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.
[ii] Juliet Batten Celebrating the Southern Seasons
[iii] Christina Rossetti Love Came Down At Christmas
Preaching to the Choir
December 11, 2011
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.
Are You There God? It's Me E.T.
November 20, 2011
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.
Tell Them All to Come Back
November 13, 2011
Pentecost 21 Matthew 25:1-13
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.
Jesus the Politician
October 16, 2011
Pentecost 18 Matthew 22:15-22
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.
What the Bleep Do I Know - A Journey to Wealth & Back?
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 took a block of wood and hammered a nail in it. She said, ‘Every time I hit this I want you to think of a time you shunned or verbally abused or physically abused somebody. She pounded away at the nail. Then she pulled the nail out and said, “This is the ‘I’m sorry.’ But,” she asked, “What are we going to do with the hole that’s still left in the wood? When you hurt another person you make a hole in that person that saying ‘I’m sorry,’ doesn’t fix.” [iii]
There needs to be the ‘I’m sorry’, but, in addition, steps to keep it from happening again, and an offering to the person hurt in order to aid their healing. There needs to be resolution, restitution, and reconstitution of the relationship.
This parable is also a story that does not tell us what God is like. It does say God is not like the King. When the King in the story [at the servants’ request] repays violence with excessive violence it results in theological crime not transformed community. But the parable doesn’t spell out what God would do. How would God, sitting in the King’s stead, treat the unforgiving servant? Would God just say, “I forgive you” and let him go?
I prefer not to think of God as a being sitting or saying anything. I think of God, in this instance, as a transformative energy that is present 24/7 [or 70 x 7] when people work at forgiveness: mixing justice and mercy, consequences and compassion, in order that hope and healing happens in the community.
In the interpretation of this parable I have relied heavily on the work of Bernard Brandon Scott Hear Then The Parable: A commentary on the parables of Jesus (Minneapolis,: Fortress, 1989).
[i] In Luke 17:4 the parable is not connected with Peter’s question. Did Matthew purposefully insert it, or Luke purposefully leave it out?
There is a story I’ve told on appropriate occasions over the years and most recently at the Diocesan Synod this weekend that bears repeating in light of today’s Gospel, for the longer I’m in this business the truer I know it to be:
A young rabbi found a serious problem in his new congregation. During the Friday service, half the congregation stood for the prayers and half remained seated, and each side shouted at the other, insisting that theirs was the true tradition. Nothing the rabbi said or did moved toward solving the impasse. Finally, in desperation, the young rabbi sought out the synagogue's 99-year-old founder. He met the old rabbi in the nursing home and poured out his troubles. "So tell me," he pleaded, "was it the tradition for the congregation to stand during the prayers?" "No," answered the old rabbi." Ah," responded the younger man, "then it was the tradition to sit during the prayers?" "No," answered the old rabbi. "Well," the young rabbi responded, "what we have is complete chaos! Half the people stand and shout, and the other half sit and scream." "Ah," said the old man, "that was the tradition."
We can infer from today’s reading that conflict in the church may be one of our oldest traditions as well. The fledgling Matthean community appears to have been struggling with how to resolve differences in a “Christian” manner. The conflicts must have been threatening enough that Matthew chose to attribute to Jesus the means of suppressing them. Or maybe Jesus did suggest this approach, but not for a church he did not envision or found, but for the community of disciples that travelled with him. However, I have my doubts. What seems more probable to me is that Matthew took a teaching by Jesus to treat those we are in conflict with respect but didn’t stop there. He went on to give power to church leaders to rid themselves of those in their midst who did not conform or to at least intimidate them into silence. Religion and diversity are rarely comfortable with each other.
My skepticism that Matthew is reflecting Jesus’ approach to conflict is triggered by Jesus’ appreciation of diversity as seen in the company he kept that included tax collectors and gentiles, his willingness to be a controversial thorn in the side of those who were protectors of the religion of his day, and his unwillingness to use power in place of love to transform.
I suspect Jesus’ willingness to speak truth to power would not be welcomed in most “Christian” congregations then or now. I can see churchwardens throughout the ages, following Matthew’s approach, taking Jesus aside at morning tea to suggest that his disruptive behavior is unchristian and is not going to be tolerated any longer. Understanding that fear, not hate, is the opposite of love he would not have been cowed into submission by that conversation. It is likely they would not have been pleased by his loving response. They might have even threatened to call a general meeting of the congregation to censor him, much to Jesus’ amusement.
In my experience, congregations, and certainly clergy (including yours truly) are not fond of conflict, but you wouldn’t know it by our behaviour.
There is a wonderful Greek word, adiaphora that in a Christian context means “those things not necessary for salvation.” Anglicans particularly enjoy fighting over adiaphora. My favourite example is from the years just prior to the Civil War in America. At their General Convention, Anglicans fought loudly over whether or not it was permissible to put flowers on the altar while avoiding altogether the debate raging outside the church’s stained glass windows over the morality of slavery.
I have often wondered what is the appeal of fighting over adiaphora. After many such battles I have come to the conclusion that such squabbles channel conflict that is inherent to any relationship or community in a direction that won’t fundamentally transform it. In other words, such conflict is the friend of the status quo. They keep us from confronting things that matter in terms of the Gospel.
During our immersion in grandchildren on our holiday we heard plenty of squabbles over adiaphora, as you might imagine. Who gets to decide on what to watch on TV? What time is bedtime? What fast food restaurant are we going to stop at on road trips? Whose turn is it to play with granddad’s iPad? None of these squabbles, no matter how they were resolved at the time, changed anything. I know this because the next day those squabbles were all repeated.
But I don’t want to pick on kids. While in North America I got to watch up close and personal “grown-ups” squabble over raising the debt ceiling of the US government. It was a manufactured conflict that had the potential of doing great harm and did do some, but it changed nothing. It was adiaphora. It was a distraction from changing the status quo. No new jobs were created by it.
Squabbles over adiaphora make it seem all conflict is bad; something to be avoided. But conflict can be the energy behind creativity; the engine of evolution; the seasoning in human diversity; the propellant to self-understanding. Without it there would be no peace. Without it there would be no justice.
This weekend the Auckland Diocese held its annual synod to conduct its business. In recent years the Synod hasn’t even summoned up the energy to fight over adiaphora. But this year, thanks in large part to your response to Geno’s exclusion from the discernment process there were two resolutions submitted guaranteed to generate creative conflict. Glynn submitted both and Margaret Bedggood seconded the first. The first concerned removing sexual orientation and being in a committed same-sex relationship as impediments to the discernment, ordination and licensing of gay and lesbian members to any lay or ordained offices.
The second called for rejection of the proposed Anglican Covenant, which gives authority over all jurisdictions in the Communion to a Standing Committee dominated by Primates. This would not only fundamentally change Anglicanism; it is a thinly veiled attempt to provide a means of punishing the provinces in the Communion that no longer discriminate against its gay and lesbian members.
As I prepared this sermon I did not know the outcome. But the outcome is not critical to my point about conflict. However, I now know that Anglicans in Auckland by significant margins want the General Synod to reject the Anglican Covenant and do want to end discrimination against those in the GLBT community in a committed relationship who seek ordination.
With Jesus as my example, I challenge us to welcome conflict that is about transformation. Without conflict the results this weekend would not have happened. Conflict isn’t the problem but how we conduct it. Or as one preacher put it, “Conflict is inevitable, combat is optional.” [i]
At the end of today’s Gospel is something else Jesus didn’t say, but which I think the disciples discovered very early on was true, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
When Jesus is amongst us and not being tossed from the congregation as disruptive we will not treat our opponents as the enemy ascribing to them motives meaner than our own. We will listen and seek to understand, building bridges, not burning them. We will pursue profound questions rather than seek practical answers. We will stop trying to correct the faults of others and work on our own. We will welcome diversity, justice and peace. We will be more creative by letting go of fighting the existing reality to build a new one that makes the present one obsolete.
Creative conflict gives us the opportunity to unleash God on the world and in our lives.
Today after the service we are meeting as a congregation not to consider where we stand today or stood yesterday, but to envision the direction we wish to move. May it not focus on adiaphora but making Jesus present to a world desperate for his love embodied in us. To do so will likely invite conflict, but let us embrace it. Let that be what future generations say is our tradition.
I was walking down Queen St recently and heard that old chorus – familiar from my days (45 years ago) on the fringes of Pentecostalism! I cringe now at the blood imagery – and it’s good to know that there’s much less blood now in mainline churches... despite the Passover story we hear in a few weeks from Exodus that provides the ‘blood of the lamb’ image.
But the power imagery certainly remains...
The God of Power
We continue to use overarching power images in our thinking and talking about God – with their roots, I suggest, back in ancient ‘sky-god’ mythology.
Explorers of myth and imagery, like Mircea Eliade, see this powerful ‘sky-god’ as present during the Stone-Age, a response to fear in the face of the unknown. Then, as I read it, there’s a shift around 8000 years ago to emphasise the life-energy of the ‘earth-mother’ goddess, ensuring harvest success in the move from hunter-gatherer communities to earth-based agricultural societies. As our religious traditions grew, beginning somewhere around 3000 years ago, both these sets of images were drawn on, and are woven in different ways into the God-pictures we still use.
