Lynette and I discovered early on that we couldn’t travel around Europe without seeing a lot of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Frescoes, paintings, and statues of her image were everywhere, except on billboards. Then there were countless cathedrals, churches and chapels named in her honour. But poor Joseph was rarely to be found. Of course, this is true in the Christmas story as well. He barely gets mentioned in Luke and Matthew, and then only in a small supporting role. He is just talked about. Just as a billboard a few years ago noted, for him, God is a hard act to follow. Today’s reading makes clear just how hard.
In our story today he is betrothed, which at the time had all the responsibilities of marriage, without the fun of intimacy. Behind the scenes of our story I imagine Mary and Joseph are at the stage of picking out china patterns. Mary wants to know if he will wear a tie and cumber bun that matches the bridesmaid’s dress at the wedding. Like grooms everywhere he has figured out that his role is mostly to nod in agreement. The Rabbi and the organist are lined up. The bachelor party is surreptitiously being planned. Everything is going according to the wedding consultant’s checklist, when Mary, green with morning sickness, shares the unthinkable. His life crumbles: his trust betrayed, his future undone; his gut in knots. He isn’t responsible for Mary’s unplanned, unforgivable, indefensible, inexcusable condition. His dreams for the future have been destroyed. He wants to ask, “How did this happen?” But he doesn’t really want to know. Knowing won’t keep his work mates from laughing and saying, “Joseph, you sly dog.” He decides there is only one thing to do. Break off the betrothal quietly. The only other option is publicly stating the child is not his, but that would condemn her to death under the law. It would protect his reputation as a righteous man, but at too high a price.
When people ask, he will just tell them, “The marriage just wasn’t going to work out.” He’ll try to put all this behind him quickly, get on with his life and let Mary get on with hers. He will find a safer, more manageable, predictable wife, for Joseph is a cautious man as well as righteous. He is well suited to his trade. Carpenters aren’t exactly thrill seekers. “Measure twice; cut once” is the rule. All the excitement he needs is making a table or a chair patiently and meticulously according to plan.
But then there was that dream. Best to let it fade back into the unconsciousness or wherever it came from and forget it. Put it in the “Too hard” basket. Never mind that the messenger was an angel, the message itself is a flight of fancy. God and nature don’t work that way. The Holy Spirit is responsible. Yeah, right! And even if that is the way it happened, how likely is it that a baby born to an unwed teenage peasant living in a backwater village is Isaiah’s Immanuel, the new David who will rescue Israel from her powerful oppressors? If the dream is true, God is clearly rewriting the rules and God doesn’t work that way. God’s rules are written in stone. Not following them is not an option, just ask the priests. Marrying her based on the whispers of an angel and enduring the mocking by those who count the number of months between the wedding and the child’s birth is clearly outside the rules. What is God doing?
Having rules and following them are clearly important to us as social beings. They give us at least the illusion of a firm foundation upon which to tread in a world that is often as unpredictable as walking through a swamp. Plato described our species as a “featherless biped.” Another definition could be “habitual rule makers.”
I got a reminder of how true this is at the recent Living Wage workshop I attended. Participants were give an account of negotiations between representatives of the ancient Athenian empire and the city-state of Melos, which was the only island not affiliated with the empire. Athens sent a mighty show of force against the island but then tried to convince the Melians to see reason and submit to Athens so as to save their city and people from destruction. History tells us it didn’t go well. Having rejected Athens olive branch Melos was later destroyed and her people exiled into slavery.
Based on this account the participants were selected to be either Athenians or Melians and put into small negotiating teams. The facilitator told us there was only one rule: “There are no rules.”
Half way through the negotiations the facilitator told us to change sides. We did. During one negotiation she told a participant to leave the group. He did. We did and he did in spite of the “there are no rules” rule. We didn’t have to but true to our rule making and following nature we imposed on ourselves the rule of doing what the authority in the room told us.
Even worse, in retrospect, we imposed our personal rules of honour, scepticism, and high principles on the negotiations. There were three different sets of negotiations tried with three different teams of participants. All three failed to prevent the historic tragedy.
Rules may have their uses, but clearly they can also be the seeds of our destruction and even worse they are often a straightjacket for our imagination.
The night before I began writing this sermon I received a gift of synchronicity that made clear how true this is. No, it wasn’t a dream, but a passage in my bedtime reading. It is a book, entitled ironically enough, An Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. It is the second of a trilogy that takes place in Barcelona at the beginning of the 20th century. Each is about a writer trying to practice his art. In each, fiction and life become indistinguishable from the other, shaping and leading the other to an unexpected conclusion. In the second book the protagonist is commissioned by an angelic or perhaps demonic figure to write a narrative on which to create a religion, for the angel/demon explains that all beliefs begin as story. At the point where I was ready to put the book down and turn out the light, the writer, a nonbeliever in anything, is ploughing through theological treatises in a seminary library trying to get to the root of all religions.
He has a conversation about what he has learned with the librarian.
He tells her “that, generally speaking, beliefs arise from an event or character that may or may not be authentic and rapidly evolve into social movements that are conditioned and shaped by the political, economic and societal circumstances of the group that accepts them. Are you still awake?” (he asked.)
The librarian nodded.
He goes on to say that the story that began the religion gets taken over by those who become its interpreters and who then make it a doctrine around which liturgy, taboos and rules are generated in the name of the common good. “To this end,” he concludes, “they establish a powerful and potentially repressive organization… This transforms the doctrine into a means of achieving control and political power. Divisions, wars, and breakups become inevitable. Sooner or later, the word becomes flesh, and the flesh bleeds.” (pp. 221-222)
At this point, I turned out the light, afraid to read more, hoping for a dreamless sleep.
I awoke to feeling haunted by my own role in an institution that imposes rules that often maintain the status quo through a self-serving interpretation of our faith story. I woke up thinking it is time for metanoia. It is a Greek word that we often translate as repentance or “to turn around.” But that is the church’s interpretation. If we look at a literal translation it means something more radical. “Meta” means “beyond” or “outside.” The second part of the word, “noia” come from the Greek word for mind. So the Greeks understood metanoia as thinking outside the box. In Joseph’s case, a box made of rules.
We are inclined to read Matthew’s story of Joseph’s dream as support for the church’s doctrine of the Virgin Birth. In another age we might not have had a problem with it, but now we know too much about biology, so we reject the story with the doctrine. When we do, we lose the truth in Matthew’s story. Matthew didn’t know the Virgin Birth from the Immaculate Conception. He was trying through Joseph’s own transformation from rule-keeper to rule-breaker to say even God breaks the rules for a higher purpose.
Our sentence of the day from Buckminster Fuller captures what the story is really about, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change things build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete." That was what Matthew thought God was doing in the birth of Jesus. Joseph loves Mary more than the rules, more than his own reputation, more than his own righteousness. Love is not the servant of the Law. The story pre-shadows the purpose of Jesus’ ministry to offer a new model of being. One that breaks the rules of the established order. May it give us the faith to question, challenge and reject, if necessary, rules that support a worldview where power and control; wealth and status are more important than love. Nothing will change until we do. May the Spirit conceive in us this Advent the ability to bear love into the world, no matter how scandalous. May each of us give caution to the wind. In nine months may we find our selves knee deep breaking rules for peace or protecting the environment or clamouring for justice for the marginalised or implementing a living wage or protecting the vulnerable from violence or seeking prison reform or however that love can be best expressed through you. It is time to stop measuring and start cutting.
It's the third Sunday in Advent, Nelson Mandela is to be buried today, and I don't know why I am standing here talking to you. It feels quite the wrong place to be, for me, today. I keep hearing Archbishop Desmond Tutu's words: Tell the world, show the world that we can (live Mandela's dream)... He uttered this challenge during his address at the Memorial Service For Nelson Mandela. What do I tell you that you don't already know? And to show you anything you would have to leave this beautiful building.
Last week I left the building wanting to 'scream and shout and let it all out' - as my great niece is wont to say at times when anger and frustration rise in her. I heard Bishop John remind us that 'the axe was at the root of the tree' ; that there was no time to waste in getting stuff our sorted. But, like good Christians on a Sunday, we were quietly enjoying the beauty of the building, the beautifully modulated sound of controlled voices reading and praying, and of course, for us, the capacity to luxuriate in the glory of the music. I loved it all ... but gradually the feeling I should be doing something grew.
I should be 'Putting my body on the line' somewhere, as we were challenged to do back in the 70's and 80's in the days of protest when the tangata whenua would confront us weekly with "don't tell me what you are going to do, show me!" or "walk the talk". I was feeling discombobulated by the stillness and the expectant waiting that is Advent.
This week the Gospel reading catches up something of that sense frustration and the need to be doing something that I experienced last week.
John the Baptist demands from prison that Jesus explain himself ... (he must have been frustrated being in prison and out of the action that was beginning to unfold as Jesus ministry, so different from his own began to take shape).
Jesus, with some sharpness it seems to me, tells the messengers from John to go back and tell John what they were seeing! and then,
Matthew reports that Jesus continues with a bit of a tell off, saying that those who don't take offense at the healing, the life-giving activity that they see, will be blessed!
(We know from later stories that there were those who were annoyed with Jesus' healing and feeding and life-enhancing activities. So annoyed that, eventually, they killed him.)
It seems Jesus was keen to get on with what needed to be done, he was 'doing what needed to be done' to begin a process of change in people's lives. The links between Jesus ministry and the prophet Isaiah are clear as we hear the two readings side by side, and the images Matthew uses to tell us about Jesus ministry activity resonate with those from the prophet that describe the transformation of the wilderness and the transformation of those who are 'saved': who work for righteousness.
Matthew is at pains to convince his hearers that Jesus was the one they had been waiting for, the one that would bring about a transformation in the world they knew - Jesus, the Messiah, the transforming one has come!
"'Don't tell me, show me' the saving work of justice making", was the challenge that have motivated thousands to join protests and sign petitions to bring about justice-making change.' Tell him what you see' says Jesus to John's messengers: Tell him the blind see, the lame walk, the outcasts are included, and those who have lost hope are enlivened!
How can this be anything but 'good-news'?
Jesus turns again as the message-carriers go back to John; he turns to the crowd, and accusingly quizzes them: "What did you go into the wilderness to look at? What then did you go out to see - a reed shaken in the wind, soft robes?"
Those questions cut right to my heart when I read about report after report on child-poverty, on inadequate wages, on the lack of social-housing (including for the elderly), on the disproportionate numbers of Maori in prison, and on women raped and abused by those whom they know, and children by those charged with their care. What do we expect to see when we look about at our community, at our city and land?
We don't need to go and look at them over and over again in the wilderness we have created for them, but we do need transforming action.
We don't need to be told over and over how dreadful life is for some, but
We do need you and me to be concerned, to be saying 'no more', to be calling a halt to abuse and exploitation of people and land.
We do need you and me to demand, and be prepared to take action, to dismantle the insidious network of attitudes and behaviours and expectations, that push members of our society to the places of wilderness.
Our little country was laughed at when we refused hospitality to nuclear ships and submarine; we said 'no' and we took action, and many put their bodies on the line. We stopped those war-ships endangering our cities and we added weight to a world movement.
Mandela and those of the ANC put their bodies on the line for justice and were imprisoned, silenced - so the power-holders of the day thought.
Anti-apartheid protesters acting in solidarity in this country were jeered at, and held in contempt by many;
Waitangi protesters demanding the Treaty be honoured and end to racism here, were ridiculed and imprisoned.
Those who want to save whales and stop deep sea oil-drilling, who want to the stop further deforestation and pollution of our land are often marginalised and laughed at.
Those who demand a Living Wage are dismissed as unrealistic.
But change happens, and now these are concerns are hallmarks of our national identity that we are learning to guard.
On this third Sunday of Advent, this third Sunday of preparation for the Christmas celebration of life and hope, I want to paraphrase Jesus' question "what are you looking for, what do you expect to see?"
If life and hope is to come to the wilderness places that are to be found amongst our neighbours, and if the dessert places in our communities are to blossom abundantly, we will need to ask ourselves what we expect to see; and what story we will tell of life and hope in our land.
As Christmas rapidly approaches, and we wait expectantly for life and hope to born anew amongst us, be assured of this, for this I do know: we are expected to walk the talk! Those who look at 'we who proclaim the good-news of God's loving ways', expect to see what we do, not just hear what we say.
You might well wonder what on earth we’re doing here on this Sunday morning, listening to a story about a fellow dressed in camel hair, surviving in the desert on a diet of locusts and wild honey. It’s the stuff of TV reality shows, Bear Grills would eat him him for his Survival in the Wild series. Bear Grills eats anything.
But camel hair coats? That’s what nice girls from church schools and good families used to wear with pearls and pigskin gloves. And smart young male executives, with a paisley scarf.
This is a culturally dislocating passage of Scripture, hard to market three weeks before Christmas. A smart church would skip over it and find something more suitable for the season.
Unfortunately, we don’t have the luxury of leaving out the bits of the Jesus story that don’t fit our profile. There is a good reason for every passage appointed for every Sunday and every season. And Advent would not be complete without this rampaging, noisy firebrand of a prophet called John the Baptist.
He comes out of nowhere in the gospel, we know little about him up front, but there is a well buried back story behind this man. He may well have been linked to the Qumran Community: monastic, hard core, devout. He certainly had many followers of his own and Jesus clearly knew him and respected him. Herod the puppet Jewish king in the pay of the Roman Empire, was terrified of him and had him executed.
And the Pharisees and Sadducees, the politically important and morally righteous religious leaders of the day, couldn’t stand him. Understandably so. If someone denounced you as a snake and a fraud in front of a crowd, what would you think of him? These days he’d be facing more defamation suits than he had hot dinners, not that he had many hot dinners.
We don’t know much about John but we know he is so pivotal to the Jesus story that he gets pride of place in the first chapters, in Matthews gospel, right up there after the birth in Bethlehem and wise men coming. So why is his message so important?
For a start, it’s all part of this Advent exercise in preparing us for the coming of the Christ child and raising our expectations of what this might mean, breaking us out of our routine keeping on keeping on.
What John promises, just as Isaiah did eight centuries before him, and Elijah did later (John was believed by many to be the new Elijah) is that this messiah figure would literally reorder the landscape. Raise the temple mountain in Jerusalem, as Isaiah vowed last week, and cut a highway through the desert as John promises will happen this week. These are engineering jobs that make the new northern motorway or Waterview tunnel look like child’s play.
Now as it happens the height of the hills in Jerusalem haven’t changed much, and desert highways are still in short supply, but these are metaphors not blueprints, to shake us into awareness of how huge a change is coming in our spiritual landscape.
And whereas earlier Advent readings point us to the future God holds for us, this story is about how to engage in the present, how we might live now in order to enjoy that future assurance.
John shows us a way to meet God here and now. Step by step.
Assume nothing. Whatever privilege you have been given, whatever background you take for granted, even if you have earned rather than simply inherit it, whatever rights you claim because of what you own or where you went to school, or live or work, or most of all because of what you believe, don’t count on any of that giving you a head start when it comes to meeting God.
And if that sounds tough, then imagine how the Pharisees felt when John says to them, after they had spent lifetimes praying and practising and studying the faith, sorry boys, don’t presume all this counts for anything.
You claim to be the chosen ones, Abrahams ancestor’s, well let me tell you, God can replace you in the blink of an eye from the stones beneath my feet.
The Advent journey begins by discarding all the notions that we have of any inside track, any privileged place, any special advantages over others in the search for God.
We start with empty hands, the emptier the “betterer”, and we ask God to fill them in whatever way God chooses.
And starting empty handed, John then tells us to be open to a change of heart, a spring clean. The building is going to get one of those next Saturday morning at 9am (volunteeers still needed) but we each need one as well. Letting go the things that hold us back from each other and from God, the old resentments, the over stewed anxieties about ourselves and how well we’re accepted, the stereotypes we hold to keep people who are not like us, don’t like us, at a distance, the self protections we wear like layers of clothing to ensure our advantage. The old word for that is repent, it simply means a willingness to turn around.
