These words have a timeless poetry about them. All the more so because we listen to them in the dark, amongst these stones and candles, on this night. Just as people have listened to them now for centuries, millennia even.
In the beginning
The Celts talk about “thin places” where time seems to stand still and where you feel like you can reach back in time and sense the story of your ancestors. Thin places in Aotearoa tend to be marae or urupa; but also churches, or summer baches where childhood memories can come flooding back. It might just take the scent of the pohutakawa, or the taste of a barbecued sausage, or the sand between your toes to remind you of carefree summer days, when holidays meant holidays with no email or phones to keep you connected.
In the beginning
These words at the beginning of John’s gospel also trigger memories and reflections in the lives of people of faith. This tale John is about to weave begins in the beginning of time, back in the creation stories of Genesis, back in ancient times of which no one has any memories. But still, they try to reach back with both myth and science. And so John weaves a tale of life that began in the beginning and now breaks upon the world in a new way. Now this life comes not in light and stars and sun and moon as it did at the genesis of time, but in flesh, in human flesh, of the ordinary and the every day. John does not tell us the tale of the baby and the shepherds and the wise men, but he tells us the essence of the tale – Jesus, the Word, became flesh and lived among us.
God was always incarnate, embodied, enfleshed in the people – but often they couldn’t see it. They kept God separated in the Holy of Holies in the Temple; or somewhere in the sky. No matter how many times the prophets said, God is here, now, with the poor and the oppressed and the captives; people thought God was far away and remote and separate. And so the Word became flesh and lived among us.
Jesus lived in Palestine, at a specific time and a specific place. He taught and ate and drank and prayed and healed and was killed for his teaching. Yet because he was
death could not be the end for him.
And so John wrote his tale of grace and truth that we might seek grace and truth within ourselves and within each other. Because God was always incarnate, embodied, enfleshed in the people and they hadn’t seen it.
Perhaps now we might.
This life of grace and truth is there for all who seek it. Not just in Palestine, not just in Europe where most of our carols and Christmas images come from. In Aotearoa, this tale has been told for 200 short years.
In other places longer.
Each culture and each time takes the story up and embeds it in their culture, in their way.
Cardinal Avery Dulles once said “Christmas does not give us a ladder to climb out of the human condition. It gives us a drill to burrow into the heart of everything that is, and there, find it already shimmering with divinity.” 
200 years ago tomorrow Reverend Samuel Marsden and Chief Ruatara of Nga Puhi held the first Christian service in Aotearoa at Oihi in the Bay Of Islands. If you were at the 11pm Carol Service you will have heard an account read of that day. Secular historians have not been particularly kind to the early Christian missionaries but more recent writers such as Keith Newman  have helped to shine a kinder light on their arduous endeavours, and their desire to understand and embed the gospel into the culture they found here. Ruatara was appallingly treated by two ship’s captains and had been left to die twice on Norfolk Island; both times assisted and restored to health by Marsden and his wife Elizabeth. It was from Ruatara that Marsden learnt his first Maori and began to understand Maori ways. Ruatara would sadly die only 10 weeks after that first Christmas Day. And we remember him now as Te Ara mo te Rongopai – the gateway for the good news.
You may well know the names of the some of the English missionaries: Williams, Colenso, King, Brown.
But the other names – Taumata-a-kura; Nopera Panakareao; Wiremu Nera Ngatai; Minarapa Rangihautuke ; young girl Tarore of Waharoa martyred at 12 years old; other martyrs Kereopa and Te Manihera; these are the names of those for whom the gospel became flesh and dwelt in this land. The first Maori Anglican priest Roto Waitoa was ordained in 1853; Te Aute College in Hawke’s Bay opened in 1854.
This tale of
does not belong to one culture, or one time.
It calls out to us as it did 200 years ago in Oihi. It calls out to us as it does today in Bethlehem where pilgrims must get past the shameful separation Wall to worship. It calls out to us as it does today in northern Iraq where after 2000 years of Christian worship no church communities gather any longer to hear it.
It calls out to us as it does today in Peshwar, Pakistan; the Sudan; Liberia; Sydney; the Philippines; Tonga; anywhere you can name. It calls out to us this night, here in the dark, amongst these stones. It calls out to us even though we witness the atrocities of children killed in Peshwar; even though someone in Sydney can be shot for going to get a cup of coffee. Even though and especially when we suffer and are sad.
The question for us here tonight is how does this tale of
become enfleshed in our lives.
This Christmas can we burrow into our hearts and the hearts of those we know and love and find there some divinity.
And then can we look to those we do not know and see the light of
enfleshed there as well.
We invite you tonight to allow God to be present with you, in you.
In the beginning was the Word;
in him was life;
and the life was the light of all people;
and the Word became flesh and lived among us;
full of grace and truth.
 Quoted in “this radical grace” article by Daniel O’leary; Tui Motu Christmas 2014; original source unknown.
Well, there you have it then - the prequel to Christmas!
This is the conception story, the one that precedes the birth story we are so familiar with and make such a fuss of with angels and alleluia's and carols.
It always seems a pity to me that this conception story is presented as an exercise of power (albeit disguised as an honour ) that leaves a teenager so terrified she runs off to an elderly cousin seeking comfort and advise.
I wonder why Luke, a third generation Christian and the story teller for today, doesn't have her turning to her Mother, Anna, or even Joseph the older man to whom she was engaged.
And I wonder why Luke writing about 50 years after Jesus death, chose to tell us of a 14 year old peasant girl, to make her the 'corner-stone' as it were for the whole history of Jesus that he is setting out to shape. the gospel of Luke is the gospel set for 2015 so we will be hearing more from Luke.
Initially the story was by way of elucidation for Theophilus, a new Roman convert to Christianity, but as it has turned out, it has also been for us - for Christians ever since!
But this is not 'history' is it? Not 'history' as we use that word today, not the disclosure of an evidence based story with verifiable facts and happenings just waiting to be told. These verses from the first chapter of Luke's good-news are not, after all, excerpts from Mary's pregnancy diary.
The way Christianity grew and took Luke's stories to heart over the succeeding centuries, suggests that the fact this was a 'story' and not 'history' as we know it didn't matter at all. It hasn't seemed to matter for most of Christian history - only for about the last 300 years since the development of modern science. It hasn't mattered for most of Christian history that the Bible is full of story and poetry and hymns and parables, any more than it mattered for the Greeks or Romans that their panoply of gods and goddesses, and the corpus of stories that shaped their world view for a thousand or so years, were what we, somewhat disparagingly, call myths today. They were all truth laden stories that open the depth of human living and potential.
It is clear to biblical scholars and theologians of today, that Luke was not so much interested in presenting facts as he was in creating a story and back story for Jesus, to convince us to listen to the vision of an alternative world that Jesus lived and then died for. The social structure of the world Jesus lived in was not a 'blueprint' from God unable to be changed any more that our contemporary social organisation is a 'blueprint f' from God and unable to be changed. We dream the world we create, we imagine it, and then we work to bring it into reality - there is always a new and better way waiting for us to strive towards.
Luke was an educated man, a doctor it is thought. Today we could be excused if we thought he had attended workshops on growing community movements as well! He certainly seemed to know the importance of creating a vision exciting enough to captivate imagination, and which resonated enough with the deepest anxieties of the people so they would engage with it and 'give it a try. Luke's story attaches the Jesus story, that he is convinced has the potential to change lives, to that of a 14 year old peasant girl, who calls herself a 'servant', and her baby - (there is a human interest dynamic as well!)
It is important, so it seems to me, for us to keep in mind that Luke was not interested so much in Mary's story as he was in persuading new, gentile Christians to attend to the impact of Jesus' teaching, to Jesus vision of a new way of living. Jesus is always his main focus, not the women - though Luke seems to tell us more about women than any other of the Gospels - including the story we have heard today. For Luke's purposes Jesus needs a mysterious conception - a 'virgin birth', - he needs to rise from humble origins, for that is the way for all the great Caesars of Rome, and for other great kings and leaders from around the Mediterranean world who were deified after death.
Notwithstanding this, I want to invite us to consider, just for a moment, a probable unintended outcome of Luke's story telling - and this for me is good news indeed - that even the most unimportant of people, such as an unmarried pregnant girl (at the bottom of the social hierarchy) warrants the visit of an angel, a messenger direct from God. This ordinary girl becomes extraordinary in the story of Jesus that we have been telling for centuries. She may have been just a means to an end for Luke, but, she is very good news for us.
But Luke was focused on Jesus, on telling a story and creating a history for Jesus, a history that would resonate with the expectations of the people of 2000 years ago for their leaders and important scholars, and which would connected readily with the sacred stories and long held hope of the Jewish people. That hope was for a messiah who would come and save the people from their 'captivity' under the yoke of the 'oppressor'.
The vision Jesus proclaims; the Jesus-story that is told in the gospels, invites people to open their minds and hearts to a different vision of humanity and the way we could live together in community.
It invites those who hear the story to find the courage to say 'yes' to the alternative vision that is being proposed for human relationships and for community dynamics.
It is a story that invites people to begin living as though they really do matter, as though God is with them, as though they are favoured.
It encourages those who accept the invitation to live respectfully, to work for healing, to share food, to worry about the widows and the children and to care for them.
It is not a story about passivity (despite the model of women that Luke sets up).
To this end, the story, and the vision it attests to, still has power today: the angels and glad tidings and declarations of favour are for us to be and to embody for one another.
It seems to me, that it is our work to be those angels and the glad tidings and to be respectful companions for each other as we move towards a new and different world. We are encouraged by the retelling of the stories of Jesus to dare to open another new vision for the world for our own time. A vision in which the proud and mighty will fall from office and the hungry will be filled with good things; in which the ordinary can become the extraordinary; in which we dare to proclaim peace and justice, kindness and favour and, like Jesus, to work for it in the face of continuing opposition.