It seems to me that both the sky-god and the earth-mother portray power – one: commanding, controlling and intervening from a distance; the other: energising life in an engaged co-operative manner. I think we still want a powerful god, who can rescue us from the dangers in and around us – and often we choose the powerful intervening god, rather than the close-by god who talks to Moses, or is experienced as life-giving divine energy. God-images can portray power, I suggest, as either overarching control or as energy within us. Both work.
My concern is that the images of controlling power tend to predominate. They’re there in our language: Almighty... Father... Lord... (in both our readings today)... Glory... (in Matthew). These power images remain in part because the systems that shape and preserve our imagery and our social frameworks want to preserve them – they protect them from their fears and they validate the exercise of power by those systems, and by those with leadership within them. Along with a number of social commentators, I would contend that many social and political structures have been predicated on the hierarchical imagery of the powerful sky-god and ‘his’ priests (after all, that’s what ‘hierarchy’ means). God’s power is ‘given’ to the structure as God’s agent, with leaders exercising that power on behalf of the organisation and God. It’s not usually spelt out like that these days, but I’m convinced that the underlying images and assumptions function in that way: commanding, controlling, intervening power from the safe distance of ‘top of the tree’ and with institutional protection.
The Church’s Power
Our community of faith, the Christian church, has (I’m afraid to say) mostly functioned in this way through its history. The theological ‘truth’ we hold to is largely the set of ideas held by the victors in ideological or ecclesial battles: those who won the debate insisted their view was the only view – and it becomes ‘God’s truth’. (Just read about the Council of Nicaea and how its decisions about Jesus’ relationship with God were made.) Power, in one form or another – and often hand in hand with political manoeuvring – has shaped many of our church positions on both belief and ethics.
An early triumph was the imagery of the controlling power-God over the earth-centred energising-God (though the suppressed view did continue underground, in common belief and practice, as in Celtic Christianity). This Almighty Father God then combined with a philosophical view that saw the world through a set of rigidly structured ideas. As a result, our Christian communities have tended to function very hierarchically, with control over our ‘correct’ beliefs and ‘right’ actions – plus a determination to protect the church, as belonging to God.
I know from my experience how hard it then is for a person in leadership to ‘break ranks’, to make a decision that goes against the prevailing so-called consensus, or that others fear might threaten the institution. The current bishops’ decision not to ordain gay and lesbian persons at present in our church is a case in point: upsetting the ‘anti-gay’ lobby is judged politically to be a threat to hierarchical power and could divide the church. It’s not about what is right, theologically or ethically (or even legally), but about what is expedient in retaining the existing power balances. Adherence to controlling-power images for God can lead to distortions of truth and of right action.
The Truth: “Out of Oppression...”
The core of what I’m suggesting this morning is that if we are to proclaim truth that brings life and freedom and wholeness to all (Jesus’ message surely), then we should be careful with our power images. If we – individually, as congregations, as the whole church – are to act out gospel ethics, then it’s my view that all our language and images need to express liberty and life, renewed energy and ongoing hope.
I think the words God speaks to Moses in today’s reading contain the core of Judeo-Christian truth: the people must be brought out of oppression. That’s where truth lies. As with Moses, our actions can entwine with the divine energy around us to help that happen.
The leadership given by this community of St Matthew in the City in exposing ‘white collar crime’ portrays this: conforming to canon law, retaining solidarity with episcopal colleagues, protecting the institution – all that is meaningless ‘untruth’ while oppression and exclusion remain for gay and lesbian members of our church. We do not need a God whose power commands and controls from a distance, and unconsciously sustains the power of institutions and their leaders.
Jesus talks of the danger of ‘gaining the whole world’ but ‘forfeiting your life’ – seeking wealth and power at the cost of integrity and truth. Our task as the community of Jesus’ followers is to challenge hierarchies of control, and to speak and act in ways that lead out of oppression into full life. That’s the truth.
So let’s be careful with the power imagery we use as Christians – sung or not! Let’s focus on images of God-energy, energising us all to work for a world of freedom and truth.
There was once a mother, who gave birth to a child in secret, placed him in a basket of bulrushes sealed with bitumen, and cast the basket adrift on the river. It so happened that the child was miraculously found, rescued, and rose to become the king.
So is told the origins of Sargon of Akkad in 2300 BCE [i], a thousand years before Moses.
The Moses birth narrative is part of the legendary liberation of the Hebrews from Egypt, a land in which they had been allegedly treated like slaves. The story is well-known. Pharaoh was reluctant to let the people of Israel go, so to force his hand, their God sent ten fearful plagues upon the Egyptians. The Nile was turned to blood; the land ravaged by locusts and frogs; and finally all first born Egyptian sons were killed by divine edict.
It is not difficult for us today to understand how a community living by a river delta could be afflicted by algal blooms, plagues, and disease, and how such things could in time be ascribed to a deity in retribution for human actions and be woven into a mythical story.
That mythical story continues with Pharaoh then acceding to the Hebrews’ request but later changing his mind. His army chased the exiting Israelites and caught up with them at the Sea of Reeds. There God opened the sea allowing the ‘chosen’ Israelites safe passage and drowning the Egyptian army.
There is considerable debate in the academic community about whether any of this happened, including whether Moses existed and whether even one tribe of Israelites once resided in Egypt. There is a 13th century text of the Pharaoh Ramses II who mentions apiru in building operations, but this term seems to refer to a social class rather than an ethnic group. Was this Exodus episode a successful peasant’s revolt and Moses a trade union leader? If it was it would have been a rare occurrence at the time and made a lasting impression.
There is one mention of Israel in an Egyptian text dated about 1230 but it is referring to Israel as a people encountered by the Egyptians in Canaan [read modern day Palestine]. There were a number of tribes, who in time came to constitute the Hebrews, living in the Egyptian West Asiatic Empire – which included Canaan – that collapsed around the 13th century. That collapse may well have given a sense of liberation to minorities within the Empire and may even have facilitated the physical movement of some of those peoples.
I think the bigger problem is not the historical accuracy but what the story says about God. God is portrayed as a murderous tribal deity who has little compassion for anyone but his own favourites. Surprising as it may seem, in time the Israelites would transform this God into a symbol of transcendence and compassion. And yet this one-eyed, vengeful God is continually resuscitated and brought out of antiquity whenever we want a deity who is unequivocally on our side.
The notion of God is particularly vulnerable to being exploited and abused. The myth of a ‘Chosen People’ and a divine election has often inspired a narrow, tribal theology from the time of the Exodus author [ii] writing in the 7th century BCE right up to the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim fundamentalism that are unfortunately rife in our own day. [iii]
I think one of our tasks today is to talk about our bias, broadly defined by the lived theology of Jesus, towards those on the margins of our society without demonizing those who disagree with and oppose us. If we believe God is that spirit of justice and compassion who takes the side of the most vulnerable, then we need to also hold to the belief that the spirit’s purpose in taking sides is to bring us all into an equitable community where everyone is valued and loved.
This last week we have farewelled our former Governor-General and Bishop, Sir Paul Reeves, a great friend of St Matthew’s. In the funeral speeches there was plenty of recognition of his ability to listen, laugh, and build bridges between people. However you don’t build a bridge by standing in the middle. And Sir Paul definitely stood on one side, or rather with those relegated to the sidelines, like women, Maori, gays and lesbians...
Speaking of women let’s return to the Moses birth narrative, for its real importance is not its historical accuracy – the story-tellers having probably borrowed a well-known miracle-birth scenario – but its extolling of courage. Courage is the word I use for faith. It’s also a good word to use for God. God is experienced when we act with courage on behalf of the vulnerable.
The difference between the account of Sargon’s birth and Moses’ are five women. Firstly there’s Shiphrah and Puah, Hebrew midwives. Pharaoh wanted them to murder the male babies. Shiphrah and Puah however refused. The penalty for refusing would have been death. When summoned by Pharaoh, they lied: “The Hebrew women are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes.” Shiphrah and Puah were health professionals in the best sense of that title, putting the needs of their patients before the dictates of their overlord. Honesty is sometimes not the best policy. Saving children takes precedence.
We are next introduced to Moses’ mother, Jochebed [Ex 6:20], and his sister, Miriam [Num 26:59]. Bravery is again to the fore. After his birth Jochebed hides Moses in her house for three months, stifling every little cry for fear that a neighbour or stranger might betray them. Then, in time, the family decides to place baby Moses in a basket, down by the riverside – ironically fulfilling Pharaoh’s requirements that babies be thrown in the river! There Miriam stayed and watched over her brother. Note the courage of Miriam when the Egyptian Princess finds Moses: coming forward, rather than scuttling off, and bravely offering a wet nurse [i.e. her mother] for the babe.
The Princess could have easily have had the baby thrown into the deep. It would also have been easy to surmise, or see, the connection between Moses and Miriam, and deal with Miriam as one would with a lawbreaker. The princess realized that the baby is one of those ‘despised others’, a Hebrew. She also knows that her father has asked every Egyptian to throw these babies to their death, and yet she feels her heart moved to pity, and courageously acts on the basis of that feeling.
