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.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t call an idol for what it is. And the male god is an idol. Every notion of God that becomes so dominant – like ‘Father’ has - that it locks God in to a gender, or a set of behaviours, is idolatrous. God is not fixed, God is fluid. God is not a person, God is transpersonal. God is not big, God is bigger than big, and way bigger than us.
Reformed Theology of the Barthian variety [that’s Karl Barth not Bart Simpson] might agree with my ideas about the vastness of God but would say that God, in God’s freedom, chose to disclosure God’s self to humanity in creation, in the Scriptures, and preeminently through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. God chose to self-disclose by being incarnated.
I don’t think Barth solves the problem of knowing God. Creation is a nice metaphor but actually the world evolved. The Scriptures weren’t written by God, or even dictated by God. They reflect the prejudices, ignorance, and of course the wisdom of their time. Jesus, no matter how exemplary his life, was a human being – time-bound and culture-bound. Some of what he said was not ‘forever true’. He got some things wrong that weren’t edited out by the Gospel writers.
I can though, like most Christians, say that in Jesus we see God. Not all of God of course. But the glimpse of an essence, a way of being, a way of loving, and a way that we believe is vindicated by the resurrected community of his early followers. Jesus offers us a way to live, and the grace in which to live it. The Scriptures, at their best, point to this way of love and mutuality.
So, this bird has sung. I’ve tried to talk about that which is beyond language. No doubt I’ve failed. But I’ll keep singing. I think God is a way, an experience, a smile, and a song, not a fixed entity, a being, a demand, or a Father King. God is known in the way a child is respected and valued. God is known when the little and lost are prioritized ahead of the pious and powerful. This is the way in which I try to walk, and which shapes my prayer.
 El Ha Gadol. Deut 10:17
 Isabel Carter Heyward, The Redemption of God: the theology of mutual relation, Wipf & Stock, 2010.
 I John 4:8.
 As Bill Loader says, “When we hail Jesus as king and mean by it the king of love, the servant king, we have to work very hard not to allow that to be subsumed under the more popular images of greatness which Jesus was trying to subvert.” http://wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/MkPentecost16.htm
It seems to be that every time I preach at St Matt’s, I have a problem with the Scripture that the Lectionary has assigned. Today is no different! Abraham bartering with a reluctant God on behalf of the righteous people of Sodom. Then, following the overly familiar Lord’s Prayer, Jesus’ somewhat disquieting parable of the desperate friend trying to rouse his neighbour at midnight. All of which is capped off by the pithy “Ask, search, knock” as a takeaway verse. With Scriptures like these, it is perhaps not surprising that plenty of people of faith (and a good number who might not claim that title) conclude that “if we nag God enough, [God] will come through with the wherewithal for our lives.” 
Robert Capon writes, I have nothing against urging persistence in prayer; but … persistence doesn’t win anywhere near often enough to be held up as the precondition of God’s answering prayer.
And I will not let you hand me the cheap, cruel [response] that when persistence doesn’t win it probably wasn’t real persistence. Tell that to somebody who asked, and sought, and knocked till her knuckles bled for a child who eventually died anyway. Or if you don’t have the nerve for that, try at least to remember that no matter how persistent or productive your prayers, there will inevitably be, on some dark day, one whoppingly unproductive prayer of yours … that God will answer, “Sorry; the door … is already shut…” 
So what are with to do with these texts? Close the Bible? Conclude that God is like a crooked politician who needs persistent lobbying in order to do obvious good?
Discard prayer as a useless waste of time, and skulk off?
As I was weighing up these as possible options, I heard a story on Te Manu Korihi news on Radio New Zealand. My ears pricked up at the first line:
An expert in Te Reo Maori says karakia (or prayers) need to be adapted to remain relevant in today's society. Po Temera teaches at Te Wananga o Aotearoa. 13 graduates are now part of a 1-off, 2 year course about karakia, or prayer… Karakia are often used for opening ceremonies or to bless new buildings. Professor Temera says … traditional karakia fall short of fulfilling the needs of the modern environment. … In order for there to be understanding of what we need to do and compose for our environment we also need to have an excellent understanding of the psyche that went on in the minds of our [ancestors]. So what we are doing is bringing the past to the present.’ 
It seems to me that this is precisely the task before us, too. Our traditional understandings of prayer fall short of fulfilling the needs of our post-modern environment. Thus, we need to seek to understand what is going on in the psyche of these texts in order to bring them helpfully into the present. Or as the disciples might have put it, “Lord, teach us to pray.”
Call me a wuss for side-stepping Genesis, but I happen to know that Glynn tipped his hat to that passage in last Sunday’s sermon, so I’m going to tackle Luke instead. And there’s plenty to be going on with there. The first thing to note is the Lord’s Prayer, the parable of the friend at Midnight, and the Ask, Search, Knock injunction belong together. Separate these elements from each other and what they have to say about prayer becomes distorted.
Note that Lord’s Prayer responds to the disciples’ request that Jesus, who so often took himself off to pray, teach them how to do it.
The way that the church has integrated these words into its life over two millennia means that they carry a subliminal quality. Even those who have long since discarded faith can recall large parts of this prayer, so ingrained is it in the Christian psyche. For some there is comfort in knowing that when we can no longer find words with which to speak to God, these remain. Yet there is a distinct disadvantage to this liturgical familiarity.
Douglas John Hall notes that “Pious convention has conditioned most of us to repeat this prayer so quietly and reverently that we fail to recognize” just how badly mannered it is. After a relatively short salutation, (which has no softening tone), no “please” or “thank you”, the prayer basically says “Give us, forgive us, lead us, deliver us.” Just a hop, skip and a jump away from being rude.
We know from our own experience that prayer emerging out of desperation is the usually the least eloquent and the most honest.
Hall writes that “the whole assumption of this prayer is that it is uttered out of a condition of real necessity. The one who prays thus is driven by great need – there is neither the inclination nor the time for … pretence.”  And we, the church, teach our children to mumble it, or to sing it beautifully in a manner that belies its energy, drive and need.
“Give us” recognizes that beyond our illusions of control, ultimately we are dependent on God. “Forgive us” acknowledges that no matter how stridently we might justify ourselves, we unwittingly and deliberately cause hurt. “Lead us” and “deliver us” remind us that the prerequisite for being found, is knowing ourselves to be lost.
And so, this prayer points beyond its own content towards the very purpose of prayer; the invitation to enter an honest and unpretentious conversation with the Holy, in which we might discover who we are. This prayer that Jesus put on our lips is what Barbara Brown Taylor was getting at when she suggested that the most appropriate posture of prayer is naked in front of a mirror; for there, it is impossible to pretend we are anyone other than who we really are.
When we understand the urgency and honesty of this prayer, then the parable that follows simply reinforces the point in picture language. Hall writes, “Authentic prayer is not a meek, contrived and merely ‘religious’ act; it is the act of human beings who know how hard it is to be human.
Real prayer cannot be faked. Its only prerequisites are sufficient self-knowledge to recognize the depths of our need, and enough humility to ask for help.” 
The invitation to a life-time of honest, robust, delighted, angry, grateful and sometimes desperate conversation with God, is an invitation to relationship. And that is neither formulaic nor predictable. And yet, out of that honesty with ourselves and with God, can emerge the kind of prayer that is the blank space between the words, the waiting, and the silence. The place where communion resides. It is there that we come to know ourselves as beloved children of God.
When we understand the purpose of prayer as relationship, then we may just find that as we ask, search and knock, the answer to our prayers is to be found in the very act of praying.
In the name of the Trinity of Love, God in Community, Holy and One.
 Robert Farrar Capon, The Parables of Grace, excerpts from pages 72-73.
 Robert Farrar Capon, The Parables of Grace, excerpts from pages 73-74.
 Eru Rerekura reporting, Te Manu Korihi News, 8.45am Thursday 25 July 2013, Radio New Zealand National. (edited)
 Douglas John Hall, ‘Proper 12 (Luke 11:1-13): Theological Perspective’ in Feasting on the Word, 290.
 Douglas John Hall, ‘Proper 12 (Luke 11:1-13): Theological Perspective’ in Feasting on the Word, 290.
The Gospel reading today from Luke has long been contentious. The most troubling phrase is: “Mary has chosen the better part” (v.42). It sounds as if the practical concerns of her sister Martha, and the desire of Martha to seek the support of Mary, are rebuked by Jesus. It seems that Mary’s being and listening, has trumped Martha’s doing and caring.
The other concern is around Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet and listening to him. Some commentators wish to use this phrase to support the equality of women disciples. They would maintain that such a posture of sitting and listening is that of a disciple and that normally disciples of great teachers were male. Jesus, in this reading, would be defending the rights of Mary to be equally present with men and break free from stereotyped female roles.
Others point out however that in first century Hebrew culture it was not unusual for women to study Torah and, furthermore, Mary is portrayed as passively sitting and listening rather than engaging and proclaiming. In the Fourth Gospel Mary and Martha are portrayed much more positively: equals with each other, servers at the table, and preachers of the faith.
Luke tells us this is Martha’s household. She is the one running the place. She’s the one offering hospitality (v.38). This was very similar to, indeed may be a reflection of, the situation in the early church when believers met together in homes – there were no church buildings – and these homes often belonged to rich widows.
Hospitality was and is very important in Near Eastern culture. In our first reading today from Genesis 18, it was by offering hospitality to three strangers that Abraham encountered God.
When we offer hospitality we open ourselves to God. There are many religious stories about offering food and shelter to strangers and discovering that the stranger is an angel, or even Jesus, in disguise. Such stories are an admonishment to not judge others – by their familiarity or clothes or culture or habits. Such stories also remind us that the Divine can surprise us, being in our midst in a guise we don’t recognise.
It is important to note in Luke’s story however that it is not the offering of hospitality that is the problem but the manner in which Martha is doing it: she is fussing around. Luke uses three different words which depict her behaviour as being distracted, worrying and bothering. The criticism does not appear to be aimed at the practical roles which belong to being a good host, but the preoccupation with them. The fact that they are traditionally female roles may be irrelevant for the story.
The story is making a point about attitudes. It is when practical tasks assume dimensions which subvert best intentions. Being too worried about the arrangements may subvert the purpose of the visit. Martha, in her concern to feed and make everyone comfortable, might end up never hearing and engaging with Jesus.
“Today, the great enemies of universal hospitality,” writes the Benedictine monk Hugh Feissi , “are busyness, fear, and professionalism. If I don't have time to talk to the person calling for help, hospitality is out of the question. The advent of a guest, like the unanticipated needs of fellow monks, is a gauge of our use of time. If we have no time for the guest, our day is too full.”
The story of Abraham at the Oaks of Mamre, as I earlier indicated, is also about hospitality.
In the Garden of Eden, Genesis 1-3, God had walked with the first human beings calling out to them as a familiar friend. Since then, however, God had only made sporadic appearances. However, in Genesis chapter 18, the text says “The Lord appeared to Abraham... as he sat at the entrance of his tent.” Looking up Abraham saw three strange men approaching and immediately, despite the fierce sun in the middle of the day, ran out to greet them. In this episode we sense the warmth, eagerness, and energetic generosity of the man.
With typical Near Eastern courtesy Abraham would not allow the men to pass until he had given them all the refreshment and comfort in his power. All was haste, bustle and excitement as Abraham rushed to pour out his generosity at the feet of three total strangers, falling over himself to give them his best.
Yet in his world – as in our own – the stranger often represented a danger. Even today, we have to train children to be wary of strangers. Strangers are an unknown quantity. Abraham himself lived as a stranger in Canaan and recognized his marginal status there; a stranger had no tribe or kin to offer protection. However, here at the Oaks of Mamre Abraham was ready to bring three strange men into his family home and became the first human being to enjoy an intimacy – albeit a transient one – with the Divine since the expulsion from Eden.
This type of meeting with God – an epiphany if you like – was common in the pagan world, but later Israelites would deny that God could assume human form. This legend at Mamre derives from a time when the religion of the Israelites differed little from that of their pagan neighbours.
However the story was included in the Bible because it underlined a truth that would be of crucial importance in all three monotheistic traditions. Jews, Christians, and Muslims would all insist that practical charity to others was the most important religious virtue of all.
Christians would see the apparition of Mamre as an early manifestation of God as Trinity, a revelation which had come about as a result of Abraham’s eager yearning toward three fellow human beings. He bowed low before these three strangers, showing them the same reverence as to his God. As a result, says Karen Armstrong , God could sit and eat with Abraham as a friend.
Friendship demands a certain parity. God no longer wanted unthinking obedience from the people he had chosen. He decided to take Abraham into his confidence about his imminent destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Unlike Noah, however, Abraham did not scuttle obediently to do God’s bidding but had the courage to argue with this frightening and notoriously unpredictable deity. Abraham begged God not to destroy the innocent along with the guilty. Again Abraham demonstrated his compassion, besides a concern for justice, pleading for the lives of total strangers in the condemned cities. Abraham had his faults, but he was capable of the selfless love for his fellow human beings that all the great world religions have shown to be the ultimate test of true spirituality.
So, to recap on Abraham: He extended hospitality to strangers, and in that encounter met God as a friend – the first human to do so since the Garden of Eden. That friendship with God led God to confide in Abraham, and Abraham in turn to lobby God to spare the lives of strangers [which God did]. There is a circulate pattern here. There is also the proclamation of a central theological truth: the way of hospitality and compassion, especially to strangers, is the way to God.
The Abraham story gives a helpful tablet on which to re-think the Martha and Mary story. Luke’s ‘Martha’ is a critique of anxiety, not a critique of the practical requirements of hospitality. Luke is though encouraging building friendship with God-known-in-Jesus. Friendships that in which we hope, like Abraham’s with God, both parties give and receive nurture and challenge.
 Hugh Feiss OSB Essential Monastic Wisdom: Writings on the Contemplative Life.
 Armstrong, K In the Beginning: a new reading of the Book of Genesis (1996)
Our Gospel Reading tells us we find our authority not in what we say but in what we do.
And the agenda for our doing - for us who dare to stand so proudly and impertinently in the centre of the city is ‘people’:
those who sleep out in the Domain
those who live in tower block apartments with decks overlooking the sea
those who wander the streets looking for a porch that’s warm enough to sleep in,
the transsexual prostitutes up on K Road,
the new born babies at the Hospital,
the gamblers in the Casino who can’t leave the tables even to go to the toilet,
the children in our primary schools excited and eager to discover how to understand things.
We are here on this hill for a purpose - a gospel purpose - to stand beside these people and to proclaim about another way - and not just proclaim, but also to challenge and live the simple, difficult, God given impossible life of Christ
Anything else is a travesty of the love of God.
(We can as a community settle for easy answers if we want to like the simplistic biblical fundamentalism that seems so attractive these days - that demands that we deny our intellect in the cause of comfortable, self-congratulating, naïve conformity.
Or like the warm, cotton-wool Christianity made up of little more than hymns and anthems, stained glass windows and a pietistic glow in the pit of our stomachs.
Or like our desperate attempt to cling to those old fashioned values that get muddled up for Gospel-truth and seek to keep the status quo safe and secure -
How easy it is to mistake the old fashioned for the eternal.)