The Light Show which is on at the Auckland Art Gallery has all sorts of amazing light installations; some are beautiful, some are puzzling, some are clever. They are all designed to make us think differently about what we see, and how we see and perceive it. Last Sunday Richard Randerson and I were on a panel with Jim Mora from Radio NZ about light in Christianity. It was interesting enough but I think at the end Jim was a bit frustrated with Richard and me. I think he wanted or expected us to say that “the light” of Christianity was “the truth” that would save the world and if only the world all saw “the light” then all would be well. So we ended up talking past each other a bit I think. I was more interested in talking about how many religions can give us light; and yes light is a central concept in Christianity, but we don’t have ownership of it.
In our conversation recorded for us in John’s gospel today John the Baptist and the priests and the Levites rather talk past each other too. John says that he is not the light but has come to testify to the light. Well that makes no sense, so they ask him – who are you? He is not the Messiah he says; nor is he Elijah – although the other gospel writers describe John as being dressed exactly like Elijah would have been – in camel’s hair, and eating wild locusts and honey. Nor is he the prophet – a Moses like figure who was also expected before the Messiah. “Who are you then?” they ask in frustration. John refuses to be categorized or pigeon holed. Barbara Brown Taylor says “Here is a stunning refusal to place the coming one into any of the theological boxes prepared for him, along with an equally emphatic rejection of the religious authorities sent to vet John.”  John will not humour the authorities but continues to talk in seeming riddles “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness” “I baptize with water but the one coming after me is much greater”.
John the gospel writer says John the Baptist has come as a “witness” to testify to the light. The Greek word for witness is martyria from which we get the word martyr. Later, many of those who were witnesses for Jesus became martyrs. At this time, a martyria was either a witness in a legal proceeding or a prophet who named the truth of events as they unfolded. 
(Testify is simple the verb martyreo or bear witness). So John is naming it or calling it as he sees it, he is being a witness to what he has seen. And so he tells people that there is one who is coming who will be the light. Light, like the light of creation “God said, let there be light and there was light” (Gen 1:3); or the pillar of light that led the people of Israel to freedom (Ex 13:21); or the psalmist praying that the “light of God’s face will shine upon us” (Ps 4:6) Or the prophet Isaiah who said “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined. (Is 9:2)
At the art gallery on Sunday we talked about darkness too; and how we do not want to be trapped in a dichotomy of light = good and dark = bad. In the dark times of our lives we can learn and grow. In biblical terms God is seen as creating the light and the dark and the psalmist says “the darkness and the light are both alike to you” (Psalm 139:11).
Richard said he thought while there are some actions and even people who we would consider as “evil”, most people want to act for good in the world. But people do sometimes get caught up in institutions that end up acting in a way that has evil consequences. He cited the banking policies that led to the financial crisis of 2007-8 as an example. And this week the report about torture at the CIA would be another. There are times when darkness is not helpful and positive, when it is downright evil and then light does need to shine upon it. John the gospel writer develops his theology of light and sees “judgment” as being like light that is shone on evil deeds so they can be seen for what they are:
“And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.” (John 3:19-20)
This week I attended the book launch for a book called “It’s life Jim” written by local man Jim Marjoram about his life and being gay in the church and finally coming out and stopping denying who he is. You may have seen the media coverage of a hateful and despicable email he was sent by someone calling themselves a “church pastor”. I will not repeat the hateful words. When the media began calling me for comment last Sunday my first reaction was not to comment because I did not want to give a megaphone to the hateful views. But the media were clearly going to run the story anyway so I and others weighed in. It was important that this self proclaimed “pastor” did not get to speak for the rest of the church. And it was important that the “judgement of light” exposed his actions for what they were. At the book launch Jim Marjoram said he actually felt very sad for the “pastor” who had in turn been vilified – more darkness.
Advent is a time of watching and waiting and being alert and standing up for what we believe. John the Baptist calls us to testify, to bear witness to the truth. When the CIA confess to torture; when people vilify others with hate, it is clear enough what we are called to say, to testify. We say that is wrong, it must stop. But what about the less clear times in our lives: what about the family gatherings for Christmas coming up where we sometimes have to put up with our relatives who we see once a year and who tend to be racist or sexist. Do we stay silent? What about our workplaces where someone might be bullied, or put down, or exploited. Do we stay silent? What about when someone challenges us about something we have done or said that has offended them? Do we listen?
In the letter of John (written by the community formed by John the gospel writer) we read “Whoever says, ‘I am in the light’, while hating a brother or sister, is still in the darkness.” (1 John 2:9) Our actions as well as our words show whether we are “children of the light”. (1 Thess 5:5) Those actions define us as people of faith. In our passage from Isaiah we heard the classic summary of the call of the prophet, which becomes the call of Jesus.
“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour” (Is 61:1-2)
Who do we know who is broken hearted this Christmas time? Who is a prisoner in their job or their family? Who needs us to reach out to them; to notice; to bear witness? We can’t fix everything, we can’t help with everything.
But we can do one thing or two. We can bear witness. We can testify to love and truth. We can shine a light. We can #occupy advent.
Comfort, comfort ye my people. Advent is the time when our hearts are lifted by Handel’s Messiah, and those moving words from Isaiah 40.3 we have heard today:
Prepare ye the way of the Lord; every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill made low; and the rough places plain.
Isaiah prophesied in the 8thC BC in Judah and Jerusalem, but today’s reading is from what scholars refer to as 2nd Isaiah, 160 years later in 539BC, the year Israel’s 48-year captivity in Babylon was ended when Cyrus of Persia overthrew Babylon. It was a time of high hope for the exiled Jewish people, with the expectation that they would soon return to their homeland, which they did. The experience of the exiles captures the Advent theme of captivity and hope:
The glory of the Lord shall be revealed. Get ye up to a high mountain and cry: ‘Here is your God’, who will feed his flock like a shepherd.
We think of manifold captivities today:
In places like Nigeria, and Gaza, Iraq and Syria, Afghanistan and the Sudan, the sufferers from Ebola. Where is hope for God’s afflicted and innocent people?
In Aotearoa – the captivity of homelessness, poverty, children and parents living stunted lives deprived of the wherewithal to give kids a robust and confident start in life. Where lies hope?
Personal captivity of age, loneliness, illness, bereavement, loss of a job, breakdown in a relationship, lives devoid of meaning and purpose, or an uncertain future. Where is hope?
And there is the captivity of the comfortable, the captivity of complacency, self-satisfaction, which allows 65%of Kiwis to believe the poor have only themselves to blame. God comforts the afflicted, but afflicts the comfortable Are we among them? Is there hope for us also?
Advent is a time to reflect on our own captivities, past and present. What have been, or are, the times of captivity in our lives? And how did they end? Or do we wrestle with them still? I well recall some times in my life when I have felt up against a vocational brick wall – feeling I had come to an end of the job I was in, but seeing no way ahead. But new things emerged in a way I was not expecting, and which I can only see as the grace of God.
All our hope is quite simply in the Lord: The Lord comes with might, proclaims Isaiah, and Mark echoes the theme in his opening Gospel words. Mark spends no time on Jesus’ genealogy, or the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke. He cuts right to the chase announcing the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the son of God. And he follows up with those words of Isaiah: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.
At once John the Baptist appears in the wilderness, calling the people to a baptism of repentance, of turning again to the Lord. John was a striking figure:
Clothed with camel’s hair, a leather belt around his waist; eating locusts and wild honey.
John did not dress in fine clothes or dine in rich palaces, but stripped away worldly pretensions to better proclaim his message. There was a mood of expectation as people from the whole Judaean countryside and Jerusalem went out to him. Captives under the occupying Roman regime and rapacious landowners and tax-gatherers, they flocked to the desert in hope of liberation. And baptising them in water, John pointed to One who was yet to come:
One who is more powerful than I, One who will baptise you with the Holy Spirit.
John’s baptism in water was a baptism of repentance, but Jesus’ baptism in the Spirit would draw people into direct communion with God. The Saviour, the ultimate source of all hope, was near. Here centrally and deeply is the source of our hope: our communion with the living God, mysterious, other than us, yet present in the fullness of light and love, hope for all people.
Rowan Williams has said that in prayer he feels attended to. Not the prayer of words, but prayer found in silence, stillness, waiting, opening ourselves to God’s spirit that fills us. When nothing around us seems clear, here is our hope, God who is light in our darkness, strength in times of weakness, One always present so that we are never alone.
But for those who enjoy the captivity of the comfortable, God offers a different path to freedom, a path that follows in the way of John the Baptist and Jesus, standing with the last, the least and the lost. I have kept the words of a poem I read from this pulpit in 1971. New in the role of industrial chaplain I was preaching at the annual Civic Service, attended by Mayor Sir Dove-Myer Robinson, and local body leaders. Rewi Alley, a Kiwi who spent 60 years of his life in China as an educator, writer and advocate for the workers, was revisiting his homeland and wrote this poem, Auckland:
Weekend, and comes the sound of motor-mowers clipping neat lawns street after street.
And in gardens fig trees, lemons and grapefruit bear richly, a myriad flowers throw out their fragrance...
And people speak of world problems as though such were no pressing concern of theirs;
go on thinking that more and more prosperity is just around the corner and that the end of life is just to be comfortable and happy, protecting their children from hardship.
… no sea so blue as that of Auckland, no gulls whiter, no youth more straight-limbed and eager, and truly no place where challenge is greater for the new Oceania to be.
Rewi Alley was a member of the China Communist Party, and his words are prophetic, a challenge to break the bonds of captivity. To that challenge, Isaiah adds the word of promise that the Lord will be with the people to break the bonds and bring new hope. And John speaks of the One who is to come, the One in whom is the hope of humankind, the chosen one who baptises with Holy Spirit.
