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The Gospel According to Biff

December 30, 2012

Clay Nelson

Christmas 1     Luke 2:41-52


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’”

“I can’t?”

“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.”

“You can’t”

“Why not?”

“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.

Christmas Reclaimed

December 25, 2012

Clay Nelson

Christmas Day

Video available on YouTube, Facebook


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.

Christmas Kindness

December 24, 2012

Bishop Jim White

Christmas Eve

Video available on YouTubeFacebook


In a Christmas Eve sermon at St Matthew's Bishop Jim White reflected on the difference between Christmas presents and Christmas presence. Both are gifts but only one is incarnational.

The Dethronement of God

December 23, 2012

Glynn Cardy

Advent 4

Video available on YouTube, Facebook


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.

"Tell All the Truth, but Tell It Slant…"

December 16, 2012

Helen-Ann Hartley

Advent 3     Zeph 3:14-20     Phil 4:4-7     Luke 3:7-18


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. 


Tell all the truth, but tell it slant,

Success in circuit lies.

Too bright for our infirm delight

The truth’s superb surprise.



Gaza Advent

December 9, 2012

Glynn Cardy

Advent 2

Video available on YouTube


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.


[i] I’ve relied here on Simon Barrow’s work. See


[ii] Note this part of the liturgy was originally written by Philip Richardson, now Bishop of Taranaki, and was adapted by me.

Faith is Not Knowing

December 2, 2012

Rosemary Neave

Advent 1

Video available on YouTube, Facebook


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.

More than Sheep Manure

November 25, 2012

Clay Nelson

Aotearoa Sunday     Mark 4:26-34

Video available on YouTube, Facebook


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.

A Song of Revolution

November 18, 2012

Clay Nelson

Pentecost 25     1 Samuel 1:4-20     Mark 13:1-8

Video available on YouTube, Facebook


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.



Blessed Are Those Who Keep Going

November 11, 2012

Glynn Cardy

Remembrance Day


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.

The Heart of the Matter

November 11, 2012

Bishop Ian Douglas

Pentecost 24

Video available on YouTubeFacebook


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.

Another Case for Equality

November 4, 2012

Geno Sisneros

All Saints' Sunday

Sermon preached at the Auckland Community Church


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.

The Book of Mormon

November 4, 2012

Clay Nelson

All Saints' Day     Homily at 8am service


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.

God's Gift of Music

October 28, 2012

Colin Gibson

Video available on YouTube, Facebook


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,

they shut their eyes and they say good night,

Croo croo, croo croo, croo croo, croo croo,

Croo croo, croo croo, croo croo. (German folksong)


When you're weary, feeling small,

when tears are in your eyes I'll dry them all.

See how they shine.

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.




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).


Where mountains rise to open skies

Your name, O God, is echoed far,

From island beach to kauri's reach,

ln water’s light, in lake and star.

Your people's heart, Your people's part,

Be in our caring for this land,

For faith to flower, for aroha

To let each other's mana stand.

From broken word, from conflict stirred,

From lack of vision set us free,

To see the lines of your design,

To feel creation's energy.

Your love be known, compassion shown,

That every child have equal scope:

ln justice done, in trust begun.

Shall be our heritage and hope.

Where mountains rise to open skies

Your way of peace distil the air,

Your spirit bind all humankind,

One covenant of life to share.


So be it. Amen.

A Tribute to Fergus Freeman: One of My Most Memorable Mentors

October 26, 2012

Clay Nelson


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.

Africa, An Insider's View

October 21, 2012

Pentecost 21

Bishop John Osmers

Video available on YouTube


An incredibly moving look at Africa by Bishop John Osmers who has spent 47 years ministering in Africa often at great personal sacrifice.

Original Sin, Original Redemption

October 14, 2012

Glynn Cardy

Pentecost 20     Mark 10:17-34

Video available on YouTube, Facebook


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

Scripture, Divorce, and a Hard Heart

October 7, 2012

Glynn Cardy

Pentecost 19     Genesis 2:18-24     Mark 10:2-9

Video available on YouTube, Facebook


[Based on the work of Rev William Countryman]


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].


[v] Malachi 2:13-16.

Oppositional Tables

September 30, 2012

Dr Br Bruce-Paul SSF

Feast of St Matthew's     Matthew 9:9-13

Video available on YouTube, Facebook


May I speak in the name of the Living God. Amen


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).

To Dream of a World of No Violence and No Violated

September 23, 2012

Glynn Cardy

Pentecost 17     Mark 9:30-37

Video available on YouTube, Facebook


In the last week a convicted fraudster, Nakoula, created a cheap, inaccurate, and defamatory depiction of the prophet Muhammad. Nakoula’s intention was to insult and inflame the Muslim world. Thankfully most Muslim’s, though offended, turned the other cheek and refused to respond in kind. The fundamentalist fringe predictably did not. People died. Property was destroyed.


Professor Ali of Auckland University writes: “The tradition of Islam represents a spectrum of views, and there is a centre made up of those who welcome intellectual honesty, equality, secularism and pluralism. The problem is not that Islam lacks a centre, but that mainstream Muslims are being out-maneuvered by the violent and irrational fringe.”


Christianity suffers from a similar problem. Though reverting to physical violence is rare in New Zealand and other Western democracies, violent language is frequently used by our fundamentalists. This fringe implicitly supported by many traditional power-holders who do not wish to see and often fear any change, dominate the public perception of our Christian faith. Christianity as a ‘brand’ unfortunately is not perceived as cooperative, tolerant, and promoting a culture of diversity and intellectual robustness, but instead as conservative, exclusive, and sustaining a culture of disengagement and rarefied thinking. Like with Islam the fringe dominates the public perception of the brand.


Fundamentalists, whether Christian or Muslim, seem to think of themselves as God’s soldiers, defending the faith from being diluted by revisionists, and needing to attack those who doubt or challenge. Belief, their belief, so they believe, is unchanging. Their opinions are stated as divinely dictated truths.


The Gospel reading today presents Jesus, ‘the challenge parable’ as Clay called him last week [using Dom Crossan’s words], sharing his vision in words and actions. It is a very powerful passage.


Jesus addresses an internal dispute among his close followers. They want to know who is the greatest. Is it the one who is the most faithful, who believes the most earnestly, or is it the most compassionate, who cares and shares the most extravagantly, or is it the most hard-working, who labours relentlessly in selfless service? Who is the greatest? Tell us Jesus. 


It is a timeless question, one that religious groups also ask in the hope that will be affirmed, and others put in their place. Are we the best? Better than all the rest? Is our church the favoured one? Jesus’ answer will determine the one who is right, and by inference the many that aren’t. It is the finishing line in the game where winning is what matters.


Psychologically and sociologically such a question reveals our deep need for acceptance and affirmation. Like Christians who harp on about being sinners, we doubt that God loves us, and has [in the old language] already saved, redeemed, and reconciled humanity. 


Jesus doesn’t play along with his disciples’ question. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and slave of all,” he says. He subverts the game. How possibly can the first, the winners in life, be last, be the biggest losers? How can those born, bred, and baptized to rule, be slaves or servants? It doesn’t make sense. How can the talented and obviously superior be last??


The history of the Church in a sense is a history of failing to understand these words of Jesus. Time and again, espousing phrases like ‘servant leadership’, church authorities have adopted a humble demeanour while continuing to have significant power and resources. ‘Servanthood’ became a cloak to wear on public occasions. ‘Servanthood’ became part of the game. Those who wanted or had power needed to dress up their actions in the guise of ‘care’ and ‘humility’.


My step-grandmother was a servant. She worked in a ‘big house’, from before dawn until after dusk, and occasionally, very occasionally, had a day off. The memories were not good. The divide between masters and servants, between the greatest and the least, was considerable. The word ‘servant’ for her could never be anything else than a description of a class-orientated society that in her journey to New Zealand she’d hoped she’d left behind.


‘Servant leadership’ is an oxymoron. You can’t be a servant in the house and at the same time the leader of the house. You can’t have power and not have power. You are either one or the other. So what did Jesus mean by this riddle?


‘The first shall be last’ quote points to the radical egalitarianism that was at the core of the Jesus vision. Socially radical egalitarianism is about recognizing that we are all royalty, all blessed sons and daughters of God, and thus should treat each other as equals. We are all great, and none are least. Materially the vision is about all being fed, all being employed, all being housed, all involved in decisions of resource allocation, and all participating in the selection of leadership and holding such leadership to account. [In the early Church leadership selection seemed to be done by casting lots]. Spiritually the Jesus vision was about God being among us all, rather than being a lord over us. It was about God being incarnated in the poorest, smallest, and most vulnerable, rather than being worshipped as the Almighty King in the heavens. As later church leaders would privately lament, it was a very impractical vision.


However although it was a vision about pulling the mighty from their thrones and lifting up the lowly, it was not about creating a new underclass of those who used to be first, or a new lowly class of those who used to sit on thrones. In this vision no one got left behind. There was room for all. And Jesus lived this vision: dining with sinners like tax collectors - but also with pious Pharisees, healing the marginalized like the Syro-Phoenician’s daughter - but also the Centurion’s, the oppressor’s, servant. There was room in Jesus’ vision for all manner of people regardless of class or power or privilege.


Mark’s Gospel illustrates this vision by Jesus welcoming children, who were considered in that day as the least, and given our appalling NZ child poverty statistics, as the least in our day too. “[Jesus] took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”” It will be a wonderful day when children’s health, education, and well-being comes before adults’ health, entertainment needs, and bank balances.


The political world of first century Palestine was a world of violence. Revolutionaries like Barabbas and his followers operated within the rules of that world. There were winners and losers. Violence was the way power was administered and the way how power could be overthrown. Violence was the dominant culture. It created and sustained inequity and privilege. 


And the myth Barabbas and other violent revolutionaries have operated within was that violence could also be redemptive. By resolute courage and the intervention of their God the oppressed could vanquish the oppressor. There would be winners and losers, a divinely inspired reversal. The powerful would be beaten, and descend to the dungeons of torment. This myth continues to operate today, and most action movies perpetuate the motif.


In time the so-called ‘impractical’ vision of Jesus was subverted by that of the dominant myth of winners and losers, and the need for violence to maintain that myth. The challenge parable that Jesus was and lived was dressed up to become an attack parable. So the values of an egalitarianism with room for everyone – values of community and connectivity, compassion and gentleness, challenge and critique, were pushed aside by the need to label some as great and some not, some as deserving of praise and some as deserving of punishment, and a few as winners and many as losers. Power over others became more important than empowering others. Winning became more important than embracing all. Powerful adults became more important than vulnerable children. The violence of poverty, of language, of enforcing the boundaries of privilege became normative.


Can we dream the impossible Jesus dream of a world where there are no haves and have-nots, no firsts and lasts, no violence and no violated? And, more tellingly, would we want to dwell there? Jesus, lead us into this dream, imagining beyond what we know, risking the vulnerability and complexity it will bring. Amen.

Jesus the Parable

September 16, 2012

Clay Nelson

Pentecost 16     Mark 8:27-37

Video available on YouTube, Facebook


Perhaps one of the biggest challenges for progressives is what to do about, what to think about, what to say about, the cross. As I get ready to go on holiday, I can’t say I’m ecstatic to be confronted by the question in today’s Gospel, but there is no escaping it. It is at the core of the conversation Mark shares between Jesus and his disciples. Who we say Jesus is and the cross he challenges us to pick up are inextricably linked.


First, a little about this conversation: I am certain it never happened - at least Jesus was never part of the conversation. After Jesus’ death on the cross, which would’ve been a huge embarrassment to the Jews. They, like progressives today, had to make sense of it. Deuteronomy 21:23 declared, “Anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse.”


Last week I was at a symposium with John Dominic Crossan, a biblical scholar and historian. He was speaking mostly about the power of parable and how fiction by Jesus became fiction about Jesus. While all his arguments are beyond the scope of this sermon, a little background is essential. He would remind us that Jesus was illiterate. He could neither read nor write and that was true for most of the peasants who followed him. When his oral stories finally got written down they were highly abridged and edited to sharpen the theological axe of whoever was doing the writing. What would actually happen is that it would be a story told with lots of interruptions and debates, like someone saying what do you mean a “Good Samaritan? No such thing exists.” So what might take only five minutes to read on Sunday morning would have been more like an extended Facebook conversation that took place all afternoon.


Then there is the question as to what is a parable? They are clearly stories told with a purpose. Often they were told as riddles, where having the right answer was a matter of life or death. Think Oedipus and the Sphinx. Often Jesus’ parables are declared to be riddle parables that he would only explain to the insiders. Mark was of this persuasion. He thought they were intended to be incomprehensible to outsiders. Mark saw Jesus using stories they couldn’t understand to reject those who rejected him. Crossan refutes this position with Mark’s own words that Jesus came to teach the people. While sometimes a teacher is incomprehensible, it is never his or her intention. Teachers teach to teach understanding. Jesus did not give riddle parables to punish. So was his purpose a second use of parables, to give examples for living an ethical life?


Crossan says, “Once upon a time, long, long ago, theologians used to debate whether God was all-present, all-knowing, and all-powerful. That, of course, is not God, but Google.” [i] He then looks up parable in Wikipedia, which defines it only as “a brief, succinct story, in prose or verse, that illustrates a moral or religious lesson.” Crossan disagrees that example parables are the only kind of parable, but he does argue that Luke understood Jesus’ parables in that way. He uses the story of Nathan challenging David over his seduction of Bathsheba and then arranging for the murder of her husband as an instance of an example parable. [ii] Luke has several such parables including the Prodigal Son. This is an example of the prodigal’s father exemplifying God.


Crossan argues that Luke got it wrong or at least incomplete; that Jesus’ parables were much more than examples of proper behaviour. He argues that there is a third typology for parables that better explains Jesus’ use of them. He argues they are challenge parables. They challenged biblical tradition, cultural norms, and call us to turn our world and assumptions upside down. He called this world God’s divine kingdom and for Crossan, Jesus was both the message and the medium.


He gives three examples of challenge parables from Hebrew Scriptures: Ruth, Jonah and Job. All three tales create unlikely heroes of people despised by the Jews. Ruth was a Moabite that no Jew was to marry and makes her the great-grandmother of David. Jonah, transported to Nineveh by means of a large fish is told to tell Ninevites, who have oppressed the Jews by destroying the northern kingdom, to repent. They do and Jonah has a major sulk. Job, an Edomite, equally hated by the Jews is shown to be the most faithful man on the planet. All three stories challenge scripture, cultural bigotry and the Jewish leaders at the time who were anxious to preserve Jewish culture from being assimilated by their conquerors. 


Skipping lots of his arguments to get to this point, Crossan understands Jesus as a historical version of these three fictional characters. His whole life and ministry and death were a challenge parable, and as a result he was not readily understood. Which brings us to the conversation we heard in the Gospel today. After his death his disciples spent a lot of time trying to understand what he was all about. Who the hell was he anyway? 


He sounded like the prophets. Was he Elijah who was taken to heaven in a whirlwind and had now returned? Yet that didn’t quite fit. He was more than a prophet. Prophets spoke for God; Jesus lived like God. It was like God talking directly to them, not through a mouthpiece. 


Well, was he John the Baptist returned from the dead? He certainly was influenced by John, even if he was not a card-carrying follower. But John believed that the reason the Jews were oppressed by the Romans was because they had sinned before God. The only way God was going to save them was if the whole nation repented and relived the experience of passing through the Red Sea where Pharaoh was defeated. They needed to return to the wilderness and pass through the Jordan waters to be made pure. John’s view was one where God would save through violence, just as God helped the Hebrew people conquer the Promised Land and slay the Canaanites. John was the leader of a rebellion and paid the price. Jesus never preached that message and even reached out to the Gentiles, curing the daughters of a Centurion and a Canaanite woman.


Then was he the Messiah? This was a loaded term for his followers complicated by the fact that he never said he was. It simply meant to be anointed. In Greek the word was Christ. David, not exactly the finest example of faithfulness, was generally seen as the first Jewish Messiah and what was anticipated, as his successor, was also a warrior king. Jesus’ refusal to advocate violence put a kink into giving him this label. Think of Emperors leading armies on a stallion and Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey (another parable). Jesus not only preached God’s reign, he embodied it. He was not John, Elijah, or the Messiah. He was a parable that demonstrated that violence and hatred are not God’s way. Loving enemy and neighbour alike were tantamount to the just world God envisioned. 


Crossan argues that the only purpose of any parable is to take us somewhere else. They are intended to be participatory. A wise man was once asked where he was going? His answer, “Not here.” Jesus was calling us on such a participatory journey. Where are we going? Not here: a place where the poor are ignored, the hungry are unfed, the innocent are persecuted, war is acceptable, injustice is justified - even in Scripture. Jesus as parable reminds us that God’s kingdom is not an act of unilateral intervention by divinity, but an act of bilateral cooperation between divinity and humanity. In Desmond Tutu’s words, “God, without us, will not; as we without God cannot.”


I would like to end the sermon here, but there is still the matter of the cross. While Jesus was a challenge parable, challenge parables can be morphed into attack parables, from nonviolent teachings into ones that sanction violence. Jesus as a challenge parable opposed violence without joining it. Crossan makes the case that John’s Gospel was an attack parable on Mark, Matthew and Luke. John morphs a very human Jesus into a mostly divine one. He takes aim not only in attacking the Pharisaic Jews like Matthew and Luke, but Jews as a group. John attacks the Roman Empire as well, and he does this by turning Jesus into an attack parable.


The cross is now not just a cruel form of execution. It becomes, as with the Emperor Constantine, a symbol of divine violence. His motto for the empire became, “in this sign conquer.” Thanks to John and the Book of Revelation (the most violent book of the Bible), the cross was transformed into an emblem of Christian triumphalism, forged, according to Robert Funk, “in the fires of the late Roman empire, in the process of a military victory.” [iii] Amongst those fires were the Crusades, the Inquisition and Auschwitz. It came to symbolise the dehumanization of indigenous peoples, the permission of slavery, the depowering of women, and today, the ostracising gays and lesbians. It gave us “Onward Christian Soldiers” “and shaped a creedal Christianity that left a human Jesus completely out of the picture.” [iv]


So, if we pick up a cross, let it not be the one of an attacking parable, but of a challenging one. The one a nonviolent Jesus did not shy away from so he could rob a violent, unjust kingdom of its power. Let us pick up the one he accepted fearlessly in the name of love, in order that the kingdom may live in us and we in it.


[i] Crossan, John Dominic. The Power of Parable. HarperOne: 2012 p 29


[ii] Ibid. p 34


[iii] Funk, R. W. 2002 A credible Jesus. Fragmeents of a vision. CA: Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press


[iv] Hunt, Rex,

Christian Marriage: Gay and Straight

September 9, 2012

Richard Randerson

Preached at St Peter's, Wellington by the retired Assisting Bishop of Auckland


Same-sex relationships and gay marriage have been very much in the news, dividing the Anglican Communion painfully and harmfully for over a decade. The situation has now intensified with the debate about gay marriage in Parliament, as well as in Christian communities. This morning I want to share with you why I feel a gay marriage can be consistent with Christian principles, and how I have come to this point of view over a period of many years.


At the same time I want to emphasise that this is my personal view, and that I have every respect for those who hold a different view, or are in the process of thinking through their own views. There are diverse views, conscientiously held, within the Body of Christ. We need to listen carefully to the views of others. I believe God is leading us all in a new journey of discovery, and strident claims of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are not appropriate to the debate.


Such claims are also very damaging to gay and lesbian people who have suffered centuries of rejection, with painful consequences. It was only in 1986 that homosexual relationships between men were decriminalized in this country, and not until 1993 that the passing of the Human Rights Act made discrimination against homosexuals illegal.


Some churches have condemned homosexuality as sinful, with messages such as “hate the sin but love the sinner”. Some such churches have offered programmes for gay people to “cure” them of their “sin”. Just this week there has been the case of an Australian doctor, a member of the Exclusive Brethren Church, who has been struck off as a GP for prescribing a chemical castration drug to suppress a man’s homosexuality. Other churches have kept silence lest they upset parishioners. Often I have found that the parents of gay and lesbian offspring have suffered by association in the face of church silence or condemnation.


Thinking about marriage and sexual relationships, I vividly recall a general studies session with the senior class at Canberra (Anglican) Girls Grammar School. About 120 young women gathered in the school’s auditorium for an “Ask the Bishop” session. Written questions were submitted in advance, and 75% were about sex. Now there’s something rather bizarre about an ageing male cleric giving advice on sex to a large crowd of young women, many of whom had probably already experienced a sexual relationship. It’s not much use saying: “Now girls, you know the rules: no sex before marriage”.


I said instead that there is a broad spectrum of types of sexual relationships, everything from promiscuous and abusive relationships at one end of the spectrum to a sexual relationship at the other end that arose from a deep love and ongoing commitment to another person. And that what mattered was not so much where we might currently be on the spectrum, but what we aspired to, viz. a committed relationship grounded in love.


Now if you add that marriage is about providing a stable environment in which children might be nurtured, then you have the two key principles of marriage set out in the NZ Prayer Book: first, that marriage is a gift of God so that “husband and wife should be united in heart, body and soul… and in their union fulfill their love for one another”. And second, “marriage is given to provide the stability necessary for family life, so that children might be cared for lovingly and grow to full maturity.”


The definition says clearly “husband and wife”. But we should note that the Anglican definition of marriage has changed over the years. In the 1662 Prayer Book, for example, there were very different reasons stated for marriage. The first reason was for the procreation of children. The second was as a “remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication”. And third, it was “for the mutual society, help and comfort that one ought to have for the other, both in prosperity and adversity”. Additionally, the woman promised that she would not only obey her husband, but also serve him. So the relationship was not one of equality, and the union of husband and wife came in as the last of the three purposes, whereas today we regard it as the foundation of everything else.


If the Church’s understanding of marriage has changed along the way, can we now modify it again to be inclusive of gay and lesbian couples? Can same-sex couples be “united in heart, body and soul…and in their union fulfill their love for each other”? Can same-sex couples “provide the stability necessary for family life, so that children might be cared for lovingly and grow to full maturity”? The answer to both questions is Yes, based on the evidence of the number of same-sex couples in long-term committed relationships, and on the basis of research that shows children may be cared for equally well in same-sex families as in hetero-sexual ones.


It has taken me some years to come to this position, and I have done so on the basis of my personal friendship with gay couples in committed relationships. As the Rev’d Glynn Cardy stated in the Auckland Synod on Friday: “In our time and place, given what we know about homosexuality not being an aberration, given that many gay and lesbian people are and have long been faithful members of our church, given that many gay and lesbian couples have shown in their lives the fruits of grace, aroha, and service, and given that some gay and lesbian couples are now asking for marriage, let us re-consider what we – in the light of God’s Spirit – think is the essence of this marriage rite”. 


A very important part of the debate centres around what the Bible says. Many opponents of same-sex relationships believe they are clearly prohibited by scripture. There are several problems with this view:


•  There are only a handful of biblical texts quoted with regard to same-sex relationships, and in some it is not at all clear such relationships are the subject of the texts quoted.


•  While same-sex relationships appear to be condemned in passages such as Romans 1.26,27, the context is one of debauched behaviours that belong to people who “refuse to keep in mind the true knowledge about God” (v.28)… “who have no conscience, and show no kindness or pity for others” (v.31). Faithlessness and debauchery are not the marks of many gay and lesbian couples.


