This sermon started out being about the relationship of the Christmas Story to the #Occupy Wall Street movement but then our billboard went up.
It seems to have become an annual tradition for us to create a bit of a kerfuffle around the globe at Christmas time. From press reports we are either loved or despised for doing so. I decided it would look pretty strange if I ignored the last 10 days.
During this time our detractors have challenged our right to be called Christians, and labeled us blasphemous publicity-seeking heretics condemned to burn in hell for all eternity for ruining their Christmas.
It seems the crime we have committed is in suggesting that Mary might not have reacted with ecstasy on hearing of her immanent pregnancy. So exploring that charge is the sermon you get.
Christmas is a time of myth and magic and poetry, even at St Matthew’s. It is a time that speaks of the power of love, and through that power we call each other to visions of justice and truth and freedom and love. It is a time of rebirth and renewal. Even with all the darkness and anxiety that surrounds us, we are given reason to hope, reason to gaze deeply into the light and claim its power for our lives and for the lives of those we love.
The Christmas Story resonates deeply with the human spirit because at its core, it is about relationships: Parent and child, wife and husband; humans and God. It is about how we relate to each other, and how through our relationships we make beautiful things happen in the world. In the Christmas Story the beautiful thing that happens is not just due to divine initiative. It required human choice and consent.
Prior to the event portrayed on our billboard the angel Gabriel comes to Mary and says, "You are to be favoured by God." At first she is perplexed, and wonders what this could possibly mean. When the angel says she is to give birth to the Son of God, she questions the angel. "How can I give birth to a child?" she asks. Only when the angel shares with her news of her cousin Elizabeth, is she convinced. Only then does she lay aside her suspicions and consent to what she is being asked to do. Only then does her heart open and her deep and worrisome ponderings give way to trust and openness.
Just as Mary hesitates and needs persuasion, so too does Joseph. When he hears that his fiancée carries a child, he questions Mary, and dismisses her claim that she has conceived by the Holy Spirit. He seeks to release himself from his obligation to her. But then the angel Gabriel visits Joseph with the intent of persuading him otherwise. The angel tells Joseph of the larger vision, the promise that accompanies the birth of Mary's child. Joseph is convinced and makes the choice to consent to the angel's demand that he remain with Mary.
It is hard not to be impressed by the power of choice and freedom in the relationships that develop between Gabriel, Joseph and Mary, and how integrally these values are woven into the circumstances of Jesus' birth.
Many of us wish those values were found in the religion inspired by that baby. Too many of us have found the church focused on control and oppression, calling us to blind trust and unquestioning obedience. Centuries of theologians have emphasized Mary and Joseph's simple obedience to the will of God. They have succeeded in convincing too many of our detractors that that is the whole story.
But, a close reading of the Scriptures they claim to believe is the Word of God shows us something quite different. Joseph and Mary question. They ponder. They resist. They hesitate. They struggle. They carefully consider what is being asked of them because consent means that their lives will change forever. And what meets their careful consideration? Does Gabriel condemn or judge them as blasphemers? Does he threaten them with eternal punishment? No. Gabriel reasons with them. He seeks to persuade them. He provides them with the truth as best as he can tell it. And then, and only then, both Mary and Joseph open themselves to consent to what is being asked of them. They move from questioning and resistance to trust and openness and I would hazard a guess that the reason they move in this direction is because their initial resistance was met with openness and with respect.
There is no passivity in the Christmas story. There is no servility. No one is forced into obedience. There are no puppets. Both Mary and Joseph are free and willing and informed participants in this story. Jesus was a wanted and a welcomed child. The magic and the poetry in the myth of Christmas is embedded in this kind of love. It is embedded in freedom and in acceptance. It is rooted in openness and receptivity, in trust and in gentleness. It is rooted in the room given to be human – to question, to ponder, to consider, to hesitate, and even to change your mind. This is the way I have experienced the holy working in me.
When we talk about the wonder and magic of Christmas, when we call each other into rebirth and renewal, when we respond to the light that is held out to us, we call to each other as Gabriel called unto Mary and Joseph. We stand in places of choice and that means that when we say yes, it is a consent that is rich and full and trusting and open to the wonders of life. The god I experience does not hang over us as a ruler. The spirit of life is not a creed or a code. The essence of humanity is not a set of immutable laws. We are co-creators of the divine, inspired not by command but by invitation.
And so this morning I invite you to be the replacement for our damaged billboard. Occupy our billboard, if you will. Invite the holy into your life. Invite the spirit of Christmas to move through your choices, through your bodies, through your hearts. Claim this Christmas day your title, Emmanuel, God with us. Through your freedom, your choices and your questions and through your hesitations and your resistance and your courage to move through it, you live the message. You embody the breath of God. You manifest the spirit and the essence of goodness and light. You are the perfect Christmas billboard proclaiming “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” You are the Christmas Story.
It happened to me at Christmas in the Park last Friday night. The Warkworth mini version of the super city Auckland event, sponsored by the local Rotary Club, not Coca Cola, where our only celebrity artist was Lockwood Smith.
There in the midst of hundreds of school kids in Santa hats waving glow sticks in the dark, and singing synthetic Xmas songs to prerecorded sound tracks, I realised that the Christian community has long ago lost any control, let along much influence on the festival of the Christ child in Aotearoa.
We can enjoy it of course. It still promotes family feelings, generosity, present giving, charitable thoughts and actions too sometimes. And in snatches of song you still glimpse the spiritual passion that once drove this festival. In the voices of the children, you can still hear the angels singing, before the drum machine drowns them out again.
But the one occasion in the secular year that used to give a nod of recognition to our Christian heritage is pretty much sold out to commercialism and sentimentality. As a keen customer of consumer goods and Hollywood movies, I’m in no position to complain, but I do need to be clear about what Christmas isn’t anymore, and where I might look for alternatives.
Alternatives to discovering the beyond us world of mystery and wonder, beauty and transcendence that can inspire and transform us and lift us out of ourselves for a while. Christmas used to do that for me, long ago, it may still do that for children, some adults too. Thank God if it does.
I’m reading Ken Follett’s novels about the medieval world of cathedral builders and knights in armour. While I could do without the rape and pillage, feudal violence and superstition, I envy just a little the sense of enchantment that surrounded the lives of our forebears back then. The angels were very close and they outnumbered the demons, most of the time.
The best use we can make of this Advent season is to try and rediscover a sense of wonder about the magic of the world around us. Not the instant, manufactured magic of tinsel stars and synthesised musak, but the magic that comes from knowing we are part of a physical creation crammed full of complexity and creative energy, part of a human community resilient, adaptable and with potential we can barely imagine. And knowing that deep within ourselves lies a connection with all other living beings, a connection that is fuelled and filled, to use the language of our Prayer Book, by the “presence of the great compassion”, the love that will not let us go, the God who never gives up on us.
That sense of wonder about the magic of the world beyond us meets us, if we’re open to being met, in all sorts of ways – through the fascination of science and technology, the inspiration of art and music, the examples of human courage, sacrifice, service beyond any usual obligation, the struggles for justice against all the odds.
That sense of wonder does still meet us, even in the most ordinary, everyday moments, and if we’re lucky it can still transport us and transform us.
You don’t have to wait for super special events, it can happen even when you’re doing the washing as American poet Richard Wilbur showed us:
Outside the open window
The morning air is all awash with angels,
O let there be nothing on earth but laundry
Nothing but rosy hands in the rising steam
And clear dances done in the sight of heaven.
However it comes to us, and it does come to us, we don’t invent it or create it or make it happen. Like God, of whom we say, “you come to us before we come to you”. However it happens, this sense of wonder raises our hopes and expectations about the world and about ourselves. When you walk away from hearing a great concert or watching a great movie, or seeing the sun set over the sea, or renewing a great friendship, so seeing someone act with a courage or grace you could never match, then the world does become a more hopeful place for a while, whatever happens to the euro zone, or the pollution levels or the GDP.
Advent is the season for rediscovering this sense of wonder, for retuning our ears to the song of angels, whatever kind of music they might be singing.
Then and only then does the story of Mary in our gospel reading start to connect.
Because this is a story of a young woman who was supremely well qualified to hear the voice of angels. She has become the template for listening and responding to angels, the gold standard model for Christians as we struggle and hear and respond to what God might be saying to us.
Mary didn’t have to work as hard as we do to find a world of great expectations. She lived in a God intoxicated culture that lasted up to at least the end of the medieval era in the west, where the sacred pressed in on every side of the secular, where no one denied the reality of the spiritual world because it terrified them so easily and often.
It’s not her religious sensitivity, her spiritual awareness that we celebrate in this story. She was surrounded by people who heard the voice of God speaking, all the time.
What makes Mary so special and such a powerful role model for us, is the way she responded.
Somehow, once she had recovered from the terror and confusion of having an angel call in on you with the promise of pregnancy, she claimed the right to ask questions. Mary takes charge of herself, and uses her intellect and common sense to argue and ask for an explanation. “How can this be?”
When you’re trying to find your way through this world of spiritual discovery, you need to keep your wits about you, to reason and test and examine the evidence, for there are frauds and false promises on every side. Just watch the ads that promise you can spend your way to happiness this season, you can buy the security that children need, you can repair relationships with a credit card.
Mary wants to understand. How can this be?
We aren’t told quite how she gets the answers she needs, though some of them come from talking to her family, seeing the example of a cousin called Elizabeth, and connecting with her whakapapa, trusting the wisdom of her heritage.
We don’t know exactly how Mary gets the assurance that she needs but she finds it by asking and pondering. A little later in Luke’s story, we’re told that Mary treasured all these things that were happening to her and pondered over them. That has to be one of the most understated sentences in the Bible. Imagine what tumult this teenage girl was undergoing.
But question and ponder she does and then her next action in this legacy she leaves us, this model of listening and responding to God, is to say all right, here I am, let it be.
There are not many pop songs that can drop us right into the heart of mystery and wonder, but John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s Let it Be has to be one of them.
When I find myself in times of trouble
Mother Mary comes to me
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be
And in my hour of darkness she is standing right in front of me
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be. Let it be.
Whisper words of wisdom, let it be.
What Mary does for us in this story is to show us how to surrender to a God who meets us in moments of wonder. The story is asking us to first of all attune ourselves to this other world of mystery that surrounds us wherever we are but lies beyond us, outside our control. To listen, and wait and dare to expect something to happen.
And when it does, as it will, to question and ponder, and then, to respond. Not half heartedly, cautiously, with a bob each way but to surrender ourselves, to give ourselves over completely to whatever it is God is asking us to do.
Here I am, let it be.
The beauty of this story is that it could happen to any one of us, without leaving home.
No special qualifications or training or experience is required. You could not find anyone less prepared than this young teenager for the call God was making on her life.
It is the utter ordinariness of her circumstances, the absolute practicality of her question, “How can this be, I have no husband?” that makes this story so powerful and so accessible to so many.
When you’re trying to be open to God, use the resources God gives you, trust the instinct to find what is useful and practical. This matter of fact teenager did that in here questions to the angel. Terrified and overawed as she was.
Last month in Auckland Dorothy Brown died and we lost a great Anglican advocate of peace and justice, the woman whose vision drove the creation of the first chair of peace and conflict studies at Otago university. A woman of great faith, her motto was to ask a set of questions to any issue or cause that came her way:
“Is it true, is it kind, is it necessary?”
It’s that same sort of down to earth wisdom that Mary models.
Listen, engage with your questions, then surrender.
In this Advent time, on the eve of the Christ child, are you ready and open to be surprised by his coming?
Are you ready to be able to say if you’re asked, wherever and however that might happen, through whoever God might be using to ask you.
The Christmas season is a delightful, variegated smorgasbord of customs that annoys the purists, like Dr Paul Moon, [i] and often confuses the rest of us. This morning I want to talk about the four main traditions of the season, and what they each have to offer us.
The first tradition is the Winter Solstice of the Northern Hemisphere that was observed on December 25th in the Roman Julian Calendar. It marked the longest night of the year. After the bounty of harvest all nature had begun to die. The colour green faded from the earth. Death it seemed was making an irrevocable advance. Then a significant event happened: the sun turned. Light was re-born to the world. Hope was renewed. People could rejoice, feast and celebrate. [ii]
In Middle Eastern civilizations – Syria, Egypt, Persia – Winter Solstice was symbolized by the birth of a divine male child from the dark womb of the Goddess. There was no father, as the Goddess herself was all sufficient.
Winter Solstice rituals in Europe primarily involved greenery and fire. Candles were lit to invoke fire, but the most important fire ritual was the Yule-log, which symbolized warmth, light and the continuance of life. Yule, the festival of rebirth, lasted 12 days [now known as the ‘twelve days of Christmas’].
Greenery was used to celebrate the triumph of the life-force. In Rome, temples were decorated with evergreens, especially holly. Pine and fir trees were also decorated with streamers, bells, and ornaments of gold and silver. In Britain holly, ivy and mistletoe stood out as rare splashes of green in the bare forest, and therefore used in this celebration.
At Solstice rituals people sang and danced carols. Some carols today, like “The Holly and the Ivy”, date back to these times.
Winter Solstice rituals carried on century after century, with many customs being incorporated into Christmas.
The second tradition of the season is Santa Claus. He is derived from St Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, born during the third century in the village of Patara. Nicholas’ wealthy parents, who raised him to be a devout Christian, died in an epidemic while Nicholas was still young. Obeying Jesus' words to "sell what you own and give the money to the poor," Nicholas used his whole inheritance to assist the needy, the sick, and the suffering.
Over centuries St Nicholas has travelled a circuitous route through Europe, especially the Netherlands, and then to the Americas, through the pens of cartoonists in the 1800s to the jolly red bearded figure of today. The saint's name shifted to Santa Claus – a natural phonetic alteration from the German Sankt Niklaus. His mission also shifted – from caring for the poor to being a gift-giver to all, including the affluent. He’s also been used increasingly in the last century as an endorser of consumer products and our materialistic society in general.