It’s hard to do that alone, so we usually need someone to turn us around through their example or inspiration. It can be a person like John who acts as a circuit breaker to our complacency with ourselves. These change agents are hard to find, and when we do find them they are often uncomfortable, difficult people that you wouldn’t want to live with for too long. James K Baxter was such a person, and I could add a number of artists, teachers, writers, monks and nuns that I was greatly indebted to meet and glad to say goodbye to, such was their intensity.
It can be a moment that literally comes out of the blue, an epiphany awakening through a snatch of music or dialogue, a dazzling image, a sudden silence in which we find something beyond words.
However these turn around prompts arrive, they open up new territory. John the Baptist tells us to take advantage of these times and use them to do good, fill these spaces with something worthwhile.
The metaphor of bearing fruit while you can, even when the ax is lying at the root of the tree, is a call to revel in the urgency of the present time, filled as it is with opportunity and new beginnings. It is not too late, regardless of how self absorbed and complacent we might have been.
When John tells us the Kingdom of Heaven is near, he is saying the present is drenched full, saturated with potency and possibility for new life, renewed relationships, the chance to start over again.
Albert Eistein tells us there are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle, the other is as though everything is a miracle.
There is no question which option Advent is calling us to take.
This Advent turning around is not only about what we do for others and for ourselves, it’s equally about how we see others and ourselves and the world around us. This is a season for pushing out horizons and expanding visions. Few poets in the English language captured that better than Gerard Manly Hopkins, a Jesuit priest who lived a fairly tortured life but was able to see the potency and possibility of creation with great clarity, in the smallest details. Do you know his poem Pied Beauty?
Glory be to God for dappled things
For skies of couple colour as a brinded cow
Fresh fire coal… finches wings
Landscape plotted and pieced
All trades, their gear and tackle and trim
All things counter, original, spare strange,
Whatever is fickle, freckles (who knows how)
Advent is a season for reclaiming that kind of way of seeing the world
And finding God waiting for us in everything
Swift, slow, sweet, sour, adazzle, dim.
This can happen when we least expect it or are least prepared for it.
But it can also happen when we trust stories like this morning’s gospel and figures like John the Baptist to prompt us into pausing, taking stock, repenting.
Letting ourselves be turned around to see again the luminosity of the world and the potency of what we could be, what our relationships could be, what this community of St Matthews could be if we really were open to let God work in us and through us.
Have you heard about the darkness park in the South Island’s McKenzie Country? Centred on Lake Tekapo and the Mt John Observatory, there is now an International Dark Sky Reserve across that region where light pollution of any kind is kept to a minimum at night so that visitors, who come in their tens of thousands, can see the sky and the stars more vividly than almost anywhere else in the world. Visible there like few other places are meteor showers and aurorae and zodiac lights, and all the other wonders we know are out there but rarely take the time or know how to look for.
As a place for turning around to get ready for the coming of the Christ child, and the opening of the heavens and the hearing of the angels singing, I couldn’t imagine a better place to be. And even if we can’t get down there this season, we might continue this Advent journey by looking up at the night sky tonight and to think again what it might mean to say the Kingdom of God is near.
The Advent season readings are a call to live fully in the present, doing what we can to make the best of it, but always with the expectation that the future will be beyond anything we can imagine or desire.
The great tide of Christmas consumerism is already rolling in. The tinsel stars have been twinkling in the Warehouse and the Farmers for over a month now, and the countdown of shopping days is ticking ever louder. A Lady Gaga fragrance pack for under $50 in honour of the season.
Your human worth as a lover, parent, friend is on the line.
If you haven’t bought all your presents in time, you will not be forgiven. Christmas peace is conditional on Christmas spending.
Against this tide, there runs another current, not so well advertised, harder to see and hear. It’s there in the music we have in church and in concerts like The Messiah; it peeps out in the Advent calendars children enjoy, window by window; it echoes in some of the popular songs of the season that fill the air waves – wistful, retrospective, longing for lost childhoods and dreams long broken - what might have been, what still could be.
This Advent current is a mixed blessing for retailers who never use it as marketing point. It slows Christmas coming, it invites us to pause before we spend, to stop and wonder. It’s a current that runs on impossible promises and the greatest expectations, that looks ahead to some future time when what seems impossible now might still happen. This Advent current is hard to sell, though the movie of Lloyd Jones’ novel Mr Pip, does it brilliantly. A washed up old schoolteacher, with no books but Charles Dickens Great Expectations, uses the story to give hope and new life to a desolated village in Bouganville during the civil war.
Biblically the Advent readings run along two tracks. One is about judgement and catastrophe and apocalyptic doom and the rapture where I’ll be plucked up into the air and you, standing next to me will be left.
Clay preached on those texts which are repeated today in the new lectionary for the church’s year that begins today, repeated just in case we overlook them. Clay showed us how embedded that tradition is in our Judeo Christian heritage, and how unenthusiastic Jesus was about trying to second guess or fixate on those texts.
But they will go on getting more attention than they deserve, not least because Russell Crowe is about to launch a movie where he plays Noah battling the Great Flood in 3D and surround sound.
The Advent current takes another track in readings that see the future more filled with promise than doom. The prophet Isaiah is a primary source of this current and his vision resonates through so much Advent music.
Isaiah’s vision was born in the eighth century before Christ at a time when Israel and Judah were besieged on all sides at least as desperate as our present as our present day calamities; the typhoons and suicide bombers, destruction of rain forests and the sea bed, climate change and wars and water pollution. We don’t have to wait for the apocalypse. If you live in Syria or the Philipinnes or the sub Sahara or northern Uganda, if you’re an Anglican parishioner of All Saints Peshawar in Pakistan where 300 were killed or injured by a suicide bomber last week, its already here.
And yet, despite those nightmares of apocalypse now, we read these Isaiah promises of redemption on this Advent Sunday and dare to believe they might be true, through a glass darkly now, but one day face to face in all their fullness.
And just what are these promises? They are all about a passion for justice and peace that God intends all people to enjoy, those we call enemies as well as friends; a vision of a world caught up in the shalom of God.
The prophet Micah uses the same words as Isaiah but adds a verse of his own about the future God intends – where everyone will find rest beneath their own fig tree or grape vine.
Let’s look more carefully at these promises.
This is not an apocalyptic vision that comes from above, dropping down from the heavens disembodied and swooping us up and away, a spirituality that thrives when its disconnected from the everyday and the ordinary, that has to have its feet three feet above the ground, close encounters of a third kind.
Isaiah offers a very different vision. He’s talking about something that comes up from below, that is forged from the raw material of our humanity and our history, that belongs in our very local landscape.
The flow of this Advent season is from the bottom up, very diverse people walking upward together against the tide of fear and superstition and the tyranny of greedy empires and unregulated market places. And they’re heading towards an impossible hilltop.
In Jerusalem the highest hill is the mount of Olives. The temple mount is 100 feet below. But in this vision it becomes the highest mountain, the geography transformed by this justice driven, peace seeking flow of divine energy that reshapes the old war torn landscape.
This new place that makes room for all peoples will be a peaceable kingdom where the tools of war become the instruments of gardening and harvesting. Outside the UN headquarters in New York there is a magnificent statue depicting this verse, a worker stretching every muscle in the effort it takes to transform weapons of death into ploughshares for life. Ironically the statue was given by the old Soviet Union at the height of the communist empire.
This peace God promises is hammered out of the contradictions and corruptions of our life, it relies on ordinary people to make extraordinary efforts to find common ground, friends and enemies alike. The vision of a peaceable kingdom only happens when we make space and find respect for the people we can’t stand, who are not like us. This has to start with us. In the words of our own liturgy:
We know that we are the ones who are divided and that we are the ones who must come back together.
It has to start with Christians in Dunedin welcoming the new centre for Muslims, with Israel and Iran finding common ground on nuclear energy, with restorative justice becoming more than an optional extra in our court system.
A peaceable kingdom and a teachable kingdom. This is a vision about willingness to learn from and listen to each other. Last Sunday we celebrated the legacy of our bicultural church and nation, a legacy laden with two peoples talking past each other, deaf ears to the cry of the dispossessed, unless you speak my language I won’t listen. Isaiah’s vision is one where Israelites have to engage with Canaanites and Babylonians and Arameans and all the people they love to hate.
But the hardest feature about this vision that will let us one day rest under our own fig tree, or grape vine, in a house of our own when we all find a way to afford to buy one; the hardest feature is the requirement to live with a double focus on both present and future.
There is no skill in being preoccupied with our present reality, especially when it weighs heavy, as it does. The challenge, and it is a holy challenge because we can’t manage it alone, is to grasp hold of that future time, way, way ahead perhaps, when the glimpses we have now of whatever is peaceful and good and honourable will flourish and blossom in all their fullness.
Dare to hold onto that vision, even in the hardest times now, just as the slaves in Mississippi did when they sang “ain’t going to study war no more, down by the riverside”; as the children of Parihaka did when they picnicked and sang in front of the cavalry troops waiting to ransack the village and arrest the peacemakers Te Whiti and Tohu.
Learn to be the people with double vision; trusting in a God who is in our midst in the worst of times, and a God who holds a future open for us that will be the best of times.
Dare to believe that is possible. Dare to live with great expectations.
That’s the call of this Advent season. To trust that that our present time is threaded through with strands of a future beyond our imagining.
One of the hardest confessions I’ve had to hear came from a South African immigrant who came to talk to me after I’d been speaking one evening on the subject of Kiwi identity.
I don’t what to sound like a whiner, he began, but I ‘ve been in this country for 30 years trying to belong, and I still feel like an exile. I don’t connect with the country I left behind, and I don’t connect with this place where I live and work. All this Kiwi identity stuff, relating to Maori as the people of the land, let alone trying to be Pakeha, leaves me cold. I thought you should know that. Have a nice evening.
He wasn’t whining, not even complaining, but simply resigning. He had given up on belonging here, and I felt powerless to say anything useful, having just spent the last hour singing the praises of being Kiwi, living inbetween the cultures we brought with us, 200 years ago, more or less, and the culture we found here that welcomed us and fed us, signed a treaty with us, intermarried with us, fought wars both against and with us, founded a church with us, and in the process redefined who “us” is, redefining New Zealander from an indigensous word to a hyphenated word, so that we can no longer speak of being simply or only Maori or Pakeha again.
The hyphen defines our existence as New Zealanders. We have become a people who rely on the art of being inbetween, the both - and culture, shaped by the tangata whenua, the people of the land whose story is Polynesian and Pacific, and equally though not always justly by the manuhiri, the people who came here later as visitors and stayed on as tangata tiriti, the people of the Treaty, from Europe and now Asia and Africa as well.
That hyphenated way of living and being is very obvious if you live in Kaitaia, or Gisborne, or even Pakiri. But it’s not always so obvious in Auckland central, and its almost invisible in the grey and white landscape of Herne Bay.
Which doesn’t make it any less true.
In that marvellous poem by Glenn Colquhoun, he catches the essence of our bicultural life and landscape and history in the glimpses we take for granted and can’t see for looking.
The statue in the park alongside the carved wooden face.
The fish on a plate with a wedge of lemon
and the rattle of cockles boiling in a pot,
Sleeping between clean sheets in a bed
And in the soft gaps between bodies on the floor of a marae.
When Pakeha die, do they also make the long walk to the cape up north.
These are all clues to the trick of standing upright here,
Walking with feet in both cultures.
They are subtle, pervasive, often invisible and unacknowledged, but no less powerful clues to who we are and where we belong and what forms us body and soul.
It’s a volatile chemistry and an amalgam of mystery, much derided and denied. Pakeha courted the Maori and romanticised them as an exotic but dying race, then suppressed them when they survived and asked for respect and justice. Later, Maori had to become token Europeans and stop speaking Te Reo in order to get on. Even now the struggle for shared equity and mutual respect continues. Just this last month we see the mental health system struggling to cope with Maori patients deemed to be more “aggressive” than Pakeha, and Ngati Tuwharetoa vindicated by a report that shows they never agreed to gifting the land to the Crown for the Tongariro National Park.
The struggles continue and the treaty settlement process helps enormously but the only place to understand what’s happening is in the middle of the mystery, as hyphenated people.
Some choose not to identify in this way. Simon Bridges, Minister of Energy and Resources, says he is not a Maori, nor is he a Pakeha. He’s a New Zealander, which is the word once used exclusively for Maori.
That’s a familiar position for people who don’t want to deal with the chemistry of being bicultural in the hope we can grow out of it. If you’re healthy and wealthy and the sun is shining for you, then you can probably get away with that sort of denial.
But if you want to engage with the roots of historic injustice and deprivation, then its hard to claim to be neither one thing nor the other.
Sir Paul Reeves, who claimed his Maori side much later in life, once told me he had to make a choice, to go where the call was loudest and the need most urgent, and while that didn’t mean he denied his Pakeha heritage, he did become an advocate and owner of his Maoriness, and the results of that are his legacy, especially in the reconciliation achieved in Taranaki.
You can avoid this debate of course and try to stand upright alone. The poet Allen Curnow who coined the phrase, imagined one day New Zealanders will be able to stand up for themselves, as it were, but not yet, Perhaps some child, born in a marvellous year. I don’t think Simon Bridges is that child.
If that child is Maori and Pakeha, I think he or she will need to be able to claim both cultures with pride. That would be a marvellous year.
I wish I could say Anglicans are able to lead the way on this bicultural belonging and standing.
Because along with our Methodist colleagues, we’ve led the way in coming to terms with our bicultural history.
We started well, from 1814 (with Marsden and Ruatara), then slipped and fell (in the land wars of the 1860’s), then fumbled along for nearly a hundred years with the issue of whether Maori should be allowed to have their own leadership, and painfully, slowly and then finally in 1992 agreed to a new constitution that gave full recognition, partnership and respect to each tikanga or cultural pathway.
The constitution is called Te Pouhere, the mooring post, and it’s to this single standard that all our canoes are tied: Maori, Pakeha, Pacifika, conservative, progressive, not much of anything, and everything.
As Anglicans we can avoid or disagree on most things. The creeds, the virgin birth, why Jesus died, who wrote the Bible.
What we can’t get away from, even if we wanted to, is that the Anglican Church of Aotearoa New Zealand is a bicultural church, that began as Te Hahi Mihinare, the missionary church, founded and spread from the very first morning in 1814 by Pakeha missionaries and Maori evangelists, now established in every village and marae in the land, with more branch offices than NZ Post, which is no longer much of a compliment, preaching the good news and singing the songs and speaking the cadences of a gospel that is rooted in the soil and the sea and the sounds and colours of this place like no other place. A gospel that helps us know who we are as women and men made in the image of God with a place to stand and a story to tell and a faith to share.
And how does that gospel grow here in Aotearoa?
Well it’s got something to do with people like us who inherit this Anglican bicultural story: in the hope we can do better at building a country that provides justice and partnership for all its peoples in gratitude for what we have achieved together and it’s got something to do with God whose purpose is always to build justice and shalom for all peoples, and especially those who still have no justice, no peace.
This morning’s gospel describes that balance beautifully.
The farmer scatters seed and goes home to bed.
The seed grows – he knows not how, silently, mysteriously, in slow and hidden ways that are as much in spite of the farmer as they are because of him.,. even if he is slow and lazy and stupid.
But he does harvest the crop and enjoy its rewards.
And the seed can be tiny, so small it is lost and forgotten. Yet it produces a tree that gives shelter and food for many.
These are parables about the kingdom of God, the commonwealth of justice and shalom that God intends and is slowly, mysteriously, often invisibly coming in. The just reign of God that Jesus announced and symbolised and died for and continues to emerge because no force, no death can stop its coming.
In the story of the people of God called Te Hahi Mihinare, which for all its betrayals and about turns, has been a story of partnership and justice and liberation, from racism and colonialism and sexism and oppression of every kind, laden with splinters and glimpses of the new reign of God.