•  Nowhere in scripture is the concept of loving, committed same-sex relationships envisaged. One cannot find a biblical text on this subject any more than one can find something about nuclear bombs or genetic modification. Reference must be made to more underlying biblical principles.


•  Even if a text could be found, scripture always needs to be interpreted in the light of current knowledge. Thus St Paul’s very clear statements that men have authority over women are a reflection of the patriarchal culture of the day. It is a concept seen as inappropriate in today’s context where the biblical principle about equality in Christ is seen as the deeper and over-riding truth. Although sadly the Archbishop of Sydney still believes wives should promise to submit to their husbands in their marriage vows.


•  Part of our current knowledge about sexual orientation is that homosexuality is not a sin or aberration, but is as natural for many in our society as hetero-sexuality is for others.


If we look to scripture for deeper principles that might underlie all relationships, they are ones of love for God and love for neighbour, and the belief that in love for God and others we might come to maturity in Christ, and have a care for the well-being of others. Within these general parameters there is the special relationship that can exist between a man and a woman, a relationship that can be paralled in a same-sex context.


Archbishop Rowan Williams established at Oxford University in the 1980s an institute for the study of Christianity and sexuality. His research led him to conclude that biblical teaching on sexual relationships puts as much emphasis on bonding, with its essential ingredients of love and fidelity, as it does on human reproduction. There are many gay and lesbian people in the Church around the world, including clergy and doubtless some bishops. They are people of integrity in living and conviction in believing. Archbishop Williams’ emphasis on bonding as a central criterion supports the view that faithful and committed same-sex relationships are also acceptable in the eyes of God. The ethical criterion is to do with the quality of the relationship, not the orientation of the partners.


A final question: why have same-sex marriage? Aren’t civil unions effectively the same? To quote Glynn Cardy again: “For Anglicans marriage is a holy sacrament. Marriage has the potential to acknowledge and strengthen stable, committed relationships. Good marriages benefit the community and for many express values of long-term loving mutuality and faithfulness. I hope that we will have the grace to recognize that some couples of the same gender also exhibit these qualities and want to partake of this sacrament. To continue to deny them is to weaken the integrity of the sacrament itself”.


The world is in constant change, and we change with it. Change is seldom easy; it is often marked by controversy and pain. But if we allow our thinking to be guided by the grace of God, and with love and respect for one another, then I believe God will lead us to an understanding that may well lie beyond where any of us have yet got to, one that will be life-giving and inclusive of all.

Who Let the Dogs In?

September 9, 2012

Glynn Cardy

Pentecost 15     Mark 7:24-37

Video available on YouTube, Facebook


Today we heard read Mark’s account of an exchange between Jesus and a Canaanite woman who wanted her daughter healed. The woman is a foreigner. Initially Jesus responds to her pleas by not answering. He tells his disciples that he was “sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel”. The woman continues to plead. Jesus tells her, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” ‘Dogs’ is a derogatory name for Gentiles. She responds, “"Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs."


The dominant metaphor in this exchange is the household. Jesus is within the house of Judaism, looking after its children. The woman, Justa [i], is outside the house. She is a foreigner, a Gentile. Jesus is an insider. Justa is an outsider. The insiders are called children. The outsiders are called dogs. The outsider wants something from the insider, and the insider doesn’t want to share it.


Time and again conflict has arisen between religious insiders and outsiders who are religiously other. The Church wants to maintain its boundaries, determining what is right and wrong, and only granting admittance on its terms. It claims divine approval for its borders, its power to determine what is holy and what is not, and its power to admit outsiders or not. It is a formidable institution.


But time and time someone insignificant, someone different [maybe due to race, class, gender, marital status, or sexual orientation], someone brave and foolish, comes to challenge the institution’s boundaries. ‘Please sir, I’m in love and want to get married. I don’t want to hurt anyone, or hurt their marriages, or make a fuss in even the slightest way. I just want to marry the woman I love. Here in church, before God. Oh, and I’m a woman too.’ St Matthew’s has had four such requests already.


The so-called ‘dogs’ want some crumbs from the ‘children’s’ table. What would Jesus do?


In the world of male honour Justa bests Jesus in the argument. By losing to a woman he is shamed. Yet in the eyes of the early faith communities Jesus manifests the greater virtue of hospitality by responding positively to the challenge to open wide the doors of his metaphor.


Justa brings to the words “house” and “children” the words “table” and “food”. This was the primary site of conflict for the early church. As Luke Timothy Johnson says, “We are obsessed [today] by the sexual dimension of the body. The first-century Mediterranean world was obsessed by the social implications of food and table fellowship.” [ii] To let the ‘dogs’ in to the house of Judaism was unscriptural, ritually unhygienic, and contrary to culture.


Interestingly the same gender marriage opponents also argue on the basis of Scripture, bodily boundaries, and culture.


Justa the Gentile takes the household metaphor of eating and widens it in order that both children and ‘dogs’ are fed from the same table. She believes that the table of faith in the God of Jesus can sustain both Jews and Gentiles. Jesus for his part opens his mind to her truth, and grants her request.


Hospitality requires more than simply inviting others to dine with us. It requires a hospitable heart and a generous mind. It requires us to accept that the others, the ‘foreigners’, are different from us and may never believe or act exactly the same as us. Therefore the table we will sit at together will feel less like our table. The table though familiar will now feel somewhat strange and foreign. 


This is how I suspect many traditionalists are feeling about the possibility of marriage being shared with gay and lesbian couples. It feels a little strange, and a little foreign. 


Contrary to the accepted understanding of the Torah [iii], Jesus would preach and live out a table fellowship where pure and impure, male and female, Jew and Gentile, insiders and outsiders, would dine together. Not always comfortably, but together.


The book of Acts, written by Luke, is an account of the emergence and spread of the early Church following Jesus’ death. Chapter 10 is the pivotal point of that book. Until chapter 10 the message about Jesus had been preached only to Jews. Admittedly it had been preached to those who, though Jews, were considered contaminated – the detested Samaritans [iv] and the sexually ‘other’ Ethiopian [v]. But it is still firmly within the Jewish house. It is not a religion for Gentiles. In chapter 10, however, Peter moves ethnically and thus religiously to the edge, and takes a dangerous step across a threshold that would demand the most fundamental reinterpretation for the emergent church.


Peter falls into a sleep and sees a large sheet coming down from the heavens. In it are all manner of animals – the clean and unclean, the ones a Jew could eat and the ones a Jew couldn’t. “Then he heard a voice say, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” But Peter said, “By no means…for I have never eaten anything unclean.” The voice said to him again... “What God has made clean you must not call profane”. [vi]


Luke Timothy Johnson writes: “Please remember the stakes. The Gentiles were considered 'by nature' unclean, and were 'by practice' polluted by idolatry. The decision to let the Gentiles in 'as is' [not requiring their conversion to Judaism] came into direct conflict with the accepted interpretation of Torah and what God wanted of humans.” [vii]


Peter’s vision leads him to respond to an invitation to intimate fellowship with an impure Gentile's household [Cornelius’s] - whom he baptizes once he sees evidence that God is at work among them. Peter then has the problem of justifying his actions to his colleagues in Jerusalem. 


Again we can see parallels with where we are regarding the inclusion of LGBT in today’s Church. There are many who are uncomfortable with the foreign nature of same gender love and its expressions, and use the Bible to support their discomfit. There are those who want to make inclusion conditional on sexual abstinence. ‘Be-more-like-us,’ is the message, ‘before-we-make-room-for-you.’


Luke, in his Gospel, does not represent Jesus as having dismissed the issue of food purity [viii], but to the contrary presents the early disciples as keeping to a very high standard of purity. Thus, the addition of true Gentiles to the community created a serious problem about the relationship of believers to one another in terms of purity of their food. Luke acknowledges the seriousness of the problem by repeating the incident in full in Acts 11. If the Jerusalem Council found in favour of Peter with Cornelius’ household then faithful Jewish Christians would inevitably be compromised. There was no way for a win-win solution here.


The deck is stacked against Peter. Scripture, as Peter understands it, opposes his action: the Book of Deuteronomy does not permit the ‘People of God’ to mix with foreigners. Tradition is against him: the Maccabean Wars against foreign influences are in his people's recent history. The only argument in his favour is that there is something experientially remarkable about the work of Jesus in people’s lives. To their great credit the apostles and elders in Jerusalem knew the Spirit of Jesus well enough to discern that God was doing a new thing.


Likewise God is doing a new thing in these days. Here in Aotearoa the acceptance of gay and lesbian people grows daily; similarly in the Church. Although this new thing seems fragile, seems reliant on the goodwill of the heterosexual majority, there are continuing signs of hope. I pray that the Church will welcome and embrace this wind [ruach] of change, and celebrate the hope it offers to us all.


[i] Justa is the name she is called in the 3rd and 4th century Pseudo-Clementine homilies.


[ii] Luke Timothy Johnson, Scripture and Discernment: Decision-making in the Church, Abingdon : Nashville, 1983, p.147.


[iii] The Torah is the first five books of the Bible, and has preeminent place in Jewish Scripture.


[iv] Acts 8:4-25


[v] Acts 8:26-40


[vi] Acts 10:13-15


[vii] Luke Timothy Johnson, op.cit.


[viii] Unlike Matthew and Mark – see Matt 15:1-20; Mark 7:1-23

An Offensive Gospel

September 2, 2012

Clay Nelson

Pentecost 14     Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Video available on YouTube, Facebook


This week I met with a small group of colleagues to discuss how to move the diocese to a more accepting view regarding the place of the LGBTQ community in the life of the church. In particular we were discussing how to support the debate that will be held at the Synod next weekend regarding a bill that only asks that we discuss the concept of same-sex marriage. In the course of the discussion we warned them that another billboard would be going up outside St Matthew’s this week. One member of the group groaned about how difficult our billboards make her life. Her point was that her congregation is more theologically diverse than we are at St Matthew’s and it puts her in a difficult position as to how to respond. From Glynn’s and my position all she has to do is stand up and say she disagrees with us and why. It was clear from her position that St Matthew’s causes reactions locally that she could do without. Implied is that when we cause offence it makes her job harder.


After our billboard went up this week we got the usual collection of emails and phone calls. Some expressed surprise and support that a church had the courage to make what they considered our enlightened position known. Others spouted scripture passages at us like we had never heard them before and damned us for not supporting the Bible’s condemnation of homosexuality. Media quickly jumped on it asking for interviews. But my favourite moment of the week was a voice mail from a sweet young thing disappointed that she did not get to speak to me in person. She then proceeded to wonder what Bible I read because my position was not in her John Nelson Darby version (one I have to admit I was unfamiliar with) or her King James Version. She then proceeded to quote Romans 1:26-27 as if there was nothing left to be said. But apparently after second thought she went on to assure me I was not a Christian, in fact I was clearly the Anti-Christ. She then signed off cheerily saying I better get myself sorted out or I was going to hell. I liked that one so much I had to put it on my Facebook page. From many of the comments made by my Facebook friends I will be in good company.


To top off the week our bishops felt compelled to speak out against the billboard in the diocesan publication Taonga. I say “compelled” because having worked closely with a bishop in the past I know that they do not welcome being drawn into controversy. I am of two minds regarding this. First, I commend them for in no way trying to stop us from putting up the billboard. They clearly wish we hadn’t but they are respectful of our right to do so. That said, they chose to nit pick that our billboard does not give a full theological explanation of our position with footnotes, forgetting it is only two by one metres big. They chose to ignore that a media release went out further explaining its purpose. They chose to ignore that there is plenty of history behind our billboard. For over 30 years we have argued that it is the church’s loss to not honour and receive fully the gay and lesbian community into the life of the church and society. I can only assume what annoys them most is that a billboard that uses humour to support Louisa’s Marriage Equality bill has gotten extensive coverage in New Zealand, Australia, the UK and the US. This apparently compelled them to have to separate themselves from the justice issue behind the bill and declare that the billboard and the opinion of St Matthew’s congregation “does not represent the Auckland Diocese or the wider Anglican Church.” This statement is only true in the sense that our Diocese and the wider church have never voted on the issue of same gender marriage. What it does not acknowledge is that there are many Anglican clergy and laypeople supportive of our views, as evidenced by their signing a letter of opposition to the Roman Catholic bishops’ pastoral letter opposing the Marriage Equality Act. After then denigrating our position they go on to encourage “the church and the wider community to have respectful conversations that lead to a greater understanding of the issue currently before Parliament.” Apparently, while they may feel we do not represent the views of the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia, we do represent the views of New Zealand and its Parliament who overwhelming supported the bill in its first reading with a vote of 80 to 41. I can only thank God that the Anglican Church weren’t involved in this process. They would have tabled it in favour of establishing a Crown commission to deliberate on it for the next two years seeking options that would not offend anyone before deferring a vote on the report until 2016 when all 121 Members of Parliament might vote in favour.


This week’s adventures and today’s Gospel raise for me the question of what is the church’s role in society. All too often in my opinion our role has been to be a social club that supports King and Country. We are ordained to be an instrument of good order that supports the agenda of those in power. As an example, right now in the Anglican Diocese of Sydney there is a renewed effort to make men the head of the household, and not just churchmen, but all men in society. They are reintroducing a requirement into the wedding vows for women to submit to their husbands. Their reason is the Bible says so, of course, and woe betides any woman who resists! What century are they living in? I’m pretty sure I’d be living alone if those vows still existed in New Zealand. Lynette would never submit and I wouldn’t have been interested if she did.


Apparently, the problem many in the church have with us at St Matthew’s is that we are an obstacle to right order. In biblical language we are a scandalon, a stone that causes others to stumble or stub their toe. Our sin is that we are offensive to some of our brothers and sisters in the faith. In their minds it is unchristian to offend. If so, I wonder how they are dealing with today’s Gospel or for that matter last week’s or next week’s. In all three Jesus goes out of his way to offend someone.


Last week he offended some of his followers by referring to himself as the bread of heaven and that to eat of it is to eat his flesh and blood. Besides identifying himself with God he asked Jews who were forbidden to eat blood to do so metaphorically. Those who were offended walked away.


This week Jesus criticizes the Pharisees who are offended that his followers do not wash their hands before eating as the purity laws require. While in our modern age we know that doings so is good hygiene, Jesus confronts their hypocrisy by quoting Isaiah:


‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”


He then tells the crowd: “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” His disciples are anxious that he has offended the Pharisees. They were right. He made no friends amongst the powerful religious leaders of his day.


Next week you will hear him refer offensively to the Syrophoenician woman as a dog when she asks him to heal her daughter. Unlike the disciples who walked away, or the Pharisees who began plotting his destruction, the woman refused to be offended and made a joke, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” The result is her daughter is healed.


It is not a coincidence that Mark has juxtaposed these stories. His point is not about the importance of eating kosher, or cleanliness versus defilement, or who is worthy to receive God’s grace. In a highly offensive way Jesus points out that his followers who were among the 5000 who ate bountifully from two fish and five loaves of bread lack enough faith to be one with him by eating his flesh and blood. The law-abiding, pious Pharisees lack enough faith to be less concerned about the cleanliness of their hands than the purity of their hearts. But a Gentile dog has faith greater than her capacity to be offended. His point is that the opposite of offence is faith, but the only way to faith is through the possibility of offence. As Jesus says in Matthew 11:6 “Blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.”


May all who take offence at our billboards be lead to faith: faith in a world where human dignity reigns, God’s justice prevails and the mystery of love surrounds us all.

A Liberal History

August 26, 2012

Clay Nelson

Pentecost 13     Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18     John 6:56-69

Video available on YouTube, Facebook


Once upon a time there was a parish in Holland, where the people felt themselves strictly bound 
to obey all God’s commandments, including keeping the Sabbath day holy.


But one Sunday the place was so threatened by wind and waves 
that the dyke had to be strengthened 
if the inhabitants were to survive.


The police notified the pastor, who now found himself in a religious difficulty.


Should he call out the people of the parish
 and set them to do the necessary work, if that meant profaning the Sabbath?


Should he, on the contrary, abandon them to destruction 
in order to honour the Sabbath?


He found the burden of making a personal decision too much for him, 
and he summoned the Church Council to consult and decide.


The discussion went as one might suppose: We live to carry out God’s will.
 God can always perform a miracle with the wind and the waves.
 Our duty is obedience, whether in life or in death.


The pastor tried one last argument: 
Did not Jesus himself, on occasion, break the fourth commandment
and declare the Sabbath was made for people, 
not people for the Sabbath?


Thereupon a venerable old man stood up: I have always been troubled, pastor, by something 
that I have never ventured to say publicly.


Now I must say it. I have always had the feeling
 that our Lord Jesus was a bit of a liberal. [i]


Being a bit of a liberal myself I find myself in a little religious difficulty as well this morning. Theologically I’m between a rock and a hard place or perhaps between having to choose to talk about Joshua having a ceremony to celebrate God having brutally conquered the indigenous peoples of Canaan on behalf of the Hebrew tribes or Jesus talking about bread being his flesh and blood. Which, as an aside, does raise the question: Do vegetarians who read the Bible literally take communion? 


As this makes six straight weeks John has talked about bread, Joshua wins by default. But to do so requires a little background as what most of us remember about him begins and ends with Mahalia Jackson singing Joshua fit the battle of Jericho and the walls come tumblin’ down.


Joshua was Moses’ spiritual heir. It was given to him to take the Hebrew people into the Promised Land. The problem was the land was already taken. So the Book of Joshua recounts all the bloody battles Yahweh, their war god, won on their behalf, Jericho being the most famous. But there are a lot of problems with this book, not the least of them is there is no archaeological evidence that the invasion ever happening. I’ve been to Jericho, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities on earth, and there is no evidence that its walls ever came “tumblin’ down.” So whoever wrote the book, and scholars are uncertain as to whom, was a believer in the maxim, “some people make history, and some make it up.”


In the passage we hear today we are at the culmination of the book. The battles are won. The Land of Milk and Honey is theirs. Joshua, or someone putting words in his mouth, is recounting to the assembled tribes at Israel’s holiest site at that time, how Yahweh has saved Israel. It has been called Israel’s salvation history. Apparently he understood something that Winston Churchill understood later. Churchill is reputed to have said during World War II that history would deal gently with him because, in his words, “I intend to write it.” While the invasion of Canaan is an invention, Joshua’s words have become carved in history as well as the idea that when something is divinely ordained it is justified. It has been used to rally the troops for millennia. Joshua’s call to choose this day whom you will serve has been used over and over again in western history. It is a mind-set that produced Spanish and British imperialism, France’s de Gaulism, America’s Manifest Destiny and more recently the false notion of American “exceptionalism,” the Maori land wars and, in perhaps in its most dire example, Nazi Germany.


Salvation history is our collective perception of our mandate and destiny. It gives us a mission, but one based on fear — fear that requires us always to be on the physical attack for our own spiritual self-defence. It gives us an identity, but an identity based on the derogation of the worth of others — the same identity that Joshua gave the Israelites and that the Roman Emperor Constantine gave the Christians. Salvation history, thus, is also damnation history for other people. It makes us who “choose the Lord” special by making others of no value. By making us agents of morality and judgment, it justifies the destruction of others for being immoral and wrong. It is the same thinking that justifies discrimination against the gay and lesbian community. It is the same thinking that blames the poor for being poor. It is the same thinking that suggests that there is legitimate rape. It is the same thinking that justifies the privileges of being white or male or rich. It is the same thinking that defends Christians teaching Bible in Schools in a secular education system.


While I reject Joshua’s salvation history I do think his challenge to choose between life and death is as relevant today as it was in the early history of the Israelites. We need to save ourselves from our salvation history. The church today needs to claim a salvation history that builds our identity not on fearful exclusivity and superiority founded on blindly following self-serving portions of scripture or we will drown just as surely as that Dutch parish.


The good news is that that liberal Jesus, has already offered a new salvation history with a new mind-set, a new way to define our selves. He offered an understanding of salvation that was universal, not tribal. Salvation through nonviolence, not God’s might. Salvation based on love of neighbour, not their exploitation. His vision has often been stifled by the state it opposes and by the church that has sought to domesticate him. Had it become dominant the world’s history might have been quite different. Even so, his liberal ideas seeped through. Thank Jesus’ salvation history wherever the world is more democratic, slavery is less prevalent, children are valued, the environment is protected, women are less vulnerable, the hungry are fed, human rights are enshrined in law and people can marry whomever they love. This is the salvation history I choose this day, not the one of my ancestors.


[i] Kasemann, E. 1969. Jesus Means Freedom. GtB: London. SCM.

The Power of a Prayer: Pussy Riot Tries the Church

August 19, 2012

Glynn Cardy

Pentecost 12

Video available on YouTube


In February three women, all in their twenties, were arrested in Moscow for saying a prayer, and on Friday sentenced to two years in prison. They are members of a punk rock group called Pussy Riot. They were alleged to have said a blasphemous prayer at the altar of the Cathedral. The prayer essentially said “Virgin Mother, redeem us of Putin” - Vladimir Putin being the President, the Virgin Mother being that young Palestinian who prayed that the mighty be brought down from their thrones.


The Pussy Rioters were dressed in bright coloured garments, with balaclavas over their faces. The clothing was not sexually provocative. The women looked somewhat like clowns. Note the YouTube clip the Rioters produced has been supplemented with music and guitars. They simply prayed and were quickly led away by security. Note too there was no church service in progress. The nine so-called ‘victims’ [those who heard their prayer] were predominantly security personnel and visitors. Note too that the three women as well as being feminists are active Christians.


They prayed accompanied by kneeling and by crossing themselves. The so-called ‘disrespect’ shown to the Virgin Mother, the protectress of Russia, seems to be that their request was of a political nature, it was lay women making the request, their dress of was not the usual clerical garments, and that they were facing the wrong way. [Their backs, and thus their bottoms, faced the holy altar.] The women have said they meant no disrespect to the Church.


However, they did mean to disrespect the close relationship between the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Putin regime. Putin’s re-election, and its alleged irregularities, has signaled a retrogression towards the authoritarianism of the past. Patriarch Kirill has been openly supportive of Putin before and after the election this year.


And they did mean to create a scandal. The Cathedral is a stone’s throw from the Kremlin and is deeply symbolic of current Church-State co-operation, having being built in the 1990s to replace its predecessor, which was destroyed by Stalin. The site, like the Pussy prayer, asks the fundamental, scandalous question about who owns God. Is God just a puppet toy belonging to the Church, a toy for the State to manipulate the strings and enhance its own power? Or is God a subversive power, out among the people, always working fearlessly to promote justice, mutuality, and equality?


Patriarch Kirill and his cronies responded with ferocity. Kirill circulated a letter to be read out in all his Moscow churches encouraging the faithful to write to the Procurator General requesting the maximum sentence for the women – five years – for blasphemy and aggravated hooliganism. Then he conducted a service in which some 20 bishops in full regalia lined up to purge the sanctuary. Later they called a public rally.


Fr Chaplin, who often acts as the Church’s spokesman, has made some revealing comments. “It was a sin against God,” he said. “But they also insulted the Patriarch who is a symbol of the Church.” “All these acts around symbols are attempts to redistribute power” [well he’s right about that]. “This trial has been willed by God” and he called on Russia to do away with its secular state.


When Christian leaders start to equate what they find offensive with what God finds offensive, when Christian leaders start to believe criticism of them is criticism of the Church, and when Christian leaders openly seek more power in the running of the State we are far removed from the humble carpenter’s son who sought to be true to a egalitarian vision of justice. The egocentrism and blatant aggrandizement of power revealed by these statements from the hierarchy of the Russian Church is unfortunately typical of unaccountable power, and is rife across the Christian world and in Christian history.


