I know life is like a roll of toilet paper, it goes faster at the end, but the last week has been crazy. Last Sunday Mary was told she was pregnant. The following day at midnight her child was born and today he is twelve years old being a bit of a smart alec, just like any pre-teen boy. According to Matthew he has already had his OE (overseas experience) in Egypt. In two weeks he will be baptised by John and beginning his ministry.
Luke is the only gospel writer to tell us anything about Jesus’ childhood. It seems it wasn’t important to those who followed Jesus or perhaps Jesus was not prone to talk about his childhood. I, personally, wish I knew more. As an answer to that wish a few years back Glynn gave me for Christmas Lamb, the Gospel according to Biff by Christopher Moore. Biff it turns out was Jesus’ BFF, best friend forever, and he fills in the blanks in Jesus’ childhood for us.
The book begins with a quote by Voltaire, “God is a comedian playing to an audience that is afraid to laugh.” From some of the reactions to our billboard, Voltaire might be right, but I thought I’d test that premise out on you this morning by sharing a couple of Biff’s recollections on growing up with Jesus. It has been a busy, somewhat stressful week for many of us and some laughter might do us good.
In the prelude to Biff’s story we find the angel Raziel cleaning out his closet. “Halos and moonbeams were sorted into piles according brightness, a satchel of wrath and scabbards of lightening hung on hooks waiting to be dusted. A wineskin of glory had leaked in the corner and the angel blotted it with a wad of fabric. Each time he turned the cloth a muted chorus rang from the closet, as if he’d clamped the lid down on a pickle jar full Hallelujah Chorus.”
An archangel interrupts his spring-cleaning. He gives him orders to return to earth to resurrect Biff two thousand years after he died so he can write his Gospel. Raziel isn’t too pleased by the assignment but once there is enchanted by TV. He mostly watches soap operas and Spiderman movies, while wondering if God might turn him into Spiderman, as Biff reluctantly writes his gospel under his supervision. Biff is a little scared of the modern world, but discovers he loves pizza. He’s pretty sure Joshua would love it too.
He explains why he calls his friend Joshua. “Jesus is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Yeshua, which is Joshua. Christ is not a last name. It’s Greek for messiah, a Hebrew word meaning anointed. I have no idea what the “H” in Jesus H. Christ stood for. It’s one of the things I should have asked him,” he writes.
He begins his story with when he met Joshua when they were six by the central well in Nazareth, “he was sitting there with a lizard hanging out his mouth. Just the tail end and hind legs were visible…the head and forelegs were halfway down the hatch…’Unclean! Unclean!’ I screamed, pointing at the boy, so my mother would see that I knew the Law, but she ignored me, as did all the other mothers…
“The boy took the lizard from his mouth and handed it to his younger brother…[who] played with it for a while…then he pick up a rock and mashed the creature’s head…he picked it up and hand it back to his brother.
“Into his mouth went the lizard, and before I could accuse, out it came squirming and alive…He handed it back his younger brother, who smote it mightily with the rock, starting or ending the whole process again.
“I watched the lizard die three more times before I said, ‘I want to do that too.’
“The Saviour removed the lizard from his mouth and said, ‘Which part?’”
From this moment on they were inseparable. “While other boys would be playing a round of tease the sheep or kick the Canaanite,” He and Joshua would play at being rabbis. He said it was more fun than it sounds or at least it was until Biff’s mother caught them trying to circumcise his little brother with a sharp rock. They would also play Moses and Pharoah.
“Let my people go,” said Joshua, as Moses.
“You can’t just say, ‘Okay’”
“No, the Lord has hardened your heart against my demands.”
“Why did he do that?”
“I don’t know, he just did. Now, let my people go.”
“Nope.” I crossed my arms and turned away like someone whose heart is hardened.
“Behold as I turn this stick into a snake. Now, let my people go!”
“You can’t just say, ‘Okay’”
“Why? That was a pretty good trick with the stick.”
“But that’s not how it goes.”
“Okay. No way Moses, your people have to stay.”
Joshua waved his staff in my face. “Behold, I will plague you with frogs. They will fill your house and your bedchamber and get on your stuff.”
“So that’s bad. Let my people go, Pharaoh.”
“I sorta like frogs.”
“Dead frogs,” Moses threatened. “Piles of steaming, stinking dead frogs.”
“Oh, in that case, you’d better take your people and go. I have some sphinxes and stuff to build anyway.”
“Dammit, Biff, that’s not how it goes! I have more plagues for you.”
“I want to be Moses.”
“I have the stick.”
I hope I have tempted you to download the book onto your iPad, Kindle or Nook. It is good for us to remember that Jesus would have grown up just like the rest of us. He would’ve had to learn about the world around him. He would have had to have been taught his faith and tested it. He may not have wondered what he’d do when he grew up, since as the first born it would be assumed he would learn his father’s trade. He would have had friends and played childhood games and gotten into trouble or caused it like he did in Luke’s story. When did he learn of his divinity? Who knows? Biff says they didn’t know as kids, although he did have a way with lizards and sticks. No one saw it. Biff says, “To everyone else he seemed like just another child: the same needs and same chance to die before he was grown.” Later, after Joshua is insolent with his father, Joseph will tell Biff who offered to help him in his carpentry shop prepare gifts for the Temple, “You go with Joshua. He needs a friend to teach him to be human. Then I can teach to be a man.”
Perhaps you have a child or grandchild (boy or girl) who is twelve still waiting to discover the divinity within them. It is up to us to see it and help them find it: To nurture and protect it.
Before you know it they will be grown. So make haste to help them find the Jesus H. Christ in them. Do that by teaching them to be human.
On National Radio recently Chris Laidlaw interviewed me after listening to a brilliant reflection on Christmas by journalist Wayne Brittenden. In it he accurately pointed out that the Emperor Constantine co-opted Christianity by having the bishops at the Council of Nicea in 325 CE focus on Jesus’ birth and death, instead of his life, a life which challenged the power of the State and religious authorities. Constantine knew what he was doing. Jesus was a subversive calling for a different kind of world than one embodied in the Roman Empire. Constantine wanted Christianity to unify the empire not undermine it, so Jesus the man had to be reduced to being born and dead, rising again in an unthreatening form to the power he had rebuked in life. It was Constantine who set the date for Christmas and the celebration of Jesus’ birth. He chose to usurp the non-Christians celebration of the rebirth of the sun god during the northern hemisphere’s winter solstice. He seemed to know that a good party will distract us from what is important. Until that time Easter was the only major festival of the church. Now Christmas far surpasses it in popularity.
I think part of the reason is you don’t have to be religious to enjoy the story, the carols, Christmas trees, parties, and gifts. Only the most cynical Scrooge does not find delight in a child’s first encounter with Santa’s knee. And if Christmas doesn’t do more than that, if we aren’t in some way transformed as we live out the next 364 days before the next Christmas, then Constantine’s effort to sanitise Jesus' message continues to keep the world safe for the powerful and those who would exploit the poor, and keeps the church on its current road to irrelevancy.
I want to push back a little this morning by telling you a story by one of my favourite authors and theologians, Frederick Buechner. He is the one who taught me “Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.”
He told this story one Christmas Eve.
“As the Italian film La Dolce Vita opens, a helicopter is flying slowly through the sky not very high above the ground. Hanging down from the helicopter in a kind of halter is the life-size statue of a man dressed in robes with his arms outstretched so that he looks almost as if he is flying by himself, especially when every once in a while the camera cuts out the helicopter and all you can see is the statue itself with the rope around it. It flies over a field where some men are working in tractors and causes a good deal of excitement. They wave their hats and hop around and yell, and then one of them recognizes who it is a statue of and shouts in Italian, "Hey, it's Jesus!" whereupon some of them start running along under the plane, waving and calling to it. But the helicopter keeps on going, and after a while it reaches the outskirts of Rome, where it passes over a building on the roof of which there is a swimming pool surrounded by a number of girls in bikinis basking in the sun. Of course they look up too and start waving, and this time the helicopter does a double take as the young men flying it get a good look at the girls and come circling back again to hover over the pool where, above the roar of the engine, they try to get the girls' telephone numbers, explaining that they are taking the statue to the Vatican and will be only too happy to return as soon as their mission is accomplished.
“During all of this the reaction of the audience in the little college town where I saw the film was of course to laugh at the incongruity of the whole thing. There was the sacred statue dangling from the sky, on the one hand, and the profane young Italians and the bosomy young bathing beauties, on the other hand - the one made of stone, so remote, so out of place there in the sky on the end of its rope; the others made of flesh, so bursting with life. Nobody in the audience was in any doubt as to which of the two came out ahead or at whose expense the laughter was. But then the helicopter continues on its way, and the great dome of St. Peter's looms up from below, and for the first time the camera starts to zoom in on the statue itself with its arms stretched out, until for a moment the screen is almost filled with just the bearded face of Christ - and at that moment there was no laughter at all in that theater full of students and their dates and paper cups full of buttery popcorn. Nobody laughed during that moment because there was something about that face, for a few seconds there on the screen, that made them be silent - the face hovering there in the sky and the outspread arms. For a moment, not very long to be sure, there was no sound, as if the face were their face somehow, their secret face that they had never seen before but that they knew belonged to them, or the face that they had never seen before but that they knew, if only for a moment, they belonged to.
“I think that is much of what the Christian faith is. It is for a moment, just for a little while, seeing the face and being still, that is all. There is so much about the whole religious enterprise that seems superannuated and irrelevant and as out of place in our age as an antique statue is out of place in the sky. But just for the moment itself, say, of Christmas, there can be only silence as something comes to life, some spirit, some hope; as something is born again into the world that is so strange and new and precious that not even a cynic can laugh although he might be tempted to weep.
The face in the sky. The child born in the night among beasts. The sweet breath and steaming dung of beasts. And nothing is ever the same again.”
That is my Christmas wish for all of us. That we might have a moment of stillness as we look at the face in the manger and recognize our own face and are transformed. That is my Christmas wish for the world. There is so much that should not remain the same including us. Hating people for their sexual orientation. Exploiting the earth for our selves with no thought for our grandchildren. Our neighbours deprived of adequate wages for the sake of stockholders. Violence against our own families. Children everywhere still hungry or ill housed. These have no place in our world.
Let us live the next 364 days knowing it is to our face in the manger that Mary sang her praise, not to Constantine and his ilk:
You, O God have shown strength with your arm
and scattered the proud in their conceit,
Casting down the mighty from their thrones and lifting up the lowly.
You have filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.
The other night I talked to a man whose whole face was lit up. Enthusiastically he said to me: “Jesus is one of us.” He was referring to our latest billboard. The 'us' was a reference to sexual minorities. For him it was a new thought, and an inspiring thought, that Jesus might have been gay.
Having read on the subject of Jesus' sexual orientation a couple of decades ago I wondered whether anyone would get enthusiastic about this billboard. Wasn’t it a case of 'been there, debated that'?
But this gentleman's face was radiant. The word 'Emmanuel" [God with us] came to mind. He had the same sort of excitement that I imagine the poor of Palestine had some two millennia ago when the message was proclaimed that God-in-Jesus was one with them.
This, God-with-us, is the fundamental theological truth of Christmas.
There are actually multiple Christmas’ celebrated at this time of year – all of them with sprinklings of truth. I would group them in three categories: the popular Christmas, the biblical Christmas, and the theological Christmas.
The popular Christmas has special and symbolic food – like cakes and candy canes. It has Christmas trees and lights – all with their own legends. It has gift-giving, parties, family gatherings, and feasting. It has music, love, joy, and peace as its themes. It has Santa, elves, and fairies. And it has a beautiful, clean, European-looking baby in a bassinette of straw, watched over by his adoring pure mother.