We have not managed to tell that story as well as we should. That South African man who talked to me hadn’t heard it though he’d been around Anglicans for years.
Next year is the 200th anniversary of this extraordinary experiment called Anglicanism in Aotearoa. The Christmas day service that began it all, led by a bad tempered missionary and a wary local chief, will be re-enacted.
My hope is that St Matthews and all Anglicans will reclaim that story in all its ambiguity and promise, and make it their own, and find the eyes of faith to read it through, as a story of how God works in our world, right here, right now.
I just can’t express how good it is for us to be back amongst you. It is like slipping back into our own skins. I just wish my first time back in this pulpit did not require me to speak to apocalyptic thinking.
As a progressive I find the language and imagery off-putting. It brings to mind last year’s hysteria about the Mayan calendar and Harold Campings billboard over our car park in 2011 predicting the world’s end on May 21st of that year. There is a long history of such predictions: In the 1970’s, Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth gave notice of an impending thermonuclear holocaust. 28 million copies of his book predicted the end of the world to come in the late 1980’s. In the nineteenth century, William Miller declared that Christ would return on March 21, 1843. In the thirteenth century, Franciscan monks used the calculations of Italian Joachim of Fiore to predict the end of the world in the year 1260. In the third century, prophetess Maximilla declared The End to be before her death. As I still have to preach on this subject today, all were apparently wrong.
My discomfort is only heightened by the notion of the Rapture, a special version of the Apocalypse that involves Christ hoovering up the saints to heaven leaving behind the rest of us to fend for ourselves against the great Satan. A successful Rapture to end the world requires lots of violence and judgment. But today’s Gospel is unrelenting, so I will soldier on.
While apocalyptic thinking does not only belong to the purview of the Judeo-Christian world, our scriptures are steeped in it. Apocalypticism reaches back to the earliest Christian writings by Paul. Fewer than twenty years after the death of Jesus, Paul declared Christ’s return in current lifetimes. I Thessalonians 4:17 reads: ”Then we who are left alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them (the deceased) to meet the Lord in the air.” Written about twenty years later, the Gospel of Mark credits Jesus as predicting the end of the age. Chapter 9:1: “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.” Chapter 13:30: “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” And in Mark 14:62, Jesus is credited with saying: “’you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power,’ and ‘coming with the clouds of heaven.’” This is echoed in Luke eight verses after today’s reading, “Then they will see the ‘Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory’” (Luke 21:27).
Liberation from suffering, the Exodus from slavery in Egypt, is the central story of Judaism. Although it was first written down by King David’s scribes around 1000 BCE, the stories and songs of liberation had long lived in oral tradition. King David had been able to unite disparate tribes into one people with that single story of glorious liberation. Like the Egyptian Pharaohs before him, King David built fortresses, a palace and temple by conscripted labor. The glory of King David’s reign mirrored the Egyptian empire; it’s monopoly of power, wealth and knowledge — militant, magnificent and brilliant by all measures.
Jewish prophets cried out against the monarchy’s trust in swords and chariots, their unjust treatment of the poor, the widow and orphan, and trust in their own wisdom. The Jewish kingdom’s utter defeat by Assyrians, then Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Syrians and Romans, slavery, exile and diaspora, did nothing to repudiate imperial injustice. Rather, the people’s longing for return to the glories of King David’s reign took shape as Jewish Apocalypticism, longing for the return of a warrior-king Messiah.
For Jews who had experienced generations of brutalization by empires, from Egyptian to Roman, the “end of the age” liberation could only be imagined as greater imperial power, led by a warrior-king like King David.
When Paul and the four gospel writers claimed that Jesus had been seen alive after his execution on the cross that was not so difficult to believe at the time. People had heard stories of the dead being raised to new life before. What was absolutely laughable to Jews expecting the apocaypse, was their claim that this peasant who was hanged on a cross along with criminals was the Messiah. The longed-for Messiah, the embodiment of King David, the warrior-king who would conquer the Romans and drive them out of Palestine could not be this humiliated peasant criminal!
Paul and the Gospel writers, twenty to forty-five years after Jesus’ death, faced the challenge of convincing fellow Jews that while the Romans could execute the Messiah, he could still be a conquering king. Each Gospel writer had his own angle. Each is different from the others, and yes, there are discrepancies of fact among the Gospels. But the Gospels were not written as historical accounts, but as theological arguments to convince Apocalyptic Jews that the liberating, warrior-king Messiah, could conquer by dying and rising from the dead.
The Jewish followers of Jesus shared this apocalyptic mind set in the conquering sense. They dreamed of an imperial Messiah. The Gospel writers believed that God’s Kingdom would be implemented forcefully, Jesus returning in grandeur and power to overthrow the Roman oppressors. Matthew and Luke have Jesus telling his disciples: “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matthew 19:28; Luke 22:28-30)
The challenge of Biblical scholars is to distinguish the dissimilar teachings of Jesus from the views of his followers, in this case apocalyptic Messianic Jews. They expected a warrior-king, an imperial monarch with overwhelming power, wealth and knowledge who would conquer their Roman enemies and introduce the Kingdom of God on earth — in the later Gospel of John, the Kingdom would be in heaven. Either way, they imagined an imperial hierarchy. This notion was developed most fully in the last book of the Bible, The Apocalypse or The Revelation to John. There we read of death and destruction, the bloody clash of supernatural forces in a cosmic battle waged on earth. This is the primary source for those of a Christian apocalyptic mind set.
What doesn’t fit with this view are the non-violent, non-judgmental, egalitarian teachings of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: “Love your enemies,” rather than conquer them; “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” not judged as sinners or outcasts nor cast into the fire; “Sell all you have and give to the poor,” rather than some being enthroned in glory and others cast out. Jesus’ great commission welcomed all to the common table, sharing power, wealth and knowledge. The new heaven he offers is no mighty kingdom of overwhelming power and glory.
Some scholars have concluded that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet. The word apocalypse simply means unveiling. To the degree that might be true, he was unveiling a new path to liberation. He was not unveiling violence and power by supernatural forces as his way. He revealed that it was not by emulating our oppressors that we will be rescued but by a radical sense of mutual relationship, of grace and universal compassion. It is my conclusion that his message was greatly dissimilar to that of the Jews of his day including his Jewish followers. The apocalypse we find in Jesus’ followers’ words (attributed to Jesus) reflect an imperial apocalyptic view of a long-oppressed Jewish people, longing for a reversal of power and domination with them finally on top of the heap.
While we do not share the same history as Jesus’ followers we do live in a world where we often feel powerless. Injustices and inequalities surround us. As technological and global climate changes threaten to overwhelm us it is not hard to feel like we are at the end of the age. On a personal level we may find that a life we treasure is ending due to increasing age and diminishing health, the death of a loved one, economic uncertainty, difficulties in relationships; the unforeseen actions of others and long for divine power to intercede in power and glory.
In today’s apocalyptic message from Luke there is a hint of the nonviolent message of the historical Jesus. He tells us not to panic in the face of life’s hardships. Being faithful does not mean we will be exempt from them, but it does mean understanding that there really are no endings in life, only new beginnings. Trusting that there is a beginning in every ending will enable us to see new opportunities and experience liberation from all that presently oppresses us. We can only do that by being in the moment and living it well, undistracted by our fears of what comes next. What comes next can only be influenced in the moment. The Sufi mystic, Rumi makes a similar point in this story:
“A man in prison is sent a prayer rug by his friend. What he had wanted, of course, was a file or a crowbar or a key! But he began using the rug, doing five-times prayer each day: Before dawn, at noon, mid-afternoon, after sunset, and before sleep. Bowing, sitting up, bowing again, he noticed an odd pattern in the weave of the rug, just at the point where his head touches it. He studied and meditated on that pattern, and gradually discovered that it was a diagram of the lock that confined him in his cell and how it worked. He was able to escape. Anything you do every day can open into the deepest spiritual place, which is freedom.
Although we may long for apocalyptic liberation as a glorious reversal of the oppressive conditions of our lives, may we instead be open to a greater wholeness. May we find ourselves at home in a healed and healthy world at the end of our days.
It was a Wednesday night at 8 o’clock in Ypres, that once devastated, now reconstructed Belgium town around which half a million Allied soldiers lie. I stood there in the crowd gathered from the whole world over, and heard the Last Post played, as it is every night in Ypres at the Menin Gate. And I listened to a group of young and proud Australian high school children, in stockman hats and oilskins, read the Lawrence Binyon lines we’ll hear again today.
Those same young people were on their way to Gallipoli to join thousands more of their age from New Zealand and around the commonwealth to stand and remember in the dawn light a war that is now three generations removed from them.
On this 99th anniversary of World War I beginning, and the 95th anniversary of the armistice that ended the conflict, it’s remarkable that remembrances like this Sunday and Anzac still continue to find new life, especially among the young. The survivors of that nightmare war have died, but the memory of their self giving and the sacrifice has not died. It endures as a central metaphor of our identity as New Zealanders and Australians.
In Mark Haddon’s marvellous novel about an autistic boy called Christopher, the young man finds metaphors very confusing, until his mother explains that his own name is itself a metaphor. Christopher is the saint who carried Christ across the river. The boy embraces that role and becomes a carrier for others.
That’s what days like this do for us. They carry so much of who we are and something of who Christ is for us.
Such metaphors are precious taonga, treasures rescued from the horror of what happened at Gallipoli and Flanders and the Somme and wherever Anzacs died alongside their Allied comrades, in battles like Passendale, the scale of which we are only beginning now to understand.
It takes 90 years to break the silence of these places.
In Sebastian Faulk’s novel Birdsong, Elizabeth retraces her grandfather’s forgotten war on the Western Front and visits a memorial gate on Flanders field.
She looks up at the British names “their chiselled capitals rose from the level of her ankles to the height of the great arch itself, on every surface of every column as far as her eyes could see, there were names teeming, reeling, over hundreds of yards, over furlongs of stone.
Who are these, she asked?
These, said the man, they are the lost, the ones they did not find.
From the whole war, she asked?
No, just these fields?
Elizabeth went and sat by rows of white headstones, “each cleaned and beautiful in the weak winter sunlight.
Nobody told me, she says
My God, nobody told me.”
Remembrance Day ensures there will be somebody to tell the story.
St Paul has some advice on that. We heard it read a minute ago. Writing to Timothy as a younger church leader, Paul passes on his story at two levels.
In lyrical language that we are fond of using on Remembrance Days, he talks of his impending death as a libation poured out, a boat unmoored for its final journey, a wreath of recognition for a life of service to others. Like a good soldier he has finished the race and kept the faith.
But then the tone of the letter changes abruptly into a language we don’t use easily on Remembrance Days, but is even more powerful for keeping memories alive. It is the concrete language of things and places. Paul introduces it by confessing his loneliness, remembering places, once memorable to which he’ll never return,
Demas, his old friend, now lost to him Crescens, gone off to found a church in Gaul Priscilla and Aquila, he a Jew, she a Roman, who risked their lives for him Puden – a senator, and Linus, a Bishop of Rome An intensely personal a litany of people and places.
And things as well. An old cloak he needs for the winter, and favourite books and his precious writing paper.
When I visit the battlefields where our fathers and our grandfathers died, I’m always overwhelmed by the personal details of their diaries and letters and pockets.
The British infantryman dug up at Boezinge only a year or so ago, still curled in his 1915 trench, clutching his rifle, had with him a French dictionary and a pack of cards and a jar of Bovril.
He hadn’t been to Ephesus, or Corinth, or Galatia like Paul. His Europe was made up of Belgium places with Tommy names:
Hell Fire Corner, Shrapnel Crossing, Suicide Road and Dead Dog Farm.
But these places and these things, like the metal debris on the heights of Gallipoli, become sacramental items on Remembrance Day. They connect like electric wires to the raw energy of memories that make us who we are.
Through the details of these soldiers’ lives, we are able to address them directly, personally, 99 years on, and say to them as Paul said to his friends:
May God’s grace be with you, as you gave your grace to us
Yes, I know it used to be a club, very exclusive, though it always made room for women as well as men, but reserved for those who had suffered terribly as they kept the faith. St Paul has a check list of the trials saints should expect to endure to earn their title: flogging, prison, shipwreck, being mobbed, overworked, sleepless, starving.
Being mobbed is good news for rock stars, who we treat as saints anyway. And it’s good to know that overwork is on the list. Some of you would qualify.
Thousands did become saints, even more became martyrs which is the surefire way for sanctification, as the Muslim and even the Buddhist world still recognise. The early Christian church was built by the blood of martyrs and saints, which is why every church still carries the name of one of them. Sainthood was a growth industry so powerful that the Catholic tradition tried to slow it down and demanded evidence of a miracle to qualify for full sainthood.
It all got out of hand until the Reformation came along and democratised the communion of saints, along with the priesthood and the sanctuary and every other reserved corner of the church. We haven’t managed full access for the gay community but it won’t be long now.
And sainthood is certainly an accessible status for everyone, though it’s much better if someone else bestows the title than claiming it for yourself. Mail order sainthood, something you can register for online, is just a little tacky.
Not that everyone wants to be a saint, or not yet. Like the young St Augustine, some of us prefer to put off being too good, too soon, for fear of missing out on the fun. We have an aversion to excessive goodness, dating back to Victorian times when a “plaster saint” was a term of contempt, someone too good to be true. The label comes from Rudyard Kipling’s poem:
We’re single men in barracks,
Most remarkable like you
And if sometimes our conduck
Isn’t all your fancy pants
Why, single men in barracks
Don’t grow into plaster saints
We’re all welcome and able to join the community of the saints, sooner or later. It is the gathering of the heroes and heroines of our faith, the role models, the inspirational figures who brought us this far on our journey. Most of us have got a saint or two whose example kept us going and believing through the hard times. Remember them this morning, thank God for them, thank God for our wanting to be like them.
Because even though the door to the community of saints is wide open, it’s very hard to walk through it, even if we don’t have to be flogged or imprisoned or fed to the lions like it used to be.
And it’s not only hard, but downright impossible to become a saint if we already have everything we need or desire.
Jesus puts it rather bluntly in this morning’s gospel, by laying down the first ground rule for becoming a saint.
Blessed are the poor.
Some people here this morning are poor, though that doesn’t necessarily make them feel very blessed, any more than feeling poorly is desirable. Quite the opposite. But most of us have most of, well a fair chunk anyway, of what we need, even in this mixture of people that make up St Matthews on a Sunday.
Yes, I know there aren’t a lot of Rolls Royces in the carpark and some of you are really struggling. But compare our lot with the way things used to be in this country, when a private car, or a chicken dinner was a luxury, when you had to put blue cellophane over the black and white picture on TV to see through the snow, and a cellphone was as big and thick as a brick, and high school careers advisers could only offer you a list of jobs that fitted on the back on an envelope.
Yet none of this material progress seems to make us much happier, let alone closer to God, and what’s worse, the poverty gap between the richer and the poorer is ever wider and a living wage is ever more elusive. The latest child poverty report shows that deprivation gets worse and we don’t seem to have the political will to do much about it.
When Jesus says blessed are the poor, just what is he talking about?
He is talking about material poverty. 90 per cent of his audience were desperately poor by our standards, balanced on the edge of survival, only as good as their next crop, keeping favour with their landlord, and the occupying army of Rome, and the corrupt Jewish bureaucracy.
Jesus speaks first and most clearly to the dispossessed.
But he also speaks just as directly to the privileged, a little bit or a lot. And the more we have much, have greater trouble we have in hearing him.
To be poor in first century Palestine was to be often hungry and insecure, of course, but it was always to be vulnerable, utterly dependent on and therefore open to, the favours and protection of others. That’s the reason the poor are blessed. Not because they have nothing (try telling any poor person that’s a good thing). The poor are blessed because more often than rich people they seem to know their need of God. They know their incompleteness, in spiritual as well as most obviously, material terms.