In Advent we await in hope the coming of that One, Jesus the Messiah, who calls us to join in the work of liberation. And we wait recalling the words of our Gradual hymn, remembering that:
the slow watches of the night also belong to God; that already on the hills the flags of dawn appear; the dawn of the day when justice shall be throned in might; when knowledge hand in hand with peace shall walk the earth abroad; the promised day of God.
One of the things I like about Twitter is that it can connect you with stories around the world in a different way from the regular media. The first thing I remember knowing about the shooting of black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, was photos of clergy in their robes kneeling in the streets at prayer vigils and then kneeling in the streets between police and protesters. That was back in August and the photos on the Episcopal Church newsfeed have continued to come, along with descriptions of the actions of many clergy and lay people in Ferguson and now across the US as the issues of race and rights before the law are debated.
As violence has erupted these last few days in anger at the court decision not to charge the police officer I have been wondering how the churches of Ferguson would respond to this reading we hear today. “In those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” The apocalyptic words Jesus uses to describe what might happen to the disciples must feel every real for those affected by the riots and those overcome with rage and grief. Dean Gary Hall of Washington National Cathedral quoted MLK “a riot is the language of the unheard”. And many leaders are trying to offer words of peace and calm and find a way forward out of what must feel quite apocalyptic. People though need to be know hope and believe there are just solutions ahead or they will continue to despair and despair leads to violence.
Other parts of the world hearing the words of the gospel of Mark this Advent know even less hope than the people of Fergusson. There are no church communities left in Northern Iraq for the gospel to be proclaimed this Sunday. I wonder how the lucky few who have escaped to refugee camps will hear this gospel. They will relate well enough to the sun and moon being darkened but can they hear the next part about the fig tree growing leaves as a sign that summer and the kingdom of God is near. They will struggle I would think to find hope.
Our Christian World Service appeal today highlights a project in Gaza training young people in trades. CWS notes that at least these young people will have work as there is so much rebuilding to be done in Gaza. They say
A year ago Mohamad Essa thought he had finally made it. Third time lucky he was accepted into the two year electrical training programme run by the Department of Service to Palestinian Refugees (DSPR) at Qararah. Mohumad Basher aged 24 joined him on the course. Mohumad had completed media and communications studies at the Palestine University but could not find work in the field. He knows that he is much more likely to get a job as an electrician. Like the others in their class, they are eager to learn and hopeful of a normal life.
However, on July 8 the game changed. Extensive bombing left Gaza shattered and its citizens struggling to cope. During the 51 day war, people stayed in their homes or fled to overcrowded shelters and over 2,000 people lost their lives. Food and water were short and the bombing unrelenting. Fear was in the air. The war left no family untouched by trauma and the loss of homes and livelihood.
Helping Gaza’s young people hold on to their dreams of a normal life is very important to staff at DSPR. Without the opportunities of education or a job, they worry that more young people will be captured in the cycle of unrelenting violence that feeds the terrorist cause. They follow their students closely, helping them find work and supporting them make the best of a life where the physical reality is constrained but where they can contribute to the common good. With a good qualification, they know their students will contribute to a stronger community that is able to look after itself.
Sadly after natural disaster or war, there is work for trained tradespeople. Mohamad and Mohumad have their eye on the future. Life is very difficult for now but their dreams are much bigger. They want to reconnect their communities to a reliable electricity supply – there is much work to be done.
Jesus spoke the words we hear today to the disciples, sitting on the Mount of Olives, looking over at the Temple which seemed so solid and indestructible. But the gospel writer Mark knows what came next – the destruction of the Temple in 70AD – or the potential for it (scholars debate whether he is writing just before or just after that date). Mark knows his community need to hear that Jesus “knew” hard times would come and that they should still live with hope.
And the living with hope involves watching for signs of the fig tree budding with leaves – signs of spring and summer; like we watch for the first pohutakawa to flower and the first strawberries to be for sale to tell us Christmas is approaching. Signs of life and hope can come in the smallest of ways yet in the darkest of times they can seem huge and significant. Like people kneeling in prayer between protesters and police; like an Iraqi Christian living for one more day; like electricians learning their trade in bombed out buildings.
What about us. What darkens our moon and our sun? and what brings us hope? We don’t have to be embroiled in world events to be feeling worn down by despair – caring for a family member who is seriously ill; worrying about teenagers and their safety; facing illness ourselves; seeking meaningful work or just any work at all; our colleagues at the City Mission bracing themselves for a flood of need at Christmas.
All of these things and more can feel pretty apocalyptic; and so we come into Advent to be reminded about hope – to watch for signs of hope and to be awake and alert. Not like the bumper sticker that says “look busy, Jesus is coming” but to open ourselves to Jesus who is coming. Jesus who would be very uninterested in the hype and flurry of Christmas – but very interested in what we see and hear around us that are signs of his presence.
There is a twitter and facebook campaign called #OccupyAdvent and another one called @AdvntConspiracy encouraging us to rebel against the shopping mentality – the slogan of the Advent Conspiracy is “Christmas can still change the world – worship fully, spend less, give more, love all.” Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to be the Christmas Grinch – I like the excitement and fun of Christmas as much as anyone. But we can enjoy our gift giving and special food while still being alert to the needs of others and not letting it take over our lives in a commercial frenzy.
Sheep this way – goats the other. Sheep get to go to heaven; goats to the other place.
In our gospel reading from Matthew Jesus talks about a coming time where the sheep will be separated from the goats. Not like a Palestinian farmer at night, where they literally herded the sheep one way and the goats the other. But a time when the “Son of Man” will sit in judgment. And the sheep will be the ones who have fed Jesus, welcomed him, clothed him and visited him. These are the ones who will be rewarded.
But the “sheep” protest and say we did not do any of these things to you – we did not know! And the goats – who really do have a reason to protest say – we did not know either – we did not know that beggar we passed in the street was you; or that stranger we couldn’t be bothered talking to at coffee hour after church – now if we had realised it was you Jesus, we would have stopped and talked and helped out.
Well it wasn’t literally me Jesus says, but every time you reached out, every time you engaged with someone in need; it was as if you were talking to me, helping me. And every time you didn’t it was as if you were ignoring me.
Now we may well protest and say hang on a minute – it is impossible to help every person in need, and to talk to every stranger we meet; we can’t literally talk to everyone in prison – that would be impossible! If we gave money to every beggar on the street we would have nothing left for our families and children. So are we being set up for failure here? Maybe.
Once upon a time there was a monastery, once a great order, which had lost all its branch houses and it had become decimated to the extent that there were only five monks left in the decaying mother house: the abbot and four others, all over seventy in age. Clearly it was a dying order.
In the deep woods surrounding the monastery there was a hermitage. As the abbot agonized over the imminent death of his order, it occurred to him to visit the hermitage and ask if by some possible chance the hermit could offer any advice that might save the monastery.
The hermit welcomed the abbot at his hut. But when the abbot explained the purpose of his visit, the hermit could only commiserate with him: “I know how it is,” he exclaimed. “The spirit has gone out of the people. I hear it is the same in all the nearby towns. So the old abbot and the hermit commiserated together.
The time came when the abbot had to leave. They embraced each other. The abbot said “It has been a wonderful thing to talk with you, but I have still failed in my purpose for coming here. Is there nothing you can tell me, no piece of advice you can give me that would help me save my dying order?”
“No, I am sorry,” the hermit responded. “I have no advice to give.
The only thing I can tell you is that the Messiah is one of you.”
When the abbot returned to the monastery his fellow monks gathered around him to ask, “Well what did the hermit say?” “He couldn’t help,” the abbot answered. “We just commiserated and read the scriptures together. The only thing he did say, just as I was leaving — it was something cryptic — was that the Messiah is one of us.
I don’t know what he meant.”
In the days and weeks and months that followed, the old monks pondered these words and wondered whether there was any possible significance. The Messiah is one of us? Could he possibly have meant one of us monks here at the monastery? If that’s the case, which one?
Do you suppose he meant the abbot? Yes, if he meant anyone, he probably meant the Abbot. He has been our leader for more than a generation.
On the other hand, he might have meant Brother Thomas. Certainly Brother Thomas is a holy man. Everyone knows that Thomas is a man of light.
Certainly he could not have meant Brother Elred! Elred gets crotchety at times. But come to think of it, even though he is a thorn in people’s sides, when you look back on it, Elred is virtually always right. Often very right. Maybe the hermit did mean Brother Elred.
But surely not Brother Phillip. Phillip is so passive, a real nobody.
But then, almost mysteriously, he has a gift for somehow always being there when you need him. He just magically appears by your side. Maybe Phillip is the Messiah.
Of course the hermit didn’t mean me. He couldn’t possibly have meant me. I’m just an ordinary person. Yet supposing he did? Suppose I am the Messiah? O God, not me. I couldn’t be that much for You, could I?
As they contemplated in this manner, the old monks began to treat each other with extraordinary respect on the off chance that one among them might be the Messiah.
And on the off, off chance that each monk himself might be the Messiah, they began to treat themselves with extraordinary respect.
Now because the forest in which it was situated was beautiful, it so happened that people still occasionally came to visit the monastery to picnic on its tiny lawn, to wander along some of its paths, even now and then to go into the dilapidated chapel to meditate.
As they did so, without even being conscious of it, they sensed the aura of extraordinary respect that now began to surround the five old monks and seemed to radiate out from them and permeate the atmosphere of the place. There was something strangely attractive, even compelling, about it. Hardly knowing why, they began to come back to the monastery more frequently to picnic, to play, to pray. They began to bring their friends to show them this special place. And their friends brought their friends.