Yet the Patriarch is not the only voice of Russian Orthodoxy. There are the ‘traitors in cassocks’ as Kirill calls them. A retired priest, Fr Vinnikov, likens the baying of the mob, led by the Patriarch, for the blood of the three, to those who called ‘Crucify him!’ He goes on to recall that during the Communist times when the Church was persecuted by the State the Patriarch and Bishops did not raise their voices in protest. No, they only raised their voices to condemn those who did protest. Fr Vinnikov and other priests and academics of the Moscow Helsinki Group have written invoking the ancient Russian tradition of the ‘Holy Fool’ who was able with impunity to criticize the Tsar. St Basil was a holy fool and, the Group writes, “Today his well-educated and courageous followers are kept behind bars”.


The tradition of being a fool for Christ has a long history not exclusive to Russia. It goes right back into the biblical prophetic tradition where courageous individuals tried to call the powerful to account. These individuals often made dramatic actions and/or lived in a manner that set them apart. Many would say this is the tradition that shaped Jesus of Nazareth and in which he walked. Many of the saints of the church have followed this prophetic foolish path since – dressing differently, rejecting the trappings of power, criticizing both church and state, and calling us all to a vision of equality and mutuality. They are the ‘clowns of God’.


As soon as I saw the YouTube clip of those women in front of the Cathedral I knew the tradition they were walking in. I know the tradition because I too have walked it. I was arrested in 1983 for wearing sackcloth and putting ash on my head in the midst of a service where the Church had prostituted itself by getting in bed with the State. I, and those arrested with me, were calling the Church to return to it’s origins as known in the justice of Jesus. Yet our arrest and punishment is nothing compared to what these women have already endured. There is a cost to being a faithful fool for God.


Indeed it is that cost that has swung public opinion. Although the prosecution was seeking a reduced sentence of three years of corrective labour out of the seven possible, that only happened once polls showed opinion shifting and church supporters suddenly being outnumbered by those who viewed Pussy Riot's treatment as too vindictive for the actual crime involved.


This may be a worrying sign for the Orthodox Church which has grown exponentially, both in power and property ownership, under Putin and now views itself as Russia's moral voice. Olga Sibiryova of the Sova human rights centre said many were fearing that cases like Pussy Riot show "that Russia is no longer a secular state." The liberal Vedomosti business daily concluded that the Church had just committed its "biggest error since 1901" - the year it excommunicated the beloved writer Leo Tolstoy.


This morning we heard read King Solomon asking for the gift of wisdom and receiving it along with riches and glory. Stefan Heym’s novel, The King David Report, accurately alerts us to the political spin-doctoring written into the Scriptures by the ecclesial elite, that is going on as David and Solomon are praised and adored. What we need to be aware of with Solomon is a story of a king excessively taxing his people to build great edifices allegedly to God’s glory, but also to his glory, and even using his people as slave labourers to this end. It is no surprise that upon Solomon’s death the Kingdom fractures and falls apart. I mention Heym’s novel because the novel is a clever critique of the East German power structure in the 1970s, and the sort of authoritarianism that is re-emerging under Putin. The equation of religious leaders receiving earthly riches to build glorious buildings in return for political sycophantism is a very old scenario. 


Pussy Riot is symbolically the head of a protest movement in Russia that is being shut down. Bloggers have been arrested, and people are scared to express any anti-Putin sentiment. Only state-sanctioned demonstrations are allowed. Pussy Riot draw attention to precisely what is so disturbing, a totalitarian nation where the church and state are becoming one.


The Bible and our Church tradition are familiar with these interwoven issues of prayer, prophets, and power. How, who, and where one prays to God, and who decides how, who and where, are issues that occur regularly and repeatedly throughout history. Religion again and again slides into the mire of elitism where only authorized clergy can pray and authorized liturgies can be prayed in public, and again and again brave prophets have to remind us that God is not in the pocket or pay of the elites.


Some religious people, who spend significant periods of time praying, develop as a result certitude about life, their sense of belonging, and a sense that others don’t belong. They develop a moral ideological perimeter that excludes the ‘unfit’. They believe justice is about the less powerful agreeing to the requirements of the more powerful, and their God will offer grace and forgiveness upon compliance.


Yet other religious people, who may pray less, who may attend church less, and who may even believe less, become through their prayer less certain about right and wrong, and more tolerant towards those who don’t fit. The discipline of prayer connects them with all people, crossing moral and ideological perimeters. They believe justice is about empowering the less powerful and disturbing the imbalance of power that elites like to maintain. Their God is a subversive energy permeating the halls of privilege causing discomfort, confusion, and chaos.


The former is the God of Putin and Kirill, the latter is the God of Pussy Riot and St Matthew’s.


Christian clowns, girls with guitars and foolish knitted hats, not men with guns, head a revolution against authoritarianism and the betrayal of the Church by its leaders. It was not just three women on trial. It was and is also Putin. It was and is also the Church. It is a way of exercising power that is on trial. It is the people’s right to pray that is at stake. It is a clash of Gods. And it isn’t over yet.

Are You Beyond the Pale?

August 12, 2012

Clay Nelson

Pentecost 11     John 6:35, 41-51

Video available on YouTube, Facebook


It took me longer than usual to begin writing this sermon until I began to look at where my resistance was. At the core of it is my love-hate relationship with the passage and I only love a wee bit of it.


In the first verse John has Jesus give voice to one of his seven “I am” statements. They all refer back to when God gives Moses his name, Yahweh, which is often translated, “I am who I am.” It is John’s way of connecting Jesus to God. Today’s “I am” statement is “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” I love this first verse, the rest of the reading not so much.


Using the metaphor of bread is a rich metaphor full of meaning and allusions for me. It congers up those occasions when Lynette has made the bread for communion and the house is filled with the delicious aroma of it baking. It reminds me of the most rewarding part of being a priest, having the honour of giving each of you a small piece of it. It is comfort food that connects me to you. Using that metaphor for Jesus works for me. 


Understanding Jesus as the bread of life helps me to understand Jesus not as a person but as a value, a quality: the light of God, or the light of the Spirit, or the light of the holy, or the light of human goodness. Whatever name you choose, think of that light as shining in every person. That is no small thing; it is a great gift, for that is our true nature. It is our sustenance, the bread of life. Everyone who understands that this light shines within everyone, and believes in that, and lets that lead to love for others, as well as for oneself—she or he will live with compassion. In compassion we find ourselves one with its source, right with the world, right with ourselves


But John can’t end it there. He has to go on. He tells of Jesus being challenged by the Jews for claiming to be one with God. They claim to know his father and mother (obviously John hasn’t heard Luke’s story of Jesus’ supernatural conception). In his response he tells them essentially he is the one way to God and God chooses who will be drawn to him.


I hate this passage because it is exclusionary. It is the source of some bad theology and worse, ministry, and the inspiration for some pretty insipid happy-clappy songs. It is the kind of thinking that motivates some to go into public schools to save the little children, irrespective of the cultures and faiths from which they come. It fills too many Christians with the arrogance of certainty and justifies their judgments on all who differ.


The passage is a reflection and commentary on what was going on in the nascent Christian community at the time. It was a self-conscious Jewish Christian community that is deeply aware of its identity over and against the Torah observant synagogue communities John refers to as “The Jews.” They are aware that there are new followers outside Judaism who Paul and Thomas have attracted. They are aware that some people, many being their family and friends, simply will not accept that Jesus is the bread of life. John seeks to understand and explain this, carefully glossing over that Jesus was a Torah observant Jew, not a Christian. His conclusion is, it’s too bad for them. Jesus is the only way. Those that do not recognize that are not chosen to do so by God. Rubbish!


What most annoys me about this passage is I do get where John is coming from. John and I share our mystification over how some can’t see the world as we do. You may have noticed over the years that I am a political news junkie and have a high view of President Obama. As a result I’m following the American election closely. Apparently the race between Governor Romney and the President is going to be very close this November. For the life of me I don’t understand why. It should be a landslide for Obama. I can’t understand why any woman, person of colour, gay or lesbian or someone earning less that $200,000 a year would even consider voting for Romney or any Republican for that matter. It is so obvious to me that they are voting against their own self-interest. It is hard for me not to consider them lost souls, beyond the pale.


Focusing more at home I am equally wondrous that it is not obvious that Christians should not use a loophole to press their advantage to teach the Bible in public schools and call it values education when more accurately it should be called proselytizing. It is using power in a way I can’t see Jesus sanctioning. Those who believe otherwise must be impaired.


The issues of same-sex marriage and ordaining people like Geno bring up the same reaction. Why is it not obvious to all that both are good things that will benefit all of us. The world would so clearly be a better place. So what’s the problem with those who oppose full inclusion of the LGBT community into society? Why can’t they get it? What’s wrong with them?


I know I’m sounding just like John now.


The problem with this thinking is that those on the other side think the same of me and are asking the same questions about me. They also have no trouble telling me so.


Which is fine, usually they are simply trying to save me from myself. Many promise to pray for me that I might know the errors of my way. However, this viewpoint leads to the sickness we saw played out in Wisconsin this week. There a neo-Nazi felt it was his right to take an automatic weapon and gun down Sikhs in their temple. These people were so beyond the pale for him, they were no longer human. Lest we think this is just an American problem, we do get a few emails here that cross the line and make me very glad the sender can’t buy an AK-47 on TradeMe in New Zealand.


When we focus on our differences it is not long before we are casting the other out of God’s good graces into the outer darkness. Little has changed since John wrote in the first century.


This week I also met the antidote to this human condition. Louisa Wall, the MP who wrote the bill seeking to amend the Marriage Act so that it no longer discriminates according to gender or sexual orientation, came to St Matthew’s to meet with a small group of us. Lest you think she is only speaking with those who support her, she had just come from a meeting with members of the Salvation Army. She is eager to meet with those who disagree with her. What they will meet is an extremely well spoken woman who is articulate about her beliefs without being disrespectful of those who disagree with her. She is a lesbian in a civil union. She is young, so most of her life has been lived after laws against sodomy were repealed. She does not understand the prejudice that doesn’t fully recognise gay and lesbian people. But still she goes out of her way to connect with them. She seeks to be in communion with them. She is not religious but she understands at some intrinsic level that Jesus is the bread of life. She understands that in each of us is the light of human goodness. Our task is to focus on that and not our differences. Nothing will change if we continue to see our opponents as beyond the pale. The only hope we have is to seek to be in relationship, to share the bread of life even as we are one with it.

There Is a Bus Shelter for the Night

August 5, 2012

Linda Murphy

Pentecost 10     John 6:24-35

Video available on YouTube, Facebook


A few weeks ago, Peter and I attended a wonderful APO concert entitled, “American to the Core”. The programme included; Bernstein, Gershwin and Corigliano. The music was joyous, loud and emotional. The symphony by Corigliano was a memorial to three friends who had died during the 80s Aids epidemic. This was a wonderful, edgy production that had a social and political message not your usual concert fare.


At the interval I went outside and looked across the road at the Night Shelter in Airedale St where I had a few hours earlier referred a man who had been brought to the Mission by the Police.


This was an auspicious night for the shelter; it would be the last night the emergency shelter would be available in Airedale St. This shelter had been running for many years and had 30 beds for both men and women. What struck me as inequitable and short-sighted, was that Hamilton has just opened their own shelter, Wellington and Christchurch has one but Auckland with one and half million people cannot keep this facility operating. We seem to be unable to provide services to our less fortunate citizens because it just costs too much.


The Gospel, last week told of the feeding 5000 and this week’s reading is a continuation and the crowds need for an explanation of the sign and miracles that Jesus performs. John is a Gospel full of signs and the world when it was written was in desperate need of signs, of the positive kind. The followers of Jesus had been expelled from the synagogues and the Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed. The followers were being persecuted by the Romans and have lost all connections with their original Jewish roots.


This 2nd century world included homelessness, overcrowding, dislocation, unemployment and hunger. Not that dissimilar to our current world scene for many, whether they live in the US, Africa, Europe or Aotearoa NZ. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury has recently described David Cameron’s concept of the ‘Big Society’ as “aspirational waffle designed to conceal a deeply damaging withdrawal of the state from its responsibilities to the most vulnerable”. This description of British society could be so easily be transposed to describe our own, in Aotearoa New Zealand. In fact this same paper states there are 7 million families living on the edge of poverty and the effect on their health, relationships and capacity to flourish is devastating. While we don’t have such large numbers being affected, the effect on our similar group is the same.


I recently saw the movie ‘Margin Call’. It follows the key people at an investment bank, over a 24 hour period, during the early stages of the financial crisis that continues to impact the world’s economies and subsequently driven millions of people into homelessness.


The extraordinary thing about this move was that the key players were not worried about the long term effect of the imminent financial crisis after all it had happened before and it would happen again. At no point did the idea that the system they were working with was flawed, come up for serious discussion. That sign was both frightening but oh so real!


It is unlikely that homelessness and living on the edge of poverty will ever be eradicated while such institutions accept that the inevitable result of their business process is economic “booms and busts”.


Bread as we all know is a staple in most diets throughout the world in its many variations. Another essential for human life is community. Without connection to community we as individuals never reach our full potential, we need each other to live our lives abundantly. The statement “I am the bread of life” was quite challenging for those listeners as it is for us. What was being implied? The challenge is to see which things perish and which things endure, and to embed ourselves - to abide in, to focus our living on things that endure. Are there signs in our lives that we are ignoring, or are there things that we want more “proof’ of in order to believe? The message of Jesus is that we have been shown the sign- the proof- of God’s presence among us, we just need to see it. God has already provided all that is needed for life and community. Our souls are nurtured – some might say fed – by doing his work in God’s world.


Working in hospitals, social services, food banks or with the homeless, all of this “works” flow from the practical demonstration of Jesus feeding the 5000. Through sharing, we can help others experience the abundance of life that Jesus speaks of later in this Gospel. Sharing the essentials of life, like bread means that we are caring for God by caring for each other. We too can be a sign of God’s presence in God’s world. We have bread and love to share, by the grace of God.


What “sign” is God calling us to be, as individuals and as a church? Remember, a ‘sign’ is an action that has the potential of revealing God’s presence in order to generate belief. We as a church community have begun an exercise of looking at ourselves and what we would like to see ourselves be as an inner city church. I really enjoyed meeting both new and the more established members of the congregation and hearing why they came to St Matthew’s and what they would like to see St Matthew’s to become. Reflecting on what we are and what we can be as a Christian community is a pathway that we walk into the mystery and wonder of God.


As a member of the Crisis Care Team at the Auckland City Mission, knowing the Night Shelter was to be closed filled me with dread, the thought of having to tell people that there was no shelter available and sleeping rough was their only option, is not a pleasant one. However we have managed to house most of the long term users of the shelter and we now have a very limited number of beds available at another hostel in the inner city. It has made us more aware of our mission to care for the marginalised and disadvantaged of Auckland City. At this point in time I am not aware of our new Super City coming up with any suggestions or alternatives, to solve this emergency accommodation crisis. It has been collaboration between the Auckland City Mission and Lifewise with some help from Housing NZ who are finding and funding the new option.


Remember the man who slept at the Night Shelter? The Policeman who brought him to the Mission rang me the following day. He, with Housing NZ’s help, had found him permanent accommodation and we have been able to put in place the necessary support service the man needed to live his life well. That for me is a wonderful and unexpected result of community working to care for the less able in our own society.

A Comprehensive Vision of the God

July 29, 2012

Clay Nelson

Pentecost 9

Video available on YouTube


Five years ago our congregation went through an exercise setting down what we thought our mission was and setting goals to achieve it. Helen Clark was still Prime Minister. Dick Hubbard was Auckland’s Mayor. There was no Supercity, or talk of one. George Bush was still torturing people. Having a black US President was a pipe dream. Christchurch Cathedral was still standing. Unprecedented greed had not yet melted down the world’s economy making the 99% poorer and the 1% richer. Something called an “iPhone” was first mentioned by Steve Jobs. Facebook was in its infancy (only a year old). It would be another year before Tweeting would enter the lexicon. Five years ago I didn’t know what an iPad was or that I would be preaching on one today. In today’s world, five years is a long time.


During those same five years St Matthew’s has gone through many changes as well. From where you sit in your pew you can see many of them: the new organ and kitchen and reincarnation of the St Thomas Chapel are the most obvious. But as grand as those changes are there has been a more important change. Look around. There are many faces who weren’t here five years ago and those who were here have experienced billboards that went viral, the trauma of Glynn’s illness, Geno’s rejection by the church because of who he is and our reaction to that injustice, the many challenges of putting in a new pipe organ and the parish celebration of Lynette’s and my wedding, to mention just a few. We are a different community than we were then, a little bit younger, more diverse, hopefully, wiser.


Individually, we have changed as well. We’ve experienced births and deaths, illnesses, new or lost jobs, broken relationships and new ones, disappointments, failures and unforeseen successes. None of us sat still and unchanged since last we reflected on where we wanted to go as a congregation. So today is officially declared a day of reflection at St Matthew’s. It is the first step that the Vestry asks us to take in setting a new and intentional vision for St Matthew’s that will guide our actions and priorities for the next five years.


During the notices we will explain the process, so all I will say now is that I hope as many of you as possible will stay for it. Each of you is essential, whether this is the first Sunday you have sat in one of these pews or you have been sitting there for years. Anyone absent will diminish the vision of what we are capable.


Instead, I want to do what you pay me for, offer some theological reflection, albeit it briefly, on why we are here in the first place and why it matters to do what we are going to do this morning.


I want to begin with Alfred North Whitehead, a mathematician turned theologian. He argued that we cannot account for the creative process without an understanding of the role of the divine. His central insight is that everything becomes whatever it becomes by virtue of how it relates to everything else. Whether you are a Hobbs-Boson subatomic particle, a person or even God, your identity over time develops though a process of relating to everything else.


Whitehead spent a lot of time observing nature. His conclusion was that the mystery at the base of all that is, is not arbitrary. Our experience of that mystery through our relationships with everything else gives us the confidence to know the final worth of our existence. We matter.


So why does that matter? It matters because we have chosen to be part of a religion. The purpose of any religion is to seek a comprehensive understanding of the good. There is no aspect of life that religion’s vision of the good doesn’t include. When bad things happen in any aspect of life, including religion, we have become detached from a comprehensive understanding of the good.


When we look around the world we can see that there is plenty of detachment. The war on the poor, support of the military-industrial complex, denial of human rights to segments of our society, global climate change are just the more glaring examples.


As we reflect on our experience as a community, I hope we will ask does our faith include a comprehensive view of the good? Do we demonstrate confidence in the ultimate worth of all existence? How do we even know what is good?


One way we do is through our worship, which is at the core of who we are. Worship is a discipline of opening our hearts to people we don’t fully know, our minds to ideas we don’t fully comprehend, and our souls to a divine presence we cannot fully name. Worship reminds us of the ignorance that infuses everything we know and the mystery that lies beyond our reach.


We worship to awaken our sense of the sacred and to transform our selves and our world. We want our lives to be different and we want our world to be different. Worship prepares the community for the task of transformation by drawing us toward a comprehensive understanding of the good. To determine the good we seek requires an inclusive community that acknowledges that we all emerge from the same source and share the same destiny; that celebrates and gives thanks for what we hold in common and honours the ways in which we differ. For we know the former unites us and the latter frees us as individuals. The first forges shared commitments and the second, nurtures the individual responsibility required for bringing them to fruition.


Is a comprehensive vision of how we wish to be transformed enough? No, once identified we all need to move toward it. Not just some of us, but all of us. No gift we offer is too small. No person is not important enough. Without you it all comes apart.


In 1961 John F. Kennedy challenged Americans to put a man on the moon by the end of that decade. Later he visited NASA. While touring the facilities, the President stopped a janitor in the hallway and asked him what he did at NASA. The janitor replied, “Mr President, I am working on putting a man on the moon.”


Let us begin. The world is waiting.

A Conversation with Helen Kelly

July 22, 2012

Glynn Cardy has a conversation with Helen Kelly, President of NZ's Council of Trade Unions about the union movement and Living Wage Campaign.

Video available on YouTube

Feel the Fear and Say It Anyway

July 15, 2012

Glynn Cardy

Pentecost 7     Amos 7:7-15     Mark 6:14-29

Video available on YouTube, Facebook


This morning we have heard the story of John the Baptist’s head being offered on a plate to Herod, the puppet ruler for Rome whose mandate included Galilee. I like John the Baptist. Although later editors of the New Testament try to gloss over it, it’s probable he was Jesus’ mentor. John knew fear, felt fear, probably compromised on incidentals, and yet did it anyway. In the final analysis John was killed because he pissed off the local potentate and his sycophants. 


I think most ideas that challenge the unjust foundations of Church and State will face similar opposition, and those who articulate them run the risk of being served as a side dish at the banquet of power. Yet we need to call the political and spiritual Herods to account. By their actions or inactions the good news of God in Jesus is not being realized. By their actions - though it’s largely their inactions - injustice continues, poverty continues, exclusion continues… and they, and we, fail to place loving thy neighbour as our standard and goal. 


Let’s be clear about that love of neighbour phrase that Jesus borrowed from the Hebrew Scriptures. As you probably remember he attached to it the story of the Good Samaritan. The point of that parable is that the one who is the neighbour is not the man in the ditch but the Samaritan. It is the racial, cultural and spiritual enemy – the one who threatens your faith, your understanding of the world, and the egotism that puts you at the centre of the world – who is your neighbour. To love him or her is to give up your centrality, your all-encompassing closed worldview, in order to make room for the threatening outsider and his/her ideas and whanau. To love thy neighbour is to feel the fear and be changed.


At General Synod/te Hinota Whanui in the last nine days as well as some moving speeches, not least from our Pacifica hosts, I have seen plenty of obfuscation and inaction which would not have been unknown to anyone familiar with the politics of a Herod’s Court. Polynesia was magnificent in their hospitality, aroha and grace. Yet those in control of the Court were not Polynesia. Those in control, with the veneer of a bumbling niceness, allowed self-interest, prevarication, and defensiveness to dominant. In such a Court context the enemy was the inconvenient question, the agitator, the media, and the tweeter and facebooker. It is hard to find one’s way through the intricacies of this Court to expose the inexplicit Herodian theology and practice without prematurely losing one’s head.


Let me give an example. There is widespread concern about the policies of the Key Government who in response to the recession [but probably planned anyway] have protected the income and benefits of the rich while cutting into the support and resources available to the poor. However this concern did not permeate through the intricacies of Herod’s Court in order to translate into specific actions of protest. Indeed even the three social justice motions [none of which dealt with this fundamental wealth disparity] were not discussed. We ‘ran out of time’. Eight days of long lunch breaks, half hour morning and afternoon teas, socializing etc had more priority. Even at the 11th hour when in a formal question [which meant no debate] I gave the archbishops the wording to criticize the NZ government, I was treated as a nuisance, a disrupter of smooth business.


There were two motions discussed in relation to the ongoing Church policies of excluding gays and lesbians from ordained ministry and the sacrament of marriage. What Herod’s Court is grappling with here are deep-seated institutional fears of change, of difference, of living in a pluralistic world, of disunity within the Court, more concerned with conservatives [and their money] – conservatives who can of course be married and ordained in the church – than with the exclusion of the largely invisible gays and lesbians. As an institution this Court is benignly [and sometimes explicitly] homophobic, despite the grace and aroha of many individuals and congregations within it some of whom are evangelical.