I’ve been to the place where Jesus is said to have preached this sermon they call the beatitudes but which is really a list of the qualities of sainthood. It’s an open cave, a hole in the side of the hill above Lake Galilee.
There was nothing there then and there’s nothing there now. It’s an empty space which is the perfect metaphor for this sainthood sermon.
God wants us become empty spaces. Empty of all our self importance and our self contentment, our confident satisfaction with what we have achieved and feeling of deserving all we’re worked for and are entitled to, our smugness about being on top of, even better, ahead of the game.
Sometimes we find that emptiness because it’s forced on us, traumatically, by a loss or a change. We lose a loved one, or our health, or a safe investment, or a secure job, or our pride and our reputation. That’s painful, but its also an opportunity to refocus our life and rediscover the shalom, the peace of God. Sometime the shock and the scar tissue stops that happening.
But it’s even harder to find the emptiness God desires if we already have most of what we need. Alas for you who are rich, well fed, well spoken of, who laugh now.
Jesus is not condemning those things in themselves when he says that, he’s simply saying they create a contentment which stops us being open to and hungry for God.
When it comes to finding God, discontent with the way things are is a virtue.
I don’t’ know much about the journey to sainthood, but I’m told the ones who travel that road best begin by knowing they’re running on empty.
I know that feeling and worry about it. Saints have that feeling and are grateful.
There’s a wonderful prayer by Brian Wren in our night prayer service in the NZ prayer book that we never get the chance to use here and we should.
It speaks to the
Eternal Spirit, the living God
In whom we live and move and have our being
All that we are, have been, and shall be is known to you
(for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, we could add)
You O God, know the very secret of our hearts
And all that rises to trouble us.
Then the prayer moves us to shake us out of our contentment,
To break open some empty space inside us
Living flame, burn into us
Cleansing wind, blow through us
Fountain of water, well up within us
If we dare to let that happen
If we dare to pray such a prayer
Then we may well learn to love and praise in deed and in truth
And best of all,
That communion of all the saints who surround us on every side
A Sunday School teacher was once teaching her class this Bible story, and she explained how wrong the Pharisee in the story was when he said "Thank you God that I am not like other men, especially this tax collector" Then she ended the lesson by asking the children to say a prayer with her: "Thank you God that we are not like that Pharisee"! To pray in this way is of course to walk straight into the trap set by Jesus. We could do the same by praying "Thank you God that we are not like that Sunday School teacher"!
It is one of those simple but potentially explosive parables told by Jesus and recorded by Luke to redeem people from the devastating human tendency to consider ourselves morally superior to others. But how can we avoid the temptation to identify ourselves with the character in the story who is right and accepted by God, and to identify some other type or group of people as wrong and as rejected by God? One way might be to break the parable down into what it teaches about healthy attitudes to the self, to others and to God.
Jesus told this parable, says Luke, "to people who were sure of their own goodness and despised everybody else" (Luke 18:9). Elsewhere he famously called his followers to "Love your neighbour as you love yourself" (Matthew 22:39) and taught that this rule, together with the requirement to love God wholeheartedly, was the principle from which all other moral laws followed automatically (Matthew 22:40). This is a wonderful rule of life, but it does presuppose a healthy self esteem. If we have a very low sense of our own value, then loving others only that much will not help. One of the great contributions of religions, including Christianity, to society is to give people a sense of belonging and self worth. The trouble starts when the religion in question sets rules of conduct, which immediately exclude some people. Compliance with these rules also tend to take the place of real virtue and progress to healthy maturity. So the Pharisee in the parable is convinced of his own goodness because he follows the rules - fasting two days a week, giving a tenth of his income to God, and so on. But rather than making him a better, more godly person, his self image has become skewed and he is blind to his faults and weaknesses. We can probably identify some of this rule based self esteem in ourselves and accept that there is an unhealthy aspect to it.
But surely the sinful tax collector's self image seems equally unhealthy. He's the archetypal 'miserable sinner' with no self esteem at all, cowering under the gaze of a harsh, judgmental God whose pity he can only beg for, but which is unlikely to be forthcoming. Or maybe we are misunderstanding what is going on here, because we are influenced by a faulty understanding of sin which has dominated church doctrine since the Middle Ages. Perhaps sin is better understood not as a crime to be punished for or, if you are lucky, acquitted of, but as a sickness to be healed of. The old 1662 prayer book's general confession reflects this idea in the powerful phrase "... and there is no health in us". Salvation, in this sense, is about being healed, being restored to health - as individuals and as communities. The more I read and reflect on the psalms, the prophets and especially the gospels, the clearer this understanding of sin and salvation becomes, and the more alien the idea of sin as something to be guilty about and punished for appears.
On this reading, the tax collector stands in the house of healing, humbly acknowledging his sickness and trusting in God to begin making him well, taking away his dis-ease. And Jesus figuratively stands with him in his sickness, as the herald and the agent of healing for all who have this fictional character's attitude.
Having a wrong self image is not the only danger for religious insiders. The parable shows us that they/we are also likely to see unenlightened outsiders as inferior, to despise them and see them as a corrupting influence to be avoided or as canon fodder for conversion raids. You don't have to be a raving fundamentalist to fall into this trap either. Even the most liberal or progressive christian may privately or publicly despise those who don't see things her way. We are all 'like' that Pharisee, just as the Pharisee was 'like' the tax collector. The gospel call to love not only our likeable and amenable neighbours but also our enemies is radical and challenging - and almost invariably ignored. If the deep divisions within the Anglican Church itself are ever to be healed, I believe christians of all shades of conviction are going to have to take this challenge far more seriously and actually start loving the people we find most difficult and unappealing.
For example... (now I'm going to risk making myself unpopular, as I'm leaving you in a few days!) let me ask a question about the billboards for which St Matthew's has been famous/notorious in recent years. I know the intention was to be provocative and promote discussion amongst non religious people who would not usually give a thought to God or church. Fair enough, it succeeded. But we also knowingly caused deep offence to many religious people, Catholics, Evangelicals and others - provoking them to be more hostile than they might be towards St Matts and Progressive Christianity in general, instead of seeing it as a valid expression of gospel faith. So you could argue the Church became even more polarised. Strategically, these offended people may be seen as inevitable casualties in a war worth fighting, but "Where is the love in that?" (That's my question!) I may be wrong but I think we all need to get off our soapboxes and find ways of loving our opponents, especially our opponents within the church; loving them in a way which allows God to bring challenge and transformation and healing to us all. Rather than alienating people, we may be more effective through gentle, loving persuasion. So why not "Encourage an Evangelical" or even "Hug a Fundamentalist", the next time you encounter one?
My final point concerns the understanding of God which lies behind this parable of the proud Pharisee and the humble tax collector and which is a refrain running through the Old Testament: a God who is merciful and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love; a God who is love; a God of restorative justice, not retribution; a God who is biased in favour of the poor and oppressed, the widow, the orphan and the alien; a God who seeks the lost sheep and carries them home: who heals the sick, sets prisoners free and wipes away the tears from every eye. This is the God I believe in and serve and I have learned to appreciate this God in new ways through the beautiful worship at St Matthew's and through the warmth and depth of fellowship Billie and I have experienced here. As our ways part, may God strengthen the bond between us and continue to lead all of us on in faith, hope and love.
This is a story about a very important man. A judge no less, who like a mayor, but even more so, has to meet the highest expectations of good behaviour. Not only good but godly behaviour. Because he is a judge of the Torah court, the law that God gave to Moses, to ensure that every Jew can enjoy God’s shalom.
That shalom is broken most often by disputes over property and wealth, family honour and the proper roles of women and men. So you need a very wise, very impartial judge to deal with these issues. Ideally you had a panel of seven judges for every town with more than 120 people. So the fellow in this story is extra special, doing the job alone.
In a traditional society, the role of such wise elders was crucial for continued confidence and well being. Auckland Council may well survive Len Brown’s behaviour. It will be much harder for the Kohunga Reo movement to survive a bad outcome from the inquiry into its trust board led by kuia and komatua.
So even though there are lots of other people in this story, it is first and last about a judge.
Except, he’s an incredibly awful judge. Not only does he take bribes as most judges did, if you could afford to pay up you didn’t have to wait. Much worse, he had no respect for the God whose law he administered and no respect for the people he was meant to serve.
To work for God’s shalom, which means the justice and peace required by God, your actions and motivations need to be in balance, public and private, inside and outside.
This judge is a walking contradiction.
And what’s more,he seems to be utterly unrepentant about this, which is the worst crime of all. He is no hero.
It’s almost as though Luke tells the story to say this is more a figure of everything that’s unjust and obscene, rather than a real live villain. Like The Joker in a Batman movie, though not as believeable.
Maybe this is not really a story about a judge.
This is certainly a story about a widow; a very believable woman who is trying to have her case heard. She’s the heroine.
It’s most probably a case about inheritance. Her dead husband’s family is refusing to maintain her, or her brother in law is refusing to remarry her – whatever the option the widow faces poverty and ruin if she can’t be heard. Her survival is at stake.
What makes this woman famous is her absolute determination and shameless, constant persistence. Even a judge with the sensitivity of a concrete slab and the morality of an alligator is worn down by her. The Greek word literally means to blacken your eye. The widow verbally punches him into submission.
Now we’re not reading this story on the 29th Sunday in ordinary time as a lesson in Jewish jurisprudence. It’s a parable about the way God works in the world.
It’s a way of working that pays no regard to who we think are the heroes, the main men. Quite the opposite. Our pecking orders are turned on their head. What the NZ Herald gives front page treatment to, what rates in the television polls, is invariably the wrong place to start.
The virtue here is not wealth or property or public recognition. It’s unflagging, consistent, keeping faith, keeping on, night and day. Be persistent whether the times are favourable or unfavourable, says the epistle to Timothy we read this morning.
And it’s the persistence of the bystanders, those who have least and suffer most that God seems to be most impressed by.
But for this widow it’s more than persistence. It’s a willingness, born out of desperation, but still her willingness, to break the rules that governed the conduct of all Jewish woman. What she should have done was to find a man to represent her in court, to leave it others to negotiate a deal for her, to be patient and respectful, even if the system was corrupt, to accept the way things worked, to keep her dignity. Instead she acts shamelessly to pursue her cause.
What kind of faith is this story commending? What does the story say about the way God works and who God listens to?
It’s not so much a question of how as where God works? Everywhere across the whole creation is the obvious answer, but religion has filtered and shrunk that answer. God works through the good and the righteous and has a special interest in the church.
The whole inhabited earth, the oikumene, might be the house of God, but the church is living room, full of nice people like us.
If you believe that, then this parable is bad news. It’s about a disgusting judge in a corrupt system that leaves widows and children to starve. Yet it’s in that arena of wheeling and dealing, survival, greed and self interest that God is active, present and engaged, ready to listen and respond to the most desperate voices and the most hopeless cases.
Do we dare to believe that? Do we dare to believe that God could be involved in something so compromised and downright ordinary? Is God really there in the middle of the mess?
Well, I think it only starts to become possible to trust the promise of God’s justice in such unlikely places if we can begin to trust the presence of God in the detail of the ordinary and the everyday. In the repetition and the routine.
If God really was that close in such ordinary and familiar detail, it would be much easier to believe God is right there in the middle of whatever mess we are currently immersed in and might even have helped to create.
And it might just be a little easier to believe that God is not only present but active in helping us bring about the justice and shalom we know that God intends for all people. God is going to bring in that justice, whether we like it or not, and doesn’t expect to be thanked for it either, says the story. If we want to help in that, we need to get our act together, with our inside words matching our outside actions, as individuals and as a church community too.
But that might be getting a little too close for comfort. Because the justice the widow finally enjoys in this story is not only costly for her in struggling to find it; it’s costly for those who have to adapt and change. If we are comfortable with what’s good for us, God’s justice when it comes will be uncomfortable.
The kind of New Zealand we sang about in Shirley Murrays’ hymn, for example. A land that lets the mana of Pakeha and Maori stand together, where broken words have been healed, where every child has equal scope is a long way from where we now stand and grown accustomed to, right here in God’s own clean and pure country with soaring poverty and inequality gaps, child abuse and incarceration rates.
The promise of this parable is that if we dare to persist in seeking justice, even at the cost of our dignity, God will engage us and God will be present, even if the outcome is not convenient, or comfortable or immediate.
We talk a lot at St Matthews about God in creation from the beginning and a little less about God present here and now in the middle of the mess we’re making of it, but we talk hardly at all as progressive Christians about the God awaits us at the end of history, when the earth shall be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea. We leave that to the fundamentalists and the makers of post apocalypse movies.
This parable ends in the confidence that the justice sought by the widow for herself will be extended to the whole earth. To use the image of the old spiritual song, the future really is held in the palm of God’s hand. The course and shape of that, the timing of that is not ours to second guess, only to persist in working for, daring to believe it will come, abundantly, more than we can ever imagine or desire.
One of the many new experiences I’ve had in recent weeks was being thrown out of my own church. It happened on a Saturday night, as Billie and I were strolling back to the Church car park after a beautiful performance of Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius at the Town Hall. For those of you who don’t know it, this glorious piece of choral music is a setting of a poem by Cardinal John Henry Newman#. Its subject is the anxiety of a man approaching death who is worried about the judgement of God which he believes he is about to face. Newman uses this premise to meditate on the Catholic doctrine of purgatory, aspects of which I disagree with, as a good Anglican should. But the poem is ultimately about the triumph of mercy over judgement and with God’s reassurance and post mortem healing of the sinner. With this I profoundly agree. So these thoughts and Elgar’s heart warming music are going round in my head as we approach St Matthew’s.
From inside the Church I can hear loud music and amplified voices and applause and through the porch doors I can see flashing red stage lights and a crowd of people. It looks a bit like a night club. I move closer, to look through the window and see what is happening. Then a voice beside me says ‘Where do you think you’re going” and a big, tough looking guy steps between me and the Church door. “I just want to have a look at what’s happening inside my church.” “This is a private function, sir,” he says. “Don’t worry,” I reassure him, “I’m a member of staff here...” “This is a private function Sir, and you need to leave now!” he says, firmly turning me away and pointing me back into the street. I found out later that it was a Labour Party fundraising event. Perhaps some of you were inside, blissfully unaware of my encounter with the inflexible bouncer at the door. I felt a bit put out, but the guy was only doing his job.
I remembered this incident as I was reflecting on today’s bible readings. Firstly we heard about the healing of Naaman the Syrian, with the aid of the Jewish prophet Elisha, after the remarkable intervention of a little Israelite girl servant who had compassion for her captor. Then we heard the gospel story of Jesus’s healing of ten men who, like Naaman, had leprosy, or some other dreaded skin disease. All of the suffering people in these two stories experienced God’s healing and liberation, in spite of the ethnic and historical divisions and religious rules which would normally have denied them access to God.
It is somewhat poignant to be thinking about Naaman’s healing in view of current events in Syria, where the devastating civil war recently reached a climax with the deployment of chemical weapons against the civilian population, resulting in widespread horrific injuries and the death of people who were already suffering and in desperate need of peace and relief. It was a kind of man-made epidemic#. The international community’s deliberations on if, when and how to intervene were complicated by the proximity of Syria to Israel (which had worked in Naaman’s favour), and therefore the potential repercussions of any military intervention in Syria on the stability of the whole region. With the UN Chemical Weapons disarmament team now in Syria we can only hope that the situation will improve and that the descendants of Naaman will receive the healing, liberation, peace and security they need.
Our gospel story is also set in uneasy territory, with Jesus on his way to Jerusalem and the betrayal and rejection he would experience there, walking along the border between Samaria and Galilee. He must have had a lot on his mind but his concern at this moment was not for himself but for the healing and restoration of the ten suffering men who cried out for his help. Jesus asked no questions about the race or religion of any of these men, or what sins they had committed, or whether or not they had repented of their sins. He simply sent them on their way to the priests, who had the religious authority to officially declare them “clean” and accept them back into society.