Then it happened that some of the younger men who came to visit the monastery started to talk more and more with the old monks. After a while one asked if he could join them. Then another. And another. So within a few years the monastery had once again become a thriving order and, thanks to the hermit’s gift, a vibrant center of light and spirituality in the realm.
Jesus as the Son of Man sits in judgment on the sheep and the goats not so that we will all rush out and give away all we have, and exhaust ourselves with trying to meet the standard of gospel story; but so that we will think about what it might be like to see God or the Christ in every person we meet.
One writer, aptly named Jennifer Lord, says “the kingdom of God is not a location or a state of emotion or even a social service activity”, the kingdom of God is us, as we see Christ in each other. The kingdom of God or the way of God or the community of God is not ordered and beautiful like our liturgy. It is messy and random and as varied and as wonderful as each one of us and as each person who has walked past our doors and never dreamed of stepping inside. We step into God’s community when we look at each other as if for the first time with openness and interest, genuine interest, to know and to discover who we each might be; without preconceived ideas and judgments.
In the pastoral care training that the pastoral care group have been doing with Allanah we have been learning about our basic emotional needs for connection and care.
What a difference it makes when we really listen to each other, attend to each other, if just for a moment. Without this kind of connection we literally wither away and die.
In our church communities like in families we don’t get to pick and choose who worships alongside us; we don’t get to exclude anyone (as long as they are willing to treat others with respect and courtesy); we are stuck with each other. And sometimes we have to work at being community together, other times it comes naturally. Imagine what might happen if we worked at the spiritual discipline of seeing Jesus/ the Messiah/ the Christ in each other. If we believed in each other enough and in ourselves enough that we would see Christ in each other – not just in our beautiful music and in the eucharist, but in each other, with all our annoying habits, and ways of being.
Then the people who drop by to “picnic” in our grounds – the people who drop by for events or weddings or who drop into our services will wonder at what they find. They will not find “perfect” people; they will not find all social problems solved; they will not find all our theologies exactly the same; they will not find that we all voted for the same political party; they will not find the sheep sorted from the goats. But they might just find a community full of passion for life and passion for the God whom we find in our midst, in each other, in the messiness of life. For we look for the Christ in each other.
On return from Boston and the celebration of 40 years of ordained women in the Episcopal Church.
Many years ago, 30 years, I had the privilege of meeting the Rev Alison Cheek, one of the first group of women to be ordained in the Anglican Communion, in Philadelphia, USA. She became a very dear friend. I met Sue Hiatt too, another of this group of courageous women. She was known as the 'women's bishop' even without being formally ordained as a bishop! This began my friendship with women from the group that became known as the Philadelphia Eleven; their ordinations were considered 'irregular' and not recognised by the church for the first two years – that is until 1976.
It is true a woman was ordained before this, and we should not forget Florence Li Tim-Oi who was ordained in 1944 in the Diocese of Hong Kong during world war II in order to meet a need during the war years - but she resigned her license, once the war concluded, not wanting to be part of any controversy in the church.
I went to Cambridge, Massachusetts in October this year to celebrate with the women from the group of eleven who are still alive and able to travel. We were marking and remembering that event 40 years ago - 40 years full of change and controversy since those first ordinations of women by the Episcopal Church in the USA in 1974, followed by it's reluctant authorisation of them to speak and preach in the public sphere in the name of the church two years later in 1976. Sitting at the front table was the presiding bishop of the Episcopal church USA, the Rt Revd Kathryn Jeffert-Schori whom some of you may have met when she visited NZ - there have been many changes!
Here in Aotearoa NZ, as we became the second church in the Anglican Communion to ordain women, it seemed to many that we had a relatively smooth run to the ordinations. A group of women who had previously been deaconesses were ordained priest: here in Auckland they were Wendy Goldie, Heather Brunton and Jean Brookes. In many ways it was straight forward! By that time the Episcopal church in the USA had regularised its irregular ordinations, and much of the debate threats and upset amongst the Bishops who gathered at Lambeth had settled down a bit – not that there was agreement on the matter, far from it! The theological arguments went on for many years.
The women, and the men who acted with them in these first ordinations, are today expressing surprise at their 'honouring', and at the number of invitations they are receiving to be present and to speak in parishes and to groups – “after all” they say, ”we were reviled and accused of heretical behaviour 40 years go” –and there were 'godly admonitions', trials and many protests. It was not easy for them.
All who spoke at the event in Boston, and all with whom I have spoken over the years, believed they had no choice but to act as they did: that to go ahead with the ordinations was to act in obedience to the 'will of God', as they said then; to take a stand for the inclusion of all who were excluded from the ministry of Christ. But most particularly it was very costly for the Rev Peter Bebe. He was the rector of the church where two of the women presided at the Eucharist after their ordination - he lost everything; home, family, friends, ministry, income, health .....
But what seemed even worse to me, and shocked me even more was that just 4 years ago, 36 years after the Eucharistic celebrations, he was asked by a bishop to renounce his priesthood before being allowed to conduct a wedding in that Bishop's Diocese! The tail of anger and resentment has been very long. But, he declared "it was the right thing to do and I would do it all again if necessary. It was a matter of justice and the time had come to put things right."
Bishop Tony Ramos, one of the bishops present at those 'irregular' ordinations said, at the celebrations in Boston, "justice delayed is justice denied". It was time for this injustice, the exclusion of women, to be put right, even if it required some bishops to be courageous and act outside the due processes of the church's governing body. The General Convention and various synods and commissions had been discussing and debating for a long time and had still not acted. After all, he went on to say, "if it had not been for the women in the garden that first Easter morning there would be no church for the men to govern, to hold power over"! And, the women too felt they had to act on what they believed was a clear call to the priesthood even if they risked losing their little toe-hold in the institutional church. They had to use the gifts, they believed they were given for priesthood: to use them in priestly service to the people of God and the church.
In NZ we are familiar with the phrase "walk the talk". Again, Bishop Ramos used it when urging the church to model in body language what it proclaims. He proclaimed passionately, "if we are really the diverse, hospitable body of Christ that we say we are, then we must reflect the diversity of the human family."
It seems to me, that this is a challenge for us here in NZ today! It seems to me, these words are a direct challenge to our Anglican Church to once again find the courage it exhibited when it ordained women as priests in 1977 and later redrafted the constitution of our NZ Anglican Church to enable us to be a three tikanga church embodying Maori, Pacific and Pakeha ways. Now courage is needed again to enable gay and lesbian people to be included in the ordained leadership of our Anglican Church here.
In the USA this is not an issue, and there are many gay and lesbian people in leadership positions including one married lesbian woman being the president/dean of the theological school where the celebrations I was participating in were being held. Somewhere along the way we, in NZ, have lost our courage to be what we say we are.
Over the 40 years since those 'irregular ordination' the church has seen many changes, and for many of us it is hard to remember what it was like back then when there as an all male, predominantly white priesthood here in NZ, when the language of the liturgy was male gendered, triumphalist, bloody, admonishing, and belittling of us poor sinful human creatures. We surely did need a God then, who could, if HE only would, gather us in one day - notwithstanding the miserable achievement of our best efforts - and we did try very hard to get our behaviour and our liturgy right so we would have a good chance of getting to heaven.
Since then theology and liturgy and the body language of the church has shifted, and nowadays, we celebrate the love of the God Jesus proclaimed; the God who is well pleased with creation; the God who celebrates with us our efforts to live together with kindness and cooperation and compassion; the God who works through us to gather in those who are in need - be that need of healing, of resources for living, or of a place to call home. The God we celebrate is the God of freedom and healing; the God who calls us by name, the God who invites us to use the gifts and talents we have on behalf of the community.
Sometimes, if we can overcome our fear of seeing what we might rather not see, and dare to look closely at our institution and at those who exercise leadership amongst us on its behalf, we see a lack of courage. We see a loss of the memory of inclusive love, a failure to remember the stories healing and the hope filled proclamations that inspire us to respond. Again, I am drawn to Bishop Ramos that 'young bishop' who is still carrying the wounds of his 'outrageous action' 40 years ago of standing with the retired bishops who ordained these outrageous women to the priesthood - he resigned his episcopacy and has, he said, never since been appointed to a significant office within the church in the US. That bishop, who was known as a powerful speaker against injustice, dares even today, to say that he does not believe in the same God as those who would discriminate against people who are different from them, that he does not believe in the same God as those who would use the law (state or church) to support the exercise of power over others in ways that marginalise, and discriminate.
To quote, "We don't worship the same God, me and them. My God is not homophobic, sexist, blind to injustice. Diversity is a gift. If we only embrace the past our arms won't be free to embrace the future."
He said this at the same time, the same week, as an announcement was made: that for the first time in its history (apart from during war) the Lambeth Conference is to be postponed for fear of discord and violence over the the inclusion of gay and lesbian people in our Anglican expression of the body of Christ!
It seems to me, the power for liberative action; the imperative to 'walk the talk', is power we need to embrace again. The ordination of women whether in the USA or here in NZ, was not a singular, once only act - it was a symbolic act of courage the memory of which can empower us today if we dare to remember. Today we need a church and a leadership that can find courage again to do what needs to be done to right continuing wrongs: in our time now, it seems to me, that would be to ordain gay and lesbian people, whether single or married, and to celebrate the gifts and diversity they bring to us.
So I am compelled to ask, "Do we have any bishops courageous enough to step outside the self-imposed prohibitive moratorium, and take the next step for freedom and healing?"
When I told an agnostic friend of mine that I went to Church, she said, there’s a lot of good in Christianity. It has a good set of ethics; it’s a good guide to life. My heart sort of dropped. For me it’s a bit more than that. But what she was referring to was the second commandment in today’s gospel reading: the commandment to love our neighbour as ourselves. Earlier in Matthews gospel is the Golden rule: do to others as you would have them do to you. It is a universal aspiration to do this. There is also the one that Carl Sagan calls the silver rule: don’t do to others what you would not want them to do to you. This is the rule of non-violence Ghandi lived by.