The stunning part of the story though, the part that alerts us that here we have a princess worthy of that title (royalty is about using your power for good – not fancy clothes and smiles for magazines), is her claiming and naming Moses as her son. To save the baby’s life she could have taken him as a slave. That would have been enough to get daddy’s attention! If she liked Moses she could even have had him castrated and elevated to the status of a royal eunuch. Yet instead she takes this outcast, immigrant child, of the race her father detests, and invites him into the royal inner sanctum as her son.
Five courageous women – four Jewish and one Egyptian – saving a life of a baby whose only crime was to be born of the wrong race and the wrong gender.
I don’t believe in a God that sends plagues, kills babies, opens seas of reeds, or drowns armies. I do believe in a God who is the compassion we offer to the vulnerable, the tears and care we offer to the suffering, and the courage we exhibit in order to try and make a difference. I don’t believe in a God who has a ‘chosen’ people and therefore relegates others to an ‘unchosen’ status. I do believe in a God who speaks and acts in the bravery of those who defend the weak and withstand the anger of the strong.
So let’s bravely stand too with the mothers, daughters, midwives, princesses, and former Governor-Generals…
[i] A Neo-Assyrian text from the 7th century BC purporting to be Sargon's autobiography asserts that the great king was the illegitimate son of a priestess. In the Neo-Assyrian account Sargon's birth and his early childhood are described thus:
My mother was a high priestess, my father I knew not. The brothers of my father loved the hills. My city is Azupiranu, which is situated on the banks of the Euphrates. My high priestess mother conceived me, in secret she bore me. She set me in a basket of rushes, with bitumen she sealed my lid. She cast me into the river which rose over me. The river bore me up and carried me to Akki, the drawer of water. Akki, the drawer of water, took me as his son and reared me. Akki, the drawer of water, appointed me as his gardener. While I was a gardener, Ishtar granted me her love, and for four and ... years I exercised kingship.
[ii] This passage of Exodus is ascribed to the author called the Deuteronomist.
Send her away for she is crying after us! Send her away! How many times have I read the story in today’s gospel, studied it, prayed it and preached it and yet somehow the starkness of this plea of the disciples to Jesus has not struck me with the same impact as when I was preparing for today’s preaching.
These words – Send her away! Send her away! – have echoed through my consciousness during the week. They won’t leave me because I hear in them the cry of so many of my own people in Australia – politicians and people from all works of life – crying out at present: send her away! send them away! They are “Canaanites” like this outsider woman! They are “illegals”, they are “people smuggled”, they are “queue jumpers”. All this hidden in the cry to send them away – out of sight, out of mind so that we don’t have to be challenged by their arrival on our shores, that we don’t have to change our way of life. Send them to Malaysia. Process them off shore. Send them away! They are crying after us!
This is the lens I would like to use with you today as we explore together this gospel story as it is told in the Gospel of Matthew. The plight of the refugees arriving by boat on your shore may not be addressing you so starkly at present as it is in Australia but that experience can provide a lens into our gospel that invites us all to ponder, to explore in our minds and hearts during the week ahead who it is in our personal and our social context/s of whom you, your family and friends, your community say: Send her away! She is crying after us!
Who is this woman whom the disciples want to send away? She is a woman who meets Jesus on the border, the border between inside Israel and outside. She is a border or boundary walker, a danger to those settled on either side of the border just as those millions of displaced peoples of our world are to the settled, just as those arriving by boats are considered to be by the Australian people. They breach our borders, the borders we have constructed that say who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’. The gospel storytelling community made this woman ‘other’ by giving her a name which was not hers. They called her ‘Canaanite’, the name of the ancient ‘enemies’ of Israel. She is outsider, she is not one of ‘them’ just as naming asylum seekers as “illegal immigrants” makes them not one of us. And so the gospel keeps inviting us into this story: who is inside and who is outside in our lives, personally and socially? Who do we encounter on the border, that dangerous place of cross-over where Jesus is found in today’s gospel, the place where a border-crossing woman confronts him and his disciples with her cry: Have mercy… my daughter is tormented with a demon..
And her cry “my daughter is tormented with a demon” sends me back to Australia’s asylum seekers and I hear the cry of the mothers: my children are traumatized by all they have been through, they are traumatized by being imprisoned in the land in which they sought freedom, they are refusing to eat, they are cutting themselves, they are violent, they are silent… my children are tormented by the demon of incarceration. These mothers cry out as did the mother called ‘Canaanite’. The cry of ‘the other’, the cry of the outsider: have mercy, have mercy. How could such a cry not be heard.
But in the gospel story, the most shocking thing happens even before we hear the words of the disciples: Jesus did not answer her a word! Jesus ignores the plea for mercy. Never before in the gospel story has Jesus ignored such a plea. What a shocking confrontation for us as readers but a confrontation that invites us into our response to the ‘other’ who cries out to us in our lives for ‘mercy’, for food, for presence, for acceptance. Do we remain silent in the face of the cry? Do we ignore? Or do we find ourselves with the disciples saying: send her away, send them away! Send them to Malaysia so that they can be processed offshore. Send them away from here, from us, from our space. Send them away.
And this confronting gospel story does not stop there. When Jesus does begin to speak to the woman he does so in words which place himself and his people at the centre of reality further marginalizing the woman: I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. My theology says that Israel has a monopoly on my ‘mercy’ not the outsider. It is Australians, that conglomerate of historical border crossers, who have a monopoly on that country, not the new comers, the new outsiders. But Justa, the name given to the Canaanite woman in later tradition, is not silenced by Jesus’ theologizing or by the theologizing of the gospel storytelling community who constructed this story. This just woman, this woman who knows from the depth of her need what is right and just, in Israel, on its borders, on any border, again voices her plea using different words: help me.
The gospel reader is further shocked – surely Jesus will now hear her plea but no – Jesus answers: it is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs. Whether proverbial statement or not, these words echo through our consciousness like those of the disciples: send her way, send her away. But they are more shocking as they name-call the woman. They associate the border crosser, the marginal person crying out in need for her demon-possessed daughter with ‘the dogs’. Australian resources for ‘Australians’, not for those yapping at our borders! Justa, however, is not silenced just as the asylum seeking mothers will not be silenced. The plight of their children is too great. They quickly learn the language so that they can turn it around as did Justa who had learnt the language of Israel’s tradition: Ah, yes, but even the dogs eat the crumbs. She turns the insult to advantage.
One can almost hear the moment of recognition happening for Jesus at this point in the story. He has ignored Justa and excluded her with theological and proverbial claims but she would not be silenced. Her need and the need of her daughter was too great and it was this need which she persistently placed before Jesus which broke through his exclusion of her on traditional, on even we might say theological grounds. His exclamation says it all: Woman, great is your faith [which has challenged mine]. Let it be done for you [and your daughter] as you have willed, as you have wished. What Jesus doesn’t say is that her wish, her will, her thelema is that of God. She has shown Jesus what God wills – that all should share in God’s healing love. The story tells of Jesus setting aside the word or way of God for a tradition of exclusion. Justa brings Jesus back to an understanding of the centrality of God’s healing word for all.
Can the asylum-seeing mothers do similarly for Australia, bringing us to such a moment of recognition of our shared humanity? Will we remember that we have all, but for our indigenous peoples, come by boats very recently to the land we now call home? How many of our ancestors cried out for mercy for themselves and their children as they entered Australia as a new land? And again, returning to our immediate lives here, who is it that cries out in our lives? Can we stand with the disciples and with Jesus in today’s gospel and discern those places in our lives where we silently ignore, where we cry out to ‘send them away’, where we theologize and use pungent proverbial statements in order to authorize our failure to respond to the cry for mercy? We can do this if we stand with Jesus on the border or the margins of our social world. Like Jesus, we too can theologize away the call for mercy but if we keep listening to and engaging with the one who cries out, then we too can shift, as he did, to a recognition of what is of God: that healing and wholeness belong to all.
May the words of today’s gospel keep echoing in your minds and hearts and find expression in your lives during the week ahead.
On Fear, Family, and Harry Potter
August 7, 2011
Pentecost 8 Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28 Matthew 14:22-33
One of the literary and cinematic phenomena of the last decade is the Harry Potter series. With lots of creativity and humour, a modern tale of witches and wizards has been produced that extols the virtues of friendship, courage, and wisdom. These virtues are pitted against power, fear, and violence.
Lord Voldemort is the arch villain. In the last episode Voldemort is now the most powerful wizard in the world, with the most powerful wand, and who has at his command the most violent followers. His leadership is based on fear. His followers fear him. His opponents fear him. The innocent fear him. Indeed his greatest power is fear.
The Gospel reading today is about fear. Unlike in New Zealand where the sea, associated with beaches, swimming, and boating, is largely viewed positively, in the ancient world the sea was a place of dragons, destruction and death. The Book of Revelation, for example, offers a vision of paradise where the sea will be no more! (21:1)
Commentators call this walking on water story ‘symbolic’. That’s the polite way of saying it never happened. Jesus did not walk on water, and neither did Peter. The story is a parable about fear and faith created by the early church.
The theological problem for those who like to believe in miracles where the laws of nature are ignored is that Jesus becomes other than human. That’s okay you might think, after all the tradition calls him divine. But, if Jesus is not constrained by the laws of nature, is his suffering really suffering? Did he just pretend to be hurt when they whipped him and nailed him? Did he just pretend to die?