Love him or loathe him Santa Claus is here to stay. At best he’s a symbol of generosity, and a reminder that we need to care for those who have the least resources. At his worst he’s a symbol of the “I-want-more-culture”. A culture based on greed.
All around the Santa gift-giving myth there is predominantly a sense of fun, merriment, feasting and laughter. Ho ho ho. No wonder it endures.
The third tradition is the Pageant Christmas. This is what society generally thinks is Christian belief. It involves all the nativity characters on stage at once. There are angels, white robed and winged. There are shepherds, healthy and benign, with a sheep or two in tow. There are kings, wise men from the East, with their gifts. There is stolid, solid Joseph. There is innocent, placid Mary. There is an inviting manger, with an adorable blue-eyed boy in its crib.
This happy scene is replicated on Christmas cards and in carols. “Love came down at Christmas time, love all lovely, love divine; love was born at Christmas – star and angels gave the sign.” [iii]
This Christmas tradition emphases babies, families, togetherness, love, and singing.
If one begins to deconstruct this mythological Pageant, as I have done in the past, then one is quickly criticized by both those who do not use critical faculties when reading the Bible and those for whom this togetherness ideal is very important. The critic becomes the Grinch, stealing the fun.
So, it’s easier to live with it. Indeed a lot of our enjoyment of Christmas is tied into this myth: Babies are wonderful, and a birth is a sacred event. Families are important, and the broader family of an eclectic community can produce much kindness. Love is the essence of God, and music is the closest thing we have to God’s language. All this is worth celebrating.
The fourth tradition is the Biblical Christmas. This is not about a baby, but about a man. Compiled in the aftermath of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE, the writers talked about hope. Using their Hebrew Scriptures they created stories to talk about the hope found in Jesus.
Historically, little was known about Jesus’ early years, save that his mother was called Mary, his birth was scandalous, and his hometown was Nazareth in Galilee. Yet the writers knew about his adult ministry. They knew he had lived and preached a radical tolerance. They knew he had sided with the poor. They knew he had been a threat to those in positions of religious and political power.
Matthew’s birth narrative, probably the first, uses scriptures from the Hebrew Bible, taken out of their original context, to undergird claims about the adult Jesus. The prediction, for example, about a ‘virgin conceiving’ was not a comment about sex but about God still being miraculously with them at this crisis point in history. The references to Egypt, as another example, were saying that the Jesus movement is another ‘Exodus’ movement, and Jesus a new Moses, a new liberator.
The genealogy Matthew constructs links Jesus to King David. Yet there are also indications that Jesus’ power would be quite different from that of a king. Radically in that genealogy, women are included: scandalous sinners and non-Jews/aliens. Jesus power would be one of crossing boundaries, promoting tolerance and compassion.
The creation of the Magi, Zoroastrians, travelling to the manger, likewise serves to underline this theme. The Jesus movement was not just for Jews. There are no boundaries around God.
Luke’s birth narrative is similarly an interpretive meditation on the Hebrew Bible that points to the adult Jesus. The birth stories of Isaac, Samson, and Samuel, for example, are used to underline that even in the most unlikely of circumstances new hope can arise. As in the early hymn, the Magnificat, Hannah [Samuel’s mum] sings of hope: the mighty being brought low and the humble lifted up.
This reversal theme, politically potent, is emphasized in the place of Jesus’ birth, a religiously impure stable belonging to a stranger, and his first visitors, shepherds – who in that time were considered petty thieves. The message is that Jesus the adult was of lowly origins who stood with people of lowly origins against the power and wealth of the high and mighty. He was not born in a palace, attended by courtiers, and visited by other potentates.
Similarly the angels – poetic symbols of the mystery of God – sing of the adult Jesus claiming the titles of Caesar. Jesus would be the one who would save. Jesus would be the sovereign one, the Lord. Jesus’ power though would not come from riches and military might, it would be an upside-down power grounded in a life lived in God.
These four traditions: Winter Solstice, Santa, Pageant, and Biblical Christmas merge together at this time of year. Solstice celebrates the passing from darkness to light, from barrenness to greenness. Santa celebrates the power of generosity and challenges us to emulate it. Pageant Christmas celebrates the magic of children, and the power of love and togetherness. Biblical Christmas celebrates the hope found in the adult Jesus, who lived a life of tolerance and compassion, confronting the boundaries and power of religious and political elites.
All of these Christmas season traditions are to be valued, none should be discarded. All are to be celebrated. For each nurture our spirits, and challenge us to make our world a better place.
A sermon preached to the Auckland Unitarian Church.
It is good to be back with you. And it isn’t just because you have welcomed me warmly in the past. It’s Advent in my tradition, a time when we focus on hope in the midst of disappointment and despair. And I have to admit that as a progressive, both politically and theologically; I’m not overwhelmed with hope at the moment. Certainly the recent election hasn’t helped. “A brighter future” indeed! Brighter for whom, I wonder? Not for the poor. Not for the elderly. Not for our children. Not for our planet. Political dysfunction in the country of my birth doesn’t improve my mood. What kind of bizarre parallel universe are we in where it is even conceivable that Americans could elect a Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich over someone of the calibre of Barack Obama as president? Despair is in the ascendency. In truth it is even worse than despair, I find an unwelcomed cynical note creeping into my attitude and words. So I needed to take a time out. This is an opportune time for me to come preach to the choir, not for your sake, but mine. Perhaps in doing so I can find clarity and purpose again. Perhaps I can reclaim the vision of why I am a progressive by returning to a community of like-minded souls.
It isn’t that my community of St Matthew’s isn’t a progressive, supportive community. It is, but it is part of a greater body, the Anglican Church, that is neglecting its mission through its preoccupation with whether or not the GLBT community should be fully included in its corporate life. While there is a glimmer of progress here and there, Anglicans locally and globally are a far cry from living out the radical imperative the historical Jesus laid on us from the prophet Isaiah: “to bring good news to the poor… release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s justice.”
While every faith tradition has a progressive strand, even Evangelicals, UUs are the only faith group I know of that can claim “progressive” as a part of their DNA. The Baha’i come close but even they are not welcoming of the GLBT community. There are some Christian denominations that are more progressive than they are not, like the Uniting Church of Australia, NZ Methodists, the United Church of Christ in the US, and the United Church of Canada, but only UUs can claim that their Seven Principles define being a religious progressive.
As you are well aware, there is a downside to being a progressive religious tradition. Few are beating down the doors to get in. In the US only 0.2% of the population name themselves as UUs. In NZ, UUs don’t even make the cut to be identified in the census by name. It isn’t any better for progressives in other traditions. While there are certainly liberal Anglican congregations sprinkled around NZ, St Matthew-in-the-City sits alone as progressive in the Anglican tradition in NZ. That is to say we are progressive in our willingness to dispense with creeds, to challenge doctrine and dogma, to question traditional authority and to stand up vocally and publicly for the marginalised in our society. Even NZ Presbyterians do us better, they have two such congregations.
However, St Matthew’s uniqueness within Anglicanism doesn’t translate into the number of worshippers you will find in a typical neighbourhood Catholic Church or a nondenominational fundamentalist church or even a charismatic Anglican congregation on an average Sunday. While we are doing better in our diversity it is still a predominantly aging Pakeha congregation that fills up a fifth of our capacity on any given Sunday. So there are definitely days I wonder, why bother, and consider just marking time until I can apply for my Gold Card and play golf on Sunday mornings.
When I’m not considering a blissful retirement, I struggle to understand the context in which progressive congregations struggle to flourish.
Certainly in New Zealand and other first world western countries organised religion is a “declining industry.” We are no longer living in a world where there isn’t much else to do on a Sunday morning but go to church. On a beautiful summer’s day it is hard to compete with the beach or lingering over a flat white at a Ponsonby café.
I suspect a bigger reason has to do with either people's past experiences with religion or their assumptions about it. Many have found it toxic. Too many have been condemned, judged, and excluded by churches dispensing guilt more freely than love. Others have simply found it boring, failing to either uplift or challenge their human spirit.
For others relevance is the issue. They find it impossible to believe in a superman god in the sky running their lives. Literal understandings of scripture that require dismissing scientific knowledge, and ancient doctrines set down for a world in which we no longer live sends them scurrying off to a Ponsonby café to seek enlightenment in the Sunday Star Times.
It doesn’t occur to them that not all people of faith check their minds at the door when they go to worship. It would be news to them that there are worshipping communities that see no conflict between science and faith. It may not occur to them that there are people of faith who understand the word God as a metaphor for ultimate mystery and not as the meddling, intrusive figure in our own image Michelangelo portrayed. It may also not cross their minds that that there are faith communities that do not demand shared belief or even equate faith with beliefs, but with ethical and just action.
Ultimately, I believe the reason progressive religious communities are not struggling with the problems that come from growth has more to do with western culture than what does or does not happen here on Sundays. We are products of a western culture that puts primacy of the individual over concern for the common good: I versus we. Even within faith communities, parochialism abounds rather than authentic interfaith engagement and cooperation. I think there are many at the cafés down the road this morning that share our progressive values and long for spiritual sustenance as much as we do. It is just contrary to our culture for them to look to community to meet their spiritual needs or to make a difference to a world in need of healing.
Clearly religious progressives are swimming against the current. So, it was heartening in the midst of my discouragement to come across a new book, A House for Hope, by Rebecca Ann Parker, a liberal Christian UU, who is president of the Starr King School of Theology in Berkeley and John A. Buehrens, a humanist UU, who is the minister at one of UUs oldest congregations in New England and former president of the Unitarian Universalist Association. The focus of their book is The Promise of Progressive Religion for the Twenty-first Century.
They use the metaphor of a theological house’s architecture to explore why you here and I at St Matthew’s must continue what we are doing. They argue that it is our religious framework that has inspired generations of activists to work for human rights, racial equality, economic justice and peace. Our theological perspectives embody reverence for the sacred, nourish community life, carry forward the aspirations of our forbears, and respond to legacies of violence and injustice that harm our bodies and souls. We differ from secular progressives in our understanding that while politics is all about how we’re going to make the world better, progressive religion tells us why it’s necessary to work for change. They quote Wallace Robins at the University of Chicago, “the mission of liberal religion is to make religion more liberal and make liberals more religious.”
I found each section of the book very affirming of living and working in a progressive religious community. It was filled with stories of progressives in community, who against all the odds, made a difference. In short, it is a book full of hope. I would commend it to each of you.
But the chapter that most caught my imagination reflected on the threshold of a theological house. Every theological house has to have a doorway – its point of entrance and departure. I guess I never thought of it as a sacred place before. It symbolises the permeable boundary between a community’s inner circle and the wider world. In Rebecca Parker’s words, thresholds “mark the importance of movement between shelter and adventure – of arriving home and of setting out.”
Those who cross the threshold into the inner circle of Auckland Unitarian Church or St Matthew’s for the first time probably do so for many reasons, but they are all life or death reasons. They may come to celebrate, grieve, find comfort, solace or encouragement, search for understanding, or experience the holy. They may come over the threshold clueless but know only that they are compelled to do so. But all who come are looking for a way to amplify their happiness, solidify their commitments, ease their difficulties and fulfil their hopes.
Once we are inside we have a new perspective on the world outside our theological house. We could look at those outside as nonbelievers who need to be saved. This is certainly true of many Christian households of faith who seek to convert and assimilate them. Progressive religious houses have a different perspective. We are places of hospitality to any who seek shelter. We honour religious diversity and encourage creative exchange between multiple beliefs and practices. The outsider who has the courage to venture in is treated as a holy guest. We live that out ritually at St Matthew’s by verbally welcoming everyone, no matter what his or her faith or beliefs, to receive communion.
Once we are inside, the threshold presents a new challenge – the challenge to leave. It is so much more comfortable to stay inside where we can have the reassurance of hearing our values and beliefs echoed by our companions – to do as I am doing this morning – preaching to the choir. As the Occupy Wall Street movement is finding around the world, the one per cent who hold wealth and power are less than receptive to our views of how the world might function more justly, more peaceably. The world outside these doors is shaped by hate and fear. It is ruled by crucifying powers. Liberal theologian, Walter Rauschenbusch named them: militarism, religious bigotry, mob-spirit, greed and economic exploitation, and corruption of justice systems. To face it requires courage and commitment; and one more essential thing – unity. The only way I can step out those doors is confident I’m not doing so alone. We go out together.
Perhaps we should have a ritual for doing it. Rebecca Parker has a ritual crossing of the threshold for students and faculty at Starr King at the beginning of each new school year. They all gather outside the front door of the school in their diversity of backgrounds and beliefs but committed to their mission to go deeper in their religious understanding and practice; to be of greater service to the common good; to be more faithful to their own heart and more helpful to their communities.
Rebecca greets them and welcomes them through the school’s open door. Drummers begin to beat out a rhythm. The singers start a simple refrain, and voices join in singing words of the Sufi Rūmī: “Come, come whoever you are, wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving, ours is no caravan of despair.”
I’m not sure where going through those doors will lead. From past experience all I know for sure is it will be somewhere unexpected. Once there it will ask of me things I will be unsure I can do. But I will go. It is why I am here.
For those who like predictability and order, Advent is the perfect season. It is always four Sundays. And each Sunday has a theme. Last week it was hope. This week it is peace. While the scripture changes in three-year cycles the subject matter doesn’t. Last week it dealt with the end times when God’s will comes to fruition. This week should be called John the Baptist Sunday. It always features John, everybody’s crazy uncle, the one with questionable fashion sense and an eccentric diet, yelling at everyone to prepare for the Lord.