The Golden rule is hard and as Carl Sagan says almost no-one follows it. My agnostic friend told me she thinks Christians aren’t particularly good at following this guide to a good life. My response to her was: no. I agree. I don’t. I have a tendency to be more focused on me and what I need than I am on loving my neighbour. I think this is part of being human; it’s an inclination which comes from the instinct to survive. Without wanting to sound dualistic, I think we need to be aware of this egoic side of ourselves; this tendency to focus on our own needs; to act defensively; trying to protect ourselves. I expect it will look a bit different for each of us. In order to love our neighbour we have first go beyond this limiting self.
Love; its so clichéd. I looked it up and the Greek word ‘love’ used in these commandments is a verb of agape and in the context of the second commandment. It means acting for the other person’s good; consistently. It’s not dependent on whether or not we think they are worthy. In the eyes of God everyone has worth. Everyone is to receive the same care and attention. St Augustine was keen to include care for ourselves in this act of love. But many would say this refers to a sacrificial care. I’m inclined to agree with St Augustine. We have to be able to care about and for ourselves, so that we can care for another. It’s like that oxygen demonstration in the plane: put the mask on yourself so that you will be able to put it on your children. We need to breathe in God’s care for us, care for ourselves, and in light of that, we can care for each other.
This is where I expect the commandment to care for each other is slightly different for me than it is for my agnostic friend. My motivation and sense of how it all works is a bit different. It’s a difference of awareness and orientation. It’s linked to the first commandment: to love God with all our being. I want to say that this isn’t quite right. It’s a bit back to front. It’s more to do with being open to the love of God and abiding in that love. So in a way the commandment could be better understood as: be open to my love; move in it; live in it, and then you will see it; you will know that everyone is loved, so you, we, need to try and do that too.
The meaning of ‘love’ here, the verb of agape again, is in preferring God; doing the will of God. Our goal is to look for what seems right for each of us; look with that inner wisdom; take risks and listen in the quiet. Living from this dimension all this is possible.
Commentators on this passage say the list, the first and second commandment, isn’t hierarchical, it’s just a list. They go together. So we are being commanded equally, to love God and each other. It’s a tall order. Rowan Williams has said that the way we know about God’s love is in the life of Jesus, of course. But also for us here and now, how we love another is an example of God’s love. That is our work. Nothing like a bit of pressure.
A few days ago I visited a friend of mine. She is almost blind, and a bit hard of hearing; she’s ninety four. She told me she spends a lot of her time meditating; time with God. When I knock and tell her I am here, her face lights up and she holds out her hands as though my visit is the best thing. She does that for everyone who comes to see her. She asks how things are for me and she is specific – she seems to know what’s important to me. I feel that she cares. If you met her she might seem very ordinary, until you get to know her. Then you can see the divine in her.
The challenge then is to be aware of that part of us which focuses on our needs; our stuff; and work at not speaking or acting from our ego. If we allow ourselves to speak from there it has an effect; whether it comes out as sarcasm or a criticism; it can hurt another person. We don’t want that. We want to practice being non-violent.
We want to move beyond and practice caring; to try to do it consciously. Perhaps just once a day be kind to someone nearby; and build up to caring for those who irritate us. It’s not in the big gestures; it’s in the small steps. And we want to be honest. I am not there yet.
And of course we need to practice being open to God’s love. Because that’s where it all comes from. We need to be conscious of that care. Tune in; listen at the deepest part of ourselves; where to next; and lean into what seems right. Respond.
These two commandments are about what’s possible for us as human beings; human beings with potential for growth in divinity.
Isaiah 45:1-7 Psalm 61:1-13 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 Matthew 22:15-22
On Thursday there was an event in the church for Money Week. I didn’t attend it but as they were setting up I noticed that they had floodlights up the pillars, all green. Green is the colour of money I guess all over the world, so influenced are we by the United States in matters of money.
The world of Jesus’ time was under a similar influence from the Roman Empire. They used coins not notes, and the colour didn’t matter so much, as the head of the Emperor who was on the coin. The event on Thursday was a debate amongst experts about financial planning and such weighty matters. I was tempted to pop in and ask the question Jesus was asked: “is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?” or maybe for today I would have phrased it “Is it appropriate under Christian teaching to pay taxes to the government or not?” Maybe I would have to have expanded a little – if as Christians we hold strong opinions on some political matters – like military action, or child poverty, or care of the dying – can we withhold our taxes from certain things or direct them to be spent in a certain way? At what point do our religious beliefs or our lives of faith affect what we do including the way we spend our money. Or expanding even further I could have asked the question “who does our money belong to?” The experts would have said I am sure – to the individual of course!
I heard about one priest who when today’s reading came up gave everyone a permanent marker and had them drawe the sign of the cross on their credit cards during the sermon. After that every time the members of the congregation used their cards they were reminded of the question in todays’ reading. 
Jesus’ question about the taxes is not actually about personal income. It is about the politics of taxes and land and who is in charge. Our gospel readings for the last few weeks have been politically charged as we watch Jesus and the Temple leaders go head to head. Today the leaders think they have caught him out. “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” You have to hear the smarmy tone as they sidle up to him. Matthew notes that it is the Pharisees and the Herodians who ask the questions – normally two groups who would vie with each other for power but now they are united in their desire to trip Jesus up.
And it might seem like an innocent enough question – but let’s remember the setting. Israel is occupied by the Romans, they are an armed occupying force. Everyone had to pay taxes to the occupiers.
So to say yes to this question (yes it is lawful to pay taxes to the emperor) meant Jesus was supporting the occupier, the oppressor of the Jews. But to say no – we should not pay taxes, would be to invite sedition and the wrath of the Roman soldiers. Then there is another layer of meaning here – on the Roman coins was the head of the emperor – just like the Queen is on our coins – but the Roman emperor was seen as a god, and was worshipped, and the inscription on the coins, said the divine emperor. The coins were seen as a symbol of Roman power and religion and the most strict Jews believed you should not ever even use the coins because that meant you were acceding to the Roman emperor being divine. And the Romans in fact let the Jews have different coins for use for transactions in the Temple because of this problem.
So a simple question about taxes was also a question about the divinity of the emperor and what the people should do when confronted daily with the need to acknowledge the divinity of this emperor who had invaded their country. Many like King Herod and the Herodians mentioned in this passage were the accommodating ones who found a way to live and let live; others like the Pharisees and other more radical groups were hardline in their opposition.
So which way was Jesus going to jump? Jesus says – bring me a coin – whose image is this – and whose title? –
the emperor’s they reply - well then – give to the emperor what is his. And then Jesus turns to one of the people standing by him and says – whose image is this? Whose image is this person created in? God’s they reply – then give to God, the things that are God’s. And the people are stunned. Jesus has sidestepped the question of tax and turned it into a question of humanity.
There is a parallel and similar passage to this gospel story in the Talmud, the Jewish Rabbinic teaching collected over the centuries. In it we read Adam, the first human being, was created as a single person to show forth the greatness of the Ruler who is beyond all rulers, the Blessed Holy One. For if a human ruler mints many coins from one mold, they all carry the same image, they all look the same. But the Blessed Holy One shaped all human beings in the Divine Image, as Adam was…And yet not one of them resembles another. (Sanhedrin 38a)
Humanity is created in the image of God, and not one of us resembles another, how vast then our understanding of God can become. As vast as the number of people and cultures who walk the earth.
And yet in all that diversity each of us still are called to give to God the things that are God’s. And Jesus is not half hearted when he makes that declaration – he does not let the Herodians get away with paying a few coins to Caesar and forgetting about it for the sake of peace and quiet.
He does not let the Pharisees use him for political reasons to get at the Romans either. He demands that they both look at themselves and think about what they give to God.
How about us; how would we feel about a cross indelibly marked on our credit cards. That cross is marked on our foreheads when we are baptised and again on Ash Wednesday with ashes.
We are marked as Christ’s own for ever. Is that just the Sunday part of us or our whole selves? Is it our lives, our relationships, our money?
How about us as a faith community. How do we show our values and our priorities in the way we are stewards of our buildings and our parish income. We earn considerable money from our carpark next door and we give none of it away. We spend it on keeping the church running, sure, but that is largely for ourselves; we give none of it away.
In our individual financial giving we give very little to our faith community; 6 % of our budget is covered by parishioner giving. We have not provided for the next generation at all. Over the next months the Vestry and I are going to be asking us all to think carefully about how committed we are to supporting this faith community – in time and talents and money. Then hopefully we will be able to afford to give plenty away, to show that we do not belong to ourselves, but to God.
I am in the middle of reading Zealot, the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan and Aslan says that when the authorities ask Jesus the question – is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar – they are essentially asking him “are you a zealot?”, are you a revolutionary who is opposed to Rome. And Jesus’ answer coded though it is – as was their question – is a resounding yes. And Aslan reminds us Jesus’ answer is not just that the people belong to God but also the land. He could easily have quoted our passage from Isaiah – speaking of another occupier Cyrus the Babylonian – “I will go before you and level the mountains, I will give you the treasures” – ie the treasure that Cyrus has stolen – I will restore the land to the people, and throw out the occupier. The people of Israel were drenched in the prophets who promised the return of the land; so when Jesus of Nazareth comes preaching hope and creating havoc, the ruling classes nervously ask him – are you another revolutionary zealot? And Jesus answers yes but in a way they can’t quite grasp – but it leads to his death anyway. Aslan says “Jesus was crucified by Rome because his messianic aspirations threatened the occupation of Palestine, and his zealotry endangered the Temple authorities. That singular fact should color everything we read in the gospels about the messiah known as Jesus of Nazareth.”