Our tradition is clear that Jesus really did suffer and die, and really was fully human. He wasn’t an alien. To be fully human is to live within constraints. It is to know suffering, fear, and hopefully, love. There is no miraculous emergency exit when the going gets tough.
How Jesus was fully divine, how the love and purpose of God permeated all that he did, and in doing so what it told us/tells us about God, is the better question. As we wrestle with that question however let’s be clear that Jesus did not literally still storms, did not literally walk on water, did not literally cure the physical aspects of illness, or literally bring a dead child or a dead Lazarus back to life.
So back to this parable of fear and faith: There are a number of references here to the Hebrew Bible. The Psalms and Job have God rebuking and controlling the sea [i], and walking over the water. [ii] This is symbolic code for keeping the power of fear in its rightful place, and not letting it overwhelm us. Fear can be destructive of our soul. It needs to be kept under control by live-giving power – like compassion, friendship, and courage. The invitation to Peter to ‘walk on the sea,’ to put his fear under his feet, is an invitation to let those life-giving powers predominate.
As an aside I was reading some of Gabriele Winkler’s work on Syriac Christianity this week. Our New Testament texts owe their origins largely to Christianity shaped by the Greek language, and inevitably the thought forms of that culture. Her work looks at the New Testament in Syriac – texts shaped by the Syrian Church and language.
In Matthew 9:22 where Jesus says in the Greek ‘Your faith has saved you’, the Syriac says ‘Your faith has made you alive’. Matthew 10:22 says in Greek, ‘The one who endures to the end will be saved’. The Syriac says, ‘The one who endures will be living’. Similarly Luke 2:11 ‘To you is born this day a Saviour’. The Syriac: ‘To you is born today the one who makes alive’.
So, in this sea parable rather than thinking of Jesus saving Peter and the other disciples from the fear that is threatening to overwhelm them, we might think of Jesus making the disciples alive to all the possibilities that the power of fear has blinded them to.
Let’s turn now to the Hebrew Bible text for today. This is the edited introduction to the saga of Joseph. Last week [chapter 32] we heard how Joseph’s father, Jacob, had wrestled with God [his fear?] as he prepared to meet his brother Esau whom he had wronged. Although Esau and he hug and kiss they don’t make up. Jacob didn’t know how to do reconciliation.
Jacob didn’t know how to do family either. Our lectionary skips from chapter 32 over to 37, bypassing the story of Dinah. Dinah was Jacob’s daughter who was both raped and kidnapped by a Hivite chief’s son. On hearing the news Jacob is callously indifferent to her plight, and keeps silent.
Her brothers though were grieved and then outraged. They organized a rescue that became a cold-blooded massacre and looting. The rape was abhorrent. The revenge was abhorrent.
The slaughter of the Hivites opened a new chapter of distrust and contempt between the offspring of Abraham and the native peoples of Canaan. It would be the first of a number of massacres of the indigenous peoples.
Finally, at the end of the story, Jacob breaks his silence. Did he lament the outrage suffered by his daughter, or the cruelty of the crimes? No, he just regrets the danger that his sons have brought upon the family and – above all – upon himself (34:30)!
This family is riddled with self-centredness and envy. It is therefore no surprise in our text today to find Jacob having a favourite among his sons [the child of his favourite wife], and displaying that favouritism by giving Joseph a multi-coloured cloak (37:3-4) and encouraging him to snitch on his brothers (37:2).
All his life Jacob has wanted to be centre stage. His selfishness ruled the family, and in time destroyed the family. Jacob feared losing his ‘chosen’ status – a status he had stolen from his brother. Jacob had wanted power, he acquired power, but he did not know how to wield it in order to bring life – that peace, love, and harmony - into the lives of his dependents and into his own life.
It is therefore no surprise to also find in our text today Joseph, seeking to emulate his beloved father, having dreams of grandeur (supposedly divinely inspired – yeah, right!), relating those dreams to his older brothers, and thinking he was the chosen.
As Karen Armstrong says, “Joseph believed from the outset that he was born to greatness, and he continued throughout his life to assume that he was unquestionably the leading character in the scenario that unfolded around him and that he was directing events.” [iii] Joseph was gifted, and through that giftedness acquired power. Yet he did not have wisdom. There was little room with an ego that big for humility, or for God.
Joseph’s fears were the same as his father’s. He was frightened of not being centre-stage. He was frightened of losing his father’s favour. He was frightened that his brothers would have power over him, regulating him to the bottom. He was frightened of being a nothing.
The fears of the brothers – fear of losing whatever influence they had with their father – give way to violence. They pulled off his robe and cast him into a pit. Then, instead of killing him, turned a profit by selling him into slavery. The boy who dreamed of domination had to descend to the pit, not knowing whether he’d live or die.
Meanwhile the brothers had broken the news to Jacob, showing a tunic dipped in goat’s blood. Jacob, who had himself deceived his father, was now deceived by his own sons. He then succumbed completely and indulgently to his grief, refusing to be consoled. Joseph’s extravagant mourning was a cruel demonstration to his remaining children that they were totally irrelevant to him.
I smile when some Christians talk about the ‘family values’ in the Bible. If Jacob’s is anything to go by then the values are pretty terrible. They are values of grasping for power and for blessing, and when getting them holding on tightly. They do not have the wisdom to let go, let others in, lose, and sit loose. The storms of fear are pervasive in this family. There is not much that is life-giving.
I began by talking about the Harry Potter series and the arch villain Lord Voldemort. He too is categorized as one who is grasping and acquiring, by foul means, the power he believes he deserves. And power he obtains… but not wisdom. For power is often grasped at, and once obtained clung to, whereas wisdom pays a visit when one’s hands and heart are open.
The penultimate scene in Harry Potter has the three friends exhausted after the demise of Lord Voldemort and his hordes. Harry now has in his possession the most powerful wand in the world. He has done great feats and achieved great power, of which the wand bears witness. Yet Harry, much to the horror of his friend Ron, breaks this wand in two and hurls it into the abyss. Harry has forsaken power. He has chosen wisdom instead.
[i] Ps 106:9, 65:7, 89:9, 107:25-32.
[ii] Ps 77:19, Job 9:8.
[iii] Armstrong, K. In The Beginning: A new reading of the Book of Genesis London : HarperCollins, 1996, p.100.
Salvation Is OK? OK.
July 24, 2011
Pentecost 6 Romans 8:26-39
Pauls letter to the Romans is grounded in the notion of divine salvation – what it is, how we need to behave, what we must refrain from doing, what we need to believe – to be saved.
This was meat to me after I first went forward at a Christian rally sometime in my mid-teenage years. My poor parents were going to burn in hell-fire if they didn’t believe or change their ways. True.
While growing up – in spite of an Anglican upbringing with baptism, Sunday school, choir girl for a year at 9, and confirmation around 13 – God was not really personal to me – a part of the fabric of life sure, but not something questioned, discussed, or embraced. Church and God just were.
I grew up and grew out of the madly evangelical phase within a couple of years and it wasn’t until I had children that I really felt moved to attend church regularly again. In the intervening years I had travelled and lived abroad for quite some time, mixed with all sorts of different people, worked at different occupations and had some wonderful and wild experiences. The idea of salvation, of being saved or not saved did not attract me any longer. My life to date had brought the knowledge of the goodness and truth that most people carry, to a greater or lesser degree – and that the world was an enormous place with lots people of various other faiths and that they were just as devoted as Christians – some people didn’t believe in anything at all.
I was in an ambivalent place and yet I deeply desired a spiritual base that was real, that would support grow and inform me, somewhere that I could, with confidence, know that my children would remember and enjoy and hopefully find a story, an idea of God that would carry them through their lives, adding a richness, a depth that could not be gained anywhere else. And as you might guess, I embraced my Anglican heritage and ... many lives later – here I am.
In my theological studies before and after ordination salvation has always been a concept, an idea, a powerful reality that has intrigued and frustrated me. Our prayer book and liturgical language is loaded with salvation. Ours is a salvation based faith – Jesus shows it and becomes it.
Salvation – I would like to explore what it means today – and what Paul is saying about it – Salvation.
In his many letters Paul is variously tough problematic and disturbingly prophetic, yet, also a powerful and visionary writer – he’s black and white, in or out, saved or damned – he is dauntless and passionate. He’s very doctrinal (not necessarily a bad thing) – often what we could call judgemental and moralistic – and profoundly beautiful. Pauls influence on Christian thinking is said to be more significant than any other NT author. His letter to the Romans is considered his most important legacy – many call it his masterpiece.
In our inspiring reading today, he is just beautiful. He tells us that salvation is in the Spirit – who prays with us and in us, who sees and feels with us – who pleads with God for us when we are sad or weak – I rather like the New English Bible translation which says that ‘ through our inarticulate groans the Spirit himself’ is pleading for us’ (much stronger than ‘sighs too deep for words’) – and I know what that means as I am sure we all do. Sometimes in great and terrible grief it is impossible to pray – sometimes an agonised ‘O God’ is all we can muster up or mutter – those 2 words contain our whole prayer, our body, our life - and the Spirit does the rest.
The Spirit is with us – dwells within us – intercedes for us – we are not alone is what Paul tells us.