As soon as they demonstrated their faith in Jesus by setting off in the direction of the Temple, they became clean: all ten of them. And here is where the story gets interesting, as nine of the healed men continue walking, heading for religious respectability, but one breaks ranks and runs back to Jesus to thank him and to praise God. The man is a Samaritan, and so the fact is that there would have been no point in him going to the Jewish priest, who could have declared him cleansed of his skin disease but would not have declared him cleansed of being a Samaritan. In that sense he was still unclean, still unacceptable to God in the eyes of the religious bouncers at the Temple door. So he turned instead to Jesus who had healed him and in turning he recognised in Jesus a greater source of power, authority and compassion than the Temple system with its bouncers and its priests. The words and actions of Jesus showed that the whole system was flawed and was actually getting in God’s way. Ultimately he would allow the system to judge him, in order to completely expose and dismantle it, but that’s a story for another day.
In conclusion, I wonder how today’s readings, about the unexpected healing and acceptance of people thought by the religious to be unclean and unacceptable, might be relevant on this important day when we meet to think about the future of this church and the kind of leadership it needs. St Matthew’s is already a very open church where all kinds of people are welcome. This was nicely illustrated for me as I was writing this sermon in the vicar's study over there. It was around midday and homeless people were sleeping on the front two pews, while around them, wedding couples were posing for their professional photographers. Then there was the wonderful Blessing of Animals service last week, which saw St Matthews packed to the rafters with all kinds of animals and their equally varied owners.
St Matthew's is also well known for powerfully and effectively taking up the cause of LGBT people, when most christians were indifferent to their exclusion. But to be a little provocative, we might ask "what about other excluded or marginalised groups?" What might be achieved if St Matthews took up their cause with that same passion and energy? And what about our next door neighbours? Do we even know them (as the quotation from Mother Teresa in our liturgy challenges us), the thousands of people who live in this parish, all of them with spiritual and physical needs, but seldom, if ever, seen inside the Church? We may not have bouncers on the door, but are there cultural barriers which are just as effectively keeping people out?
These are just some of the questions which you may want to consider at the Parish Consultation Meeting which follows this service. May God inspire and guide you to make wise decisions about the future of the church and the kind of leadership it needs to become all that God calls you to be.
No doubt you are tired and weary of explaining to each other why we didn’t win the America’s Cup, but I haven’t had my turn yet. And I promise that for the next six months I’ll never mention the event again.
But to honour all those hours of arm chair sailing, all those dreams of what it might have done for Auckland, of the caffeine shot it would have given to our over milk and creamed economy, we need to linger just a little longer over just what that yacht race said about our national psyche.
Do we still feel cheated? Do we think we deserved to win? By leaning together with Toyota as we did, do we believe we’d earned the victory? That we’re entitled to host the next Cup because we need it more than the Americans, and morally we’re better prepared and positioned. After all, we don’t rely on one billionaire like they do. Two or three perhaps, but not one.
In the springtime of our discontent, the resentments rumble on, speaking volumes about who we think we are as New Zealanders.
We’re told all the time that we are what we eat. OK. OK. But it’s also true that we are what we watch and read and listen to, what advertisers, parents, paid consultants and yes, yacht race sponsors tell us what we ought to be.
And what we’ve been told to believe about ourselves in these last weeks, which is only more of the same we’ve been told by TV ads and the whole consumer culture for years, is very revealing, if you dare to stop and think about it, and very scary.
Forget America’s Cup. Try L’Oreal instead, the world’s biggest cosmetics company, with assets of a cool 30 billion euro. And their marketing slogan, for the last 20 years, backed by the highest end of advertising expertise has been “Because you deserve it”, which is a step up from the earlier “Because you’re worth it”.
This is not just a First World way of bolstering our self esteem. The famous Indian newspaper, The Hindustan Times, wears this proud slogan on its masthead: “ Because you deserve to know”.
Maybe we didn’t quite earn the America’s Cup but we certainly did deserve this cosmetic, or that imported beer, or cell phone or flat screen or whatever the product is that is pedalled as a human right.
The whole purpose of the consumer culture is to keep us discontented, wanting more, enjoying more approval, being better recognised, dreaming of the way things could be, if only, if only, if only.
And how is that driven? By the promise that we deserve a better deal, a bigger package, a greater entitlement.
Let’s not get smug about this state of affairs. It’s not just a problem for secular marketers. The church has played the same game. It was the sale of indulgences, the purchase of moral credit for cash in the collection plate, that tipped us into the Reformation. Heaven was becoming a place you earned you way into. And though that heresy has been named and nailed it still lingers in the perception that church going people think they’re better than others. I’ve got a friend who touches the door frame when she very occasionally comes to a service, in case the roof falls in on her unworthiness.
Today’s gospel cuts through this way of seeing the world like a steel knife through soft flesh. The words of Jesus are razor sharp, overstated, angry provocation to the marketing message we’re constantly asked to swallow.
The passage begins with a terse reply to the whining disciples who want Jesus to increase their faith. Presumably in the hope that they’ll be able to achieve more. Not to win a fishing boat race on the Sea of Galilee, but a miracle or three, like Jesus does.
He tells them, they have already got all the faith they need, and if only they trusted what they have, they could jump tall buildings in a single bound, or whatever. His image of planting a mulberry tree in the sea is equally silly. He’s mocking their question.
And then we move to the heart of this passage. Using the metaphor of master and slave, Jesus points his followers to the essence of the good news he’s been trying so hard to tell them, that they can’t see for looking.
Namely, that the gift of God’s grace, like the gift of faith itself, can’t be earned or deserved, or won or accumulated by anything we do or say. We’re not entitled to it, it’s not a reward, it never comes by way of obligation or privilege.
It is a simply a gift, like life itself. It comes to us ready or not, on a scale beyond our understanding or any comparing, in overwhelming abundance, pressed down and running over.
The grace of God, the love of God, the mercy of God, the very life of God is ours for the asking and the earning. We receive it not because we deserve it but because we are worthless servants, says Jesus.
And that’s a bit of shock for people like us, well adjusted, self esteeming, personally affirmed. But the translation of worthless is a bad one. The word really means not in need of any reward, for doing what we’re meant to be doing anyway.
It’s the positive side of the old negative words in the 1662 confession that Anglicans said every Sunday for 300 years. We have done what we ought not to have done and we have not done what we ought to have done and there is no health in us.
Well, this story is about a way of living that has got plenty of health in it, when we do what we are meant to do and don’t expect any favours, any changes, any rewards, not even any upward mobility of any sort.
In the eyes of God, our worth is not in question, in no dispute, in no need of any special effort. When it comes to the right to stand tall and proud, we don’t have to justify ourselves to anyone about anything, anymore.
What the story asks all of us to do is enjoy what we’ve already been given, and get on with the job of being useful, helpful and as easy to live with as we possibly can. Jesus would have known the saying by the Jewish rabbis, “ If you have practised the Torah, take no credit for yourself, for that is what you are created to do.”
If we really are made in the image of God, if the life we enjoy is reliant on the very breath of God, if our present and our future too is upheld in the arms of God, then we don’t need to prove anything to anyone, let alone God.
The Gospel story is daring us to trust that who we are, and where we are, and what we have is not only OK and more than enough to be going with. It’s actually enough to move mountains and mulberry trees, even if it doesn’t win yacht races. That’s true of us, it’s also true of this community called St Matthews. Between us, we have the resources to do what we need to do through this transition time in the life of this church.
For the consumer culture, this is a very dangerous text. If we took it seriously we’d be able to laugh at the next person who tells us what more we deserve and what we are entitled to. Imagine being able to say to them, thanks but no thanks, I’ve got more than enough to be going on with. Not the America’s Cup but my cup is full, and running over.
Tax collectors in Jesus’ day were not nice. They weren’t generous, forgiving, or kind. They snarled when they talked and were built like front-row forwards, or had a couple of lads standing behind them who fitted that description.
Tax collectors were extortionists. If the Romans and local Jewish rulers wanted say 30% of your produce to get it they employed the collectors. But they didn’t pay the collectors. So collectors – the ‘successful’ ones – asked for say another 20% of your produce. And if they didn’t get that total of 50% they beat it out of you.
Tax collectors were not popular. Funny that! You would never invite one for dinner. And you would never accept an invitation to their place if you wanted to keep your fingernails intact.
In short, they were low-life, scumbags, ungodly, those who cuddled up to the oppressive occupation forces. You would not want your daughter to go out with one. And you would never invite one for dinner.
Which was the problem. Jesus, the coolest rabbi in town, the one everyone was talking about and wanted to invite to dinner, accepted your invitation to dine and… [this is a big ‘and’] brought along Matthew and his collector mates. Oh-uh. Are you really sure you want Jesus in your house?
Matthew 9: 10, 11: “And as [Jesus] sat at dinner in the house [that’s your house], many tax-collectors and other undesirables were sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees [the morality police] saw this, they said to his disciples, [“You guys are nuts.”].
Then there is a silence in the text before Jesus pipes up. But note the disciples have no answer. I suspect they too thought this was nuts. And I suspect too they were scared to open their mouths.
How do you really accommodate an undesirable guest like a tax collector? No one trusts him. No one wants him. But he comes as part of the Jesus package. What boundaries do you impose? Will he keep to them? What happens if he doesn’t? This is risky. There are no easy answers.
Matthew, I’m guessing, also is thinking this is nuts. This is a party for nice religious people, and he isn’t one of them. He gets the vibe. The ‘we-are-scared-of-you’ vibe. He’s tuned to pick up such vibes. He knows you don’t want him in your house. He can see through that welcoming beatific smile.
Matthew knows how to make people scared. But he doesn’t know how to make people like him. He can do fear. He can’t do love. But he wants to do love. He wants to believe he can do love. Jesus makes him believe he can do love. Jesus makes him believe that he’s really a diamond, despite his roughness. He just needs to have faith. But it’s risky.
The story of Matthew, in Hebrew his name means ‘gift of God’, is the foundational story of this church. It is a story of provocative hospitality beyond the boundaries of what is acceptable or manageable. It is a story of provocative hospitality that is uncomfortable and costly.
Many people hate this church. Many people wish this church did not call itself Christian or Anglican. Many people wish this church didn’t exist. And those who despise this place, what it stands for, and its leadership are much more publically vocal than those who love it, defend it, or shelter within it.
Yet such provocative hospitality is not an option. It’s a given. It’s not a choice. For it is part of our spiritual DNA. We can do no other. If we shut the doors on our equivalent of tax collectors and sinners; if we shut the doors on all whom the morality police are suspicious of; if we shut the doors on those who want spiritual sustenance but can’t believe in Christianity’s religion…. then we are shutting the door on the Sophia [the wisdom] of God, and our soul will eventually shrivel, harden, and die.
We are part of a tradition, reaching back to Abraham, which not only welcomes the stranger, but experiences the in-breaking of divine grace in that welcome. At the oaks of Mamre Abraham welcomed three strangers into his tent, and in doing so welcomed angels unaware. In Jesus’ ministry, time and again, it was the cultural/ political outsider or foreigner, like the Syro-Phoenician woman , like the Roman Centurion ; and in the early Jesus movement similarly with the Ethiopian Eunuch  and the Gentile Cornelius,  who showed with their faith the way to God. In the tradition of the saints, St Christopher discovered the Christ in a child he carried [children are nearly always political outsiders], and St Damien met divine grace in the lepers he ministered among.
Outsiders, foreigners, and strangers mediate the grace and challenge of God to us. To erect a fence to keep them at bay is to fence out the Spirit who wants to lead and broaden us into the kin-dom of God.
This last week I’ve been in Australia where the discussion continues regarding asylum seekers arriving by boats. Both main federal political parties have a ‘repeal boarders’ mentally. They are playing to the insecurities of those Australians who are fearful of the outsider and foreigner.
And most Australian churches, to their credit, are challenging the politicians. For they understand that we Christians bear the name of the baby whose parents were told “there is no room”. We are the spiritual descendants of asylum seekers. We know that national borders that allegedly protect us also hinder the Spirit of God who knows no borders.
So when any fence is erected – around a country, a church, or a communion table – for the reason for protecting or preserving, our Christian DNA cries out in protest. We are likely to be fencing out angels, grace, and even the Spirit of God herself.
However not all outsiders are angels in disguise. Our first reading today, gives another perspective on engaging with the stranger and foreigner. Some outsiders want to stop us, prevent us, or divert us from following where we believe the Sophia of God is leading. They are blocking the road - deliberately and destructively.
Grasshopper is on a journey when he is confronted by a dogmatic mosquito. The mosquito’s world is bounded by the lake – a lake that he must control. The only way for Grasshopper to continue on his journey is, according to Mosquito, to fit into Mosquito’s boat. It is patently absurd. But the Mosquito’s vision is bounded by the lake. The Mosquito’s religion is ‘lake religion’ and the only way to be saved is by his boat.
This scenario is very common for us here at St Matthew’s. Daily I receive emails from ‘mosquitoes’ who say there is only one way to God and it is their way. To be ‘Christian’ or ‘inclusive’ they say is to stop what I’m doing, and follow their rules. This is, they say, the path of ‘unity’ – a very important value for mosquitoes. [It’s almost as important as obedience.] If I depart from their understanding of Christian religion and values then I am departing from the way of Christ.
So, here is an outsider, a foreigner, who is not a ‘diamond-in-the-rough’ like Matthew the tax collector. Instead he has a small boat, a small lake, a small God, and a large and insistent voice. How do we keep true to our provocative hospitality DNA without succumbing to the mosquitoes’ agenda which is to stop us in our tracks?
While it’s tempting to try to swat him, squash him, or spray him, Arnold Lobel’s Grasshopper finds a way to honour the inner dignity of Mosquito while continuing to be true to his own calling to journey on. Grasshopper lifts the mosquito out of his paradigm, and then gently lowers him again. But Mosquito is blind to it. He thinks he’s won. His religion he believes has saved Grasshopper. Mosquito stays in his boat and his lake, trapped in his world view, as Grasshopper walks on down the road. For some characters, like Mosquito, will not change – rather they have to be gently moved to the side, or lifted out of the way, in order that others can move on.
I like the grace that Grasshopper displays. Grace permeates both the story of Matthew and the story of Mosquito. As does discernment. Discernment is important in ascertaining whether the demand in front of you is a mosquito to be gently put aside or a compass suggesting a correction to your course. A ministry of risky and provocative hospitality, vital as it is to our spiritual wellbeing, requires leadership that is both graceful and discerning. A sprinkling of courage and tenacity helps too.
Grace and discernment are what I’ve tried to offer for the last nine years, and it’s my hope that you will continue with such leadership. In bidding farewell, I have a very thankful heart – full of memories of people, events, good and great times… And I leave to go on loving, sharing, learning, debating, forgiving, laughing, helping, dancing, wondering, singing, healing, and even more loving… as I hope you will too. Haere ra. He hono tangata e kore e motu; ka pa he taura waka e motu [Unlike a canoe rope, a human bond cannot be severed.]
If you find this parable difficult to understand, you are in good company! I’ve spent a good deal of time over the last few days reading textbooks and commentaries. There are different ways of understanding the parable, but what I think we have here is the Bible’s version of a BANKING CRISIS.
As an ex Banker myself, I am allowed to remind you that the definition of a Banker is somebody who will happily lend you an umbrella, but will demand it back when it starts raining! My favourite Bible verse for Bankers is Psalm 112.5 “Good will come to him who is generous and lends freely.” BUT believe me, if a Bank Auditor evaluated your lending portfolio in those words, anything but good would be coming to you!
Under the Old Testament Law, Jews were forbidden from taking interest from fellow-Jews when they lent them money (Exodus 22.25, Leviticus 25.36, Deuteronomy 23.19). But those who wanted to make money from loans reasoned that this Law was there to stop the poor being exploited. It was not meant to stop ordinary deals between honest businessmen, where the payment of interest amounted to a sharing of profits. So they found a way around God’s Law, a ‘legal fiction’.