While I will grant that there is a place for predictability and order in our lives, I find it a challenge to find something new to say on Advent themes year in and year out. For that reason I am grateful to Michael Benedict for his new book God is the God we do. He isn’t a theologian; he is an architect. He isn’t a Christian; he is a secular Jew. His parents were atheists, not surprisingly after surviving the horror of the Nazi extermination camps; he is not. But his understanding of god as doing is new to me. I find it intriguing, especially in Advent. For ultimately Advent is a verb. It is about preparing to find God at Christmas and being awake enough to recognize God when we do. Benedict has given me a new place to look for Advent hope, peace, love and joy.
Last week I shared his understanding that whether on not god exists is entirely up to us. God comes into being by what we do and not do. While we are not god, what we are doing might be. This god has no image only actions. This is a god of deeds not creeds. How “Advent” is that?
Benedict goes further to explain this god is not all-powerful. God “is weaker than a curl of smoke.” God is not all-knowing. God only knows what you do. God is not everywhere, but wants to be. God is only where God is, and who God is, which is ‘here and there’ and ‘now and again’ – wherever good is being done. Ultimately god is the good we do, when and where and as we do it. God is practiced, like dance, like music, like kindness, like love.
And what are we to practice? According to Benedict our task is restoring the fully human person we were born to before the fears and cultural expectations warped and distorted the image: becoming more loving, more compassionate, more courageous, more just, more intelligent, more happy, more caring, more excellent in physical grace and skill, longer lived in health, and further-seeing in the wisdom that would have us preserve, honor and promote all forms and instances of life.
With John’s call to prepare and Benedict’s call to practice in mind, my hope for all of us is that this is the Advent where we finally all get it and in doing so live the lives we are intended to live that god might be here and now and everywhere. The good I hope for each of us is that we overcome all our fears, stop dead in our tracks and hear a voice inside the wilderness in our head cry out "ENOUGH!” Enough fighting. Enough crying. Enough struggling to hold on to a reality that isn’t, never was and never will be. The god we are waiting for to save us won’t come into existence until we do our part. And like a child quieting down after a tantrum, our sobs begin to subside, we shudder once or twice, we blink back our tears and through a mantle of wet lashes we begin to look at the world and ourselves with new eyes.
May this Advent be our ‘awakening.’ Awake we realise that it's time to stop hoping and waiting for something to change; or for happiness, safety and security to come galloping over the next horizon. We come to terms with the fact that there is no Prince Charming and we are not “Cinderella” and that in the real world there aren't always fairytale endings (or beginnings for that matter). And any guarantee of "happily ever after" must begin with us. In the process a sense of serenity is born. Advent peace.
Awake we realise we are not perfect and that not everyone will always love, appreciate or approve of who and what we are; and that's OK. We learn that people don't always say what they mean or mean what they say and that not everyone will be there for us and that it's not always about us.
And we begin to sift through all the trash we've been fed about how we should look and how much we should weigh. What we should wear and where we should shop. Where we should go to school or what we should do for a living. Who we should choose for our friends. Who we should marry and what we should expect of a marriage. Those ideas about the importance of having and raising children or what we owe to our parents.
We learn that it is truly in giving that we receive the most. And that there is power and glory in creating and contributing and we stop maneuvering through life merely as a consumer looking for our next fix. We learn that principles such as honesty and integrity are not the outdated ideals of a bygone era but the mortar that holds together the foundation upon which we must build a life. We learn that we don't know everything and it's not our job to save the world. We learn to distinguish between guilt and responsibility and the importance of setting boundaries and learning to say NO.
We learn that the only cross to bear is the one we choose to carry and that martyrs get burned at the stake.
Then we learn about love. Romantic love and familial love and worldly love; how to love, how much to give in love and when to stop giving or walk away. We learn to look at things as they really are and not as we would have them be. We stop trying to control people, situations and outcomes. We learn that just as people grow and change so it is with love. We learn that we don't have the right to demand love just to make us happy.
We look in the mirror and come to terms with the fact that we will never be a perfect 10; nobody is, not even those airbrushed models. And we stop trying to compete with the image inside our head and agonizing over how we stack up. We learn that our body really is a temple and we begin to care for it with respect. We begin eating a balanced diet, drinking more water and taking more time to exercise. We learn that fatigue diminishes the spirit and can create doubt and fear. So we take more time to rest. And we learn that just as food feeds the body, laughter feeds the soul. So we take more time to laugh and to play. We learn that for the most part, in life, we get what we believe we deserve and that much of life truly is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
We learn that anything worth achieving is worth working for and that wishing for something to happen is different from working toward making it happen. More importantly, we learn that in order to achieve success we need direction, discipline and perseverance. We also learn that no one can do it all alone and that it's ok to risk asking for help. We learn to fight for our life and not to squander it living under a cloud of impending doom. We learn that life isn't always fair; we don't always get what we think we deserve and that sometimes bad things happen to good people.
On these occasions we learn not to personalize things. We learn that God isn't punishing us or failing to answer our prayers, it's just life happening. We learn that negative feelings such as anger, envy and resentment must be redirected or they will suffocate the life out of us and poison the universe that surrounds us. We learn to admit when we are wrong and to build bridges instead of walls.
We learn to be thankful and to take comfort in many of the simple things we often take for granted; a full refrigerator, clean running water, a warm bed, a long hot shower.
Slowly we begin to take responsibility for ourselves, by ourselves and to make ourselves a promise to never betray ourselves and to never, ever settle for less than our heart's desire.
May this Advent inspire us put up a wind chime outside our window so we can listen to the wind. Let us make it a point to keep smiling, to keep trusting, and to stay open to every wonderful possibility. Finally, with courage in our heart and with faith by our side let us take a stand, take a deep breath and begin to design the life we want to live as best we can. It will be enough.
This is the god we are called to give birth to. This is the god we are to awaken this Advent. But don’t just wake up. Experience the awakening. God is in the action. There you will know peace. It is enough.
Win Rugby World Cup…tick. Hold election…tick. Finally! Now we can focus on summer. Well, not quite yet. First, there is the matter of today’s Santa parade and doing our Christmas shopping. But while the world focuses this weekend on retail therapy, I’m going to preach on the world falling apart. It’s not that I’m a killjoy or don’t have my own shopping list. It’s because I live and work in the parallel universe we call the church and today is the beginning of Advent. It’s what I’m supposed to preach on this Sunday.
The four Sundays of Advent always begins with a bang. Instead of looking backward to the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth, it describes a future full of images straight out of a science fiction horror flick. Isaiah sees heaven ripped open and mountains quaking. Mark foretells of sun, moon and stars being blotted out. Remember Harold Camping? He was the guy who put up a billboard on January 1st over our car park predicting the end of the world last May 21st. This would be his kind of Sunday.
These images reflect what was going on in the writer’s time. For Isaiah, it was the destruction of the Temple and exile in Babylon. For Mark, it was the crushing defeat by the Romans in the Jewish Wars. We can relate today. We have plenty of misery of our own. At the top of the list is the economic downturn presently enveloping us, courtesy of greedy Wall Street bankers. An updated version of today’s gospel might use images of high unemployment, embarrassingly high child poverty figures for a developed country, and a rapidly diminishing middle class marked by increasing income inequality.
Look at Isaiah, the Gospel and today’s circumstances side by side. Then and now and every Advent Sunday in between the world has been falling apart. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse have ridden through every age leaving war, famine, pestilence and death in their dust. Often these times have been attributed to God’s abandonment of us in anger or as predictions of God’s final judgment. This is the interpretation of many Christians like Camping. But this is not Jesus’ point.
In the midst of the world falling apart, we are meant to be preparing. But preparing for what? Jesus instructs us to prepare for God to act in the midst of our brokenness and despair. “Sort it God,” is our prayer. “Make it right.” It is a time of waiting in hope that we might see the messiah. But are we looking in a manger? Waiting, often in frustration and disappointment, is difficult; recognizing Jesus, even more so.
In Dresden, the German city that was devastated by firebombing at the end of the World War II, there was a wonderful discovery. They found in the ruins a musical score that had survived the fire and devastation. It was the score to Albinoni's ‘Adagio for Strings and Orchestra in B Minor’.
In the midst of this devastation of war – the very worst that we do to each other – there survived something of the most beautiful that we create for each other. So, the Albinoni piece has become a sign of hope. It has been used that way ever since.
During the siege of Sarajevo during the Balkans War the city was shelled month after month, every single night. On one of those nights a group of people standing in line in front of a bakery were waiting to buy bread. A mortar shell fell right in their midst. Twenty-two people were killed: Innocent people. Hungry people. Wanting to buy bread.
A few days later, at the same spot, in front of the burned out bakery, a man named Vedian Smailovic placed a chair and began to play his cello.
For 22 days he played his cello, one day in memory for each one of the people who had been killed at that spot. The music he played each day was ‘Adagio for Strings and Orchestra in B Minor’. It was a beautiful gesture.
Do you recognize Jesus transforming a place of death and despair into a place of hope and new life?
Some are seeing Jesus today in the Occupy Wall Street movement driving the moneylenders from the Temple. For those who decry the destruction of the social fabric by unbridled capitalism, those camping on Wall Street, on college campus quads, on the steps of St Paul’s; on Aotea Square are a sign of hope that God may at be work. Maybe not through all their aspects, but the vision they profess is encouraging:
 a truly free, democratic, and just society;
 where we, the people, come together and solve our problems by consensus;
 where people are encouraged to take personal and collective responsibility and participate in decision making;
 where we learn to live in harmony and embrace principles of toleration and respect for diversity and the differing views of others;
 where we secure the civil and human rights of all from violation by tyrannical forces and unjust governments;
 where political and economic institutions work to benefit all, not just the privileged few;
 where we provide full and free education to everyone, not merely to get jobs but to grow and flourish as human beings;
 where we value human needs over monetary gain, to ensure decent standards of living without which effective democracy is impossible;
 where we work together to protect the global environment to ensure that future generations will have safe and clean air, water and food supplies, and will be able to enjoy the beauty and bounty of nature that past generations have enjoyed.
It could be our mission statement at St Matthew’s.
However, the movement is also a reminder that Advent is dangerous. Advent expresses the insistence that all is not right in our societies. That is a dangerous expression. Stoking hopes for a new world order, for justice to really to be for all, usually implies that old systems, governments, and loyalties aren’t what they’re cracked up to be. Those enamoured with the current system (probably more than 1% if our election yesterday is any indication) are not likely to let go of their power and position easily. We only need to watch peaceful protesters being pepper gassed, brutalised by batons and arrested in droves for proof.
But Advent is dangerous for those who resist change as well. The transformation anticipated in today’s Gospel is such a monumental and all-encompassing upheaval; its description must resort to symbolism. The symbolism is unnerving, even though it was familiar to ancient audiences. It suggests that, in the face of God’s desires coming to full fruition, every other power (symbolized by sun, moon, and stars) receives notice and sees its light go out. No aspect of human existence goes untransformed when God enters in for good.
The claims of Advent should rattle all who benefit from exploitative and domineering forms of power.
But still, where are we to seek this face of God that can mutate the cosmos?
It is told that when God finished with Creation, She had a desire to leave something behind; just a small piece of divinity and wholeness so humans could experience this delight.
But God was a bit of a trickster too, so She didn't want this to be too easy for human beings. She wasn't sure, at first, where to put this special something, so she asked the other living things in creation.
Someone suggested in the stars and God replied, “No, I have this feeling that one day humankind will explore space and they will find it.”
Someone else suggested hiding it in the depths of the ocean. God thought about it for a moment and answered, “No,” I have a feeling that some day humankind will explore the deepest places in the seas.” She thought that was also too easy.
Then suddenly, God had it. "I know where I'll put this special something, a place where they will never look. I'll hide it in them, they will never look there."
And so it was. And so it has been. [i]
However, someone has recently found it. Michael Benedict, the son of holocaust survivors, argues persuasively that whether or not God exists is up to us. For God comes into being by what we do and not do. He does not suggest we are God, but what we’re doing may be. This God, who lives as deeds not creeds, is the God we know firsthand. This God whose shape is action not image, is the God we witness every day. But this God’s presence is not guaranteed. Do good again and again, and you do God’s will. Do God’s will, and you bring God into being. [ii]
Bring God into being and Advent happens. Don’t, and the wait continues.
[i] Muir, J. J. Heretics' faith. Vocabulary for religious liberals. Annapolis: F. J. Muir, 2001. P. 114
[ii] Benedict, Michael. God is the Good We do, New Your: Botting Books, 2007.
Aotearoa Sunday Last Sunday of Pentecost Matthew 25:31-46
One beautiful summer night back in my home state of Colorado in 1998, my family and some friends and I were enjoying a movie outdoors at our small town’s local drive-in. We were lazing about in the back of a Dodge pick-up truck eating snacks, laughing and enjoying a cool breeze every now and then. Suddenly off to the left of the big movie screen an enormous green sphere came falling from the night sky. It appeared to be glowing or on fire, there was no tail and it didn’t seem to be falling so much as it seemed to be slowly descending – in a controlled way. We gasped in amazement as we braced for the sound and the tremors of an imminent impact – an explosion. But there was nothing. It simply disappeared into the countryside without any fanfare, without any explanation.
I think we saw a meteorite – maybe. It might have been a piece of space debris like an old satellite – doubtful. It could have been a UFO – definitely. I use the term UFO here as it was originally intended to be used – to describe any aerial phenomena that could not be immediately or easily explained. In our modern context, it is automatically associated with extraterrestrials and little green men thanks to pop-culture and tabloid news but that’s not what it meant originally. A quick search on Google shows that the 'green fireball’ phenomena has been witnessed by countless others in the American Midwest and remains to this day, unexplained. So we can’t say for sure what it was we saw on that summer night. It remains an unidentified flying object.
Humans have been documenting strange objects in the sky for all of recorded history but the modern-day UFO era ignited back in 1947 when the American aviator Kenneth Arnold reported seeing “nine unusual objects flying in a chain near Mount Rainier, Washington”. He described them to the world’s media as “saucer-like” hence coining the term ‘flying saucer’.