The reading continues with the idea of being a family – that as believers we are drawn together as family – as followers of ‘the way’ as ancient early Christians were first called – we are all part of God’s family through Jesus, through being human – just like Jesus.
We are’ justified by faith,’ Paul writes – this was the catch cry for Luther that heralded the great Reformation with ‘sola fide’ and ‘sola gratia’ – by faith alone , by grace alone – the faith we assent to in the life death and power of Jesus, the grace of God in forgiveness.
For us in 21st century NZ that’s not a bad lot. We can safely live and worship with more than a modicum of comfort – we live lavishly really with all our stuff, our choices, our rights. For us salvation is variously – an inner awareness, a personal relationship, knowledge that God loves us and brings forgiveness, that we can know God, that God resides within ‘our hearts and in our minds’ as is often said and more. Maybe it is saying yes to the mystery of our existence and unfathomed yet deeply felt spiritual connections with the sacred in all life.
God has been good to us – where and how we live, we have no real complaints have we. Salvation is OK.
Well – just imagine you lived in the slums of Sao Paulo in Brazil , the 8th largest city in the world, where daily survival is a struggle, the streets mean – where Catholic theologian Ivone Gebara tells the story of a young girl who prostitutes herself to pay for a doctor for her brother who is ill, how the mother knows where her daughter is going and what the girl intends to do, and turns her head – the resigned and blind pain we can only glimpse at. In a place where unspoken cultural values define women’s bodies as usable and disposable – where is the salvation? Hoping that her mothers longing and love, that her brothers health is food enough for the day?
Gebara believes that salvation needs to be re-visioned in each different context – and that our absolute language does nothing to alleviate pain or heal in concrete terms or daily reality. For Gebara, salvation is a present divine reality, God is in every moment – that the way we live and our actions reveal and bring salvation – like Jesus, not some exclusionary notion of sin and forgiveness, but to be like Jesus – in acts of sharing, of mercy, of service, taking the last place, and washing one another’s feet.
Salvation is to be found in beauty – an unexpected smile, sharing a hot cup of tea or a glass of beer, a melody that catches us, an unselfish act of love. These are the small mercies and acts of salvation that are divine and bring life. She speaks of Jesus divinely as ‘the centre of a loving energy among us.’ 
Our faith, our hope, our spiritual heritage and experience come out of a very old liturgical tradition that I often identify as poetry – the poetry of our ancient forbears who lived in a 3 tiered universe and believed in a male all-powerful omnipotent deity. We still use language that reflects this and our concepts of salvation are still couched in the archaic terms of a bygone era.
Good theology takes us somewhere different and opens our eyes to present day realities and transforms our perceptions of what God and salvation can mean for people on different sides of the world in vastly different circumstances.
Paradoxically, Paul was really into sin and forgiveness, into heaven and hell in absolute terms – ‘we are all sinners’, and yet he created glorious and memorable words of beauty that still hold and are worth repeating
“In all things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Amen.
 Ivone Gebara, Longing for Running Water, 1999.
Weeds through the Lens of Harry Potter
July 17, 2011
Pentecost 5 Matthew 11:16-30
Nearly ten years ago, on the night of my ordination as a deacon, a priest of this Diocese came to me with a gift in hand. It was obvious, without unwrapping it, that it was a book of some kind. As he gave it to me he said, “I hope you haven’t already got it.” “Is it a Bible?” I asked, tentatively. You see, what with being ordained and everything, Bibles and crosses seemed to be the gifts du jour. I already had quite a collection of both.
It turned out not to be a Bible – for which I was quietly grateful. It was however, a deeply theological book. A book that whetted my appetite for exploring some big questions about good and evil, about the nature of friendship and about the enduring quality of love. A book that instilled a childlike fascination which turned into the obsessive. It was, if it’s not completely obvious, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. And this week, in which the final movie-adaptation of the series was released worldwide, I find myself preaching in the church of that same priest who gave me the first book ten years ago. If that’s not a sign then I don’t know what is!
While I loved whimsical, innocence of that first book, what I appreciated as the series unfolded, was the way in which J K Rowling depicted the growing up of the characters. In the earlier Potter books, good and evil were easy to distinguish – they were cast in a child’s perception of black and white. But as the characters matured, the stories became much more complex, they presented a much more adult consideration of good and evil. The reader discovered that what was apparent and what was true, were not necessarily the same thing. This is the storyteller’s art; to leave some things unsaid, unexplained, to foster curiosity in the audience.
If only the writer of Matthew’s gospel had possessed the storyteller’s art. In this morning’s so-called parable about the wheat and the weeds, the reader is given no chance to do the work, to explore the nature of good and evil, to grapple with the obvious and less obvious implications contained within. This is because the writer insisted on having Jesus explain the thing, killing it dead by turning a parable into an allegory. Good is good and bad is bad. Some people are wheat and other people are weeds. Evil will get its reward. End of story.
But I protest this allegorisation of the parable. I’m neither original nor alone in that. Plenty of scholars who know a lot more about things than I do are certain that the explanation doesn’t fit. “Jesus was not an allegorist, though his followers frequently have been. Most recent parable scholars label the story a product of the early church…”  The explanation is perfectly logical and tidy. Which, in itself is compelling evidence that it didn’t belong to Jesus. Jesus was far less concerned with tidiness than the church is. What’s more, this explanation domesticates the parable and makes it all rather dull and predictable.
Such a summing up leads to only one interpretation: good once planted, remains good, and evil is always evil. The best bit is when the eschatological fire gets cranked up and those nasty evil weeds get their comeuppance.
But it’s not only simplistic, it’s presented in such a way that I am given an excuse not to do the work, not to grow up. It’s so straightforward that I have no need to question which side of the field I must be on. Stands to reason that I’m the wheat, right? I’m the one reading the Bible, so I must be. That means, that not only does the parable ask nothing of me, but consequently it is easy for me to arrive at smug self-righteousness. Because, certain in my identity as wheat, I’m in a pretty good position to recognise weeds. (That gluten-free lot over there!) This is a parable of judgement after all.
Or is it? Robert Capon draws my attention to the proportions of this parable as Jesus first told it. The majority of the parable is spent examining and rejecting certain strategies for eradicating the weeds. Capon writes, “The words [of judgement we] have all along been holding [our] breath to hear constitute only two thirds of its final verse. The rest of the parable – [verses] 24-30a – [are] entirely about [living with] evil, not about the avenging of it.”  “The parable’s main point, is not eschatological redress of wrongs, but present forbearance of them.”
It’s a compelling and disturbing idea. But one that is completely invisible until we understand how ludicrous is “the command from the farmer not to pull up the weeds. Every good farmer weeded his fields to protect his crops.”  As is often the case, the most jarring detail in a parable gives a clue to its meaning. While leaving the weeds to grow “may not be sane policy for a farmer, when it comes to human nature, it makes sense. Why? Because more often than not our attempts to eradicate evil become an evil in themselves. Whenever we Christians try to eradicate evil we end up being self-righteous and cruel.”  “Goodness itself, if it is sufficiently committed to plausible, right-handed, strong-arm methods, will in the very name of goodness do all and more than evil ever had in mind.”  One wonders, for instance, what the killing of Osama Bin Laden – celebrated by many Christians as a triumph over evil – will lead to in time to come.
“Worse yet,” writes Capon “since good and evil in this world commonly inhabit not only the same field but even the same individual human beings – since there are no unqualified good guys any more than there are any unqualified bad guys – the only result of a truly dedicated campaign to get rid of evil will be abolition of literally everybody.”
The parable in the way that Jesus told it, focuses on the reality of good and evil as neighbours, relatives even. If it had been left to its own devices, and not explained to within an inch of its life, it would have been an invitation to hone our skills of discernment, to look at the way good and evil reside in the world, feeding on the same soil, and extraordinarily difficult to distinguish. It would have provided a valuable critique about our individual and corporate responses to evil and whether our responses risk perpetuating further evil. Even more confronting, if we allowed this parable to really get under our skin, it would require us to examine the way that good and evil are present and intertwined in our own lives.
This is a deeply disturbing parable, as most parables are: but not because of the fiery scene at the end. It is disturbing because it reminds us that evil flourishes in good soil. It calls us to resist the temptation to put ourselves in the role of judge, to resist arriving at premature clarity, to do the work of daily conversion and allow God – the gracious one – to “harvest the good, pull out the bad, and feed the hungry with what we’ve grown.” 
I can only imagine that if J K Rowling had got her hands on this parable about good and evil, it might have been a whole lot more interesting. But then, on second thoughts, perhaps that’s precisely what she did.
 David Buttrick, A Homiletic Guide: Speaking Parables, (Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville, Kentucky, 2000), 93.
 Robert Farrar Capon, The Parables of the Kingdom, (Zondervan Publishing House: Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1988), 108.
 Robert Farrar Capon, The Parables of the Kingdom, (Zondervan Publishing House: Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1988), 101.
 Craig L Blomberg, Preaching the Parables: From Responsible Interpretation to Powerful Proclamation, (Baker Academic: Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2004), 120-121.
 David Buttrick, A Homiletic Guide: Speaking Parables, (Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville, Kentucky, 2000), 96.