The amount borrowed would be given a value in a common item like oil or wheat (say 80 measures of wheat), the interest would be added on (say 20 measures of wheat) and a bond, like an “IOU”, a promise to pay back, would be written out for the total amount in wheat (in this case 100 measures). Interest was effectively being charged on the loan, but the Bond gave no indication of this. Commonly, such deals were handled by a steward or manager, supposedly without the bank owner’s knowledge.
With this background in mind, the parable is telling the story of a “bank manager” who, faced with the loss of his job, protected his future by calling in the bonds owed to his master and getting the debtors, those who owed money, to rewrite their bonds so they no longer carried interest. He hoped these debtors would then be generous to him in their gratitude, after he had lost his job.
When the steward’s actions came to light, this put the owner of the “bank” in a difficult position. He would have difficulty proving the original debts, now that the first bonds had been destroyed. In any case he could not complain about the manager’s action without proving himself guilty of breaking God’s law by charging interest.
So he put the best face possible on the situation by pretending that he hadn’t known interest had originally been charged and by thanking the manager for putting things right. The manager would now be seen as belatedly complying with God’s law, and the pious and godly owner as applauding this! Today we might refer to this as a “win/win situation,” although the owner didn’t get his interest of course.
As the worldwide banking crisis unfolded in 2007, we saw the banks’ senior management, seeing that they were heading for a crisis, taking decisive action in approaching their national central banks in their role as “lender of last resort” in order to balance their books. We also saw millions of investors, believing their savings to be at risk, queuing for hours, all night in some cases, and passionately demanding the withdrawal of their money, so they could put it somewhere safer.
There are similarities with the behaviour of the dishonest bank manager in the parable, because he also took decisive action when faced with a crisis. This is what he was praised for, NOT for being dishonest.
Jesus implies in verse 8 that he’d like to see more of that PASSION, that URGENCY and that DECISIVENESS in his followers with regard to their discipleship.
When was the last time you queued up impatiently to get into a church service or prayer meeting?
When was the last time you argued passionately about your faith in Christ?
And bearing in mind that the human race seems to be living on borrowed time, how are you sharing the Good News of God’s love and mercy with your neighbours?
Do we challenge the inequality in our society? Racist sentiments? The exploitation of old people and minorities?
...Or do we just let these things slide by?
How will you be voting in the local council elections which are coming up in a few weeks? Will your vote be directed by what is best for you or by the needs of your most vulnerable neighbours?
Preachers often ask their congregations ‘If you were arrested for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?’ It has become a bit of a cliché but still is a fair question. Perhaps we are too casual and laid back about our Christian commitment, so that it doesn’t seem all that important to others and maybe starts to become less important to us. If this were to happen, it would make the prophetic words and actions of Jesus a mere blip in the status quo, a historical anomaly, instead of the decisive turning point they were surely intended to be.
Secondly, in verse 9 Jesus indicates that believers should use what wealth they have wisely, to build friendships for eternity. This is a difficult verse in a difficult passage, but it links with other teachings of Jesus about sharing what we have with those in need, regardless of their ability to repay, which of course turns the principles of banking completely upside down, like the money changers’ tables in the Temple. In the teaching of Jesus, money is not evil in itself, however the love of money is a great temptation. Jesus often warns that money is capable of destroying our relationships and our integrity and he urges us to spend it while we can for the benefit of others.
Finally, in verses 10-12, Jesus points us beyond our relatively unimportant earthly Bank Account to our account in Heaven. This is where true and lasting riches are stored by living humble and unselfish lives for Christ. This is where all of our debts and failures have been wiped out by the extraordinary life, death and resurrection of Jesus. This is where our God reigns, not as a “lender of last resort”, not as a divine umbrella snatcher, but as our merciful saviour, deserving of total loyalty, faith and commitment. The ‘deposit guarantee scheme’ He freely gives to all people, regardless of whether or not they deserve it, is safer and more trustworthy than anything the Government could ever provide!
May God find us trustworthy with our money and possessions, with our time and our priorities, in all our dealings with other people, and even more in our handling of his truth and his mercy, which we have a responsibility to share with all people.
Last Sunday I talked about prayer being a way of living a vision - a vision of God connected with the little, the least, and the powerless - and how in living that vision we will conflict with the false god made in the image of power. I spoke about how these Gods clash, the visions clash, not unlike in the encounter between the great warrior Goliath and shepherd boy David. As you may remember from that mythic encounter in 1 Samuel 17 David was aided by five pebbles from a brook.
So this morning I want to talk about four of the five pebbles that I have been aided and sustained by in my attempts to live into the vision of a God known among the little, the least, and the powerless. Those so-called ‘pebbles’ are children, animals, beauty, and laughter.
I heard read a New Zealand version of the old parable “The Emperor’s New Clothes”. As you might recall it is a story criticizing power and pride. The Emperor [‘Mayor’ in this account] thinks he is wearing clothing that only the very intelligent can see and, unprepared to consider he might not be ‘very intelligent’, actually appears in a public parade naked. I pick up the rhyme as the parade begins:
“The Mayor tried his best to walk proudly, his bare belly wobbled and jiggled.
Then, during a lull in the cheering, a wee nipper started to giggle.
‘Mum,’ he chortled out loudly, ‘The Mayor is doing a streak!’
‘Shhh,’ said his mortified mother, ‘That’s quite enough of your check!’
But it seemed that the penny had dropped, everyone started to grin.
The grins turned to sniggers and chuckles, did all of them see only skin?”
Note three things from this extract: Firstly, the person the child is closest to, and who has the most power over his life, reproves him. Secondly, the child states the unadorned truth, the existential reality. And thirdly, the child’s honesty and courage engenders a politically destabilizing humour that brings down the mighty mayor from his puffed-up throne.
In Ched Myer’s commentary on the gospel reading Mark 10:13-16 he is critical of those who think ‘becoming a child to enter God’s realm’ is about childhood innocence or appealing to the ‘child within’. Rather he points out the lowly status and suffering of children in biblical times. Where, Myers asks, do we meet children in the Gospel of Mark? In every case it is in situations of sickness or oppression.
Myers draws upon the work of Alice Miller, philosopher and psychoanalyst, and informs us that the child is always the primary victim of practices of domination within the family. There are vicious cycles of contempt for those who are smaller and weaker. If, says Miller, we address and rectify the oppression of children we will ‘as a matter of course bring to an end the perpetuation of violence from generation to generation’. What a wonderful thought!
What Myers says about children in the New Testament, and Miller says about children in her urban American context, is of course familiar to us in New Zealand. The statistics and reality around the prevalence of child poverty, violence, and our ongoing failure to rectify them are shocking and sobering.
So in terms of prayer and living the vision, this ‘pebble’ firstly calls and challenges us to protect, to make room – safe room – in our systems, budgets, unitary plans, policies, churches, and society generally, for children, their needs and wellbeing. Then this ‘pebble’ also invites us to relate to children, to play, to use our imaginations, to honesty name and courageously change realities, to ask any and every impossible question, and dream of impossible new tomorrows. This ‘pebble’ invites us to imagine outside the lines, to colour outside the lines, and to laugh a lot. When we make safe and joyous spaces for children, question, dream, and laugh lots the might of Goliath does not seem so mighty.
Secondly: animals. I love the story of Balaam’s ass. The religious bureaucrats who determine what readings are recited in church each year always leave out Balaam’s ass. Maybe they think donkeys don’t talk? Maybe they think we shouldn’t laugh when we read the Bible?
The hapless donkey tries to avoid danger three times, and three times is beaten by Balaam who believes that he is quite entitled to beat an animal. Finally the donkey, via a bit of divine magic, talks back to Balaam admonishing him. Balaam then gets into an argument with the donkey - who is the ass now? – and relents and repents.
The lessons are these: Firstly, don’t underestimate the wisdom of animals. They see and feel things we don’t. To live well with animals one needs to learn how to cooperate. To live well and sustainably on this planet we need to learn how to cooperate. Secondly, those who use violence against animals, believing they have every right to do so, are condemned in this story. Violence is never justified against an animal or person. Protection of the vulnerable is the defining mark of a mature adult and a mature society.
Like with children, this pebble of prayer, invites us to be tender, protective, and cooperative. Animals also like to be touched – patted and stroked. The experience of sitting with a cat on one’s lap, stroking it, feeling both comforted and connected, is a common one. I would call it a prayer, for it manifests a reality and a vision of the mutuality known as God.
Thirdly: beauty. Beauty is all around us - in architecture, art, music, candles, icons, nature, relationships… and much more besides. Beauty is all around, even where and when life is extremely harsh and miserable, if we train our eyes and ears to see and hear. Such training often happens by learning how to be silent, still, and to contemplate.
Michael Ramsey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, once wrote that prayer was not pious words or a peculiar way of getting things done in the world. Rather, it was about listening and waiting – being attentive to that which is beyond oneself, a form of concentration on that which is other. The experts in prayer, as Giles Fraser says, are therefore often strange misfits, otherworldly in so far that they eschew any practical calculation of utility. Prayer is like art; or rather prayer demands the sort of attention that art demands. It takes time. It requires silence.
I find it interesting and instructive that the one Christian denomination that has the best record in advocating for the little, the least, and powerless, is the denomination best known for its long periods of silence in worship. I refer of course to the Society of Friends, the Quakers. It’s as if in silently contemplating beauty [and in doing so also all that seeks to destroy beauty] a strong commitment arises to challenge the god made in the image of power and those who serve that god’s agenda.
The fourth ‘pebble’ is humour. As in both the story about the Mayor and Balaam’s Ass humour and courage are closely linked. Humour upsets those who think they are mighty. It can destabilize the mighty. And they hate it.
When we laugh together and joke together we embody and live into the realm of God.
There’s a great Bob Fulghum story about the game Hide & Seek compared with the game Sardines. In the former the individual hides until found, and then is a loser. The winner is the one who isn’t found. And at the end there is only one winner. Hide & Seek is a winners-losers vision of the world and of the realm of God.
In Sardines though there is only person hiding. When that person is found the seeker gets into their hiding place with them, as does the next successful seeker, and the next. In the end they are all discovered, chiefly by the sounds of children piled on top of each other and giggling. This is my vision of the world and church: being found, being together, and lots of laughter.
The fifth and last ‘pebble’ I will talk about on the 29th September, in my last sermon.
I close with a verbal prayer:
To pray is to make room,
to enlarge our hearts,
to be enlarged by children, animals, beauty, and laughter
to be enlarged by the heart of God,
so that all the little, least, and the powerless
can come on in.
Let us make room.
And be that room.
 Gurney, C The Mayor’s Flash New Clothes.
 Myers, C Binding The Strong Man: A political reading of Mark’s story of Jesus, New York: Orbis, 1994.
 Mark 5:21ff, 7:24ff, 9:14ff
 Miller, A For Your Own Good: Hidden cruelty in child-rearing and the roots of violence, New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1983, p.280
In February 2012 three women, all in their twenties, were arrested in a Moscow Cathedral for saying a prayer,  and then in August that year were sentenced to two years in prison for hooliganism. The prayer they offered was short: “Virgin Mother, redeem us of Putin” – Vladimir Putin being the President, the Virgin Mother being Mary the protectress of Russia.
I preached a sermon that year in support of these Christian women who were protesting against the collusion of church and state, their power structures and their authoritarian policies. That sermon was translated into Russian and I was informed that it was welcomed among those marginalized by Church and State.
This morning I don’t want to revisit the specifics of the Pussy Riot protest, the trial, and its aftermath. Instead I want to talk about prayer, and what it entails.
In 2007 Putin made a statement termed ‘nuclear orthodoxy’ – namely that Russia’s nuclear arsenal would protect her from enemies without, and the Orthodox Church would protect her from enemies within. The political and military chauvinism of Putin would form an alliance with the Father Lord Almighty God of the Patriarch.
One of the convicted protesters wrote: “In our [prayer] we dared… to unite the visual imagery of Orthodox culture with that of protest culture, thus suggesting that Orthodox culture belongs not only to the Russian Orthodox Church, the Patriarch and Putin, but that it could also ally itself with... the spirit of protest in Russia.”
The Pussy prayers were challenging religion’s compliance with and courting of the political power-holders. Was not God a different God from the Father Lord Almighty Goliath? Was not God in midst of the marginalized and vulnerable, those who protested?
During the prayer the group cloaked their faces with balaclavas to de-hierarchize the liturgical space. They appealed to the feminism of the Virgin Mary against the anti-feminism of Putin and the Church elite. The words and actions of the prayer held out a dream, a vision – one of mutuality and equality between women and men, between laity and clergy, and between the governed and the governors.
At the trial the women purposefully drew a connection between their own actions and the New Testament where those persecuted for blasphemy - like Jesus , like Stephen [3[, like Paul  - turned out to be the rightful bearers of divine truth.
So prayer was action. Prayer was attitude. Prayer was words. Prayer was visionary. Prayer was solidarity with those oppressed by the regime. And prayer was costly. Just like Jesus’ prayer when he disrupted trade in the Jerusalem Temple. Prayer was protest.
Our first reading from Exodus tells of two women, Shiphrah and Puah, midwives, who defied the power of the Northern Egyptian Metropolitan Area Health Board, and ultimately the power of the god-like Pharaoh whose orders the Health Board were enforcing. They were told to kill male Hebrew babies. Shiphrah and Puah, however, believed in a different God than Pharaoh and refused. The penalty for refusing would have been death. When summoned by Pharaoh, they lied: “The Hebrew women are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes.”
I think those who work in the health sector need to remember the ethics and courageous leadership of Shiphrah and Puah. They were the only women in the Book of Exodus to act in an overtly political manner. They were the first to assist in the birth of the Israelite nation, the liberated people of Yahweh their God. Shiphrah and Puah understood that Yahweh’s priority, and the priority of their profession to save life had a higher priority than the dictates of the Health Board and Pharaoh.
Shiprah’s and Puah’s actions were a prayer: a prayer of deception; a prayer that involved lying; a prayer of vulnerable women that increased their vulnerability by siding with the condemned; and a prayer that defied the god-like power of the almighty Pharaoh.
Prayer is a journey of discovery. The first prayer I remember learning began with the words: “Our Father, which art in heaven.”  I remember too the posture of kneeling with head bowed and palms together. The emphasis though was on saying the words.
Not that I understood the words. What was the ‘art’ in heaven? What was ‘heaven’ for that matter? I was quickly told that ‘heaven’ was the location of our ‘Father’ who wasn’t actually our father. Not that one could locate heaven – though it did seem to be more ‘up’ than ‘out’ or ‘down’. It was all rather tricky.
Yet as time went on Sunday by Sunday I realized that the words didn’t matter. It was being together, saying them together, and addressing God that mattered. Not that we had many clues about God. But if God was anywhere God was in church. And a blend of voices – the well-dressed and the not so well-dressed, the knowledgeable and the beginners – all raised in unison was sure to be heard. Or so we hoped.
The benefit of the Lord’s Prayer of course is that you don’t have to think about the words. It can operate as a mantra. This is particularly so when it’s sung or chanted. It is meditative. The mind can wander as the tongue recites. Not that I could have explained that back then.
When I progressed to Youth Group the personalized version of God was all important. Father God was now Daddy God. It was quite nice as a teenager to have a surrogate all-forgiving dad when you were having difficulty with the flesh-and-blood one. So prayer was a kind of personal chat - a largely one way chat, with God having to be a good listener.
But such prayers and the deity they were addressed to, in time ran out of relevance and stalled. Talking can be therapeutic when one needs therapy, but what happens when one doesn’t? A personal daddy-god is nice, though about as useful a teddy bear next to the pillow.
Then in my twenties the whole notion of a Father Lord Almighty God who made the planet, directs its future, and with a straight face calls its human creatures ‘sinners’, began to make as much sense as Santa Claus. As Santa was largely in the pocket of marketers and retailers, so this God was largely in the pocket of elites who wanted to solidify their control and keep others compliant. The object of prayer needed a makeover; as did the purpose and practice of prayer.