This question about the temple taxes is super political and super religious. The two were never divided in Jesus’ time. The question challenges us too – to whom do we belong? To what or whom do we dedicate our lives? How do we mark out our priorities in the way we spend our money as individuals and as a faith community? Questions to wonder about individually as we begin the lead up to Christmas and as we think about our community life for the years ahead.
Fierce Conversations  is the title of a book I keep on my bookshelf and dip into quite often. My family tell me I shouldn’t read this book, they think my conversations are fierce enough. But the book is not about scary conversations but about real, honest, straight conversations. Conversations where people speak their mind, tell the truth, listen carefully, and reflect on what they hear. These kinds of conversations are harder than they look.
Jesus’ parable this morning is a conversation with the Pharisees and the first Christians. And it is more than a fierce conversation; it s a pretty scary conversation. It paints a scary picture of the judgment and wrath of God. Jesus tells this parable in the days before his death. He has arrived in Jerusalem, thrown the money changers out of the Temple, and goes to the Temple each day to teach. The Pharisees and Temple officials are getting more hostile and Jesus does not shy away from winding them up either. Today’s parable is the third for the day and each one gets stronger in its condemnation. He is on a collision course with the authorities.
The parable has layers of meaning which would have resonated when heard by the community for whom Matthew was writing. In this parable there is not only the clash with the Pharisees but a warning for the first Christians as well. The parable starts off like many of Jesus’ parables: there was a king who invited people to the wedding of his son. Like the parable of the wedding with ten bridesmaids; or the parable of the father who had two sons; or the landowner working his vineyard; parables of everyday life and happenings.
The king sends out the slaves to call the guests to the feast (that was how it was done, no texts or email); the guests would have had warning of the invitation a few weeks earlier; and now they are called – come all is ready. But some do not wish to come, they are not interested; and others kill the messengers. Suddenly the parable has turned nasty, it is no longer an ordinary story. This is the first refusal; the listeners understand that Jesus is talking about the people of Israel who did not listen to the prophets who were sent to tell them about God. They were disinterested and even hostile to the word of God. (We need to note here that this parable has been used in the past by the church to form a negative view of those who follow the Jewish faith which of course we would avoid doing. In Matthew’s day he is writing in a context of increasing hostility and danger for the early Christians and so he marks out rather starkly their choices and identity.)
Back to the parable: And then the city of the people who have refused the invitation is destroyed by the king’s troops – quite an escalation; like the people of Israel being sent into exile and the first destruction of the Temple in 587 BC; or for Matthew the destruction of the second Temple in 70AD by the Romans. These events pivotal to the history of the people would have been obvious to Matthew’s audience.
Then the king sends the slaves to invite other guests; no longer the chosen ones, but any one who will come, passers by, tourists, the poor, all those who didn’t make the first list. And they came; for sure they were thrilled to be invited by the king; fancy that being invited to the king’s son’s wedding; how cool is that.
Matthew’s listeners would have seen themselves in this part of the parable. They are guests invited in by Jesus; many of the people of Israel have not responded to the invitation and the first Christians have responded. They are in; they are at the wedding feast.
But ... the king comes into the party and there is a man who is not wearing a wedding robe and he is thrown out. This is the second refusal to respond to the invitation. Seems pretty unfair, the guests have been invited in off the street, they haven’t had time to put their best clothes on, they have come as they are.
Commentators over the years have puzzled over this part of the parable because the fact that someone is thrown out of the kingdom seems incongruous with the rest of the inclusive teaching of Jesus. St Augustine said that in Jesus’ time guests were given robes at the door to put on and refusing the robe was an offence to the host; but there is no evidence that this was in fact part of the culture of the time. 
There is though a parable from a rabbi teaching in the year 80 (about the time Matthew might have been writing) that goes like this: “A king issued invitations to a banquet without saying what time the banquet would be.
The wise attired themselves, while the foolish went on with their work. Suddenly the summons came, and those and those who were not dressed in clean clothes were not admitted to the banquet.”  The wedding clothes are said by the rabbi to be the clothes of repentance, to be worn before the summons comes for the day of judgment.
Think too of the images from scripture of being clothed in the garments of the kingdom: “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.” (Isaiah 61:2)
“As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ” (Gal 3:27)
“As God’s chose ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience.” (Col 3:12) And what happens to the wayward son, the prodigal son who returns to his father after squandering his inheritance? his father says “Quickly, bring out a robe – the best one – and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” (Luke 15:22-24) These images inspire the words of the hymn Come down O love divine: “Let holy charity mine outward vesture be, and lowliness became mine inner clothing”.
The wedding robe the guest had refused to wear is the call of Christ to clothe ourselves in humility, grace, forgiveness. To clothe ourselves in the grace of God, to accept God’s forgiveness, and to do so before the call comes to present ourselves at the wedding banquet.
There is in this parable a time of decision, a time when we are called to be in or out; to accept the robe of grace, or not. The images of this parable are violent – the kings sends his troops to war; and the guest is thrown onto outer darkness. We find these images to be pretty distasteful, we like Jesus’ parables to be images of peace and light. But the violence and the hostility were part of the reality of his world.
Matthew’s community are yearning back to the time when some of them had sat at table with Jesus “Remember how it felt at the table, he seems to say, even as the threat of violence and the vagaries of community continue to swirl around them. We will feast again.” 
We yearn in our world too for a peaceful table where all are welcome: If you are a Palestinian father today wanting to throw a wedding banquet for your son’s wedding and you live in the West Bank and the rest of your family live in the Gaza strip no matter how many invitations you sent to your family, they would not be able to come to the wedding because of the travel restrictions and the wall dividing the communities in Israel/Palestine today.
If you are a mother bringing up children on your own in one of Auckland’s poorer neighbourhoods and you want to throw a simple birthday party for your daughter; you might find that none of her friends can come because they are embarrassed they cannot afford a present or something pretty to wear.
What are the things that stop people from coming to the party today – the same things – violence and poverty.
And how do we ensure all can be invited to the party – first of all by knowing that all are invited to God’s feast – people can refuse the invitation, we can refuse it. We who are churchgoers and who gather at the table of Jesus each week can fool ourselves into thinking we are amongst the righteous because of our good deeds, our right beliefs, our recycling and our support of charities. Think about what we might clothe ourselves in – mercy and humility, grace and love. Not the arrogance of the one who thinks they have no need of changing; that there is nothing in our lives which needs addressing or improving.
And then we pay attention to the people around us and those who can be invited to the party here and now – to our eucharist on a Sunday or to a time of hospitality and care which we might offer.
God’s kingdom, God’s way is not something that happens at the end of time, it happens here and now.
And we and all those we know are invited. Jesus’ parable is a fierce parable, even a scary one.
There is a possibility we might get thrown out of the party. But what we need to do to be included is not a long list of good deeds and good works, but to put on the robe of grace. To accept the robe of grace, the best robe, offered to us freely by Christ himself. Then we are welcome to stay at the party which lasts through eternity.
 Susan Scott, 2002, Berkley, New York
 p 418, NIB Matthew commentary
 The Parables of Jesus, Joachim Jeremias, 1989, SCM Press, p. 188
 Richard Spalding, p. 168, Feasting on the Word, vol 4, year A
“The chief priests and the elders asked Jesus “by what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” (Mt 21:23) Our band members here today and the army tradition they serve know something about authority. If you serve in the armed forces the authority lines are crystal clear – an order is given and you follow, no questions. Even in the more relaxed environment of a band – you are not about to head into battle – but you still need to follow the authority of the band leader and conductor. If we are to hear the lovely music we are having today, everyone needs to be on the same page, in time, and accept the leadership and authority of the conductor.
In our gospel reading today, Jesus has entered the place of ultimate authority for his time – the Temple. The Temple in Jerusalem was the absolute centre of Judaism containing the Holy of Holies where God himself was said to reside at its heart. Solomon’s temple had been destroyed in 586BC by the Babylonian king. In about 516 BC the second temple was built lasting 500 years. Herod dismantled it to build his much greater temple from 20BC. The Temple was a religious building, the heart of worship and sacrifices, and also a very political building. Religion and politics were not at all separate in Jesus’ day, that is a modern invention. The size and grandeur of the Temple was in competition with the temples of Rome and other gods of the region. The Temple was huge, beautiful and elaborate. Its purpose was to inspire awe and submission to God, and submission to the priests who served God. And this submission was political as it claimed the lives of the people of Israel in a way that the temples and armies of Rome never would. Until that is, the Romans took it apart stone by stone in 70AD.
Today’s episode of the gospels takes place after Jesus has entered Jerusalem on what we call Palm Sunday – he on a donkey, a humble animal, coming from one side of the city; while at the same time, from the other side of the city entered Pontius Pilate, the puppet governor, on a white stallion surrounded by soldiers and symbols of Roman power. Jesus is surrounded by people waving palm branches, not really a match for the Roman soldiers.
Jesus goes to the Temple though and turns over the tables of the moneylenders and drives them out “my house shall be a house of prayer”. Then the next day he comes back and is confronted by the chief priests and the elders “by what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” In other words – what on earth are you doing in our Temple – and who are you to act this way?
Debate amongst religious leaders was a common thing and the rabbis especially debated through questions – so Jesus fires a question back – Was the baptism of John the Baptist from heaven or of human origin? Was John the Baptist doing God’s work or was he just another crazy prophet? The leaders are afraid to answer – if they say Johns’ baptism was just his own work, the crowd might turn on them because the crowd consider John a prophet and a martyr after he was beheaded by Herod; but if they say John’s baptism has its authority from heaven or God, then Jesus will ask – well why didn’t you follow John and by implication why don’t you follow me. Caught between a rock and a hard place the priests give no answer. So Jesus refuses to answer as well. Clever. Jesus is also not about to incite the priests and the crowd, maybe he has been counselled overnight by the disciples after the table turning episode from the day before.