There is powerful mythology behind this Christmas – some of which we want to affirm, and some of which we want to question. A billboard that criticizes popular Christmas needs to be very careful less it’s misunderstood.
Then there is the biblical Christmas – the stories of Jesus’ birth told in the Gospels. In the biblical Christmas there is a scandalous pregnancy. There is brave Mary and Joseph journeying away from kin. There is Jesus born in the squalor of poverty. There are angelic choristers singing revolution in the air. There are low-life shepherds dropping in. There are mysterious Zoroastrians also coming by and incurring political displeasure. Plus there is travel – lots of arduous travel – to Bethlehem, to Egypt, and to Nazareth. Most of us know that these themes are an amalgamation of two quite separate stories in the books of Matthew and Luke. Most of us also know that they are not literal history, but rather created history that informs us about the ministry and mission of Jesus the adult.
It is difficult to create billboards about the biblical Christmas because the general public usually doesn’t get it. Popular Christmas has trumped the Bible. The visitors representing foreign religion have been made into ‘kings’. The low life shepherds have been made respectable. Jesus as a threat to imperial power has been glossed over and ignored. Angels are given wings and haloes, and had their political spines removed. Mary is not in the least bit scandalous.
The theological meaning of Christmas hinges around the location of God – the question of where is God to be found, and the related question of whom therefore does God mix and mingle with.
For centuries God was assumed to be all powerful, controlling life and death, favour, fortune, and fate. The closest human resemblance to that power was the almighty emperor or monarch, who was often referred to as a ‘son of God’ or divine. God, like powerful kings, sat on a high throne commanding all their subjects. God mixed with royalty and the privileged elite.
To this marriage of divine and earthly power was added the notion of purity. Poverty was a sign of impurity – after all the poor were dirty and lived in dirty hovels didn’t they? The rich were blessed with money [and therefore obviously blessed by God], and lived in cleaner surroundings. They were therefore acceptable and pure in God’s sight.
This coalition of the notions of divinity, power and purity on the one hand with the secular and spiritual elites on the other is an all-pervasive myth written into the architecture, art, customs, and literature of our heritage. God was where power and purity were, and power and purity were where the ruler was: in a palace or castle or mansion. Or so the predominant reasoning went.
The offence, the scandal of the Christian message, is that God was revealed in a lowly carpenter, of dubious origins, who had little wealth, no armaments, no palace, and few followers. This is the message of the birth narratives: the Christian God was born in poverty, surrounded by persons of dubious reputation. And this God continues to be amongst those in poverty and surrounded by persons of dubious reputation.
There is nowhere where God is not. This is good news for those on the margins – prisoners and ex-prisoners, sexual minorities, those with disabilities, recent immigrants, the unemployed – indeed anyone who experiences prejudice from persons or institutions with power.
It is also bad news for those who think that God is in their back pocket, believing what they believe, discriminating against those they discriminate against. It is this group that has found our latest billboard, suggesting that Jesus could have been gay, so offensive. “How could he have been one of those disgusting sinners?” they screamed at Clay and I. Anyone who doesn’t fit their definition of pure is ‘disgusting’.
If you go looking for God it’s more likely that you won’t find Her relaxing at home amongst the high and mighty, the rich and influential, and those pedaling prejudice. She will be out back, having a drink with the so-labeled ‘sinners’, mixing it with the heathens and the heretics, the troubled and the violated, and upsetting expectations. The idea that She is God is deeply offensive to those who like to think that their wealth, power, and purity are indicators of their blessedness. The idea that God might be a ‘She’ is as offensive today among conservative religious people as the notion in the 1st century that God might be born in, and live in, poverty was to their predecessors.
As with many things in Christianity this offensive message about the location of God being among the impure and the lowly, in time got subverted by the powerful elites.
As any singer of Christmas Carols knows Jesus after his death and resurrection was made a ‘king’, enthroned on high, and was seated at the right hand of God [who was also ‘high’], from whence he would rule over us. Jesus was always a king, but he lowered himself to mix and mingle with the lowly, before returning to his high royal home. This is how the powerful elites came to interpret the incarnation: an up, down, up movement. Jesus came, like a visiting dignitary, and camped at the City Mission to show he cared. But he wasn’t from the Mission, and he didn’t stay long-term at the Mission. Rather, after some 33 years, he returned to his royal home in the wealthier section of heaven.
Yet the theological truth of Christmas is that in Jesus God is dethroned. Jesus reveals a God who never sat on a throne or wanted to. Jesus reveals a God who was never a king and never wanted to be. God-in-Jesus was always at the City Mission, and will always be. God is the kindness offered, and the justice hoped for.
Jesus reveals a God who overturns our ideas of purity, and suggests that those who are kind to the discriminated are the most pure of all. Jesus reveals a God who wants to be known by the love that overcomes prejudice, which welcomes every shade of sinner and saint, and mingles with them in the messiness of here and now. There is no coming down from heavenly heights to save us. Heaven, like God, has always been here in the kindness, in the love, and in the desire to build a just and fair society for all.
So Christmas is a reality check for churches. Enjoy the popular Christmas, and the generosity and joy that it often promotes. Enjoy the biblical Christmas, and the pointers to the radical inclusiveness taught by Jesus and his followers. But also remember the theological Christmas: that God is with us, and has always and will always be, with the fragile and dependent, the poor and the suffering, the excluded and the discriminated.
Today is the third Sunday of Advent, also known as Gaudete Sunday; with the firm imperative being on our need to rejoice not just at the approaching news of Christ’s birth, but at the present effects of this already being a reality. As much as we await the not-yet of Christmas Day, we abide in the now-ness of it; for Christ is already present, here amongst us. This being the third Sunday of Advent, we are also very firmly into the seasonal tapestry of carols that place northern hemisphere weather onto the Christmas story; on Wednesday I opened our Advent calendar window only to be told that Mary had already given birth; on Friday I attended the St John’s College pre-school Christmas pageant, where Joseph looked thoroughly excited at the prospect of father-hood (no mention of divine involvement), the wise men arrived before the shepherds, and spider-man played an active role in protecting the Holy Family. It was all delightful, but it did make me reflect again on just what we think we are doing in proclaiming this most profound aspect of our faith at this time of year?
Well our readings for today certainly give us a hint: we ought to be rejoicing; but this is a rejoicing that has more grit than glamour; more sorrow that show business. Our lectionary readings for today each have wider contexts and genres that we must attend to if we are to make any sense of them: Zephaniah takes us what one commentator calls ‘a vast distance into the possibility of utter annihilation’, a text set in a 7th century BC world of social and political turmoil and the need to balance compassion with coming judgment; Paul commands the Philippians to rejoice from his less than grand location of a prison cell; and Luke too, ever the keen historian is keen to remind us that his story is set in the realities of the Roman Empire and its means of imperial administration. Each text tells a story; points towards the truth that bursts on to the scene in the incarnation, but in a way that is less than straight-forward.
Around about the year 1868, the American poet Emily Dickinson wrote these words:
Tell all the truth but tell it slant,
Success in circuit lies.
Too bright for our infirm delight
The truth’s superb surprise.
As lightening to the children eased
With explanation kind,
The truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind.
Dickinson’s poem reveals her view of the truth as something that must be broken to listener’s gently; while the reader is admonished to ultimately reveal everything, the sense is that the teller should move in circles towards the truth. A colloquial expression for this method might be ‘beat around the bush’ before the matter is fully revealed. More than that however, Dickinson’s poem shares the reflection that human beings are essentially frail and that truth is too intense for whatever fragile happiness we might now have; truth has an ability to deliver a supreme shock! The reference to children is indicative of the fragility and uncertainty often experienced by adults. How ironic perhaps that the children of the pre-school seemed far more ‘at home’ with their inhabitation of the Christmas story than the adults!
The truth must dazzle gradually.
Perhaps that is why we have an intentional period of time before Christmas Day; four Sundays in Advent, four weeks of waiting, anticipating, realising the wonder that is already in our midst, as we do on this day; but remembering that this is a message that needs to be imparted with wisdom, mystery, and in ways that encourage a depth and grace to our human frailty that is beyond our understanding. And perhaps that is why we have not one but four Gospel accounts, including two: Mark and John that give us the incarnation story in a way that is, to use Dickinson’s technique: slant. The truth is there, only we actually have to work a bit at uncovering its dazzling brightness.
The possibility of a truth that is revealed more gradually than it is in its immediacy is a helpful gloss on the strident message of John the Baptist that we heard in our Gospel reading set for this day. You might be familiar with the television programme Come dine with me, in which four strangers offer hospitality to one another over the course of successive evenings, all competing to win a cash prize. Now John is not a character you might want to have as a participant: certainly not for his culinary skills; in fact John would probably be more at home with Bear Grylls on his programme Man vs Wild. Such is his embrace of insect-eating and alternative living!
Luke provides the fullest account of John the Baptist in the New Testament. He gives the impression that John’s ministry continued for some time; it wasn’t a ‘flash in the pan’ 5-minute wonder, an impression we might gain from John’s somewhat overbearing personality. Luke is careful to place John as the instrument of preparation for Jesus, noting the continuity between them by emphasising common concerns when he describes John’s proclamation, like that of Jesus as good news. Such good news consists of John’s announcement of God’s coming wrath and the need for repentance that leads to practical action. John is a prophetic figure who emphasises the moral consequences appropriate to conversion. Repentance is a recurring Lukan theme, as also is the theme that the use of one’s possessions symbolises one’s response to the call of God. So John’s own vision takes in both personal responsibilities and relationships as well as the need for the responsible and unself-interested exercise of political, economic and military might. God will include even tax-collectors and soldiers among the children of Abraham: they behave justly but they are not called to renounce their occupations. Thus Luke blends social conservatism with a radical ethic. John’s message is stark. Towards the end of the passage, Luke tells us in what is better translated as ‘with many other consoling remarks’ John ‘spread the good news among the people’. Consoling? How? That’s not the usual way of consoling, surely? The truth is out, but it resides at a slanted angle that enables deeply held convictions and obligations to be seen from an altogether different and dazzlingly new perspective. This is the deeper perspective that the incarnation holds out to us: but if we are to proclaim it as good news we must do so in a way that allows connections to be made in our faith that enable new possibilities that take us far beyond the barriers that we are often quick to put in place.
All of this comes to a focus in the Eucharist. Christ in his incarnation, life, death, resurrection and ascension is the hope by which we live our lives as disciples. The light of the resurrection is also the light that surrounds the incarnation; the darkness of the crucifixion is also the darkness that hovers round the theme of judgment. And in both, we should ‘rejoice’ with gentleness, as Paul tells the Philippians, better translated as graciousness or tolerance. Character is informed and transformed as we are continually formed in Christ’s image, but it is also broken and reformed as the Holy Spirit moves us onwards even when we feel like our journeys are hard or haphazard, or we feel adrift in the wilderness: a lone prophetic voice like John; we do so because God wants us and those we encounter on the way to embrace the Gospel as good news. For us, gathered here this morning, this means listening to God’s word proclaimed and enacted through our sharing the Eucharist together in this church before we are sent out again into the world to be Christ to all those we encounter; a task in which we should rejoice and not lose heart, even when it all seems too hard. Scripture read and refracted through the lens of prophetic imagining and our present waiting, in future hope as the story unfurls once more. We participate in that story together.
Advent, the season that proceeds Christmas, is a time of waiting, preparing, anticipating, and hoping. Yet it is understood very differently depending on where you are standing.