I want to look then today at the tools we have to enable us to live the Gospel - to face the questions people pose for us.
When we have to choose what being a Christian community is all about, what have we got to help us?
First of all we have the Christian tradition - 2,000 years of the Christian church struggling to express and live the faith that is in us.
This tradition we find in scripture
in our creeds and liturgies
in our buildings and music
in the lives of the saints
in the stories our grannies and granddads told us
And part of that is also us - our history - our story - ordinary people in every century struggling with God and each other over the washing up - ordinary people, praying, and telling their stories.
We are as much part of that same dynamic yearning as were those early Christians - some saints, some martyrs, some just ordinary 4th century, 19th century, 21st century men and women.
So when we look at issues of war and peace, justice and injustice, love and sexuality, family and community, taxation and community care, the Treaty of Waitangi and inclusiveness we have a great resource here.
And much more than 2000 year of Christian history. We are part of that much larger tradition that contains the strivings and the vision of the many faiths - a common searching after God told in so many languages and dialects and cultures and dreams, be they Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim or the many other religious traditions that fill our world.
So the first tool we have is the history of generations of believing people attempting to walk with God and trying to talk about this journey as honestly as possible.
And it’s messy and chaotic and troublesome and there are many contradictions in the many truths that make up our tradition.
The second tool we have - our second resource - is the world around us.
Make no mistake, God speaks through our world - through science and politics, through sociology, psychology and anthropology - through the desire for and the work of people of peace and integrity, through education, and the search for justice and health - through art and poetry, drama and literature.
I often find a deeper grasp of theology and theological questions expressed in secular poetry and drama than in theological lectures.
If we are frightened of a real engagement with the world’s struggles we will miss an enormous quantity of God’s many truths available for us if we are not too blind or scared to see. But it too is full of contradiction. Full of disagreement and debate, argument and rows.
Our third resource is here and now
it is us
this band of friends
God is revealed in the story of this place and in the stories that we bring to this place and live out here - in each other’s praying or lack of praying, with our successes and failures, hurts and joys. In the hard work of being church.
This is how it is - we might wish it other - we may have nothing in common other than our desire to be church but this is how it is - as we are called to be church and make church - to be Christ and make Christ. Here is the hard work of being community - hard work in the face of each other’s idiosyncrasies and peculiarities.
And finally our fourth resource - it is us as individuals.
If we look as honestly as we can at how we are and what we are actually doing as feeling, hurting, hoping, loving individuals, then I believe we can create and identify the agenda we have as individuals for our journey here. This too is full of unease and difficult, contradictory truths.
I believe that it is in the debate and conflict, the argument and struggle, the delight and the moments of togetherness that fill our traditions, our world, our community and ourselves that we are able to discover the real reason we are here - not the acceptable reasons we kid ourselves about - the respectable Sunday reasons of disciples - but the hidden heady reasons of needy, difficulty, glorious, friends.
E te whanau a te Karaiti tena koutou katoa! E te rangatira, toku tino hoa e Glynn, tena rawa atu koe to karanga mai ki ahau ki te whakatakoto etahi o oku nei whakaaro mo te Rongopai Tapu te ata nei.
Loving greetings to you all my whanau in Christ and very special greetings to my dear friend and brother Glynn for honouring me with this invitation to share with you in this sacred moment something of my thoughts on the always-precious Gospel message for this day.
From the readings this morning there emerge two distinct themes – healing and mission.
The 2 Kings story is at its heart, to do with Elisha’s miraculous healing powers and of the subsequent conversion of the Aramean Army Commander Namaan.
The narrative provides a lovely little vignette of the male centred politics of reconciling ‘strangerness’ – the Israelite King is appealed to by the Aramean King to facilitate access to the healer Elisha for Commander Namaan who has a form of leprosy.
As was custom with deals struck between Kings, there was first the handover of a massive offering of koha.
Then as so often occurs in ‘cross cultural’ communication, there arose a potentially disastrous misunderstanding between the two top leaders.
Just in time Elisha intervenes and the healing deal is outlined but not before the ungrateful Namaan puzzles about the lack of grandeur and spectacle surrounding his curative moment.
Finally thanks to the faith filled urgings and wisdom of his servants, Namaan does as he is instructed, finds his flesh restored like that of a young boy and dutifully declares, ‘Now I know there is no God in all the earth except in Israel…’
Like so many Bible stories this one also has a reassuring outcome but what irritates me mightily about this story (and so many others) is the absolute lack of recognition of just who it was who actually initiated the healing possibility in the first place and then as I have just mentioned, just who it was who settled the egotistical tantrum of the military man with leprosy.
The nameless young girl captured in Israel and brought to Syria to serve the wife of Namaan was the one with the knowledge of Elisha. Without her voice, without her compassion there would be no healing, no conversion and yet, is there any evidence of recognition of her, of gratitude being expressed to her, of realizing the prophetic nature of her intervention?? Similarly it was the servants who calmed Namaan down and encouraged him to just obey the very simple instruction to ‘wash and be clean’.
How often it is even now in our 21st century time that the precious contributions of those who are regarded as ‘the least among us’ remain unnoticed, unrecognized, unacknowledged.
For example, I have been watching and listening with increasing outrage and sadness the current largely nasty natured public debates about the ‘beggar and homeless’ problem here in our beloved city.
I long for us to notice, to recognize and to acknowledge that those currently being objectified often so cruelly and dismissively are in fact holding up before us all a God given opportunity to heal our ourselves and thus our society of the evil of greed, of self centredness, of unfettered ambition, of moral deficit.
No, the poor and the homeless are not necessarily articulating their plight in so many words, but surely the visible, tangible presence of any of our sisters and brothers whose lives are characterized by wretchedness ought be sufficient for us to respond with radical and redemptive love?
Luke’s Gospel provides the responsive template. As long time champion of the underdog Gustavo Gutierrez explains. Jesus instructions have a central nucleus – the disciple’s liberty. ‘Carry no purse, no bag and no sandals’, in other words do not trust your possessions, do not rely on power. Otherwise you will not be able to be witnesses of peace, you will not accept to eat what is offered to you and you will not know how to give life to others. In short you will be incapable of announcing that the kingdom is at hand.
To the extent that, as individual Christians and as church, we are attached and we are bound to the possessions and powers of this world, so too are we unavoidably tempted by compromise and convenience. Then we attempt to preach a Gospel that does not upset the powerful’.
Jesus knows that in Jerusalem the leaders of the people and the occupying power are going to reject him and mistreat him but that does not make him renounce his freedom as the one sent by the Father. Instead he is intent on offering that same freedom to his disciples – frustratingly both they and we fail on too many occasions to apprehend that incalculably precious gift of faith filled freedom.
The Gospel of Luke is always so compelling in its urgency and in its clarity – what could be more unambiguous than verse 16. ‘Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.’
And yet here we are as 2013 Anglicans all somewhat at odds with each other over various controversies and doctrinal differences. We fuss and we fret and we squabble like crazy and expend so much good energy on point scoring and upstaging, on diminishing and disciplining each other and on excluding those who listen, but not uncritically, and who then choose conscientiously not to behave as obediently as we think they ought. Effectively then through our judgemental and punitive actions we too are becoming well practiced at rejecting ‘the one who sent me’.
My own experience of our beloved Church in more recent times has given me cause for both deep sadness and just occasional joy. We have not in any consistent and fulsome way been faith filled exemplars of the twin themes of healing and mission and it would seem to me that unless and until we sincerely recognize and then respond with genuine humility and aroha to the voices and the presence of those who are the least among us within our own ecclesial household, then the affliction of our own internal ‘leprosy’ will continue unabated.
I think we all thought that the three tikanga Constitution was the cure all for all that had previously beset us – post-colonial imperialism in the guise of clericalism, racism, possibly even sexism – (homophobia wasn’t even in popular Anglican parlance in 1992!). I think we meant well all those years ago but so much has changed since 1992 and little or nothing now remains of the lived reality of those times.
I have said it before in this Church, that I believe we continue to uncritically valorize our now 20 plus year old Constitutional arrangements at our increasingly deserved peril.
As long as we insist upon placing an unexamined premium upon what differentiates us rather than upon that, which unites us as fragile, fallible and precious human beings, then the prospect of us becoming fully and fabulously and credibly God’s mission facing Church remains distressingly remote.
As long as I insist upon being a tikanga (a humanly determined cultural construct) over and above being a tangata (a divinely created human being) then the dust will never be fully wiped off my feet.
It seems so ironic in so many ways because even here in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is sending the seventy out into the places of unfamiliarity not the places of cultural safety. He is sending the seventy out to be what Freeman describes as ‘a religious group grasped by the absolute experience of God and uncompromising in its desire to be at one with that experience even while remaining humorous, humble and above all, not condemning of those of other beliefs or practice’.
Does this resonate with our experience of our three-tikanga church – I suspect not and so what are we to do?
My sense is we must find within ourselves the courage to reignite a sense of unyielding hope – the kind of hope that works against all the evidence until the evidence itself begins to change.
My sense is we would do well to insist upon according the highest priority to living not into our currently limiting zones of cultural particularity but rather into newly apprehended understandings of A Gospel for the Common Good. For is not our belief that nothing can so make a person an imitator of Christ as caring for their neighbours – neighbours that is, who are undifferentiated, irrespective of tikanga by any definition?
I agree with Jim Wallis. Did Jesus not tell us that a new relationship with God would bring us into new relationship with our neighbor, especially the most vulnerable of this world, even with our enemies? This enduring call to love our neighbor unconditionally is then surely the foundation for re-establishing and reclaiming the common good?
I think we would do well to recognize that the tikanga tango, which continues to dominate our ecclesial landscape, is in today’s unimaginably complex demographic context now nothing more than an increasingly irrelevant dance of avoidance.
My real sadness is that the only ones calling the tunes are those who are charged with leading our faith communities and increasingly that leadership is turned in on itself rather than outward to where the harvest is plentiful but the laborers few.
My fervent prayer this day is that we might instead begin to think again very, very seriously about Jesus unequivocal response when asked which is the greatest commandment?
There has never been a more radical statement in response – we are to love our neighbours as tangata and not as tikanga, that is to say, we are to love all in our neighborhood’s and not just some, as ourselves.
Nothing in there about tikanga differentiation, sexuality differentiation, age, economic status, migrant versus tangata whenua – seriously then, how hard can it be to recognize and respond to the poor and the homeless as our neighbours no less?
My sisters and brothers in Christ does this not mean that we actually can no longer delay – does this not mean that the time is now for us to begin conversing about just how it is that we will begin to live more fully, more sincerely, more faithfully into that new found Gospel of and for the common good?
Does this not mean that we finally get it, that our neighbours concerns, rights, interests, needs, freedoms and wellbeing are just as important and precious as our own? Just imagine the healing, just imagine our future capacity as radical activists and fearless witnesses for God’s mission.
We have just heard a fascinating story of Jesus going to the margins of the margins of society, seeking to gather into the community anyone who has ever been an outcast.
The man with unclean spirits, who asks, “What have you to do with me?” had so many things against him in the eyes of Jewish society: He was a foreigner. He was naked. He lived among the dead in their tombs. He had seizures. He was probably suffering from some kind of mental illness, which caused him to behave erratically. And he kept close proximity to pigs! Anyone of these would have assured that devout Jews would have kept their distance, but not Jesus. He did what he could to help bring him back into community that he might no longer suffer isolation.
While scholars question the historicity of the story, they do not question that it reveals the truth of Jesus’ radical compassion. But like many good stories it has other layers of meaning as well. The story also challenges the notion that evil is transcendent, something outside of our selves. That Satan is some kind of principle beside God, a divine sort of yang to God’s yin. Due to this truth the title of the story could just as well have been, “Where the Wild Things Are.”
Any parent or grandparent is more than familiar with Maurice Sendak’s ageless children’s story of mischievous Max in his white wolf suit who is sent to bed without his supper for defying his mother. But strange things happen in his room and fantasies and Max is soon off to where the Wild Things are. They are no match for a kid with courage. When he stands up to them like he did to his mother, they crown him their king. Max then leads his subjects into a wild rumpus that does not end until he sends them to bed without their supper. But conquest is no cure for a homesick heart and Max sails back to his very own room, and lo and behold, to a waiting hot supper.
Joseph Campbell, famous for his study of myths and universal symbols, once told Bill Moyers that Sendak’s description of Max taming of the Wild Things was one of the great moments in literature because “it's only when a man tames his own demons that he becomes the king of himself if not of the world.”
When Moyer’s shared Campbell’s observation with Sendak he was deeply moved because of his obsession with evil. He was somewhat fatalistic about evil because as wonderful as human beings can be, they are capable of unspeakable atrocities.
He came by his fatalism honestly. Many of his family members died in the holocaust. It was probably this family history that led him to create an English version of Brundibár, a children's opera by Jewish Czech composer Hans Krása. It was originally performed 55 times in one year by children in a concentration camp in Czechoslovakia.
What made this more horrific was it was especially performed for the Red Cross who came to inspect the camp. What the representatives did not know at the time was that much of what they saw was a show and that one of the reasons the camp seemed so comfortable was that many of its residents had been deported to Auschwitz to reduce crowding. Later Brundibár was filmed for a Nazi propaganda film that showed what an idyllic place the camp was. When the filming was completed Krása and most of the children were taken to Auschwitz. Most were gassed upon their arrival.
The story of Brundibár is about two fatherless children whose mother is ill. The doctor tells them she needs milk to recover, but they have no money to buy more. They decide to sing in the marketplace to raise the needed money. But the evil organ grinder Brundibár chases them away. However, with the help of a fearless sparrow, keen cat, and wise dog, and the children of the town, they are able to chase Brundibár away, and sing joyously about defeating evil in the market square, saving their mother.
Sendak wrote a children’s book by the same title and added a PS after the happy ending from Brundibár. “They think they have won the fight, they think I’m gone — not quite. Nothing ever works out neatly. Bullies don’t give up completely. One departs, another appears, and we shall meet again my dears! Tho’ I go, I won’t go far. I’ll be back. Love, Brundibár.
Luke’s story is also a reminder that the satanic will be around us always, for part of being human is carrying demons, just as part of being human is fleshing out the divine. Our 21st century minds rebel against the idea of demons, but we do know that our biases and prejudices -- often taught to us or absorbed from our collective unconsciousness, our scars from past experiences, and our fears are the faces of those demons. When we project our demons onto others who we perceive as different from us we are no different than the Gerasenes. We don’t mind others seeing our divinity, but we need scapegoats to bear away the evil in our own hearts that it may not be revealed.
When Jesus dismissed the cultural norms that isolated the troubled man to be in relationship with him, the Gerasenes were less than pleased. In doing so Jesus helped them to see he was not all that different from them. Or — perhaps more to the point — Jesus helped them see that they were not all that different from the man running around naked among the tombs. Whichever way they saw it, they didn’t much appreciate having it brought to their attention, so they told Jesus to be on his way.
Jesus is bringing it to our attention as well. Who do we demonise? Who are the demoniacs that we chain to the margins of our lives? Are we prepared to upset the status quo and unchain them and sit down to talk with them? Are we prepared to discover that they are not much different than ourselves?