Or maybe he is also not sure himself – by what authority does he teach, heal and reach out?
By the time Matthew’s gospel is written down the sense of who Jesus is much clearer in the minds of the early Christians; but right back then when it was happening – I am not sure that Jesus is sure, either. Does he understand who he is being called to be? And he is standing in the Temple in Passover week – tensions are running high, the Jewish leaders and the Romans are doing their usual jostling for power. By what authority does he do these things? This is the central question of the Jesus Christ Superstar show that we will see at Q theatre at the end of October, with the classic line from the song: “JC Superstar – do you think you’re who they say you are?” By what authority do you do these things?
In our post modern world “authority” is not something we have much time for. Unless you are in the army. We prefer a freedom that lets us decide for ourselves, and makes each individual the final arbiter of truth for themselves. We value and encourage independent thinking in our young people. At school now young people are taught how to be discerning amongst the avalanches of information and opinion that is the internet. Yet even that independent thinking requires reference points and benchmarks. By what values and principles do we make decisions? How do we decide what is best for our children?
As a country we have just been through a collective decision making process – an election – and it was a pretty bruising experience for many. How does each political party pick up now and move forward, whether winners or losers – by whose authority do they speak?
Those of us who are followers of Jesus look to his life as a source of authority in ours – yet even he is pretty elusive on this topic by refusing to answer questions! He does not give us a list of do’s and don’ts to tick off – he says broad things like love each other and follow me.
So we have to look more I think to the manner of his living (and dying) to find the source of his authority.
Our first reading today sums that all up rather well. Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi, written while Paul was in prison, and writing or maybe quoting a hymn of the early church – “Jesus, though he was in the form of God, emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness, humbled himself.” So the pattern of life which Jesus offers us is one of humility and service. This is the authority by which he does these things – the authority which comes with humility. Later on he will take a towel and wash the feet of his disciples as a slave would have done. He offers himself, pours out his life as once offerings were made in the Temple. The technical theological term for this concept is “kenosis” which means “self emptying”.
One scholar says “Kenosis is the essential character of the biblical God”. God’s creative energy is always directed to the love of creation and humanity. It is always outward focused and about loving, not condemning. God pours God’s self into creation, and God offers us Jesus as part of that outpouring of love; in turn Jesus empties himself in service of Gods’ beloved children.
And so by what authority do we act, by what authority do we discern and make decisions for our lives and our children. We model ourselves as best we can on the life of this Jesus, this Jesus who reached out to the last, and the lost and the least. This Jesus who challenged the political and religious leaders to be true to their calling. And when they were not true to that calling, and turned on him instead, he poured out his life, literally, showing that death had no power over him.
So we share our lives with those around us, those who need us, we pour ourselves out in their service, as individuals and as community. And when we are the ones in need, we graciously accept the help of those around us. Sometimes it is harder to receive help than to offer it. But we receive it not just because we need it but because we are thereby allowing others to fulfill their call to offer themselves in the ongoing creative actions of God. If kenosis, self emptying, is the essential character of God, then it is our essential character too. By what authority does Jesus do these things? By what authority do we live our lives? By the authority of the one who creates, and loves, and dies, and lives again, so that we too might live.
 William Greenaway p112 Feasting on the Word vol 4 (year A)
It has been a fraught few weeks for our politicians and the country as we came to yesterday’s election. We watched too as Scotland and Fiji went to the polls.
Fiji’s election for the first time in 8 years reminds us of the privilege that we have to vote in peace and freedom. I find myself often sympathizing with our politicians who after all just want to serve their country but end up being the most untrusted and disliked of people.
Matthew was used to not being liked. Matthew was used to being an outsider.
Being a tax collector meant he was hated by his fellow Jews as his job was to extort Roman taxes from them. And he was certainly distrusted by the Romans as they would never know if he was paying over all the taxes; or keeping a cut for himself. But he had to earn a living somehow. Did Matthew have a family? Maybe.
Did he have friends? Probably not. And if he did they were also outsiders like him.
Matthew the gospel writer writing in the year 80-90, possibly in Antioch in Syria, was not so much of an outsider. He was probably a leader in the community, a community of Christians who were mostly Jews, with some Gentiles. The question of the outsider weighed heavily though on Matthew’s mind. Were Gentiles able to become followers of Jesus, and on what conditions? Was the Jewish Law to be still followed? Was Jesus the new Moses? Matthew the gospel writer wrestles with all these questions as he pens his version of the Jesus story.
In thinking about whether to keep the old ways of the law or take on the new ways of Jesus, Matthew says “new wine is not put into old wineskins; otherwise, the skins burst, and the wine is spilled, and the skins are destroyed; but new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.” (9:17)
Matthew tells the community they do have to become new, to create a new community in Christ including both Jew and Gentile. But he does not suggest cutting off the community from their Jewish heritage; instead he portrays Jesus as the Son of David, as the new Moses, as the one who will fulfill the promises of the prophets. He holds onto the tradition as a basis for creating a new community.
Matthew the tax collector and Matthew the gospel writer make for good patronal saints for us here at St Matthew-in-the-City.Like the tax collector in the thick of the reality of life, we stand here in the centre of the money dealings of the city – the banks, the gamblers, the high rollers and those with nothing in their pockets. Those who pay taxes and those who benefit from the taxes paid. Walking and driving past our door every day are the poor and the rich and everyone in between. Some consider themselves to be outsiders, and are happy on the edge; others long to be invited to the table; others come in and feel they are the insiders – little do they know that they risk becoming like the Pharisees, righteous and above contradiction. Like the tax collector no one is beyond the reach of God and God’s call on their life.
Like Matthew the gospel writer we take pride in the tradition of our church, we value our heritage, while at the same time renewing our liturgy in its language and theology. Things never stay the same while retaining a certain timelessness.
After almost 5 months now of listening to parishioners and stakeholders I know I still have much to learn about this place and its rich heritage and about those who gather here on a Sunday. I have heard though of your love for this place, its music and liturgy, your pride in its history of taking a stand on the issues of the day – apartheid in South Africa, nuclear ships, the inclusion of the LGBT community, economic equity; I have heard about people and connections and community.
We celebrated the life of one of ours, Garth Port, this week and mourned with his family. Garth worshipped at St Thomas church from the age of 3, and then when the congregation of St Thomas merged with St Matthews, he worshipped here.
George Armstrong commented after the funeral that Garth will have been our longest living connection back into our past. With him we could reach back 82 years into our history. For Garth the rituals of the liturgy of the church were central to his life and the way he made sense of the world. And so his funeral was a eucharist, the offering of the bread and wine as symbols of God’s love, was the only way for us to offer thanks for Garth’s life and to offer him back to God.
In 82 years from now what might the historians look back and see? We will be not quite 250 years old as a community so I imagine someone will be writing, not on paper I’m sure, a new version of our history, ready for our 250th anniversary.
In the chapter on the next 10 years what do we want them to write? What would Matthew the gospel writer write? What would be the questions needing to be answered? It will not be can Jews and Gentiles worship together.
But it might be how does a church of gathered worshippers, predominately pakeha, relate to the city where 41% of people speak English as a second language. Our neigbourhood is densely populated and unbelievably diverse.
I know from speaking to many of you that in your work lives you are immersed in the diversity that is Auckland – as teachers, and doctors, and community workers, and lawyers. For those who are “retired” you engage in your community at many levels. So you already know how to be a 21st century Aucklander. Will the history written about us show that as a church community we embraced that opportunity?
Or might the history focus on the young people of our city, the students, the young workers who needed community and mentoring. The young artists who gather to create and to perform, and to let their voices and songs be heard?
Might the history talk about how they found a home in a beautiful building where they knew all were welcome all the time?
Or might the history talk about how this period in world history was a time of violence and war with people claiming the Christian and Muslim labels killing each other in Iraq and the Sudan and Nigeria. And so the people of St Matthew’s set about getting to know their Muslim neighbours one at a time, building relationships, sharing in prayer, welcoming refugees, building bridges.
The history might have to give us many chapters to cover all that we might do, or it might pass us over in half a chapter having jumped from the heady days of the springbok tour, peace marches and the Hero parade, to 2030 when the next major renovation of the building was begun.
When we gathered a few weeks ago for the first of our parish forums, we talked about the church as the body of Christ: where do we stand? what is in our hearts? what do we see? what do our hands reach out to? what do we say?
We stand with Matthew the tax collector in the midst of the city, in the thick of life; in the hustle and bustle of this city, with the mega rich and the mega poor.
We listen with Matthew the gospel writer to the questions and longings of our time – is there meaning beyond the day to day? how do we build community across cultures? what might inspire us to reach out to others?
As I continue my meeting and greeting across the city I have encountered nothing but interest and support for this church and its place in the life of the city. I have had many intriguing conversations about how St Matthew’s has been seen in the past and how it might play a role in the future. There is no script, there is no written set of rules about what we might do.
But I can tell you business people are queuing up to get a speaking slot at the Mandela breakfast in November, and to sponsor it as well. They get the idea of this church being a place where you come to think about important things like justice and inclusion.
And they are keen to hear what we have to say and to know what we are doing ourselves to bring about justice and inclusion.
People who visit – from school groups to U3A, to the Mayor and politicians and leaders from other churches and other faiths – they are all interested in what we are doing and thinking.
So what next for us as the body of Christ, in this place in 2014? What will our hands touch, what will our eyes see? who will our hearts welcome? where will we walk to?
Like Matthew we are sitting “at the tax booth”, sitting in our place of normality and routine; and Jesus walks up to us and says “follow me”. Are we ready to get up and follow?
If we take today’s reading from Ezekiel seriously?
