course it really does matter. I am really sorry.” And sits and weeps with her daughter.” [i]
What we do, the outcome of our efforts and our endurance does matter; what we do does count and it matters just as much as the love, and faith and hope within us. Both faith and works matter, together, and we have unfortunately and falsely driven a wedge between them as if they can be separated. Each one gives meaning to the other. They are the internal and external reality of the same life.
So, for us today and everyday we need both: trust God and you will be saved, endure and you will save your souls.
Everyday when we stand on the edge of nest and wonder about what we are to do,
Every day when we wonder what is going to become of the world and there are wars and rumours of wars,
Every day that we question our own faith and fortitude we can only do one thing, or is it two? Trust and endure – they are the inside and outside of the same Christian life.
Everyday, we take a deep breath and … trust God and get on with the wrok of loving our neighbours as ourselves and, to be sure, in that we will have to endure.
[i] Not my story; from memory. I can’t find the reference for it. It comes from a sermon studied while I was at Yale.
Your Excellency the Right Honourable Sir Anand Satyanand and Lady Susan Satyanand, the Minister of Defence, Wayne Mapp, Mayor Len Brown, Australian Consul General, Michael Crawford, Veterans, Ladies and Gentlemen; it is a real honour for me to be invited to this beautiful building to speak on this Remembrance Day set aside to remember the 11th of November 1918 – the end of the ‘War to end all Wars.
War Stories. I don’t know when I started collecting them. I was born in 1947 and I grew up in the shadow of another war. During the ‘Peace.’ Back then, to me as a small child, there were three times –
before the war,
after the war,
and a secret time, during the war
– it was a silence so loud to my little ears that it seemed more a place. “Oh that was during the war,” then the silence…”
I liked to draw – colour in – and I liked to do it on the floor. That was when I first heard stories around my mother’s skirts. Sitting under the kitchen table while the women talked above me, never about the battles or the bombs. Always about the relationships dislocated and forced apart, or worse, forced together again because of that time called ‘during the war.’
The men’s stories were very different. Not only in context, but in the telling. They were recounted loudly with a beer in one hand and a rollie in the other – amid eruptions of laughter. Army yarns for public consumption. Terrible tales with a punch line. Sometimes the voices would become serious and a small silence would fill the room, but not for long. The show must go on.
Lest We Forget.
Everyone was trying to, I realise now. Desperately seeking that amnesia that blocks out painful thoughts of waste and futility, and honours mythology. Because we won. It must have been worth it. So my generation grew up in the bright white light of the peace time. The fifties. Security, conformity and everyone living the same happily ever after with the shadow largely unacknowledged, certainly as far as us kids were concerned.
I suppose it’s hard to own a war as a first hand event, when it didn’t happen here. When you live in a little piece of pink on the edge of the British Empire where hardly a shot was fired. No apocalypse here. No Blitz. No blood and carnage in the streets. Just romantic photos on the mantle piece of young soldiers who never came back, who never had funerals, and who stayed forever young encased in the black and white reality of an Egyptian photographer’s studio portrait.
And those who did come back often could only confront their terror in their nightmares. No demobbing, no therapy, no ‘lets talk it over.’ Sissy stuff. Just roll your sleeves up and work it off.
But down among the women the war was acknowledged as an on-going event. It was the reason why a neighbour never married, or couldn’t have babies, or another’s husband drank. Why a father rejected his son, why a husband couldn’t be loving.
So in a way, growing up in this blessed time of picnics, and equality for all, and social security from the cradle to the grave – all things my parents’ generation put in place for the peacetime. We were a protected generation. We were given education, opportunity and confidence to oppose war. And we did. In some numbers. It’s young people who get asked to fight them and enough of us across the Western World refused to fight in Vietnam and as young men and women managed to find a shared honourable mythology in NOT fighting. We put flowers down the barrels of the guns.
I didn’t want to know about the terrible shadow that we walked alongside, until I had a child of my own. Then I wanted to know. Hard to find out. The men didn’t want to talk about it and what they did want to talk about they didn’t want recorded! The women just maintained they weren’t there. “I wasn’t at the war, ask your Aunty’s sister in law, she was a nurse in Cairo.”
Oral histories are viewed with caution by some historians and are considered by some to be too personal and idiosyncratic to be taken seriously. This is because human memory is coloured by emotion to the point of being mysteriously irrational. But it is the pure vivid originality of oral histories that I love. Personal stories are often about moments. That’s how human memory works. We don’t remember days, we remember moments. This makes oral histories always surprising and sometimes even puzzling, particularly when exploring one event lived by several people. One person says this, another says that to the extent that the listener might wonder if the two tale tellers were even in the same place at the same time. But if there are enough stories told by enough people, a three-dimensional picture emerges and it all starts to add up to more than the sum of its’ parts. Complex, colourful and full. What I call a story net.
Lest we forget. Memory. Moments. Films are made of moments, so I started at home. I asked my father,
“What did you do in the War Dad?”
“Nothing much. Just turned up.”
“So what are those medals for?”
“Turning up. They give em out with the rations.”
When he got a cancer diagnosis he finally agreed to be recorded on sound tape. And twenty years later I have made a film based on those ten little tapes. (HOME BY CHRISTMAS – the DVD is available in time for Christmas from selected outlets.)
But everything my father told me back then, made me realise that it was the women’s stories that for me provided the frame that brought home the larger picture. They lived through it, they held the social fabric, sewed it together when it was rent asunder and ‘soldiered on.’ And yet they weren’t really well represented in the official version – that big simplified story of World War Two that gets dusted off for public occasions. My intuition lead to my working with Judith Fyfe and the NZ Oral History Centre at the Turnbull Library from 1992 to make a collection of women’s memories of World War Two – there’s about 80 or so three hour tapes held there in the National Library all meticulously annotated for future researchers to splash about in.
These accounts contributed to another film of mine, WAR STORIES Our Mothers Never Told Us. So I’ve been most fortunate to have been able to spend a certain amount of my adult life investigating that secret place called ‘during the war’ for myself and it has led to my thinking about how the personal and the public record is dislocated. While we have celebrated warriors, we have created a fault line. A big geological gash exists through our communal memory. We have rendered ourselves amnesiac.
For example, I want to share a story told to me in the film I made by Rita Graham. It is of a man, Campbell Paterson who worked with her husband Alan at a Queen Street bank. When the younger Alan was called up to serve in 1942 he refused to fight on the grounds of his Christian Pacifist principles and was therefore to be imprisoned for the duration of the war. It was the custom at the Queen Street branch to give men who had been called up to serve a send-off and a gold watch. Campbell Patterson requested that Alan be given the same respect as those who were leaving to fight. The bank manager was furious. Outraged. No send-off or gold watch for Alan Graham. He left the bank and went to serve his sentence under a cloud. But Campbell didn’t forget Alan or Alan’s family. Every week he collected ten shillings mostly in threepences and sixpences from staff at the Queen St branch and put it in a bank account for Rita and Alan’s young family until Alan returned when the war ended. It is this story of fortitude, tolerance, and persistence that to me is an inspirational memorial of human compassion during war and I am sure there have been many instances of this kind of human compassion. The Campbell Patterson factor. We can celebrate it Lest We Forget.
I’ve also been privileged to spend quality time watching hours and hours of archival footage from all over the world shot during World War Two. Again it is moments that are most vivid. One image is of ecstatic faces; people dancing in Cuba Street when the war was declared over. Complete strangers are doing the hokey-tokey into a bar, their joy expressed with complete abandon, secure in the certainty of a better future. This footage exists in beautifully exposed and archived 35mm film shot by the NZ National Film Unit for the Weekly Revue.