And the Jesuit priest, Daniel Berrigan, was a great example of how. In a long line of unsung saints, including Shiprah and Puah, including a shepherd boy who took five stones from a brook to engage the military prowess of Goliath, Berrigan and his brothers confronted the American war machine of the Father Lord Almighty God and the passive compliance of the churches that sang that God/Goliath’s praise. They broke into a missile silo in Pennsylvania and tried to remake the nose cone into a ploughshare.  They poured napalm on draft cards. They disrupted trade in Goliath’s temple.
For prayer, as I was slowly learning, was more than words, mantras, music, silence, receiving communion, or walking a labyrinth. Prayer was a way of living out a vision of a better world, and a better God – one known among the little and the least. Prayer was disruptive action. Prayer was critiquing the alliance between the Fathers – the political/military fathers and the religious God fathers. Prayer was trusting in the futility of five little stones rather than Goliath’s swords. Prayer was creating communities of resistance – like this one - to the Father Lord Almighty God/Goliath.
This understanding of prayer as a visionary way to live, to connect, and to be mutually in God and with God, is foundational to my spirituality. I have found too that the difference between those who worship a hierarchical Father Almighty and those who don’t, who pray in/within a God of mutuality, is very large. These Gods frequently clash. They are irreconcilable. We need to choose sides.
At the Pussy Riot trial the charge of blasphemy couldn’t be proved. Instead they were convicted for ‘hooliganism’ or what we might call ‘disruption’. Such charges were what Jesus was accused of in the Gospel reading today. Such charges were what were brought against the Berrigan’s. The political and spiritual Goliaths will always fear and punish pesky shepherd boys or girls, men and women. And they have a reason to be afraid these Goliaths: for the power of mutual love and fairness is ultimately stronger, more far-reaching and life-changing, than the powers of domination and control.
Last Monday Billie and I visited a very special place; the Glowworm Caves at Waitomo. It really was an extraordinary and humbling experience, as our knowledgable guide led us through the beautiful, 24 million year old caves, showing us the stalagtites, stalagmites and even a naturally formed and acoustically perfect cathedral chamber. The highlight of the tour though was the concluding silent boat journey along the underwater river illuminated by thousands of tiny glowworm larvae on the roof of the cave, with beautiful threads like golden hair dangling beneath them. The sense of peace and beauty and the presence of God was beyond description. I was reminded of that lovely Quaker idea of prayer as being held in the light. How wonderful it was that these tiny creatures enabled us to experience this. I also thought I had found a sermon illustration - preachers are always on the lookout for these - well, the glowworms reminded me of St Paul's poetic advice to Christians that they should shine like stars in a crooked and depraved generation.
But ... as our guide explained the life cycle of the glowworm, a slightly different picture emerged. It turns out that the purpose of the glowworms' glow is not to entertain tourists, but to attract their prey, smaller insects which become trapped on the sticky lines hanging below each larva's nest, before being drawn up and devoured. These gentle, peaceful creatures also happen to be very territorial and will fight, kill and even eat each other to get the best place on the cave roof. This explains how they end up evenly spaced out like light fittings. Not such a good example for Christians after all. So much for innocent beauty!
2. A Sabbath Upset
Like the Glowworm cave, the Sabbath meal attended by Jesus in our gospel story may appear peaceful, beautiful and innocent on the surface, but we know from the start that it has been carefully staged. Jesus, the troublemaker, is being watched. But the one under observation is watching too and he can see straight through the actions and motives of his fellow guests.
He notices how, rather like glowworms, they seek the best places at the table for themselves, not caring about the needs or status of others. Jesus lets his fellow guests know he has noticed this and reminds them of an old proverb warning against this kind of behaviour. The host, one of the leading Pharisees, does not escape Jesus's disapproval either. Jesus has noticed how carefully the guest list, with the exception of Jesus, has been drawn up to include safe, friendly, wealthy people who can be relied on to make the host feel good about himself and to return the invitation in due course. Jesus wants to know why the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind down-and-outs are not around the table instead. His objection seems a little impertinent, and we may have some sympathy with the host.
Then again, this was no ordinary meal, but a Sabbath meal, and Jesus was very concerned about the proper and improper observance of the Sabbath, as we heard last week: "Should this woman not be released on the Sabbath" (Luke 13:16); "Does our Law allow healing on the Sabbath or not?" (Luke 14:3); "If anyone of you had a son or an ox that happened to fall in a well on a Sabbath, would you not pull them out at once on the Sabbath itself?" (Luke 14:5). His questions meet with a cold silence and it seems that nothing angers Jesus more than when religious duty is used as an excuse for denying a vulnerable person the help they need.
According to Jewish tradition the celebration of a Sabbath meal had three purposes. Firstly to commemorate the Creation and God's own Sabbath day rest, secondly to remember the exodus, God's act of liberating his people from slavery in Egypt and thirdly to enjoy a foretaste of the future 'messianic' age in which justice will be done for the oppressed and all things put right. How could a genteel dinner party for the well heeled and respectable be 'fit for purpose'? Maybe Jesus had a point: those Jewish religious characters needed to sort out their weekly sabbath meal and make sure it lived up to its billing. But to be fair the same point could be made about our own special weekly meal, Holy Communion, which has a similar threefold purpose and which is equally prone to lose its prophetic edge and degenerate into a piece of bland, comfortable theatre.
3. Confront with Care
The boldness and confidence with which Jesus confronted people about their practices and motives is a clear model for Christian initiatives in society, but it may not always be easy to intervene in the right way. An example given by Prof Kwame Anthony Appiah during the recent Robb Lectures at Auckland University illustrates the point. One of Prof Appiah's main themes was the power of the idea of honour in bringing about social change and improvement. Some real social evils, such as the practice of footbinding in China, have been addressed and greatly reduced or eradicated by encouraging the pursuit of honour or the diminishing of dishonour. But honour can work both ways and Prof Appiah also gave the example of the Church of Scotland's opposition to the practice of Female Genital Mutilation in Kenya, where the Church's stern disapproval backfired and actually made the problem worse, by making the continuation of the practice a matter of national honour. So instead of FGM dying out quietly, as it might have done, it became more deeply entrenched. The lesson of history is not that the Church was wrong to take action and oppose FGM but that tactics need to be thought through. A better approach might have been to listen to and support groups of victims or their supporters within the culture, rather than offer criticism from outside. This alternative approach is in fact what worked so well to help eradicate foot-binding. Not confronting an injustice is not an option, we cannot stand by and allow evil to continue, but we need to look for the most effective strategy.
I am sure we can all think of other examples where opposition by a Church or State or individual to someone else's actions or attitudes has caused a backlash instead of bringing about the hoped for reform. So perhaps we need to choose our tactics carefully, even though Jesus himself does not always appear to have done so. He was at least in conversation with his opponents, until they executed him anyway.
4. The Guide is in the Boat
So where does this leave us and what is the role of Christians in the world? Human society is drifting through some pretty dark caves these days, with wars, atrocities and injustice all around. There is a need for light and for action, but many of the bright lights on the roof of our caves turn out to be no more than glowworms, whose light is merely for their own benefit, whose concern is only for their own flourishing at the expense of anyone who gets in the way. The answer was in the boat with us at Waitomo caves, our guide whose name was actually Christian, a young Maori man, from the tribe which owns the cave.
It was Christian's presence with the rest of us in the boat which got us through the cave and out into daylight. He didn't walk away and leave us there, nor did he stand outside, shouting instructions at us. If Christian hadn't been with us we'd probably still be stuck there now and not doing very well. His calm, knowledgable presence was reassuring, even though it was difficult to see how he was guiding the boat along. Eventually, as my eyes grew accustomed to the darkness, I noticed a rope above the boat and I could see that Christian was holding onto the rope and pulling on it to guide us through and eventually out of the cave into the glorious sunlight.
Like our guide, we Christians living in dark days cannot do our job by shouting instructions from outside society: we are in fact in the same boat as everyone else, including the victims and the perpetrators of violence and injustice. We too are related to the owner of the cave and there is a rope which I would call the presence of God, the things we have learned about God, our relationship with God if you like. You might call it something else, but the rope is here with us and so the boat we are all in need not just drift aimlessly. Our calm presence will hopefully be reassuring to our fellow travellers, and most importantly we can take the initiative and steadily help pull the boat through the darkness and into the light.
A common understanding of baptism is that it is a membership ritual. The candidate is initiated, with water and words, into the Church club. The candidate, or the candidate’s parents and sponsors, make statements assenting to the club’s beliefs, and promises about commitment. To be baptized is to choose to belong.
Those churches that practice believer’s adult baptism express this ‘becoming a member’ understanding most clearly. However, many churches that practice infant baptism have a similar understanding, but commitment is made by proxy. The parents and sponsors pledge allegiance to the club on the infant’s behalf until the child is of an age to make that commitment themselves.
The baptismal theology of the 16th century reformation has quite a different understanding. It is all about God choosing us, rather than presumptuously thinking that we are choosing God.
The reformers, Calvin and Luther, said that the baptism that creates belonging is the death and resurrection of Jesus. In other words the word ‘baptism’ was used as metaphor for the saving work of Christ.
When the Anglican Prayer Book (p.933) refers to baptism as “the sacrament by which we are made children of God” it is not referring to the rite of water and words said around a font, but to the saving work of Christ. This is the basis of the well-known response of Karl Barth to the question “When did you become a Christian?” Barth responded: “In 33 A.D.”
So through God-in-Jesus the whole world is embraced, loved, accepted, redeemed, and said to belong. God and Jesus haven’t formed a church club, instead they’ve taken down the walls of the religion club and said ‘everyone belongs, those of faith or no faith, those deemed acceptable or unacceptable.’ There is neither male nor female, slave nor free, clean nor unclean, saved nor unsaved… all humanity is one, and loved.
Of course the reformers would not agree with my last two sentences. They, like many Christians, were still imprisoned in the delineation between saved and unsaved, still promoting the idea that they know what God thinks, who are God’s favourites, who has reserved seating, and who shouldn’t be let in. They still have a club mentality. In doing so I believe they belittle and shrink God.
The reformers would also not agree with me when I say that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus revealed the constant nature of God, rather than struck a new supernatural deal for humanity’s salvation. The essence of God, that power of mutual relation, was always one that embraced, loved, accepted, redeemed, and had everyone belonging.
That’s why my favourite baptism story is the one from the Sufi tradition that we heard read this morning.  The reprehensible youth – the unrepentant sinner – is, according to the Divine voice, a friend of God’s. When God calls him ‘friend’ the youth has not changed his proud and selfish ways. The youth didn’t come to his senses like the Prodigal Son did. The youth has not said sorry to God, or to his community.
Rather the initiative is solely God’s. God, who in the story is given a literal voice, states that this boy, like every boy and girl, adult and child, is God’s friend. God has always loved and accepted all people, extending grace even when no grace is warranted. And it is that love and acceptance that inspires this youth to go on and serve those entrapped in poverty.
So when a child is baptized we, the Church, are acknowledging the grace and acceptance of God extended to all. We are not saying this child – based on his or her good looks, intelligence, or parent’s beliefs – is special in God’s sight. Rather we are saying that all children, and adults, are special in God’s sight. Baptism is not an invitation to join a club. It is a sign and declaration that in God all the walls and policies and rules that religious clubs create fundamentally don’t matter, and don’t count.
In Luke 13:10-17 Jesus meets a woman who is badly crippled and he wants to, and does, heal her. The problem is that it’s the Sabbath day. The one day of the week where the club rules say ‘Honour God by doing nothing’ [a kind of church bureaucracy response to anything contentious].
Jesus argues with the Synagogue leader. But Jesus’ argument is pretty weak. Animals need water on the Sabbath because it’s necessary for survival. This woman and Jesus could have waited a day longer – I mean she had been like this for 18 years!
As we read the gospels we might realize how often Jesus did something rather than nothing on that one Sabbath day in the week. Whether it was plucking corn to eat (Mark 2:23), healing sick people (Luke 14:1-5), or casting out demons (Matthew 12:43-45). I think he did it deliberately. I think it was a deliberate part of his political-spiritual strategy of challenging the dominant religious club of his day.
Jesus’ sound bite for the press was simple: “The Sabbath was made for people; not people for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). The rules were made for people; not people for the rules. In other words people’s needs trump club rules.
Yet Jesus had more to say than that. He wanted to radically change the rules. He wanted to open up the doors of the club so wide that the club would cease to be a club. It would become unhinged. Religion would change beyond recognition.
As I mentioned last week Jesus’ primary method of political protest was eating and drinking with outsiders and undesirables. The meal table exemplified in miniature the power structure of society. At the meal table Jesus refused to keep to the boundaries set by the religious club.
His critics were horrified, for example, at the thought of women, especially unmarried women, being at his dining table and thus accused him of eating with ‘prostitutes’ [the standard denigrating label for any woman outside of appropriate male control]. Those labeled ‘prostitutes’ were, in the opinion of his critics, people with whom open and free association should be avoided, less one be contaminated.
Jesus’ open policy and vision of inclusion was good news for those beyond the bounds of the religious club. Illness and poverty, for example, were seen as signs of sinfulness, reasons for exclusion, and dangerous contaminants. Jesus didn’t see it that way. He envisioned God’s realm as a banquet table where the last and little ones in society, the ill and the poor, would be welcomed in, polluting the party, and be served first. It was a topsy-turvy vision.
It was also highly political. First century Palestinian society was structured along hierarchical lines, with the patriarch in charge. Below the patriarch were the eldest son, then other sons, then the first wife, etcetera… with slaves at the bottom. It was a top down arrangement held together with strict social codes. Religion supported and emulated this familial arrangement. It was, and largely still is, a male hierarchy.
Jesus’ vision promised a new family beyond patriarchy where everyone, male or female, adult or child, slave or free, were equal siblings under God. Mutual affection, equality in decision-making, and fidelity to one another were worked out in the context of this new ‘family.’  The Jesus movement redefined family just as it sought to redefine both power and God.
How people imagine God and God’s power is directly related to how we imagine a decent person to be. For many generations the most highly valued person was the one with greatest power, wealth, and sometimes knowledge. So people inevitably imagined God as being like that. God was then, as Bill Loader points out, “as unapproachable and self-obsessed as such people have been.”  The way to live was to try to get on with the people of influence. The same applied to God. Keep the commandments! Commandments are not to be questioned. They have absolute authority because they come from absolute authority.
Jesus had a totally different way of imagining God. God is not modeled on the aloof king or the powerful father, but on the mother looking for a lost coin and the dad who cast aside his dignity and went to embrace the son who had hurt him deeply. The façade of dignity and power was dropped in favour of affection and love. It was a deeply challenging redefinition of God, God’s power, and how human power should be exercised.
Should a baby be baptized, welcomed and celebrated in church? ‘Of course,’ you might say. But what if its parent or parents are despicable scumbags and the child is likely to grow up the same? Shouldn’t the church uphold values of right behaviour and therefore discourage and punish wrong behaviour? Doesn’t God have standards? And shouldn’t we?
These questions, though valid, don’t reflect the vision of Jesus. Instead they reflect our need to form clubs, have boundaries, and set rules. Baptism follows only one rule – and that is grace. In the name of grace Jesus deconstructed the walls of the religion club and let all the bent and battered riff-raff in. To paraphrase Edwin Markham:
Religion drew a circle that shut many out
- heretics, rebels, failures no doubt.
But love and Jesus had the wit to win;
They drew a bigger circle that took everyone in.
 De Mello, The Song of the Bird, Gujarat : Sahitya Prakash, 1982, p.85.
 1 Corinthians 13, commonly read at weddings, is in context about the love and mutual affection within the Jesus community.
The Gospel, as succinctly summarised by Kurt Vonnegut, is about a nobody who was a pain in the neck to a lot of people who had better connections than he had. Those people dealt with this nobody by nailing him to a cross. But boy were they wrong about his connections!