Do we have the compassion of Jesus? Do we have the courage of Mischevous Max? “And when he came to the place where the wild things are they roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws till Max said “BE STILL!”
Only if we have that compassion and courage, and remember that Brundibár is not far away, will the world be a little less evil.
To understand our Gospel reading this morning, the story of the woman washing Jesus' feet at the meal table of Simon the Pharisee [Luke 7:36 - 8:3], it is necessary to know something of Jesus' politics, and the religio-political system he was confronting. This sermon will draw significantly on some work of Marcus Borg's[i].
Jesus said, "Be compassionate as God is compassionate" [Luke 6:36]. For Jesus, compassion was the central quality of God and the central moral quality of a life centred in God. Compassion was not simply an individual virtue but a way of expressing an alternative socio-political vision. Compassion was, and is, political.
Compassion means feeling the suffering of someone else and being moved by that suffering to do something. In Hebrew to say that God is compassionate is to say God is 'womb-like'. As a mother loves the children of her womb, so God loves us and feels for us. Compassion has nuances of giving life, nourishing, and caring.
Contrary to, and in contra-distinction to, this vision of God as compassion the first century Jewish world extolled holiness. "Be holy as God is holy" [Leviticus 19:2].
To understand the role holiness played in that world we need to understand how the purity system operated. Holiness was understood to mean 'separate from everything unclean'. One's purity status depended to some extent on birth. Priest and Levites - both heriditary classes - came first, followed by 'Israelites' followed by converts to the faith. Further down the list were those of illegitimate birth, followed by those men with damaged testicles and those without a penis.
But one's degree of purity or impurity also depended on behaviour. Those observant of the legal codes were 'pure'. The worse of the non-observant were 'outcasts'. They included occupational groups like tax collectors and shepherds. The observant were called 'righteous', and the non-observant 'sinners'. Although the word sinners had a range of meanings it did not include everyone - as it does in much Christian theology today - but rather particular groups of people.
Physical form was associated with purity. People who were considered not 'whole' - the maimed, the chronically ill, lepers and eunuchs - were on the impure side of the spectrum.
Economic status was also associated with purity. Though to be rich did not automatically make one pure, being abjectly poor did. To some extent, this association resulted from popular mythology, still prevalent today, which sees wealth as a blessing from God. And to some extent, it arose because the abjectly poor could not in practice observe the purity laws.
One's gender also was a determinant of purity. Like with wealth, there was nothing about being male that made one automatically pure. However, men were considered to be purer than women. The bodily processes of childbirth and menstruation were considered sources of impurity. Generally, consistent with the status of women in a patriarchal culture, women were seen as second class.
Lastly, the polarity of pure and impure was correlated with whether one was a Jew or Gentile. Again, being Jewish didn't guarantee purity. But being Gentile guaranteed impurity.
These sharp social boundaries were maintained by the institutions of the Jerusalem temple and the priesthood. Priests were bound by more stringent purity rules. Moreover, the income of both temple and priests depended upon 'tithes' - taxes on agricultural produce. Tithing was closely linked to purity; untithed produce being impure and thus not able to be purchased by the observant. So priests, purity, and money were all linked together.
It is in the context of a purity system that created a world with sharp social boundaries between pure and impure, righteous and sinner, health and ill-health, male and female, rich and poor, Jew and Gentile, that we can see the sociopolitical significance of compassion. In the message and activity of Jesus we see an alternative vision: a community shaped not by the ethos and politics of holiness, but by the ethos and politics of compassion.
Many of Jesus' sayings criticised the purity system. He criticised a system that emphasised tithing but neglected justice. Tithes on produce amounted to taxes paid to the priests and Temple, and untithed produce was labeled 'impure'. The labeling of goods as 'pure' and 'impure' was therefore a financial rort. Those who couldn't pay tithes were the very poor, who were then themselves labeled 'impure' or sinners. Jesus tried to turn the purity system inside out by speaking of purity being on the inside, in the spiritual heart, and not on the outside, with external observance.
The parable of the Good Samaritan is very clear in its critique of the purity system. The priest and the Levite who walked on past a man they believed to be half-dead. They were to maintain a level of purity that would be violated by contact with death. The Samaritan (who not incidentally, was radically impure due to his race and religion) on the other hand is described as the one who acted compassionately. The parable was criticising the holiness system and advocating the path of compassion.
It was not only in his teachings but in his behaviour that Jesus critiqued the prevailing purity system. Jesus touched lepers and haemorrhaging women. As we will hear next Sunday he entered a graveyard inhabited by a man with unclean spirits who lived in the vicinity of pigs.
One of Jesus' most characteristic activities was an open and inclusive meal table. Sharing a meal in the Middle Eastern world represented mutual acceptance. Pharisees and others would not eat with someone considered impure, and no decent person would share a meal with a sinner. Thus what Dom Crossan calls Jesus' 'open commensality'[ii] was a direct attack on the holiness system and a way of enacting his vision of compassion.
This of course is the basis of what Christians today call the Eucharist or Holy Communion. This ritualized meal we partake in is not primarily a personal interaction with an invisible God or that God's 'real' or symbolic embodiment in bread and wine. Rather Communion is an invitation to commit oneself to a political vision, centred in Jesus, a vision of mutuality, equality, and compassion, to be supported and empowered by one another in living out that vision, and often to find the Spirit of Jesus inexplicably sustaining us in that commitment.
The inclusiveness of Jesus' movement, embodying a radically alternative political vision, is writ large in the Gospel stories about women. In Jesus' world women had few of the rights of men. They could not be witnesses in court or initiate a divorce. They were not to be taught the Torah (perhaps because the ability to interpret Torah was considered a form of power). They were radically separated from men in public life. Respectable women did not go out of the hose unescorted by a family member. Adult women were to be veiled in public. Meals outside of the family were always male-only affairs (and if women were present at such meals they were perceived as prostitutes). A woman's identity was in her father or husband. Women were the victims of male projections.
In this context, the role of women in the Jesus movement is striking, and the stories of his interactions with women remarkable. Think of his relationship with Mary and Martha, and being hosted by them. Think of him learning from, and being bested in an argument with, the Syro-Phoenician woman. Think of the women who were a part of the itinerant group that followed him, financially supported him, and did not desert him at the cross. As Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza says, Jesus tried to model a 'discipleship of equals'.[iii]
And lastly think again too of our Gospel reading today. Jesus defended a woman who outraged an all-male banquet at Simon the Pharisee's house not only by entering it, not only by being unveiled and her hair unbraided, but by intimately washing his feet and drying them with her hair (thereby making Jesus 'impure'). When questioned Jesus defended her not just with the parable about cancelling debts - which inferred that she was a worse person than Simon - but by radically reversing that inference in declaring the woman a better host than Simon. Jesus concluded with a hugely significant theological and political statement: It is great love that cancels out any wrongdoing, not by observing the letter of the law, not by tithing, not by obeying the priests and Pharisees. It is the way of compassion that reveals the heart and intent of God. And it is the way of compassion that we are encouraged to emulate.
[i] Borg, M. Meeting Jesus Again For The First Time, San Francisco : Harper, 1995 p.46ff
[ii] Crossan, D.J. The Historical Jesus: the life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant
A synopsis and critique of Lloyd Geering’s Michael King Lecture
Recently Sir Lloyd Geering delivered a lecture at the Auckland Readers and Writers Festival in Auckland, provocatively titled “How Humans Made God”.[i] Whether we like what Lloyd’s views or not, I think they are worth considering. This morning I would like to give a synopsis of his lecture, and a brief response.
Lloyd begins by paying tribute to Ludwig Feuerbach [1802-1874], a disciple of Hegel’s, who first asserted that humans made God. Hegel understood reality to be a dynamic process in which the physical world emanated out of spirit or mind. This reflected the biblical view of God or spirit making physical matter. But the real truth, said Feuerbach, is that spirit or mind emanated out of physical matter. The human mind developed out of a physical body and brain, and ‘God’ is an idea in the human mind. Feuerbach wrote some 20 years before Darwinism.
Lloyd then moves on to talk about the evolution of human language, from which arose the idea of God. Language evolved from a primitive means of communication to a means of constructing a thought world.
As children we give names to familiar objects, thereby transforming an unknown world into a known one, and making it our possession. Our ancient ancestors did the same. But what could not be seen but only felt, such as wind and breath [in Latin spirit], remained mysterious, and could not be wholly possessed. The primitive human mind imagined itself surrounded by an invisible spiritual world of which wind and breath were the tangible proof.
To the ancients it seemed self-evident that all natural events like storms were caused by invisible spirits, into whom they projected their own personal experience. By giving these spirits names the gods came into being. In our oldest written records we find gods well established and humans feeling themselves to be at their mercy. So in Mesopotamia we get Tiamat and Marduk; in Greece Zeus and Apollo; and in Rome Jupiter and Venus. The gods were created by humans to identify and explain natural phenomena. Humans had to respect and obey these gods if they hoped to survive.
The cultural age of the gods lasted a very long time. Then in the Axial Period, around 500 BCE, in five or six different places stretching from Greece to China, the gods came to be modified and abandoned. The many gods of polytheism had evolved into a stage of henotheism [exclusive allegiance to one god while accepting the reality of other gods], and now evolved into monotheism.
For the Jewish people this - what Lloyd calls - ‘birth of God’ happened during a period of great cultural crisis: the Babylonian Exile. Far from their homeland, in fear of losing their heritage and faith, the Jews re-interpreted their own traditions to make sense of what they were encountering and to ensure their survival.
The Torah, the first five books of the Bible, was the result. The Torah asserted that everything is to be traced back to one source that it called God. The Jews had gone into exile as henotheists and returned to years later to their homeland as monotheists.
Lloyd concludes this section by asserting that perhaps ‘God’ was the most important concept that ever came to birth in the evolving world of human thought. In a metaphorical sense God did create a world, a centre, a focal point, to which everything else could be related. This centralizing idea was a foundation stone for both Christianity and Islam.
It’s only since the 1800s, the time of Hegel, Feuerbach, and Darwin, that we have been able to appreciate we live in a changing and evolving universe. We are much more aware today that our language, ideas, knowledge and even science are always changing.
The capacity of the human mind to project itself on to something external to itself is now accepted as a common psychological mechanism. This explains why many fervent believers in a personal God so often claim that they know precisely what God is thinking and planning; it’s because they are unconsciously projecting on to God what they themselves inwardly think and aspire to. Thus there is a close correlation between a person’s thoughts and the way God is conceived.
Feuerbach came to realize that we project onto ‘God’ all the values we hold dear – like love, compassion, and justice, and all the abilities we would like to possess – like power, knowledge, and insight. The study of God therefore is the study of our highest human values and aspirations.
Lloyd posits that today it is the theism in monotheism that is dying. The more religion promotes an all-powerful deity, the more modern people see from the events around them that such a deity is powerless, then the less credibility such a deity has.
The idea of God has though served well as a symbol affirming the unity of the universe. The basic premise of all scientific inquiry is that natural phenomena operate in a rational and comprehensible way. This arose from the prior conviction that whole world had been created by the one super intelligence called God.
Lloyd concludes that in this time of the death of theism we humans find we are on our own on a tiny planet in an unfeeling universe that has no interest in us whatsoever. Equipped only with the tools of science we must now shoulder responsibilities for our future that we once used to attribute to God. We now have to play the role of God.
Nearly 200 years ago Feuerbach argued that the death of theism had been the goal of Christianity from the beginning. The doctrine of the incarnation asserts that God came down to earth and became incarnate in Jesus. The heavenly ‘God’, into whom humans had projected their highest values, was enfleshed not just in Jesus but all humanity. Christianity is good news because it opens the way for humankind to live life to the full by learning how to embody its own highest values. The central Christian symbol – the cross - symbolized the death of God. This was the death that left the heavenly throne empty.
At about this point Sir Lloyd concluded his lecture.
I find much truth in what Lloyd says about the evolution of human language, our thoughts, and our gods. There is also much truth in the power of projection, of wanting to shape our deities in our own image – with some super powers added. The idea of God as a unifying symbol is interesting, and one wonders what Lloyd thinks might take its place. Science? Knowledge? Humanity? Deifying science or knowledge or humanity brings its own problems.
As those of you who have listened to me for many years realize, although I try to avoid labels, I am what could be called a ‘non-theist’. By that term I want to discard the theistic being who masquerades as an all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving superman. However that does not mean that I discard the notion of God, nor see God like Lloyd as just a unitary symbol for the best of humanity’s values. Though always with a degree of sceptical self-critique, I want to claim that my experiences of sacredness, particularly in the power of mutual loving relationships, transcends the boundaries of my mind, and probably the boundaries of our collective mind, knowledge and science. I want to claim that there is some form of sacred presence, which I experience most profoundly as compassion, which the early Christians experienced in Jesus and in their community after his death, which can be called God.
It is often easier to name what I believe God is not than to struggle to name what God is. However to follow Lloyd and limit God to simply a unifying symbol created by minds is too reductionist for me. Instead I want a doctrine of God that embraces wonder and mystery, the power of mutual love, the spirit of joy and laughter, and the evolution/revolution of creative change.
A month from today Lynette and I will be on our way to Barcelona via Rome, Florence, Venice, Vienna and Amsterdam. As exciting as that adventure sounds I am aware that inside me are huge butterflies flapping around. The unknowns we face as well as all the things we need to accomplish before we leave have twisted my insides into knots, if the truth be told. I keep repeating that great piece of Kiwi wisdom to myself: “She’ll be right,” but the little kid inside me is not yet convinced -- no matter how brave a face I put on externally.
I’m confessing my existential reality to explain the lens through which I have reflected on Luke’s account of the Centurion sending Jewish elders to Jesus on his behalf to heal his valued servant. While it is yet another healing story about Jesus, the heart of the story is Jesus’ amazement at the faith of someone who is an outsider to the community, while insiders fail to accept him. I, too, am amazed by the Centurion but for a different reason. He is apparently a benevolent oppressor in that elders are willing to speak on his behalf to Jesus, but it strikes me as no small thing for him to reach out to a prophet from the people he is charged to keep intimidated. Yes, inside he is in crisis, even turmoil, over the potential loss of a cherished servant, but what if his commander or Herod himself should find out? I suspect they would hardly approve of his having done so. So there is a risk in doing it. It is that tension between his inside self that seeks hope and his outside self that must live according to the expectations of his profession that I identify with this morning. It is our relationship with what Jung called the Divine Child within each of us and that psychotherapists now call our inner child that intrigues me.
Apparently we all have one. No matter how old we are, no matter how accomplished, no matter how dignified we seem, there resides a child of the past who still lives inside of us and still influences and interrupts our adult life today. That’s why I laughed out loud at a video going around Facebook right now called “Baby and Me.”