There is another vivid image sequence shot at the same time but in a different place. It was recorded in colour but not released to the public in its original form until very recently because at the time it was considered too disturbing for people to see. It is a long slow pan across the completely devastated city of Hiroshima just days after the atomic bomb was dropped. Miles of horrific shadows where buildings once stood, deathly quiet. A city inhabited by ghosts.
In my head I carry that film that I have never made. It is of these two sequences inter-cut on a never ending loop. Lest We Forget.
Yes, lets remember together all the hard to understand and difficult to carry human experience of war because this defiant and communal forgetfulness has created a shared memory gap where dangerous mythologies have thrived. Simplistic ideas of ‘honour,’ and ‘glory,’ and ‘heroes,’ and ‘demons,’ and ‘winning,’ and ‘losing,’ and ‘goodies,’ and ‘baddies,’ and ‘enemies,’ and ‘allies,’ and ‘Victory,’ have become irrefutable. Our forgetfulness is overwhelming.
So lets remember all the mainly young men who have for far too many centuries died in far too many bloody wars – Lest We Forget;
And lets remember all the women and children whose lives are cast asunder during times of dreadful upheaval and loss, and the families never born because of war – Lest We Forget;
And lets remember those who refuse to fight and live every day branded as cowards in communities grief stricken and in pain – Lest We Forget;
And lets remember the Veterans of all wars, the Service men and women who have returned to their homes and put bitterness and hurt aside and built a society based on equality, tolerance and compassion.
Lest We Forget.
E nga mana, e nga reo, e nga karangatanga o te motu. Tena koutou, tena koutou, tena koutou katoa.
I’m sure you’ve noticed how tricky remembering is. How much of what we remember has any fact in reality? How much is wishful remembering or polishing up of the tarnished? How much is an alternative reality so we can live with ourselves?
If you have siblings, have you ever compared notes about some piece of family history and wondered if you grew up in the same household or even solar system? And then there is the most important part of remembering: forgetting. Treasuring certain memories often requires serious editing. Whole episodes must often be forgotten if we are to maintain our belief that something or someone is worth cherishing.
It is the nature of remembering that makes me ambivalent about Remembrance Day services. I twist and turn every year over whether or not it is a good thing that we hold such a service. I am uneasy about the church being in league with the state for what is essentially a civic service. I’m always nervous when the state and religion are on the same side. In this case we undeniably are. In about an hour the Governor-General, Members of Parliament, the Consular Corps, active and retired military figures and other civic leaders will be sitting where you are. We will be remembering those who have laid down their lives for their country. How we remember that sacrifice is what I worry about. Will our collective memories glorify past wars that we might justify the tragedy and cost of future ones? Does it serve the purpose of instilling patriotism in the next generation so they will be ready to die for Queen and country or does it serve to make us give up the notion that any war is just or worthwhile?
Ultimately I think remembering is worth the risk.
One month before his death Howard Zinn, an American historian, finished his last book, The Bomb. In it he wrestles with his memories as a B-17 bombardier during World War II, especially his last mission in 1945 on a raid to take out German garrisons in the French town of Royan. For the first time the Eighth Air Force used napalm, which burst into liquid fire on the ground, killing hundreds of civilians. He wrote, “I remember distinctly seeing the bombs explode in the town, flaring like matches struck in the fog. I was completely unaware of the human chaos below.” Twenty years later he returned to Royan to study the effects of the raid and concluded there had been no military necessity for the bombing; everyone knew the war was almost over (it ended three weeks later) and this attack did nothing to affect the outcome. His grief over having been a cog in a deadly machine no doubt confirmed his belief in small acts of rebellion, by which he meant, “acting on what we feel and think, here, now, for human flesh and sense, against the abstractions of duty and obedience."
This kind of remembering gives perspective that strengthens our resolve to act for peace. That is my hope for today’s service. Remembering can also lead us to envisioning a different kind of world. Songwriter Loudon Wainwright III succeeds in doing this. He lived outside Sarajevo during the Bosnian War. I would conclude with how he remembers it.
A Pretty Good Day So Far
I slept through the night
I got through to the dawn.
I flipped a switch and the light went on
I got outta bed
I put some clothes on
It was a pretty good day so far.
I turned the tap
there was cold there was hot.
I put on my coat,
to go to the shop.
I stepped outside
and I didn't get shot.
It was a pretty good day so far.
I didn't hear any sirens or explosions,
no mortars coming in from those heavy guns
no UN tanks
I didn't see one.
It was a pretty good day so far.
No snipers in windows taking a peek
No people panicked running scared through the streets
I didn't see any bodies
without arms, legs, or feet.
It was a pretty good day so far.
There was plasma, bandages and electricity,
Food, wood, and water,
and the air was smoke free.
No camera crews from I-TV.
It was all such a strange sight to behold.
Nobody was frightened, wounded, hungry or cold.
And the children seemed normal,
they didn't look old.
It was a pretty good day so far.
I walked through a park
you would not believe it.
There in the park there were a few trees left,
and on some branches
there were a few leaves.
I slept through the night
I got through to the dawn.
I flipped a switch and the light went on
I wrote down my dream,
I made it this song,
It was a pretty good day so far.
May we all remember a pretty good day in the past that we may have many more in the future.
The challenge of preaching on All Saints Sunday is that there are so many sermons that could be preached. What does it mean to be a saint? What’s it take to be one? Why do we celebrate All Saints and Protestant denominations celebrate Reformation Day? Why is the Gospel for All Saints Day the Beatitudes from either Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount or Luke’s Sermon on the Plain? I wonder: Did Jesus ever angst over what sermon to preach? Of course, to some degree it doesn’t matter. Whatever sermon I preach each of you will hear the one you need to hear or tune out completely using the time constructively to make out your grocery list.
While I decide what to preach on let me share some background. There is a reason All Saints Day and Reformation Sunday are held in opposition. All Saints Day was one major church feast that never fully caught on. It was intended to be up there in importance with Christmas, Easter and Pentecost, but people weren’t showing up for church. This was bad for business. Selling the relics of the saints, promoting pilgrimages to holy sites of the saints and asking for saintly intercession were important sources of income to the church in the Middle Ages. All Saints Day was important to marketing them. To encourage attendance free indulgences were granted to those who came to Mass on All Saints. Indulgences are literally a “Get out of Jail” free card; only in this case it was to get out of Purgatory. The indulgence granted would assure that a loved one’s time awaiting to get into heaven was either shortened or eliminated. Free indulgences proved to be very popular, for normally one had to pay the church for them in this era. But on All Saints Day people only had to show up to make the afterlife a little less punishing for Uncle Bill or Aunt Sadie. Some would attend Mass several times on the day depending on how many relatives they thought might need a little help getting through the Pearly Gates.
By the early 16th century All Saints Day had become a symbol of a corrupt and immoral church to the reformers. Dissatisfaction with the Church could be found at all levels of society. The papacy lost much of its spiritual influence over its people because of the increasing tendency toward secularization. Popes and bishops acting more like kings and princes than spiritual guides fuelled people’s disdain. And as so many people were now crowding into cities, more and more people from all walks of life noticed the lavish homes and palaces of the Church. The poor resented the wealth of the papacy and the very rich were jealous of that wealth. At the same time, the popes bought and sold high offices, along with selling indulgences. All of this led to the increasing wealth of the Church – and this created new paths for abuses of every sort. Something was dreadfully wrong.
On All Hallows’ Eve, October 31, 1517 the dam broke when tradition says Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. As the town was crowded with pilgrims for All Saints Day word spread quickly and what was later known as the Reformation was ignited.