Advent in Auckland’s St Luke’s shopping mall involves hearing the piped carols, waiting in queues, buying little gifts and food in preparation for Christmas, and anticipating celebrating with family and friends. You hope that gifts, giving, and eating will bring happiness to the lives of others, and to your own.
If you have been standing in Gaza city in recent weeks, hearing the whine of Israeli drones, the waiting, preparing and anticipation of Advent has a very different meaning. You wait for the noise of impact. You prepare mentally and physically for safety of those you love. You anticipate both the best and the worst. You hope it will end, and you will be alive. Christmas can’t come soon enough - for maybe on that day no one will be killed.
If you are standing in another Auckland queue, waiting for a WINZ [Work and Income] interview, preparing to look and sound like you could do any job, anticipating the worst and vainly hoping for the best, the approach of Christmas with its financial expectations is daunting. You hope that somehow your children will not be too disappointed. You hope that the tears in your heart will not seep through your eyes.
Each place of standing has fears and hopes. Each place asks us to be faithful to life, and to act with generosity and integrity. In each place we dream of a future that is good for all.
The context of Advent reflected in the biblical stories of John the Baptist is closest to Gaza than St Luke’s or WINZ.
The land of Palestine was occupied by a foreign army, the Romans. The occupiers used brutal force and its threat to elicit crippling taxes, and to suppress any dissent. The Romans also cultivated puppet rulers, like Herod, to oversee local bureaucracy. The purpose was always power and wealth. The means was always violence and fear.
The people of Palestine reacted to the occupation in different ways. Some joined bands of insurrectionists led by charismatic figures who claimed to be the hoped-for messiah. The insurrectionists fought and lost, and fought and lost, again and again.
Other Palestinians followed apocalyptic prophets [as known in the Jewish tradition], who announced the end was nigh for the Romans and a heavenly messiah with a heavy sword would shortly deal to the invaders. Such prophets often formed large movements. John was one such prophet.
The references in the John Baptist stories to the Jordan and to the wilderness are not references to water and desert. Rather they are pointers to the historical and political works and words of Moses and Joshua. They are about crossing over the Jordan from the wilderness and taking by conquest the Promised Land. John and others of his ilk were proposing a similar conquest or re-conquest of Israel.
John’s strategy was to form a system of sanctified individuals, a huge web of end-time expectations, and a network of ticking time-bombs of resistance all over the Jewish homeland. These individuals were to wait until the avenging messiah arrived, and then they would join his army. Herod Antipas killed John for being a political threat rather than for upsetting his family.
The waiting, preparation, anticipation, and hope around Advent therefore centred on political-religious salvation from the occupying power. Advent was waiting for a killing saviour, preparing to overthrow the invaders, anticipating the theocracy they would establish in Rome’s absence, and hoping that all this would happen soon.
Whilst there are differences, the similarities with the Israeli Government [like Rome] occupying the lands that once belonged to Palestinians, and the reactions of groups like Hamas and Fatah to the military might of Israel are somewhat familiar.
The latest Israeli Defense Force assault on Gaza, in addition to its targeted assassinations against political as well as military opponents, is horrifying and disturbing. It threatened to escalate into yet another cycle of violence and war-making.
The root problem in Israel-Palestine remains occupation and the denial of statehood, justice, equal rights, resources and dignity to Palestine alongside Israel. This occupation and denial creates instability and insecurity for everyone concerned, feeding fear and conflict. Killing people does not create peace.
While there is violence and extremism on both sides the all-too-easy language of equivalence masks a massive military and political power imbalance between the 'sides', and failures to acknowledge the historical injustices. Indeed it is misleading simply to speak of 'Israelis versus Palestinians'. The real confrontation is between those who believe in justice for all and those who, in practice, do not. [i]
This then is the messy context of a Gaza Advent: waiting for a two-state solution, hoping that there is political will to create it and make it work, preparing for however the likelihood that the will is not there, and anticipating ongoing violence. Hope is a very fragile thing.
The incarnation of God that Christians celebrate at Christmas is symbolized in a fragile baby. Fragility is at the heart of God’s response to conflict.
As John the Baptist might have discovered prior to his beheading, there was no killing saviour who would arrive to oust the invaders and establish a theocracy. There was only a rabbi who would welcome nuisances and nobodies – including a Roman officer’s servant.
The apocalyptic visions of Ezekiel and Daniel, reformatted by Christians in the Book of Revelations, would not come to pass. There would be no massive military victory and bloodbath. There was only a rabbi who would make himself vulnerable, crossing social boundaries to welcome and listen to outsiders.
Violence might change the balance of political power but it does not create peace. For peace needs the foundation of trust; and trust needs to be earned by convincing hearts and minds. What the rabbi from Nazareth did was to try and build a community of individuals committed to an alternate way of living and being. As our liturgy today puts it:
[Jesus] initiated a new community, an upside-down community which believes that loving is more important than winning, doing what is right is more important than doing what is safe, and setting people free is more important than trying to control their lives. [ii]
It was a fragile community. A vulnerable one. And a community that in the early centuries did not believe in engaging in armed conflict.
Last week I was reading again James K Baxter’s Jerusalem Daybook, the spirituality of which was part of my formation in the late 1970s. Baxter formed a community of misfits on the side of the Wanganui River at Jerusalem. He writes:
I do not relish the role of David in confronting that Goliath who numbs the soul wherever he touches it. But I find myself curiously, perhaps absurdly, cast in that role. And the five water-worn stones I choose from the rives, to put in my sling, are five spiritual aspects of Maori communal life –
Arohanui: The Love of the Many;
Manuhiritanga: hospitality to the guest and the stranger;
Korero: speech that begets peace and understanding;
Matewa: the night life of the soul;
Mahi: work undertaken from communal love.
I do not know what the outcome of the battle will be.
My aim may be poor.
But I think my weapons are well chosen.
So standing in the mess of a Gaza Advent, speaking naively in the face of the propaganda promulgated by those who think killing creates security and who fear the loss of their power, let us offer the wisdom of a fragile community and its founder. For our hopes and prayers seem powerless like a David before the massive reality of the Goliath war machine and its financiers. Yet naively we offer, in the strength of community, indiscriminate and costly love, prayer, and work.
Again as the liturgy says:
Recalling the promise of tomorrow we wait out the long night of struggle,
Remembering our brother Jesus, our sister Mary, and all our spiritual forbears,
Rejoicing in the bonds of solidarity…
We take, eat and drink, knowing that the Spirit of God is here within and among us.
Advent is traditionally a time of expectant waiting and preparation for God to come in the Christ Child of Christmas.
I invite you to play with this idea of hope and expectation. I tweeked our sentence and collect today to help focus us on the idea that there is a tension between a focus on living in hope and living in the present moment.
30 years ago I lived in the Anglican Vicarage and worked in St Pauls Symonds St – the church on the next hill. We were Anglican, Anglo Catholic and Charismatic. Thirty years ago we were wrestling with what that meant when we were also committed peace activists, actively protesting against the Springbok tour, starting to wrestle with racism here in NZ, discovering feminism and some of us coming out as lesbian or gay. It was an exciting time, but scary too, as the certainties that had long sustained us were no longer the firm ground on which we could stand.
Towards the end of my time at St Pauls I preached two sermons. In the first I asked whether we had to be all called brothers, and perhaps - whether – maybe - God was not male. As the one who chose the music for the services, and led the choir, I organised us to finish the service singing To be a pilgrim, in which the choir valiantly sung ‘she’ instead of ‘he’. This was well received by some, and not by others, as you can imagine. I was told I better watch it when I preached again.
It was a time of great turmoil for many of us as we sought to walk with God into a future where the certainty of the God we had known had all but disappeared. At the time many of us read a book by Harry Williams called Some Day I Will Find You. Continuing to work as a fellow of Trinity College Cambridge and Dean of Chapel there, he had lost all certainty and faith. He wrestled in therapy with what it meant to be gay and to steadily watch as his faith in God eroded - he felt he was killing God.
It was only after 17 years in therapy that he discovered that in fact he had killed an idol, and he had found God in a new way. Wow – it was a powerful image that has remained with me ever since. I was reminded of the saying: “If you find the Buddha on the way - kill him” If we think we have found the answer, that we have found God, that we have found the truth - we are wrong.
Don Cowan, the Anglican City Missioner at that time, preached at St Pauls and I have never forgot the sermon – (To be honest, there are not many I have remembered – but this was one). Don stood up and said: “Faith is Not Knowing”. This rang so many bells for me – as it was such a contradiction to what I had been taught as a young Sydney evangelical – where faith was definitely not about doubt, but about knowing and certainty. Don quoted Thomas Merton "Thoughts in Solitude"
MY LORD GOD, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. … I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
Along with the writings of some contemplatives like Thomas Merton, another resource that started to give us some ground to stand on at that time was the writings of Matthew Fox. Creation spirituality offered us a new way of seeing ourselves – not as sinners in constant need of redemption, but as people made in God’s image – blessed by God and invited to be partners with God in building a world of peace and love and justice.
With some trepidation I prepared what was my second (and to be my last) sermon at St Pauls. It focused around this idea of Original Blessing - We had not found the answer or the truth, but it seemed we had found a pathway. We were not born into original sin, but into original blessing. We were not miserable sinners, we were God’s friends, fallible at times, but rich in blessing and potential.
After the service someone came up to me and said “I have been waiting for years to hear that in a church”. Others were appalled to have the doctrine of Original Sin challenged in that way. Unfortunately the latter was what ruled, and it was the last sermon I was asked to preach there, and the start of a journey out of St Pauls for me, and many others. Here I am 25 years later preaching on the other hill.
Although I loved the Anglican Liturgy and had come to love our rich and colourful High Mass at St Pauls, I wrestled with traditional Liturgy – the place where so much of our Anglican theology is worked out. It did not seem to recognise us as anything other than miserable sinners. We came into a Church building which seemed to scream at us that we were insignificant, and God was great. We stood up and said the Gloria – how great God was, then knelt down to say sorry – how pathetic we were, and it did not get much better than that. We celebrated and heard of the deeds of God, and prayed for God’s blessing on those in need, and sought sustenance in the communion to keep us going. It seemed that nowhere did we recount the stories of our triumphs, our dreams, our struggles and disappointments.
I was part of a group called Spiral which met here at St Matthews in the nineties, and in that we tried to work through the language of our faith as we prepared liturgies and rituals that reflected what we were discovering of ourselves and of God. I remember in one of the early services in the choir stalls, the first thing we did was gather the stories of our week – what we had been doing. It seemed a great way to begin a liturgy – to gather up some of the journeys we had been on it the past weeks.
One of the reasons I come to St Matthews is that much of the careful planning for liturgy here is based on this premise that we are partners with God in building a new world of peace, justice and love.
We could possibly do even better at this. I once wrote a story about the church being a fire on the hill. A place where some people made the commitment to keep that fire alive. And others were welcome to gather around it as they journeyed. It would be a place where we could connect our stories with the stories of other pilgrims, and with the great stories of the past. Where we could celebrate and get some sustenance for the journey.
This is one of the reasons I would like St Matthews and other churches to focus more on occasional (monthly?) festival services, rather than weekly services. Weekly services would be there for those who wanted them, but festivals would enable us to provide a welcoming place for people to gather for whom church is not home, but is a place to rekindle passion, make connections and commit ourselves to work for the world for which we long.
Back to the tension between waiting in hope and living in the present.
If we are miserable sinners, then all we can do is wait for redemption - there is “no good in us” as the prayer book used to say.
If we are blessed by God, if we are friends of God – the future is what we create together – we too are creators, not simply passive observers.
Yes this Advent we wait in expectation
for love, peace and justice to be fully present in our world.
But we do not wait passively,
We work alone and with each other,
To bring about the future of which we dream.