It’s an ad for bottled water but you don’t know that until the end. It begins with a man waiting at a bus stop. The bus pulls up and he sees his reflection in the door of the bus, but instead of his adult self it is a little boy, himself as a toddler. He panics running down the street to look in the rear view mirror of a parked car. The little boy’s face looks back at him. He turns around and sees all of himself in a store window. He starts moving his hands to see if the reflection is really him and the boy moves with him. He starts moving his legs and the boy moves. He starts doing a funny dance and the boy dances. He starts to get into it looking like an idiot to those passing by. But then one by one they look at the window and see their three-year old selves. Pretty soon there is a crowd of people having great fun dancing and relating to their inner child. The end is even funnier but in case you happen to see it I won’t spoil it for you.
As much as I enjoyed the video and its message, when I first met my inner child in therapy it was not such a joyous occasion. Even though I had a fairly blessed childhood with loving parents, plenty to eat, a warm house and a good education -- unlike the 270,000 Kiwi children living in poverty and only having Weet Bix and milk to look forward to on school days, I was not happy with how he had dealt with the bruises, scars and hurt that shape every childhood. I was annoyed that in times of stress or when I am tired or facing critical life changes and am nervous, uneasy or ill, he often whispers irrational thoughts in my inner ear. When I feel a sense of inadequacy or helpless dependence or out of control or pointless loneliness or a sense of not having a strong enough ego to meet and master inner storms, then I know he is talking to me and I want to send him back to the nursery. It wasn’t until I realised that I had to thank that child for having survived even when he couldn’t rationally or intellectually think through what was happening to him that I could look at my outside self honestly. Only then could I understand that he might look vulnerable, but he is tough. He is resilient. Only then did I realise that I was wasting time creating armour not unlike what the Centurion wore by developing skills and aptitudes and attitudes to keep him hidden and protected from an outer world I feared would crush him. But, it is not the world that crushes the child it is the armour.
Poet Ted Hughes, husband of poet and novelist Silvia Plath, wrote how this happens to his son: “Usually, that child is a wretchedly isolated undeveloped little being. It’s been protected by the armour, it has never participated in life, it’s never been exposed to living and managing the person’s affairs, it’s never been given responsibility for taking the brunt. And it’s never properly lived. That’s how it is in almost everybody. And that little creature is sitting there, behind the armour peering through the slits. And in its own self, it is still unprotected, incapable, inexperienced.”
The tragedy is he goes on to say is “that child is the only real thing in [us]. It’s [our] humanity, [our] real individuality…the carrier of all of [our] living qualities. It’s the centre of all the possible magic and revelation. What doesn’t come out of that creature isn’t worth having.”
The solution he suggests is not what we want to hear. We have to take off the armour. “Whenever life takes us by surprise the inner self is thrown into the front line — unprepared, with all its childhood terrors round its ears. And yet that’s the moment it wants. That’s where it comes alive…that where it calls up its own resources…That’s the paradox: the only time most people feel alive is when they’re suffering, when something overwhelms their ordinary, careful armour, and the naked child is flung out onto the world.” His point is that we have to let the inner child find confidence and independence and test his abilities. It is no different in how we raise our own children. We have to let them venture out and scrape a few knees. Our inner child can only become fully alive if we can ignore our fears of being hurt or caught out or humiliated.
I have only one caveat here. The inner child of some have been so badly mistreated and abused they may need to have gentle, professional help in removing the armour in a safe and secure environment.
Hughes concludes by telling his son “the only thing people regret is that they didn’t live boldly enough, that they didn’t invest enough heart, didn’t love enough. Nothing else really counts at all.” [i]
Returning to our Centurion, I think what amazed Jesus is that this outsider had the courage to allow the authenticity of his inside self, his divinity, if you will, as a human being to take a risk. And in doing so, both he and his servant were healed.
The next time you are tempted to walk around a puddle instead of through it, think long and hard about him. Do you have enough faith to splash through it? Maybe then you can dance with your inner child.
[i] Hughes, Ted, Letters of Ted Hughes, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008.
The doctrine of the Trinity has traditionally affirmed “one God in three persons”. It sounds like God is a committee of three people – two of whom are male and one probably female[i]. It also sounds a long way from monotheism, and the Judaism believed in and practiced by Jesus and his first disciples. Indeed many Jews and Muslims, our cousins in faith, understand the Trinity to be an abandonment of monotheism and an affirmation of ‘tri-theism’.
Trinity language though does go back to the New Testament. In the 50s Paul uses the phrase: “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit” [2 Cor. 13:13]. In Matthew’s Gospel the Great Commission uses the names Father, Son, and Holy Spirit [28:19].
But the doctrine of the Trinity – making an official formulated teaching – took time to develop. Implicit in the Nicene Creed of 325, it became explicit later in the 4th century, particularly in the poetic theology of the Cappadocians[ii].
Although as I’ve mentioned there is much criticism of this threefold articulation of God, many religions affirm a twofold divine nature - even Judaism and Islam. For God is both transcendent and immanent, namely more than everything yet present throughout everything. Hinduism also affirms a twofold ultimate reality: fully transcendent as brahman and immanent within each of us as atman.
The question is why Christians add a third to this twofold understanding of God. The answer is simply the significance of Jesus for his first followers who experienced God uniquely and decisively through him. He was the human icon of God.
Trinity was an attempt put the Jesus into the heart of divinity. Traditionally this has been portrayed as the earthly Jesus being elevated into the heavenly godhead. However it is more accurate to understand the incarnation as locating and grounding God in human experience. Instead of a King Jesus sitting on a heavenly throne, we have God suffering at Calvary. God was fully God in humanity. God was not just fully God in Jesus’ humanity, but actually and potentially in our humanity too. Our relationships are the locus of divinity.
As an aside it is more accurate to refer to the second person of the Trinity not as Jesus but as the Christ, or the Risen Christ. Jesus refers to the man who lived and died in Palestine some two thousand years ago. Christ refers to that essence of Jesus that transcended death and is in the heart of God. It’s not a male historically-limited being that is in the heart of God, but a transformative suffering love that can be portrayed [as artists frequently do] as a child, a woman, or a man.
Being formulated in the 4th century, and in a Hellenist rather Jewish context, it is not surprising that some of the language used in the doctrine of the Trinity is often misunderstood. The word ‘person’ is a case in point. In modern English ‘person’ suggests a distinct centre of personality and thus a distinct being. However for the Cappadocians persona in Latin and prosopon in Greek referred to the mask worn by actors in the theatre. Actors wore masks not for the sake of concealment, but to play different roles. The origins of the word persona reflect this: it means “to speak through”. In a literal sense then persona is a mask that an actor speaks through.
Applied to the concept of the Trinity the meaning of persona suggests that God is known and ‘speaks through’ three primary ways: in the evolved universe and the faith of Israel, in the historical Jesus; and through the Spirit [God within and among human communities].
The mask called the first person of the Trinity is particularly problematic. As I’ve mentioned, if it is seen as the transcendent, the wonder and mystery of the Divine – a wonder and mystery at the heart of our universe, and a wonder and mystery that challenged and sustained the ancient Israelites – then there is little dispute. Within our human experience there are glimpses of wonder, mystery, and unfathomable beauty both beyond us and yet, inexplicably, reaching out to touch us.
However this first mask has been labelled ‘Father’. Initially the problem was that ‘Father’ inferred prior existence and superiority to, not co-eternal and co-equals with, the 2nd persona, the Risen Christ.[iii] In the last century the problem has been with this mask’s masculine gender. As Mary Daly famously said, “When God is male, the male is God.” The notion of Trinity has elevated and sanctified male power.
This heresy of a male God is unfortunately alive and well today. In most churches this Sunday they are worshipping him, often without realizing it. They are extolling an idol made in the image of patriarchal power.
Historically it’s the third mask of the Trinity, the Spirit, which has been the most controversial. Initially the Spirit wasn’t taken as seriously as the supposedly male duet of Father and Son. She was God, but not fully God. Thankfully the Cappadocians insisted upon Her inclusion.
Throughout Christian history the Church has usually wanted to restrain the Spirit and restrict Her to the dictates and desires of Church councils and leaders. She could be within and among us only if She behaved.
Interestingly, thank God, the Spirit has persevered, and within what has largely been an authoritarian male God-head there has remained this free Spirit: creative, usually feminine, and potentially anarchistic.
These three masks are sometimes called an external [or economic] understanding of the Trinity because they are the three primary modes in which Christians understand and experience God. Some theologians also argue though that the Trinity is about internal [or ontological] relationships within God as well.
In a general way, the suggestion of internal relationships within God makes an important claim. It offers a relational model of God, and thus a relational model of reality. Reality is therefore not static, but dynamic and relational. It is, like God, moving, changing and evolving. To quote Margaret Mahy “It doesn’t stay put like a good hill does”.[iv]
However such conjecture about the internal nature of God needs to pause before the essential ineffability of God. We can describe our experience of the Divine, but any description of what divinity is in itself – separate from us - is by definition fraught. When theological disputes break out we need to humbly acknowledge the ultimate mystery of the divine.
The most famous of such disputes is the one that caused the Great Schism of the 11th century. The issue was whether the Holy Spirit ‘proceeds’ from ‘the Father’ or from ‘the Father and the Son’. The Western church affirmed the latter, and the Eastern Church the former. In 1054, Christianity split in two over this, producing Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. Each side excommunicated the other.
Marcus Borg points out: “There is something at stake in this issue when we think about it today. If the Spirit ‘proceeds’ from ‘the Father and the Son’ [and not from ‘the Father’ only], then God can be known only through Jesus and thus only in Christianity. But if God’s Spirit ‘proceeds’ from ‘the Father’ only, then it is possible that God can be known apart from Jesus and thus in other religions.”[v] Not that many of us need convincing of this.
The Trinity, though problematic as I’ve pointed out, is not I believe redundant for Progressive Christian thought. The masks of the Trinity – transcendent, immanent, and Christic - are signs pointing to a way. They are not the destination. They are not a three person male-dominated committee. For such a committee God is too static, too fixed, too human, and too patriarchal. It is an idol.
Rather I think of Trinity as pointing to God as being like a piece of music, a movement of grace, gift, and transformation. Divinity is wild, passionate, forgiving and free. It is within, beyond, and among us. Trinity points to God as a verb rather than a noun, loving rather than the lover, giving rather than the giver, and shedding rather than accumulating power.
Marcus Borg Speaking Christian
Considering Orthodoxy: Foundations for Faith Today ed Paul Trebilco
Keith Ward A Vision to Pursue: Beyond the Crisis in Christianity
[i] The Hebrew and Greek words for Spirit are in the feminine tense.
[ii] The Cappadocians were Basil the Great, his brother Gregory of Nyssa, their sister Makrina, and their friend Gregory Nazianzus, Patriarch of Constantinople.
[iii] I refer to what was called the heresy of subordinationism. The use of the metaphor ‘father’ inferred that the father preceded the son, begat the son, and was superior to his child [a normative ancient understanding]. St Paul clearly had this understanding in 1 Corinthians 15:23-28. Orthodoxy, in trying to assert that the 1st and 2nd personas of Trinity were co-equal and co-eternal were metaphorically impeded by the use of ‘father’ and ‘son’.
[iv] Margaret Mahy The Man Whose Mother Was A Pirate.
I have favourite stories and the following by Anthony De Mello is one of them:
After many years of labour an inventor discovered the art of making fire. He took his tools to the snow-clad northern regions and initiated a village into the art – and the advantages – of making fire. The people became so absorbed in this novelty that it did not occur to them to thank the inventor who one day quietly slipped away. Being one of those rare human beings endowed with greatness, he had no desire to be remembered or revered; all he sought was the satisfaction of knowing that someone had benefited from his discovery.
The next village he went to was just as eager to learn as the first. But the local priests, jealous of the stranger’s hold on the people, had him assassinated. To allay any suspicion of the crime, they had a portrait of him 'the Great Inventor' enthroned upon the main altar of the church; and a liturgy designed so that his name would be revered and his memory kept alive. The greatest care was taken that not a single rubric of the liturgy was altered or omitted.
The High Priest himself undertook the task of compiling a 'Life of the Inventor'. This became the Holy book in which his loving kindness was offered as an example for all to emulate, his glorious deeds were eulogized, his superhuman nature made an article of faith. The priests saw to it that the book was handed down to future generations, while they authoritatively interpreted the meaning of his words and the significance of his holy life and death.
Caught up as they were in these religious tasks, the people of this tribe completely forgot the art of making fire.
This story uses the metaphor of fire to refer to spirituality. Like fire spirituality provides light, illumination and vision. Like fire spirituality gives warmth, comfort, and nurture. Like fire spirituality gives energy, power, and vitality. De Mello's story encourages us to 'make fire', to engage with the spiritual life, and to encourage and show others the same.
It is no wonder then that at Pentecost the symbol of fire is used by Luke. It dances on the heads of the 120 disciples. It is no wonder too that in the Hebrew legend about receiving the law at Mt Sinai - a legend that Luke drew upon - 70 flames for the 70 nations of the earth were allegedly present. Both biblical stories are pointing to the truth that spirituality is not something that can be contained. Wisdom, compassion, and creativity - the manifestations of spirituality - are potentially present in every time, culture and religion.
De Mello's story, like in the best of the Progressive tradition, is a subversive one for it suggests that spirituality is out of the control of the priests and their religion. You don't have to come to church to 'make fire'. You don’t have to agree with the preacher to 'make fire'. You don't have to swear allegiance to any creed, canons, or bible to 'make fire'. Instead worship, liturgy, Bible study, and ministry all need to be evaluated in terms of how useful they are in promoting a spirituality of wisdom, compassion, and creativity. What we do needs to be evaluated in terms of how we help 'make fire'.
So lighting a spiritual ‘fire’ is not dependent on coming to a church and getting a bit of flame to take home, or having a minister come to your home to light it, or undertaking years of study to be an expert yourself. Rather lighting a spiritual ‘fire’ is something that can be learnt in many places from many different people.
In my experience spirituality is fostered when children are seen as teachers; where interaction with animals is encouraged; when music and art and people are valued more than profits and buildings and performance; where our earth is seen as physically part of us; when boundaries of class, race, gender, orientation, or physical ability are dismantled; and where kindness, generosity, and forgiveness are recognized as the foundation stones of any faith.
Making spiritual ‘fire’ can happen alone or with others - in homes, workplaces, outdoors, or in churches. Anyone can learn to make ‘fire’ – though humility helps. Children and the marginalized often innately know it – the rich and powerful often forget it and lose their bearings.
At its best Sunday church is a ‘fire’ that encourages the outbreak of lots of little ‘fires’. The role of clergy is to encourage and teach spirituality, and in the week to go to those places where spirituality is thought to be absent or struggling and work with people to make their own ‘fire’ in that place. The role of the laity is similar – to make and feed spiritual ‘fire’ in all the contexts you find yourself.
Christians and the Christian God have no monopoly on spirituality’s ‘fire’. Keith Ward provides this helpful explanation:
“The uniqueness one can properly find in Jesus is something like the uniqueness one may find in a great work of art. It provides an insight into the deepest nature of things that nothing else can provide. It relates us to the [experience] of God in a way which is rather different from that found elsewhere… But it would be crass to hold that it is the only, or obviously the best, work of art in the universe.”
Christian’s need to be careful in extolling their spirituality or their beliefs as the best, or the only, or the truth. Wisdom, compassion, and creativity are not restricted by our Christian expectations and experience.