Vonnegut in his amusing style was saying that nobodies need to be treated like somebodies because in the end we are all somebodies and we all matter, even pains in the neck.
This morning I want to talk about what’s variably called Holy Communion, the Eucharist, or the Lord’s Supper. It’s when Christians, pilgrims, and others gather around a table. Bread and wine are taken, blessed, broken, and shared. The bread and wine represent Jesus’ life and hope, and by eating and sharing we too re-present that life and hope.
When I was growing up Communion was an intensely personal act. Before you came to the altar rail you needed to have a clean heart, clean shoes, clean fingernails, and be confirmed. Then as you knelt, with head bowed and hands outstretched in cruciform pose, you received the magical and mysterious body and blood of God. You ate God!
However, by the 1980s, Anglican practice had changed considerably. For a starter, children, even babies, could receive communion. Many churches invited everyone to come forward – not just the baptised and confirmed. The gate-keeping around who was allowed to participate was considerably relaxed, and in many places non-existent. God’s holy meal was no longer just for the approved somebodies. Anybodies, nobodies, and even Mermaids were welcome.
It’s important to realize that such a radical change was due to a re-affirmation that this was ‘God’s meal’ not ‘our meal’ or ‘the church’s meal’; and that God’s grace – that boundary-breaking inclusive transforming love – was something that the Church tries to control at its peril. Who are we to prevent the most despicable scumbag connecting with God?
Also by the 1980s, the whole metaphorical structure of Anglican Eucharistic practice had changed. We gathered in community, standing at the rail, or around a table, with head unbowed and eyes open, participating together in Jesus’ life and hope. Sometimes we even passed the bread and wine to each other. It was no longer a private devotional act. The private was public and communal. The magic and mystery was in and between us all. We didn’t so much eat God as be God to one another through love.
It was said of Jesus that he ate and drank and was ‘a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners’. He got great press! When Jesus encouraged his followers in the banquet parable to bring in as ‘many as you find’ (Matt 22:1-13), or in the version from the Gospel of Thomas (64) ‘anyone off the street’, he was advocating social anarchy. For it was then possible anyone could be sitting next to anyone else, female next to male, free next to slave, social celebrity next to social pariah... CEO’s, homeless, bishops, and criminals would all be there without their press entourages - along with the giants, wizards, dwarfs, mermaids, and pains-in-the-neck.
John Dominic Crossan points out that one of the things that distinguished Rabbi Jesus was the way he invited everyone, without distinction, to eat together. It was a sign of “radical egalitarianism”, an ancient and universal dream of a just and equal world.
When the 4th Gospel was written, probably some 60 years after Jesus’ death, the author does not describe the Last Supper like the synoptic authors. There are no words of taking, blessing, breaking, and eating. Instead the author has Jesus take up a towel and basin to wash his followers’ feet – not to show Jesus’ humility, nor to encourage some form of ‘servant ministry’ [note there is nothing glorious about being a servant] – but rather as a demonstration of that radical egalitarianism.
The master [Jesus] is not greater than the servant [Peter, you, or me]. Neither is the reverse true – the servant is not greater than the master. The Jesus movement sought to encourage servant-less and master-less communities where people were brothers and sisters to one another.
Leadership in the Jesus realm is not based on who is the greatest, or who is the most powerful or popular. Nor is the reverse true. Rather within the community of equals each person’s gifts and talents are to be accepted, nurtured, and used.
The words “Do this, remembrance of me”, I therefore would suggest have a context that is broader than simply remembering Jesus, or remembering his death, or in prayer receiving his life [his ‘body and blood’]. Rather the “Do this, remembrance of me” is both recalling the foundations of our table-centred community, namely a bunch of nobodies invited to be somebodies mutually together, and recalling the Jesus vision to be agents of change, love, justice and hope.
Like other Biblical stories, the Emmaus Road, which we heard again today, was not intended to be understood as history. It was rather an archetypal account of how ordinary followers, people we hadn’t heard of before, nobodies, could experience resurrection (or transformation), and through that experience become somebodies.
The first part, on the Emmaus Road, is an encouragement to connect with Jesus’ ongoing life and hope through dialogue and doubting about texts and experience. And it concludes, in the second part, with dropping in at the Emmaus Tavern.
Like with his pretence of ignorance on the Road, the mysterious stranger acts as if he is moving on. But as is the custom of the East the travellers entreat him to accept their hospitality. In the Hebrew ritual of blessing food they recognise who it is. At which point the author uses his literally license to remove the stranger-come-Risen-Jesus from the scene.
Never underestimate hospitality, sharing in food, grace and gratitude, for through such things can flow the power of life-changing godness. This story, written some 40 years after the crucifixion, is saying that it was the experience of the early Church that when they met to share hospitality and extend grace to each other the transforming power called God was in their midst. When they gathered as nobodies - men, women and children on the fringes of both religion and society – in the presence of that accepting and relationship-changing grace they became somebodies to each other.
There has been much debate over the centuries about what exactly is the Communion bread and wine, once taken, blessed, broken and shared. The church has used words like ‘mystery’ and ‘real’ to describe these vehicles of grace and godness. It has used bigger words too – like transubstantiation, consubstantiation, and receptionism. I like the Emmaus definition best: bread and wine are the point of recognition.
At the Communion we recognise who we are, and who – through grace – we might become. We recognise our unity with each other, with the ongoing life and hope of Jesus, and with his vision of justice, mutually, and equality. In this unity we find nurture, empowerment, and challenge.
Jesus was a nobody who after his death was made by his followers into a special somebody. Yet his life story is that of a nobody who sought to treat everyone as a somebody. He dared to make a difference. At heart we are nobodies-made-somebodies who are commissioned to strive to make a world where every nobody is a somebody, where every Mermaid counts.
 Vonnegut, K. Slaughterhouse 5, London : Vintage, 1991, p.89
 Transubstantiation refers to the allegedly change in the bread and wine after blessing into the substance of Christ himself. The underlying essence is changed and they retain only the appearance, taste, and texture of bread and wine. Consubstantiation says that Christ’s body and blood are present ‘in, with, and under’ the forms of the bread and wine. The body and blood of Christ and the bread and wine co-exist in union with each other. Receptionism says that the body and blood are not present literally but spiritually. Believers receive the actual body and blood through faith.
When Billie and I were preparing to come to New Zealand, one of my friends asked me if I would be jumping off any high buildings while I was here. I have to say I was quite taken aback, because nothing could have been further from my mind. But apparently this is something New Zealanders and some foreign visitors enjoy doing here. They attach themselves to an oversized rubber band and hurl themselves off the nearest high building or bridge, smiling as they do it - here's the proof; an invitation I picked up in a local cafe to jump off the Sky Tower! I won't put you on the spot by asking for a show of hands, but I'm sure most of you have already completed this jump.
I will not be following your example, but I mention this pastime of bungy jumping as an illustration of faith. John Wimber, the charismatic founder of the Vineyard Church movement, used to say that faith is spelt R.I.S.K. No marks for spelling, John, but there is an element of truth in what Wimber said. Actions motivated by faith will often involve an element of risk, perhaps to one's reputation, comfort or safety. But an even better reason for choosing bungy jumping as an illustration of faith is that it is all about a relationship of trust. The bungy jumper entrusts his or her life in safety equipment and the people who maintain it and supervise the jump. The person of faith puts their trust in a God whom they cannot see, and for christians this is the God who was revealed in Jesus Christ, who "reflects the brightness of God's glory and is the exact likeness of God's own being" (Hebrews 1:3).
It could be argued that it doesn't matter who or what you put your faith in, so long as you have faith in something or somebody. I have some sympathy with that point of view, perhaps most famously expressed by Prince Charles some years ago, when he said that if he becomes King he intends to be the Defender of faith, not the Defender of The Faith. History certainly shows all too clearly the dangers of the crusading attitude which has grown out of fear and ignorance of other faiths. But on the other hand I believe it does matter who or what our faith is in, just as the reliability of the bungy jump proprietor and his equipment matters. And the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ seems to me to be utterly reliable and trustworthy: someone we can put our faith in with confidence. Glynn might say I'm anthropomorphising God and he's probably right, but this kind of language is a way of making sense of faith and doing justice to the Bible's emphasis on relationship.
The question I want to get onto is how our faith should be expressed. In the churches I first attended after "coming to faith" in my mid twenties, the emphasis was on being able to agree intellectually with certain facts about oneself, about God and about Jesus. That was easy enough to comply with, but in comparison with the dramatic and emotional change I had undergone, it all seemed a bit lightweight and I suspected that more was required of Christians. Believing the "right" things was surely not enough.
Later I became aware of the importance of the liturgical and sacramental expression of faith, and the power it has to mould and shape us as we experience and participate in it. One of the things that is most noticeable for a newcomer to St Matthew's is the effort and care which has been taken to achieve consistency between what the Church stands for and the language which is used in its hymns and liturgy. This is a great step in the right direction, but of course it is not an end in itself. Believing the right things is not enough and neither is singing, saying or performing the right things in a Church service, however beautifully and sincerely it is done. There has to be a real connection between our faith and our actions, between what we sing on Sunday and what we do on Monday. I don't yet know any of you well enough to know how consistently you apply the values you profess here in your day to day lives. But I do know how thoughtlessly inconsistent I can be! As the letter of James puts it "What good is it for people to say that they have faith if their actions do not prove it?" (James 2:14).
The writer of Hebrews was also concerned about the connection between faith and action, as he or she wrote to encourage a group of believers who were being discriminated against, suffering hardship and persecution, as have many of you. In Hebrews 11 we are presented with a roll of honour of characters from the Hebrew bible who are commended for their exemplary faith. The historicity of some of these characters and their deeds may be debatable, but that's beside the point. The chapter reveals a great deal about the faith and aspirations of this New Testament writer and the early christian believers in general, and expresses fundamental human longings with timeless poignancy.
Abraham, we are told, "left his own country without knowing where he was going" (11:8), as so many refugees still do. We learn that "he lived in tents ... waiting for the city which God has designed and built, the city with permanent foundations" (11:9, 10). The writer tells us that all these ancient characters died in faith, without receiving "the things God had promised, but from a long way off they saw them and welcomed them, and admitted openly that they were foreigners and refugees on earth" (11:13). Projecting the struggle of their own generation back onto the ancients, the writer defiantly asserts "It was a better country they longed for, the heavenly country. And so God is not ashamed for them to call him their God, because he has prepared a city for them" (11:16). These words written almost 2000 years ago would not look out of place in the biographies or obituaries of some of our more recent heroes who have campaigned for justice, freedom and equality. I'd like my grandchildren to read words like those in my obituary. As Seamus Heaney reminds us "The way we are living, timorous or bold, will have been our life."
The writer of Hebrews holds up characters like Abraham as role models not because they believed the right things, did the right things or worshipped in the right way but because they acted in anticipation of how the world should be, refusing to passively accept the way things were. To live like this is to be truly human and it requires faith: faith in God and in God's faith in humanity's ability to do right. Here is where despondency can creep in. German theologian Jurgen Moltmann warns "The temptation today is not so much that human beings want to play God. It is much more that they no longer have confidence in the humanity which God expects of them. It is the fearfulness fed by lack of faith which leads to capitulation before the power of evil.”
May we be strengthened in our faith, and newly determined to turn it into action, boldly, compassionately and consistently.
Seamus Heaney 'Elegy' from Field Work (London: Faber & Faber 1979)
Jurgen Moltmann In the End - the Beginning (London: SCM Press 2004)
This is the first of six sermons before I leave St Matthew’s. In these sermons I want to re-visit some of the central ideas that underpin how I understand God, Jesus, the Church, and our common baptismal vocation.
In Anthony De Mello’s Song of the Bird, the reading we’ve just heard, he asks how we can know God, and answers we can’t. ‘Why then,’ he goes on, ‘do we try to speak about God at all?’ He replies, ‘Why does the bird sing?’
Knowing God is a big question, for God is the biggest matrix imaginable, or rather unimaginable. This vastness called God is bigger than our perceptions, ideas, and projections. God is beyond us.
God is bigger too than our language. Indeed words, as many of us who try to engage with God through prayer discover, are often inadequate, and silence becomes our primary tongue.
In Reformed theology this vastness is often referred to as the sovereignty of God. In the Anglican contemplative tradition this vastness is often referred to as the ‘mystery of God’.
The sovereignty tradition suffers from the hierarchical notions of power that have long dominated the political and religious landscape. It seemingly posits that God has unlimited power and control. This, of course, makes God into a monster when innocents are tortured, or earthquakes happen. If God has the power to prevent tragedy and doesn’t, then God is immoral.
However, the life and teachings of Jesus point to quite a different type of power entirely, namely costly love. Such love, I would posit is the defining essence or sovereignty of God, not power or control.
There are incidents in the gospels – particularly the Fourth – where Jesus is portrayed as in control of everything, including his own death. I would suggest however that these are the result of the writers and editors reflecting back on Jesus’ life putting their own gloss on the events and teachings.
I think it is a more accurate portrait of Jesus that he loved compassionately and courageously beyond the accepted boundaries and laws, and then suffered the consequences. He was faithful to his vocation to love, and to his God. He was not a powerful king who could snap his fingers and have a thousand armed angels beat up Pilate and Herod and their sycophants. That is fantasy.
The reading from Mark 9, of Jesus presenting a child as the greatest, is an example I think of not only how we should treat and view the less powerful, not only a critique of political structures [including the Church], but a pericope on the very nature of God.
In our culture we generally attribute value to those who have power – physical, financial, or political. And we typically attribute greatness to such people. Throughout history, and still today, there is a correlation of power, greatness, and gender. It is the powerful and authoritative males – fathers, lords, and kings - who are seen to be the greatest.
Jesus challenges this notion of greatness. Children occupied a lowly place in the first century household, for Jews and Romans alike. Although they represented the future they were for the present a liability, maybe due to the high incidence of infant mortality. Many historians compare their status to that of a servile slave. By calling a child the greatest Jesus is once again turning his world topsy-turvy, reversing expectations, promoting a radical egalitarianism, and solidarity with those of lowly status and vulnerability.
However, I would also suggest that Jesus is making a theological comment: the word for ‘great’ or ‘greatness’ is a name for God in the Hebrew Scriptures. Jesus is saying that the greatness of God is not the power of all-knowing and all-controlling lords and kings, but the greatness of God is revealed in the way a child is treated with dignity, respect, nurture, protection, and love.
God is a way of compassion, not a being overlooking and determining the state of the world. God is revealed in the way Jesus treated children, the marginalized, and excluded. God is, to use Carter Heyward’s definition ‘the power of mutual relationships’. Or St John: ‘God is love’. God is not a being who loves. God is the very essence of transformative, mutual, self-giving love.
The notion of the sovereignty or vastness of God also is about freedom. Initially in the 16th century this might have been expressed in terms of God being not bound by our needs or expectations. But it goes further than that. God is usually shaped by cultures and the elites of those cultures. We project onto God personality, authority, likes and dislikes, etc. Hence Christianity has inherited a male king god who is going to barbecue the bad guys and reward the good, and who bears little resemblance to the words and actions of Jesus.
However there is a problem when we think about God and projection for haven’t we all, as Lloyd Geering might say, made God? Isn’t my notion of God being an energy of transforming love a projection? Sure, I can argue that the way of Jesus revealed such a God. But one can also argue, probably more convincingly, that Jesus – following his first century Jewish heritage – understood God very anthropomorphically as a fatherly being, albeit with a kind heart.
Our projections onto God of course are shaped by our experiences of the Sacred, and of life in general. We experience God in various ways – through reading and studying the Scriptures, through prayer, through trauma, through beauty, through being loved… Some believe that such experiences of the Sacred are formed by our own minds. Others, like me, hold to the mystery of Sacredness beyond me and our minds.
The notion of God’s freedom suggests that we need to be both humble and self-critical in our language about the Divine. Ultimately, we don’t know what God is. God is a mystery. We hope certain things. We have experienced certain things. We trust in certain things. But ultimately we don’t know.