May we hold the tension of living in hope and living in the present moment,
Knowing that the future will be defined by what we do now. Amen.
Today is Aotearoa Sunday. It is not celebrated everywhere, not even here where it is the Maori name for New Zealand. No one outside the Anglican Church here celebrates it today, and not even the majority of Anglican churches. It is an alternative to celebrating what most of the Christian world celebrates today, Christ the King Sunday: the last Sunday before Advent, when we begin our lead up to Christmas. We celebrate the alternative here because we think Jesus never saw himself as a king. That is a post-Easter understanding of him that nurtures a patriarchal understanding of Christianity. After the Church of England’s failure to approve women bishops this week, I definitely don’t want to reinforce that understanding of Jesus. We don’t want to be party to the Anglican Church’s attempt at assisted suicide. I certainly don’t after my sermon last week blasting patriarchy.
But Aotearoa Sunday presents a problem for an American, who as a priest still mangles the pronunciation of some Maori words, including the word Maori. That embarrasses me after more than seven years here, but I will keep trying to get it right, because the biculturalism of New Zealand was one of its appeals to me.
Normally we invite a guest preacher, who is knowledgeable about our history and culture to speak on this occasion. Circumstances this year leave you with me. So, you are left with an outsider who loves his adopted country and is married to a fifth generation New Zealander and has Maori grandchildren through that union to try and find the spiritual importance of this Sunday.
When I begin a sermon I actually begin by trying to find a sentence of the day that captures what I want to talk about. Google is great at helping to find quotes. This week I found a Kiwi site that had collected the quotes of visitors to New Zealand. While I didn’t choose any of them, I got a kick out of them even though most were not how I experience New Zealand.
My wife has been visiting North America for about 20 years to see her daughter. Over the years she has been impressed that more and more Americans and Canadians know something about us and have even visited and lived here. I think we need to thank Sir Peter Jackson and The Lord of the Rings for that, but on our last trip there was a security agent at one American airport that thought she lived on an island off of the coast of the Netherlands and a customs agent in Canada that thought she needed a visa because she was travelling on a Cambodian passport (He was black and he still turned bright red when he discovered his mistake).
Knowing of the rest of the world’s ignorance of our existence makes me appreciate Mark Twain’s observation back home after his tour of New Zealand, “If it would not look too much like showing off, I would tell the reader where New Zealand is.”
Many have not been impressed. Charles Darwin visited the country on his famous voyage around the world. Four years after this congregation was formed he said in 1860, “I believe we were all glad to leave New Zealand. It is not a pleasant place. Amongst the natives there is absent that charming simplicity… and the greater part of the English are the very refuse of society.”
Sir Clement Freud, the grandson of Sigmund, must have visited us in January. When asked his opinion of New Zealand replied, “I find it hard to say, because when I was there it seemed to be shut.”
But my favourite quote was from an American entertainer, Eric Sharp, “The United States invented the space shuttle, the atomic bomb and Disneyland. We have 35 times more land than New Zealand. 80 times the population, 144 times the gross national product and 220 times as many people in jail.
“Many of our big cities have more kilometres of freeway than in all of New Zealand, our ten biggest metropolises each have more people than all of New Zealand, and metropolitan Detroit has more cars on the road than in all of New Zealand.
“So how come a superpower of 270 million people got routed in the America’s Cup, the world’s most technically oriented yacht race, by a country of 3.5 million that out produces us only in sheep manure?”
I found out the answer to his question this week. It is provided in the Maori proverb, “It’s the people, the people, the people.”
Lynette’s son is partnered to a woman who is part Maori and part Chinese (the mixing of races is so Kiwi). We love her to death. They have given us two beautiful granddaughters. Her name is Trudy. She has had very few breaks in her life, but she is determined to give our grandchildren a different life and not to let the circumstances of her life dictate her future. With no qualifications she enrolled in Te Wānanga o Aotearoa. That is roughly translated as the University of New Zealand.
This week she graduated and we went to the Telstra Clear Pacific Event Centre to witness her graduation. It was the most amazing graduation I’ve ever seen. The graduates entered to a Karenga chant instead of Pomp and Circumstances. There was a warrior at the back with spear swinging daring loudly those inside to just try and stop these graduates from achieving greatness and the response from a choir on the inside welcomed them in. Or at least that is how I interpreted what was going on. As I watched the graduates enter I found myself tearing up. They did not wear traditional caps and gowns. They all wore their Sunday best, but for some their Sunday best were second hand clothes and crocs. Some wore traditional dress from their country of origin. In their faces I saw determination and pride that they had against all odds achieved academic goals that could change their lives. I saw hope, courage and faith in their eyes. And my eyes welled with tears in admiration. They humbled me. For me they are heroic. Against all odds and huge barriers to their success, they were able to hope and dream and work hard to become all each of us is intended to be.
I confess that while I was aware of Trudy’s taking classes, after seven years here I had never heard of what is now New Zealand’s largest tertiary institution of higher learning. It has been around since 1984 and how it came into being says a lot about this country. Two members of Te Awamutu College wanted to provide a “marae of learning” as an educational alternative for the large number of predominantly Maori students being expelled from the college. In 1993 the Ministry of Education granted them tertiary status. In 2000 it had 3,127 students but in four years it had 66,756 students. In 2010, 50% of the students identified as Maori and 10% as Pasifika. Sixty-eight per cent were women and 52% were older than 40 years of age. Thirty-eight per cent had no qualifications when they entered and 30% were unemployed when they began. Of those who began, 70% graduated. All of the early levels are free and the higher levels of qualification are modestly priced and many scholarships are available. While originally created for Maori the names of those graduating came from around the world. While we went to cheer Trudy, one of our own members, originally from Russia was also proudly graduating. After the ceremony, someone Lynette nursed many years ago in mental health recognised her and eagerly came to greet her, glowing over her achievement.
This is Aotearoa. We don’t just know how to win yacht races and shovel sheep manure. It is a place where hope can spring up anywhere and give shelter to all the birds of the air. This institution that is changing lives, breaking the cycle of poverty by opening doors, is much like the mustard seed Jesus compares to God’s realm. It is the smallest of seeds and like weeds can spring up anywhere. Aotearoa, at its best, is fertile ground for such seeds. Maybe it is because of all that sheep poo.
Today’s Gospel is the beginning of what is often referred to as Mark’s “Little Apocalypse.” I have always struggled with its message and location in the narrative. I tend to agree with those scholars who say it was a later insert by the early church. It basically says the world is going to end soon. Since history has proved it wrong as a literal prediction I don’t see much point in dwelling on it. For that matter, since Obama got re-elected, I’ve decided not to worry anymore about the Mayan calendar’s predictions of a similar catastrophe next month.
Instead I want to reflect on something that’s real and has been the cause of catastrophe since it emerged at least 6000 years ago: Patriarchy. Literally, “Rule by the Fathers.” It is my reflection on Hannah’s story in I Samuel that has dared me to tread where probably no one with a Y chromosome should tread, especially if he lives with a wise, perceptive, and strong woman who can ably express her thoughts on this issue. My fear, and I ask your forgiveness in advance, is that I’m a lot like Hannah’s husband Elkanah, a nice guy who truly loves his wife but doesn’t always get the reality of her life. Hannah’s reality is that her barrenness is judged as being God’s punishment, bringing her the scorn of others. More importantly if her husband should die before her in this “traditional” biblical family with two wives, his sons by the other spouse would inherit everything and she would be dependent on their good will (or lack of it).
Confounded by her constant sorrow at her barrenness, Elkanah asks, “Am I not more to you than ten sons?” when he should have said, “Hannah, YOU are more than ten sons to ME.” While I am uncomfortably aware that I might be equally inept today, my reflection has led me to be reminded at how destructive patriarchy’s continuing dominance is. Certainly all women are its victims, and in my view, so are all men. Let me give just one quick example.
The first expectation of patriarchy is having dominance over women, which is bad enough, and the second is to have sons, which is worse. Until science discovered that each of us is half of each of our parents, the only importance women had was as incubators. At the time of Hannah, the Hebrew people had no concept of an after life. One lived on in your children. So, in particular, with their limited biological knowledge, it was essential to have sons for life to carry on. On this point Hannah clearly agreed. She doesn’t pray for a daughter. A daughter wouldn’t have solved her plight. With her knowledge a daughter bore life but did not create life. It is also true that a daughter didn’t inherit anything either. She would still be destitute should Elkanah pre-decease her.
Patriarchy is grounded in devaluing the feminine gender. One might think our modern knowledge would have had some impact on this attitude and that patriarchy might be in decline, but not so. Science has become a tool of patriarchy. Through ultra scans and other tests, it is possible to determine the sex of a child in utero. Certainly throughout Asia, and I suspect widely in the Western world, this knowledge all too often leads to aborting girls. I’m pro-choice, but this is a horrific and truly immoral choice. One Indian Nobel Laureate believes 600,000 girls go missing every year in India alone. This is leading to greater and greater gender imbalance there. This imbalance is already creating numerous social ills, sex trafficking being only one.
When I was deciding where to emigrate after the 2004 presidential debacle in the US, New Zealand had a woman in each of its top government posts: Governor-General, Prime Minister and Speaker of the House, and a woman was CEO at one of its largest corporations, Telecom. I knew that New Zealand was the first country in the world to pass women’s suffrage and the Anglican Church of Aotearoa New Zealand and Polynesia had elected the first woman Diocesan bishop in the worldwide Anglican Communion. As a proud father of two daughters, I thought I was coming to a country where patriarchy, if not yet dead, was in steep decline. I know. I’ve always been a little naïve. Today, the most prominent woman in politics I can think of is Paula Bennett, the Minister for Social Development, who has chosen to forget that in her past she has been supported by a generous social contract as the price of accepting power from men. She has chosen to play by patriarchy’s rules and poor women suffer. There are lots of other indicators that patriarchy is alive and well here. Just one would be our appalling domestic violence figures. Another is that our growing economic inequality hits women far harder than men. There are far too many women here who suffer on a level matching or surpassing Hannah’s.
And as troubled as I am about the situation here, it is worse where my daughters live. What became known as the “War on Women” by Republicans in the last election went far beyond disturbing when one candidate suggested that some rape is legitimate and another that it is God’s will. And that is just the tip of the iceberg. I do take solace that women voted in droves and those Republicans and Romney with them paid a price. I think Hannah would be pleased. I know I am. I take solace that there is now a record 81 congresswomen in a House of 435 representatives (even if one of them is Michelle Bachman) and that 20 of our 100 senators are women; also a record. However, less than a 20% representation of women in congress is nothing to be proud of in a country where slightly more than 50% of the population is female. I should note that it is not hugely better here, but there has been progress: 34% of parliament is composed of women. But I think the world will be a better place when there is gender parity here and the US and everywhere. The best it is anywhere is in Sweden where 47% of its parliament is women.
You may have noticed that I am well into this sermon and haven’t mentioned religion’s role in patriarchy. You would be warranted in thinking the preacher has a blind spot. The church usually does where patriarchy is concerned, choosing to disregard the many who see religion at the root of patriarchy’s evil.