This is not to say though, to use Ward’s metaphor, that all ‘art’ is equal. All spirituality and religious faiths are not equally true, or worthwhile, or useful… just as all expressions of Christianity aren’t.
Without the filter of the Enlightenment, namely the application of free and critical reason and the centrality of human welfare, religion almost inevitably – like in the story of the inventor – tends towards repressive authoritarianism. The priesthood impose their views on others. Freedom of thought is hung out to die. It becomes more important to have the correct beliefs than to change the world and humanity for the better.
We should however not be blind to the Enlightenment’s fallacies. Reason, individual happiness, and freedom to do what one wants have not created a flourishing, just, and healthy global community. As Ward says, “the noble knight of truth who had unbound the chains of religious authority was in turn overthrown by the blinder, more visceral demon of desire.”
We have seen in recent decades disillusionment amongst many in Western democracies with the Enlightenment’s exaltation of the individual and the mythology of self-fulfilment, and how corporate interests manipulate ‘desire’ in order to increase both their profits and power. This disillusionment has not usually led to re-entrance into formal religions, with their priesthoods, creeds, and certainties, but often, surprisingly, an interest in spirituality.
It is the old stories, like De Mello’s, that do not claim to be historical truth but do claim to point to what is true, which resonate. It is spirituality’s vision for a world of justice and peace; it is spirituality’s ability to nurture the individual and communal soul; and it is spirituality’s energy that can fuel the passion for transformative change. This is the ‘fire’ that is sought. This is the ‘fire’ that you and I have skills in kindling. This is the ‘fire’ that can light up a new inclusive Pentecost.
Mothers come in many different forms and today we celebrate them all. We all have mothers and it is an overwhelming responsibility being a mother! There is no manual or guide book! Little wonder that we make mistakes.
Happy Mother’s Day to all mothers those present and to those who have passed.
The prayer we have just listened to reminds me of prayers I have frequently uttered and continue to utter as a mother- please care and guide our precious sons as they face each challenge be it a school exam, sporting event or musical contest, in fact all of life’s challenges. The last advice is important, Jesus knew he was leaving his friends and he needed to prepare them and the believers in the future such as us. The central concern of the prayer is oneness or unity: oneness with God, oneness with others. John uses the imagery that Jesus was God’s envoy and ambassador. His life and ministry is to be seen as an offer of relationship, a hand stretched out from God. This relationship is not any kind of relationship, it is one characterized by love, God’s unconditional love. When this prayer was written there was a split in the community of followers, Christian Jews no longer used the synagogues, they were establishing their own separate faith groups. Jesus is praying that the community will hold together, that they will live from the unity, and that they celebrate in his life and his relationship with God. They failed and that failure repeats itself when Christians write each other off. When love degenerates into apathy or worse hate. The Christian Church’s journey through the millennia is littered with example of this hate and apathy; the crusades being one such example.
Unity is not an extra. It is the essence of what it means to be Christian. The focus on unity assumes inclusiveness in which no one and nothing is left out. Unity does not translate as conformity we are not required to be the same as each other, our difference is to be celebrated. Unity with integrity does require that we can articulate not only what we affirm together but what we do not affirm.
Our Events Manager and fellow parishioner, Geno Sisneros, his partner Michael and his supporters have this last week been in the media. Geno took Bishop Ross, Bishop of the Auckland Diocese, to the Human Rights Review Tribunal on the grounds of discrimination due to his sexual orientation. Geno has studied since 2006 and completed his Bachelor of Theology in anticipation of being discerned for the priesthood. Bishop Ross denied Geno the discernment process. Geno and I studied together. Several decades ago I would have been in a similar situation as Geno, but the Church changed the rules regarding the ordination of women and I was not denied the discernment process due to my gender and after training I was ordained as a vocational deacon in 2010.
The church has over the centuries has been guilty of not walking this path of ‘being one’ in complete contradiction to the Gospels. The church has used Scripture to support exclusion. Slavery was once condoned and supported by Scripture. The first slave freed by a court of law was in England in 1772. It was not until 1833 that the Slavery Abolition Act was passed in the United Kingdom. However there are still an estimated 27 million children, men and women in slavery today worldwide.
The Anglican Church in Aotearoa New Zealand and Polynesia first ordained women priests in 1977. Penny Jamieson was ordained Bishop of Dunedin in 1989. There are still parts of the Anglican Communion that prohibit women from the priesthood. The Diocese of Sydney being one that is very close to home. The Church of England voted last year that women could not be Bishops! According to the ‘Vicar of Dibley’, it was the Dibley parish’s fault with her parish council’s vote where a “no, no, no, no, yes” counted for four against and one for, that achieved this ignominious outcome. Women have fought a long and exhausting battle to be ordained in our church and in many parts of the Anglican Communion and other denominations this battle continues.
One of my favourite films is Chocolat. Vianne the main character arrives in a small French village, with a daughter and no husband. She opens a chocolate shop during lent. She quietly challenges the religious establishment’s power over the people, by the generously hospitable way in which she lives and by her welcoming of outcasts. Pere Henri, the young priest, in his Easter sermon challenged the establishment by talking of Jesus’ humanity, how he lived his life on earth, his kindness and tolerance. He continued to say…” We must measure our goodness, not by what we don’t do, what we deny ourselves, what we resist or who we exclude. Instead we should measure ourselves by what we embrace, what we create and who we include. Vianne changed that village with her difference and her sense of unity with everyone and by doing so a community of inclusion resulted.
We separate ourselves from each other according to theology. We separate ourselves from each other according to race. We separate ourselves from each other according to social class. We separate ourselves from each other according to geography. We separate ourselves from each other according to gender, sexual orientation, appearance, age, politics… The list goes on and on. With so much out there that divides us, how are we ever likely to achieve the kind of unity that Jesus requests of us?
I think it helps to understand that the unity for which Jesus asks is not based on who we are, but on what God is. The unity for which Jesus prays is not dependent upon our ability to overcome division but God’s constant love for us in spite of it. There is a ‘we’ of faith precisely because of the way in which God relates to each and every one of us, not because of the way in which we relate to each other. Jesus was not praying for some monolithic expression of faith in which all believers believe the same things without variance. The unity here is not the absence of our disagreements; it is loving others in spite of them.
Wherever there is division, discord or disunity, the all-encompassing love of God is forever wearing away the walls that separate us. We have allowed women to be ordained; we are challenging our church to allow gay men and women with partners to be ordained.
We can celebrate our uniqueness, and be grateful for our difference, but at the same time we must never lose sight of the fact that all of us, to paraphrase Paul in Galatians: slave and free, female and male; old and young; rich and poor; educated and uneducated; healthy and ill; are made one in Christ and that unity is greater than anything that distinguishes us.
Jesus is not asking for foundational cognitive unity as much as he is asking for a relational one. The prayer is about relationship with God and one another rather than getting everyone to agree with us. Glory shines through when the Church is humble, doing quiet things to serve others those who are outsiders. Like Vianne creating community with love and respect for difference.
Today’s Gospel foreshadows the third great festival of the church year: the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost Sunday in two weeks. Jesus in his long good-bye to his disciples before his Ascension this coming Thursday is inviting anticipation, just as Advent invites the anticipation of Christmas and Lent does for Easter. But in those cases it is not so difficult to know what we are anticipating. Jesus’ birth and death are concrete concepts we have no difficulty grasping. They are universal human experiences we can identify with. Yes, one is usually a source of joy we eagerly await and the other something we anxiously and perhaps, fearfully, hope to postpone. But we understand what they are, the beginning and end of life in this reality. The Resurrection is a little more challenging, but we have all known the hope we feel when the first signs of Spring appear after a long winter. In those cases we know what we are anticipating. The Holy Spirit not so much. How do we wrap our minds around it? How do we know what to anticipate? And you might be wondering why we should care? What’s it have to do with real life?
How vague is it? The words “Holy Spirit” are about as informative as the dash found between a person’s birthdate on a tombstone and the day of their death. There is whole lot there but it isn’t very specific.
Many progressive Christian churches around the world celebrate this Sunday as Pluralism Sunday, a day dedicated to honouring all the world’s great religions and their sacred texts as being many paths to the same wholeness, the same shalom, the same peace Jesus is offering his disciples today. All the great religions have a concept of spirit permeating the divine cosmos, for example Brahman in Hinduism, Tao in Taoism and Great Spirit among some indigenous peoples. So trying to untangle our Christian understanding of it might be true to the spirit of the day.
Christianity, Judaism and Islam all have a concept of Holy Spirit, but Christianity is the only one that personifies it making it the third person of the Trinity. According to the Nicene Creed the Holy Spirit is the Lord and giver of Life; it is said to be the inspiration for the writing of the scriptures, and the force authorising the church’s interpretation of those scriptures. The Holy Spirit led the Biblical prophets, it descended over Jesus at his baptism in the form of a dove; it is the helper and comforter, our advocate against those who would condemn us, the giver of grace, the one who leads souls to God. In catholic tradition the Holy Spirit is dispensed primarily through the church and its sacraments, which are the way people receive help, comfort, grace and salvation. Our Christian Holy Spirit is very busy and in the employ of the institutional church.
In the case of Judaism the idea of personifying the Holy Spirit as part of the godhead never occurred to them with their strong understanding of monotheism. For Islam, which is younger than Christianity, the concept is specifically rejected as a sin. For Judaism and Islam the Holy Spirit is a quality that belongs to God. It is one of God’s attributes. The Holy Spirit in Judaism is divine presence. Moses couldn’t enter the Tent of Meeting for the cloud rested upon it, and the glory of the Lord filled the Tabernacle (Ex 40:35). In Islam, the Holy Spirit is an agent of divine action or communication commonly identified with the angel Gabriel.
I have to assume that Jesus had a Judaic understanding of the Holy Spirit, which permeates even John’s non-historical, mystical Jesus assuring his disciples that “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come make our home with them” (Jn 14:23). Understanding the Holy Spirit in this as a presence within us does two things. It connects us to the love of God Jesus embodied and guides us as we walk our journey that is represented by the dash between our birth and death. This presence conserves and creates. It conserves our connection to one another and the source of all life while allowing us to embody that same love and creatively find our way in an ever-changing world, reinterpreting as necessary.
All too often the church has used the authority it claims from the Holy Spirit only to conserve its past interpretations, which often only consolidated its power or reinforced an oppressive culture, forgetting the creative side of the holy spirit that allows us to give new meanings to the teachings of Jesus and scripture as a whole. We see this in the church’s ignoring the ecological crisis on the basis that this earth is only a way station to heaven, or denying gay marriage on the basis of a couple of Paul’s comments, or opposing the ordination of women on the basis of the Pastoral Letters just as we once excused slavery on the basis of the letter to Philemon.
Today’s gospel allows some of us to challenge those who would only use the authority of the Holy Spirit to conserve and not to create. The Holy Spirit embodies all of who we are. We don’t only have scripture and tradition to rely on when seeking to interpret Jesus’ command to love one another. The Holy Spirit also works through our reason and experience. Some of us experience the Holy Spirit not as a wall keeping us safely within established orthodoxy, but like the wind that blows through boundaries challenging us to move unafraid into uncharted territories. If the Holy Spirit is to be personified, each of us is that person. Nor is it something we have to wait for. I would suggest that Jesus simply made his disciples aware of a reality that had always existed: One that calls us to live out our spiritual nature as humanly as possible.
This story may make the point.
“A woman named Hannah was walking through the marketplace in Jerusalem, when suddenly this forty-year-old mother of eight heard someone shouting, ‘Terrorist! Arab!’ A young man ran past her and was tackled by a soldier right at her feet.” The young man’s name was Adman al-Afandi – he was a young Muslim extremist who had just stabbed a 13-year-old Jewish boy. As the crowd closed in, Hannah felt that something terrible was about to happen, and without thinking, she threw herself on top of the young man to protect him. The crowd was shocked. They spit on her, kicked her, cursed her… But she stayed put until the police came and took al-Afandi into custody. Now, Hannah was an orthodox Jew – she was more than that, actually, she was one of the ultra-orthodox – the most theologically conservative of all Jewish sects – a group with strictly-defined roles for women. But Hannah agreed to step outside her role and to go on television with the mother of the boy who had been stabbed. That mother screamed at her – violently angry that Hannah had given sanctuary to the man who had stabbed her child. She said that she would have rather the crowd had killed al-Afandi right there in the market. “Hannah just replied, ‘I gave him sanctuary as a human being – as a child of God – and now I must explain myself?’” [i]
Standing with another child of the universe – giving sanctuary across lines of division, and especially across lines of disagreement or fear – this is one possible action to which our experience of the Holy Spirit abiding in us might lead. What kind of sanctuary do we offer each other across lines of difference?
I don’t have to wait for Pentecost to find out. We have already met the Holy Spirit and it is us.
[i] Fogelman, Eva, Conscience and Courage. pp 149-150
Love is a central word in the theology of John’s community. Indeed 1 John 4:16 says “God is love.” It’s a love that gives of itself, is hospitable, generous, accommodates difference, and upsets those who like clear boundaries. It is a free and disturbing spirit.
I discover this love all around us: in acts of inclusion, in acts of selfless giving, and in acts of making room for dissent. In these actions I experience God.
If however love, and love alone, is our guide and goal as a church, what status do the received traditions and biblical laws have? If revered traditions and laws don’t measure up to what we think love demands are they to be ignored or discarded? St Paul made love so central to his understanding of the Gospel that he took license to set aside even biblical laws when new cultural contexts made them inappropriate.
These questions are as current today as they were in biblical times. The passing of Marriage Equality Amendment Act was reflective of this struggle between what some think love demands, what some think tradition advises, and what some think biblical law dictates.
In Luke’s Acts of the Apostles it is not same-gender marriage that is at stake but the inclusion of gentiles [non-Jews] in early Christianity. This was the big issue of the first 80 years of the Christian movement. This divided people as much, or more, than the inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in the church today. At stake was whether gentiles could also be counted among God's people. Was the good news also for them? There were many different answers.
The problem was complex. Beginning with Jesus' ministry, it is clear that he claimed that something was beginning which would in future come to full reality. Its impact would be good news for the poor and hungry. Jesus addressed these hopes to his own people [Israel]. At the heart of his message was the generosity of God, whose goodness reaches out to all, including the marginalized and the wicked.
What happens though when the message of Jesus’ ministry reaches gentiles, as it did when the Hellenists in Acts 8 & 9 had to flee from Israel to places like Damascus in modern day Syria? Does the generosity of God include gentiles?
Jesus appears to have embraced a big vision for Israel which probably included gentiles, based on prophetic hopes that they too would come to Jerusalem and all nations would live in peace. This ‘come to Jerusalem’ motif persists in early tradition.[i] Yet would gentiles be spectators or participants? Was not this universalistic coming together just on the spiritual level rather than on a practical level?
Those who wanted to follow a rule book, indeed the sacred rule book [the Bible], could follow the clear provision made in Genesis 17: to be accepted gentiles needed to convert to Judaism and men undergo circumcision. This was biblical and unequivocal.