While much of the debate that followed would be about whether salvation was achieved through grace or good works and whether the church or scripture had more authority, I believe Martin Luther’s 86th Thesis captured the heart of the church’s need for reformation. In it he asks this very important question: "Why does the pope, whose wealth today is greater than the wealth of Crassus (the richest man in ancient Rome), build the basilica of St. Peter with the money of poor believers (buying indulgences) rather than with his own money?"
It is this question that leads to what I’ve decided finally to preach on.
I’m not sure when the Beatitudes that highlight the blessedness of the poor were decided on as the best Gospel for All Saints Day. If it was before the Reformation it was an ironic choice. If afterwards, it was a choice born of repentance. I choose to think it was the latter.
Luke’s Sermon on the Plain captures best the sense of repentance. Unlike in Matthew’s more spiritual Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is not talking about the blessings and curses that will come some day, but the way the world is now and is calling for a new ethic; a new way of living in it now. And unlike on the mount, Jesus is only addressing his disciples. He is not blessing his own folk and cursing those who are not yet following in his Way. Amongst his followers in the Lukan community the rich and poor are both represented as are those who hunger and those who are well fed, those who mourn and those who laugh, those who are reviled and those who are pillars of society. Jesus could’ve been warning the pre-Reformation church. He could be warning the church today.
As we listen to Jesus we must remove any notes of judgment from his remarks. His only inflection is love and concern. When he speaks of the poor being blessed he is not saying abject poverty is a good thing. He isn’t saying the life of the poor isn’t unspeakably harsh. When he speaks to the rich he is not saying being rich is bad in itself. He is cautioning them that being rich has some dangers. He is saying the poor have an important advantage.
We might ask how is that? If we have never been in a place where we didn’t have a roof over our head or know where our next meal is coming from we are blind to certain realities. The poor don’t have to be told that life is fragile and full of injustice. They know existentially how vulnerable we all are to the vicissitudes of life. The poor do not have to be told what it is like to be a victim. The rich have no frame of reference for being solely dependent on the God we know as love or on the kindness of others. They live in a world of illusion that lets them think they are in control of their lives and that the transitory things they can and do have will give meaning to their lives. They are comfortable in their self-sufficiency and accept it all with a sense of entitlement.
Before you say to yourself, “No worries. I’m not rich,” let me suggest you may be richer than you think. There is a website called the Global Rich List where you can calculate how wealthy you are compared to everyone else on the planet. I put in my stipend as a priest and learned that there are only 307,011,494 people richer than I am. While that won’t get me onto the Forbes Fortune 500 wealthiest list, it does mean over five billion 700 thousand others suffer less woe than I do. What woe is that?
Not seeing the world like the poor makes it more difficult to find the compassion, love and forgiveness, which I would describe as the God within us and between us. The richer we are the less likely we will experience our oneness with creation and the divine. Without that experience there is only emptiness; emptiness we are tempted to fill with more possessions and wealth.
Ultimately the rich find it more difficult to live out the new ethic that prevails in God’s realm. If that were not true, why does it feel like a loss and not a gain to do to others, as we would have them do to us? Why is it something we are more apt to do reluctantly than eagerly and joyfully? Consider these questions to be your indulgences for coming to church on All Saints Sunday. Your answers to them may lead to this life being a little less punishing for yourselves and the poor.
I want you to slip into your imagination for a minute to see an awkward, skinny, five year old, blonde-haired boy with a missing front tooth. In a faded old 16mm home movie he looks like he is in perpetual motion – a mechanical toy that never winds down. Now dress him in a coonskin hat and a fringed buckskin jacket provided him by an overly indulgent grandfather. He is carrying a long toy musket he proudly calls Ol’ Betsey. Now imagine the impossible. His name is Clay. I know. Hard to believe and I’ve seen the film.
When I was five the most popular movie for the younger set was Davy Crockett. So many of my friends also wanted to be the “King of the Wild Frontier,” wrastlin’ bars and shootin’ Injuns and rememberin’ the Alamo, no one wanted to play the Indians in neighbourhood games. Since I had the right outfit I, of course, was excused from taking a turn as an Indian.
Part of what makes a good story good is being able to identify with the characters. It must be part of being human. Even toddlers want to wear their Spiderman pajamas to bed and dress up as one of Disney’s many princesses to go to childcare. It is also true that we usually identify with the heroic and beautiful rather than the villain, unless it is Halloween.
This human characteristic apparently has always been true, for Jesus uses it to set a trap for us in his parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. The Pharisee appears to be the good guy. He follows the law faithfully, keeps himself pure, and is grateful to God. The tax collector is definitely the villain of the piece. The tax collector is a corrupt collaborator for the oppressive occupiers and would be considered to have all the moral standing of a pimp in today’s society. Now Jesus’ listeners are beginning to catch on to his trick of turning their expectations upside down, so they know that instead of identifying with the obvious hero they are expected to identify with the unthinkable, the tax collector. Or maybe they have something in common with Kiwis. As soon as they hear the Pharisee thank God that he is not a rogue or an adulterer or a tax collector, they want to cut his tall poppy attitude down to size. As soon as do they fall into the trap. Even Luke falls for it.
Those more scholarly than I believe Jesus ended his story with the line: “This man went down to his home justified rather than the other.” There is no judgment in Jesus’ words. It is Luke who adds, “for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” Judgment and punishment ooze satisfyingly from Luke’s response. Since exaltation is the more desirable outcome, the tax collector is the good guy we all want to be and no one wants to play the Pharisee. We take to our role with relish, thanking God that we are not like the faithful Pharisee. As soon as we hear our prayer we know Jesus has stuck it to us. We aren’t any different than Fritz Hollings, who was the Senator from South Carolina for nearly forty years. He once took a lie detector test to see what it was like. He failed as soon as he said, “In my humble opinion.”
For 2000 years Jesus has been setting this trap and for 2000 years we have been falling for it. We are so used to falling for it we think it is the right thing to do. We commonly use the word Pharisee as a pejorative. Of course we don’t always use the word, sometimes we replace it with Tea Baggers or Fundies or Happy Clappies. From the other side of the political and theological spectrum we might call them tree huggers, lefties or heretics.
The irony is that the Pharisees and Jesus had more in common than we assume. Some have even tried to make the case that Jesus was a Pharisee. I remain an agnostic as to whether or not he was, as we know remarkably little about them and one of the three sources we have about them is the New Testament. There is no question that by the time Luke’s Gospel was written in 70 CE Christians Jews and the Pharisaic Jews had had a falling out, because the Christians put Jesus not only over Caesar but the Torah as well. Pharisaic Jews considered it an anathema to consider Jesus, not the Torah, as the fullest revelation of God. It was natural for early Christian writers to make them the foil to Jesus’ message. The sad unintended consequence of this literary device has been 2000 years of anti-Semitism.
What we think we know about the Pharisees is that they arose as a Jewish religious force around 150 BCE in response to the Hellenization of Jewish life under Roman rule. They were committed to protecting Jewish identity by studying the Torah and carefully observing customary requirements in certain areas of life, such as tithing, purity laws, the Sabbath, marriage and divorce, and temple ritual. They saw themselves as a Jewish renewal movement. Underlying their passion and missionary zeal for faithful living was the vision of Israel as a covenant community whose future blessing or punishment was contingent on observance of the Torah. After they faded from history, their spiritual heirs are today’s rabbis. [i]
The reason some argue Jesus was a Pharisee is that they shared similar goals including a passion for the renewal of Israel as a community that expressed and promoted the rule of God in human affairs. Others argue he wasn’t a Pharisee because they differed in how to achieve it. We just don’t know. There were no Christian Jews to be in conflict with in Jesus’ day. Since Jesus didn’t believe his personhood should replace the Torah there may not have been any disagreement over religious beliefs.