In truth, we know that patriarchy was long established before the great religions of today began to first glimmer. All the major religions and great philosophies can be traced back to a period between 800 and 200 BCE. The period has come to be called the Axial Age. It was a time of Socrates and Plato; Elijah, Jeremiah, Isaiah and Second Isaiah; Buddha, Lao Tze and Confucius. It was a time when Indian philosophy developed ideas of nonviolence, karma and asceticism and the Upanishads were written. Christianity and Islam, while coming after it, were the direct descendants and beneficiaries of this age of spiritual enlightenment. It has been called “The Great Leap of Being.” These spiritual teachers did not reinforce patriarchy’s love of power and dominance over others. They confronted it. Clearly in Jesus or Buddha there is no hint of the “us and them” that patriarchy promotes. In my view this was a highly progressive era in human history, however short-lived. For instance, after Constantine came to power in 313 CE and co-opted Christianity, patriarchy corrupted Jesus’ teachings and throughout Christendom today that corruption is still predominant. The church too often is patriarchy’s tool to maintain domination. It is much the same story with other faiths as well that have lost touch with their founders’ non-patriarchal vision. I think it can be argued that the great religions can be counted among patriarchy’s victims.
So where is our hope? Let me return to Hannah. One American theologian, Karla Suomala, wonders if the author of I Samuel was acutely aware of the injustice of a woman’s circumstances at that time? Is he giving voice through Hannah to the deep, systemic injustice that has caused untold suffering for women throughout history? She admits it may just be wishful thinking on her part, but thinks it is possible when we look to the next chapter at Hannah’s Song. It is more than a simple prayer of thanks for the birth of her son Samuel. It is a song of revolution where the bows of the mighty are broken and poor are raised up. She points to the pillars of injustice that must be pulled down. [i]
We may not live in an Axial Age, but there are many of us in all faiths and those with no faith who strongly agree with Hannah. We must not think we are powerless. God is within us. However, we must be more aware of how we ourselves have been shaped by patriarchy. We must become more aware of our complicity with it. We must claim our power to confront it and challenge it. We must hold fast to the insights born so long ago in that ancient age, that Hannah represents. We must speak first honestly to ourselves and then to those who would dismiss us, and care not for those who suffer at their hands. Let us stop the suffering. Let us sing a song of revolution: a song of liberation from patriarchy. Hannah knows the words.
Courage is like climbing a mountain. It’s mostly about putting one foot in front of the other and keeping going. It’s about tenacity.
My grandfathers and grand-uncles all fought in the so-called Great War that ended this day in 1919. Some of them lived, most were wounded, and some died. Like the stories collected by Megan Hutchings that we’ve just heard, some recorded their memories. It is difficult though to find the words to describe something that is horrifically indescribable.
They left on ships with youthful optimism and excitement. Their bodies returned weary, jaded, and silent. It then took the courage of their families and partners to bring their minds home, and offer healing and solace. My maternal grandfather kept his war in a tiny sealed room in the back of his head. Only late in life did his Alzheimer’s disease open that door.
As a child I imagined courage to be something like that of a movie action hero who seeing the insurmountable odds, weighed the options, and leapt into the fray… later to emerge victorious. It’s an enduring and influential narrative but has little similarity with the courage of my forebears.
It is hard to imagine 1915 trench warfare. Living in thick mud, where death was both random and constant. All the Arnold Schwarzeneggers were dead and gone. All the trees were dead and gone. Only the flies weren’t dead. They were thick.
So courage meant enduring. It meant getting up, doing what was necessary, doing what was asked of you, as it was asked of all your mates. It meant hoping that one day this too would end. Courage meant not giving in to despair.
One of courage’s synonyms is faith. Faith is not a set of beliefs, just as courage is not a collection of skills. Rather faith and courage are about attitude – attitude that is particularly obvious when the going gets steep. You know – when you are laid off, or the money runs out, or you experience discrimination, or someone close dies, or you or they suffer from Alzheimer’s, or other diseases mental and physical…
Life often resembles a steep mountain. Courage is the capacity to keep going.
The author of the Book of Ecclesiastes in chapter 3 writes, “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven”. In poetic fashion it lists a series of opposites, including gathering and scattering, love and hate, and war and peace.
It would be a mistake though to think Ecclesiastes is condoning hate and war. Rather the author is looking out across human experience and noting the hard, horrific places and the smooth, soothing ones. There is suffering, and there is serenity. There is conflict, and there is compassion.
Pete Seeger, who once performed here in St Matthew’s, set these words to music and named the song “Turn, turn, turn”. The Rock Group “The Byrds” popularized it further. Seeger though made one addition to the ending of the Ecclesiastes text. The last two lines read: “A time for love, a time for hate; a time for peace, I swear it’s not too late.”
Rather than simply observing human experience Seeger invites us to adopt the attitude of courage and work for peace. This is a similar sentiment to that of the author Matthew when he accredits to Jesus the phrase “Blessed are the peacemakers”. To believe in any blessedness is an act of courage.
So, in that spirit, in memory of all the fallen, wounded, and weary, I offer six beatitudes:
Blessed are those who keep going, keep getting up, when all they really want to do is stop and lie down and disappear.
Blessed are those beset by pain and heartache who believe in a different future, one of smiles and flowers that pirouette.
Blessed are those who in the midst of hopelessness infect others with hope, and keep the dogs of despair at bay.
Blessed are those who sit beside the wounded, telling them all is well, when it’s not.
Blessed are those who make us laugh when we want to cry, they are the angels of God.
Blessed are you when you do anything that is kind, compassionate, helpful and hopeful – especially when you find it difficult.
Then the courage/faith of our forebears lives on in you.
Ian Douglas, Bishop of the Diocese of Connecticut, and a representative of the Episcopal Church on the Anglican Consultative Council that was meeting in New Zealand was the guest speaker. He spoke to what is at the heart of our faith.
Lazarus always presents us with the perfect opportunity to talk about that grim reality of death and that mysterious and wonderful phenomenon of new life.
His story only appears in John’s Gospel. And like the other Gospel writers, John is writing from and for a specific community of believers. His gospel, like the others, was written to reaffirm certain understandings and traditions about Jesus that his community was primarily concerned with. Lazarus’ story was no doubt included to reaffirm to his community that the Jesus of their tradition had power even over death.
In doing some thinking around the themes of life and death for this reflection and being the curious lad I am, I thought it might be interesting to know some facts about life and death; like just exactly how many people die each day around the world and how. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), approximately 150,000 people die each day around the globe. To put that into perspective, that would be the entire populations of Tauranga and Gisborne dying in one day. Annually, that works out to be just under 55 million people who die each year. That’s about 14 times the population of New Zealand every year.
In addition to those somewhat morbid statistics, the WHO had some good news and some bad news about the ways in which we die. The good news is that for 90 percent of people in industrialized nations the leading cause of death is old age. This means you have a very good chance of dying at the end of your natural life cycle from old age related causes. The bad news is, our brothers and sisters in developing countries are not so fortunate, their leading causes of death include famine and malnutrition related illness as well as infectious diseases like HIV AIDS which is the leading cause of death in some of those countries. Why exactly the disparity, I wondered.
The more statistics I read, the more I realised that this reflection couldn’t just be about life and death it was largely going to be concerned about the inequality that is happening in between. Inequality is something that many of us here know a lot about.
But did we know that it can and does make some of us sick?
Back in 2009, the Guardian carried an article that said:
[a] new study published [...] by the World Health Organisation (WHO) argue that it is inequality that has the most profound and far-reaching consequences for individuals and wider society. The study, which draws on research from throughout Europe, concludes that mental health difficulties are most pronounced in countries such as Britain, which, although rich, have high levels of income and social inequality.
And as we all know the, the mental and spiritual are linked to the physical. Mental illnesses often manifest themselves in physical ways. In essence, the WHO was saying that the West was not immune, that inequality in industrialized nations made people sick there too, it wasn’t something that happened only in developing nations.
They concluded that “injustice and inequality are deeply toxic to us.”
When they say “us” they mean all of Us, they mean all of society suffers from the sickness of inequality.
I begin to wonder what that meant about our own lived experience of marginalisation as queer people.
I found that a number of studies had come out over the past few years that confirmed the impact on queer community’s physical and mental health with direct links to inequality. These studies showed that when institutions create policies that exclude groups of people based on their sexual or gender identities, those groups were more significantly at risk for mental health related problems and for worsening existing conditions. These studies showed that there were definite links between exclusion to everything from HIV transmission rates to depression and addiction.
Another recent study looked at the small handful of states where marriage equality is the law in the US and found that the overall mental health of gays and lesbians in those states vastly improved upon the enactment of marriage equality legislation. Why is that?
All of these studies came to the same conclusion; inequality is bad for the world’s health. These studies merely reiterate to us what our faith and our lived experience has already shown us to be true, that because we are created as equal beings; when that basic fundamental understanding is abused and groups of people are relegated to the margins, there are consequences and we all pay the price.
This understanding of course was the foundation of Jesus’ life and ministry. The Gospel’s are largely focused on health and equality as healing. Jesus knew that inequality made people sick and made the sick even sicker. He knew it made the world a sicker place. He knew that to have healthy societies, justice would have to prevail and inequality would have to be overcome. And he was executed for this reason by those who stood to lose their grip on power in the face of that justice.
The goal tonight is not to portray the queer community collectively as a “sick” people because I don’t believe we are regardless of what some in the Church might say. If there is a sickness in the Church, and there is, that sickness is about the phobias and the fear of the queer Other. Having said that, I think we do need to acknowledge that there are many in our community who are hurting and wounded and sick from the experience of marginalisation. And if it is detrimental to one of us, it is detrimental to all of us. Healing must be a part of our collective struggle. Unfortunately it is the part of our struggle that we do not often speak about. I fear there is still a stigma and a shame attached to talking about sickness in our community but the shame of this inequality is not ours to bear but the healing ministry is.
I often wonder how the Church can ever be an effective agent for healing in developing countries when our leadership continues to enforce policies of exclusion of gays and lesbians. What right have they to condemn injustice around the globe when they continue to enforce injustice right here at home? The shame of this inequality is not ours to bear.
Justice is not about lip-service, it is about action. The huge disparity in the way people die around the world and how and why they become sick reminds us that we have a lot of healing work to do in this world and that that healing must necessarily start with justice. There is no way around it. If inequality makes our world sick, than surely equality can make it better. It has the power to bring us into new life.
Tonight on this holy night of All Saints let us make or renew our individual and collective commitment to be like Jesus in healing and in demanding equality. Let us also make a vow to be like Lazarus, to allow the healing power into our lives and into our communities and pray that it compels us into new life. Let us accept together what Jesus commanded the people about Lazarus, to tear away the grave clothes, to unbind one another and to be set free. Amen.
Today we have a guest preacher, Ian Douglas, the bishop of Connecticut. Unfortunately for you I am not he. He is not available for this service.
So Glynn at the last minute asked if I could substitute, “You can just give them a travelogue about your trip to North America,” he suggested. I can just feel the excitement and anticipation running through you. Remember when people would invite you over to see slides of their recent travels. Thank God those days have passed. So don’t worry I’m not going to set up a slide show. All the pictures are on Facebook if you are curious.
Let me tell you in brief about our travels, but there is just one small piece of the trip I want to dwell on.
For those who don’t know, Lynette and I have nine of our fifteen grandchildren in North America. So we scrimp and save to see them every 12 to 18 months. Some live on an island a ferry ride outside of Seattle, some live north of Denver at the foot of the Rockies and some in a suburb of Toronto a few blocks from Lake Ontario. As usual it was fun and an active time, since six of them are between the ages of 3 and 7 and three are between 10 and 15. They had us sailing in the Puget Sound and riding 1km zip lines down Canadian hills just over the tops of trees full of autumn’s colours. We saw countless soccer games broken up with the occasional karate and gymnastics class and an ice hockey practice.
Usually we then just come back, but this time we decided to have some time for the two of us. Since Lynette had never visited the east coast of the US, we travelled from Boston to Vermont to New York City to Washington, DC. In Washington we spent five nights at the seminary I was trained in. It hadn’t changed a great deal in 30 years, but they had made two great improvements. We had WiFi and they had added a pub opened in the evenings. (The new dean is an Englishman.)