 Robert Farrar Capon, The Parables of the Kingdom, (Zondervan Publishing House: Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1988), 102.
Today I want to talk to you about sex. That woke you up didn’t it?
Yes, I want to talk to you about the birds and the bees – no, not about the details. I assume most of you have that sorted. This sermon is G rated. No need to send the kids to their rooms.
One of you once commented to me that you found my sermons “quirky.” I think you meant it as a compliment, at least I took it that way, but today you may think I’m pushing the bar a little too high. We don’t talk about s-e-x in church. And you may be right. I can’t remember ever preaching a sermon on it or even hearing one solely on the topic before. That might be a good reason to do it, to make today memorable. Since I’m going on an extended holiday this week I don’t want you to forget me.
But I have other reasons as well: I’ve always wanted to use a favourite quote of mine that I often use in relationship counselling but I’ve never had occasion to use in a sermon. It is by theologian Frederick Buechner:
Contrary to Mrs Grundy, sex is not a sin. Contrary to Hugh Hefner, it’s not salvation either. Like nitro-glycerine, it can be used to heal hearts or blow up bridges. [i]
The second reason I want to preach on sex is to name the elephant in the pew that is being studiously ignored in the debate over the discrimination against gays and lesbians seeking ordination.
As one colleague I spoke to this week who is out of the evangelical wing of the church admitted with some embarrassment, “I once thought not too long ago that God really does care about what happens between the sheets.” Actually, I think he was right. God does care, but not about the sex. I think my friend was embarrassed because he thought God cared about who was between the sheets and what they might be doing there. What I believe is that God doesn’t care about the “who” or the “what,” but about the quality of the relationship of those between the sheets.
That is the elephant. The debate doesn’t really hinge on justice and human rights or how to interpret the Sodom and Gomorrah story or what Paul did or didn’t mean or what can be inferred from church canons. It’s about how we feel in our gut about what should or should not happen between the sheets and between whom. To avoid revealing or defending our feelings we then attribute them to God using some pretty limited and flimsy Biblical evidence.
The last reason I want to talk about sex is that our first reading is from the Song of Songs, a love poem full of erotic imagery and not so subtle sexual innuendos. It isn’t often offered as an option to use on Sunday mornings and even when it is it is often avoided. It has been giving rabbis and Christian thinkers fits since it first made its way into scripture. Today, some consider it too secular, as it doesn’t mention God and way too sexual for modern sensibilities. About the only time you might hear it in church is at a wedding. So I didn’t want to pass up the opportunity.
The Song of Songs is traditionally attributed to Solomon (who reportedly had a thousand wives), but no scholar accepts that he wrote it or had quite so many wives. It is a collection of secular love poems put together as a conversation between two lovers. While modern scholars tend to ignore it, Origen, an early Church Father, wrote numerous homilies and a ten-volume commentary on it. Maybe his obsession with sex is why he famously made himself literally a eunuch for Christ. Bernard of Clairvaux, the mystic founder of the Cistercian Order of monks, gave 86 sermons on the subject and never got past chapter two. That would take the joy out of any subject.
What most Jewish and Christian thinkers have tried to do is spiritualize the poem. The lovers are either Yahweh and Israel or Christ and the Church. But even after such tortured attempts to de-sex it with allegory, one cannot escape the impression that the author of the Song of Songs actually was doing what he appeared to be doing, and what more straitlaced interpreters seem loath to admit he was doing – namely, celebrating human love with poetry, reveling in romance and sexuality. I believe the author revels because there is a mystical quality to our sexuality. Love like the song describes is a medium to experiencing union with the divine. Could that be why “Oh God!” escapes lovers’ lips at the height of passion.
As best as we can tell the lovers are being kept apart by family and society because they come from ‘different sides of the tracks.’ There is an indication that they may have been from a different race or ethnicity, or possibly from different socio economic statuses.
These poems celebrate the passion, playfulness, and determination of lovers to be together regardless of race or class or family or, in terms of today’s debate, sexual orientation. There is no mention of marriage or procreation in the book – their sexuality is celebrated simply for what it is. It affirms the goodness of human sexuality full-stop. Marriage and procreation as a holy justification for it are not even mentioned.
While marriage is not mentioned it is worth noting that the Song describes a love marked by fidelity and mutuality. The lovers are faithful to each other. They have eyes for no one else: She says, "My beloved is mine and I am his" (2:16; 6:3). He says, "My vineyard, my very own, is for myself; / you, O Solomon, may have the thousand" (8:12).
The Song celebrates faithful human love. In a culture saturated with sexual images but sorely lacking in prominent examples of lifelong faithful love, this text celebrates love marked by mutuality and fidelity.
If the church ever needed to embrace a sacred text with regard to its attitudes about human sexuality, it needs to embrace the Song of Songs. I’d wager most of us are reticent to talk about sex and sexuality in our private lives as Christians, much less in church. Some of us may even get squeamish, giggly, or indignant when sex and God are mentioned in the same sentence. And it is precisely this kind of ‘ostrich in the sand’ approach that has allowed the Religious Right and fundamentalists to perpetuate slanderous stereotypes about LGBT people. They are the only ones talking about it.
Like the brothers in the Song of Songs, they want to control, wall off, enclose everybody’s sexuality I suspect because they are afraid of their own. In the words of the Song they want human sexuality to be a “garden locked, a fountain sealed” (4:12), but I say with the woman in the Song, “Awake, O north wind, and come, O south wind! Blow upon my garden that its fragrance may be wafted abroad.” (4:16)
One of the ironies for me in the present debate is the bishops are willing to ordain celibate gays and lesbians. Even the Church of England is now considering the possibility that a gay man (no women yet) can be a bishop if he has been celibate since ordination and not in a committed relationship. At the same time the church expects its leaders to have a “right ordering” of their relationships. While some conservatives think this is a euphemism for heterosexual marriage, most of us think it is about not using sex to blow up bridges. It expects it leaders not to be involved in exploitive sex. It expects that when we are in an intimate relationship that it will be respectful, committed, mutual and faithful. Any other kind is destructive to gays and non-gays alike.
For the church to deny gays and lesbians the opportunity to live out legitimately and joyfully the kind of love the Song of Songs describes is cruel and unjust and probably unrealistic – this goes for heterosexuals as well. To make it dirty and unseemly by denying them access to the sacrament of marriage and then using that to justify excluding them is diabolical.
For me this debate is about honouring the kind of sex that heals hearts. The need for intimacy and trusting relationships anchored in respect, mutuality and fidelity is basic to being human. It crosses all lines including sexual orientation. So let’s talk about it. Promoting and nurturing those kind of relationships should be the church’s business, not who is beneath the sheets.
[i] Buechner, Frederick. Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC, Harper & Row, New York: 1986. p 87.
‘Hard’, ‘rocky’, ‘thorny’, and ‘good’ are not the names of members of a heavy metal band. They are the Parable of the Sower’s four categories of response to Jesus. These categories are pivotal to Mark’s Gospel [i] in that they provide a means for understanding many of the different characters and stories in the whole gospel.
The first category is the ‘hard’ ground. Here the truth in Jesus doesn’t take root at all. Mark portrays the scribes, Pharisees, and Jerusalem religious leaders as never really hearing Jesus’ message but instead calling him a blasphemer from the first time they hear him (2:7) until their last (14:64).
Mark is writing around the time of the Judaeo-Roman war of 66-70 when the relationships between those Jews called Christians and those Jews faithful to the Torah and Writings were deteriorating. Eventually in the 80s the followers of Jesus would be expelled from the synagogues.
Ominously in the explanation of this parable (4:15) the character Satan is first associated with the Jewish opposition. He has developed from something of a prosecuting attorney in the Book of Job to a more sinister spirit. Later he will become a demigod. In time Satan’s supposed infiltration of Judaism will be an excuse for the Christian crimes of vilifying, persecuting, and murdering Jews.
The second category is the ‘rocky’ ground. Here the truth in Jesus sprouted but had very shallow roots. When persecution came they withered. In Mark’s Gospel the twelve male disciples are portrayed as the rocky ground. Peter [ii], James, and John, the paramount leaders, initially reacted positively to Jesus’ call (1:16-20) but when the soldiers come to arrest Jesus they all fled (14:43-50). Peter eventually denied Jesus three times (14:66-72). These men embraced the truth with enthusiasm but when the heat came on, they folded.
One of the debates about the authorship of Mark’s Gospel is why if Mark was allegedly a follower of Peter in Rome as has traditionally been maintained, [iii] does the Gospel portray Peter so negatively.
We don’t actually know who Mark, the author of the Gospel, was. The ‘John Mark’ referred to in Acts, [iv] who is presumably the ‘Mark’ referred to in Colossians (4:10), Philemon (24), and 2 Timothy (4:11), may not be the Gospel writer Mark. Mark after all was a very common name. However, that said, this gospel’s survival was undoubtedly guaranteed by the alleged association with Peter through those early centuries when the canonical books were being determined.