Everyone who has even a passing knowledge of the UFO phenomenon knows that Ufology has as its central event, the famous Roswell Incident where an allegedly crashed extraterrestrial craft and its beings were captured by the US Military in the New Mexico desert the same year following Kenneth Arnold’s sighting.
New Zealand’s central UFO event is known as the Kaikoura Lights which were filmed in December of 1978 by television journalist Quentin Fogarty. The Kaikoura Lights has been described as the world’s most well-documented UFO sighting. The lights weren’t just filmed from an airplane with narration by Quentin Fogarty and other witnesses; they were also confirmed as real objects on radar by Wellington Control and to this day have not been adequately explained.
These phenomena have spawned a movement that resembles Christianity in many ways. It is a belief-driven movement with its own doctrines and teachings. It has fundamentalists, progressives as well as agnostics. It too can be difficult to navigate ones way through the complex mythology and contradicting eyewitness accounts much like our Gospels. Its sacred texts are government documents which are sometimes dubious in their authenticity. It has heretics, saints and martyrs. It operates in binaries, some believing the visitors are supernatural, satanic in nature and some believing the visitors are here to bring us salvation, to save us from destroying ourselves.
For as long as we have been able to question our existence, we've been looking to the sky for answers sometimes seeking guidance. The explorer Kupe was guided to Aotearoa by a long white cloud by day and also by night. The Hebrew children were guided by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night to the Promised Land. We have a long history of being connected to the sky.
We’ve all heard the oft quoted story of Galileo being persecuted by the Roman Inquisition for suggesting among other things that the Earth revolved around the sun, and not the other way around. Around Galileo’s time another enemy of the Roman Inquisition, Giordano Bruno, an Italian Dominican Friar, astronomer and mathematician suggested a plurality of worlds. He not only proposed that the sun was actually a star but that “the universe contained an infinite number of inhabited worlds populated by other intelligent beings”. He was burned at the stake by the Inquisition in 1600 for this heresy which isn’t surprising. Christianity has a history of being hostile to science, reason and imagination. Don’t bother us with the facts folks, we’re not interested!
That notion has been a frustrating one. Our Christian myths have long been considered as truth rather than pointers to truth. Christianity often feels like it grows in slow motion – progress is slow. The German physicist Max Planck was once asked how progress happens in science, he replied, “funeral by funeral”. It feels that way in Christianity too. We hold on too long to the old ways of understanding and there is usually fierce opposition when it is suggested we reinterpret our myths and symbols in light of reason and scientific discoveries.
So as you can imagine, I was pleasantly surprised in 2008 when the Vatican’s chief astronomer hosted a conference on astrobiology and issued a statement saying that the existence of extraterrestrials “does not contradict faith in God”. It is science this time that has put forth a more cynical belief about potential visitors. Professor Stephen Hawking made headlines earlier this year when he warned that we might want to rethink advertising our presence in this part of the galaxy as aliens could prove to be hostile or malevolent and pay us a visit to rob us of our natural resources and enslave us. Or at the very least colonise us in the way the English colonised New Zealand, first with explorers and then with missionaries.
Other’s worry that a confirmation of extraterrestrial life would plunge religions like Christianity into complete and utter chaos, that it would shake the Christian worldview to its very core. Still others worry that we place almost messianic hope into what extraterrestrials could potentially do to help heal our fractured world. Will they be bearers of salvation from up there in the same way many expect Jesus to return? These are all parts of the UFO mythology.
Whether or not we think the origin of these sightings are extraterrestrial, paranormal, inter-dimensional or simply; meteorites, experimental aircraft, space debris, temperature inversions or whether it is a completely psycho-social phenomena, the UFO movement is still telling us something deeply important about our civilization. It’s telling us that we are longing to find out what place we occupy in the grand universal narrative that is Existence. Where does humanity fit in if there are others? Who is my neighbour?
I’ve often wondered if there are extraterrestrial civilisations hundreds, thousands, even millions or billions of years more advanced than we are, did they once worship a god like the one Matthew describes in today’s Gospel? Matthew looks forward to a time when humanity gets divided up into those who are good and those who are evil. Not content with just destroying the so-called evil ones, this god wants to make them suffer in eternal torment. Hopefully that will some day be considered the old way of thinking.
History has shown societies don’t necessarily become more altruistic or more compassionate as scientific and technological advances are made and that is a worry. My hope would be that as our spiritual evolution continues, that Christianity as a whole will outgrow the need to divide humanity up into the mythical categories of good and evil and contribute greatly to a more inclusive society.
Scientists believe we will have confirmation of a radio signal from an extraterrestrial civilisation within the next twenty years. That’s not unrealistic though it sounds amazing, a lot can happen in the span of a person’s lifetime. Just think, Dr Edgar Mitchell, the sixth man to walk on the moon noted that his grandfather only knew horses and covered wagons, his father knew the automobile, and Dr Mitchell flew into space and walked on the moon. What will be proved in the next 100 years that is currently thought of as ridiculous or impossible? How will our Christian myths have to be re-interpreted by the next generation in light of those revelations? Will Christianity overcome its fear of progress? Stay tuned.
I don’t really know what that green glowing sphere was that came from the sky all those years ago, though that hasn’t stopped me from imagining. I remain agnostic in terms of the extraterrestrial hypothesis until definitive proof is offered. I do believe the fact that we are experiencing this phenomenon at all is a tell-tale sign that says more about us than it does about any potential visitors. We long to know more about our own identity and our own place in the universe. Those are answers that may indeed come from the sky but as for salvation, we have been given everything we need down here to work that truth out for ourselves. And if any E.T.’s have survived this long, maybe it is because their civilisation was finally able to answer the question ‘who is my neighbour?’ with the answer being ‘everyone is’, ‘everyone is my neighbour’. Amen.
Over the last few weeks we have listened to parables of Matthew. Invariably there is one group doing the right thing – using their talents, hoarding their oil, or sitting in the correct place. And there’s been another group that not doing the right thing. The former get applauded. The latter get punished. And we, trying to avoid a rebuke from the disciplinarian God, are meant to do the right thing.
Now scholars have dug beneath the surface of some of these parables trying to mine something, anything, that an intelligent modern seeker could appropriate. Maybe the King figure in these stories isn’t God? Maybe talents aren’t money but wisdom? With great mental agility we try to reconcile the unpalatable punishing God to the love praxis of Jesus and to our spiritual sensibilities informed by that praxis.
Some old stories, like some customs from cultures of the past, need to be boxed up and left high up in a closet to gather dust. As St Paul once wrote to the Philippians: “Whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely … if there be any virtue… think on these things” [4:8]. So using love as a guide let’s file away all that is false, ignoble, and frankly wrong. And let us write new stories, just as the first Christian writers did, but this time to move us beyond the reward-punishment God of old.
Consider the following story by Fr Anthony De Mello SJ: [i]
God walked into heaven one day and found, to his surprise, that everyone was there. Not a single soul had been sent to hell. This disturbed God, for was not it Divine nature to be just? And what was hell created for anyway if the place was not going to be used? [Is that a line straight out of the Act Party handbook?].
So God said to the Angel Gabriel, “Summon everyone before my throne and read the ten Commandments.”
Everyone was summoned. Gabriel read the first of the Commandments. Then God said, “All those who have sinned against this commandment will betake themselves to hell immediately.” A number of persons detached themselves from the crowd and went off sadly to hell.
A similar thing was done after the second Commandment was read… and the third… and the fourth… and the fifth… By now the population of heaven had decreased considerably. After the sixth Commandment was read everyone had gone to hell, except an old grumpy recluse.
God looked up and said to Gabriel, “Are we the only ones left?”
“Yes,” said Gabriel.
“Well,” said God, “It’s rather lonesome here, isn’t it? Tell them all to come back!”
When the recluse heard that everyone was invited back he was indignant. And he yelled at God, “This is unjust! Why didn’t you tell me this before?”
This story underlines the following:
Firstly, that the nature of God is compassion. Period. God has no other nature. Any beliefs or actions of God arise from compassion. The contrary also holds: any dogma or practice carried out by religious people that is not steeped in or arises from compassion is not of God. So, to be clear, a compassionate God doesn’t do punishment, doesn’t do devil and demons, and doesn’t do hell.
Compassion needs though to be understood as broader than caring. It involves mutuality in relationships, restoration not just of individuals but of groups and cultures within a society who are limited in their access to resources and choices, and it ultimately involves a vision of where all are nourished, nurtured, and empowered.
Secondly, there are two understandings of judgement – one based on fear and one based on love.
Religious people have too often transferred onto God their wish to see ‘naughty’ people cajoled into ‘nice’ behaviour by the threat of condemnation and punishment. They have written stories [like the Matthean parables] to scare people into acting in such a way to avoid punishment. They have used fear as a tool, and justified its use. Hell has been invented for the purpose of instilling fear.
The ‘love’ understanding of justice sees people as bike riders who might have fallen off. The obvious thing to do is therefore sympathize and encourage them to get back on the bike. It is restorative. The ‘fear’ understanding of justice admonishes the hapless rider and punishes them by taking the bike away. It is retributive.
Stories, like that of De Mello, seek to pull the rug out from under the fear version of judgement, and instead encourage us to emulate the God character in De Mello’s parable who wants to forgive, enjoys people despite their failings, and annoys the pious self-righteous ones.
Thirdly, the God character has a funny bone. God deliberately breaks the rules we expect and welcomes all shades of so-called ‘sinners’. The one[s] who think they are ‘deserving’ while others aren’t, get very upset. God is deliberately annoying. Yet the character God doesn’t exclude. If people walk off in a huff, or care not to associate with others, that’s their decision. In De Mello’s story the grumpy recluse is not expelled. He stays and grumps.
Unlike most Christians I don’t think of God as a being or a character, rather a life-giving force or energy between and among people and then some. Humour is interwoven into this energy. It is iconoclastic: pulling down the pious and powerful, lifting up the lowly and a vision of inclusion. Laughter is not extraneous to divinity but part of its core.
Stories like De Mello’s therefore speak to me of the nature of that God energy or spirit. It is a force of compassion, not punishment. It is of love, not fear. It is of fun, not pious pride. This spirit is annoying to those who want strict rules about who is in and who is out. This spirit bends and breaks every rule to bring about restorative and compassionate love, and has a good laugh along the way.
One of the things I do to relax is read The Church Times. This most British of church newspapers invariably puts a smile on my face.
Like the cleric from Basingstoke who amused himself making Lego cathedrals. The Lego Company, pleased to have a collared disciple, made organ pipes specially.
Like the numerous clergy who have love affairs with trains. My theory is that things that go where you plan them to go are very appealing to those whose day-to-day experience is the opposite.
And then, on page seven, there is the cleric with his rhinoceros. The parish priest of Dalton-in-Furness had created a fiberglass five-foot-long rhinoceros using wood and carpet rolls. He intended it to be a mould for future models that would be displayed around the town.
Why rhinos in Dalton-in-Furness? The explanation must surely be a spiritual treatise, or at the least a fund-raiser to repair the church roof? Yet no such justification is forthcoming. Simply, the rhino defies reason.
And that is the point. There is no reason. Attracting people to church, feeding the poor, or changing the world does not motivate the rhino’s creator. He made it because he just made it.
What I enjoy about this story is visualizing the priest, Allan Mitchell, working away in his vicarage parlour on something totally disconnected from normal church life. There he crafts a horny statue that has seemingly no point.
One of the wise little sayings about the Anglican Church is that at its best it tries not to be a club for the like-minded but a symbol that all can and do belong. Reverend Mitchell is such a symbol. His counter-cultural love of rhinoceros, making them, and not seeing any conflict between this and his priestly vocation, is a wonderful reminder that in the ecology of God there is a place for us all.
Sometimes the kiwi Christianity in which I’m immersed frightens me. Leadership is hailed and hallowed as professional, educated, pastorally competent, and hard working. These are the values that silently predominate even as we preach a gospel of inclusion. Where is there room for the oddball, the maverick, and the rhino lover? Eccentricity needs to be valued otherwise we might lose it.
Mind you eccentricity is also hard work. Ask any bishop or archdeacon that has received complaints, placated disgruntled parishioners, or mediated between warring parties. Its hard work dealing with the wondrous and wacky ways of clerics, and the expectations of those they labour amongst.
Similarly there are parishes that seem to specialize in attracting the strange and the bizarre among their clientele. Such folk brighten and enliven the otherwise dull blend of Anglican homogeneity. Yet make no mistake, such parishes are hard work. For inevitably it seems some people talk well beyond what tolerant listeners can endure, while others act in ways that are inappropriate or misunderstood. Facilitating any meaningful communication between the colours in the parish mosaic can be a task worthy of Van Gogh.
Yet, at the end of the day, this uncontainable spectrum of variance and vibrancy is what makes church communities so interesting and unforgettable. I’ve worshipped with a giant trapped in a woman’s body, with a time-traveler from the 16th century, with Jesus Christ’s aunt, as well as many of more mundane pedigree. I’ve worshipped too with criminals and cops, with animals and those less well behaved, and with the harried and the harassed.
It is truly a privilege to open one’s arms wide and say without any hesitation that all are welcome. All are welcome to enter, participate, and commune. All are part of God’s ecology.
For, as some churches say quite starkly, Jesus is the host and we are his guests. That’s why I will continue to oppose the conditional welcome to receive communion. “It’s only for the baptized,” I’m told. Or “for the committed” another tells me. This is club-think. The ‘I’m-in-you’re-out’ mentality reflected in numerous biblical passages, including those today. It’s the ‘you-have-to-believe-to-belong’ brigade.