But the piece I want to tell you about was during our stay in NYC. In planning the trip I decided Lynette should experience a Broadway play, so I got tickets for one called “The Book of Mormon.” It was written by the same people who write the satirical cartoon, South Park. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I knew it was a hit and likely to be irreverent. I was not disappointed. The first song was Africans singing a cheerful and joyous song about how to pray when bad things happen that they taught two new newly assigned Mormon missionaries. When they translated it for them it was basically about when bad things happen give God the finger.
But I get ahead of myself. I thought the play was going to take the mickey out of Mormons in particular, and religion in general. It did that but it offered something in return.
The play begins on graduation day from missionary school for young men in short sleeve white shirts with black ties and black slacks. They are waiting to find out who their partner will be and where they will be assigned for the next two years to ring doorbells and hand out the Book of Mormon. The star of the class is hoping to be assigned to Orlando, Florida and expects to have a cool partner. Well, his missionary buddy is Arnold who barely got through missionary school, and is an embarrassment not only to his classmates but his family. Worse, they don’t get to go to Disney World. They are assigned to Uganda. Thanks to warlords and poverty they have lots of opportunities to sing their newly learned prayer to God.
When they arrive they learn that those missionaries who have been assigned earlier have converted and baptised exactly no one during their time there.
I don’t want to spoil the plot for you because it will certainly come to NZ someday, and I do want you to see it if you can, but in brief what happens is this:
The nerdy missionary befriends a young woman who is about to be forcibly circumcised by the warlord who tyrannizes the tribe. Arnold protects her. During their hiding he tells her about the Book of Mormon. One problem. He’s never read it. So he tells her about the parts he thinks he knows and blends that with big parts of Star Wars movies and Star Trek episodes, which he loves. He creates an outlandish myth, which changes her life. She shares the myth with father and the people of the tribe, and Arnold successfully converts the whole tribe. They stop giving the finger to God for one thing. All goes well until the Mormon bishop comes to meet this amazing missionary and the tribe tells the story he has taught them. I won’t tell you any more. I’ll leave that to your imagination, but there is a happy and unexpected ending.
What I got to thinking about after seeing the play is about how most religious myth is a little on the weird side, so we should be careful when we challenge the myths of others. I know we Christians claim to have the one true myth, but what really makes a myth true is how it changes our lives and how it inspires us to treat others and ourselves. While I find Arnold’s myth more believable than the Book of Mormon, I think I will stick with our own outlandish one. And since this is All Saints’ Sunday I will hope that my belief in it will lead me to live a life that one day counts me amongst the saints of God.
My text this morning is all the music offered throughout this service of worship — from the organ voluntaries, the Old Testament reading from an ancient hymnbook, the Book of Psalms, and the choral anthem, to the hymns you have sung as a congregation. What I shall I offer as a message is my reflection on music as a gift of God, and I begin not with Bach or Mozart or Beethoven or Douglas Lillburn or David Hamilton, but with an ancient Roman poet, Ovid.
Eight years after the birth of Christ in distant Palestine, this man was sitting in a lonely room on the shore of the Black Sea. To him it must have seemed the most desolate spot on earth. A place where the Danube froze over in winter; a savage world of barbarians living in brutish poverty, Ovid had been banished from Rome, then the capital of the known world, and sent to the edge of the Roman Empire to die, separated from his wife and his family. He says he would have gone mad or committed suicide if he hadn't had the comfort of being able to express his feelings in the poem he was making, a poem which has come down to us more than 2000 years later.
It's hardly surprising that making rhythmical verses relieves the horror of this terrible place, he says, for don't human beings do the same kind of thing everywhere?
The ditch digger, even though he is shackled, turns to song,
lightening his heavy load with a rough tune; he also sings who,
bent forward over the slimy sand, tows the slow-moving barge
against the current; so does the slave pulling regularly on the oar,
timing his stroke to the sound of the flute; the weary shepherd,
leaning on his staff or sitting on a rock, calms his sheep
with the drone of his reed pipe; the slave girl whiles away
her toil, singing as she spins at her allotted task.
Music, this precious gift of God, is a peace-maker. One of the most important social functions of music in every society is to make misery tolerable. For music can take the griefs and rages and fears and hostilities of the present time and turn them into song and melody; getting our troubled emotions and dangerous thoughts off our chests (and hearts) as it were. You have probably noticed how modern pop songs have turned to themes of war, pollution, loneliness, our fears of global warming, the defiance of oppressive authority, and all the rest. And modern high-art music is full of discords, jagged rhythms and electronic hisses — perfectly matching the increasing doubts and anxieties of modern society. Indeed, I’m pretty sure that’s why the relative calm and positive sound-scapes of earlier classical music have such an attraction for so many listeners.
Ain't it hard to stumble when you got no place to fall,
Ain't it hard to travel when you got no place to go,
In this whole wide world I got no place at all,
Left my friends behind, there’s no one here I know.
I'm a stranger here, a stranger everywhere;
I could go home, but honey, I’m a stranger there.
Says a Negro blues song.
Oh what did you see, my blue-eyed son?
Oh what did you see, my darling young one?
I saw a new born baby with wild wolves all around it,
I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it,
I saw a black branch with blood that kept dripping,
I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin',
I saw a white ladder all covered with water,
I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken,
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children,
And it’s a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard, it’s a hard,
And it's a hard rain's a gonna fall,
What a vlsion of dread! And even if Bob Dylan has never again spoken so powerfully, that's a musical statement that carries the accumulated terrors and sufferings of the past, and the anticipated horrors of the future for us all.
Of course, music doesn't always carry such an enormous load of communal dread and anxiety. Indeed, we are often more grateful for the healing power of this gift of God; its power to soothe and calm our anxious fears. Music, in fact, can cheer and encourage us; make us feel happy and secure.
Hush little baby, don't you cry,
Mamrna's gonna make you a blackberry pie (American lullaby)
My pigeon house I open wide and I set my pigeons free
They fly up high into the sky and they sit on the highest tree.
And when they return from their merry, merry flight,
Oh, if you need a friend, I'm sailing right behind.
Like a bridge over troubled waters I will ease your mind;
When you're down and out, when you're on the street,
When evening falls so hard, I will comfort you (Paul Simon)
This astonishing gift of God can calm and console us; sometimes even allow us to give a shout of exultation.
VIVALDI GLORIA /HALLELUJAH CHORUS
The power and beauty of music can be such that it's tempting to dream about its moral virtue, and that's what happens on a warm Italian night when in Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice two young lovers talk together as they listen to a musician play. Jessica — who is usually a high-spirited girl — tells Lorenzo, 'I am never merry when I hear sweet music'. Lorenzo (who must have been something of a student) replies that is because of the mysterious power of music over the very soul, for even wild horses will calm down in the presence of music. That’s why the poets invented the myth that Orpheus with his music could draw trees, stones and rivers:
Since naught’s so blockish, hard and full of rage
But music may quite change its nature.
The man that hath no music in himself
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds
Is fit only for treasons, stratagems and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night,
And his desires dark as Hell —
Let no such man be trusted.
Well, it's a romantic passage, and it would be comforting indeed to think that men and women with music in them were quieter and calmer and morally finer than the tone deaf and the awkward and the unmusical. Alas, Hitler enjoyed listening to Wagner, and Stalin enjoyed American hillbilly music. In the Renaissance we hear of choir directors kidnapping young singers from other choirs for their own choirs, and the quarrels of pop group musicians are legendary. Like all good gifts, it’s what you do with it that matters.
I turn to yet another aspect of music as a gift of God. Music can provide a vision of a universe in harmony with God and with itself.
For thousands of years there existed a most unscientific but very beautiful idea that music was not only part of the soul of all human beings; it was part of the very nature of the physical universe. That the stars and the planets in their moving created a wondrous and actual symphonic sound.
Let’s go back to our Merchant of Venice lovers. There they are, sitting together in the moonlight, while a friend plays quietly on a lute.
How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank! — says Lorenzo.
Here will we sit and let the sounds of music
creep in our ears. Soft stillness and the night
become the touches of sweet harmony.
Sit Jessica. Look how the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with dishes of bright gold.
There's not the smallest orb which thou beholdest
But in his motion like an angel sings,
Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubim —
Such harmony is in immortal souls,
But, while this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close them in we cannot hear it.
From the time of the ancient Greeks until the late 16th century it was believed that the planets, circling round our earth and rolling within great crystalline spheres, in their motion gave out a wonderful harmony of sound—the music of the spheres. A sound so sublime that only souls released from the prison of the body at death could hear it, so pure and perfect were the 'cadences and carolings' of the stars and the planets.
Joseph Addison, in his fine hymn (seldom sung these days) 'The spacious firmament on high', gives us€ an idea of what it meant to have lost such a sense that earthly life was a reflection of real cosmic harmony, when scientific discoveries eventually destroyed any belief in the music of the spheres:
What though in silence all move round the dark terrestrial ball?
What though no real voice or sound amidst these radiant orbs be heard?
In reason's ear they all rejoice and utter forth a glorious voice,
For ever singing as they shine, the hand that made us is divine.
Well, we now know that space isn’t as completely silent as the early scientists supposed, and we’ve been brave enough to send out the music of Bach and Mozart and Beethoven as evidence to whoever is out there of our intelligence and creativity. I half wonder if one day our radio telescopes and all the other hardware we now use will actually pick up a mysterious music, perhaps rediscover a symphonic universe.
What is certain is that music, this beautiful gift of God, is capable of offering a dream, a vision of a good world, a world worthy of the loving providence of God; a world of harmony and concord and mutual love.
You can glimpse it in the way musicians play together as performer and accompanist, as a pop group, a band, a quartet, a great symphony orchestra. I am reminded that Daniel Barenboim founded an orchestra that brought young Arab and Jewish players together — as a symbol of the peace and co-operation that might displace the rage and hostility all too evident in the Middle East. Hearing these young men and women performing the German composer Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, with its final appeal to the brotherhood of all human beings, brought tears to my eyes.
In music, that dream, that vision of a New Heaven and a New Earth is constant and irresistible. May be there is no music of the spheres; may be the morning stars didn’t literally sing together when our universe came into being (as Job imagined they did). But people everywhere in the world go on expressing through music and song their obstinate sense that there is a harmony at the heart of things; they persist in using this sublime gift of God to set forth their own vision of ultimate goodness.
‘Somewhere, over the rainbow’, sings Judy Garland, for us all.
And American poet Edwin Markham declares
There is a high place in the upper air,
So high that all the jarring sounds of earth,
All cursing and all crying and all mirth
Melt to one murmur and one music there.
And so, perhaps, high over worm and clod,
There is an unimaginable goal
Where all the wars and discords of the soul
Make one still music to the heart of God.
But we have our own poets and our own songs to express our own imagining of the kingdom of God on earth. And one of them is surely Shirley Murray’s ‘Where mountains rise to open skies’, with music by Vernon Griffiths (AA 155).
A Tribute to Fergus Freeman: One of My Most Memorable Mentors
October 26, 2012
Thanks to global communications Lynette and I heard almost immediately the sad news that this time Ferg had not beaten the odds that have been against him for as long as I've known him. We were staying in the guest house of the seminary where I was trained for ministry in Alexandria, Virginia. Not a lot has changed there, but now they have WIFI everywhere on campus.
It occurred to me that while Virginia Seminary was very good at training me in the particulars of doing ministry, what they did the best was to prepare me to be taught by the many who would cross my way these thirty years since I graduated. They prepared me to learn from you how to be a priest, how to minister; how to be faithful to a way of life; a way of being we see in Jesus. Not the church's Jesus, but the real human one.