Anyway, Jesus wasn’t concerned with religion. He wasn’t trying to reform what existed or create a new one. He knew religion couldn’t save us. While he wouldn’t have even thought of the possibility of Christianity, if he could’ve he would’ve known Christianity couldn’t save us either. The story he told about the Pharisee and the tax collector wasn’t about right doctrine or proper prayer. He was pointing out, first and foremost, that God loves us no matter what. There is nothing we can do to be more loved. There is nothing we can do to be less loved. There is nothing we can do to be more valuable than we already are. The parable is not about whom God will exalt more but how to experience the fullness of God’s acceptance of us as we are.
That should be good news, but if we are honest, I think it mostly annoys us. Judging the deficiencies of others is so much more satisfying than thinking divine love includes them just as much as it does us. We know “they” are jerks. Why doesn’t God? And furthermore, if we are loved as we are, why go to the trouble of trying to be more worthy of love? Jesus keeps trying to explain to us that when we experience his love knowing we have not earned it, we are freed to reflect it. Love precedes our response, not the other way around. When we still don’t get it, the love Jesus embodied, refuses to judge us. We just continue to be loved with the hope that the next time we hear the parable we won’t fall into the trap.
I have to confess I don’t like the parable of the Widow and the Unjust Judge very much. I never have. That may explain why I don’t think I’ve ever preached on it before in my 30 years in various pulpits. I would much rather go with Jeremiah. He tells us God has given up on getting the people to follow the Law: A smart decision in my view. Instead he is going to give us a new covenant that is written on our hearts. Not only does that sound more convenient than carrying stone tablets around, transforming our hearts clearly sounds like good news to me. Certainly better news than finding something edifying about the stroppy widow and corrupt judge…
I don’t think I’m alone in my lack of enthusiasm for this story. Matthew, Mark and John don’t choose to share it. Even Luke struggles to explain the strange story about a woman who is denied justice and pesters day and night the judge who can, but resists granting her relief. He finally does, not to dispense justice. Not out of compassion for her plight. He relents only to get her off his back.
A parable is supposed to give us an alternative view of reality. It is intended to interact with the listener without being explained. If resolved for us too quickly we stop thinking about it. For that reason Jesus never explained his parables. But this time, Luke puts an explanation in Jesus’ mouth that I’m not sure improves it.
Luke’s Jesus tells us that God is the judge, only nicer. Not exactly a shocking revelation is it? He then goes on to say that the widow is an example to us of faithfulness in her perseverance and that the nicer God won’t be any worse than the judge if we pray without ceasing. Inspiring isn’t it?
I guess I really only have three problems with Luke’s interpretation: How he views God. That he equates faith with perseverance. And lastly, how he understands prayer.
My problems with Luke’s portrayal of God, begins with the image of God as a judge. A judge dispenses justice and the world I see is a far cry from just. Any of us could give a long litany of the injustices that surround us near and far. My list would include asking where is the justice in a group of financiers on Wall Street causing a worldwide recession that has harmed millions if not billions of people, while they are made even richer by being bailed out instead of jailed? And of course we don’t have to look as far as America. We only have to look to South Canterbury to see the rescue of investors at the expense of those in need.
If God is a judge and this is justice then at best “He” is inept. I say “He,” because Luke’s God is male and a supreme being in the sky. I envision him having an answerphone for us to leave our prayers on. I wonder if this God even listens to his messages or does he just hit the “delete all” button?
On to my second objection: I have a real struggle with the idea that faithfulness and perseverance are the same. Perseverance is not always a virtue to be admired. Yes, we can admire the perseverance of the engineers in Chile who drilled down to the trapped miners. Over two months of dogged perseverance freed them. The miners showed perseverance as well, patiently waiting in interminable darkness for rescue. So did their family and loved ones persevere, holding faith that there would be a happy ending.
But when is perseverance simply stubbornness? A refusal to move on in our lives when circumstances we can’t control alter our expectations? Is perseverance a virtue when what we seek is self-serving at the expense of others or just plain evil? When does perseverance become an obsession that consumes us and all else that is good in our lives?
And lastly, when perseverance is our only choice does that constitute faithfulness? We feel compassion for those who live in poverty, those who struggle for enough food and clean water; those who live with life-threatening and incurable disease. We certainly admire their courage, but is that the same is faithfulness?
Then there is the issue of prayer. Luke seems to say if we nag God long enough we will get what we want. Is prayer really all about us? Sounds like that old Janis Joplin song:
Oh lord won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz.
My friends all drive porsches, I must make amends.
Worked hard all my lifetime, no help from my friends.
So oh lord won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz.
I would suggest prayer is a way of life. It is being open to the love of God within, between and beyond us. It is intentionally choosing transformation, not of the world to meet our expectations but of our selves to be true to who were made to be.
As I reflected on this parable this week, I thought, if this is what Jesus’ parable is about, I am ready to avoid it for the rest of my ministry. But then I thought more about the nature of parables. Their purpose is to turn our expectations and understandings topsy-turvy. That’s when it occurred to me that Luke may have gotten more than faithfulness and prayer wrong, he may have misunderstood who was who in the story.
The parable suddenly makes sense if God is not the judge but the widow and we are not the widow but the judge. We are the ones with the power to make things different, but don’t. We are much too busy asking what is in it for us. The history of human behaviour suggests that we pay God little mind nor respect God’s people. God as the widow is the one who comes to us in humility to nag, cajole, and even hound us, but not to coerce us to do justice, love tenderly and walk humbly alongside her. This God as widow does not accept the status quo as the way it always has to be.
When perseverance is applied to the “Widow” God, it becomes a virtue. She keeps battering away at our defences hoping to break them down. The Widow God persists in pursuing us for as long as it takes that we may one day see that dispensing justice is in our self-interest. Any other way is self-destructive. For instance, the present economic meltdown is accelerating the gap between rich and poor. To let this continue will eventually destroy even the rich. Let’s do something about it.
The Widow God demonstrates her love for us even in our obstinacy. She is the example the poet Samuel Crossman describes in the hymn A Song of Love Unknown: “Love to the loveless shown, that they might lovely be.”
We won’t always recognize her in her widow weeds. Sometimes she comes in the benign guise of a sermon or a religious book or even a parable. But more often she comes through a difficulty, a failure, sickness or maybe even a widow seeking help.
We will know we have glimpsed her when our prayers are no longer addressed to her. We will be on our way when our prayers are no longer demands of her, but listening for her demands of us. Then we will know that making our world more just is our work. It is then that we will know Jeremiah’s words have come to pass: A new covenant of love, compassion and forgiveness has been written on our hearts.
Ever had a bee buzzing in your big toe? I know, it sounds ridiculous. But once I did know someone who did. He didn’t find it odd, only annoying. In most ways he seemed quite normal, but that bee kept him in a mental hospital diagnosed with schizophrenia. Schizophrenia literally means broken heart or mind. I think of it as broken boundaries. He didn’t know where the boundaries of his self began and ended and where the world began and ended. In his illness it did not seem contradictory that he might have a bee in his toe.
It has been thirty years since I worked with him during my clinical training, but he came to mind as I thought about the ten lepers Jesus encounters in Luke’s gospel. The story raises for me how confusing and complex the boundaries in our lives are. When should they be honoured? When should they be crossed? When do they bless us and when do they curse us? Could it be that where boundaries are concerned, we all suffer from schizophrenia, at least a little bit?