Well, I do believe. I believe that God’s love is not restricted to those who we think are acceptable. I believe that the love called God does not share our fear of difference that wants to judge and separate. I believe that God’s love is so broad that there are no boundaries or conditions. God deals with the dissenters and doubters by welcoming them. God welcomes the Lego makers, the train enthusiasts, the rhino crafters, and the time travellers.
This is immensely encouraging and hopeful. For it means, even when I acknowledge all my foibles and failings, all my beliefs or lack of them, God still welcomes even me.
In 1873, a Greek priest was thumbing through a book in a Jerusalem monastery library when he found, tucked in among other early Christian works, a short writing about the life of the first century communities, which had been lost for hundreds of years.
It is now known as the “Didache” [the teaching]. It contains, amongst other things, a lengthy discussion on the Eucharist. There is a Eucharistic prayer that has no reference to the Last Supper, and there are no words of institution over the bread and wine. Instead, it describes a meal that brings together people of all sections of society. It prefers phrases like “sharing a loaf” or drinking from “a common cup” rather than “eating bread” and “drinking wine”.
It is the act of sharing, the Didache posits, not the nature of what is eaten, that creates the Church. It is the simplicity and challenge of rich and poor, free and slave, old and young, men and women all sharing together that creates the sacrament known as the Eucharist.
The early church was very aware of both the spiritual and political power of sharing. From the Jerusalem community of Acts 4 to the sermons of John Chrysostom in the 4th century, the Church has been at its most attractive when it has stood with the poor in their need against the rich in their greed.
It is the experience of many today that wealthy elites have been holding the clippers and shearing the wool off the backs of the poor. Those elites have built up a financial system to support their fleecing. Most of us have colluded with it, believing their logic, and remaining docile.
We want to believe that their wealth has been earned, and we or our children, can do likewise. We want to believe that their astronomical gains are at nobody’s expense. We want to believe that through the miracle of some lottery we can join their ranks. We want to believe that the journey from rags to riches can happen.
Yet at the same time, while although we can imagine a chief executive earning $300,000, ten times the minimum wage, when it becomes a hundred times the minimum wage, there is something we feel that is intrinsically wrong. The foul odour of unfettered greed hangs in the air.
There are also in the air the cries of those in need. The statistics, as well as mapping the increasing gulf between the top and bottom incomes, tell us of increasing suffering, not just in some far away place but in our own communities and neighbourhoods.
The conservative politicians, the rich, and their believers excuse the inequity with the chant: “there’s no other way”. ‘Don’t worry, be happy,’ they seem to say, ‘we rich know what we are doing, just trust and obey’.
As a Church we know the mantra of ‘trust and obey’. It’s a mantra that hides a plethora of ecclesiastical crimes: like creating dependency in order to keep status and power, like keeping parishioners ignorant of the scholarship that strikes at the foundations of hierarchy, like sexual harassment and sexual abuse of women and children. Such a mantra, and the systems it supports, needs the cleansing winds of transparency, accountability, and mutuality.
The scripture reading from Matthew [23:1-12] can be read as an anti-Semitic diatribe. Yet, if the accusations are truthful, they reveal the potential failings of any religious elite, Jewish or Christian. Matthew asks some pertinent questions:
Is Scripture a body of commands to follow to the letter or wise counsel from the past to be interpreted by love? Are titles, garments, and other badges of office for the purpose of shoring up the egos and power of a few at the expense of the many, or for the purpose of empowering the whole community? In a community that recognizes the rights, dignity, needs, and contributions of everyone, how should leadership be exercised and what does humility mean?
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks [i] writes about humility: “True humility does not mean undervaluing yourself. It means valuing other people. It signals a certain openness to life’s grandeur and the willingness to be surprised, uplifted, by goodness wherever one finds it…”
I’ve been meditating on these wise words as I’ve followed the events unfolding around St Paul’s Cathedral in London and how, if these events had unfolded around St Matthew’s, we might have the humility and commitment to respond differently.
On October 21st the Occupy Wall Street movement crossed the Atlantic and hit the streets of London, like it has the streets of Auckland. The movement is a reaction, a protest, against the greed and destruction wrought by a few upon the many. It is primarily about wealth and poverty, the systems that maintain them, and the destructiveness of poverty on people and the environment.
For anyone who has ever the read the Bible these issues are familiar. The passion to address them – the passion for justice – is God’s passion. You cannot read the Bible and believe that God is happy with our status quo.
In London the protestors, probably trying to avoid being moved out by the police, came on to the steps and precinct of St Paul’s. There Canon Giles Fraser, offered a form of sanctuary and shooed the police away. St Paul’s welcomes everyone, protesters included. Canon Fraser’s action was reported round the world, and the Church’s credibility soared.
But action, grounded in the liberal theology of inclusivity, is sadly not enough. When the storms come this theology’s foundations can waiver. To endure it has to be grounded in a theology of outrageous humility.
For a week campers, Cathedral, and chapter tried to live together. You can imagine the issues. For the campers there would be sanitation and hygiene, cooking, and venues for open discussions.
For the Cathedral there would be the potential disruption to its many activities. The Cathedral has two hundred paid staff. It collects 16,000 pounds per day from tourists. It has multiple services and events. All of this would have been compromised. While a number in the Cathedral would have wanted to keep supporting the justice principles behind the movement, there would have been others wanting to evict the protesters, and others concerned about the fabric and finances.
Eventually, according to Cathedral statements, they were left with ‘no alternative’. The clergy received strong legal advice that they could not negotiate with the protesters, since that might imply consent to them staying. The Chapter obeyed that advice. Health and Safety Officers had stated the protestors must go or the Cathedral must close. The Chapter chose the latter. The protest movement was blamed for the closure.
The latest news is that the Cathedral has re-opened and senior clergy, including the Bishop of London, are supporting the legal action of the City Council to have the protesters removed. Canon Fraser, one of the foremost liberals in the English Church, has resigned. It is a very sad to see the Cathedral aligning itself with the interests of wealth and power, and prepared to use police to remove protesters who are preaching Jesus’ message of justice and acting nonviolently.
If a similar scenario had played out in Auckland we at St Matthew’s might well have been faced with similar choices – choices that would have been costly.
I hope we would have chosen the path of total commitment. This is the choice of compromising income, events, and services. This is the choice of not being available to everyone, for a while. This is the choice of incurring the displeasure of the wealthy and those who are afraid of conflict. This is the choice of spending money to assist with cooking, sleeping, and sanitation. This is the choice, if necessary, of defying Health and Safety Officers, bishops, and City Councils. This is the choice, therefore, of actually joining the protest, putting the Church on the street, shoulder to shoulder, shouting too in outrage, with the understanding that God, at this time and place, is in that outrage, not inside the building trying inclusively to cater for everyone, trying not to offend.
Here I return to that understanding of humility. For humility suggests that our understandings of God, and grace, and what’s right and wrong, are always limited. We don’t know the fullness of God. We must remain open to being surprised. We must be ready, when the winds of outrage blow not to batten down with extra anchors out, but after discernment to hoist our sail, albeit reefed, and gingerly, with faith, head out from our safe harbour.
The early Church, as reflected in the Didache, understood Holy Communion principally as an act of sharing. Christ shared, we too must share. All can receive, all can share. Spiritually and politically it was holding up a vision of justice, a vision of how God wants us to be – in the Church and world.
Right now, right here in this city, right across the planet, there is a movement holding up that Eucharistic vision, a Mass for the world. May we always have the wit and the wisdom to recognize the work of God, and join it.
I love reading long, epic historical novels that span generations and are filled with colourful, multi-dimensional characters. I also hate them. I hate them because eventually there is a last chapter. I don’t want them to end. I want to know what comes next. A mild depression sets in – a grief reaction of sorts. Perhaps, at some level, I am aware that the narrative of my life also has a last chapter somewhere ahead. I can accept that. What I find difficult to accept is the not knowing what will happen next in this epic novel we call life after I’m gone.
This Sunday we come to the last chapter of Moses’ life. We have been following it for some time now on Sundays from his being saved from the bulrushes to live a pampered life in the palace to being on the lam for murder to living a shepherd’s life until reluctantly accepting a call to leadership to confront Pharaoh and lead his people into freedom to trying to manage his cantankerous and rebellious flock to reaching the frontier of the Promised Land. There his story ends. From the height of Mount Nebo he can see the panorama of the Promised Land but ironically he is to die without reaching it. His burial site unknown and unmarked.
I wonder what his thoughts were. Was he disappointed? Relieved? Dying with curiosity? Perhaps, like Martin Luther King on the night before he died, it was enough to have had the vision. Hours before his assassination he spoke these words to a room full of sanitation workers striking for human dignity:
“Well, I don't know what will happen now; we've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter to me now, because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life–longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over, and I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”
I guess we will never know what Moses’ state of mind was, nor our own until our time comes. But it does strike me that the other irony in this story is that the human instrument in the creation of the nation of Israel has no burial site. No tomb. No place of memorial. At least it seemed ironic until I read this challenging quote by Rene Girard, “There is no culture without a tomb and no tomb without a culture; in the end the tomb is the first and only cultural symbol. The above ground tomb does not have to be invented. It is the pile of stones in which the victim of unanimous stoning is buried. It is the first pyramid.”
There is a lot to think about in it. After a week of reflection let me attempt to unpack it a little. Girard seems to suggest that those who told the story of Moses understood that a tomb and entering a Promised Land couldn’t be in the same story. You can’t get to the Promised Land from a tomb.
I remember vividly the first time I really thought about a tomb as a metaphor. I was in my 30’s – still feeling immortal – attending to the bedside of a dying parishioner. He happened to own most of the car dealerships in Detroit (no small feat). In the course of our conversations he told me that after his death and cremation he wanted me to take his remains and bury them secretly and then forget where I did it. He wanted no one to know his resting place, not even his family. It seemed an odd request so I asked him why. He said, “Look around town. Most of the cars have my name on the licence plate frame advertising my dealerships. The people in those cars are busy going on with their lives not even thinking about whose name is on the car. That is enough of a memorial to me.” As I fulfilled his wishes alone in a lovely wooded glen, I remember not where, I thanked him for his insight. The world doesn’t need more tombs. It needs more life.
When Moses looked out on the Promised Land did he foresee what was going to happen after he was gone? Did he have an inkling of the genocide of the Canaanite people that was about to take place under the leadership of his successor, Joshua? Did he foresee the river of blood that would be shed from that day to this over who possesses that land? Did he grieve that the blood to be shed was let in the name of the God he gave to his people, whether that god now be called Yahweh or Allah or Christ? I hope he didn’t, but I admire that he did not add his tomb to the many that would follow. If he had many more may have died. For tombs let us deny our own complicity in violence. They perpetuate death.
Here are a couple of examples from countless choices:
The July 8, 1992, edition of the New York Times, carried a story about the fierce ethnic fighting in an enclave of Azerbaijan during the Serbo-Croatian Wars. The story begins by quoting a notice posted in a building in Armenia where assistance for the Serbian partisans was being organized. The notice read:
“All those who hold dear the graves of our ancestors, our churches and our holies, must sow terror on the foe. By day and by night, they must perish.”
“Whether one is living in the ancient world or the modern one, in order to "sow terror on the foe" night and day one must go mad. If the terror can be sanctified, if the violence can be experienced as holy, and if the esprit de corps of those sowing the terror can achieve religious intensity, then the madness can pass for [sanity] itself. The tomb is where murders become memories and memories become beautiful obligations.” [i]
A graphic instance of this was when Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic came to a field in Kosovo called the Field of Black Birds, on the anniversary of the defeat there of a Serbian commander. "They'll never do this to you again," he pleaded to the crowd. "Never again will anyone defeat you." That was the moment when the Serbian revolt against the Yugoslav federation began. The defeat commemorated on that field took place in 1389.
A year later, the 600 year old coffin of the defeated Serb commander began a yearlong pilgrimage through every village in Serbia, followed by multitudes of sobbing mourners dressed in black in each town. For many in Serbia, the year 1989 marked not the fall of communism, but the 600th anniversary of the defeat of their leader at the Field of Blackbirds. It became the justification for genocide.
It was against this symbol of a culture of violence that Jesus stood. He had no use for tombs. He would not stay in one. In one of his many altercations with the Scribes and Pharisees he called them hypocrites, “For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous, and you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ Thus you testify against yourselves that you are descendants of those who murdered the prophets.” (Matt 23:29-31)
For Jesus, our denial of being part of the culture of violence is what entombs us. He would rather have us be brought up short by the crowing of the cock with Peter than build a tomb. The crowing reminds us that we cannot stand against violence unless we acknowledge our part in it.
In today’s Gospel Jesus gives us look at the Promised Land. It is that place where we love God and our neighbour as ourselves. However, we cannot enter it from a tomb of our own making.
The next chapter of our common life together seems to be entitled #Occupy Wall Street. This movement that has now reached even the Antipodes may be the crowing we need to hear right now. It is a reminder of how we participate in and yet are victimised by our culture of violence. Listen to those in the street crying out for economic justice, for a more caring response to our neighbour and the environment we share; a more peaceful world. It does not offer many specific solutions. It calls for transformation of the heart and the will to stand with Jesus in opposition. It invites us to ponder the ways we knowingly or unwittingly support a world where a child can die of hunger in a land of plenty. Where wars are perpetuated in the name of peace and security. Where our natural resources can be plundered for the benefit of a few. Where people are deprived of meaningful employment or children work in sweatshops so we can buy the latest electronic toy or trainers at the lowest price. It does not happen without our consent and participation. It will not change as long as we deny our part.
If there must be violence let it be ritualised on the rugby paddock. As the All Blacks today ponder whether or not this year they will enter the Promised Land, let us commit to leaving the tombs we have created for ourselves and dig out those we have buried by our complicity so that in the last chapter we might enter the Promised Land together.
[i] Excerpt from Gil Bailie's Violence Unveiled: Humanity at the Crossroads (New York: Crossroads, 1995), pp. 228-233.