Fergus is one of those mentors. So I was touched and honoured when Chrisanthi, another of my important mentors, asked me to speak on her behalf this morning.
Ferg & Chrisanthi were amongst the first to welcome this Yank with his strange accent to St Matt's and the very first to offer me hospitality in their home. I soon would learn that they were softies for bringing home strays. When I arrived for dinner I met Alex. I thought he was their dog but no, he belonged to the neighbors, he just preferred living with them. Who wouldn't. I also learned that their forte was offering hospitality. They had been a place to party and socialize for the parish since they first became a couple 27 years ago next month.
I have to say I did not immediately intuit that Fergus would become one of my significant mentors. I wasn't quite sure how to take him at first. How do you take seriously someone who first offers you a fine whiskey and then toasts you with all the verses of Rogers & Hamerstein's Oklahoma in honour of the country you emigrated from?
His pride in his Presbyterian heritage and his love for St Matt's did not deter him from telling his gently ribald jokes or his taking the mickey out of both. I was surprised to learn he was retired cop, but less so when I heard his many stories about where all bodies are buried at St Matthew's. Boy, could he tell a story, but they were never unkind or mean-spirited. He just seemed to relish and delight in the foibles of his fellow pilgrims and being truthful about them and him in an entertaining way.
I suppose the most confusing thing I found about Ferg was how did someone who portrayed himself as the class clown and Broadway troubadour land the prettiest and smartest girl in the class? That he did was my first clue that all was not as it seemed on the surface. There was much more to this man than he liked to give away.
As I have witnessed, and Chrisanthi has attested in her understated way "theirs was a robust marriage and a perfect partnership". One could expect no less of a union of two people of strong opinions. However, no temporary disagreement, annoyance or irritation had a chance against their deep love, respect and appreciation for each other.
So what has Ferg taught me for which I thank him today?
· Never shy a way from being a fool for Christ. The purpose of the fool in the king's court was to tell inconvenient truth to those in power in a manner they can hear it. Somebody has to do it seemed to be his motto. A long line of St Matt's clergy can attest to his skill in this.
· Being yourself has the single one advantage that no one else can do it better.
· Hospitality and a fine single malt builds relationships and leads to spirited conversations. He understood that Jesus at his core was a party animal.
· Learn to appreciate the flaws and foibles of people and institutions. They will keep you entertained for life. Especially the church and her clergy.
· Live in the moment. It's all we've really got. Being anywhere else is a waste of time.
· There is never a bad time to sing, although he felt we could do better here singing more good ol' Presbyterian hymns.
· If you have the opportunity, choose a good mate who brings out the best in you.
· Don't take life too seriously or you might miss what is really important, as well as a good laugh.
· Enjoy good music, it nourishes the soul. You may have noticed he didn't feel the same about prayers. He faithfully took a loo break during the prayers of the people most Sundays. For that reason and his discovery of liking Buddhist chanting 20 years ago and his enjoyment last Holy Week of walking the labyrinth while Dmitry sang Gregorian chant from the balcony, he expressed the wish that the prayers at his farewell be Gregorian chant sung by Dmitry.
Thank you Ferg for being a good mentor, a good friend, and a truly unique and faithful representative of the Jesus I try to follow.
With Dmitry’s help let pray.
Commendation and Commital
We are thankful for Fergus’ life. We are glad to have seen Ferg’s face, to have been influenced by his personality and ways, to have loved him and to have been loved by him in return.
Fergus’s deeds continue to influence those he touched and our larger world, for we are all woven into one tapestry.
We are thankful that time lessens and memories heal the grief we feel at this time.
We are thankful for the comfort we give one another, which has grown among us this hour.
We are thankful that Life continues, passing from generation to generation
We are thankful for Love that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” For the love that never dies.
In the spirit of this love we say our “good-byes” to Fergus.
Deep peace of the running wave to you,
Deep peace of the flowing air,
Deep peace of the quiet earth,
Deep peace of the shining stars to you,
Deep peace of the gentle night,
Moon and stars pour their healing light on you,
The deep peace of God to you
Rest in peace
We give thanks for the years we shared with you
The good we saw in you
The love we received from you.
Go forth from this world,
In the Totality of Love who created you
In the Gentleness of Solitude that redeemed you
In the Strength of Friends that sustained you,
In communion with all our dead,
May you dwell this day in peace.
We commit Fergus’s body for cremation and to the keeping of Eternity. We do so with deep reverence for the body as a creation of the Divine — a unique expression of an eternal and abiding, though mysterious, love.
Spirit of Life and Love, Eternal God, may the spirit of Fergus become one with your Eternity. Grant to us, who grieve this death, forgiveness; a sense of comprehending compassion, and a meaning in which all things are understood and made whole. May the love in our hearts join us together in richer ways than before and, in time, lead us to the peace that passes all understanding. We know that Fergus’ spirit will always be with us — his love for us and our love for him will never die. Amen.
Some thirty years ago the Roman Catholic theologian Matthew Fox ignited the interest and hope of many Christians when he critiqued the notion of ‘original sin’ [a concept foreign to the Bible] and instead spoke of ‘original blessing’.
He was seeking to address the fixation the Church seems to have with sin. It is a fixation that labels everyone, including newborn children, as sinners and in need of both repentance and absolution [the latter being contingent upon the former]. We were born bad, grew bad, and only by supernatural forgiveness, could be acceptable to God. But as Fox says, original sin is alien to Jewish thinking, ‘it introduces an attitude of self-doubt and lack of reverence for self and one’s beauty that is thoroughly the opposite of Jewish consciousness’. [i]
It is also alien to the Jesus we meet in the gospels who loves people for who they are, rather than for who they might become. When Jesus dines with Zaccheus the extortionist, for example, Zaccheus’ desire to make amends for his wicked ways comes after, not before, Jesus has dined with him. Jesus enters into table fellowship with Zaccheus before Zaccheus exhibits any change.
The difference between original sin and original blessing becomes obvious around the understanding of the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist.
In baptism the 1662 liturgy stated that the child was ‘born in original sin and in the wrath of God’ but through baptism is made a child of God. Born bad, made good. The baptism liturgy or today states ‘God is love. In baptism we celebrate that unconditional love, and seek to respond to it.’ In other words: born good, encouraged to live into that goodness.
Similarly these two approaches are reflected in the Eucharist. In past liturgies the sense was that it was a holy communion between the individual sinner [who repented before kneeling at the altar rail] and the saving God. We were unworthy, needful of mercy and absolution, before receiving the private grace of the sacrament. The liturgical renewal movement of the 70s and 80s which gave rise to the NZ Prayerbook challenged that notion. Instead of a private devotion the Eucharist was envisaged as a community meal with the Spirit of Jesus in our midst. We were brothers and sisters in God, not dependent children, who now stood together with eyes open, rather than heads bowed, empowering and receiving power and grace from the Spirit among us. We were worthy before, during, and after the sacrament.
These latter understandings of baptism and Eucharist are founded upon the central truth that God has blessed and loved us from the beginning, and has already forgiven anything we have done or might do. This is difficult sometimes for us to comprehend.
Karl Barth, the great German theologian, when asked when he became a Christian replied “33 AD”. According to Barth, Jesus’ death and resurrection brought redemption for the whole world, for the past, present, and future. All sin was forgiven at that point. So the notion that God won’t forgive me unless I repent is erroneous. God has already forgiven you in 33 AD. You are forgiven, saved. As F.D. Maurice would say, your task is now to become what you already are – beautiful, blessed, and a blessing.
I would differ a little from Barth in saying that Jesus’ death and resurrection showed forth the unchanging nature of God, which has always understood us as forgiven, beautiful, a blessing, and blessed. Original blessing didn’t start with Jesus.
Some ask me why we don’t have a prayer of confession and absolution as part of every Eucharist at St Matthew’s. The answer is that while confession and absolution can be pastorally helpful, as pertaining to the fundamental nature of our being-in-God it is bad theology.
Let me explain: sin, frailty, and/or failure are a part of our lives. Sometimes we need support in dealing with it. Sometimes we need to be reminded that God both knows about it and has already forgiven us. So in seasons like Lent and Advent our liturgies offer this pastoral support. Note though for others such a rite is unhelpful when they don’t feel in the least bit sinful.
However, as regards the core nature of our being-in-God, the ritual of confession and absolution doubts God. It seems to doubt that God has already forgiven us. It disputes that we are acceptable to God before we ever say sorry. It doubts we are always beautiful, always blessed, and always a blessing.
The notions of original blessing and original sin, of forgiveness and acceptability, as intimated by my reference Barth, are connected with how we understand the death of Jesus. The old liturgies are disproportionately shaped by the thinking of St Augustine in the 5th century and by what St Paul seems to say in Romans 5. They seem to say that our original sinfulness was so great that God, being deeply offended by such sinfulness, could only be appeased by the violent shedding of the blood of his innocent son.
Actually it isn’t clear from his multiple attempts to explain the meaning of Jesus’ death what Paul really meant. Five main theories have emerged. Firstly, there’s the satisfaction theory: Judge God needed a blood sacrifice. [A pretty violent notion of God!]. Secondly, there’s the substitution theory: Jesus is not a sacrifice but a pay-off. We sinners deserve a horrible death, but the innocent Jesus dies in our place. [Again a horrible picture of God]. Thirdly, there’s the ransom theory: God paid off Satan with Jesus’ death. [Father God betraying fatherly love?!]. Fourthly, there’s the victory theory: Jesus’ obedience, even unto death, showed his superiority to Satan. Lastly, there’s the moral theory: that Jesus is an example of faithfulness to one’s convictions.
The first three theories are all premised on original sin and our unworthiness before God. The last two however are about Jesus exhibiting the best attributes of our blest humanity, the goodness of our humanity, in enduring the persecution and torture of those who were affronted by his inclusive love and hospitality. Jesus died because of our sins, rather than for our sins. In other words Jesus died because his principles and actions led him into conflict with an unjust, insecure, and violent regime.
I want to both summarize and conclude this sermon with some wonderful words from Bishop Jack Spong:
“Jesus did not die for our sins, let that be said a thousand times. Jesus did not come from God to rescue fallen, sinful, inadequate, incompetent people like you and me. That is an image of a God who comes to us from outside to rescue this fallen [and originally sinful] creation. That is an idea we need to escape. Jesus has to become, not the Divine Invader, but the human face of what God looks like in human form. That is because when you look at Jesus he lives fully. Nothing diminishes his life. He never diminished anyone else’s life. People betrayed him and he responded by loving them. People denied him and he responded by loving them. People tormented him and he responded by loving them. People killed him and he responded by loving them. How else could he communicate to people like you and me that there is nothing we can ever do, there is nothing we can ever be that will place us outside the boundaries of the love of God. It is not that we are some worthless inadequate person that God has to come in and rescue, it is that God’s love is so abundant and so overwhelming that this love calls us to live, and to love, and to be all that we can be so that God can live in and through us. That is a very different way to think about God.” [ii]
[i] P.108 D.M. Felton & J. Procter-Murphy Living the Questions
[ii] P.115 D.M. Felton & J. Procter-Murphy Living the Questions
Jesus, in this morning’s Gospel, is caught up in a religious conflict about sexuality with some people who quote Scripture at him. Sound familiar?
Note that people in the first century were already fighting about the meaning of the Bible. Even then it was hard to figure it out. On the matter of divorce, the Torah actually had very little to say. It only mentions it once in passing, while dealing with a related issue. [i] And we know from other sources that first-century Jewish experts disagreed about the grounds of divorce. Could a husband divorce his wife just because he felt like it? Or only if she had committed some serious fault? Jesus was being asked to take sides in that argument.