But there was no precedent for gentile conversions to happen on a grand scale. Most such conversions were incidental or through marriage, not through mission. Christian preachers, all of them Jewish of course, had also to decide whether, beyond picking up gentile converts incidentally, they should actually seek them out.
It was not that Jews and gentiles never mixed. Most Jews lived out in the gentile world of the empire. Some were in the army. As with most things, where people became ritually impure, there were provisions for purification. It was no more sinful to become unclean by entering a gentile's house than it was to become unclean through menstruation or dealing with a corpse. Becoming unclean and then undergoing purification was as natural a part of life as literal washing away the dirt of the day.
The general rule, however, was that where possible one should avoid becoming unclean. So, most Jews would avoid entering a gentile house. This explains why both times that Jesus heals at a distance entailed healing gentiles – it was partly to avoid entering their houses. Likewise most Jews would avoid eating with gentiles. To be careless about purity issues was sin, but the impurity itself was not sin.
Given this context how could Christian Jews make entering gentile houses a regular feature of their behaviour? Would they be able to eat with gentiles on a regular basis? Their cultural and biblical tradition clearly said ‘No’.
It is striking that Paul, writing 30 or 40 years before Luke, tells us in Galatians 2:11-14 that along with Peter, Barnabas, and other Jewish Christians he had indeed decided to share in table fellowship with gentiles at Antioch until people came from James, the brother of Jesus and leader of the Jerusalem congregation, who asked them to desist. Which they did. All, except Paul! Paul justified his behaviour by insisting that Divine love now overrode all such requirements, just as he and others had agreed that it overrode the requirement of circumcision.
Paul's defense was on the basis of an approach to scripture which discerned what mattered most, and then was courageous enough to declare some things unnecessary or redundant. Naturally enough, more conservative Christians hated him for it and nearly all of his letters show how he had to struggle with the fundamentalists of his day.
The first hand historical material in Paul's letters sits somewhat awkwardly with Luke's account in Acts. Luke is writing at a time when these issues had been largely resolved, including the tensions between Peter and Paul, and where showing unity was paramount. Accordingly, Luke has Peter become the hero who first affirmed that it was okay to enter gentile houses and eat with them! Luke had to rely on the sources available to him, which are not always reliable, as this instance shows.
There are some further peculiarities about Luke's account. The vision really does sound like it is telling Peter that the food laws no longer apply and should never have applied, for nothing which God made is unclean! That had been Mark's understanding of the incident about washing hands in Mark 7:1-23. Jesus declared that all foods are clean (7:19). Such a setting aside of biblical law contradicted what Luke had said in his gospel and so he omitted the passage.[ii] Here, too, he seems to understand it not as denying biblical laws about unclean animals but as symbolic. It symbolizes that human beings are all to be considered clean.
Later we find Luke asserting adherence to the Law in ways that assume the biblical laws remained intact. So, on Luke's understanding of Peter's vision, which he found in his sources, not animals but human beings are now clean and so Christian Jews should feel free to mix with all human beings and eat with them.
One way or other, both Paul and Luke reach the conclusion that no discrimination, no matter how biblically based, can stand in the way of that generous boundary-breaking spirit of love which we call God.
Of course, Jews and Christian Jews who remained strict adherents of biblical law also affirmed such love for all, seeing circumcision and other provisions as God's gift of guidelines to sustain and protect the special relationship.
Luke is close to them, needing divine interventions from heaven to contemplate change, but Paul goes all the way in arguing that one needs to recognize the unintended consequences of some biblical laws which stand in tension with what should be seen as at its heart. Making love so central that it gives us freedom to set aside even biblical laws where and when new cultural contexts make them inappropriate was the insight which Paul brought. It is still at the heart of much conflict about use of scripture today.
Determining what are central beliefs and what are peripheral beliefs is an ongoing task for any church. To meet the challenges of a changing world we must be prepared to change everything about ourselves, except for those central beliefs.
Today’s Gospel reading underlines our most important belief - what really matters - namely: that we love one another.
To love another is to desire the best for them, help them to achieve that, and endeavour to make sure it’s never your achievement but theirs. To love another is to give away something precious, and never expect it back. To love another is to respect and trust them. To love another is to understand the importance of freedom, even if the expression of that freedom is painful to you.
For this reason, like St Paul and St Peter, we set aside biblical traditions and laws, and follow the greater law of love.
[i] For example Matthew’s Gentile Magi.
[ii] Note the discussion in Luke 11 is about unclean hands rather than unclean food
It's so easy to be seduced by the desire for a happy ending. My mother always felt cheated if, when the credits rolled at the end of a film, the hero and the heroine weren't locked, arm in arm, walking into the sunset.
If we are not careful, I believe it's equally easy in the Easter season to be seduced by the same desire for a happy ending: after the blood and the scourging, the nails and the crown of thorns, after we've gone home empty and weeping, at least we know that Easter Sunday can't be far away, when wounds are healed, tears are dried and the dead Christ is raised and we cover the cross with flowers, sing "alleluia! Christ is risen" and with our fingers crossed hope that all this - the cross and the agony - wasn't just for nothing.
It seems to me that if we see Easter in these terms we're most probably whistling in the wind, we're fooling ourselves.
I look round the world and that's not how it feels, that's not how it is.
Nothing really seems to have been sorted by the resurrection of Jesus. New life looks and feels very much like old life: atrocities continue - bombs in Bostonand countless other places, millions are dying of starvation and the sick are still sick, the lonely still lonely, and I'm still the vulnerable, struggling mess I've always been.
I believe we're foolish to pretend otherwise; if this Easter season is about resurrection life then it doesn't seem to be up to much.
So I reckon I've got a problem, preaching in Eastertide - preaching the resurrection as a story with a happy ending. It goes against my experience every day as I see it in the news, in the streets, and in my own heart.
In the Easter story we have love and hate side by side, we have good and evil sharing the same stage.
The story of the passion and resurrection, I believe, invites us to recognise that love and hate are both part of creation and always will be - that we are called not to a naïve belief that everything has been sorted out at Easter, but the far harder task of recognising that hate and love inevitably exist bound up with each other, and we are called to hold both together in our hands and in our world at the same time.
Tolerating this ambivalence, being able to feel both love and hate at the same time, does not mean that love and hate are locked in some battle to the death in which eventually love triumphs over hate.
If you look at the world it isn't like that. The passion and the resurrection are not about some moral victory of life over death.
Such a dual between good and evil, God and the devil, leaves us with an inadequate part object God - a divine prime minister struggling constantly to stay on top of the devilish leader of the opposition. And it leaves us, men and women, as mere political pawns in some horrendous maelstrom and without even having a vote!
Easter I believe is not about victory, but about transformation, tranformation where hate as well as love, death as well as life, must be borne together as Christ bore them both in himself.
In the acceptance of this and the struggle with this, I believe God's transformation is made real. It's not a comforting, ecstatic, magical gift from above, but a discomforting, realisation that we are the raw material of God's life now, and it is our task, lived out of our creative spirit which is for ever holy, that we face the world as it is and ourselves as we are - that we are called to think, and feel, and act, with no false illusions and no Mickey Mouse theology in which we try to tidy everything up.
Difference, hate, failure of love are surmounted at Easter not because love wins in the end, but because love and hate can be tolerated as real - first in the story of the passion and then throughout history and throughout the world in all our stories.
The pain and hate of the cross remains throughout Easter Sunday and throughout the centuries, and throughout the world. It isn't airbrushed out.
This inclusion of wracked feelings and dashed hopes is motivated not by a compulsion to restore unity and find a happy ending but out of a desire by all of us to be less resentful, less afraid of anger, less terrified by conflict and loss, less punitive toward what we desire.
So alongside love, peace, joy, hope, long-suffering, if we are honest about our world and our inner selves, we also find hate, fear, violence, jealousy, loathing, anger.
Here at Easter we are invited into the reality of God, and of God's creation as it is and not as we might pretend it could be. At Easter we are given a chance, in the story of the cross and empty tomb, to go beneath the surface of the world as we wish it was and the people we would like to be seen as and face (and if we are brave enough embrace) the whole of our world and ourselves.D
For in this God created death and resurrection story, as in our God created selves, we find all this - love, joy, peace, hope, long-suffering, and hate, fear, anger, and jealousy: - the abused and the abuser, the terrorist and the terrified, the powerful and the powerless, the crowd and the lonely, the loved of God and the abandoned of God.
I'm inviting you in this Ester season to risk this story - to risk your story - just as it is - so that here - just for a moment - we can attempt together to meet and welcome hints of the truth of God and ourselves - a chance to understand ourselves a little better.
The story of death and resurrection and our story come together in a moment - mirrored here in bread and wine.
God in God's total self making communion with us in our total selves, the loving and the hateful, the frightened and the vicious, the peaceful and the violent, the lonely and the gregarious.
This is where our Easter celebration begins each year, where the 'Alleluias!' can start, perhaps more muted than we might like but perhaps more realistic, perhaps more true to God and to ourselves.
And then all we can do is struggle on till we discover that Easter is not about the transformation of hate, but rather the transformation of ourselves and our world as we risk holding together as honestly as we can both love and hate, death and life, despair and hope as they were held together in the person of the Christ.
Something then might happen to transform everything.
It is a good thing to get out of one’s own pulpit once in awhile. It gives a fresh perspective. So I’m pleased to be amongst you this morning. But there is a risk that comes with the opportunity. The challenge is that a sermon on any given Sunday is part of a much longer conversation preachers have with their congregations. As a guest I don’t know where Bob is in his conversation with you so I am much like that person who stumbles into an on going conversation and blurts out something that has nothing to do with what you are talking about. It can be a bit awkward and a little confusing if not embarrassing. So I ask your forgiveness in advance if that is what I am doing.
In a sense that is what today’s Gospel feels like… an awkward intrusion. For the last two weeks following Easter we have been hearing about resurrection appearances of Jesus. Suddenly this week we have an account long before Holy Week and a confusing one at that for this season of the church year. The only thing that makes any sense is that this Sunday is traditionally celebrated as Good Shepherd Sunday and this reading mentions sheep and immediately follows John’s account of Jesus telling a parable about the Good Shepherd.
My task is all the more difficult because a lot has happened in the world this week, in particular, in Boston and here in New Zealand, and I would really like to talk about those events instead of this awkward Gospel. I’m not sure if it is possible but I’m going to give it a go to bring them all together anyway.
On Tuesday we awoke to news of two bombs going off at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. In a world of smart phones there were countless videos capturing the horror of terrorism when they should have shown the glory of human triumph.
It was personal for me. I have friends in Boston. I know the city well. I have a daughter who went to law school there and worked there a number of years. A former classmate works at a church two hundred yards from the explosions. Tears flowed as video showed blood spilling into the gutters.
For me Wednesday was a happier day. In case you haven’t noticed St Matthew-in-the-City has been a fairly vocal advocate for the LGBTI community for the last 40 years. We actively lobbied for Louisa Wall’s Marriage Equality bill. So I got the popcorn out to watch Parliament TV’s broadcast of the third reading of the bill and the final vote. During the course of the debate I kept an eye on my Facebook friends and their reactions. We live in a fascinating age when you can be alone with your dog having conversations with people all over the world about something that is happening in real time on your television. When the final vote was called for and passage by a large majority was announced the tears flowed as the gallery sang the love song Pokarekare Ana as a waiata. It was personal for me.
On Thursday I had to confront today’s Gospel and what it had to say about where I was existentially after Tuesday and Wednesday?
To appreciate where John is going the context needs to be understood. Jesus is walking in the portico of the temple. Since it is winter he is probably staying out of the wind so as not to get a sniffle. Which makes me wonder: Did Jesus catch colds, and if he did could he heal himself? But that probably wasn’t John’s point. Pointing out it was winter was a literary device to indicate that Jesus’ relationship with the Judeans questioning him was frosty.
The reference to it being at the time of the Dedication of the Temple was another literary allusion that Jews in the First Century would have clearly understood. We now call this festival Channukah. It celebrates the victory of Judas Maccabeus and his forces against the Seleucid leader, Antiochus, in 164 B.C. Seleucus, the founder of the Seleucid dynasty, had been one of Alexander the Great's generals. The eastern portion of the Alexandrian empire went to him after the death of Alexander. Headquartered in Babylonia, Seleucus expanded his empire into modern day Turkey and Syria.
The Seleucids had profaned the Jerusalem Temple by erecting a statue of Zeus on the altar. This incident was called the "abominable desolation" in Dan 9:27. Following the defeat of Antiochus, the Maccabeans erected a new altar and rededicated the Temple. Chanukkah is the festival that celebrates the re-consecration of the Temple.
This is the context when the Judeans surround Jesus asking him if he is the Messiah. Jesus has been tight mouthed about this. By this point in John he has only identified himself that way to the Samaritan woman. While I seriously doubt if the historical Jesus ever identified himself this way, in John’s account he is reticent to do so because in the world of that time, the Messiah was thought to be like Judas Maccabbeus, a political figure, if not a military one, who would defeat Israel’s enemies and usher in a Golden Age of prosperity. If Jesus did think of himself as the Messiah, it definitely was not this kind.
Another good reason not to call your self the Messiah was it was considered blasphemy, the penalty for which was death. After he identifies himself with the Father in the last line of today’s reading, the next line that we didn’t hear is, “The Jews took up stones again to stone him.”
So what is John’s purpose in telling this episode? He was dwelling on a problem that would consume Christians for the next six centuries and through four great councils. How is Jesus related to God? In John’s time they only had the Hebrew Scriptures to tell them about God. In them Yahweh is a jealous, judgmental god of war, slaying whole peoples he was displeased with. How does Jesus, who does not meet his contemporaries’ expectations of who the Messiah should or indeed could be, match up with that God? How could he be God, the Judeans have to be wondering? He doesn’t come with power; he comes serving. He doesn’t come with judgment; he comes with healing. He doesn’t come with vengeance; he comes with forgiveness. In short he doesn’t fit the position description to be God.
What John does is turn the question on its head. Instead of asking is Jesus like God, he invites the question is God like Jesus? The answer invites a radical shift in our theology. The implication for us in a church that claims to be the body of Christ is do we let go of a god of power, judgment and vengeance to reveal in our lives the God Jesus reflects by serving, healing and forgiving? The question for us is not so much is God like Jesus, but are we like Jesus? Which brings me back to the events of this week.
It appears that the perpetrators of Boston’s terror chose to act on behalf of a god of vengeance. It was a heinous, destructive act. But what I found heartening to watch in the videos were the people rushing to help those who were injured. There were wonderful accounts of marathon runners who kept running to give blood at local hospitals. There was the cooperation of citizens and law enforcement to identify and locate the suspects. There was the courage of those who risked their lives to apprehend them. It was clear in Boston that a god like Jesus prevailed over a god of hate.
In New Zealand the passage of the Marriage Equality Act completed a journey begun in 1986 with the decriminalization of homosexuality. It has taken too long to overcome the fear and hatred directed at the LGBTQ community, but finally the loving god Jesus reveals has prevailed over the god of those who condemn them.