Believe it or not there’s more much more than the Rigby World Cup in the air and the obsessive fascination with Richie McCaw’s foot – whether it will or not last the distance, or dare I say Dan Carter’s and Colin Slade’s groin injury or whether the extra funding input of 4.5 million dollars given last week to set up an extra viewing screen and public area of the waterfront for grand final viewing will fully satisfy the desires and appetites of spectators. There’s also something more than spring in the air – yes indeed tucked in behind all the ongoing dramas there’s politics in the air – there’s always politics in the air – and if the Rugby World Cup or spring brings headaches to us how much more does politics bring a headache and confusion to us or maybe sadly to many more a weary yawn.
In 6 weeks time we join with other citizens of this nation and by the casting of votes declare our point of view and choice in the form and texture of central government for the next three years.
How we respond has a great deal to do with our taking seriously our mutual responsibility to shape the kind of and ordering of New Zealand society and its relationships with local and global contexts.
Today through the lens of the Gospel reading we are given the opportunity to reflect on our involvement in the political process as we endeavour to relate our Christian confession to any political choices we might make.
The Gospel reading from the narrator known as Matthew provides us with opportunity for reflection. The portion read grants to us a glimpse of “Jesus the Politician” – not a run of the mill politician of the sort we might more easily recognise and be acquainted with but rather a politician exercising a distinctive kind of political involvement that emerged and was in complete harmony with his practice of living into the manner and being of God.
Rather than treat today’s read Gospel as an isolated incident in the life of Jesus I want to set today’s Gospel’s reading within the larger frame of Jesus’ total ministry.
From beginning to end the ministry of Jesus was and is political. Jesus displays through the witness of his daily living a refusal to divide life up into sacred and secular, spiritual and political. All of life is lived as being of one unity where God, the divine is to be found in every part of life.
How more political could his ‘maiden speech’ be to gathered members of the public than his opening address at the commencement of his public ministry – an address not recorded by Matthew but by the witness of Luke.
He stands in the synagogue in Nazareth and from the book of Isaiah reads...
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me.
He has sent me to announce good news to the poor, to proclaim
release for prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the
broken victims go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour. (Is 61)
Those who first heard this proclamation from Jesus would have been in little doubt that Jesus has uttered a political statement which if acted upon could affect every part of their life.
Those familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures, would have recognised that in his reading and subsequent teaching in the Nazareth synagogue that Jesus was declaring the visionary advent of a Jubilee Year. According to Jewish tradition each 50th year was to be marked and celebrated as a Jubilee Year. During that year all soil was to left fallow so the earth could be refreshed, all debts were to be set aside and regarded as having been paid, slaves were to be freed and returned to their original family circle, and all property bought during the preceding years was to be returned to the original owners.
The idea was that each 50 years injustices were to be righted and those for whom life had been harsh were to be given a fresh start.
There is no record of the Jews ever keeping the Jubilee but they retained the invitation in their scriptures as a portrayal of how they saw God’s vision for the ordering of anew society. It is like what some sociologists and historians call an imagined community (which is of course not the same as an imaginary community, like having an imaginary friend): an imagined community – the community of the human imagination, which allows you to ‘image’ and imagine yourself in a particular way, with consequences for the other communities that you are part of.
The Jubilee vision gave shape to the ministry of Jesus. It was an imagined community where life was to be so ordered in ways that accorded to the purposes of God. An imagined community where all come to enjoy an abundance of life and, all having a stake in society, live together in peace and harmony. A community – a polis – city – household – a society. One’s belonging as St Paul later spoke of in one of his letters as a politeia, a political unit wherein your citizenship was given from God – the new community of the new creation.
Early Christianity formed as a political unit after the manner of Jesus thus from the start said that, whatever may be the case in the political arrangements around you, there is another polis, another city, another political unit, in which whatever your status in this world, you have non-negotiable rights and dignities.
There is a human community, never mind the political arrangements around you, in which you have a voice, a gift to share; in which you have the dignity of being a decision maker and a capacity to build and sustain the environment in which you find yourself. The Hebrew word ‘Shalom’ perfectly encapsulates this: as British economist Hannah Skinner puts it,
Shalom is a powerful concept that describes God’s societal harmony, order,
blessing and prosperity. It describes the biblical vision of the ‘good life’. It
covers total wellbeing in all aspects of life and describes a situation of
abundance in which people have more than they need and communities
live in peace.
It is a new economics – the term “economy’ itself in its origins simply the word for “housekeeping”.
The vision and concern of Jesus was greater than could be captured by any political programme or party.
His politics and his economics were wider and deeper than that espoused by any of the groups who jockeyed for political power at the time. Jesus could not and would give to them the total allegiance which they demanded. His allegiance was solely to a vision of what the future could be imagined and enacted to be which came from the very heart of God.
The vision that we are given by God in Christ is larger than the policy of any particular group in any age. This means that though we may give our allegiance to a particular party or point of view, that allegiance must always be qualified by our greater obedience to the economics of God.
It seems to me that this is what the Gospel reading from Matthew this morning is pointing us towards.
It picks up one of the lively issues of political debate occurring among the Israelite people at the time of Jesus – significant that the question of taxes is still one of the issues of lively debate – the context changes – the issue stays alive.
The question posed to Jesus – should Jesus pay taxes to the Emperor Caesar or not? Some felt that to do so was to tacitly acknowledge the right of Rome to rule in Palestine.
All in all it was a trick question asked by those who sought to embarrass Jesus. If he said yes, he could be labelled a traitor and his hold on the people would be broken for to pay the taxes was regarded by many as the supreme indignity imposed by the Roman army of occupation.
If he answered no he could be arrested and charged with stirring up a rebellion against the government.
Jesus replies with equal cunning – give to the emperor what belongs to the emperor. Give to God what belongs to God. Tricky!
This is the phrase so used and dare I say by politician soften feeling uncomfortable and affronted with the church meddling in affairs that should not concern them. Such a view of course is based on the suggestion that Jesus advocated the dividing of life into separate worlds – one the world of Caesar – the world of true politics and economics – and the other the world of God – to do with just the spiritual aspects of life.
Look again at what Jesus is saying – render to God what belongs to God - well from a Hebraic view – all of life belongs to God. God has to do with the polis of life – the economics of the household – the personal, the communal, the public, the private, all that is part of the created world.
Jesus never really answered the question about taxes to the Emperor. In true form as the most skilful of politicians he left his hearers with much to think about in relation to the essence and ordering of life.
It is not possible to ever make a clear distinction between what belongs to God and what belongs to any Caesar of the age. God created and continues to create – all that makes up the whole thus belongs to God. All that is part of the common household carries with it essential moral obligations. Will all that is available as created resource for life be shared with and for the common good of all. Only then can a truly humane society begin to be enacted and become more than an imagined possibility.
Central to that vision was that of mutuality – a mutuality found in the sharing of the common good. The union of those who come to be identified with this Jesus politician has at its core an organic quality, a common identity shaped by the fact that each depends on tall others for their life. No element in this new polis – this household is dispensable or superfluous: what affects one affects all, for good and ill, sine both suffering and flourishing belong to the entire organism not to any individual or local grouping, party in dominant power.
The politics and lived actions of this Jesus make it quite explicit that the new polis – household of God cannot exist when certain categories of people are systematically excluded. It is an imperative that the wholeness of the community requires them to be invited.
If my wellbeing is inseparable in God’s community from the wellbeing of all others, any economic ethic for the ordering of the common good which takes for granted the indefinite continuance of poverty or disadvantage for others is surely then immoral to the heart of God’s economics and must not deserve our allegiance.
To ever separate our destiny from that of the poor of the nation or world, or from the rejected or disabled in our own context, is to compromise the destiny of God and to invite a life that is less than whole for ourselves as the created household of God.
Politics is indeed in the air – whenever is it not?
I’m going to attempt the impossible this morning. I’m going to try to get through this entire sermon without once mentioning Dan Carter’s groin…oh bugger! It will shock you as much as me to learn that there are bigger disasters afoot than whether or not our All Blacks will survive the quarterfinals today without him. I know this because this week I saw some of the first signs of spring: Posters and billboards popping up in local parks and along roadways in a cacophony of reds, blues and greens. Someone who isn’t into rugby – must be a Communist – told me it happens every three years. “It means a general election is coming up soon.” Being from America I said knowingly, “Oh, you mean in two years?” “No,” he said, “In a little more than six weeks.” Aghast, I said, “but the World Cup isn’t over for two week. If they win, there is at least another week of celebrating and if they lose there is a mandatory four-year period of mourning and recriminations. There isn’t time to have an election!” My knowledgeable friend nodded wisely, “Convenient, eh?” (Maybe he is a Canadian Communist). He then pointed out the obvious to me, since Americans can be a little thick, “Holding an election no one notices is the best kind for those in power.”
But I get it now. It is important that we find the time to notice, not just because it is a requirement of good citizenship. Today’s parable points out why. It calls us to come to the party. The kingdom of heaven is at stake.
On the face of it, Matthew tells us a terrible parable. It is his version of Luke’s parable of the wedding feast everyone is too busy to attend with a large dollop of gratuitous violence added in. Unlike Luke, Matthew has the king’s minions killed by the intended guests. The king promptly responds in kind and has his soldiers kill them and burn their cities. Just in case we aren’t repelled enough he then binds and throws out one of his guests who is not properly dressed. Jesus begins by saying we should compare this to the kingdom of heaven. He closes with the mysterious line, “For many are called but few are chosen.”
This parable gives biblical scholars more fits than All Black fans are having over Dan Carter’s…um…you know what. There are all kinds of efforts to reconcile this vengeful story with the storyteller, who is better known for telling us to love our enemies, not kill them. Most of their efforts I found convoluted and amusing, but there was one suggestion that made some sense. When Matthew told the story it was after Rome had destroyed the temple and much of Jerusalem during the Jewish Wars. For Jews this was an event as traumatic as the destruction of the Twin Towers on 9/11 was for us. It changed the world, as they knew it. It left them in shock. The suggestion is that Luke’s version was an earlier version that Matthew reinterpreted in light of that event. This interpretation suggests Matthew was challenging the idea that we need to accept and adjust to the present reality.
When Jesus said compare this story about a king giving a wedding party for his son with the kingdom of heaven, it was for us to contrast the way this world is against a world where love, hope, compassion and forgiveness reign. The king and his son are not an allegory for God and Jesus as often suggested. If they are an allegory at all, they are an allegory for the Empire. If Jesus is in the story at all he is the one cast out of the party. He is the one who stands in opposition to the present reality where the powers that be do unspeakable things. To stand up for justice, peace, and compassion for those on the margins is not going to endear anyone with the powerbrokers. Few are willing to pay the price of such rejection by speaking in opposition although we are all called to do so.
I saw the movie The Help this week. It is based on an excellent book by the same name. It tells the stories of black maids in Jackson, Mississippi who raised white people’s children and took care of their homes. There is one particularly painful scene. The mother of the storyteller confesses in shame to her daughter that she fired their maid of over 20 years. The reason? The maid’s daughter used the front door to enter the house instead of the back door when there were guests from a racist women’s group having a lunch there in the mother’s honour. Rather than be judged by their bigotry she cast out both the mother and daughter, who were like members of the family, into the outer darkness. Compare this to the kingdom of heaven.
In addition to this movie, Matthew’s parable and Dan Carter’s groin (Bugger!), I’ve also been confronted by Naomi Klein’s book, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. It is a very painful book to read that tells how Milton Friedman, a professor at the Chicago School of Economics, and his countless students over four decades have brought us to a world where unfettered capitalism is considered moral and in our best interest. Where it is considered acceptable that a very small percentage holds most of the wealth while the numbers in poverty continue to increase. Compare this to the kingdom of heaven.
Friedman’s vision of a perfect world was one not hampered by government taxes and regulations, unions, state owned assets, consumer protection laws, tariffs protecting local industries, social spending, public education, protection of natural resources, superannuation, government health care, or a minimum wage. The Chicago School of Economics has one article of faith. It is that the state’s sole function is to protect our freedom both from the enemies outside our gates and from our fellow-citizens. In other words, to supply soldiers to kill our enemies and police to cast out those in our midst who do not conform. Compare this to the kingdom of heaven.
Disciples of Friedman believe that we as a society would never rationally accept such a sweeping restructuring of the social contract unless we are shocked into it. They look at disasters that traumatise us as useful. When the tsunami hit Sri Lanka in 2004 and while people were still shocked and disoriented, developers gained access to coastal land. They built resort hotels for international tourists rather than rebuild the fishing villages that were the livelihood for the locals. Compare this to the kingdom of heaven.
When Hurricane Katrina levelled New Orleans Friedman wrote an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times saying it was an opportune time to “reform” education in the city. It was critical to strike quickly. The Bush administration was happy to oblige. The result 19 months later, while levees and the electrical grid waited to be rebuilt, public education in New Orleans was essentially decimated. Before Katrina there were 123 public schools and 7 private charter schools. After Friedman, only 4 public schools remained. The others were replaced by 31 private schools. The teacher’s union was shredded and 4700 teachers lost their jobs. Compare this to the kingdom of heaven.
When Mother Nature does not provide a crisis, any crisis will do – manufactured or real. New Zealand experienced this in 1984. In response to a monetary crisis Roger Douglas swiftly instituted a major restructuring or the economy in line with the doctrines of Milton Friedman. While for the more affluent these changes were seen as positive, 76,000 manufacturing jobs were loss. Unions were crippled. State assets were sold off. The cost of living rose. And to this day the gulf between rich and poor continues to widen. Compare this to the kingdom of heaven.