I offered, purposefully, a ten minute journey [courtesy of Professor Hamori [i] of Union Theological Seminary] into biblical material related to marriage and how it has changed in tandem with culture – particularly highlighting the days when married had to be within the family, when polygamy was normative, when the prohibition against mixed religious/racial marriage was allowed then prohibited and then allowed, the Jesus prohibition against divorce, and the stupidity of basing any sound theology on the de facto relationship between Adam and Eve. I think for many Synod members they’d never heard a biblical argument along these lines.


The General Synod debate was quite moving. Most speakers from Polynesia and from Tikanga Maori spoke supportively of the idea. Only the more conservative Pakeha dioceses spoke against my use of the Bible. How dare I use the Court’s handbook to argue for change! I was being ‘disingenuous’. They of course, like many at Court, hadn’t done their homework and come prepared. Their sloppiness showed. The motion asked for discussion to take place right across our Church, in parishes, commissions, and synods, on this issue and report back to both the next General Synod at Paihia in 2014.


The second motion was about the freedom of a diocesan bishop to ordain whomever he or she chooses, albeit acting within the bounds of the Canons. Where the argument should take place is around what constitutes chastity [a requirement of priests]. The Canon says it’s a right ordering of sexual relationships, thus begging the question of what we consider a right relationship. However, the debate didn’t get into that. People still wanted to express their feelings and experiences and the Court’s presidium wanted to close it down, put it safely in the ‘we-will-consider-this-later-basket’ and go to morning tea. It was tabled. Meaning there was no vote on it. 


So, what was that excursion into a subject deeply affecting the LGBTQ community all about? Well, the debate signaled to the conservatives that they have lost their majority hold on the Anglican Church, if they ever had it. But the Herods and their courtiers, wanting to be kind and pastoral and practical, don’t want anyone or their money and congregations to leave. So, defer, talk unity, talk Commission, and while all the time knowing that end of the heterosexual stranglehold on admission to the priesthood and on the sacrament of marriage is coming.


In the story of John Baptist’s beheading there is the role of Salome the dancer and Herodias her mother [who wanted to end the Baptist’s criticism of her]. Both women were caught in the powerful web of the Court and its subservience to its Lord, Herod. My understanding of how the dynamics of such courts work is that Herodias asked of Herod what she believed, and others in the web believed, he really wanted. When power relationships are strictly hierarchical, not mutual, the subservient wife becomes adept at only asking for what she knows the all-powerful Lord will want to give.


This too I would suggest is how we should read the story of the death of King David’s rebellious son Absalom who was murdered by David’s number one muscle, Joab [2 Samuel 18]. Joab of course gets the blame, and David weeps long and loud. This is Court bullshit. The subservient one is very careful to perceive his master pleasure and do it. The religious scribes who later wrote up this account deliberately added to the PR spin on David ‘the humble shepherd boy with sling and sandals’ and exonerated the same of filicide. 


I suspect the scribal community, always wanting to appease political masters, did the same centuries later with the beheading of the Baptist story, wanting to blame the so called ‘wicked woman’. Sound familiar?


In State and Church it is not uncommon to see the principles of Herod’s Court at work. At General Synod women rarely spoke and rarely chaired any of the proceedings. They were often absent from the negotiating groups dominated by the technocrat mind trying to change wording of motions and bills to encompass the span of differences and transform something pointed into an inoffensive compromise. 


Interestingly at one stage the Court I’ve been a part of was told an old story. The Russian Orthodox Church was meeting when the Czarist regime fell and the Bolshevik Revolution happened. The news was conveyed to the gathering. They chose to continue with their business for the next four days, deliberating on liturgy and liturgical vestments. I had heard this story told before in the context of a salutary reminder of our need to engage with the world rather than hide in the rarefied environment of our ecclesiastical world. However this time, our Court told it in a manner that was not disparaging of the Russian Church but joked that they had outlasted the Bolsheviks. I felt like vomiting at that point.


The Courts of now and of long ago have an institutional aversion to prophets and their ideas. Prophets disrupt business. They question the pre-set agenda. They question who has the power and why. They don’t do fear. They say it how they see it. They tell anyone who will listen how the lord emperor is dressed, without getting the emperor’s permission to say it. And the lord emperors are not amused, indeed privately are very angry. But it is often their loyal followers [like Herodias or Joab] who act on that anger, seeking to serve up the critic on a dish to their master. 


Modern day prophets and prophecy, and those of us who try to walk albeit stumblingly that path, call the Court – whether of Church or State - to adhere to a standard, a plumbline as Amos might say, accountable to the ministry and mission standards of Jesus and his mentor John the Baptist. Prophets say it loud, say it long, and they are not liked.


On Friday I symbolically tried to shake the Court’s dust off my soul as I landed in Auckland, drove to St Matt's, kissed the pavement, and gave thanks for this wonderful cosmopolitan pluralistic city that at its heart doesn't do fear.



Those Who Spoke the Justice of God to Those Whom It Would Disturb

July 8, 2012

Geno Sisneros

Pentecost 6     Ezekiel 2:1-7     Mark 6:1-13

Video available on YouTube, Facebook


Since my exodus from evangelical Christianity I must admit that I’ve carried with me a very negative opinion of the concepts of ‘prophets’ and ‘prophecy’. Where I’m from, so-called prophets used their ‘gift’ of prophecy as a weapon to exercise control over individuals and families in the congregation. It was not the voice or the interests of God that were being channeled through them, it was the minister’s own self-serving agenda that was being carried out masquerading as God’s. 


I won’t mince words this morning and pretend that I have any tolerance for systems of belief of any kind that have been designed to disparage the humanity of a person or group of people in order to exclude them from full life or to exercise control over them. 


Christianity, along with the other two Abrahamic religions, have a long history of corrupting, in that way, the core message of love which lies at the heart of those traditions. This hypocrisy exists in spite of the fact that all three traditions warn against false prophets and have a commandment to ‘love one's neighbour’.


Before I engaged with the thinking around this sermon, I tended to think of ‘authentic prophets’, if they ever existed, like dinosaurs - a now extinct species that died out long ago. I knew that dinosaurs were real but I wasn’t so sure about prophets.


So this morning I’m prompted to ask, what is a real prophet, did they really exist and do they exist now?


We get a brief glimpse this morning of the god of Israel’s call to a priest named Ezekiel into life as a prophet. Ezekiel had been one of a few thousand upper class Jews exiled from the Southern Kingdom of Judah along with their king by the Babylonian ruler Nebuchadnezzar II. 


Ezekiel’s calling had taken place just as those in exile had begun reflecting on the events that led to their forced removal from their homeland. This god of Israel had allowed them to be exiled because their kings had been poor leaders and their oligarchy had become immersed in stingyness and greed. They had ignored the warnings of prophets such as Jeremiah and were now paying the price for their disobedience. The destruction of the Northern Kingdom of Israel would not be far behind and for all the same reasons. 


Prophets like Jeremiah and Ezekiel functioned as religious intermediaries whose function was to carry messages back and forth between the god of Israel and his people. The prophets delivered these messages using a variety of mediums including but not limited to: visions, poetry, street theatre, protest, and legal arguments. They were adept social critics who on behalf of the god of Israel condemned the idolatry, sexual immorality, exploitative lending and violence that was rampant among the people. Along with these condemnations were stern warnings of impending destruction should things not change from what what was perceived as the people's disobedience and departure from the Law.


At first all this sounds mighty bizarre and mighty hypocritical, that the god of Israel had any room to talk for he often used violent and inhumane cruelty to carry out his agenda, but as Karen Armstrong says, “over the centuries Yahweh had become an idea that could help the people to cultivate a compassion and respect for their fellow human beings.” [1] She explains that it was the prophets of Israel who reformed the old pagan cult of Yahweh into something that promoted the ideal of compassion [2] and the great Rabbis carried on this tradition. 


It therefore became a sacrilegious act to profane the image of God, which was present in each human person, by denying a human the basic necessities of life or by humiliating them or corrupting their freedom. 


Only ten years after Ezekiel’s calling, just as he had prophesied, the Northern Kingdom of Israel was sacked too and the Temple destroyed. 


Almost six-hundred years later back in the homeland of Israel, we encounter Jesus in his hometown of Nazareth not as a ‘saviour’ or as a ‘messiah’ but he identifies himself as a ‘prophet’. Jesus knew the stories of the prophets well, he was also a Rabbi - a teacher. He knew what it meant to call himself a prophet. He knew the images that the word ‘prophet’ would evoke in people’s minds. Prophets were not saviours or messiahs or gods, they were human messengers who believed they had seen the vision of God’s Justice.


If there was a tradition by this time of a virgin birth, the residents of Nazareth don’t know about it and neither does Mark (or Mark knows about it and is refuting it) for he lists the names of Jesus’ brothers and says he has sisters too. Furthermore, the unbelieving crowd in the synagogue where Jesus has taught ask, “is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary?” implying there is some sort of negative ‘scandal’ surrounding his birth. Identifying a man through his mother was considered an insult. [3]


Mark is clearly making the point that this Jesus is human and he believes himself to be a prophet. The crowd ends up rejecting his “wisdom” and his “deeds of power” maybe because they knew him as a boy and they knew that there was nothing special about him. He was just plain ol’ human Jesus to them, not even a prophet.


But Jesus fits the modus operandi of a Biblical prophet. He claims to be a messenger carrying a message from God. He delivers this message through parables and allegories. He warns the powers-that-be of God’s displeasure with their treatment of the poor and the vulnerable. He criticises their empty but elaborate worship. He accuses them of hypocrisy in their observance of the Law to the detriment of those who are in need. He condemns their greed. He challenges their authority. He despises their false piousness. He pronounces God’s judgement and offers God’s vision of Justice as an alternative. He knows that the prophet is called not to be popular but to be faithful. He follows the tradition of many prophets before him, to speak the Justice of God to those whom it would disturb!


When I hear Christians talk about a conservative Jesus, I want to know what Gospel they are reading, because none of what I’ve just described sounds conservative, not in any sense of the word. Oxford defines ‘conservative’ as “a person who is averse to change”. When I see illustrations of a meek and gentle Jesus, I want to know how the artist came up with that portrayal of him because it’s not in any of the Gospels! To portray him that way is to disregard his prophetic nature.


Professor Greg Carey says that, “with so many people waving Bibles around and holding prayer meetings, one would expect some familiarity with the way of God. Instead, it seems the loudest Christians declare [the prophets’] message unjust.” [4]


So, to answer my original question, I do believe that prophets existed. I believe that Jesus was a prophet and I believe we have prophets among us today and in this very congregation. And as we are all part of that tradition of prophethood, we are all called to do the work of making reality the vision of God’s Justice in our world. 


Now that sounds like a creed I can live with. I find it alarming that neither of the two creeds that most Anglicans will recite this morning, the Nicene Creed or the Apostles Creed, mention anything about Jesus’ ministry of Justice. I find it disturbing that the most important part of his identity is not even alluded to in a summary of his nature.


But now more than ever our world needs authentic prophets more than it needs creeds. In New Zealand, our government is engaged in the rollout of a systematic oppression masquerading as welfare reform. Children are living in massive poverty. Families are having to decide between food, power and petrol. Taxes have gone up on the poorest while the wealthiest are getting wealthier. In countries where sacrifice is legislated, the poorest always pay the highest price.


The church is not exempt from criticism either and neither are its leaders.


Our bishops and other leaders in the Anglican Church in New Zealand need to get their act together and lead the way to Justice, not away from it or around it! Issues of equality are holding up progress on the further work we need to be doing in New Zealand and in the world, and frankly it’s shameful. We look to our leaders to proclaim the concrete Gospel and it is a myth of patriarchy to say that we have to slowly introduce liberation. Our leaders need to be critiqued and challenged when they buy into this myth and when they perpetuate it. 


Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, 


“So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent -- and often even vocal -- sanction of things as they are.” [5]


All good prophets know that the art of critical thinking is at the heart of transformation. In our reflection this morning, let us think critically about the way things are and how they might be transformed. Let us remember that we are challenged to follow the example of Jesus in the tradition of so many prophets before him, who not just listened to but spoke the Justice of God to those whom it would disturb, even and especially unto power!



[1] History of God - Karen Armstrong - 97.


[2] Ibid 459.


[3] Gospel According to St. Mark - Hooker, Morna Dorothy Hooker - 153.


[4] Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32 | Odyssey Networks. 2011. 6 Jul. 2012


[5] Letter from a Birmingham Jail [King, Jr.]. 2005. 6 Jul. 2012

Vermont Strong

July 1, 2012

Clay Nelson

Pentecost 5     Mark 5:21-45

Video available on YouTube, Facebook


A former colleague of mine from many years ago is hard to forget. One reason is his name. He is the only person I’ve ever met with the name Blayney. Another is he has a magnificent handlebar moustache that would be the envy of Giuseppe da barber. Blayney and I had an affinity because we were two of the few liberal clergy in a very conservative diocese. I lost touch with him for a while but then I encountered him in his second life on the Internet. After retiring from the ministry he decided to blog.


I look forward to finding his occasional writings in my email inbox. There was one this week. As background, Blayney and his wife spend half of their life in their modest home in rural Vermont where his wife gardens and he writes and chats up the neighbours, but when the snows arrive they have already made their way back to a small apartment they rent in an affluent part of San Diego where he used to work. How affluent? One of his neighbours is Mitt Romney, who has just bought a 3000 square foot fixer-upper mansion on the beach for $12 million dollars and is renovating it, doubling its size. This is the same house in which you may have heard he is installing a car elevator. 


Right now Blayney is in Vermont’s more humble environs writing about the weather. San Diego’s temperatures rarely stray from a high of 22 degrees Celsius under sunny skies. It doesn’t have weather. Vermont may not be affluent, but it has weather to spare. Late last summer, they were hit with the remnants of a hurricane that caused severe damage to the infrastructure due to flooding, isolating many in his valley. Upon their return to Vermont this spring they noticed that many of their hearty neighbours had put “I am Vermont strong” on their front licence plates.


Blayney has a dog, named Cosmos, who is often a subject of his writing. He is “Vermont strong” even though thunderstorms terrify him. Recently he got a snoot full of quills from a porcupine requiring a visit to his vet. Her comment, “Brave little guy. Not so smart, but brave.” His vet is a relatively young woman in respect to Blayney. She has cancer that has invaded her bones, requiring her hip to be pinned together, making her lame. She knows something about brave. She is certainly “Vermont strong.” After extracting the quills, they chatted about the annoyance of age and illness. In the course of the conversation Blayney mentioned that he feared 10 year-old Cosmos had a heart murmur. She listened to his chest and confirmed, “Yep, he does. So what? He looks great.”


After the visit to the vet, Blayney marvels at the many people who are “doggedly cobbling their lives together from the shards of what look from the outside to have been irreparably shattered.”


We meet one of those people today in Mark’s Gospel: the woman who has haemorrhaged for twelve years. She doesn’t have an easy time of it, simply by virtue of being a woman. Ever since the rise of patriarchy, no woman has. A unilateral power system women didn’t create has objectified, abused, exploited, excluded, oppressed, or simply ignored them. And that is on a good day today. Just ask America’s Roman Catholic nuns. In the time of Mark’s story, it was worse, if that is possible.


To make matters more difficult, she was being sapped of energy by her medical condition. Scholars argue as to the nature of her bleeding. My Greek is rusty but apparently if it were menstrual blood, they argue, Mark would have used a particular Greek word to say so. Their point is it could have been a seeping or infected wound. I’m pretty certain it was menstrual blood. First, Greek was not Mark’s native tongue. Greeks cringe at his poor use of their language (although it was still better than mine). But second, he was a man. Even if he knew the correct word he might have had trouble using it. Men have always had trouble talking about it. Euphemisms abound to help us avoid acknowledging its reality. To make my case I offer how Republican state legislators in Michigan banned one of their women colleagues last week from speaking on the floor of the house after referring to her “vagina.” She responded by performing The Vagina Monologues on the Statehouse steps. Gotta love her! She may live in Michigan, but that is “Vermont strong.”


The issue for the patriarchy was not the “unmentionable” place from which she was bleeding, but that she was bleeding. Her blood made her ritually unclean and untouchable. There was a hierarchy of uncleanness at the time. People to be avoided to remain pure were first those who were dead and then those who were bleeding. Lepers were third on the list. For twelve years, no man was to touch her and she was to touch no man (women really didn’t matter, of course). Literally, every day for a dozen years, not just a few days each month, she lived on the margins of society to be despised. She was “the other,” a victim of a discriminatory social construct and a cruel theology.


It would be nice if we could say that no longer happens. Sadly it seems part of the human condition to be pushing those not like ourselves to the margins merely because of their otherness, be it due to gender, sexual orientation, class, colour, ethnic group, or health. 


Susan Sontag, in her book Illness as Metaphor makes the case in painful detail that “ill-ness” is nothing more than a social construct that moves persons from the centre to the margins merely by virtue of a medical condition. It is arbitrary. Having a sniffle won’t do it. Everyone gets those. But having AIDS or cancer can make you a scapegoat, a “Typhoid Mary,” if you will. Even when there is no fear of contagion, we do not welcome being reminded of our mortality and our vulnerability by those who are stricken.


Who knows what motivated our heroine in today’s story to venture into the crowd to seek Jesus. It was a risky and possibly fatal act, should the crowd discover her condition. Perhaps she had heard he had power over demons and the weather. Perhaps she knew she needed some of that power too if she were to claim her full humanity. So she does the unthinkable. She pushes forward to touch the hem of his garment. She could live in Vermont.


What happens next is important. It is how Jesus responds. For how Jesus lives tells us about how God is and we are to be.


After noticing that she has drained power from him, he doesn’t rebuke her. He stops and talks with her. He makes time to relate to her, even though she is considered less than a nobody. He does so even though someone of power and influence has sent him on an urgent mission of life and death.


Jesus doesn’t recognize otherness. He crosses the line regularly, indifferent to whether someone has a car elevator or not. What he does care about is power. He puts his life on the line to confront unilateral power. 


Where unilateral power prevails, the burdens of inequality are borne most heavily by those who are weaker: “The natural and inevitable inequalities among individuals and groups become the means where by the estrangements in life become wider and deeper. The rich become richer, and the poor become poorer. The strong become stronger and the weak become weaker and more dependent.” [i]


There is a price to be paid even for those with great unilateral strength, for their strength lies in impoverishing their own relationships. They must learn not to care about the sufferings of others.


The power the haemorrhaging woman drained from Jesus is relational power.


Faced with inequalities, people with relational power will choose to bear a larger burden so that the weaker have a chance to develop their own relational power. Unlike unilateral power, relational power is not competitive in the sense of being mutually exclusive. Relational power is like love: The more we love each other, the more both of us can grow in love. To achieve this state will require that we take turns carrying the burden of love when one of us is less loving, but, in the long run, your goal is to increase my love, my relational power, and for me to increase yours. [ii]


Jesus demonstrates that people with relational power have more strength than those with unilateral power. They cannot be defeated. They are Vermont strong. Blayney shares a snippet from the movie Sugar. A baseball player from the Dominican Republic goes into a café in the small southern town where he has been assigned to the local AA minor league team. As he takes a seat at the counter the waitress says, I'm sorry, but we don't serve colored people. Without missing a beat he responds, Oh, that's OK, I don't eat colored people.


Many of you have taught me about being Vermont strong. Yep, you have faced many adversities and challenges, but “So what? You look great!” You have made me stronger. I hope I have or will return the favour. May we continue to draw power from one another until we are as whole and fully human as Jesus and a haemorrhaging woman.


[i] Loomer, Bernard. Two Conceptions of Power.


[ii] Mesle, Robert

Behold the Lamb of God

June 24, 2012

Glynn Cardy

Pentecost 4

Video available on YouTube, Facebook


I read the last book in the Bible - the Book of Revelation - the other week. I don’t recommend it. You need to have some pretty serious filters to strain out the blood, goodies vs. baddies, militarism, and hierarchical male god in order to find much of spiritual benefit to our 21st century lives. Yet, on the other hand, beneath the words, there is a context and message that still needs to be heard.


Two of my spiritual heroes Dan and Phil Berrigan went to the Book of Revelation regularly for sustenance. The Berrigan brothers, for those who forget the 60s and 70s, were catholic religious, poets, and activists. Although they consistently challenged the gap between rich and poor they are most remembered for their anti-war protests. Like the time they poured their own blood on draft files in Baltimore, or homemade napalm on the same in Cantonsville, Maryland. Or the time they entered the General Electric Nuclear Missile facility in Pennsylvania and began to hammer the nose cones into ploughshares. They were throwing pebbles at a Goliath. Both Philip and Dan spent considerable time in prison.


Like the early Christian experience that shaped the Book of Revelation, the Berrigans understood their faith to be in opposition to the macro-myths of their society. They saw America as an empire, like Rome, thirsting for power and gold, willing to kill to get it, justifying itself by feeding the populace platitudes about ‘peace’, and co-opting and domesticating religion. It was a harsh and pointed critique at a time when America was killing its own young in the forests of Vietnam, to say nothing of what it was doing to the locals there, and anaesthetizing American religion with an apolitical individualistic god. This critique was not dissimilar to the political-religious perception of St John the Divine who created a book full of symbols and imagery to challenge the imperial idolatry of his day.


It is from the Book of Revelation that we hear repeatedly of ‘the Beast’, ‘the whore’, and ‘Babylon’ (all are references to Rome). We hear of ‘Armageddon’, ‘white robed martyrs’, and the salvific ‘blood of the Lamb’. The context is a persecuted Christian minority being exhorted to stand firm in their faith, despite imprisonment and death, and being comforted with the thought of their god’s eventual triumph over the prevailing tyranny of the Empire. The writer, St John, is extremely poetic and creative, drawing imagery from the Hebrew Bible, and spinning a picture of hope.


There is no doubt that today we as a Church all too often fail to follow the lead of St John and the Berrigans. The accepted myths about power, leadership, success, beauty and money, and the political policies they give rise to, run counter to the wisdom of Jesus. Myths like the ‘rich deserve their riches and the poor have made their own poverty’ frequently provide the background mood music to national social and fiscal policies. 


There is also no doubt that today the poetry of the Book of Revelation is an irrelevant, even dangerous, relic used most frequently by fundamentalist preachers pedalling a religion steeped in fear, predicting [yet again] the end of world, and the need for individuals to repent and to give the preacher their money. Yet rather than just discard the relic we need to see the book as an encouragement to write our own poetry and prose critiquing the folly and idols of our day and encouraging Christians to stand up and speak up.


The one image that I find of any value in St John’s work is the lamb. Put aside the associated blood stuff with its allusions to dead first-born sons of Egyptians and an omnipotent deity who demands pure blood [like that of his only son] before He can forgive us. I know those blood images are strong and disturbing, but try to put them to one side for a moment and just think about a lamb. A lamb is young, lacking in defences, not exactly a leader or very wise. Indeed the lamb is an image of vulnerability. The lamb is vulnerable, dependent, and weak. The lamb image is the very opposite of Empire’s invincible, independent, and all powerful potentate.


If we take the image of lamb as a divine portrait seriously then the whole power structure becomes inverted. God is no longer the one with the bigger muscle than Caesar. God doesn’t have a muscle. God isn’t the supreme alpha male. God isn’t even the shepherd. 