As Jesus crosses the border between Galilee and Samaria, his disciples may be remembering the Samaritan town that refused him entry. After all no Samaritan has reason to trust their Jewish cousins who judge, reject and scorn them. Making his way to Jerusalem, unperturbed by past rejection he approaches another Samaritan village. Before he gets there, however, he encounters ten lepers, a little band united by their suffering and exclusion from the community. Both he and they respect the religiously imposed boundaries between the ritually clean and unclean. They don’t come close, and he doesn’t touch them. But he penetrates the boundary with just a word, a command, sending them on their way. They leave full of anticipation of what will happen on the road – for it was a word of healing! When it occurs, nine of them, who are presumably Jews, rush to the priests, as the Law requires and Jesus commands, to be confirmed as ritually clean. They are restored to the community. They are not heard from again.
But one of the ten comes back to say thank you and to praise God. Ironically, he's an outsider, a Samaritan, a "them" who is seized by a gratitude that turns him around to make his way back to the one who healed him. That the healer is a Jew is no concern to him. But I wonder if there is more to the story. The nine who did not return did nothing wrong. They did what they had been told. They knew that the Law would open the boundary between them and their people to be received back. I’m sure they were just as grateful as the tenth leper. Why not? They could resume their lives again and have some control over them. They no longer had to beg and depend on the kindness of strangers. They were no longer outcasts. They were no longer “them.” I wonder if they ever thought of or tried to keep in touch with their former mate to whom they were once bonded in suffering? His was a different fate. The priests would never certify him as ritually clean. There is no cure for being a Samaritan. With no community to return to he had nowhere else to turn but to God. In his case the boundary that excludes him frees him to be made whole, or as Jesus says, “Your faith has made you well.”
I don’t find this story to be about proper manners and sending “thank you” notes. I don’t think it is even about the tenth leper. What intrigues me about this moment is where it takes place. It is in an in-between place – the border between Samaria and Judea. It is outside the boundaries of both. It is neither one nor the other. Perhaps its only inhabitant is that whom we call God. Having been on that road I can tell you it is desolate enough to wonder why even God would be there. It also makes me wonder what the divine is doing outside the boundaries of where we would put such power? It’s a little unsettling. We prefer God in a box than roaming about God knows where.
We know that boundaries are good things or so we think along with Robert Frost’s antagonist in his poem Mending Wall. “Good fences make good neighbors” he remarks repeatedly with the thoughtless confidence of carelessly gathered wisdom.
The therapeutic community would agree, encouraging us to maintain a healthy sense of self. Keep mending the wall that defines you they tell us. And I can’t argue with that advice. Spiritual directors and Shakespeare remind us that “This above all: to thine own self be true.” Their understanding that all journeys begin with knowing who we are and are not is essential to health, be it mental, physical or spiritual. Almost all the professions these days are reminded to respect boundaries in the workplace. Workshops are often required to maintain that wall always on the edge of collapse. Respecting the boundaries of others is essential to healthy, safe relationships. And again I laud the wisdom. We all know stories of damaged lives caused by those who violated boundaries in the workplace.
One cannot argue that boundaries, walls, borders; lines in the sand, have their purpose. They give us confidence in whom we are and protect us from real or imagined fear. They preserve us from chaos and provide order. We come to think of them as sacrosanct, for we frequently see the consequences when they are violated or breached.
We saw it this week when Paul Henry allowed what can only be described as his crude racism to embarrass a large portion of an entire nation in suggesting our New Zealand born Govenour-General, Sir Anand, of Fijian Indian descent doesn’t represent what a New Zealander should look or sound like. Such racial attitudes may have once been considered an acceptable wall in our culture to define us, but no longer. Mr. Henry apparently did not get the memo that it had been torn down to build a wall that includes a much more diverse and colourful citizenry. As a nation we resented memory of that former wall we would like to forget being brought back to mind by his hateful question. And we squirmed all the more when our Prime Minister did not immediately and firmly stand up to the implication behind the question. That is perhaps a good thing. It is good to remember that boundaries change. And they change for good reason. But to do that we must remember from whence we came.
Boundaries clearly have their uses but again I’m reminded of Robert Frost’s Mending Wall:
“Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down.”
I do confess that at first I felt some uncomfortable empathy for Mr. Henry as someone who has also been assaulted in the media for violating a boundary. In my case it was with a billboard. But upon quick reflection I realized a fundamental difference. He was trying to rebuild a wall constructed of stone-hard hate that had fallen into disrepair. Our billboard sought to breach a wall of rigid doctrine and dogma that impedes the church from fulfilling her mission in the 21st century.
These episodes, perhaps, give us a guideline as to when a boundary is no longer or was never helpful and needs to be breached. When boundaries no longer allow us to be true to ourselves, it is time to move beyond them. When a boundary has been imposed upon us against our will it may be time to challenge it. We begin to learn this as two-year olds when we first used the word “no.” We further develop this important skill when we took our first tentative steps at rebellion as teenagers. At these times in our lives those boundaries are often imposed out of love to protect and discipline us, but at some point we must be allowed to define our own boundaries. Ideally, we reach a point when our boundaries are formed by mutual respect and care, and a confidence in our oneness with divine love.
As an example, where Lynette and I live, we have a fence on one property line and none on the other. The neighbour on the fenced side never returns our greetings or speaks to us. Our only interaction is their throwing their green waste over the fence into our garden. Lynette takes perverse pleasure in returning it to them promptly. Where her garden is concerned she does not find it easy to turn the other cheek. The neighbours on the side without a fence are neighbourly in all ways. Baked goods are exchanged. Drinks are shared. Mutual support is given. We serve as surrogate grandparents for their small children – a mutually beneficial arrangement. Clearly in this case, it is not a good fence that makes a good neighbour, but love, kindness and respect.
Tearing down walls, broaching boundaries is not a comfortable undertaking. It leaves us uncertain and uneasy in an in-between reality. The landmarks we rely on to guide us are often absent. It is a place we have to go to in faith with no guarantees. We go because we will never be more than who and what we are if we do not move beyond the boundaries that wall us in. Whatever our reluctance, once we realize that that which we call God resides outside the boundaries we have set or have had imposed upon us, we are free to move on. We go thankfully that we might be healed. But in the meantime, I suspect that that annoying bee is still buzzing in our toe.
You Will Know Him By His Wobble: A Reflection on the Ministry of Saint Francis of Assisi
October 3, 2010
St Francis' Day A Sermon delivered to the Auckland Community Church
Tonight we are using the liturgy A Celebration of Life to remember and celebrate the life of St Francis of Assisi. In our prayer, we gave thanks for the lives of the Saints and prayed that our lives too may be “moulded in the love of Jesus Christ”. Earlier today this space was also used to honour St Francis' great affection for animals. A few hours ago this church was filled wall-to-wall with animals of every kind lining up to receive their blessing. We do this in remembrance of him. St Francis proclaimed the goodness of God and ministered even to the animals.
Saint Francis believed in the 'relatedness' of all things – in the familial sense of the word 'related'. Sometimes when I hear theologian's use words like “relatedness” or “connectedness” I wonder if they are using them, in a metaphorical sense or in the St Francis sense.
In his Cantacle of the Sun, St Francis calls the Sun his “brother” who also bears the likeness of the “Most High”. The Moon, water and Mother Earth are all his sister's and the wind and air are his brothers. The force of bodily death he also calls “our Sister”. The four elements, the celestial bodies, and the forces of life and death are all siblings in creation – for St Francis, creation is all about relation.
These elements, bodies, and forces all do as they have been divinely ordained to do. They are all part of the divine dance that makes up our reality. Creation itself for St Francis is in the likeness of the “Most High”.
A natural world theologian – St Francis believed in the goodness of creation but that creation suffered and was in need of redemption. Because being and suffering were wound together so tightly, he felt compelled to take as his bride – Poverty. This was his ministry, to live in solidarity with the poor. Why he chose the metaphor of marriage to describe his own relationship to that destructive force of poverty is a wonderful topic for reflection and meditation.