The third category is the ‘thorny’ ground. Here the truth of Jesus was choked out by the love of affluence and influence. Think of Herod, who hears John the Baptist gladly but has him beheaded rather than violate an oath made before guests (6:14-29). Think of Pilate, who knew Jesus was innocent but ordered him crucified because he wanted to please the crowds (15:6-15). Think of the rich man who had obeyed all the commandments but could not bring himself to sell his possessions (10:17-22). They all glimpse the truth but in the end refuse to act on it because their concerns about reputation, authority and wealth stand in the way. Truth is choked off and dies. [v]
The last category is the ‘good’ soil. Here the truth of Jesus flourishes. Within Mark’s Gospel there are many who, mostly anonymously, come to Jesus in faith, are healed or saved by it, and then tell others. It is in this last category that most of the women in the Gospel belong.
The social roles of women in 1st century Greco-Roman society were very curtailed. Male honour in public depended on winning contests of wit, strength or rhetoric (what’s new?), and in private on asserting authority over women of their class, and men and women of lower classes. For women, however, winning public honour was virtually impossible, and any public display strongly discouraged. Women could, however, avoid shame by submitting to the authority of male superiors.
In stark contrast to these social norms, Mark depicts unaccompanied women coming and speaking to Jesus in private – like the Syro-Phoenician woman who bested him in an argument,[vi] and the woman who poured perfume on his head. [vii] Even more shockingly Mark depicts unaccompanied women approaching Jesus in public – like the woman who had been bleeding for 12 years. [viii] Mark’s Jesus ignores the social rules and welcomes those already among the ‘shamed’ – like slaves, prostitutes, and lepers. The good soil in Mark’s Gospel is unexpected found in the nuisances and nobodies.
The Parable of the Sower invites us to think about those in our society and church and where they fall in these agrarian categories of ‘hard’, ‘rocky’, ‘thorny’, and ‘good’.
There is a biblical phrase ‘a hard heart’. It refers to a person or an institution that has closed itself off from any truth save its own. Some, like fundamentalist sects, use Scripture as a weapon to defend their truth and punish dissenters. The challenge to them is soften their hearts and to make themselves vulnerable to the generosity and grace of God.
Yet ‘hard hearts’ are not the sole preserve of some fundamentalists. We too, extending the metaphor, are susceptible to the fatty food of stereotypes and quick-fried answers. Welcoming the presence and possibilities of the foreign, different, or difficult is a spiritual discipline we all need.
The ‘rocky’ ground is a challenge to us churchgoers, the inheritors of the mantle of discipleship. We go to church, sing hymns, help and care. But when we have to stand up or stand out for what we believe we can wither. The challenge is to be rooted in prayer, and use it to sustain our courage.
By prayer I do not mean simply addressing an invisible deity. Rather I mean opening ourselves to all that is holy, including the lives and suffering of others and our own life and suffering. As the Prayerbook says, [ix] we immerse ourselves in the great compassion and let it flow through us. The strength to stand comes not through developing the muscles or the mind but by being steeped in compassion.
The ‘thorny’ ground, where the desire for affluence and influence chokes off truth, is a salient reminder of the shortcomings of our success-orientated culture. This culture, so prevalent, is in essence a heresy. It holds up the rich and powerful as models, whereas Mark’s Gospel holds up the blind, bleeding, outspoken, and ostracized.
Yet rather than pick out rich and powerful characters to vilify, as some in the media can do, we need to face ourselves. The challenge is to let go of our dreams of money and control. For the pull to have more is a very potent current. Instead we need to stand firm in the truth we find in Jesus – the truth of gift, grace, and compassion.
Lastly, there is the ‘good’ soil. We’d all like to imagine ourselves in this category. Yet Mark, instead, tells us to prepare for the unexpected, the ones outside religions’ official gates that might occasionally amble in, late and ill attired. His ‘good’ soil is those on the margins.
The challenge to us is not to judge and not to presume. God’s angels [the word angelos means messenger] come in many guises.
I’m reminded of ‘Geoffrey’ [not his real name] who regularly attends the morning service at St Bartholomew’s. ‘Geoffrey’ is easy to please. He doesn’t need a service sheet, a welcoming smile, or a cup of tea afterwards. He doesn’t complain about the new hymn or the sermon that goes too long. He makes no demands. He simply falls asleep, soothed by the dry and padded pews, and continues in that blissful state throughout the morning. So deep is his sleep that he has no idea of the loud buzz-saw noise emanating forth.
Now the vicar and parishioners of St Bartholomew’s, to say nothing of the choir, have tried in vain to curtail his cacophonous output. They’ve assigned minders to him, nudging him awake, but with little success. They’ve explained the problem to him, and told him that if he can’t stay awake he’ll have to leave. They’ve even tried locking him out… but the Health and Safety regulations came to his aid. ‘Geoffrey’ for his part never says a word, just imitates their concerned look, and continues faithfully attending or should I say sleeping, testing the limits of their hospitality.
Now I don’t want to romanticize ‘Geoffrey’. I don’t know whether he’s God’s snoring messenger or a ‘good’ soil type. But Mark’s Gospel tells me not to presume he isn’t.
[i] This insight comes from Mary Ann Tolbert.
[ii] Whose name in Greek means “rock”.
[iii] See http://www.ntgateway.com/gospel-and-acts/gospel-of-mark/introduction-to-marks-gospel/ for a modern update on the discussion around authorship.
[iv] Acts 12:12, 25; 15: 37-39;
[v] Some [e.g. Myers, C Binding The Strong Man New York : Orbis, 1988, p.174ff.] posit that the rocky and thorny ground also relate to Christians at the time of the Judeo-Roman war who withered in the face of opposition from Rome and renounced their faith, or to those Christians who departed from the truth of the Gospel in favour of praise, power, and prosperity. Loyalty to a greater truth is never easy when an Empire demands your compliance.
Last Sunday was Trinity Sunday, a day set aside to reflect on the Church’s vision of G-o-d as portrayed in the Nicene Creed, today is our turn to reflect on OUR vision of g-o-d. A quick glance at our hymns this morning will quickly give you the thread that ties this theme together. Our opening hymn speaks of a god who comes to us unheard, unseen, unknown in unexpected ways yet calls us to recognize that god’s presence. Before the Gospel we sang of a god beyond, within, between us. At the offertory we will look at how to discover such a god and as we leave how to embody that god.
Then to make the point abundantly clear that this is no easy task we are given two sharply different visions of G-o-d in our readings. Our first reading describes a god that demands the sacrifice of a son but at the last minute relents when it is clear the father is prepared to follow through. This god is revealed as a great and all-controlling power made manifest in the unusual and the extraordinary. In the Gospel that same god’s son says the only thing this god demands is our love and compassion towards one another. This god is made manifest in human interactions as ordinary as giving another a cup of water.
So our mission impossible today, if we choose to accept it, is to answer for our selves the question Lord Alfred North Whitehead asked 85 years ago in our Sentence for the Day: “Today there is but one religious dogma in debate: What do YOU mean by ‘G-o-d’…”
If you are expecting I’ll have the answer for you by the end of this sermon you will be sadly disappointed. Don’t get me wrong I appreciate your confidence in me that I could if I would. The problem is I won’t because I can’t. After 62 years of life, 3 years of seminary and 30 years of ordained ministry I’m still working on what my picture of g-o-d is. But I have not given up as I have come to understand that seeking to develop that picture is at the core of living my faith, never mind that I don’t expect it to ever come fully into focus.
The other reason I won’t because I can’t is: Why should you accept that my picture of God is correct? Unless you are a spiritual couch potato just accepting the pictures portrayed in scripture or defined by the church, you have already done some work on your own picturing God. This is a very personal and intimate undertaking. It is also a process. The pictures we envision are evolving. Even if theoretically we could all come to accept the same picture of God, along the way we have considered various images that we have accepted or rejected. If we were to take a photo of our present vision of God out of our wallets to compare, I doubt any two would be the same for our journeys in faith may be similar but are not the same.
To understand Whitehead’s question better it might be helpful to know a little more about the man himself. First, Whitehead was not a theologian although he inspired a school of theological thought. He was primarily a mathematician and physicist with a proclivity for philosophy. He was Bertrand Russell’s teacher and later co-authored with him a seminal work on the principles of mathematics. His father and uncles were Anglican vicars and his brother was a bishop, but prior to WWI he considered himself an agnostic. Perhaps because he lost a son in action in France he revived his interest in theology and religion but never formally joined a church. At the age of 63 he accepted a position teaching philosophy at Harvard even though he had never studied or taught it before.
Whitehead’s contribution to theology came in a series of lectures entitled “Process and Reality.” While defending the idea of god it was not the God pictured by the Abrahamic faiths. The god he pictured was formed by his life experience and work as a physicist. He witnessed the collapse of the rigid, fixed Newtonian physics he had been grounded in due to Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity describing an ever-changing cosmos. He postulated that as the entire universe is in constant flow and change, God, as source of the universe, could be viewed as growing and changing as well. But he would have cautioned against taking his view as the whole truth. He once observed, "there are no whole truths; all truths are half-truths. It is trying to treat them as whole truths that plays the devil." Not surprisingly the school of theology he inspired is called “Process Theology.”