Indeed if you read Revelation closely it doesn’t actually picture God as anything. God, as in the Hebrew tradition, is too other, too beyond our constructs to be pictured. But it does point to a ‘lamb’, a Jesus who made himself vulnerable by costly self-giving love and confronting the powers which destroy the justice and mutuality such love demands. It is, says Revelation, this lamb that is worthy of worship.


The key question arising from the Book of Revelation for our time is what are you and I prepared to die for? Now, I know dying as a concept is over-rated, as is martyrdom. The best thing you can do if you love your friends and family is live for them, not die for them. So care for yourselves, as you care for others. When the military turn up to your door with guns and batons run like hell and hide. Keep living.


That said most martyrs I know of didn’t chose to die, and didn’t want to. The choices were different than that. Think of Oscar Romero, a Catholic bishop of El Salvador, who was gunned down in 1980. He openly criticized the government and the military in their privileging the wealthy and powerful while the majority of people lived in abject poverty. He spoke out against the terror tactics used to enforce that privileging. He spoke out against the church where it was complicit. My point is he didn’t die because he wanted to, or because he believed in the doctrine of the Trinity or Atonement or Incarnation or something… Rather he died because by word and deed Oscar held to the values known in the vulnerability of Jesus – values of justice, mutuality, and love.


Think too of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a brilliant German Lutheran theologian, whose strong opposition to Hitler's euthanasia programmes and the genocide against the Jews lead to his involvement in planning to assassinate the Fuhrer. He was executed in 1945. Like Romero, Bonhoeffer lived a life of integrity, critical of the church as well as the state, caring ultimately for the relationship between truth and justice, and denying because of the dissonance between them. My point again is he didn’t die because he wanted to, or because of some erudite beliefs disconnected from people’s lives… Rather he died because by word and deed Dietrich held to the values known in the vulnerability of Jesus – values of justice, mutuality, and love.


When I was asked the other day, “Glynn, what would you go to the wall for?” my immediate response was “For the right of a woman to wear a burqa on the streets of Paris”. I was being both cheeky and serious. 


I think the justice and vulnerability of Jesus leads me to affirm and celebrate the diversity of religions and cultures on this planet and not to presume that my religion or culture is superior and can be imposed on others. I think too the justice and vulnerability of Jesus leads me to affirm the right of every human being to make free and independent choices that don’t physically harm others, even if I don’t like those choices. I think too the justice and vulnerability of Jesus leads me to question and challenge the structural, political injustices that work against the poor, against most women, against most minorities, and against most people of colour.


But I probably won’t end up ‘going to the wall’, so to speak, for a burqa. I find I end up speaking out on lots of things, and I’m never sure what the powerful are going to find offensive. I’d like to think that whatever happens in the future people would remember me as caring more about how we behave towards one another rather than the niceties of what we believe about God, as caring that love is affirmed and celebrated, wherever and whenever it manifests, rather than making rules and boundaries to control it, and caring for those excluded from the centres of power rather than ingratiating myself to those who dwell there. Yet you never know quite what will happen – it could be for something as minor as making a joke on a billboard. Come to think of it, maybe it was that joke Jesus made about a camel through the eye of a needle that sealed his future.

Weeds, Hospitality, and Constraints

June 17, 2012

Glynn Cardy

Pentecost 3     Mark 4:30-34

Video available on YouTube, Facebook


Sometimes as a minister you laugh at things you shouldn’t really laugh at. This was one such occasion.


Bill and David were worlds apart, though they had in common an innate kindness. Bill mowed the church lawns, all two hectares of them, including the cemetery. Bill struggled with mental ill-health, and was deemed unemployable. Yet every two weeks he would catch a bus across town to the church and spend the day mowing, and chatting with whoever would pause to talk. Bill had a number of original ideas, many of which were difficult to grasp. We were very fond of Bill.


We were fond of David too. David had been in the parish for over 50 years and had populated the Sunday School and Auckland’s professional ranks with an impressive brood. He was hard-working and sharp, an accomplished surgeon, who in his retirement oversaw the church gardens and landscaping requirements. He had lots of energy, though he struggled to find the patience needed for protracted consultation.


The occasion was a flower. Well, that’s what Bill called it. David called it a weed. Bill refused to uproot it or mow over it. David drew upon his extensive knowledge of botany to convince Bill of his error. But to no avail. Bill stood his ground. He cared passionately about ‘flowers’. David stood his ground. He cared passionately about right and wrong and the logic that determined the difference.


This exchange happened in the Church car park within earshot of the Parish Office where a few of us, without appearing to be listening, were quietly going about our business with large grins on our faces.


Finally David realised that he was getting absolutely nowhere, and strode off muttering to himself. The weed had won a reprieve. 


Call me suspicious but I did wonder whether the weed would be there the next day.


This incident came to mind as I read the day’s Gospel: “The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed that a person took and sowed in their garden.”


The parable relies upon us knowing some basic botany. The mustard plant is an annual that grew wild in Palestine. Pliny, that great Roman observer, writes: “It grows entirely wild … when it has once been sown it is scarcely possible to get the place free of it.” [i] It was, in other words, a weed. 


In the parable the person plants the mustard weed in their garden. Apart from being a stupid thing to do, it violated the law of diverse kinds in Leviticus 19:19. This law was designed to maintain order and separation, keeping plants in their proper place and not mixing them. 


Normally mustard was sown in small patches on the edge of a field. It was prohibited to plant it in a garden because it would result in mingling. By planting it in the garden, the planter makes the garden “unclean”. The mustard weed grew, and grew, and grew… as weeds do.


Jesus was inviting his hearers to imagine God’s reign to be very different from their church, with their boundaries delineating insiders from outsiders, believers from non-believers, and the worthy from the toxic. 


Dominic Crossan concludes:


The point, in other words, is not just that the mustard plant starts as a proverbially small seed and grows into a shrub of three or four feet, it is that it tends to take over where it is not wanted, that it tends to get out of control, and that it tends to attract birds within cultivated areas where they are not particularly desired. And that, said Jesus, was what the Kingdom was like: not like the mighty cedar of Lebanon and not quite like a common weed, [rather] like a pungent shrub with dangerous takeover properties. Something you would want in only small and carefully controlled doses - if you could control it. [ii]


Given that the reign of God is out-of-control, undomesticated, pungent, and dangerous, it is difficult to equate it with the Church, any Church for that matter. For even Progressive Churches like St Matthew’s need boundaries in order to operate. 


We can tolerate and even enjoy a rich variety of plants, flowers, and even weeds in our religious garden, but we too need to be wary of those weeds that are noxious and seek to destroy the community life and ethics we’re trying to cultivate. I’m thinking here of people with destructive disorders, or those who abuse others, or those given to stealing or lying, or those who successfully hide such behaviours until they get into positions of leadership or power.


So I prefer to think of a church like St Matthew’s being in constant dialogue with Jesus’ vision of God’s reign, aware of our differences and similarities, without feeling a need to always emulate it. Being inclusive means creating helpful boundaries for both flowers and weeds, and it’s both a necessary and time-consuming task. Weeds are welcome, including noxious ones, but there are rules.


One important service that St Matthew’s offers is offering a place for those who don’t fit elsewhere, who don’t believe, who don’t want to come to church every week, who don’t want to join a group let alone a religion - let alone Christianity. 


The early Church was a community of believers, holding out against the norms of the Empire. It was a community of initiates and catechumens. It was only after Constantine that Christianity really grew and liturgy was transformed into a civic ritual. Most of us were taught this was a bad thing – the end of Christianity as a radical, counter-cultural movement of the dispossessed. Yet this transformation also opened the doors to skeptics, atheists, those of other religions and none. Those who didn’t want to belong, but did want to experience something spiritual, something of wonder.


As the philosopher Harriet Baber says, primitive Christianity and its successors is not for everyone. She writes, “I would never have been one of Jesus’ followers, or St Paul’s. I am not the stuff of which martyrs were made, and, worse, I am a high-church junkie: the draw of Christianity for me is in the ceremonies, the music, and, perhaps above all, the church buildings. I am a Constantinian Christian.” [iii]


St Matthew’s is here for believers and non-believers, for followers of Jesus and Constantinian Christians, for atheists, non-theists, and theists. It is a mixed garden, with plenty of weeds and trees, some of which – the noxious ones – need watching less they destroy those around them.


Debates like Bill and David had in the car park over inclusion/exclusion, what-is-what, flower or weed, and how to deal with them, will continue in Church life. What are needed is some grace, some perception, some rules, some humility, and the ability to laugh at ourselves.



[i] Pliny, Natural History, 29.54.170 [LCL, 529].




[iii] Church Times 4th May 2012, p.14.

A Pilgrim's Progress

June 10, 2012

Clay Nelson

Pentecost 2     1 Samuel 8:4-20     Mark 3:20-35

Video available on YouTube, Facebook


I don’t know if you recently read about what Brian Tamaki, the self-proclaimed bishop of Destiny Church, is up to now. At his annual church conference a week ago he gave a two-hour, yes, two-hour sermon on his vision for his church. As incomprehensible as it is to me that anyone would sit through a sermon of that length, it was his message that staggered me. Apparently God has told him through Paul’s Letter to the Hebrews to build a city. He told his followers that in Abraham’s time people lived in tents in the desert, but Destiny members had to leave behind their “tent mentality” and aim for something “far bigger, far greater…a City of God.” He has put the church’s Mt Wellington headquarters up for sale hoping for $5 million to begin funding the city he calls the New Jerusalem in South Auckland. He exhorted his congregation to leave behind houses, jobs and even family members, and give generously to join him, arguing that the church family is more important than their physical family. Eventually reluctant family members will see what a great thing they have built and will want to come too.


One of his critics, Mark Vrankovich, founder of Cultwatch and another self-proclaimed authority, is concerned that the bishop intends to extract money from his followers’ house sales to build his dream to be mayor or king of this city. I suspect he is right, but what apparently bothers Mr Vrankovich most is that the bishop denies the physical resurrection of Christ. By his measure the problem with this vision is that the bishop is not a Christian.


Part of me suddenly feels some empathy for the bishop on this score, but mostly I share Samuel’s pain in today’s first lesson as he laments his people’s desire for a king. Samuel concludes a long list of how a king will exploit them by saying: “He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves.” (1 Sam 8:17). It is the exploitive nature of Brian Tamaki’s vision that troubles me.


To successfully exploit his followers, Tamaki must cut them off from what he would consider the corrupting elements in the secular culture. He will do this by creating an exclusive community, closed to the impure. That is, those who don’t show loyalty to him or aren’t convinced he alone is God’s mouthpiece. He has acknowledged that some of his pastors who objected to his vision when he first started talking about it ten years ago have left and others, he has said, will have to leave if they don’t get on board.


In his demands for purity, he does sound a little like his critic Mr Vrankovich who represents that strand of Christendom that sees the church, as the expression goes, “a home for saints instead of a hospital for sinners.” It is a place where the orthodox flourish and the heretics are cast out. Where the world is divided into secular and sacred. Where Scripture, Tradition and Reason as interpreted by the appointed authorities always trump the divine light within each of us. Where conformity is more important than transformation. Where religion is about the destination instead of the journey. Where change is the enemy and certainty is the goal. Where the people exist for the church and not the church for the people. In some of these respects it could be said, Tamaki is too Christian.


As a counterpoint to this vision of Christianity we have Mark’s gospel.


We are only to chapter 3 and Jesus is already a figure of controversy, in trouble with his family, his followers and the political and religious leaders. He challenges tradition, flaunts authority and dishonours the family. Jesus and Brian sound a lot alike until we contemplate Mark’s question, “Who has true authority?” And where does it come from? Does authority come from tradition and religion, or does true authority come from God? And how do we know when it is from the divine? Mark recounts how the scribes — the authority of the day — confront Jesus — the new authority. They attempt to discredit him with the accusation he is possessed by demons. Jesus responds by pointing out that Satan wouldn’t destroy his own handiwork. Evil doesn’t cast out evil, good does.


Mark concludes the encounter with an enigmatic statement by Jesus, “But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.” (Mark 3:27).


Some think this means that Jesus has already taken care of Satan, who won’t be a problem with Jesus around. Others believe Jesus is putting the religious authorities on notice that he is ushering in a whole new church. But the possibility that makes the most sense to me, especially today with Christianity so divided, is that Jesus is offering a word of caution, not a threat. If the strong man, the divine within us, is tied up in senseless debate, endless discussion, power plays, institutional preservation and political manoeuvring, then virtually any “thief” can sneak in and plunder the house leaving us spiritually empty.


There is no question religion has fallen on hard times, especially those of the mainline flavour. Those of us born before 1965 can remember when we wore our religion as a badge of honour, but today virtually no one wants to be thought of as religious, including me, if truth be told. The new catch phrase is “Spiritual but not religious.” For many of us in this post-modern, post-Christian world, religion is equated with the worst possible behaviours associated with the church — self-righteousness, judgmental attitudes, condemnation, prejudice, and intolerance. 


I confess there are nights when I lie awake wondering why I have devoted 30 years of my life to an institution that is often its own worst enemy and seems determined to walk a road of irrelevance into oblivion. At such moments I often find grace abounds. During a recent despondency, I picked up a book by Diana Butler Bass, entitled Christianity for the Rest of Us. She wrote this while a professor of Church History at my seminary. Over three years she studied liberal, mainline churches in numerous denominations that contrary to the present trend are thriving.


Her premise is that people are still seeking meaning and purpose, and hunger for spirituality. This need is intensified by political and economic polarisation, our mobility, rapid technological change, and urbanisation, which have all contributed to a loss of a sense of community. She views us as spiritual nomads seeking connection. 


Some seek refuge in an authoritarian religion that resists change and prefer a god who is “the same yesterday, today, and forever.” They live in a certainty that they alone know the way to and the mind of God. For them Christianity is that old time religion. Bass observes that, “They build churches to protect people from change, often in anonymous, suburban, gated spiritual communities, where they recreate a vision of some cherished Christian past. They venture out into the world to try and force the rest of us back to the perfect world of their fathers” (p. 24).


But she found in her study that that there are many of us who wish to end our nomadic ways to become pilgrims in a community of other pilgrims. In the 30 churches she observed in every region of America she found that they had a number of common characteristics, all of which offered transformation. 


First, they were hospitable, inclusive, open communities that welcomed everyone. There were no requirements to being included. If you showed up you were a welcomed part of the community.


Other hallmarks included: Honouring tradition, but holding on to it lightly. They valued knowing where we have been as pilgrims in The Way and strived to retain the best of it, but it is not a map to where we are going. In fact it is not the “where” that matter so much, but the “going.”


In addition, they valued spiritual practice over beliefs. Worship, prayer, healing and contemplation were encouraged and nurtured. I found especially reassuring that they care about the liturgy and music. Beauty matters to the pilgrim’s soul.


As important as the above all are, it was a commitment to promoting God’s justice that served as the gravitational force that held these faith communities together.


My conclusion from this book is that we must resist giving up the authority of the god within us, but we cannot walk alone. Together the strong man, the divine within us, is unbound free to connect with others and that transcendent mystery we call God. On my best days I trust that together we will find our meaning and purpose in a loving, inclusive, just community bathed in beauty.


May St Matthew’s always be such a place.

Trinity: A Way of Communion

June 3, 2012

Glynn Cardy

Trinity Sunday

Video available on YouTube, Facebook


Last week I went to the stage show Godspell. Written in the 70s it sets the Gospel of Matthew to music. It debuts songs like“ Day by Day” and “Prepare ye the way of the Lord”. Produced by Dilworth, and including also girls from Diocesan, they integrated the humour and style of New Zealand’s multi-cultural environment.


Dilworth is a boarding school that only accepts boys from straightened familial circumstances. I mention this because as a parent of a cast member I attended the ‘thank you’ speeches following the finale. Jesus, also known as Hato, spoke last. He talked about the community – especially the community that the 'disciples' had built with each other. Without I suspect knowing it, Jesus concluded with an adaptation of a biblical verse: ‘I no longer call you friends, for we are now family’.


‘Family’ can be a loaded word, used to erect a fence around nuclear heterosexual norms and reject outsiders. Yet it also can be used in a way that breaks boundaries and includes outsiders. I can think of three instances of this latter sense. It was used by the Gay community in the 70s to express their solidarity in the face of persecution. It is used by the Maori community to encompass all relations and relationships – the good, the bad, and the beautiful. It was also used to describe the early Church.


The early Church was made up of people who didn’t fit into the normative understanding of family. Jesus had spoken against and flouted the rules of the patriarchal family, which was the dominant familial pattern. His movement attracted people who didn’t fit with patriarchy, or whom patriarchy had despised and rejected. So women who didn’t want to marry, or were abused in marriage, or widows… found the movement a safe place. Those who were considered ‘sexually suspect’, like eunuchs or prostitutes, also found a safe spiritual place. So too for slaves, disenfranchised younger sons, and rebels. To use the words of Dom Crossan, the early Church was a collection of ‘nuisances and nobodies’. They were a bunch of misfits, following the teachings of a misfit.


As the verse Hato alluded to infers, the early Church came to see themselves as more than just disciples following a master, but as friends. They came too in time to see themselves not just as friends, but as brothers and sisters in the same newly constituted ‘family’. But it was a radically different type of family.


In this family they would no longer have or need a patriarch to order them about and demand obedience. They now only had one parent, and that parent was God. They struggled to develop participatory leadership patterns to reflect that and, ultimately with the rise of monarchical episcopacy, they failed.


It was in this early Church that the notion of the Trinity developed. As with any idea, Trinity was shaped by experience – in this case the experience of the church community as it supported, interacted, and cared for each other. Beginning with the experience of knowing God in and through the ideas, person, and ministry of Jesus, and feeling his presence still with them as they met, ate and talked together, they developed a very radical notion of God as communion in the midst of their community. 


God was relational. God was multiple. God was ineffable - not bounded by any form, metaphor, or speech. [i] God was a way for them to be in community.


However that notion, like with participatory leadership, got caught up in and ultimately subverted by the predominant cultural pattern of patriarchy which demanded that God be the ultimate Father or Patriarch, and Jesus and the Spirit, also divine, form a triumvirate of power and glory to rule the universe. Monarchical hierarchy triumphed over participatory community.


Also last week was the annual Robb lecture series at the University of Auckland [ii]. This year Dr Alison Gopnik, a naturalist philosopher, spoke about what we can learn from children under the age of five. One of the more interesting experiments [seen on video] was when an assistant brought a complicated toy into the room, handed it to a four-year-old and left. The child then spent half an hour exploring everything that toy could do. This was compared with the same assistant bringing the same toy into another room, handing it to another four-year-old, but this time explaining that if you squeezed one part of it the toy would honk. The child then spent half an hour honking the toy, and failing to find out how it did anything else.


Sometimes I think that’s what the Church has done to God. We’ve told people that God is like a toy that makes a honking noise. You squeeze and God honks [or vice versa?]. Whereas, I think, God is far bigger and far more interesting than any one depiction, any one formulation. That’s why I like the Trinitarian idea of God as a communion in which we are participants. 


A number of my progressive colleagues are privately dismissive of the notion of the Trinity. If God is simply three monarchical beings who share socks and spend time working out schemes to defeat evil and save the world, then they have a point.


But if, in the words of Carter Heyward, God is ‘the power of mutual relation’, if God is not a being but rather a transformative relationality, then I want to embrace a very big concept, like Trinity, and have it embrace me. For Trinity points to the dance [rather than the dancers], the love [rather than the lovers], the communion [rather than the communicants], into which all humankind is invited. In Trinity I catch a glimpse of the mystery of mutuality and its power to change the world for the better. 


This mystery and power was discovered by those early Christians as they shared bread and wine, their lives and their hopes. God is experienced in communion, in community, in our mutuality.


This morning we will baptize two young children, Lara and Vinicius into that communion. Every child is welcome here to be baptized regardless of belief, or the beliefs of their parents, because the Love called God unconditionally embraces all. 


Yet, that said, the Love called God we believe in and that nurtures and challenges us, is known in the mutuality of community. In order to experience the fullness of God we need each other, we need to practice mutuality, and we need to walk the self-giving, other-affirming, way of communion. Then, day by day, we will be known in God and God in us.


[i] Modern writers on the Trinity have spoken of the same as multiplicity, relationality, and unknowability [Polydoxy: Theology of multiplicity and relation Catherine Keller and Laurel C. Schneider eds., and Participating In God: a pastoral doctrine of the Trinity Paul S. Fiddes, Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2000]



The Festival of Intelligible Communication

May 27, 2012

John Bluck

Pentecost Sunday     Acts 2:1-21

Video available on YouTube, Facebook


I was sitting in a Chinese restaurant in Kingsland last week wondering what to say today, and more urgently what to order to eat. A couple of Chinese women sat down next to me and speaking very emphatically and rapidly in Cantonese, began choosing dishes. They were obviously regular customers and had the inside story on the menu that I needed. But I didn’t have a clue what they were saying and I didn’t have the courage to ask whether they could translate for me.


So I settled for pork fried ribs and whiled I waited read the Herald, which that day, was full of complaints about ever larger parts of retail Auckland being filled with signs that monolingual Kiwis can’t understand at all. They could well be advertising miracle cures for impotency or insolvency that every Kiwi might need. But those of us who can’t read Cantonese or Mandarin, Tagalog or Thai, Korean or Japanese, will never know.


Pakeha, monolingual New Zealanders are well accustomed to not knowing. Those of us whose families settled here before the 1860’s had great great grandparents who could speak Maori, and needed to if they lived in provincial areas. But after the New Zealand Wars of the 1860’s and the land confiscation and racial demonising that followed, Pakeha mostly gave up on being bicultural and Maori, diminished and demoralised, withdrew from the partnership or had to re-enter it on Pakeha terms. It wasn’t till the late 1960’s that we started to see what one nation, two peoples might mean. And it wasn’t till the early 1990’s that this church of ours took bicultural partnership seriously enough to rewrite its constitution.


I’ve just written a book about that journey which will be launched at General Synod/ Te Hinota Whanui in a couple of months. The late Hone Kaa gave it a title which describes the essence of Kiwi Anglicanism for the last 200 years. Wai Karekare, he called it. Turbulent Waters.


As a Maori with a Pakeha wife, fluent in both cultures, living between them, carrying the pain of the inequity and ignorance that still curses our partnership, Hone knew all about that turbulence.


I wonder what he would have said about Louis Crimp, the Act Party donor from Southland, who thinks Maori are ignorant and not real New Zealanders. Or Paul Henry who seems to think migrants are inherently dirty, not fit to live even in his linen cupboard. Maybe with that line, Mr Henry has gone an insult too far, as his ratings slide downwards.


All of this suggests that in our 21st century global village, with technology that lets us talk to and see everyone, and access information about anything, anytime, anywhere; we’re still no better at communicating with each other than we ever were.


It ought to be easier, but it isn’t.


We ought to be able to learn from our history of miscommunication, but we haven’t.


The ability to communicate with our neighbour, especially when our neighbour is a different colour, in a different income bracket, holds a different faith, seems to be as elusive as ever.


Muslims, Christians and Jews did better at living with each other in the 10th century that the 21st.


Wellington diocese has just elected a new bishop with a hair style different from most of us who still have hair. On the basis of his dreadlocks he got media coverage that his short back and sided colleagues could only dream of. There’s a case of difference creating communication. Pray God it will continue.


But for most of the time, difference deters any lasting communication. Our fear of the unfamiliar, our genetic preference to keep inside our comfort zones all works to keep us avoiding contact with people unlike ourselves.