During my own reflection this weekend I came to the conclusion that it had everything to do with the transforming power at work between two bonded entities. Relationships do not allow us to remain static in our being. The interaction between two bonded beings is transformative and after the encounter, neither is the same – both have been transformed.
I thought of St Francis again this weekend when I heard the big news that scientists have discovered the most promising candidate in our search for earth-like planets. The fact that an earth-like planet, possibly capable of sustaining life, was found so early in the search has given scientists cause to think that maybe earth-like planets are in abundance in our Milky-Way galaxy.
The planet known as Gliese 581g is a mere 20 light years from Earth. It is believed the planet is comparable in size to earth. It orbits around a red dwarf star with which it is tidally-locked. That is, one side of the planet is constantly faced towards its sun and the other side is always in complete darkness. This is similar to the relationship our Earth has with our moon. The far-side of the moon is never visible from Earth. We are tidally-locked in a cosmic dance.
It is on that border between Gliese 581g's light and darkness that scientists believe is the most likely place to find life if life or the potential for it exists there. The temperature, not too hot and not too cold may be just right at this border.
At this stage, it is a lot of scientific conjecture based purely upon our observations of the relationship between this planet and its sun. Scientists can't actually see this system up close to gain telemetry; however, it is believed that the planet is in just the right proximation from its sun as to be in the “habitable zone”.
In fact Gliese 581g's presence was only detected by our most powerful telescopes due to the “wobble” of its star. That means that the planet's gravity pulls on its star causing a wobbling effect. This is the scientific method employed to find exo-planets. We look for wobbling stars, calculate how large the planet pulling on it is and than calculate their approximate distance from each other to see if the planet is a good candidate to host life.
The relationship between a star and its orbiting planets is one of transformation. Depending on their proximity to each other, among other characteristics, they are either involved in a dance that makes life a possibility, or in a dance that makes life impossible.
The reason I thought of St Francis when I heard this news is I believe he would have understood this interaction between entities as transformative power like his ministry to the poor. Francis knew that in order for his ministry to be life-giving, he had to open himself up to transformation. He became like a wobbling star being pulled toward the poor who were craving for the fullness of life.
I'm sure too that St Francis would not be surprised to hear that science has proven him correct, that indeed all creation emerged from a single and continuing act of interaction between matter and energy. Everything in creation is indeed related. Creation then, is an ongoing interaction and transformation. That sounds a lot to me like ministry.
The image of St Francis giving away all he had and living his life in solidarity with the poor, makes me think that if he is the standard in sainthood, then I will very probably most certainly never qualify for sainthood. But is that the message of St Francis' example to us? If we are all charged with ministry, and I believe we are, is the goal of our ministry that our lives become so completely self-sacrificing that we too must marry Poverty?
I don't think for St Francis, that detaching from material things and withdrawing to live a life of self-giving was a sacrifice for him. In fact, I believe this was an inseparable part of his identity, this is who he was. It was as inseparable for him as our Queer identities are to us.
And there are all kinds of ministries and there are all kinds of poor. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus names more than a few, pre-scripting each kind with the adjective “blessed”. Blessed are the poor for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.
Saint Francis inspires me to be pulled toward the kind of poor that I am ordained to work among – the poor in human rights, the poor in mental health, the poor in voice. Like a wobbling red dwarf star that feels pulled to entities craving the fullness of life, so goes my ministry. That feels more like an inseparable part of my identity rather than self-sacrifice.
Sainthood then to me is like elevating people to a level of holiness because they have green eyes or because they're tall or because they have freckles, all parts inherent in their identity which they had nothing to do with. The point of sainthood then to me is to teach us to look inside our own identities to think about our own ministries to think about who or what we are being pulled toward. Feast Days then are an opportunity for us to explore and think about our place in the greater work of the Church and to remind us that our own ministries are about fulfilling our identities, being who we were meant to be.
Ministry as demonstrated by St Francis is that power in each of us, to be part of a greater transformation. St Francis challenges each of us to recognise that we too are wobbly stars and if we haven't already done so, maybe the Feast of St Francis gives us the opportunity to think about letting our planets pull us closer. Amen.
In this day of email I don’t find much of importance in my letterbox very often, but this week I received two pieces of mail out of the ordinary. The first was my voting papers to cast my vote for a mayor and councillors for Auckland “The Super City.” The second was my ballot to vote in the US midterm elections in California.
I have to say I find both documents discouraging. They bring out my less than attractive cynical side. I’m one of those people who believe my vote is a civic sacrament, a sacramental right, if you will. I have voted in every election for which I was eligible since I was 18. My healthy American skepticism about “the System” has not deterred me in the past. Nor has my frustration with my fellow citizens who choose not to vote, even though they are often the deciding factor of who gets elected. For instance, the 72% of the electorate who did not vote in Alaska last week have effectively chosen a radical right candidate to be their next senator. Of course if they choose not to inform themselves I share author Gore Vidal’s hope, who observed that “Half of the American people never read a newspaper. Half never voted for President. One hopes it is the same half.” Sadly the recent successes of the Tea Party in America suggest otherwise.
I can sympathize with those who choose not to vote out of principle because they believe that if voting ever changed anything, it would be abolished. Often it seems that way. But how different would the world be today if more Americans had voted in 2000. If they had I don’t believe the results would have been close enough for the Supreme Court to appoint George Bush as president.
The problem is that not all politicians want to get out the vote. For those who represent the wealthy and powerful, it is in their self-interest to not encourage certain segments of the population to vote. As Dan Quayle once observed in a moment of total transparency, “Republicans have been accused of abandoning the poor. It's the other way around. They never vote for us.” So, from their frame of reference it is best that the poor not vote at all. If they can make it too cumbersome or confusing to vote they know many won’t.
Another strategy is to convince us that there really isn’t much difference between the candidates by hiding their true agenda. They know if we perceive little difference many will not bother to vote. If we believe the outcome doesn’t matter, they win. When we don’t vote, whether we are in the US or New Zealand and are poor, unemployed, ill, uneducated, highly educated, a woman, gay, a person of colour or compassionate we lose. Vote suppression is the only way the smallest segment of the population – the wealthy – can win elections.
I see vote suppression at work in our own election.
American humourist, Will Rogers, at a time when most politicians were men, once observed, “Anything important is never left to the vote of the people. We only get to vote on some man; we never get to vote on what he is to do.” I certainly feel that way about the concept of the Super City itself. While I believe what we had was inadequate for our growing region, we had no opportunity to vote on what the Royal Commission suggested for a structure or what Rodney Hyde, the powerful advocate for the richest in our community, decided it would be. We just get to vote on who is going to run it. Frustration with the government’s less than transparent process feeds cynicism that this is all about making the rich richer and the poor poorer and that cynicism feeds vote suppression. And if that doesn’t do it the ballot we have been sent should do it nicely. The last local authority election turnout was good by US standards – 44%, but that was down 2% from the previous one. Who knows what this ballot will do to it.
There are 542 candidates for 170 vacancies on the new council, local boards, the licensing trusts and local health boards. There are 23 candidates for mayor alone.
With a few high profile exceptions, there is precious little information out there about who these people are and what their positions are on the issues. If I had lived in New Zealand all my life I might’ve met or gone to school with at least some of them. That not being the case I mostly have to depend on the booklet that came with the ballot. It has a brief paragraph about each offered by the candidate. Its chief purpose seems to be to say as little as possible about what they stand for with the exception that many want to lower my rates. At what cost they don’t say. Knowing party affiliation would be helpful in making an informed choice, but most claim to be an “independent.” Independent against “what” or for “what” is the question.