The list of crises created by advocates of an unregulated free market advantageous to multi-national corporations is long and onerous: Coups initiated by the CIA at the behest of multinationals in Indonesia, Chile, Brazil; Argentina cost millions of lives. “Shock and Awe” at the beginning of the Iraq War were straight out of the Friedman handbook to stun the Iraqi people into giving up their natural resources quickly and without resistance. The most recent crisis – the shocking meltdown of Wall Street, which has cruelly impacted the globe, has not stopped true believers in Friedman from gaining even more wealth at the expense of the common good. Compare this to the kingdom of heaven.
As important as Dan’s anatomy is at the moment, we need to pay attention to the signs of spring. There is a party going on that we need to attend. We need to engage and enquire. Our task is to compare those who would lead us with the kingdom of heaven. If necessary, we need to be amongst the few who do not conform to a world according to Friedman. It would be easier not to, but then, compare us to the kingdom of heaven.
Robert Capon once said, “We should play with Scripture and let Scripture play with us”. Well the parable today of the owner, the vineyard, and the dead son [i] is one of those that requires playing with. And there’s lots of precedence – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and the Gospel of Thomas all tell it and interpret it differently.
Rather than spend the next while describing those differences and trying to distil its ‘true’ meaning [if it has one], I ask you to consider the following piece of wisdom: God is a pretty dumb landlord.
Before the days of electronic banking the landlord would send a minion to collect the rent. God sent a bunch of them. They were beaten, killed, and stoned [maybe not in that order]. So landlord God, instead of seeking vengeance or even police assistance, sends another bunch of minions who, surprise surprise, get treated the same. Finally landlord God, sends not the ugliest, meanest dude he could find to kick their ass but his own son, Mr Pacifist Love-Your-Enemies Jesus. And, guess what, he too gets killed. As I said, God’s a pretty dumb landlord.
Now the story-tellers play around with the ending, but usually it has landlord God instigating an ass-kicking. Both listeners and gospel writers alike have this need for a revenge comeuppance ending, whereas I think the God revealed in Jesus does not share this need. Although many in the Church, as well as the rest of society, love a good dollop of judgement, the Way of Jesus was love, acceptance and healing.
So, back to the story: I think it’s about a dumb landlord who chooses to be in the ‘ways of the world’ deliberately dumb, or rather deliberately vulnerable, offering and continuing to offer reconciliation, cost what it may. In non-theistic language God is the energy of reconciliation and costly giving, not the energy of judgement and punishment.
This reflection is a prelude to the central question the Ten Commandments raises for me. For a long time the basis for Christian ethics was a supreme-being-God [an SBG] who issued laws and edicts, then rewarded or punished us depending on our compliance. If we no longer believe in such a God, and hold a critical light to any so-called divine laws, are we then ethically rudderless in the great ocean of modern life? Or put another way, what is the basis for Progressive ethics?
Our first reading, the Ten Commandments [ii], were allegedly written down by God and given, with much thunder and shakes, to Moses on Mt Sinai. A close look at those commandments reveals though, far from timeless ethical directives, they are a collection of tribal prejudices and stereotypes, reflecting the limited knowledge of the people who created them.
The first clue in the Bible that these were human rules rather than of divine origin is seen in the fact they were regularly violated when dealing with non-Jews. Commandment no.9, for example, forbids “bearing false witness”. Yet Moses did just that when he lied to Pharaoh saying the Israelites only wanted a three day holiday in the wilderness, when in actual fact they had no intention of coming back. Indeed according to Exodus 3:18 this lie was God’s idea!
Commandment no.6 says, “You shall do no murder”. But Joshua was said to have murdered five Canaanite kings (Josh 10:22-27). Samuel “hewed into pieces with the sword” a king called Agag, who was kept in a cave to await his executioner (1 Sam 1:32-33). God too was a murderer – ordering Israel in two wars to kill “every man, woman, and child” (1 Sam 15:1-13; Judges 21:8-13).
The one commonality in these morally repugnant episodes was that the recipients of these unethical behaviours were not Jewish. It seems the commandments were only to govern Hebrew intra-tribal relations and were not a universal code of conduct.
The second clue that these are commandments of human rather than divine origin is reflected in the patriarchal mentality that assumed a woman was the property of a man. This is overt in the last commandment: You shall not covet your neighbour’s house, wife, manservant, ox, ass, iPad…
There is no prohibition on coveting your neighbour’s husband! The reason is that a husband was not property, but a wife was. The neighbour was a male. His assets were listed in descending order, with his wife being second to his house, and hopefully more valued than his iPad.
Sexism is also implied in the command not to commit adultery. Remember this was a culture that practiced polygamy not monogamy. A man could own as many women as he could afford. What this commandment meant was that a man was prohibited from having sex with a woman who belonged to another man.
If a man had sex with an unmarried woman it was a crime against the property of her father that could be rectified with a fine. For the father had had his net worth devalued by this act since he could not get the proper ‘bride price’ for a daughter who was now ‘damaged goods’.
A code of ethics that treats some human beings as the property of others needs to be pronounced immoral and discarded.
The last clue that what we are dealing with in the Ten Commandments is a human rather than divine construction is that the code has been abandoned whenever it has become inconvenient. There are, for example, plenty of graven images around in church [think crucifixes, crosses, stained glass windows] and in society [think public sculpture, billboards, & art galleries]. Commandment no.2 is historically redundant.
Then there’s commandment no.3 “the Lord’s name in vain”. A civil contract is no longer required to be sworn “in the name of the Lord”, so that if broken the offending party would be guilty of “taking the Lord’s name in vain”. Today contracts are signed into legal documents and enforced by the courts. Without that defining context most people today think commandment 3 is about the words that escape when one’s toe collides with a rock or when the rich once again blame the poor. Those words might be blasphemous but they have nothing to do with “taking the Lord’s name in vain.”
For 1900 years Christians, other than the small group called 7th Day Adventists, have ignored commandment no.4 regarding the Sabbath, which is Saturday.
Then there are the complexities of interpreting those commandments that do seem to make some sense in our modern world. How does “murder”, for example, relate to abortion, euthanasia, and warfare? However desirable simplicity is the answers to this are not simple.
Given such limitations on the Ten Commandments or any other moral code allegedly delivered by a SBG, what then is the basis for our ethics?
I would posit two thoughts for your consideration:
Firstly, the data of human experience suggests that happiness, a coveted goal that most wish for, is found only when we seek the happiness and well-being of others as well as our own. Our individual well-being and the well-being of others, both known and unknown to us, is inextricably linked. From this interconnectivity follows notions of the dignity and rights of each and every human being, and the notion of respect and care for our environment.
Secondly, what enhances us as human beings is not just the well-being of others and our environment but responding to that which calls us beyond our limits. This is about affirming people in the quest to reach up to and beyond their potential. It is about broadening vision, welcoming new knowledge and understandings, and seeking to create a better, healthier home for all. The opposite of this is diminishing people, restricting knowledge, keeping everything the same, often because we are fearful of how their potential and power might lessen our own.
The spirit of reconciliation that is at the heart of the Gospel parable today, is about the cost of remaining in relationship, about the powerful using their power to be vulnerable. The health and hope of us all is interwoven.
None of us are truly alive, unless all of us are truly alive. None of us are free, unless all of us are free. None of us are saved, unless all of us are saved. These are highly offensive notions to the fearful. To keep the world under control they want to see sinners punished, they create a hell to put them in, and invent a God to do it.
I choose instead to stand with the author of 2 Timothy who once, brilliantly, wrote, “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and love and a sound mind” (1:7). So let’s use it.
[i] Matthew 21:33-46.
[ii] This part of the sermon on the Ten Commandments is dependent on Jack Spong’s work in Why Christianity Must Change or Die, chapter 10.
Anglicanism at its best tries not to be a club with a sign ‘True Believers Only’, not to be a club that rewards conformity, not to be a club that wields spiritual power over others, indeed not to be a club at all... Rather Anglicanism at its best tries to be a symbol: regardless of attendance, beliefs or the lack of them, and good works or not, all can and do belong in the ecology of God.
St Matthew’s takes its role as a symbol very seriously.
Our namesake was a tax collector. That meant three things in 1st century Palestine: Firstly he was a lackey of the Romans, traitorously siding with the oppressors. Secondly, he was an extortionist, demanding a surcharge – sometimes an astronomical surcharge – on his collections. He cheated the poor. Thirdly, he was a sinner, one who was outside religious law and teachings, and therefore in that culture outside God’s embrace.
Jesus’ inclusion of Matthew was offensive. Yet Jesus dined with him, the Church canonized him, and we named this place after him.
It is easy to imagine Matthew as tough, unyielding, hard, like rock. Yet even from a hard rock can come the refreshing, life-giving waters of grace. We just need to hold the door open to possibilities.
Our name, St Matthew, is symbolic. Those who don’t fit, those who offend others, those who are repugnant to the normal standards of decency, behaviour, and theology, are welcome. And if they are welcome then all are welcome. In God’s ecology all belong. Although of course some don’t want to fraternize with the likes of the Matthews, and stay well clear of us.
When wedding couples come, and they come here more than to any other church, I often ask ‘Why St Matthew’s?’ Given the glory of this building, and the wisdom and humility of its clergy, you might be surprised that the main reason is that they feel they won’t be judged.
Such inclusion also sends another message: this place is prepared to take risks. It is prepared to do things that other churches might not. It is prepared to open its doors to all manner of people and organizations, sacred and secular, and to laugh jubilantly, to love justly, and to live joyfully with the tensions and opportunities that brings.
Yet we do not take risks for the sake of being seen to be edgy. To paraphrase the Magnificat: I pray that the risks we take will always ultimately be for the purpose of pulling the mighty and their self-serving reasoning down from their thrones and lifting up the lowly, the ostracized, and the marginal.
Our building is also symbolic. Our forebears dreamed a big vision, of grace and splendor, of architectural lines that would lift the eyes and lift the soul. Raising the money was hard work. I imagine they might have been tempted to downsize, and to reduce their vision to the certainty of their savings. We do know that they never did put a spire on the top of the bell tower, and they never installed the organ.
They made a building that was beautiful, to the eye and to the ear, a place that would inspire, a sacred place for any and all. With the recent sad and shocking demise of Christchurch Cathedral, this building remains the one integrated neo-Gothic stone church remaining in our country.
Today we acknowledge the completion of this building with the installation of a 100% genuine Henry Willis organ, with some pipes old, some new, some borrowed, and some ‘blue’. It looks magnificent and sounds even better. It is a wonderful piece of art work in itself, even before it’s played.
But let’s be clear about its purpose: for beauty to the eye and ear is a sacred pathway, a means of opening the soul to that ultimate mystery we call God. Music is spiritual sustenance here, water in a parched land… Music can lift us, move us, open us… As the skeptic Kurt Vonnegut once said, “I don’t believe in God… but then there’s music”.
We give thanks today for the huge amount of work involved in planning, fundraising, refining, negotiating, building, and overseeing this project. Thank you all – all who gave a little and a lot, of money and of effort, and of hopes and prayers. Thank you.
We also will bless this morning the St Thomas Chapel; originally the Lady Chapel from the mission ship Southern Cross V built in 1903. In 1934 the Chapel was moved from the ship, amid some controversy, to St Thomas’ Freeman’s Bay. In 1963 that Church was deconsecrated in order for the motorway to proceed. The Chapel came to the basement of St Matthew’s. It has now been resurrected in the shape of its first manifestation aboard the ship.
That chapel represents for us the temerity, the passion, the controversy, and the Anglo-Catholic worship of the community of St Thomas’ Freeman’s Bay. Today we give thanks for that community and dream kept alive here in our midst.
Lastly we will bless a new kitchen, the old one now housing part of the new organ. Without a kitchen our ability to offer hospitality in this house of prayer is severely limited.
Some of course don’t like us offering food and drink in a house of prayer. Yet hospitality is not just a courtesy, or a marketing ploy, but rather an essential element of what we symbolize. To be hospitable is not only to welcome friend and stranger but also to be willing to be changed by that interaction.
Hospitality is therefore a spiritual discipline. It is to welcome people here, without judging them, confident in our kawa, and receptive to all the promise and challenge they bring. Hospitality is keeping the door ajar so the possibility of God can always come in.
So, on this day of glad celebration and thanksgiving, acknowledging those who have gone before in this place and in St Thomas’, let us remember Matthew – all the Matthew’s – and be a place, not only of beauty, music, and prayer, but also of indiscriminate hospitality, risky engagement, and siding with the marginal. Let us be a place that symbolizes that all belong in the ecology of God.
Most of you don’t know this about me, but I struggle with greed and that means, I love money. I absolutely love love love it. I love money. There I said it, I’m out of the closet now… again. This pulpit does that to me.
But what you probably don’t know is that I don’t come from a privileged background. And I think when you don’t come from privilege and every day is a struggle and you don’t have the things you need, you make a vow to yourself that when you grow up things will be different. And we didn’t, we didn’t have much (many) servants growing up. I can remember many ‘a night going to bed without eating (dessert) when cook was away. And there were times when we had to live in very cramped quarters. My brother and I had to, at one point, share a small wing of a home for a few months when renovations were being done on the other wings of our family’s holiday home. It was, it was devastating and I think it made me say ‘as God is my witness, I will never go hungry for dessert again, and I will never be forced to live in a small wing of a house again.’
And when I say I’m greedy, I don’t mean I want to be like Oprah rich, gosh no, that’s like God-rich, but maybe like John Key rich, that’s a reasonable kind of wealth I think. But the problem with being rich is…getting the money; I mean that’s a big part of it, having the money. You all know I work here in the church as the events manager. And I just can’t see the work of the Lord becoming extremely lucrative for me here. I mean it’s just not going to happen.
So I think when you want something good to happen in your life, the first place to start is by listening to what other people who have achieved that goal have to say about how they did it. And so I listen to Oprah a lot, not John Key so much. Oprah’s amazing and like I said she’s God-rich so she knows what she’s talking about. Oprah says to think positive. If you want to be wealthy, positive thinking can help attract the money to you. It’s like a magnet. She say’s to live in the world as if it is the way you want it to be. And I want to live in a world where I am rich.