But instead of just wading into the argument in the way they expected Jesus does something shocking. He says “Moses only allowed divorce in the first place because of your hardness of heart.” What is he saying here?! He’s saying that you can’t assume that, just because it’s in Scripture, it’s the will of God! Some Bible verses express nothing more than the stupidity, the bigotry, the hardness of heart of the people who received them in the first place — and, who knows maybe of the people who read them now?
After all, Jesus talks to them about “your hardness of heart.” Now he’s not talking to the scum of the earth. He’s talking here to the particularly good people. They pay close attention to religion, they fulfill its demands, they are the respectable pillars of their communities, and they’re all male. I suspect that that’s the particular issue in this case. They’re all male. The Torah is addressed to males. [ii]
And it was males who made the decisions about marriage. Marriage wasn’t the sort of thing we tend to assume — people falling in love and deciding to create a new family together. Rather marriage was a contract between the parents’ families: the woman’s family gave her away to bear a new generation of children for the husband’s family. She never even became a member of her husband’s family. If she bore a male heir and if she and the boy both lived long enough, she would finally have a secure place in it when it became her son’s family. But if she was divorced and sent away, the son remained with his father and she just had to hope that her birth family could and would take her back.
This may be hard for us to imagine. But it was the norm of the time. Marriage was something men did to women; and so was divorce. And divorce was usually a disaster for the woman. [iii] There was no welfare state to support her. Divorce was the door to destitution.
So Jesus takes this accepted cultural practice and the Scripture that was seen as backing it up, and he says: ‘That’s not what God meant at all. That just reflects the mean-spiritedness, the hardness of heart, that’s treated as normal in our society.’ And he puts his questioners right on the spot with it: ‘Moses said this because of your hardness of heart.’
But you notice that Jesus isn’t in fact discarding the Scriptures, even though he is rejecting one particular text. Yes, he’s turfing one text out. But he’s also calling another one in and making quite a big deal of it, and interpreting it in a way that nobody had ever understood it before.
The text he introduces is: A man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.
Then he adds his own commentary: “Therefore what God has joined together let no one separate.” ‘God,’ he says, ‘has created something good here; you men can’t just use it for your own convenience and then discard it when a better match, a better family alliance comes along.’ [iv]
The Torah preserved the power that men had in a patriarchal society to abuse women. Jesus abolished divorce in order to protect women. [Incidentally, Jesus wasn’t the first person to notice that divorce was a bad thing for women. Some centuries before, the prophet Malachi [v] had already claimed that God hates divorce]. And Jesus grounds his changing of Scripture in Scripture itself: ‘God didn’t intend to authorize hardness of heart; God intended to teach us how to love one another and do one another good.’
Of course some later Christians turned Jesus’ own statement into yet another license for hardness of heart. In Eastern Christianity, it was held that Jesus was establishing an ideal of lifelong marriage, a goal. But Western Christians long held that Jesus was establishing a rigid new law: ‘no one can be divorced; if they are, they cannot remarry’. Does that condemn you to spending the remaining decades of your life with an abusive spouse? ‘Well, we’re terribly sorry,’ said the powerful church authorities, ‘but that’s the rule.’ Hardness of heart sneaks in the back door again.
For what Jesus is really doing in this story is turning the whole use of Scripture on its head. ‘The Scriptures,’ he says, ‘are not a book of statute law to protect the powerful. They are a book of astonishing insights into God’s extraordinary generosity.’ The purpose of God all through Scripture is the well-being of humanity. If you find things in the Scriptures that seem to speak otherwise, consider who benefits from that. Whose hardness of heart caused that blemish in the sacred text? Whose hardness of heart is maintaining that interpretation even now?
After all, one thing hasn’t changed. When religious people read Scripture, we’re still quite capable of using it to support and affirm our own hard-heartedness. Christians in the early nineteenth century justified slavery by the Bible. Christians have justified wars by the Bible. Christians have justified Inquisitions by the Bible. Christians have justified the subordination of women by the Bible. Christians justify homophobia by the Bible.
Hardness of heart is something that just keeps on cropping up. It wasn’t unique to the Pharisees in Jesus’ audience. It’s not specifically Jewish. It’s the property of the whole human race. You can’t escape it just by being religious; but you can’t escape it by ceasing to be religious either. And if you quit reading the Scriptures, you not only lose the passages that cater to your particular kind of hard-heartedness; you also lose the ones that might wake you up and suddenly let you see how really big and generous God’s love is.
The people in our own day who like to wield the Bible as a weapon — they like to claim that they’re just reading it all literally. They’re not. They pick and choose what they will take seriously, just as Jesus did in this morning’s Gospel story. They just prefer not to notice what they’re doing. The big difference is that Jesus knew what he was doing and said it straight out.
Jesus expected something important from the Scriptures; he expected to be challenged and surprised by God. And he also expected that when you are challenged and surprised by God, some of the details enshrined in the sacred text will be revealed for what they are, as concessions to hardness of heart — and they will have to go.
But how do you decide which ones to discard? That’s still the big question isn’t it? Well, you know, this passage does one more thing for us. It actually gives us a principle for making those decisions: When Scripture seems to confirm your own hardness of heart, it’s wrong. Ditch it, just the way Jesus did. Conversely, when Scripture breaks your world open and makes it bigger and more loving, it is achieving its true goal.
Hang onto that principle. It may not be the whole story, but it’s a great place to begin and it will take you a long way. Hardness of heart is a dead giveaway that we’ve got it wrong. Only generous love can open the door to the truth called God.
[i] Deuteronomy 24:1-3.
[ii] In that world, males were the public persons; women were private persons who were supposed to keep out of the public eye.
[iii] There were some exceptions. We know that women from influential families sometimes had the right to divorce their husbands; but that right had to be written into the marriage contract.
[iv] Note that St Paul had no difficulty contemplating that there could be circumstances where divorce might be appropriate almost in the same breath as citing Jesus’ prohibition [1 Corinthians 7:10-16].
In Matthew’s Gospel (9:9–13) two tables confront us: the oppressive tax-office table and the welcoming dinner table with Jesus as host.
Tax gatherers were dubious characters in the Palestine of Jesus’ day. It is a much more respectable profession these days, even if not exactly liked. But who were the sinners? Daniel Harrington suggests they are harder to identify. [i] Were they the ritually impure? Or were they peasant farmers and fishermen who had no time to be religious because they were flat out eking out a living in order to pay their taxes? Or are they the local robbers, male and female prostitutes, and professional brawlers — the low life of any first century Palestinian town? I recall a similar description of early 19th century inhabitants of Auckland as “traders, whalers and pirates” — some Kiwis, living beyond the bounds of Auckland City might even be tempted to claim that things haven’t changed too much in the intervening years.
Jesus, in contrast to the Pharisees, felt comfortable with eating and socialising with such people. God was for them also! This is a visible statement about the inclusiveness of God’s mercy and love. However, as in Jesus’ day, in the days of Matthew’s community, and in our own, the question of belonging to religious community is never an easy matter. Conflict erupts over such issues of belonging because of people’s fears of difference and diversity and this always plays out over the question of who can come to dinner in our place. Our Anglican Communion is caught in the midst of this conflict right now and no doubt we shall hear and see more of it at the end of October when our Church and its three Tikanga will host the gathering of the worldwide Anglican Consultative Council.
But let’s return to the tax booth where Matthew is sitting. The Roman occupying power farmed out the collection of taxes to the Jewish rulers of the region and they in turn to others who did the actual oppressive work of taxing the labour and goods of the largely peasant population who were farmers or fishermen.
What did Jesus see when he looked at Matthew? A young man just starting out in a difficult and despised profession or was he a well-known identity, a mature man “on the make”, hand in glove with the Romans?
Jesus looks at Matthew and says: “Follow me”. The name is related to the Greek word ‘disciple’ and comes from the Hebrew and means ‘gift of God’. We, as contemporary readers of the Gospel have many questions we would like answered. Was Jesus’ invitation looked for by Matthew? Did he already know Jesus? Or was this encounter a total surprise? What did he expect when he consented to ‘follow’ Jesus? — an easy life, a comfortable bed every night, great meals, higher status? No! Matthew looks, listens, gets up and follows! Nothing more is said.
The story continues with the observations about the diverse company people who gathered to ‘recline’ and dine with Jesus. He welcomes all and sundry; not just the religiously pure. [ii] Such practice was highly offensive to the devout religious of first century Palestine. If you could eat with a person then perhaps you could even marry them; certainly do business with them!
Christians discovered in this practice of Jesus the ability for themselves and their families to collapse the social, political, racial and religious barriers that worked to continue long term alienations and human distance. [iii] In itself, this is an announcement of the arrival of the Reign of God, a fresh enactment of the challenging words of the prophet Hosea that what God wants is mercy not sacrifice?
Contemporary theologians René Girard and James Alison argue, Jesus is not just criticising the Temple sacrifices. He criticises everything in society that sacrifices human beings in the name of culture and religion. But breaking religious taboos and boundaries is always risky for human beings in any culture and religious system.
What is the meaning of the ‘mercy’ of God? Can ‘mercy’ have meaning in our culture today? The kyrie eleison, “Lord have mercy” sung so wonderfully by the musicians earlier is about this mercy of God.
Mercy is linked to love and generosity — the amazing generosity of God embodied in Jesus. Mercy is something to be touched and felt, sensed, smelt and enjoyed. It is a gift — a grace given — unconditional welcome, acceptance, forgiveness, love, friendship and recognition.
Jesus embodied this mercy of God in his willingness to get alongside the outsiders, the collaborators, the public and private sinners and eat and converse with them — befriend them!
From the time of my arrival in Aotearoa New Zealand at the end of 1981, and especially during my five years as a priest attached to St Matthew’s from 1992 to 1996, I found St Matthew’s engaging in breaking down the walls that human beings in their fear erect to keep others at a distance. This is an embodied Christian practice for which the whole church should be giving thanks to God and seeking to emulate in their particular circumstances.
Even in Australia, some Christian folk smiled at St Matt’s wedding cake billboard; no doubt others frowned. In my mind, being a follower of Jesus requires the ability to be broadminded, to be able to smile when others condemn through fear or self-righteousness.
Thankfully, St Matthew’s continues this practice of the Christian community enacting the unexpected, challenging the established foundations and practices of what is understood to be Christian, Anglican and human.
The implication of Jesus’ actions and words is that all are welcome in the presence of God. The utter diversity of his disciples affirms this. Jesus’ choices work to reveal that the love and mercy of God are available for all. This does not mean that every aspect of their personal lives goes unchallenged by Jesus. The call to follow gives the gift of space and time to choose a different life style, a different occupation, to let go of the past — most of all, time to think differently, to take on new inclusive attitudes toward all humanity.
The Gospel shows us two tables — the table of oppression and exclusion and the table inclusion and mercy. Saint Matthew-in-the-City offers to all the table of inclusive mercy in the midst of a commercial and political environment that may often be experienced as oppressive and exclusive, especially to our brothers and sisters at the bottom of the social and economic ladder.
May God in Christ through the Spirit bring us to enact table of inclusion. Amen.
[i] Daniel J. Harrington SJ, The Gospel of Matthew, ed. Daniel J. Harrington SJ, vol. 1, Sacra Pagina (Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 1991 / 2007), 128.
[ii] Majella Franzmann PBVM, "Of food, bodies, and the boundless reign of God in the synoptic gospels," Pacifica 5 (1992).
[iii] Michael Vasey, Strangers and friends: A new exploration of homosexuality and the Bible (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1995).