So in the midst of my despair about what the future of Auckland might be and my growing cynicism about how we are getting there, Jeremiah speaks to me today. He is not his usual ‘doom and gloom’ self. Yet, he has every reason to be so. His city is under siege and he is in prison. Things are bleak and getting bleaker, yet he does the inexplicable. He buys land to plant a vineyard outside the city. Yes, he probably got a good price considering the circumstances, but he still probably paid too much. He makes this poor commercial decision to invest in an image of hope of life after destruction and captivity. He does it because even after the enemy has done its worst, he is certain that God is still working in the rubble of Israel’s former life. That certainty moves him to act even when it makes no economic sense.
So while I am discouraged and would prefer to ignore my ballot I will do as Jeremiah and struggle to fill it out. It is an investment in hope for what could be, even when it seems futile. But hope doesn’t tell me who to vote for, so I’m grateful for Luke’s parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus.
Many, if not most, scholars question if this is one of Jesus’ parables because the last four verses speak of someone returning from the dead. I agree that those words belong to the primitive church. But I also agree with Dominic Crossan who hears Jesus in the beginning of it. He argues that like Jesus it makes no moral judgment about how good or bad the rich man and Lazarus are, the story just reverses a common expectation. The rich have earned God’s blessing just as the poor have earned God’s curse. Jesus is says, “Not so fast.” In God’s realm our expectations are not going to be met. Furthermore those mistaken expectations divide us from one another. They create an unbridgeable chasm between us and the shovel we use to dig it is fear.
The rich man ignores Lazarus out of fear. Lazarus’ poverty, sickness, age, vulnerability, and just plain difference are what he fears. Since he can’t run away far enough or fast enough, he digs a chasm or a gated community or goes to a different church or joins clubs Lazarus can’t afford. Jesus doesn’t say but he might send a check to the Mission to give the hungry a food parcel but he wouldn’t think of worshipping with Lazarus or living next door to him.
Forty years ago I went to university in Santa Barbara. In those days rich and poor lived together. That is no longer true. The rich have built a chasm around it. Their servants and gardeners live at least 50 miles away because they can’t afford to live there. Even my university had to build faculty housing because their professors couldn’t afford a home there. Today it is a wonderful “make believe” place to live if you are rich, but if you are poor it is just a place to work. What the rich don’t know is that they are on the wrong side of the chasm. They have isolated themselves from 99% of the human family and it hasn’t made them any less vulnerable to the ravages of life. To see the image of God we have to be one with the whole human family. Anything less leaves us ultimately miserable. It is a misery that does violence to the souls of those who live this way just as the true cost of their wealth does violence to the “have-nots” and to our society as a whole. Jesus simply reminds us we are not made to live this way and don’t have to.
With the rich man in mind I will seek to vote for candidates whose primary concern is not about making me “richer” by lowering my rates at the expense of the most vulnerable. Instead, I hope to find enough candidates to support who are concerned about filling in the chasms that already exist in our community. I do not want to use my vote to dig new and deeper ones. Life is difficult enough without being isolated further. My candidates may not win, but in them I will invest my hope in a city that could be super. May Jeremiah and the rich man encourage enough of us to do the same.
Today might be called lost and found Sunday. We have three stories Jesus tells in response to the Pharisees disdain for his eating with sinners. We have a lost coin, a lost sheep and a lost son. In each case they were found with great rejoicing. We have heard about them many times before. So many times we may assume that they have nothing left to say to us. In their familiarity we may have lost sight of how radical they are. My challenge in preparing for this morning was to find them surprising again as Jesus intended all of his parables to be.
I began by thinking about what was lost and how they differed. The prodigal son did not have to be sought. He returned of his own accord. The lost sheep made it easy for the shepherd by bleating his location. The lost coin said nothing cloaked in darkness.
It occurred to me that as someone impeded by a Y-chromosome, finding anything is a challenge. Like the prodigal’s father I prefer to wait for the lost to find me. Failing that I might have a chance of finding something if it calls out to me like a lost lamb. As that rarely happens, I call on Lynette to find what is often right before my eyes. If I have heard, “If it was a snake it would’ve bit you,” once I’ve heard it a thousand times.
Perhaps because I am in awe of a woman’s capacity to find what often eludes me, I found myself drawn to the story of the lost coin and what the woman who lost and then found it might have to say to me.
Let’s listen in as she reflects on her loss.
As I went about finishing my evening chores, I heard it fall from the chain I keep it on with the nine others that crown my forehead. It clinked and then rolled, immediately swallowed up in the darkness of the evening. I had to reign in my panic. Those ten coins are mine. As a woman in a man’s world there is very little that is mine. They are a statement of my worth. They say I have value. If one is lost I am diminished. I am less whole. I feel like I have fallen like the coin. I remember some unpleasant, difficult stories of women who have also fallen. Fallen women (Why is it no one talks of fallen men?) are at the bottom of the heap, forgotten, outrage unanswered and unheard, silenced, lost in the darkness; abandoned and vulnerable, condemned to passivity. Which of us women, I ask, have not experienced or feared the fate of the lost coin? How many of us still lie lost in the dark with it.
As my panic begins to subside, I am subdued by the memory of other losses in my life. My life has been full of loss from the moment of my birth. There have been lost opportunities, lost loved ones, lost health, a lost sense of zest for life and with it a deep inward joy and sense of purpose. At times I have even lost a sense of self.
I shake myself from a reverie that leads only to a darker place than my coin has found. I must find that coin. I must begin the search without delay, carefully following the trail, the pain perhaps; the light of the inner voice perhaps, and be confident that I will find it. There is no alternative if I am to be complete again.
Outwardly and inwardly, inwardly and outwardly I search my house diligently and as I do, my life situation and circumstances as well. I listen attentively for clues to the whereabouts of what has been lost. Inwardly and outwardly I know tender places can be signposts to places that throw light intellectually and psychologically on what we have lost if I find the courage to go there. I know that we women do not divorce specific life circumstances from inward psychological and bodily experience. It is a dualism we do not accept. We do not divide the Spirit. Through what surrounds us and the deep and directing wisdom of our intuition we see reality. What we see tells us much has been lost and needs to be named if it is to be found.
What has been lost is justice, the sharing of goods and gifts. What has been lost is the possibility of living peacefully together. What has been lost is the wisdom of the opposite poles and their harmonious coordination in dark and light, female as well as male, above as well as below, heaven and earth. What has been lost is the harmony with the regularities of nature, astonishment at the miracle of the diversity of races and species, of the equal worth and distinctiveness of us women and men.
What has been lost is the harmony of emotional and rational knowledge, of intuition and reason, flesh and spirit. What has been lost is the grateful acceptance of boundaries and finitude. What has been lost is the certainty of our oneness with all creation. What has been lost is living out the universal love that embodies and surrounds us. What has been lost the Song of Songs tells us is our beloved.
So much has been lost. The situation seems hopeless. How am I to find any pathways here? How will I ever be equal to the challenge of this crying lost-ness.
I then remembered from past experience that how I responded to the loss made all the difference. My response gave me direction. When I went freely and autonomously and courageously in search of restoring my wholeness, recovering my value, I discovered that strength flowed into me. It was a liberating strength like lighting a lamp. It allowed me to look carefully ahead to examine each step to find the inner goal. I was able to go forth consciously and pragmatically to achieve that goal, like many women before me.
Like the woman with the haemorrhage that never stopped who touched the hem of Jesus’ garment, in full awareness that this is forbidden. She demanded health, and her loss was restored to her. She knew life’s rhythm and cycles could not be silenced by human law or prejudice.