Sadly this journey is not complete yet. The House of Bishops met this past week in Tonga and has decided that any priest who out of conscience conducts a same sex marriage will lose their licence. The irony is not lost on me that a Member of Parliament was free to vote their conscience, while priests of the body of Christ cannot do the same. While the law states that a priest is free not to perform such a marriage, it is the church that tells us we are not free to officiate at them.
It won’t surprise you that I’m not happy about this, but I trust the god Jesus reveals will eventually sort this, making it right. The sad part is every day the church and we in it do not reveal Jesus, the more people will be alienated from the love he offers. It brings me to tears. It’s personal.
The Resurrection appearances, such as the ones we heard from John 21 this morning,[i] are not primarily descriptions of what happened to Jesus’ physical body after he died, but what happened to his disciples after he died and how they found the will and the strength to give up their former lives - what they knew, and embody the vision of Jesus that they had only glimpsed. Indeed to focus Easter on a dead body apparently coming back to life misses the point.
The Gospel reading today is a blend of stores, all centred on the resurrection of Peter. These stories include fishing, an abundant catch, a barbecue, and a commissioning.
The first is about a group of disciples returning to the trade they knew: fishing. As scholars like Dom Crossan point out it was in Galilee that the disciples first faced the ignoble, cruel death and loss of their friend and master Jesus. Distraught and disoriented they had returned to what they knew, and slowly, surprisingly, found the seeds Jesus had planted in them had not died too.
The miraculous catch of fish is a variant of Luke 5 – which also accompanies a call to Peter. One of the features of stories about the post-death appearances of Jesus is that they nearly always end up with Jesus commissioning someone. The Jesus apparition has a purpose – and that purpose is a job to do.
Saul, too, riding as we heard into Damascus found the Christ on the road. “The Christ” is church code for the potency and grace of Jesus carrying on after his death. The Christ is not a human-shaped death-defying visitor from some off-the-planet place.
The Christ appeared to the persecutor Saul in order to set him on the path of apostleship.[ii] The sense of call that Saul experiences merges with the sense of Christ’s presence.
Apart from the drama of these appearance episodes, aren’t they the stories of countless Christians throughout the ages who have felt called to step away from the worst of themselves to become through grace the best of themselves?
The lucky miracle of netting a large number of fish may be hiding much more below the surface. Might the author of the Gospel of John have remembered Jesus’ words to Peter in Mark’s Gospel that he was to be a fisher of people? Harvests at sea or on land were symbolic of the promise of fruitful mission. Perhaps, as Bill Loader cheekily observes[iii], one day we will fathom the numerical symbolism of the fish (153) - one fish for each interpretation, so far!
The beach barbeque is not dissimilar from other meals in John’s community. Even if the elements do not match, hearers of John’s Gospel would not have had to strain their imaginations to sense a connection with those meals which celebrated Christ’s risen presence in their time.
Meeting the risen Jesus in the context of the meal meant facing fundamental questions. That, too, has not changed. The food consumed is both material food and yet more. It becomes a vehicle of grace. The people we eat with are companions and yet more. We become vehicles of grace to each other. God is found in the real food, in the real company, and in the reality of each person. We are in God. In this meal God is not an outsider but the host – giving and being consumed.
But Peter’s story is larger than an account of calling. It is a recycling of denial into affirmation. As we know from the accounts of Jesus’ death three times Peter had not loved Jesus more than all else (18:25-27). Peter, the potential leader, became a figure of shame as the cock crowed. Peter’s enthusiasm to boldly follow Jesus flounders and dies in the echo of the cock.
Yet here on the shores of Galilee the enthusiasm is back and again Peter is out of his depth. We might think of Matthew’s story of Peter’s failed attempt to follow Jesus on the water. Peter on that occasion sinks. The Gospel of John now puts Peter back in deep water, confronted again with loyalty and love in a question thrice repeated.[iv]
Resurrection celebrates the triumph of the powerful love of Jesus over fear, hatred, and death. The resurrection of Peter celebrates divine grace.
The world and the church, across its history, are littered with smashed lives ground beneath vengeful, judging feet. “Thus far and no further”, they cry, “cross the line of shame and there is no way back”.
“It is impossible,” says the letter to the Hebrews (6:4-6), “for those who have fallen away to be brought back to repentance”. The first letter of John says such are not to be prayed for (1 John 5:16). Harsh judgemental attitudes and actions unfortunately remain all too common among Christians.
The divine initiative at Easter refutes the judgemental side of human nature. The story of Peter is that while shamed and resigned to his former routines the grace of God reached out and said, ‘Have I got a job for you boyo.’ Peter was turned from death to life. He was resurrected.
Similarly Saul on that Damascus Road experienced the striking interruption of the God of grace. Saul wasn’t struck down with lightning. He wasn’t damned. He wasn’t even cursed. Rather the voice of grace reached out and said, ‘Have I got a job for you boyo.’ Saul, who afterwards would be known as Paul, was turned from dealing in death to dealing in life. He was resurrected.
Against all odds and against the prevailing values which would later ascend to rule in much theology, God proposed love to Peter again. Almost irritated by the persistence of divine grace, Peter opens himself to life and leadership. Peter will feed the sheep. Peter will follow Jesus, as he had said. Yes, he would follow, as once he declared he would and as Jesus challenges him again to do (21:19).
Paul’s call to leadership is more interesting. He is sent to do a long apprenticeship [the Book of Acts reduces the ‘long’ to a few days; unlike Paul’s own account in Galatians is a number of years!]. Paul was sent to sit at the feet of the people he once persecuted, learning about the consequences of the pain he inflicted and the power of their faith which kept them going.
Peter’s resurrection is legendary. His rehabilitation is a celebration of divine grace. He also symbolizes leadership, the shepherd appointed by the true shepherd, to do as he did. There could be no arrogance here for Peter, no lofty superiority, and no heartless dogmatism. Instead, Peter was a frail human being brought again to his feet, and brought to new life and leadership by God’s generosity. Such is the image and the possibility.
Paul in his writings would remind us of more failings of Peter later. James, the leader of the Jerusalem Jesus movement would need to move Peter sideways. Peter ends up looking very much like us, and like us kept needing grace.
Michael Leunig has written a poem called ‘At the Top’ which is reminder that in each of us, no matter how much we have failed and feel a failure, no matter who or how many we have hurt, including ourselves, there is a seed of hope, of grace within, which Leunig calls an angel.
“At the top of the tallest building in the world
Sat the saddest man in the world
And inside the man
Was the loneliest heart in the world
And inside the heart
Was the deepest pit in the world
And at the bottom of the pit
Was the blackest mud in the world
And in the mud lay the lightest, loveliest, tenderest,
Most beautiful, happy angel in the universe.”[v]
Let us again say together the Prayer for Today:
The early church was full of people who made mistakes. Big mistakes. Like Peter the betrayer. Like Paul the persecutor. May we too never be frightened of failing, and of starting all over again. May we be kind to and tolerant of ourselves, and extend such kindness and tolerance to others. Amen.
When I was a teenager most of my education happened after school. My classroom was our kitchen. My teacher was my father who also doubled as the family cook. He would come home from his day job as a university professor and begin preparing dinner. I was his sous chef chopping or peeling whatever he required. The class began whenever I would make some pronouncement about a topic with all the certainty and arrogance a teenager can muster for his opinion. That was not much ammunition against a man who was a scientist who also had degrees in philosophy and psychology. But he didn’t argue with me or tell me I was wrong and why. What he did was debate by asking questions. My answers would simply lead to new questions causing me to rethink my earlier position. This would go on through meal preparation, dinner and sometimes well into the evening. By the time I went to bed, my certainty in a particular position had been replaced by an awareness of numerous positions on the topic and what the pros and cons of each were.
What I didn’t understand at the time was I was being schooled in the Socratic method, which wasn’t so much about what you know but how you think about what you think you know. What he gave me was the gift of critical thinking. With that gift comes both humility and doubt.
While Dad was a scientist and a sceptic he was also a person of faith. As a family we went to church weekly and at the same time I was being schooled in the kitchen he was the Sunday school superintendent. So it is not surprising that my religious background was one that made generous allowances for doubt as a legitimate approach to understanding and belief. I was exposed to a model of thinking which kept cynicism in check while encouraging the kind of critical thinking — an unwillingness to suspend disbelief — that might bring me to an acceptable expression of my faith. I came to cherish my doubts, feeling free to ask hard questions and keep on asking them. That has refined and changed the questions I ask as my understanding of my faith continues to develop. At the heart of the matter, faith and doubt go hand in hand. They live in the same apartment building. Their mothers are cousins. Or in the words of Paul Tillich, “doubt is always present as an element in the structure of faith.” [i] Let’s unpack doubt’s relationship to faith a little further.
In his essay Dynamics of Faith Tillich’s first line is “Faith is the state of being ultimately concerned…” Faith is not a statement of factual belief, but rather a state of being in which we acknowledge our ultimate concern to our selves. This could be faith in God or in the All Blacks or any number of intangible but powerful entities. Whatever it is, faith promises total fulfilment and demands total surrender.
He says that an act of faith is an act of a finite being who is grasped by and turned to the infinite. So faith is a matter of relationship, ours with whatever we consider to be the ultimate. The human heart seeks the infinite because that is where the finite wants to rest. In the infinite it sees its own fulfilment.
But since we are finite, with all our human limitations, there will always be an element of uncertainty in faith. There is an unbalance between the finite “us” and our infinite “ultimate concern.” We are grasped by our ultimate concern, but it works beyond our limitations. That’s where our uncertainty comes from; that inability to know absolutely what the outcome will be.
In a movie I saw recently one character equated doing improv theatre to life, “We make it up as we go along, but it always begins with, “Yes.” [ii] Her point being something happens in life and it is up to us to respond but how we do depends on what we say yes to. Our ultimate concern shapes how we make up life, but that doesn’t mean we know how it will come out. Uncertainty is what keeps improv theatre and life both interesting. In Tillich’s terms we have uncertainty in the midst of our faith, with full awareness that there is risk involved, which requires courage. For Tillich courage means affirming our selves in spite of all we know about our finiteness and limitations. The aspect of faith that allows us to accept uncertainty is courage. So we must embrace our doubts, explore them with honesty and integrity and a dash of courage. One of our responsibilities to one another at St Matthew’s is encouragement – which of course, literally means to give courage to one another.
When we have faith in something, we put the whole meaning of our life into it, we base all your actions on it. That’s what Tillich means by ultimate concern. When we have faith, we have posited the meaning of our life in that faith. If we are wrong then the very meaning of our life is threatened. But we cannot ever be sure our faith stance is the true meaning of our life. We can’t help to doubt it. Our faith can overcome it. We can continue to hold to our ultimate concern, but doubt persists.
Let me try to explain the difference between belief and faith. I can believe that God exists, but if I haven’t put my faith in God it really doesn’t matter if God exists or not. Without putting my faith in God is like believing that pigs can fly, but then I wake up and see they don’t have wings. No big deal, it really doesn’t matter. Life goes on. But if faith in God was my ultimate concern, if I based my life and all my actions on faith in God — and then I found out it was all a fraud, the meaning of my very life would be threatened.
There is nothing that can be done about this existential doubt. Everything we have invested our lives in, everything we put value in; everything we think worthwhile could be a huge hoax. And yet we manage to have faith, to have ultimate concerns, to vest our lives with meaning despite our doubts. We understand that anything solid casts a shadow. They always have, which finally brings us to Thomas, who I like to think of as the first progressive Christian. I’ll explain why shortly.
Thomas wasn’t here last week. He missed Easter. Not because he is indifferent when it comes to religious questions. He is one of the inner circle. He took all of this very seriously. He dedicated his life to a worthwhile cause. He is trying to walk the talk. He has given his heart to something. He has found his ultimate concern that has gripped him and changed his life. How could he not be devastated by Jesus’ brutal murder. No wonder he didn’t show up right away.
But he does come back a week later when, as the story goes, he encounters the risen Jesus, which is why we hear this Gospel every year a week after Easter. John’s account of the timing of Thomas’ returning to the upper room is a reflection of the early church’s practice of gathering each Sunday to await Jesus’ return in glory.
When the disciples told Thomas that Jesus had stopped by to breathe on them with the spirit, that is to give encouragement, he was understandably sceptical demanding evidence. While he doubted, he didn’t disappear. He didn’t sink into cynicism or despair. He remained faithful to his quest for knowledge and understanding. He was not satisfied by other people’s accounts. He wanted to know by experience. He wanted his religion to be his own. He wanted to touch the truth for himself, and until then, maybe even in spite of himself, he would not believe. He approached his ultimate concern critically. He was not simply an unbeliever who turned away from possibility. He was a searcher who valued his doubts until his own experience overcame them. He remained in religious community. He came to worship and brought his doubts with him and allowed the community to encourage him until he found something that he could believe for himself. That’s what makes him a progressive Christian. We have little use for creeds and doctrines. We refuse to accept the beliefs of others without question. They mean nothing until we experience the infinite for our selves.
So if it didn’t happen for you this week; if you didn’t touch your faith with your own hands, come back next week. Struggling with our doubts in supportive company develops the courage and wisdom to cope with a life we have to make up as we go along.
[i] Tillich, Paul, Dynamics of Faith, HarperCollins ebooks: 1957, p.24
Look out here comes the preacher walking the Easter sermon tightrope. Can I balance the life-giving message of joy and hope that the ancient story of resurrection suggests, with the progressive theology and openness St Matthew’s embodies. Can I make it across safely to the other side without falling into either the dreaded, dogmatic pit of spirit killing, rigid orthodoxy or the confusing fog of bland generalities that can mean just about anything? We’ll know in about 12 minutes.
In past years I’ve gotten across by first making a blood sacrifice of a sacred cow, the literal belief in Jesus’ bodily resurrection. Some say what’s the harm in believing the unbelievable? From my perspective, suspending our disbelief to hear today’s Gospel as history and not myth denies the reality of resurrection that occurs daily in our lives. Easter is not an occasion to celebrate something that happened once long ago. It is to be celebrated moment to moment in our daily lives. It is not a fairy tale. It is in the DNA of life itself. If we think resurrection is reserved only for the Son of God we miss the point and the hope it offers. What’s more it is not just a Christian experience. It is a human experience reflected in many religions.
Robert Morris speaks about the commonplace and frequently unnoticed ways that people rise above their loneliness and fear as ordinary resurrections. He points out that the origin of resurrection is the Greek word anastasis, which, he notes, means standing up again, and, as he puts it unpretentiously: We all lie down. We all rise up. We do this every day. The same word, as he notes, is used in Scripture: I am the resurrection and the life. He observes: the resurrection does not wait for Easter. [i]
But Easter is here. The Saxon goddess Ostara, famous for transforming her bird into a bunny that lays coloured eggs, has done her work to fill our children with wonder and delight. So what do we want before we leave here this morning besides the chocolate eggs and hot cross buns we will offer at morning tea?