I’m not sure about whether or not God is ever growing and changing, but I am sure that humanity’s understanding about God is. It is clearly seen in scripture itself which rather than being God’s Word is our forbearers’ words about God. Or as one scholar puts it:
‘...it contains their stories of God, their perceptions of God’s character and will, their prayers to and praise of God, their perceptions of the human condition and the paths of deliverance, their religious and ethical practices, and their understanding of what faithfulness to God involves’
I’ve come to the conclusion that the best way to gain a better picture of God is by having a better picture of our selves and our interactions with each other. Perhaps, it isn’t that we are made in the image of God, but our understanding of God is made in the image of us – and our experiences.
To justify this position I would share with you two unlikely theologians found in the book The Colour Purple. The first is the character Celie, a poor black girl in the American South. She says, “When I found out that God was white and a man I lost interest.”
The church gave her that picture of G-o-d. It has done it in its theology, hymns and prayers. But it has done it most effectively by making sure only people like me – white, middle class, male and heterosexual – get to wear these robes and represent Christ, whom we consider to be one and the same with God. While in the last 30 plus years the Anglican Church in a few places has begrudgingly acknowledged that G-o-d might also look like a woman, we know that at least in NZ the Anglican Church doesn’t currently believe that God looks like Geno, a gay man in a committed relationship.
With such a limited picture of God, is it any wonder so many have lost interest?
Shug, my second theologian expands her friend Celie’s image of God:
“One day when I was sitting quiet and feeling like a motherless child, which I was, it come to me: that feeling of being a part of everything, not separate at all. I knew that if I cut a tree my arm would bleed. And I laughed and I cried and I run all around the house. I knew just what it was. In fact when it happens you can't miss it...
She goes on to observe, “I think it annoy God if you walk by colour purple in a field somewhere and don't notice it... People think pleasing God is all God care about. But any fool living in the world can see it always trying to please us back...’
If Shug is right that purple is one of the images of God, it is both ironic and tragic that many of those who wear purple in the church are missing the beauty of those like Geno in the world around us.
My hope is that each of us will take seriously expanding our image of God from what has been handed down to us to one we can see and experience in the present. As our vision expands may we be transformed. As we are transformed the Church will be transformed, even maybe her bishops. It’s a process.
You haven’t caused a riot yet St Matthews but you’re certainly stirring up a storm in Anglicanland.
Being passionate to the point where others feel uncomfortable and even change their thinking is often seen, according to one of my former employers, as going too far. On reflection, I don’t think I ever went far enough.
Paris, the city of lovers, is a place of spirited change. On a beautiful May evening in 1913, a theatre in the Champs Elysees was filling up; women dripped with jewels as they promenaded with their escorts resplendent in top hat and tails.
First up on the programme was Les Sylphides, a romantic reverie set to the music of Chopin, familiar, soothing – food for the soul. As the dancers sank to the floor in their final ethereal movement, the bassoonist began Stravinksy’s new composition, The Rite of Spring.
Without warning the music turned into what has been described as a monstrous migraine of sound. What started as a slow, gentle flowering had burst into an asymmetrical, relentless cacophony.
Jonah Lehrer author of Proust was a Neuroscientist, writes of this event, ‘the tension builds and builds and builds, but there is no vent. The irregular momentum is merciless, like the soundtrack to an apocalypse, the beat building to a fatal fortissimo’.
Slap, bang, wallop! For the audience, it was as though their brains were being fried. They got angry, started screaming and attacking one another. The whole thing ended up as a full-scale riot.
Listening to music has a lot to do with frequencies and recognizing patterns. Even though music is a series of individual notes, our brain tries to understand the relationship between the notes. Once it finds a pattern, it starts to predict what will come next. By listening for patterns and having expectations, the individual notes become the symphony we hear. When the patterns are unexpected the human brain struggles to cope.
By the 1940’s we had absorbed Stravinsky’s new pattern of music and Disney used it in the animated movie Fantasia. The first section tells a version of the creation story with dinosaurs as the central creatures. First there is the evolution of life, then conflict and confusion leading to the dinosaurs’ extinction and the eventual rebirth of the earth. It’s a three-part process mirroring the ideas of creation, destruction and preservation in Hindu mythology.
Three – the mysterious number that keeps cropping up in religion and mathematics. We talk about three stages of life, maiden, mother and crone. Anglican theology is meant to be like a three legged stool, scripture, tradition and reason. There are three kings from the East in the Christmas story. In Torah study, three is the number of truth mediating between two opposing or contradictory values. Buddhism has Three Jewels; Taoism has The Great Triad and Christianity the Mysterious Holy Trinity.
A mystery indeed but no matter how much theology we think up around it, there is nothing particularly Christian about it for the number three seems to be fundamental to just about everything. To complicate this more, in our three dimensional universe the particles that constitute it are based on the third or cube root of the speed of light. Weird and enticing all at the same time.
Is three a familiar pattern that the brain has already memorized, or is it implicit in our human building block, something we instantly recognise and connect with? Part of the universal truth we are instinctively drawn to but don’t understand?
Strangely enough, over the last three years, three significant things have happened in my life that shocked me out of familiar patterns and given me a different perspective on the church.
While I was a school chaplain, singing every day was part of my job. I eventually realised music was resonating within me at a level beyond my understanding so I went exploring. Despite having been refused entry to the junior church choir when I was 10, I packed that anxiety in my handbag and headed off to singing lessons.
My world was transformed. I would have killed to get to my singing lesson at 4 o’clock on Tuesdays. Singing at that intensive level was the most integrating, energizing and healing factor in my life. Better than all the therapy and angst and girly chats and crying into my vino that I had done for decades.
So I started to wonder, if music was so healing, how come church choirs were diminishing while people all over the world were gathering in flash mobs and civic choirs to sing their hearts out. Maybe people outside the church instinctively know that music gives us a clue to the symmetry of the universe as the thinker Andrew Worsley says in Flying on the Wings of Genius.
The second disruption in my life was to accompany my brother who had been in a major vehicle crash and sustained a severe brain injury. Like always when faced with challenges I don’t understand, I start reading and exploring my new world. I was fascinated to find out how plastic our brains actually are and while ‘we don’t know’ was the phrase I heard most often from the medical staff through five months of daily hospital visits, there is a growing body of knowledge about the brain that is accessible to us all.
For instance, many studies have been done about how the brain functions during meditation and why that’s good for us. Type meditation into Youtube and you get about half a million pages. On one of those pages is a Buddhist meditation that has nearly 10 million hits. Despite this huge interest few people are rocking up to church to ask what we can offer in this regard.
My third shock came when my job as a school chaplain ended abruptly 10 months ago. Since then there has been no singing every day, no chapels to prepare, no sermons to write, no classes to teach. No work. No real connection to the institutional religion that I have been in or around for most of my life.
Like the greater percentage of people in this country I went about my life without the church. I kept writing, and watching and listening to people talk. s some of you know as soon as someone knows you’re a priest it takes about a nano second for talk to turn to God and what makes meaning in life.
Once we’d got over their comments about the irrelevance of the church, some accurate and some way off beam, most of what I heard was a desire for wonder, a deep yearning for connection with Spirit, with our universe, with that which is beyond. And I despaired at the great gulf that exists between the church and people of spirit.
At its best, religion offers a crucible for alchemy, that mysterious process where the rough stuff of life can be transformed into what is precious. This happens through holding sacred the great mysteries of existence, using ritual, art, music, sound and smell to activate our connection to the patterns of the universe and at the same time so disturb us that we realise we are not separate selves but part of an inexplicable interconnectedness. As a result, boundaries quite naturally fall down allowing mercy and justice to become commonplace. This is the life of the Spirit that we yearn for at our deepest core.
During the last 10 months my life has been dismantled and my own addiction to the familiar patterns has been unraveled. One of the things I’ve learnt is that we live in a neurological trap that allows us to keep expanding our mind, that is, to learn an infinite number of new patterns, but also acts as a limit to our growth by allowing familiar patterns to give us reassuring feedback. This is why you want to listen to Classic Hits and think Eminem is gross. Stravinsky instinctively understood that music, like nature, needed constant upheaval if we were to grow and he used dissonance to create that change.
Jesus was an expert at dissonance in another way. He was a character steeped in his tradition and skilled in the art of Mediterranean oral debate who could argue the toss with the best of them in public stoushes. He also used stories that had familiar patterns, recognizable to his audience and, like a Jodi Picoult novel had a sting in the tail that created a jarring dissonance for individuals and communities.
Right now, it seems we exist within a legalistic church structure addicted to familiar patterns of belief and behaviour. Concerned with each jot and tittle of the law if the offering from Bishop Philip into the GLBT discussion is anything to go by. Not too much different to the religious challenges the Jesus faced in 1st century Palestine.
We can go along with it or challenge this addiction by creating a ruckus as radical as the one prompted by Copernicus and Galileo with their crazy idea that the Earth was orbiting the sun. Turning long held and untested beliefs upside down.
Music, science and story. A disturbing trinity that could help us review all that we do as a church, shine light on why we have developed the belief systems we have and how we need to dramatically change our focus. If we engaged this enchanting trinity, we may be able to lift our eyes to the stars to regain the sense of wonder experienced by our ancestors and have something to offer beyond the partition walls that we have built. Awesome in the best sense of the word.
The great revolutionary Albert Einstein once said, never lose a holy curiosity. I think Jesus would agree with that revised Great Commission and might add, Fear not, for you will find me in that quest.
May the mysterious three unsettle and encourage you to new creativity.