And the Syrophoenician woman who used all her persistence and skill in argument until Jesus finally heard her, restoring her loss. She knew life is shaped by clear-minded determination and passion.
And the widow who pestered the judge to claim what she had lost until she received it. She knew a fulfilled life requires justice.
And then the woman who had always been loyal and remained so even when she knew for sure that everything was lost – He was dead and buried for ever. This woman who remained prostrate in her grief and loss until she heard his greeting, “Mary!” Her cry, “Rabboni!” confirmed her certainty that life is dying, life is transformation and that nothing is lost – nothing.
As I listen to her ruminations while sweeping, moving furniture; peering into the crevices of her life, I know she will find the coin. And so she does. Picking up the shiny disk she sees her face reflected back to her and she rejoices--not alone, but with her friends and neighbours. Her joy is contagious. It overflows, inspires and multiplies moving others to find hope and courage to not give into their sense of loss. They see the coin and recognize what seemed lost was there all the time. They look at her and see God. Surprised to discover that God is more than a loving father welcoming back his prodigal or Jesus the shepherd actively looking for the lamb but also a woman who does not let loss defeat or define her, only direct her forward. The divine feminine knows each of us are precious and will not stop encouraging us to search until we have found the coin of God’s realm she knows awaits only our discovery. With it in hand, we, too, will know wholeness and be certain of our worth.
The reading this morning in Luke talks about commitment as disciples of Christ, to bring about social justice as we work towards the Kingdom of God on earth. The call to leave everything behind and find a new way is central to this reading, as it symbolizes the dismantling of the walls of patriarchy and dominance intrinsic to the Roman rule during the time of Jesus, and calls us to continue that struggle today.
As I reflect on the way we are called, I think of the monks of Nadi El Natroun. Last year I cruised into Alexandria, Egypt and was determined to find the monks of the Egyptian desert, descendents of the early Desert Fathers, who left the comforts of city life for a contemplative existence, their only shelter the desert rocks and caves. Perhaps they were escaping burgeoning taxes imposed by the great Roman cities, or sought to live out the life called by Luke in the gospel reading today. I was fascinated to find the caves have morphed into 4 great monasteries surrounded by huge adobe walls rising out of the arid landscape, walls built as protection from the warring Berbers. The Coptic Christian monks of today seem unchanged by time. They are marked by the cross with a tattoo on the inner wrist and make their living by embroidering and weaving fabric used for their robes. The 10th century churches still stand within the walls, now surrounded by the cells and cactus gardens that expanded to become monasteries. This ancient worn habitat is home to Father Joakim who greeted us insisting we stay for a meal. Inclusive hospitality a sign of Christ is present here, in stark contrast to the menacing walls and isolation of the monastery. We ate beans with olive oil and preserved lemons added and soaked up with flat bread. Over this austere lunch we were welcomed as brothers and sisters in Christ.
I reflected that this symbolic life of giving up everything to follow Christ, was part of the fabric of my own journey, albeit less apparent, living in secular society today. The cost of discipleship is indeed high. We are all called to give up our own life just like Father Joakim. Our growing in a relationship with Jesus, searching for a new direction in life, a new way of living, calls us to a commitment no less than the disciples in Luke’s gospel, or the monks of Wadi El Natroun… we struggle with the distractions of our everyday life, and the monks have isolation to combat. The Coptic Christian monks carry on the traditions of the Desert Fathers of the first centuries, but we too share those traditions with prayer, blessings, shared meals, poignant God moments and inclusive hospitality that is part of our life today as a Christian community.
Just as the disciples follow Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem we also journey, nourishing our spirituality, refining our theology and our images of God, through the process of dying and being born again in our own personal transformation, as we move ever forward to a Kingdom of God on earth. The reading today is about journeying, about dying and rising again to new life, the way that Jesus taught. Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me – and if you don’t then you are not my disciple. They were following the way of Jesus which was his path to death and resurrection. The message is clear… to save your life you have to loose it, as we too journey to follow the path of many deaths and resurrections in our own life. Journeying towards a new kingdom is a dream for earth as a place of peace and justice for the disciples – like all the great prophets that went before, and for us as Christians today. The gospel of Luke structures Jesus journey ever facing towards Jerusalem, so that those who join him are ever moving forward, just as we today are ever moving toward the Kingdom of God on earth. Jesus sets his face towards Jerusalem (9:51), a new kind of public ministry which involved journeys and which Luke continues with Paul’s journeys In Acts.
The instructions for the journey to Jerusalem are in the main part of Luke’s gospel, including today’s reading. Luke focuses on how the disciples should behave – to mistrust money and material things which are likely to stifle their spiritual life, as it had with the Pharisees. They are instructed to be good neighbours no matter what religion or race, which is modeled in the Good Samaritan story, and to be committed to a prayer life.
The requirement to leave the family in Luke 14 in order to join the journey, is representative of leaving all structures of the time, especially the patriarchal domination of the Roman rulers and the Synagogue leaders. The revolutionary Jesus by including everyone disregarded the social constructs of his time, pitching the patriarchal family against the community of equal discipleship. The Jesus movement does not respect patriarchal family bonds, but rather disrupts the peace of those structures by setting each against the other. It is not our extended family that is our focus, but rather a larger family open for anyone to join, where we are equally accessible to God. This radical new way of being is referred to often in the gospels where the great or the first must be slaves and servants of all, by working together for those who are slaves and servants (the marginalized) in our community. Today we work in solidarity for those who are marginalized through sexism and prejudice… now more than ever when our church will not support the ordination of gay clergy, and where women clergy are marginalized in some diocese.
You will notice that the disciples must leave behind their wife, children and families to follow Jesus. This reading (Luke 14:26) has been used to justify that only men can join the new radical discipleship of Christ, as there is no mention of husband. It paints a picture of a group of men in a charismatic movement, who having left home, follow Christ to spread the good news. Although Luke is silent about women in the group, the feminist theologian Fiorenza quotes Mark 10:29 where they are told they must leave their brothers sisters, mother, father – no mention of husband or wife. She argues that the women disciples followed Jesus in Galilee, ministered to him and came up with him to Jerusalem (Mark 15), having left everything and followed Jesus on the way to its end at the cross as eye witnesses of Jesus death and resurrection. Fiorenza states “The evangelists Mark and John highlight the alternative character of the Christian community and therefore accord women apostolic and ministerial leadership.”
‘Carrying the Cross’ in Luke 14 can also be seen as symbolic of the Roman domination. The disciples understood kingdoms with all the political barriers and constraints which Herod and Caesar imposed. The cross was a sort of social terrorism reminding people that any time the rulers could take away your life. Were the disciples carrying the cross as a form of revolt diminishing the power of the cross in the process? Or was the cross a symbol of new life and personal transformation written by Luke after the resurrection, calling for lack of self interest and competing loyalties? Either way it is both personal and political, railing against the powers of domination, and stresses the high cost of following Jesus. There is no doubt that the primary allegiance is to Jesus, one that might well bring strife amongst the family and incur the wrath of the social and religious elite.
The theme continues in Paul's letters. “It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me”, as we walk in the newness of life gifted to us in Baptism. As Marcus Borg claims, it is a way of awareness of self and the world, as we are born again like Saul on the road to Damascus, or slowly over time develop a relationship with Christ where our identity is centred in Christ. We become intentional about our awareness of God and our Christian faith here in this place. The requirement is to give up the old life, an ongoing struggle in our journey to remove the crutches that keep us from a closeness with God, and also means a solid commitment to struggle for social justice. The call to give up your family and carry your cross in Luke’s gospel is symbolic of this struggle and indeed a high price of discipleship. The fruit is love.