And Christians who ought to know better are as quick as any indoor bowler or rugby player to form a club where the interests of insiders come first.


What we need more urgently than anything at this stage in our history as New Zealanders and Aucklanders especially, is not a balanced budget or a new rail loop or a pokey free convention centre. What we need first is a quantum leap in our ability to communicate with each other across the boundaries of race and class and income and gender and sexual orientation.


And because we still do that so badly, we continue to kid ourselves that we can ignore issues of child poverty, affordable housing and health care, a liveable wage.


Not because we who are privileged are bad people.


We’re simply insulated from the cries of anyone who disturbs us too much.


And the chances of that changing look more remote than ever. In a continuing GFC -global financial crisis – we’ve even got initials for it because we expect it to be around for a while, with an ever yawning gap between rich and poor, it’s easier to turn off the news and shut down communication as hope gets harder to find.


What we need is something outside ourselves, more radical than anything we’ve found, rooted in a confidence that exceeds anything we currently have, something that will work even in the worst of times.


The first Pentecost Sunday is a celebration of exactly that “something”.


It happened at the worst of times. The prophecy it fulfilled from the book of Joel which gives us the language to describe this new gift of communication, has a context much tougher than anything we face. The prophet is lamenting the ruin of his country, just as Luke the author of today’s reading, was framed by the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple. The Global Financial Crisis doesn’t even rank with that sort of devastation they faced.


The vines have dried up, cries Joel, the fields are devastated, the trees splintered, the seeds shrink and the oil fails. But undeterred by all that, he launches into the promise of God’s spirit being poured out in dreams and visions.


And exactly what form does this outpouring take?


A gift of communication no less. The ability of Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Mesapotamians, Judaeans and Cappadocians to make sense of each other, connect with each other, understand and respect each other , for all their differences.


And Samoans and Tongans, Koreans and Chinese, Maori and Pakeha, Southern and Eastern suburbs, Act voters and Mana Party members too.


The Pentecost gift is nothing less than a call to reorder our expectations of how we’re meant to be living with our neighbours, especially the neighbours who aren’t like us.


To live in shalom with them is to live in right relationship and you can’t begin to do that if you aren’t speaking to each other, understanding and respecting each other, no matter how different you might be.


Our vocation as Christians is to be in communication. The two Latin roots of that word are about holding things in common, and establishing community. The opposite of communication is not silence but sinfulness, which is best defined as a refusal to be in communion. 


Pentecost is the story of how the people of God are empowered to be communicators.


They’d been waiting around since Easter Sunday wondering what to do next, bewildered by what this resurrection presence of their crucified leader was calling them to do. They’d done a bit of restructuring, new people had been recruited to the leadership team, but no breakthroughs until this amazing morning when God gives them the courage and the confidence to stop talking to themselves and start talking to the world.


This Jesus story, they’re told, crumbles if you hold onto it for yourselves. It’s designed to be shared and God will help you find the words to tell it if you ask.


Pentecost isn’t a magic signs and wonders show. Ironically, we’ve made it that by letting it be defined by glossalalia, speaking in tongues, ecstatic but incomprensible. The festival of intelligible communication becomes a celebration of incoherence.


A deeper, tougher reading of this symbolic story shows us that God’s fundamental business is coherent communication, and that our essential reason for being human is to be in communion with each other and thereby with God. Even before we are called to be good or useful or holy we are called to be communicators. That’s what we are all about and designed to do..


Our Anglican tradition has known that for a long time, which is why the lectionary for today says “This is a principal feast and should not be replaced by any other celebration.” Only Christmas and Easter get that sort of treatment.


We sort of understood that when we stumbled and fumbled our way towards becoming a bicultural church, knowing that we couldn’t become authentically multicultural in Aotearoa unless we first became bicultural. Twenty years on from that constitutional revolution we are still stumbling and fumbling. Our understanding of each other’s tikanga, our contact with each other, our sharing of resources and worship is often less, not more than it was. If you didn’t read Taonga or go to General Synod or seek out a local Maori or Tongan congregation, you’d be forgiven for thinking Anglicans are whiter and more segregated than they used to be.


It was the Pentecost gift that led this church to rewrite its constitution, but we seem have taken a rain cheque on that gift lately. This Sunday says that gift is still on offer, waiting to be accepted and used. Not only in partnership with Maori but every different group.


The faith we share in the God we know in Jesus Christ, the God given blessings we enjoy have been given to us in order to be given away. We don’t enjoy them because we’re any better or more deserving than others. And the more we share and give away the richer we become. The more boldly we communicate with others who are different the better communicators we become. That’s the promise of this Pentecost festival.


St Matthews in the middle of a multi cultural city, embedded in the contradictions and chaos of Aucklanders talking past each other, telling your story electronically to the world, providing a place of welcome and hospitality to all comers, this ought to be a perfect place to hear and tell the Pentecost story.


I know you like to be known as a progressive church, a church on the margins, a cutting edge church. Consider as well, the title of a communicating church that helps us understand each other, listen to each other, find communion with each other. However unlike you the other might be.


And take this Pentecost story as a personal challenge this week as you struggle to deal with the people in your life you don’t like much, are fearful of, are threatened by. Ask God to let you try again at dealing with them more openly, more respectfully, more hopefully than you usually manage to do, as if all the earlier failures hadn’t happened. The Pentecost promise is that its worth another go.

The Toes of Christ

May 20, 2012

Clare Barrie

Sunday after the Ascension
     Acts 1:1-11     Luke 24:44-53

Video available on YouTube


My favourite images of the Ascension are those medieval ones which depict only Jesus’ feet disappearing into a stylised cloud, while the disciples and May stand about below, gazing upwards at the soon-to-vanish toes of Christ. There’s a very comical ascension statue set into the ceiling of the Chapel of the Ascension at Walsingham, England... there is a rather baroque-looking plaster cloud with a pair of plaster feet hanging down out of a golden robe...and shooting out from behind the toes are golden lightening bolts, creating the unfortunate effect of alarmingly elongated toes. Or equally unfortunate, the bolts are like the golden streaks that super heroes leave behind in cartoons and movies, when they zip up up and away.


The toes of Christ rocketing into the clouds of heaven. The very comicality of Ascension imagery should alert us to the strangeness of this story - and we should also be alert to the fact that this morning we have heard two versions of this event that somehow concluded Jesus’ resurrection appearances. Two quite different versions of the story, from Acts and Luke, but written by the same author. We do well to remember that the biblical authors used narrative to write about theology; ‘history’ is a modern genre - there are plenty of historical elements in the scriptures, but they were not written as history as such: they were written to convey theology.


Ascension used to be thought of as one of the great feasts of the Church - in fact, Augustine considered it to be the crown of all Christian festivals. It is far from that now. We tick it off on the way through from Easter to Pentecost, wishing perhaps to dodge the strange story with its special effects and its taint of ‘the miraculous.’


But if we read this story with the eyes of theology rather than being trapped by history, what do we begin to see? Instead of asking whether or not something happened as described, I think asking what a story means to us as Christians is often much more challenging - and it becomes much harder to dismiss.


So - ...The toes of Christ rocketing into the clouds of heaven... The story as Luke tells it is rich with echoes of the Hebrew Bible… as he is taken upwards into heaven, Jesus raises his hands in blessing and promise over the disciples, just as Moses and Aaron once did over the Israelites… there is a sense of Jesus passing on his mantle, his tasks and the power to do those tasks, just as – again the echoes – Moses did to Joshua and Elijah did to Elisha. There is a cloud and Jesus passes from their sight. Then two men in white robes appear, and almost incongruously ask the disciples why they are standing about gazing up toward heaven.


As we unpack the elements of this story, it starts to become clear why some commentators say the Ascension is the most political feast of the church, and others say it is the most mystical.


The Ascension story places the risen Christ at ‘the right hand of God,’ which is is a metaphor that ascribes immense power to Christ - in fact, ‘all rule and authority and power and dominion.’ So Christ has to do with all spheres of life - Christ is not at all limited to the private and the personal. [1]


Notions of power immediately make us uncomfortable as contemporary Christians. But who is this Christ, ascended to this place of power over all things? This Christ preached that he came to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free; this Christ knew hunger and thirst and betrayal and injustice; this Christ was crucified. And those experiences are not erased by the Ascension - they are taken into the heart of God - the ‘burning heart of all reality.’ [2]


And ultimately, this is a political claim - because in taking these experiences of humanity into the heart of God, Christ utterly transforms how we understand the nature of power. The Ascension calls into question all human allegiances and all human uses of power, in the light of Christ. And as the Church, Christ’s own ‘body politic,’ we are tasked with continuing that questioning.


Sadly, as the Church, we can all too easily spend our time and energy turning in on ourselves, withholding the good news, holding people captive to our judgment, being blind to the needs around us, and oppressing those who need grace and love. Instead of challenging them, we fall into the patterns of this world’s powers and politics: division, competition, scarcity, fear. As if there isn’t enough of God’s grace to go around. When this happens we are failing Christ’s mandate. We have a responsibility to look outwards, to be concerned with all of our world, because Christ is.


Back to the story - the toes of Christ disappearing into a cloud. Contemporary Christians can be a bit mocking about biblical figures and clouds - but bear with me. In the Hebrew Bible stories, the image of a cloud often signifies the presence of God, something mysterious and wild and holy - and in English we often find such words in these stories as ‘thick cloud’ or ‘darkness’ or ‘glory.’ So it was when Moses went up the mountain.


These stories are not talking about white puffy clouds in the distant sky; they are talking about the mystery of God, what an anonymous medieval writer called ‘the cloud of unknowing,’ - the deep unknowability of God. This is what lies at the heart of the rich contemplative tradition in Christian spirituality, and the apophatic tradition in theology, the via negativa. Knowing God only through what God is not. The cloud is a metaphor for mystery, for our inability to see or understand or speak of God clearly. It teaches us to be profoundly cautious of certainties - especially of any triumphant or exclusionary theology.


And so we start to see why the Ascension is both the most political and mystical of celebrations, and why it is so disturbing. The image of Jesus’ feet disappearing into the holy mystery of God holds together the political and the mystical, when many Christians would - I think - rather keep these part of our lives separate.


There is nothing quite so prosaically human as feet, especially feet that walked in the dust of busy streets, cool gardens, hot dry deserts; feet that were washed with the tears of a woman and dried with her hair. Feet that stumbled, bleeding, on the path up to Golgotha and a state execution.


Luke’s story tells us that those very feet, with all that they signify, are now a part of God – part of God’s experience of our humanity and part of God’s trinitarian being. [3] As Rowan Williams puts it, Jesus has gone before us into the darkest places of human reality - he hears the human beings that no one else hears - the abused, the despairing, the destitute - and he carries all of that into the burning heart of God.


And he calls to us to say, ‘You listen too.’

....‘You listen too.’ [4]


At the end of Luke’s story, when Jesus is carried into the mystery of God, for the very first time in Luke’s gospel, the disciples worship Jesus and they feel ‘great joy.’ The scene is almost comical; the disciples are lost in wonder and worship, gazing up to heaven; but their holy reverie is disrupted by impatient figures in white robes; "People of Galilee!” they say, “why are you standing around gazing up towards heaven!?” You can almost hear them saying, ‘You’ve got things to do, places to be! Get it together!’ So they return to Jerusalem to gather and wait as Jesus asked them: Stay in the city and wait for what God has promised.


‘Stay in the city...’ this is where the church is meant to be - with its politics and media and demands and people who are lost and forgotten. ‘The city’ can be read as a metaphor for this world, with all its beauty and brokenness. And here in the midst of the city, we wait for God’s promise - we wait for the fullness of time, we wait for God’s kingdom to come, God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. Though in the mystery of God, we cannot know and should not claim with any certainty what that vision will look like or who should be included or excluded, our active waiting for it irrevocably shapes who we are now and what we stand for in this world.


The Ascension story promises that all of our humanity is encompassed - welcomed - into the heart of the living, loving, mysterious God of all things, while our feet walk firmly in this city with Christ, loving it, questioning it, challenging it. And it is a story that proclaims not Christ’s absence from all things but his centrality to all things. And we are Christ’s body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.


We are, to paraphrase Gerard Manly Hopkins,

all at once what Christ is, since he was what we are -

and ‘This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,

Is immortal diamond.’ [5]





[1] For further reading: Miroslav Volf, A Public Faith - How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good, Brazos Press 2011 offers a good place to start.


[2] Rowan Williams, Sermon for Ascension Day, Thurs 21st May 2009.


[3] Ross Thompson, Spirituality in Season, Canterbury Press, 2008 (p. 143).


[4] Rowan Williams, Sermon for Ascension Day, Thurs 21st May 2009.


[5] from ‘That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection.’ (Gerard Manly Hopkins SJ)

Jesus Did NOT Die for Our Sins

May 13, 2012

Glynn Cardy

Easter 6     John 15:9-17


In explaining our Easter billboard I stated baldly that ‘Jesus did not die for our sins’. I deliberately challenged one of the bedrock premises of normative Christianity. A more polite approach, as liberal theologians have done for decades, is to point out that the New Testament has with it a number of atonement theologies and metaphors. [i]


What theory of atonement one accepts will largely shape, or be shaped by, how one understands God, humanity, and the mission of Jesus. Most atonement theories picture God as a judge, humanity as depraved, and Jesus’ mission as dying. The central idea to most of them is that Jesus, as a willingly substitute, takes on humanity’s depravity, is killed for it, and by an act of cosmic accounting humanity’s crimes/depravities are wiped clean by the God-Judge who presides over it all. However this understanding doesn’t sit comfortably with the dominant image of God in the New Testament as a loving father who exercises forgiveness rather than executes judgement. The Father, preeminently portrayed in the Prodigal Son, does not consider anyone beyond his embrace and inclusion.


I think there are many people who find problematic the idea that God is a being of any description – whether male or female, super or saintly. While purists might argue that God is bigger than any notion of being, most Christians continue to call God ‘he’, or ‘Father’, or ‘Lord’, or some other label we attach to humans. 


I prefer to think of God as a movement – as in music creating beauty and transcending the rational; or as energy – as in an unseen force of connection and enlightenment; or as love – known in reciprocal, life-giving, and justice-producing relationships. 


As for humanity, these atonement theories largely pictures us as depraved sinners, with ‘no health in us’ as the old prayerbook says. Yet this is not the only or predominant image in the Scriptures. The foundational theological statement about humanity is that we were made in the image of God. We were, and are, made beautiful and good, and no matter how far our actions, or others’ upon us, taint that beauty and goodness the fundamental truth is that we all reflect the mystery, holiness, and magnificence of God. This is why every life is sacred. This is why we oppose capital punishment and war, and why we support a number of human rights issues. Every child counts. Everyone matters.


The phrase ‘made in the image of God’ though begs the question of the similarity between humanity and God. I think the divine/human correspondence is more around relationality – namely participating in reciprocal, other and self affirming relationships marked by the justice/love known in Jesus. John 15:14 talks about us as friends, rather than servants or disciples, and affirms the way of justice/love as our mode, means and goal. I think a Trinitarian understanding invites us to consider God as a dynamic synergetic movement of self-giving love into which we are invited to participate and ‘abide’.


The mission of Jesus then is far bigger than dying. It is about living, teaching, and modeling a way of participating in this synergy of divine-human interchange. So making room for people on the margins of society is not just nice manners, or nice social policy, or nice politics. It’s about making room for the fullness of the movement of God that always transcends the hierarchical and exclusive barriers religions erect. 


The mission of Jesus invites us and enables us to draw close to that divine movement of borderless love. This is similar to what the Orthodox Church means when it talks about the life and death of Jesus engaging us, uniting us, with God rather than simply and simplistically suffering and dying for us. 


This is similar also to understanding the Feast of Ascension [this coming Thursday] as dissolving the theistic, up-down boundaries in which we limit our understandings of both God and humanity. If God is omnipresent why do we perpetuate the binary thinking which continues to separate God from us and us from God?


Jesus did not die for our sins. In the words of John Dominic Crossan: “Jesus died because of our sins, or from our sins, but that should never be misread as for our sins. In Jesus, the radicality of God became incarnate, and the normalcy of civilization's brutal violence (our sins, or better, Our Sin) executed him.” [ii]


As you know I’m a little wary of the ‘sin’ word because it has been captured, probably irrecoverably, by those who want sin reduced to solely individual faults and failings. Crossan helpfully talks about the word in the singular with a capital S in order to point to the forces of violence that seek to pull apart the relational reciprocity into which the movement of God is always inviting us. It is these forces of violence, manifested in the religious and political elites of Jesus’ day that he challenged and rebelled against, forces that partitioned off women, the sick, tax-collectors, Samaritans, and others, and excluded them from the loci of power. Similarly such forces of violence still operate today keeping the poor in poverty and the powerful in power unaccountable to the poor.


Marcus Borg calls these forces of violence ‘the domination system’. He too refutes the theories of atonement that posit God requiring the death of Jesus in order to offer forgiveness to humanity. It is never the will of God that an innocent person suffers and dies. 


Yet Borg points out that the ‘sacrifice for sin’ idea that emerged in the post-Easter Christian community can, at its best, be understood as a proclamation of radical grace – namely that God accepts us just as we are and the Christian life is not about trying to get right with God. God’s already taken care of that. Rather Christianity is about a way of transformation – following Jesus’ path of commitment and passion for the vision of God.


I like how Marcus offers a bridge to Christians of different perspectives. However the ‘sacrifice for sin’ theories have done much damage. People have been defined as failures. God has been defined as needing a blood sacrifice in order to forgive. The Jesus story has been captured by the elites, refashioned as non-political individual faith, and turned into an instrument for maintaining passivity in the face of injustice. Those theories have by and large not aided empowerment but aided oppression.


If most atonement theories picture God as a judge, humanity as depraved, and Jesus’ mission as dying, what alternative picture does Progressive Christianity offer? My understanding is that God is the dynamic movement of reciprocal self-giving Love; that humanity is made of, in, and for that Love; and that Jesus died, as he lived, to hold before us, invite us, and enable us into the transformative possibilities of that Love.


[i] St Paul was clear that the death of Jesus was the act of God that brought atonement. He was not so clear about ‘how’. He offered four metaphors: redress through sacrifice, ransom from captivity, redemption from slavery, and victory in warfare. Over the last two thousand years various theologies have emerged including Jesus appeasing God, Jesus making a payment to God, God paying off Satan, and Jesus as overcoming the grip of the Devil. All of which are appalling to theological progressives.


[ii] John Dominic Crossan God & Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2007). P. 140-141 (emphasis in original)

How Can We Bear Fruit?

May 6, 2012

Linda Murphy

Easter 5


Have you ever had to go to a finance company to borrow money to put food on your table?


I would like to share a conversation with you that I had with Bill who needed food. He had had his unemployment benefit suspended yet again because he had not had enough job interviews in the previous week. Bill was a labourer in his late forties, and it is not easy finding work when you are looking worn and older. In the course of our chat he told me that the last time his benefit had been stopped, Work and Income (WINZ) had told him to go to a finance company to get money to feed his son and himself!


He went to Instant Finance, you know the advert on TV the one where Stacey Jones, the well known and loved Rugby League player, encourages us to borrow to buy those things we cannot afford. Instant Finance lent Bill, a beneficiary, $500.00 with the repayments of $58.00 per week for 12 weeks. Given that the unemployment benefit is only $204.00 per week, these repayments were bound to cause this family hardship.


I was so sad and have over the weeks I have become very angry that this situation occurred and continues to happen at an alarming rate.


•             Why didn’t Work & Income suggest a Foodbank?


•             Why did Instant Finance lend this money to a beneficiary or anyone on a limited income who will have difficulty repaying the debt?


Don’t get me wrong, Instant Finance is a legitimate finance company, run by capable executives, which did not need to be bailed out by the government when the finance industry crashed.


It sits in a position between the commercial banks and the “loan sharks”.


All the same, in my opinion, its lending policies are creating undue stress amongst a large number of the less fortunate in our society.


It is sad that Stacey Jones, ‘The Little General’ is prepared to be a front man for a company, which in my experience, is the cause of so much grief in our community.


For centuries the poor and disadvantaged have had to use money lenders to survive and this has been called usury; the charging of excessive and unreasonable interest on loans. If Bill manages to not miss any repayments he will pay Instant Finance $696 over that 12 week period. If my calculations are correct he is paying $196 in fees and interest or 39.2% of the sum borrowed over a twelve week period. In my opinion that fits into the definition of usury. Unfortunately for Bill he has already missed a number of repayments, and therefore compounding interest is now applied. I hate to think how much he will eventually end up paying back Instant Finance!


Throughout the Bible particularly in the First Testament, there are numerous references to the freeing of the oppressed from debts in terms of the jubilee year. This was a year of freedom, a time of redistribution and new beginnings, implying the forgiveness of these debts. The ‘haves’ were expected to contribute to the welfare of the ‘have nots’ even if it means a reduction in their own wealth. Jesus’ message stressed this need of solidarity as community to free; the oppressed and marginalised, heal the sick and to build a fair and just society. The needs of the poor are very real and for this reason the gift of debt forgiveness or reduction cannot be arbitrary or unconditional. It is ultimately a restoration of the original relation intended by God and preached by Jesus.


It seems to me that Christianity has not realised this in two thousand years of existence. We still have the oppressed whether politically or financially or socially and the numbers are growing.


The church, in New Zealand very rarely comments on the state of our poor or our beneficiaries. Our readings speak of God’s love, and John’s Gospel presents arguments in favour of a basic dignity for all humanity and that was the message for the new Christian community and our community now. However we don’t seem to be very proactive in trying to influence any change. It all seems too hard and not our problem to solve. Nevertheless if we are community it is our problem and as members of that community it is our responsibility to attempt to influence a positive caring and just society. As Paul Ostricher said last week being in community makes us political whether we wish to be active or not.


Currently before parliament there is a Credit Contracts and Consumer Finance Amendment Bill which proposes to strengthen consumer protection. These reforms have been driven by widespread concern regarding the unscrupulous lending practices of loan sharks and the significant financial hardship suffered by people like Bill at their hands. Most of you will not have heard of this proposed bill because our press has been far too busy worrying, rightly or wrongly, about Skycity’s pokie machines, an event centre and this week’s issue of John Bank’s donations not being declared, so that this bill is going unnoticed with little press coverage.


I was relieved to note this week that the date for submissions had been extended from the 16th of May to the 28th May. The Minister of Consumer Affairs, Chris Tremain, is apparently touring the country talking to community and industry groups, and I did find that a number of newsletters from law firms have mentioned it to their money lending clients. While this bill will not probably affect companies like Instant Finance, it will stop people like Stacy Jones being an advertising agent. It will also attempt to stop the very unscrupulous lenders that I am aware of who prey on the less fortunate particularly in South Auckland and I am sure they are all over the country.


There are many reasons people go to loan sharks to borrow money such as rent payments or a bond, tangi or funeral contributions, immigration application, car repairs, wof, rego, school uniforms, school shoes, appliances, purchasing a car and food. There are so many lenders who are prepared to compromise the less fortunate for their own gain. Fair and just legislation would help protect the marginalised in our community.


Last year we saw groups of activists all over the world, on Wall St, in London and our own Aotea Square trying to expose the inequities of our current capitalist economic system. At present we do not have a workable alternative and their protests have currently been prohibited or side lined. They have however created debate and planted seeds of thought to explore an alternative, a more fair and just economic system.