So I’ve started doing that. I’ve been thinking positive and living in the world the way I want it to be. So I recently applied for… maybe it was like 10 credit cards. And I’ve gone shopping and have purchased all the Spring lines from Dolce & Gabanna and Versace and Dior and I bought some of that monogrammed Louis Vuitton luggage for my holiday in the islands and of course I’m wearing Prada today. And for the past few months I’ve been spending up large, and l have to tell you I have been walking on air feeling really super positive and good about myself like my dreams of great wealth might actually come true. I’ve been living in the world the way I want it to be. And I thought this was really working for me.
But then I got credit card bills in the mail, because banks send them like immediately, and I was feeling really gutted. And for the first time, I started doubting myself and doubting my goals. And I thought to myself now is not the time to ignore Auntie Oprah’s advice, think positive. And when I said that to myself, the answer just came to me. So what I did was I applied for more credit cards and of course the banks gave them to me, and I transferred the debt on the first cards to the new cards. And now the first cards are totally paid off!! And so to celebrate my new savvy way of attracting money, I went shopping again. But then more bills came. So I’m having to re-evaluate my strategy because maybe I’m not doing it right or maybe I’m not thinking positive enough, only Auntie Oprah knows.
And then I remembered that God helps those who help themselves and it doesn’t actually say that in the Bible but I don’t care, I believe it’s true. If more poor people like me would just help themselves by becoming money magnets, the world would be a better place. So I am sorry to say, I’m having to seriously rethink my job situation here at the church. And I know that in some churches in America you can get rich by preaching. I don’t want to move back to America, so then someone said to me, “we have places like that in New Zealand where you should go be a preacher, it’s quite lucrative.” But then they said you get a ring, and you have to, all the men have to be promised or kind of like married to the pastor like in a sort of, in a gay way, but it’s not gay, I don’t know, I don’t really understand it. But its not gonna work for me, my partner’s incredibly jealous and besides they said you have to pay for the ring yourself. And I’m trying to get money without spending it now so that’s not going to be an option for me.
I mean, I know what you’re thinking, Jesus said something about money being the root of all evil or something to that effect but he frankly, in my opinion, wasn’t very clear and in all fairness to me, he couldn’t possibly have understood the fashion pressures on the gays of today. I mean, not only are we expected to look better than straight people, we’re supposed to do it on the same incomes as them and… it’s impossible. And times are hard, there’s no denying that. I know one friend who recently had to buy… ’off- the- rack’… just last month because of the recession. Times are hard and people are fearful about Spring and even Summer wardrobes and it’s all looking pretty grim. And I pray sometimes at night, how long O Lord how long will your people ‘the gays” suffer, O God?
But it didn’t seem to be all bad news. I discovered a Christian movement in America called the Prosperity Movement whose principles I can use here in New Zealand so I don’t have to move back to America. And it works under the doctrine that God indeed wants us Christians to be rich! You and I, God wants us to be rich! Ok, they don’t use the word ‘rich’, they say “prosperous”… however you define that. I define prosperous as rich and if God wants that for me, well…
So I was thinking of joining this movement but then I read the parable that was our Gospel reading this morning. I’ve got to tell you, it just completely; I don’t know… it bummed me out? It’s depressing! Peasant people in the Bible are depressing – DE-PRESS-ING. I mean, it’s all about the living conditions, about having enough food to eat, living on less than one denarius a day blah blah blah. It just goes on and on and on. And I think if I was a rich landowner in Jesus’ time, how could I be expected to enjoy my God-given wealth with all that complaining going on in the background?
But one minister in the Prosperity Movement said that he encourages his congregation to help the poor by… not becoming one of them. When he said this, I thought I was having another Oprah moment; that my eyes were suddenly opened wide to the Gospel again. What better way to help the poor than by not becoming one of them? But the fact is, I think my conscience is finally getting the better of me. Your prayers must be working.
So where is the seriousness in this so-called sermon? It’s all pretty serious if you ask me. Greed is serious business. But I hope this morning that you can see the message embedded, albeit very deeply, in the satire – that you can see it for the social critique it is meant to be. What if we are being asked in our parable to consider that maybe this isn’t a story about a generous landowner, or even a representation of what equality and fairness should look like in the kingdom of heaven? What if the parable is a social critique?
Jesus starts out the parable, “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner…” We often hear Jesus say in the Gospels that the kingdom of heaven is at hand, it is here and now and in first century Palestine, the Kingdom of Heaven was indeed like a landowner.
Landowners were members of the elite urban class. Many of them profited off of the misfortune of the poor sometimes seizing peasant farm land when a farmer defaulted on his debt repayments. So the problem with interpreting this parable in the typical way is that the landowner is usually interpreted as a symbol for God. The original hearers of this parable however, peasants themselves, would have understood that the term ‘landowner’ was functioning as a symbol of the oppressive elite.
Furthermore, we have to be mindful that Jesus lived in an honour/shame culture. The fact that the landowner wants the first hired labourers to see what the last hired labourers were receiving in payment is a challenge to the first their honour. In other words, the landowner humiliates them by conducting this transaction in front of them. When they grumble, the landowner uses a condescending form of the word ‘friend’ to insult their honour again this time by saying he can do what he likes with his money and ‘his’ land. Jesus’ audience would have seen the scandal of this as the land belonged to Yahweh and no one else.
There are many more reasons why I don’t accept the typical interpretation of this parable. I hope you will take this parable away with you and wrestle with it yourself. There is a great Jewish tradition of arguing with the teacher and I quite frequently argue with Jesus.
Most of us want just want to live comfortably. I don’t think there’s any shame in that. I think for our purposes we need to be alert that that comfort is not coming at the expense and the pain of others. We would do well to remember the kingdom of heaven is not a place, it’s a way of being, of behaving, it’s acting responsibly here and now. We’ve inherited the responsibility to make the kingdom visible and to critique the powers of greed and oppression whether we do that through satire or through parables but always, always doing it to bring about the kingdom.
In closing, I actually did grow up quite poor and I’m not actually as greedy as I pretend to be. The above was just satire…mostly. But if you particularly liked the sermon today, or… if you just feel sorry for me because you didn’t, please… don’t hesitate to send a wee little something my way. You can get my bank details from the church office. Thank you.
It is a somewhat canny coincidence that today, the anniversary of 9/11, with the huge tragedy of 2,753 people dying in New York ten years ago, and the huge ramifications of that event as the George Bush gang sought justice through the barrels of guns, we have as our Gospel text a story that questions our presumptions about what is just, what is right, and is what the King/President does really what God would do?
There are some stories best described as a riddle. They are designed to make us think. They are designed to make us feel uncomfortable and make us question. And they don’t always finish with “and they all lived happily ever after”.
Some stories in our Bible are like this. However, because they were told long ago, and in a different land and culture, we often don’t hear the riddle. We take them at face value. We take them literally. And, when they seem to clash with our understanding of the world, we hit delete and send them to the recycle bin.
The story in Matthew 18:21-35, sometimes called “The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant”, is a case in point. It is usually told as a cautionary tale: A king forgives a debtor a large amount, but the debtor in turn does not forgive a fellow debtor a small amount. The debtor’s colleagues, upset by his actions, tell the King, and the King sends the unforgiving debtor off to be tortured. The lesson: Forgive as you have been forgiven, or else…
This is how the Matthew, the editor-in-chief of this gospel, seemed to understand this story. He gives his own personal interpretation in v.35 “So my heavenly Father will also do to everyone of you if you do not forgive…” Yes, you heard right, Matthew equates the King with God, and tells us that God will torture us if we’re don’t forgive!! Like I said there are times to hit the delete button.
Note what I’m saying about composition. The Biblical writers, unfortunately, didn’t follow modern ethical writing practices and tell us their sources. Matthew drew upon many sources for his gospel, written and oral, and stitched those contributions together using his own thread, and often some of his own cloth. In this case it is relatively easy to identify Matthew’s threads and ‘new cloth’ because it is starkly different from the ‘old cloth’.
Take, for example, the torture bit. The word torture appears right at the end of the parable and is the ‘give the game away’ clue if we haven’t by that stage caught on. Wake up George Bush neo-con fan club: you might be into water boarding, but Jesus isn’t!! Jesus, like his Jewish audience, is not into a God who tortures. Jesus, like his Jewish audience, is not into a king who tortures people. It was people like Pilate, Roman overlords, and their sadistic lackeys who did the torture thing. And, despite the furnace fantasies of the hell-fire brigade, the Christian Church does not believe in a God of torture. So, we have a riddle here: why include torture in the story?
Let’s start with the King. Traditionally Jewish stories do equate a king with God – and there are a number of stories in our Bible like that. But this one doesn’t [despite Matthew’s piece of ‘new cloth’ right at the end]. Rather the King is equated with, or symbolizes, a way of justice. This parable is all about radically questioning that way of excessive retributive justice.
Our first clue is its mismatch with Peter’s question [v.21]. Peter asks, “…how often should I forgive?” “Seventy times seven”, says Jesus, meaning forever and ever. Yet in the parable the King only forgives once. Not forever and ever. The King, unlike Jesus and unlike Jesus’ God, is not into repeated forgiveness [i] or mercy. He lashes out at the first failure!
Our second clue is the milieu of the story. Imagine grand scale revenue gathering. Imagine super-rich king, ten times richer than any king you know. That’s what the 10,000 talents of silver [v.24] indicate. King Herod’s total annual collection for Palestine was only 900 talents! The King hands out the tax collecting job to the highest bidder who then, after adding on his percentage, subcontracts out the actual work to others. Imagine the money this highest bidder deals in. The parable's Jewish audience knew all the money and tax collecting talk meant only one thing: Empire; a Roman, gentile empire; ruled, of course, by a Roman gentile ‘king’.
Our third clue is found in the way the King acts. When the highest bidder couldn’t deliver on his promise the King ordered him to be sold along with his wife, kids, and possessions. From a Jewish perspective it highlights gentile cruelty, since Jewish law forbade the sale of wife and children to settle a husband’s debts. From our perspective it is further evidence that the King is a gentile and is certainly not a Jewish God!
Up to now the audience is lapping this up. Poking fun at the high and mighty, at the overlords, and the pagan gentiles, is great sport. They snigger when the highest bidder, the chap we will later call the unforgiving servant, ‘worships’ [read grovels] to the King saying he will repay. No Jew would grovel like that. An audience loves to laugh at those who are different. They love stories that don’t put them on the spot. They are though often blind to their own prejudices.
The King’s pitying of the servant, though, is unexpected. The audience says, “Huh?” Forgiveness for failure doesn’t fit. This isn’t justice! Whatever will come next?? The consistency of the audience’s superiority to the gentile characters is disturbed.
But that consistency is not disturbed for long. The forgiven servant goes out and grabs one his colleagues by the throat demanding that he cough up the little he owes or else. The audience is back on safe ground. “Typical gentile bully”, they might have said to one another. “See how these pagans treat one another!”
In the story, offstage, other tax collectors have seen all this. They’ve seen the King forgiving. They’ve seen the forgiven servant go and demand money from a fellow tax collector who couldn’t pay and then send that colleague to jail. These offstage tax collectors are outraged. The story’s audience joins in that feeling of outrage. “Injustice has happened!” “He should have forgiven his mate, like the King did to him!” So the fellow tax collectors, and in spirit the audience, takes the unforgiving servant to the King. The King, too, shares in this feeling of outrage and injustice.
Yet here at the finale of the story the sympathy of the audience shifts. Instead of usual gentile punishment for debts the servant is sent to suffer forever at the hands and sick minds of torturers. The harshness of the punishment disturbs the audience’s sense of what is just. This is not like justice. Imagine instead of getting his hands tied the offender gets a hand chopped off! “Whoa!” we say. “Hang on a minute mate!” In 9/11 speak: it is one thing to seek justice for 2,753 killed, it’s another to initiate wars of vengeance that have so far killed at least 920,000 people. [ii]
Actually it wasn’t the torture that the audience found most disturbing; it was a King who changed his mind. Remember the King originally forgave the debtor. His debt was cleared. But it obviously wasn’t forgotten. When the debtor transgressed against a colleague, the King heard of it and un-cleared the debt.
So, the theological question is not just whether the God of Jesus is into excessive punishment and torture. It is also whether the God of Jesus forgives but doesn’t forget. When we are forgiven is it conditional on our continuing to be good? If it is, bearing in mind how many mess-ups we can make, are any of us ever really forgiven? What’s all this talk about unconditional love and forgiveness then?
When a 1st century oriental king goes back on his word, when he takes back his forgiveness and reinstates the original debt, the ordered Hellenistic world threatens to fall apart. If a king can take back his forgiveness who is safe? Justice requires a system that is perceived as fair, where there is cause and effect, and where the rules are consistent.
This is a story that challenges us. It asks us whether we are prepared to take seriously the tasks of healing the wrongs in our community. Like-for-like justice might satisfy our desire for vengeance but it doesn’t restore community well-being, and it sure doesn’t build a safer world. We need our leaders to model compassion, so that by offering hope to offenders hope is offered to us all.
The story also challenges us regarding whose job justice is. It is tempting to want to leave justice to a judge, a President, a King, or a God – and then criticize them when they don’t do what we want. The transformation needed to build a just community involves us all. Tougher sentences and more and bigger prisons are signs of failure – failure to listen, initiate change, and help one another. They are the failure of community. Instead of solely relying on some tough judge, or higher authority, we need to get involved. Justice is the job of us all.
Yet forgiveness is hard work. It’s not a simple matter of one saying “Sorry”, and the other, “You’re forgiven, let’s get together, and we’ll forget about it.” Forgiving someone who has used violence, for example, involves a process of protection, education, and reconciliation for the community.
A primary school teacher once explained it well to her students. She