Madelene L'Engle's tells of being with her grandchildren at bedtime for reading and song. “Her grandchild Lena turned to her and asked: Is everything all right? She said, Yes, of course, everything is all right. Lena asked again: Gram, is everything really all right? I mean really? L'Engle says she looked at that little child in her white nightgown and realized that she was asking the cosmic question, the question that is out beyond the safety of this home full of light and love and warmth. Every Christmas we come to the manger child and ask the same question: Is everything really all right? Every Easter we come to the tomb and ask that same question: Is everything really all right?” [ii]
We live in a world where so much is not all right it is hard to find any hope, even here in New Zealand where a lot more is right than in most of the world. Just one example: While the figures vary, it is safe to say at least 250,000 of our children in New Zealand are growing up in poverty. That means they are not getting proper nourishment, health care, and in too many cases education. Where is their hope? If their parents are fortunate enough to have jobs they are clearly not being paid a living wage. If their parents are on a benefit it is considerably less than the minimum wage, which is already well below a living wage. Where is their hope? Can we tell them this Easter everything is all right? Really all right?
All too often what they hear is, “It’s your fault.” Even from those who are touched by their plight, they hear, “I’m sorry, a living wage is not sustainable. We can’t afford it.” Seriously, how are our children at fault for the circumstances of their birth? How are the fruits of poverty: lost potential and productivity, higher crime; increased healthcare costs sustainable? How are we not at fault when we remain quiet in the face of higher and higher income inequality that benefits only those at the very top? When we accept goods and services from companies, churches and government entities that don’t pay their employees enough to support their families, who is at fault for child poverty?
All too often those of us who do not have to go to school on empty stomachs look at poverty and only see statistics, not flesh and blood. For us the poor are faceless. They will remain trapped in the cycle of poverty until we have a national will to look them in the eye and say no more. Easter is here.
This week Parliament had their last debate before voting shortly on something that was once thought unimaginable, marriage equality for the LGBT community. I listened to one list MP, Jacinda Ardern, who competed and lost to represent this district, who said she was dedicating her vote for the bill to her uncle who in 1948 spent three years in prison for loving the wrong gender. The reason New Zealanders are no longer prepared to discriminate against this class of people is because they are no longer faceless. We have looked at our family members and friends and co-workers in the eye and said no more. Easter is here. Everything is all right.
Until we know who the poor are and what they look like it will not be all right. Until we see the 13 year olds reduced to being sex workers, the thousands who line up in our parking lot to get food parcels before Christmas, until we know the names of our cleaners and more importantly, the names of their children it will not be all right.
Peter Rollins, author of The Orthodox Heretic, has this to say about 'the' resurrection:
"Without equivocation or hesitation I fully and completely admit that I deny the resurrection of Christ… I deny the resurrection of Christ every time I do not serve at the feet of the oppressed, each day that I turn my back on the poor; I deny the resurrection of Christ when I close my ears to the cries of the downtrodden and lend my support to an unjust and corrupt system. However there are moments when I affirm that resurrection, few and far between as they are. I affirm it when I stand up for those who are forced to live on their knees, when I speak for those who have had their tongues torn out, when I cry for those who have no more tears left to shed" [iii]
I would add, when we look into our children’s faces and see Jesus’ face, then I will know Easter is here.
In the face of not everything being all right, I live in the hope of the empty tomb. It proclaims grace is and has always been everywhere. The task is to make it so.
[i] Jonathan Kozol, Ordinary Resurrections, New York: Crown Publishers, 2000, 107-108.
[ii] The Summer of the Great Grandmothe, New York: Harper & Row, 1986
[iii] Rollins, P, The Orthodox Heretic and Other Impossible Tales. Orleans. Paraclete Press, 2009
In the Orthodox tradition Easter begins with a laugh. It is God’s laugh in the face of despair and death. It is God’s laugh in the face of all that demeans and diminishes life.
So here’s a good laugh:
Wilson runs a nail factory and decides his business needs a bit of advertising. He has a chat with a friend who works in marketing, and he offers to make a television ad for Wilson's Nails.
"Give me a week," says the friend, "and I'll be back with a tape." A week goes by and the marketing executive comes to see Wilson. He puts a cassette in the video and presses play.
A Roman soldier is busy nailing Jesus to the cross. He turns to face the camera and says with a grin, "Use Wilson's Nails, they'll hold anything."
Wilson goes mad, shouting, "What is the matter with you? They'll never show that on television. Give it another try, but no more Romans crucifying Jesus!"
Another week goes by and the marketing man comes back to see Wilson with another tape. He puts it in the machine and hits play.
This time the camera pans out from a Roman standing with his arms folded to show Jesus on the cross. The Roman looks up at him and says, "Wilson's Nails, they'll hold anything."
Wilson is beside himself. "You don't understand. I don't want anything with Jesus on the cross! Now listen, I'll give you one last chance. Come back in a week with an advertisement that I can broadcast."
A week passes and Wilson waits impatiently. The marketing executive arrives and puts on the new video. A naked man with long hair, gasping for breath, is running across a field. About a dozen Roman soldiers come over the hill, hot on his trail. One of them turns to the camera and says, "If only we had used Wilson's Nails!"
The resurrection is God’s joke on those who think they had Jesus nailed down.
We know that laughter is powerful medicine. Physically it reduces blood sugar levels, helps blood vessels function better increasing the flow of oxygen to the heart and brain, and it reduces pain. Mentally it assists creativity and complex problem solving. It is a powerful adhesive in close relationships. Laughter establishes, or restores, a positive emotional climate and a sense of connection between people. In fact, some researchers believe that the major function of laughter is to bring people together. Send in the clowns.
Laughter is closely connected with spirituality, with the desire to find positive healing energy, and the sacred spaces needed for the nurture of wisdom, compassion, and joy. Just by laughing hope raises her head and smiles. Just by laughing the gloom seems to brighten. Just by laughing we can face our fears and find courage.
There is a scene from the third Harry Potter movie where the supernatural creature called a Boggart transforms into whatever the individual fears. The Boggart’s power is in fear. And the spell for dealing with it is one that transforms the Boggart into something that can be laughed at.
Pilate’s power to kill, Caiaphas’ power to judge, and the crowd’s power to condemn were all Boggarts that God laughed at and destroyed their power. The empty tomb was God’s laugh. God was laughing at death. God was laughing at fear and all its manifestations. God was laughing at all our little hierarchies and systems that elevate some and squash others. God was laughing at the way we dismiss the faithfulness and witness of powerless ones, like the women disciples. God’s laugh continues to echo down through the ages.
Laughter is iconoclastic. When we begin to take ourselves too seriously, when we make theological idols in our own image or in the image of how we think the world should be, when we make no room for the little ones – the children, the impoverished, the damaged, when we forget that it is all about, and only about, love and forgiveness – then we need the waves of mirth to break over us, tossing us about, destabilizing us, cleansing us, and reinvigorating us. When choosing a Church, look at whether there is any humour, any fun, and any merriment. Can they laugh at their own piety?
We know that laughter seriously annoys the seriously minded. When institutions want to impress upon us how important, accurate, and powerful they are humour has no place. That’s why clowns and comedy have a hard life under dictatorial regimes. That’s why satire has had such a hard life in the Church. That’s why the rise of a critical secularism and the permission it gives to comedians has been good news for faiths and for spirituality generally.
Nina, tonight you have been baptized into Christ. You haven’t suddenly been made holy. No, the truth is you’ve always been holy. You’ve always been accepted and loved by God and will always be, just as we will always be. Baptism declares the truth of what is: God’s riotous laugh in the face of every fear, hatred, and oppression - a laugh that embraces you, like it embraces us. Of course that embrace, if you let it, will bring challenges of its own. As F.D. Maurice said, Baptism invites you “to become who you are”. It invites you to join the iconoclastic laughing clowns of God.
The Passion Narrative includes a pericope on the pain of betrayal.
Matthew 26: 20-25
… ‘Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me’. And they became greatly distressed and began to say to him one after another’, ‘Surely not I, Lord?’
… ‘Judas, one of the twelve arrived; with him was a large crowd with swords and clubs… He came up to Jesus… and kissed him… Then they came and laid hands on Jesus and arrested him.’
Judas’ kiss marked both men – Jesus lost a close friend and Judas lost all hope. Jesus would suffer terrible physical pain, and Judas would suffer terrible psychological pain.
Later both men would be resurrected by the Church: Jesus as triumphant saviour and ‘Lord of all’, and Judas as despised betrayer and immoral monster. As the early Christians developed their theology, a theology of winners and losers, one of these men would be labeled ‘God incarnate’ and the other ‘the Devil incarnate.’
Judas was a disciple, one of Jesus’ close friends, and trusted.
Why did he do what he did? In Mark’s Gospel there is a woman who extravagantly pours expensive ointment on Jesus’ feet. To Jesus it was a display of loyalty and love. To Judas it was wasteful, excessive expenditure. Judas then went to the chief priests and prepared to betray him.
In John’s Gospel Judas is the keeper of the common purse [13:29]. Was it his concern about finances, particularly the lack of them, which coloured his reaction to the ointment incident? John [12:6], writing 90 years after Jesus death and influenced by current of anti-Judaism, says Judas was motivated by greed; he was a common thief, wanting the money for his own ends.
Similarly, the assumption is that Judas betrayed Jesus for the money - the 30 silver coins from the chief priests – enough to buy a slave, or plot of land to die upon.
And yet this ‘he did it for the money’ reason doesn’t ring true. While its simplicity might be appealing, do people whose goal in life is money leave their homes and professions and follow a revolutionary preacher like Jesus around the countryside for maybe three years?
The author of John also isn’t satisfied with just the money answer. John and Luke bring in the Satan factor: ‘He was inspired by Satan’.[i]
Nowadays many of us are wary of Satan talk. We know it to be political polemic dressed in spiritual drag. It doesn’t tell us anything of substance. All we are learning is that others didn’t like Judas and didn’t understand why he did what he did.
Maybe his name gives a clue: Judas Iscariot. Iscariot is thought to derive from Ish Kerioth, i.e. "a man from Kerioth." Kerioth being a town located in the south, not far from Hebron. Judas was therefore the only Judean disciple among the twelve. He wasn’t from the rural and rebellious Galilee, but from the more urbane south, perceived as closer to the halls of power. He was the equivalent of a first century Palestinian JAFA. If you want to blame someone then blame a JAFA … then you won’t have to think about your own culpability!
Extra-biblical sources, dated around 110 – 140 CE, call Judas an ‘enormous example of impiety’ and comment on his physical body as bloated and grotesque, with pus and worms.[ii] Judas was portrayed in the early Church as an immoral and physical monster.
To our ears the creation of a scapegoat by the early Church on which to transfer their fears, self-loathing, and guilt about Jesus’ death not only sounds grossly unjust but calls into question the moral compass of that Church. And the continuation of such scapegoating of Judas today distorts that compass still.
However the scapegoating of Judas was not restricted to just one individual. It was extended to a whole race. Maybe it was because the name Judas resonates in Hebrew with the name “Jew” that the Church has used, and in some places continues to use, Judas as a means to tarnish every Jew with the accusation of betrayal, and the immorality said to be behind it.
For centuries Holy Week was a time of fear for Jews. It was thought to be perfectly acceptable for Christians to continue to punish the “Christ killers”. Three brief examples:
In the Cathedral of Toulouse from the 9th to the 11th century a Jew was brought in each year during Holy Week and given a symbolic blow.
Rabbi Daniel Landes grew up on Chicago’s South Side in the late 1950s and remembers his beatings on Good Friday. The same boys he played football with the rest of the year would hurl taunts on Good Friday calling him a dirty Jew. They accused him of crucifying their Lord. Then they kicked out one of his teeth.
Last year it was reported that towns in Mexico celebrate the “burning of the Jews”. As part of local custom Jewish effigies – modeled supposedly on Judas – are created and then displayed for three days before being burned.[iii]
From the cruel taunts of children to pogroms, the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition and the Nazi Holocaust, the Jewish community has suffered terribly at the hands of Christians. And, it is the Passion story we have just heard read, and from John’s Gospel in particular, that has been used to inspire and fan the flames of such hatred and persecution.
It is imperative that we know our history, the bad as well as the good, and learn how to never let it be repeated.
It was of course very convenient to label Judas as the betrayer when Peter did likewise. And not just Peter - all the disciples ran away. They all betrayed him - all his followers, well-wishers, palm-wavers, and ‘Hosanna’ choristers. Only a few women stayed true to the end. So, in a sense Judas carried the blame for them all[iv]. He was the bad guy so that we would think the rest were good guys. We would look at Judas so we wouldn’t look at them... and we wouldn’t look at the seeds of betrayal latent in each us of.
Judas’ suicide is tragic. Matthew records that Judas, on seeing that Jesus was condemned, had second thoughts, tried to undo what he had done, and in despair hung himself. Despair drew his world in, narrower and narrower, until no light was left.
Judas couldn’t see through his pain the flickering message that the others would slowly absorb - the message that they had always been forgiven, and would always be forgiven.
The challenge of Good Friday is how to relieve suffering. The story of Judas reminds us of the mistakes of blaming others and blaming ourselves, then acting out that blame in destructive behaviours. Blame is the enemy of empathy and forgiveness. Blame erodes the soul’s self-healing and other-healing potential.
There are many who have walked to the edge of that crater called suicide and looked down. For some down seems the only place they can look and it is very dark. The light, love and hope they have experienced in the past are gone. All seems lost.
There are many too who carry the scars that the suicide of friends, lovers, and parents brings. It is such a devastating emotional rupture. According to the World Health Organization one million people die by suicide each year.
Talking, walking, diet, sunshine, safety plans, sleep, professional help… we know all these things help ease the hurt and pull one back from the crater. The biggest help of course is friendship – for it is that human contact and community that is so essential to us all.
And it is that community, the community of his friends, which Judas now felt so alienated from, and unable to be reconciled to.
As Joy Cowley concludes,
“We all do it. Year after year, we project
Our own fears and betrayals on Judas,
And in doing that, we fail to hear
The compassionate voice of Jesus
Saying of Judas and of us,
“Father forgive them.
They know not what they do.”[v]
[i] Luke 22:3
[ii] Fragments of Papias 3 as in Crossan, J.D. Who Killed Jesus? 1991, p.75.
Maundy Thursday is, scripturally and liturgically speaking, the busiest day of the church year. It’s that day we remember the Last Supper, the washing of the disciple’s feet, the giving of the new commandment to love one another, Judas’ betrayal, the agony in the garden, the arrest, and Peter’s threefold denial. So much to choose from, so little time. Each story touches the core of who we are as followers in Jesus’ way. It is always difficult to choose, but I think I will go with the Last Supper which we celebrate tonight and every Sunday. It is what nourishes us on our journey. It is also the story that connects all the other stories.
I’m drawn to it because I fear we might take it for granted. When that becomes the case it becomes as memorable as the beans and toast we had last Tuesday instead of the feast it is. I know it is hard to think of a wafer or morsel of bread and a sip of wine as a feast, but the Last Supper celebrating the Passover would have been the equivalent of a Christmas dinner. I don’t want us to lose the meal-ness of communion.
Karen Blixen who wrote under the pseudonym Isak Dinesan captured what I’m getting at in her short story that became an Oscar-winning film, Babette’s Feast. I’m sure many of you have read or seen it, but it may have been awhile so let me remind you