Eighty years ago St Matthews’ had a vicar, Jasper Calder who spoke of a new Christianity “practical Christianity” a phrase I particularly like. To avoid another Bill getting a loan to feed his family we could make submissions in favour of the Credit Contracts and Consumer Finance Amendment Bill, we can bring canned and non-perishable food donations as part of our offertory each Sunday, to assist our local Foodbank, we could write to Paula Bennett and challenge her department’s policies. Then I think we are listening to what John’s words were saying to us this morning.



Undercover Jesus

April 22, 2012

Clay Nelson

Easter 3     Luke 24:13-49

Video available on YouTube, Facebook


In 1987 I lead a group from my congregation on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. One of our many destinations was Emmaus to celebrate the Eucharist. The story of Emmaus being my favourite of the Resurrection stories, I was deeply moved to break bread in that historic location. Back on the tour bus, our Lebanese guide, who had a doctorate in theology, broke the bad news to me. Perhaps this was the Emmaus in the Gospels and perhaps not. There are three other places that claim to be Emmaus. Well, I got over my initial disappointment by reminding myself that I had a one out of four chance of being where Jesus broke bread with Cleopas and his nameless companion. But creating uncertainty for me didn’t satisfy him, he had to go on and disabuse me of my preconceptions about the story’s historicity. He told me there was another possibility as well. It is more likely Emmaus isn’t a real place at all. In the oldest text available of Luke’s Gospel the place isn’t called Emmaus but Oulammaus. Oulammaus in the Greek translation of the Old Testament was the place where God visited Jacob in a dream, while he slept on a rock. However, this was an unfortunate mistake in the Greek translation. The place name should have been Luz. Around 100 AD the Greek translation was corrected. Oulammaus became Luz. But that was after Luke wrote the story of the Road to Emmaus. If it had been written after the correction the story might have been called the Road to Luz. The theory is that Luke simply was making a parallel between Jacob being visited by God and the disciples being visited by Jesus. I think his shattering of my preconceptions that day opened my eyes and propelled me down the road of Progressive Christianity.


That day in what is purported to be Emmaus by Israel’s tourist industry allowed me to let go of a whole set of questions about what really happened that day, because nothing did. It’s a story — a lovely one. Instead I am free to engage it at a deeper level. For instance, instead of wondering who travelled with Cleopas. I can enter the story as his companion.


As his companion I can reflect on why I do not always recognize Jesus. A couple of reasons come to mind. One could be that Jesus conceals his identity for his own purposes. Perhaps he does so for the same reason parents let their child learn about life through exploration rather than just telling them how it is.


The other reason is our preconceptions as to what is or is not sacred can blind us. As a consequence we can — and do — miss it.


Appearances can be deceiving when it comes to seeing God. An old rabbinical tale illustrates the problem well. Two congregants consulted their rabbi. One man contended that the other’s cat had stolen and eaten five pounds of freshly made butter. “Bring me the cat,” ordered the rabbi, “and bring me a scale.” The order was duly carried out. “How many pounds of butter did you say the cat has eaten?” asked the rabbi. “Five pounds.” Thereupon the rabbi put the cat on the scale. It weighed exactly five pounds! “Now I have the butter,” the rabbi exclaimed, “but where is the cat?”


It’s the same with God, I would contend. We may think we know who or what or where God is, but we’re in for a surprise. The divine reality, the infinite source of our being, forever evades the theologian’s snare. “God” is not even God’s name, but rather our name for that which is greater than all yet present in each of us.


In our story this morning the two travellers are not ready to perceive Jesus. Their preconceptions about who or what a Messiah should be had not been met in him. Cleopas laments, “we had hoped he was the one to redeem Israel.” Certainly a crucified Messiah who dies and rises again did not fit their preconception of Messiahship. 


Jesus, for his part, deceives them, by pretending not to know them. He feigns ignorance of recent events and refers to himself in the third person. Why does he keep them in the dark? I suspect, first, he knows they wouldn’t believe him. Their preconceptions are too strong. Second, going undercover gives him an opportunity to teach them about his way of being the Messiah through an exposition of the Scriptures. And he does so thoroughly, beginning with Moses and proceeding through all the prophets.


I believe this account is an allusion to how Jesus’ followers actually came to make sense of their friend’s crucifixion. They scoured Hebrew Scriptures looking for anything that would explain their experience of Jesus.


However, Jesus’ efforts to transform their vision prove unsuccessful. They still don’t recognize him.


We can identify. People hang onto their preconceptions with tenacity. As an example, if you are predisposed to accepting GLBT people fully into the life of the church no amount of justification for not doing so by an Evangelical pointing out the few passages in Scripture that condemn them is going to convince you otherwise. And of course, the reverse is true as well. If someone is already viscerally opposed to homosexuality, there is little that logical argumentation can do to change that person’s mind. If a change is to occur, something more is needed. What is it?


On the road to Emmaus that something more begins with Jesus presenting himself as a stranger to the travellers. He then “came near and went with them.” He initiates a relationship with them. By doing so, he makes space for them to be transformed. Sacred space, if you will.


The idea of “creating space” in order to allow for the flourishing of new concepts describes, for me, what Progressive Christianity as practiced at St Matthew’s is all about. Our goal is to create space in which people can grapple with difficult theological concepts and world realities. We seek to create a safe space in which people can take the time they need to work out their own beliefs. A place where we can enter into dialogue – into relationship – with each other about our beliefs.


While creating space is important it isn’t all that is needed. Why did Jesus’ breaking of bread cause their eyes to be opened and their hearts to be strangely warmed? It wasn’t something magical in the bread. It wasn’t just because he invited himself to walk along with them. It wasn’t just because he taught them about the scriptures. It happened because Cleopas and his companion extended hospitality to him, a stranger. If they had not invited Jesus to eat with them no bread would have been broken and no recognition of the sacred before them would have happened. They would have remained clueless, desolate and blind. In the space made for them to form a relationship they invited the stranger into that most intimate of communal acts, breaking bread together. In doing so their eyes were opened to the sacred and to what it means to walk with Jesus.


While the Road to Emmaus may not be historical, and Emmaus may be nowhere to be found, it contains the sacred. We all want to experience what Cleopas and his companion experienced. We all want to be released from our blindness to the sacred. We all want to reveal the sacred within us to those around us. It helps to know that all is sacred and waiting to be seen.

The Resurrection of Jesus

April 15, 2012

Glynn Cardy

Easter 2     Low Sunday

Video available on YouTube, Facebook


It seems to me that there are two key questions around Easter Sunday. One pertains to Jesus’ body. This is often framed up as ‘Do you believe that Jesus physically rose from the dead?’ The other pertains to the purpose of whatever the resurrection was. This latter is often framed up as ‘Do you believe that he died for our sins?’


I would like to spend a few moments this morning going through the various appearance stories to look at what they say about these questions of body and purpose.


I will start with the earliest: Paul. In Acts 9 Paul, probably a number of years after Jesus’ death, was confronted by a bright light and a voice. He saw no body and touched no scars. Yet he seemed to have no doubt that this was the Risen Jesus and he radically changed his life.


Paul equates his Damascus Road experience with the experience of the disciples [some 500 by Paul’s reckoning!] to whom the resurrected Jesus appeared. He does so in order to validate his claim to be an apostle. The interesting thing is that seeing a literal body does not seem to be essential to experiencing the Risen Christ.


Mark’s Gospel has two endings. One is original, ending at 16:8, and the other is a later edition. The original has no appearances of the Risen Christ. The women are met by an angelic being [whatever that was] and flee in terror. The later edition baldly states that “he appeared first to Mary Magdalene”, then to “two of them as they were walking in the country”, and lastly “to the eleven”. Only to the eleven does the resurrected Jesus speak, commissioning them to preach. He then ascends to heaven [wherever that is]. Mark’s late edition has no reference to place, save the country walkers, and there is no touching and little speaking.


Matthew’s Gospel just has two appearance stories. The two Mary’s are fleeing the empty tomb when they meet the resurrected Jesus. He greets them; they touch his feet and worship him [whatever that means]. He gives them a message to ask his ‘brothers’ to go to Galilee. The second scene is Galilee, on a mountain, with the 11. They see, worship, and [interestingly] some doubt. He commissions them, doubters and all, to go and make disciples. There is no ascension into heaven or anywhere else.


In these texts so far there has been little concern about body. By and large the faithful have made the connection between this Risen apparition and the Jesus they knew. Yet there is also no inference that the same ol’ pre-crucifixion Jesus is going to continue walking around in a bodily form with them until they are old and gray. Few words have been spoken. The appearances seem to be for the purpose of underscoring the belief that death has not defeated God’s mission, and the task of the disciples is only just beginning. There is no mention of Jesus dying for their sins, or indeed for any purpose.


Luke’s Gospel likewise has only two appearance stories. The first is the journey to Emmaus. Without going into all the nuances of this rich story, I will make just two comments. Firstly concerning body. They didn’t recognize the Risen Jesus even though they walked and talked for a long time and he spoke about himself. It was when he broke the bread that they recognized him, and then he vanished. The lack of recognition and the vanishing tell us that this resurrected body was quite distinct from a normal body. Whatever the Risen apparition was, it wasn’t normal flesh and blood.


Secondly, the purpose of the encounter seems to be about restoring and encouraging the faith of the two travellers. It is also set within the context of the early Christian community who met to examine the scriptures, offer hospitality, share bread, and encourage each other. It is a great example of the power of a story to both reflect and shape practice.


The other appearance story in Luke is also located in the Jerusalem vicinity. The resurrected Jesus suddenly appears paranormally in the midst of a group of disciples including the eleven. He ties to calm them. There are, for the first time, words about his body being normal flesh and bones, and then eating some fish to prove it. The Risen One then spent some time with the disciples in a bible study, encouraging them in their faith. Afterwards he walked with them to Bethany and ascended into heaven, again paranormally.


Like the Emmaus encounter the second story tells us that the bodily apparition was similar to but unlike any normal body. The main concern seems to be to establishing continuity between what they were experiencing and their knowledge of Jesus before he died. The other concern is restoring and encouraging the disciples.


Interestingly this ascension story is repeated in Luke’s second book, namely Acts. It is from Acts that we get the idea that the resurrected Jesus hung around for 40 days – a timeframe that cues the listener to the notion of testing. It is also from Acts that we get the idea that they are to wait until Pentecost in order to experience the Holy Spirit [in John’s Gospel the resurrected Jesus dispenses the Spirit]. The Risen One then ascends, like Elijah once did, into the clouds.


In the Fourth Gospel there are four appearance stories. The first is Mary Magdalene in the garden. She takes the Risen Jesus for the gardener – which makes you wonder about what he was dressed in. The Risen One explicitly tells Mary not to touch him. It is his voice that is the means of recognition. Like with Paul on the Damascus Road his voice is the giveaway. 


Secondly, there is an appearance to the disciples behind locked doors in Jerusalem. The doors tell us that Jesus’ body is not normal. In this encounter he breathes on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit” [whatever that meant].


The third encounter is to the same group a week later, plus Thomas. We are not informed what the resurrected Jesus did in the intervening week. Note too how there are now 12 disciples, whereas Matthew and Luke have only 11. This encounter is very body focused. Thomas is asked to put his finger in the scars – although we aren’t told that he did so. The resurrected Jesus then says that those who have not seen and yet believe are blessed. 


The last of John’s encounters with the Risen One is in Galilee. There are 7 disciples fishing, with no success. Jesus tells them to try on the right side, and 153 were netted [interesting that somebody counted!]. Then the resurrected Jesus had a Eucharistic meal with them of bread and fish. Later Jesus asks Peter three questions and predicts Peter’s death.


These four Johannine stories continue themes from Luke. Firstly they are stories about restoration and empowerment - bringing the fractured early followers back together again. In the midst of that fish, bread, and Holy Spirit are important. 


Secondly, they are stories that continue to give a mixed message about Jesus’ resurrected body – it is meant to be continuous with Jesus prior to his death, and also discontinuous. Witnessing this body seems to be important in terms of believing that Jesus, even though he died, is the Messiah, the anointed one of God. 


Lastly they are stories that identify key authority figures in the early Church: Mary Magdalene, the 12, Peter, and the anonymous Beloved Disciple. Note Jack Spong’s thesis that the purpose of the appearances is to establish the authority and primacy of Peter and the 12 in the early church. Interestingly it is only in Paul [I Corinthians 15] that the key leader of the Jerusalem Church, James, is named.


The appearance stories have been told, re-told, and re-shaped over the decades between Jesus’ death and the writing of the Gospels and are primarily theological rather than historical. There are a number of common elements in the stories, yet each writer/editor is also quite distinct. There is little evidence that the accounts were harmonized or that anyone thought the lack of harmony undermined what the writers were trying to convey. It was as if they were trying to say: ‘Look we are not in agreement with each other; these stories have been passed around in our communities; now you figure you out the meanings and the contradictions.’ 


It’s not surprising then that Christians understand the resurrected Jesus differently from each other. Some Christians believe that the body of Jesus was miraculously revivified on Easter day. They call this ‘bodily resurrection’. 


Other Christians believe the resurrection in a ‘spiritual’ sense. The appearance stories, for example, can be understood as post-death experiences such as are described in other writings of the ancient world and in modern literature about death and trauma experience. 


The early Christians did struggle with what the crucifixion and resurrection meant, and drew upon their Jewish Scriptures to find meaning. The ideas of redemptive suffering, cosmic atonement, divine vindication and the like were the result. 


The appearance stories however largely bypass the ‘dying for our sins’ mantra or indeed dying for any purpose. Rather they seem to present a claidescope of unsynchronized spiritual experiences in which Jesus’ friends found restoration, empowerment, and hope after the devastation of Good Friday. In Galilee or Jerusalem, fishing or in locked rooms, eating or studying, walking or talking, women and men discovered the power of Jesus’ presence was still with them permeating through the frontier of death.

The Hope of Easter: Spiritual Anarchy

April 8, 2012

Glynn Cardy

Easter Day     Mark 16:1-8

Video available on YouTube, Facebook


Jesus was killed because he was out of control. He was outside the control of the political and religious institutions. He’d lived and taught and showed a disregard of borders. Whether those borders were around whom you should dine with, or touch, or put as heroes in your stories, or how you picture God… he deliberately flouted them. His was a spirituality without borders, and the border police didn’t like it.


Around Jesus was gathered the morally and theologically poor, those not able to afford the slick, tidy packages on offer in the confident religious brands. Around him gathered the nuisances, nobodies and skeptics. Jesus welcomed, broke boundaries and bread, and loved. In the doing, in the being there, was hope. 


It wasn’t that Jesus was ignorant of the borders, or just wanted to be kind to outsiders, or promote tolerance. Rather he set his sights on the nexus of ideological control, the Jerusalem establishment, and challenged its reason for existence. 


He wanted to break the control system. He hoped that breaking would catch on. He hoped that what horrified the thought police would spread. He hoped that like wild windblown mustard spiritual anarchy would grow, bloom, and seed like a weed in every and any place, beyond the power of the elites.


It was a vision that would get him killed, as it had killed other rebels before him. It was a bad Friday on the Golgotha hill.


In the years following his death his followers caught the wind of his spirit and the weeds of anarchy spread. On the edges of society men and women, slave and free, all races, shared in leadership and resources. There wasn’t a lot of control. One never knew quite what would happen. There were lots of good Sundays. 


Yet within three centuries a new Christian religious institution with its bevy of rules and rulers had arisen who not only took upon themselves to beat back the spread, but also to redefine Jesus. They sought to bring the movement Jesus seeded under control.


So a number of shifts in and manipulations of the collective memory of Jesus took place. The spirituality akin to a wild weed, mustard, was genetically modified into a tree with branches able to provide shelter and food to birds. [i] An institution is like a tree – dependable, predictable, and rooted. Jesus’ spiritual vision was now akin to trees not weeds, to stability not dynamic change.


The institutional controllers also split Jesus from the spirituality he’d taught and practiced. What became the mark of a Christian was not someone who lived that borderless inclusive faith but someone who believed that the former out-of-control Jesus was now elevated to the heavens, sitting at the right hand of the in-control God. The prodigal had been reined in, the rebel Jesus domesticated.


The controllers also concocted a system whereby people’s fears could be played upon. Everyone was defined as a ‘sinner’. Only by correct belief could people be forgiven. Jesus’ death had not been the result of the thought police maintaining the borders; rather it had been everyone’s fault, everyone’s ‘sin’, which had required him to sacrifice his all. Only by repenting, believing in humanity’s inherent unworthiness and Jesus’ sacrifice, could people be forgiven.


And thus institutional Christianity took root and grew into a tree where purity of belief and obedient behaviour were prized, and the ideology of sin and the guilt it produced were its fruit. It was quite different from the wild weed.


It is a mistake though to just blame others for what happened to the memory of Jesus. For in our fears and our failings we often seek that certainty, those demarcations between pure and impure, and the forgiveness that a divine super parent can offer. We want to believe that in a doubting, dirty and messy world there is absolution for us… and so we create a parental God to fit.


In most churches, at most services, there is a ritual reenactment of this Easter sin-redemption bargain. Called ‘confession’ and ‘absolution’ it requires the congregation to admit their failings, and then the priest on God’s behalf to pronounce that through Jesus’ sacrifice we are forgiven.


Many of us don’t participate in this bargain ritual. We don’t like what it makes God into. We don’t do ‘parent God’. We don’t like what it makes of Jesus’ life and death. We don’t do ‘Jesus died for us’. And we don’t like how it defines us as failures in need of forgiveness, when we are ‘made in the image of God’.


Yet there is at the heart of this confession/absolution ritual ancient truth that speaks still. We do fail, regularly. We are frail. We do doubt. We are afraid. The good news, that bargain theology doesn’t quite get, is that these parts of our humanity are not to be shunned or confessed or disguised. Rather they are to be embraced, held, and valued. 


For our wounds can be the source of our empathy, our doubts can be the engine in our quest for truth, and our fears can be the wellspring of our pity. Though usually, of course, they aren’t. Usually they are just part of the hand fate has dealt us to play.


The spirit of the borderless Jesus informs us of a God different from the super parent. This different God holds, embraces, and values our doubts, dirt, and mess. In the windblown community of this God’s followers no matter what one does or doesn’t, no matter how bound one is to addictions, no matter what one believes, if anything… all belong. The love called God makes room for all.


Hope therefore is not what some cosmic being has bargained for us by having his favourite son killed. Hope is, to quote Richard Holloway, when “the unacceptable are accepted by a community who knows itself to be unacceptable.” [ii] Weeds welcome weeds.


At Easter remnants of that windblown community gather to celebrate that the spiritual path of Jesus did not end at the cross. Neither did it end when they elevated him to heaven and crowned him there. Instead the spiritual path of Jesus, his life, lives on amongst all who reach beyond borders in the name of justice, compassion, and love. 


When freedom is celebrated, when bread is shared, when the constraints of certitude and dogmatism and fear are broken… then we know that Jesus lives on. In the doing, in the being there, is hope. It is the hope of mustard weeds, spiritual anarchists, splashing the world in hot, vivid colours. 


[i] Mark 4:30-32 (KJV)

30And he said, Whereunto shall we liken the kingdom of God? or with what comparison shall we compare it? 31It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when it is sown in the earth, is less than all the seeds that be in the earth: 32But when it is sown, it groweth up, and becometh greater than all herbs, and shooteth out great branches; so that the fowls of the air may lodge under the shadow of it.


[ii] Richard Holloway Leaving Alexandria: a memoir of faith and doubt, p.301.

The Easter Puzzle

April 7, 2012

Glynn Cardy

The Great Vigil of Easter


Easter doesn’t all piece together. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle but with extra and missing bits that don’t match to provide a clear picture. There are superfluous pieces, and there are gaping holes. 


It’s what you get when you take ancient fertility rites marking the start of spring, merge them with the execution of a political-religious rebel and its aftermath, then transplant both to these Southern Isles. The Goddess Eostre, Jesus, and the end of summer are mixed together. The occasion is marked with cards, choirs, chocolate, crosses, church-going, and bunnies. 


It’s an intriguing complicated puzzle. There are holes, like that tomb, which defy ready explanation. There are traditions, like the bunny, that ridicule the somber and serious. There are customs, like egg painting, that can produce intricate beauty. There is the sobering torture and death commemoration, with thorns, nails, and crosses. There is the hopeful affirmation of life renewed, with flowers, eggs, and feasting. 


Then there is the music. I met this musician at a party. “At Easter,” he said, “I need to sing. So I look for a church where I can join the choir and sing”. That was the alpha and omega of his Easter theology and his church-going. There wasn’t anything more to be said. Words got in the way of his faith.


Biblical scholars often make the mistake of thinking that the puzzle of Easter is about something that happened around 33 C.E. Did the dead Jesus come back to life? And if so what was that ‘life’? Easter for them is making sense of a historical event.


Easter however is both biblical and beyond biblical. It is multi-dimensional. It touches on how we relate to one another. It touches on how we walk with suffering and seek to transform it. It touches on sacred mystical experiences beyond the power of words and exactitude and dogma.


One Easter I was standing on an English tump. The tump being Neolithic was a very old piece of ‘earthitecture’. Awaiting the dawn in the freezing cold, this rural scene was very beautiful.


The local parish had this tradition of traipsing across a field, climbing the tump in the dark, celebrating the first Mass of Easter, then going to a parishioner’s home for a ripper of a breakfast. 


The local witches also joined in, as did a number of curious heathens. The pivotal part of the liturgy was not the raising of the communion, the chanting, or the readings. It was the dawn. The dawn trumped everything. The dawn swept all up into her embrace: priests, parishioners, liturgy, witches, and wonderers.


It felt like we were part of something that was before but embraced Jesus, that was ancient but current, that was simple and yet profound. Kind of like God.


The Easter puzzle is about God. That’s why there are holes and bits that don’t fit. Of course some people’s God all neatly fits together and there’s no place for extras. For others though the Easter God is in the discomfit of the relationship between death and life, between what is passing away and what is coming into being, between letting go and holding on. 


This puzzle unfortunately doesn’t come closer to being understood let alone solved by talking about it. Like with music, to rationalize it is to risk losing it. Like with the dawn, one can’t explain its sacredness. Similarly with love. Similarly with God. Maybe we lost something of God when the first theological treatise was written?


For isn’t faith really seven verbs: Feel, love, include, be, do, listen, and laugh. The puzzle made simple. Of course the holes and the extras still remain. There’s plenty of room in God for all the misfits, mislaid ideas, and mad notions not yet thought.

Walking the Labyrinth of Faith

April 6, 2012

Clay Nelson

Good Friday

Video available on YouTube, Facebook


I invite you take a step back in time. A time before Paul had his conversion. A time before any Evangelist had written a Gospel. A time before bishops had composed creeds. I’m asking you to do the impossible. Let go of anything and everything you have been told to think about Jesus. Experience him instead. Imagine you have been walking the labyrinth with Jesus for the last three years wending and winding your way through the Judean hills. You have no idea where you are headed, but it is enough to be hanging out with him. Over time you have come to wonder if he is the long awaited Jewish Messiah. Is he the one to free your homeland from Roman domination? Of course you have never heard him claim such a role or intention.


Along the way you’ve pondered his parables, listened intently to his private lessons, watched the crowds grow to hear his words; witnessed his healings. More importantly you have eaten with him, laughed with him, prayed with him, cried with him. You have been totally enveloped by his loving and gracious manner. You admire his honesty and integrity and deep, deep compassion. You’ve never known anyone quite like him. He is as close to God as anyone you’ve ever met. If anyone can take on the emperor, he can.


The path of the labyrinth has grown ever closer to what seems to be the end of the beginning. You have arrived in Jerusalem and the people seem to be supportive. The moment is at hand. He has called you all together to celebrate the Passover with an intimate meal. During the meal you hear the announcement you’ve been waiting for. The time has arrived. He is coming into his kingdom. You wonder what your role will be.


Then quickly the wheels start coming off the bus. Jesus says he is about to be betrayed by one of your friends. It can’t be, but a few hours later the Romans arrest him. In confusion and fear you and your friends scatter. You hear in the morning that the governor has condemned him to death. Not any death, but the most shameful and cruel of deaths, crucifixion. As you begin working your way out of the city’s labyrinth to seek safe haven before the centurions come for you as well, you see him in the distance on the cross. Disbelief and despair overwhelm you. This has not been a “good” day.


Now stay in that moment. I think that was the moment Christianity was born. It was personal. It was born out of shock, dismay and surprise. You thought you were headed in one direction and suddenly you are twisted into another. How do you make sense of it?


There was no talk yet of sacrifice for others, no doctrines of atonement, no creedal statements. No one was singing about a green hill far away or a wondrous love. In fact, it would be some time before his followers would begin to tell stories about how Rome could kill the man but not his love.


Is this the end or a beginning? Where is God in this moment? How do you keep walking the labyrinth of life, to salvage some remnant of the dream?


For two thousand years Jesus’ followers constructed a religion trying to answer these questions. The path they took looked a lot like a labyrinth. A whole new scripture was written to answer those questions. People were killed for their loyalty to him. Rituals were developed re-enacting his life. His followers squabbled over their beliefs about him. The winners wrote creeds. Emperors co-opted his followers for purposes of maintaining power and control. A whole new class of society was established. Bishops and priest were imbued with both spiritual and political power. Great cathedrals and basilicas were built to his glory. Amazing art and music was created in his name. The western world became Christendom sending armies against the nonbelievers to “save” them. Inquisitions were established to purify the faithful on the rack. Reformers split the church in two in his name. Then they fought wars against their cousins in the faith, sometimes for a hundred years, taking turns burning each other at the stake to the glory of God. They finally settled for peace out of exhaustion. Depleted, the religion Jesus’ death inspired, found it struggling to answer questions raised by Galileo, Copernicus and Darwin. The spirit of democracy further challenged its hierarchy and dominance. In response to the incredible technological changes modernity brought, fundamentalism rose to protect Jesus. It backfired, repelling many in the church who had not already left.


When the majority in our country state their religious preference as “None of the above,” we know Christendom is now a secular society. The Church’s influence has waned spectacularly in my lifetime. Many congregations struggle to support a professional clergy and question their survival beyond the present generation. The earthquake in Christchurch not only demolished a cathedral it reduced the number of ministry units in the diocese from over 40 to 19. The resulting rise in cost for earthquake insurance threatens the survival of many congregations throughout Aotearoa New Zealand. Those that remain are threatening to split with one another over the ordination of gay and lesbian people. A religion conceived in death is dying.


But my question is: Does that mean we are witness to Jesus dying again? Where the labyrinth of faith will take us from here future generations will have to answer. But surely, my faith tells me, we are not at the end, but only a new beginning.


On July 28, 2010 novelist Anne Rice, famous for her vampire novels, posted her resignation on Facebook: “Today I quit being a Christian. I’m out. I remain committed to Christ, as always, but not to being “Christian’ or to being part of Christianity. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life. In the name of Christ, I quit Christianity and being Christian. Amen.”


Within 24 hours, more than 4000 people gave her declaration a thumbs-up and tens of thousands more shared or re-tweeted it. Major papers, online news sites and television stations carried word of her rejection of Christianity. Within days, her anti-profession of faith was all over the Internet, on talk shows, in sermons, on blogs, and the subject of café conversations. At St Matthew’s we can relate to her experience of going viral.


Church historian, Diana Butler Bass, has noted, “Rice’s confession did not go viral just because she is famous. Rather, popular discontent is such that millions… could relate to her words. She struck a cultural chord. She said what others suspect or feel or secretly think — that there is a profound and painful disconnect between what Christianity has become and what we perceive that it should be.” [i]


In her book, Bass documents the discontent: Quoting a 40-something woman, “I increasingly find the Catholic Church and mainline Protestant churches to be irrelevant. Many churchgoers seem to be content with the status quo and uncomfortable being challenged, especially on issues of social justice.” An Anglican from Sydney states, “I’m continually being disappointed by (bordering on disillusioned by) the institutional church. Institutional self-preservation seems more important than those on the front line who still minister to the physically, emotionally, and spiritual needy.” Another bluntly observes, “Christianity has become a culture unto itself and has merely skimmed over what Jesus has said and is saying.” [ii]


As you view a dying religion from a green hill faraway, do you recall the twisting turning path you have walked with it most of your life? What do you feel? Stay in this moment. This is personal. Do you feel shock, sadness and dismay? Maybe you feel more relief than grief. I wonder if Jesus does. Will you stay with the institutional church offering palliative care or will you walk on, leaving the dead to bury the dead, in search of what has been lost? Or will you try to do both like we attempt at St Matthew’s.


No, it is not a “good” day, but not one without hope.


Unlike Jesus, the Church is dying by its own hand. But while it can kill itself, it cannot kill the spirituality that resides within each of us. There is a difference between religion and spirituality. Bass quotes one minister who puts it succinctly: “Religion seeks conformity and control — scriptural infallibility and literalism, imposition of beliefs upon others — and cannot abide any other way of encountering God that falls outside of its defined boundaries. Faith seeks freedom and life for all to experience God on their own terms and in their own ways — and then allows for communal experiences and collaboration to build a better world.”


There is no straight path from here. But I invite you to walk it in confidence that the love Jesus embodied walks with you. Trust the inherent spirituality that resides within you. When set free I believe it will be a creative force like rarely we have seen before.


[i] Bass, Diana Butler. Christianity after Religion: the End of the Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening. Harper One: 2012. P. 21.


[ii] Ibid. p. 23.

Maundy Thursday Reflection on Cleaning Feet

April 5, 2012

Clay Nelson

Maundy Thursday     John 13:1-35


If you knew you were going to die in under a week, wouldn't you prioritize and take care of the really important things? In John's Gospel, that seems to mean for Jesus, taking time to wash his disciples' feet.


It is a ritual that we can’t fully identify with. The closest we come to it is taking our shoes off when we enter someone’s home. But it isn’t quite the same. In Jesus day, feet were really dirty. It wasn’t just dust on their sandaled feet. The streets were full of animal dung and human waste. Washing them was fit work only for a slave. It was such an onerous task that the law said even Jewish slaves could not be required to do it. For Jesus to insist on washing his disciples’ feet was truly shocking, as Peter’s reaction reveals.


I really don’t think it was on Jesus’ bucket list. I think it was a spur of the moment act by Jesus. He is trying to have an intimate dinner party, his last with his friends and they are in denial about what is about to happen to him. When he talks about coming into his kingdom they are squabbling over who will sit on his right hand. Who is the most important? I like to imagine that they are squabbling about who should wash the other’s feet. Jesus has had enough. He gets up, strips down, gets the washbowl and pitcher and tells a parable with his actions. In case they didn’t get it, he tells them, “Enough with being important.” Following him is about having the humility to wash feet. It is about loving one another as he has loved them.


It worked. It gets their attention. Foot washing became a regular feature of the Christian community. Some attached it to the Eucharist, some to baptism. Tonight in many different settings throughout the world it is being re-enacted. In the Greek Orthodox Church tonight, the archbishop is washing the feet of twelve poor people. In Rome tonight, the Pope is washing the feet of twelve of his priests. Historically on this night, the first Queen Elizabeth washed the feet of twelve of her subjects to remind English citizens and herself that the queen was to be a servant of the people


I suspect that Jesus would be disappointed that it didn’t end the bickering. The question for the faithful became was Jesus instituting foot washing like he instituted the Eucharist? Were we to literally for all time wash feet at every opportunity if we wanted to be disciples or were we to distill from the act the principle that his followers are servants who see every one they meet as more important than themselves? At St Matthew’s we are going to go with the principle, but the rite of foot washing done once a year is how we remind ourselves of it.


In my experience offering the rite has not always been easy. Like tonight few come for the service. Some come because it is so intimate. I think most stay away for the same reason. Years ago I used to seek volunteers before the service to have their feet washed. It was like pulling hen’s teeth to get even a few. And the few who came had callouses buffed, nails trimmed, wearing new socks and deodorized shoes. I washed the cleanest feet in town.


Tonight I’m not washing everyone’s feet. We will all have the opportunity to wash feet and just as importantly to have our feet washed. For it is a two way street that we each need to experience.


John’s story is not about watching Jesus put his hands on somebody else's feet. It's about letting Jesus put his hands on our feet. Not all of us want that. One reason maybe is that we're embarrassed about our feet. But it's not as if we are attending a foot model convention. As we get older, we may one day look down at our feet and say to ourselves, "Whose veiny, bulbous, knobby feet are those? And how did they get on the end of my ankles?"


A deeper reason we don't want Jesus handling our feet is because to allow Jesus to touch our feet is to allow him to touch our will. We all have a mind; we all have emotions; and we all have a will — our decision-making power. Our feet are how we put our decisions in motion and get places, do things.


To allow Jesus to cleanse our feet is to remove all that prevents us from using our feet to follow him: To scrub away our insecurities, to wash away our weariness, to buff off our bitterness.

Story Time

April 1, 2012

Clay Nelson

Palm Sunday     Matthew 21:1-9     Mark 14:1-15:47

Video available on YouTube, Facebook


When I was growing up eight o’clock was bedtime, no exceptions. That was OK with me because eight o’clock was also story time. My mother would read wonderful stories full of fantasy, mythic heroes, romance, mystery and adventure until I nodded off. 


Stories take me out of myself and bring me back with a greater understanding of the world in which I live and more importantly of myself. The stories may or may not be fiction but the insights they provide are not.


With that in mind you will understand why Holy Week is my favourite time in the church year. It is even better than Christmas because there are more stories, 22 to be exact. The Passion Narrative we have just participated combines 21 of them into what seems to us to be one story. The story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem is a bonus. Mark tacked together these stories to portray Jesus to his two audiences. For his Hellenistic audience, Jesus is shown to be a mythic hero. For his Jewish audience steeped in Isaiah’s description of a suffering servant, Jesus is the innocent victim.


We are not the audience to whom he was writing. We read it, without understanding his purpose, as a single news account about Jesus the Christ, the third person of the Trinity. It would be another three centuries before the church proclaimed him in such a way. No, Mark’s purpose was to provide clues as to how to interpret God’s purpose in Jesus life and death. Remembering that Mark had no Christian scriptures to draw from, he blatantly used Psalm 22, which we read on Maundy Thursday, as the template for his narrative.


It is an anthology of spiritual stories, it is not, an historical account. While there may be seeds of fact behind some of them they are for the most part fantasy. Here are some examples:


The account of the triumphal entry is built around a prediction from the prophet Zephaniah. Matthew attaches it to his re-edit of Mark’s passion narrative to say Jesus is the one Zephaniah was waiting for. One give away it is fiction is that palm trees did not exist in Jerusalem at that time.


This does not mean it is not a good story full of truth. The idea of a king riding into his kingdom on a donkey resonates with us if we are the hungry, the meek, the bereft, the persecuted, or the peacemakers.


The story of the Last Supper is a powerful story but not likely one based in fact, beyond the possibility that table fellowship was an important part of the day with his disciples. One give away is that it is fictional is after blessing the bread and wine Jesus says “do this in memory of me.” What the story suggests is that he instituted the Eucharist, the central feature of Christian worship. No scholar argues that Jesus had set out to create a new religion or foresaw the rise of Christianity. It is hard to imagine that he saw himself at the Jewish Messiah either or had any inkling that he would be viewed as the Messiah, the Christ, by a religion that did not yet exist.


That does not mean it is not a gripping story full of truth offering insight. The idea that we can join together at table with all who choose to come and acknowledge that we are all one by sharing a common loaf and drinking from a common cup is a mystical vision. It is a transforming image. It is a story that changes us.


The story of Judas’ betrayal that led to Jesus’ trial before the chief priests is again fiction. Some scholars even doubt Judas was a real person. Again, selling out the Messiah for 30 pieces of silver has its antecedent in Hebrew scripture. See Psalm 22. Was Judas’ character created to fulfil scripture? But whether or not he was one of the disciples every good story needs a villain. Betraying and being betrayed is a common motif to which we can all relate.


That Judas sold out Jesus to the Jewish leaders is a political story. By the time Mark wrote his Passion Narrative there was serious conflict between the Jewish leaders and the Jews who understood Jesus to be the Messiah. Orthodox Jews opposed the Nazarenes, as early Christians were called, worshipping at synagogue. It is not surprising that Mark portrayed them as conspiring to set Jesus up to be killed. Sadly, this portrayal was the justification for two millennia of very real stories of anti-Semitism. 


If there is a historical truth to the Passion Narrative, it is that Jesus was crucified, but not by the Jews who did not have the power to do so, but by the Romans. 


What Jesus’ death means is open to our interpretation, not that the church has told us that. The church over the millennia has stated what it means usually in terms that Jesus knew this was his fate and that God intended his death as a sacrifice for our sinful behaviour. But if Holy Week and Easter are to have any transformative effect for us we must wrestle with it for ourselves. It is the meaning we give to it that ultimately matters.


It is into that wrestling match I invite you this Holy Week. Come and embrace the stories at the various worship events offered this week. Enter into it as you walk the labyrinth. Find out where it takes you.


Let me close with one more story, but not from today’s readings.


In a dream, a devout disciple of the master was permitted to approach the Temple in Paradise where all the sages who had studied the Talmud all their lives were now spending eternity. He gazed in at them and they were all sitting around tables, just as they had done on earth, studying the Talmud still! The disciple watched them passionately exclaiming and arguing and reverently fingering the text. He wondered, “Is this really Paradise? It seems like the earth.” But then his thoughts were interrupted by the master’s warm laughter. “You are mistaken. This is not Paradise. The sages are not in paradise. Paradise is in the sages.”


My hope is that by engaging the stories of Holy Week you will discover that you like sages, embody the Messiah.

Pig Theology

March 25, 2012

Richard Bonifant

Lent 5     Jeremiah 31-27-34     John 12:20-36

Video available on YouTube, Facebook


There once was a pig. He was an ordinary pig in all ways, but one thing did set him apart. This thing was his distaste for the mumbling and grumbling that is the natural way with pigs. “I know,” thought the pig, “I shall do something extraordinary. From now on I will stand for everything that is true and wonderful. I will see the best in everyone and everything. I will be the Pig of Happiness!”


The next day when Pig A complained about the weather, the Pig of Happiness went dancing in the rain. When Pig B was rude about Pig C’s bottom and all the other pigs joined in, the Pig of Happiness gave Pig C a flower and said that he thought Pig C had a beautiful bottom actually.


After a while the Pig of Happiness became so happy that his happiness became too big. It had to find an escape! And so it was that it began to seep from inside him into all the other pigs. Now all the pigs are happy and their happiness is showing signs of seeping out too. The sheep are laughing. Even the chickens are beginning to smile!


It takes a great deal of courage to go against the flow. More than that is takes perseverance. Sometimes people have the courage to speak out against injustice only to have their voice silenced. To reform anything people need to work through all the obstacles and setbacks and keep going and keep going and keep going.


In recent years one of the great narratives of scripture that speaks deeply into the ongoing need for reform of both society and the church has sadly become something of a dirty word in Anglican circles. I am referring to the C word! Covenant. Within our church we have become guilty of using and abusing that term. It now carries with it connotations of oppression and enslavement which is exactly the opposite of what covenant means in the biblical context.


To understand this more fully we need to first consider the covenant established between God and the Israelites at Mt Sinai. The covenant expressed through the Ten Commandments was forged in the shadow of Egypt. The Israelites’ experience of Egypt was one of enslavement. Their reality had been one of producing wealth for a powerful elite while barely having the necessities of life. In this context the covenant of Sinai is a radical alternative to the literal practice of slavery. The intention of the covenant is to create and preserve hard won freedom. The Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann describes the alternative covenantal society as a neighbourhood. 


This mornings reading from the book of Jeremiah is a potent reminder that despite the lofty intentions of the covenant at Sinai it remains incredibly easy for humans to slip back into the pattern of slavery. The Israelites constantly slipped back into social structures that recreated the experience of slavery for some. In our time the church remains silent about the state of our economy despite our knowledge that the gap between rich and poor continues to increase. Let me say that another way. It is hard for the church to articulate alternatives to the unjust structures of society when those structures are part of our everyday lives. 


The intention of covenant is to reject that which enslaves us. Covenant is about liberating all of the people of God to encounter God in new ways. Yet within the community of faith, time and time again, we slip back into habits that serve some and enslave others. Some of you will know what it is like to have other members of the Christian family criticise you for holding beliefs that differ from theirs. Sometimes such criticism is overt. Sometimes it is simply implied. Even in our church it is hard to go against the flow.


At the beginning of Lent I found myself at a workshop regarding Lenten resources and practices. In recent years I have found that much of the traditional thinking surrounding the season of Lent leaves me cold. When I gave voice to these thoughts and feelings I found that no one was prepared to listen. My desire to experience Lent in a new way was deemed to be threatening by others and suddenly it became clear that my contribution held little value.


The notion that there is only one truth, one level of understanding, one dominant narrative that must be adhered to is to enslave God’s people. Theological or liturgical constructs can become idols of the church. When we get wrapped up in defending any belief or practice, be it liberal or conservative, we rapidly loose sight of God.


In considering my personal struggle with dominant Lenten traditions I found myself asking another question. What are we able to do when confronted with the bad theology of Lent and Easter? Firstly I need to address my assertion that the dominant theological narratives of Lent and Easter are bad. What I am saying is that at this point in my faith journey, I find much of that narrative to be life draining rather than life affirming.


To give you a quick example. One of the collects for next Sunday in the New Zealand Prayer Book begins with the words: Almighty and everliving God, in your tender love towards us you sent your Son to take our nature upon him, and to suffer death upon the cross. This prayer quite happily assumes that because Jesus died on the cross, it was always God’s intent that he would die on the cross. That unhelpful idea, which is frequently articulated through the dominant narrative of the church, is a logical fallacy.


In reading the Gospel of John we must take into account the context out of which that Gospel tradition emerged. In the years following the execution of Jesus, the resurrection narratives grew and developed. By the time the Gospel of John was being written those traditions in part, became assumptions. A key assumption of the Gospel of John was that because the early Christian community had found new freedom through the events of the first Easter, that God must have intended for that to happen. This flawed logic is known as a fallacy of false cause. The Gospel of John suggests that because Jesus died on the cross that God intended for Christ to die in that way. 


Within our tradition there are many ways of understanding the events of Good Friday. For me I see only the depths of human misery. Good Friday calls to mind the dark places in the world where torture and brutality continues to destroy lives. I cannot say prayers that speak of the crucified Jesus stretching out his arms with love. For me such words devalue the suffering and injustice experienced through this bitterly cruel execution. And yet the notion of Christ as atoning sacrifice continues to characterise most Christian thought regarding the cross. 


It is interesting to note that in the Didache, a first century text that explains early Christian practice, that there is no mention of a sacrificial understanding of the cross in the Eucharistic prayers of that time. All of the Eucharistic prayers found in our New Zealand Prayer Book make explicit reference to the saving work of Christ on the cross. When General Synod has been presented with the opportunity to authorise forms of the Eucharist that omit such that understanding or offer alternative understandings, they have been reluctant to do so.


As I understand it, progressive Christianity is a movement that seeks to move us beyond the assumptions of the church that serve some, but not all. There are many Christians who long for creative alternatives to the dominant narratives. To boldly offer new or different thinking is to challenge the dominant narratives and critiques those ideas which threaten to drag the church into idolatry. Creative alternatives also serve to expand the boundaries of this church allowing others the freedom to explore the greater reality, which is God. When Christ summarised the first four of the Ten Commandments with the words, “Love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength” he was affirming the need for theological creativity.


As Progressive Christians our goal in exploring the creative understandings of the divine cannot be a self-serving means to an end. Our journey with God is a gift not for ourselves but for our church as a whole. Our challenge is to continue to share our thoughts, feelings and experiences of God with the entire church. In doing so the purpose is not to simply subvert the dominant narrative, but rather to expand and enrich it. 


May the members of this community continue to go against the flow, to challenge assumptions, and to make room for those who find membership in the body of Christ challenging.

One Father to Rule Them All... One Liturgy to Bind Them All

March 18, 2012

Glynn Cardy

Lent 4

Video available on YouTube, Facebook


Tolkien’s epic, Lord of the Rings, contains a mantra that speaks of centralized power vested in the one ring [‘One ring to rule them all’]. The epic hinges on the quest to destroy it, and the little feisty, unorthodox hobbits do the job. 


Centralization afflicts many political systems, not least the Church. Into Tolkien’s mantra I have substituted ‘ring’ with ‘Father’, ‘Faith’, and ‘liturgy’:


One Father to rule them all,

One Faith to find them,

One Liturgy to bring them all

and in the darkness bind them. [i]


Let’s rejoice in the ministry of hobbits!


Behind every service of worship there are three inter-related questions: what is God, where is God, and what does God do? Although some churches offer pat answers, these questions for many of us are invitations into a lifetime of searching, occasionally being found and frequently getting lost. 


Most Christian answers to ‘what is God?’ fall within three categories. Firstly there is the metaphor of God as an all-powerful Father. This metaphor has become so dominant that I call it the ‘golden calf’ of Christianity. In our desire to imitate prayers of the past, or have God cloaked in familial language, or be dependent upon an omnipotent parent, we have created an idol out of a metaphor. It is this idol that atheists love to critique and laugh at; and so they should.


Secondly there is the ambiguous and challenging metaphor of God as Trinity – one yet three. This is usually portrayed as three lordly beings: the dominant Father, the post-Easter Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. In simplistic language the metaphor alleges that the ‘Father Almighty’ sent Jesus ‘down’ and then ‘raised’ him up, and both [ii] send the Spirit who remains with us earthlings. 


Although I say ‘simplistic’ this is the language that still pervades the New Zealand Anglican Prayer Book. While there is some avoidance of emphasizing the maleness of God [especially in the third Eucharistic liturgy], there is no corrective offered – like using female/feminine metaphors.


Apart from gendering God, the problem is making God into a being, or in this case three beings. A heavenly power-packed triumvirate limits and belittles sacredness.


Last there are those who understand the Trinity metaphor quite differently. Rather than three beings, it is the inter-relationship which reveals God. It is the life, love, generosity and laughter that is God, not a group of beings. God is the between-ness. God literally is that love shown by Jesus - a love that is transformative and life-giving.


To the question ‘where is God?’ the first two answers to ‘what is God?’ locate God as removed from us. God is essentially ‘up’ or ‘beyond’. Jesus might have come ‘down’ but now he’s gone ‘up’. The Holy Spirit might reside in us but the locus of the God-head is in heaven, which is certainly not here. The third answer however has God grounded in us, in our relationships, in the poverty and oppression of human greed and human need. God is in the smiles, the tears, and the little deeds. 


To the question ‘what does God do?’ the first two answers have God in the saving business. Some Christians think of ‘saving’ to be like an American celebrity adopting a child from the Afr