“If we fail to warn people of their wickedness, God says “I will hold you responsible”.
There is no watching from the sidelines for us here at St Matthew’s. Our job is to blow the whistle as loud as any test match referee and warn the wicked of their wickedness so that they change their ways to win life!
Referees are never popular!
Who said we’d be popular?
We are called to speak the truth in the face of all that is evil, in the face of all that undermines the claims of the Incarnation that offers the gift of love and forgiveness, and all that happens in response to that, as we riskily respond to God’s love and forgiveness.
Did you know in every gaggle of geese some are clearly queer, establishing same sex relationships!
Why?.....When we look closely at these gay geese we eventually realize that their job is not to hatch the eggs and bring up the children but rather to patrol the boundaries and warn of danger. To take on the role of Ezekiels. To become queer prophets. To warn the community, and that might even be the church, of danger and wickedness. Our ministry here at St Matthew’s is to become like queer geese, uncomfortable prophets, prepared to speak out, and proclaim God’s love even when it makes us profoundly unacceptable to the Church, or the City or the status quo.
Only, that is, if we dare.
For when we look at the evidence we are confronted immediately with the passion of the Christ, which shocks us every time we celebrate the eucharist here at St Matthew’s – the passion of Christ, which turns comfort on its head - where love, self-giving love, is the only response to hate, where love in the face of hate does not transform hate (much as we might wish it did) but shows us that we must tolerate it, we must hold love and hate together in the palm of our hands and survive it in fearless living, in truth telling, and inevitably in persecution, pain even martyrdom and death……
That’s the evidence!
And this evidence of passion – this passionate evidence – if we’re not careful is what we’ve tidied up – tidied away – leaving only the familiar thoughts and feelings of the comfy Jesus lest we are ourselves discomforted.
As Swinburne, the 19th century poet said – “for their comfort’s sake they served up only half a Christ”.
And how tempting that is – to serve up only half a Christ!
I want to think about passion today and I’m aware that faced with that it’s easy to become shy, reserved and embarrassed – to look for easy words and trite ideas that don’t take us over the top or too deep down – words that sidestep the full demands of the Gospel and send us home with our sensible sensitivities intact.
But that won’t do.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, the philosopher, talking about how we make meaning in our talking and in our living, said that ultimately the only thing that has meaning is what we are prepared to die for.
So what does it mean in our living out of our Christian faith to be prepared to die for what we believe.
Here I believe is the context of the passion - passion in all its varied and rich forms: passion from its root passio meaning pain and suffering, passion meaning the crucifixion of the Christ, passion meaning the orgasmic, ecstatic sexual energy of loving abandon.
Pain, death and sex have always sat close together and even embraced each other; it’s no accident that, in the Middle Ages in English and, still to this day, in French, the metaphor for orgasm is “the little death”!
Pain, sex and death then – passion’s trinity.
Are we, when we try to hide our pain, rather than see it as giving us information about ourselves and our God, are we dumming down our faith to nothing more than a harmless religious sit-com – an Anglican, Coronation Street - that helps us pass a pleasant hour or two each week at church but keeps the reality, that we tuck out of sight, from disturbing us?
In turning the pain and suffering of the death of the Christ into safe, predictable eucharists who are we protecting from the passion.
In keeping passion and sexuality out of sight – when we ignore and repress the glorious sexiness that is part of Christian worship and Christian experience and history – when we ignore the sexuality that informs us and excites us whenever we get together intimately, closely, with each other – in doing all this are we shutting off a vital part of God’s incarnation at the very heart of each of us. After all we all know about passion, we are all passionate, we all have sex lives, whether it’s in our heads or in our beds?
I wonder if you’ve seen the play or the film Equus by Peter Shaffer t’s about a middle aged Psychiatrist working with a 17 year old boy - He’s a psychiatrist who lives (or perhaps more accurately just exists) in a loveless, impotent, dried up marriage, who faces himself in his work and relationship with this boy, a boy who has found passion in riding horses bareback at night – who has found passion in the divinity of horses, in Equus - who has found passion in the dark, sticky wildness of moonlight and wet grass and hot breath - a boy, who struggling to free himself from his religious, judgmental mother and sexually frustrated father, who addresses the conflict of repression and orgasm by the frenzied blinding of the horses he rides at night.
The psychiatrist says at the end of the play when the boy has been cured - exorcised from his passion, from his pain, from his God, from his ecstasy:
In the end he’ll be delivered from madness. He’ll feel himself acceptable. My desire might be to make this boy an ardent husband – a caring citizen – a worshipper of an abstract and unifying God. My achievement, however, is more likely to make a ghost.
Let me tell you exactly what I’m going to do to him! I’ll heal the rash on his body. I’ll erase the welts cut into his mind by the horses’ flying manes. When that’s done, I’ll set him on a nice little-scooter and send him puttering off into the Normal world, entirely in control. I doubt, however, with much passion……Passion you see can be destroyed, it cannot be created.
How easily, I reckon, that can happen - that does happen – passion gets destroyed - without guile, without manipulation, in good faith, in so many ways, but destroyed none the less.
I know how much of a temptation this is in the work I do as a psychotherapist, the temptation to help people fit into this passionless world – the temptation to meet the desire of the patient for help to survive an unsatisfactory, dull, painful life – unsatisfactory, but so familiar – rather than risk the unknown, the unfamiliar chance of a life of passionate intensity and creative living.
How easily we can do that in the church as well – offering people an anodyne, safe, exorcised experience where it’s safe to belong because little is demanded and little is celebrated other than the sanctification of the normal – the passionless - where inclusive means anything safe – where acceptance means no one is ever challenged to tell their real story and be their real selves.
I’m not saying that we have to rush off and ride horses at midnight nor especially that we should blind horses, actually or metaphorically – enough of that goes on already. What I am suggesting is that we look for that place in ourselves, that part of us as a community and as individuals where passion lies hidden, where we can feel it tentatively, an echo of how things once were, and still might be, and rather than hide the pain and the ecstasy, risk showing it, encouraging it, letting it live, letting it transform us into the passionate, ecstatic people we can be.
When I mentioned the play Equus earlier in the sermon, I originally included an encouragement to get the video out for you to watch it. I realized, though, that by suggesting that, I was falling into the very trap I’m warning you about.
It’s not a case of going and sitting in front of a video watching actors acting passion. My invitation is not to see the film, but to live it - to incarnate the passionate God, to risk it ourselves. AMEN
Isaiah 51:1-6 Psalm 138 Romans 12:1-8 Matthew 16: 13-20
A couple of weeks ago I attended performances at Q Theatre by the Touch Compass Dance Co. They are a contemporary dance company and the choreography centred around a large box – big enough to dance in – with trapdoors and windows – as they moved in and out with amazing speed. The first dance though was slow with lots of freeze frames of bodies in different poses in the box. One of the dancers though is unable to ever be completely still and her tremor was then incorporated as a movement into the dance by the others as they moved into the next phase. This particular dancer is unable to be absolutely still as she has cerebral palsy and normally gets around in a wheelchair;
on stage she moved with speed and beauty. Another of the dancers has arms which finish at the elbows and her partner dancer moved across the floor on his elbows incorporating her body as the “norm” for that part of their the dance.
Half of the dancers with Touch Compass have a disability; half do not. In conversation you will hear them talked about as “the dancers” and “the non-disabled dancers”. To watch a Touch Compass performance is to first of all enjoy great dancing; and then to be challenged by the images they present of what is “normal” and who can be included and who can inspire. In their dance all of the bodies of the dancers become one body, connected via movement and music to present a level of beauty and depth of experience which would not be possible alone.
St Paul in his letter to the Romans asks the Christians of Rome “to present their bodies as a living sacrifice to God”. This is language the Romans would have understood as very political. Instead of offering a sacrifice to the Roman Emperor who was seen as a god, they no longer make an offering at an altar of Rome, but offer their whole lives to God. For some this meant in the way they lived;
for others it would be in the way they died. Like the Christians of Mosul today they were forced to make a choice – declare Caesar as Lord or die. They chose Jesus as Lord. Paul then goes on to use the image of the body as an image for their church community. This metaphor of the body is something found in all of Paul’s writings. “We who are many, are one body in Christ.” And he uses a play on words which works in English as well as the Greek – in one body we have many members – the body has different members, or limbs; the church body has many members and each have a different role, different but equal in value. There must have been a lot of debate in the early church about one person or one group being better or more worthy than another, because Paul is forever reminding them that there are many gifts and all contribute to the whole. And all are needed to complete the church community.
“We who are many, are one body in Christ” – we who gather 2000 years on from the first Christians in Rome – we who are many, down through the generations, are still one body. We struggle mightily across the world to see ourselves as “one” with Christians from many theological bases. Today though I want us to think about how we are the body as the community of faith here at St Matthew’s. We may well struggle mightily with that idea too. Are we just random individuals who come together on a Sunday drawn by music, the beauty of the building, and the sense of the history of this place? Do we leave as the same random individuals? Does it matter if we are here or not?
Does it matter to the person next to us if we turn up; will they notice?
What might it mean to “belong” to St Matthew’s? People belong by attending on a Sunday; people belong by watching our sermons online and praying our liturgies from afar; people belong by getting married here; and baptized here; people belong by donating to the life of the community or a special project like the organ. The people who sleep in our pews during the week and in our porches at night belong. We are all connected by this place, this turangawaewae; we are all part of the one body.
In Paul’s writing he at times says we are one body in Christ (Rom 12:5) and at other times he says we are the body of Christ (eg 1 Cor 12:27). We are united in our common faith in Christ, and in turn therefore, we become the body of Christ in the world. We are the hands and heart of Christ in our world continuing his work of love and service and sacrifice. And that is most certainly something we can never achieve alone and so we come together each week, physically present, to be the community and to embody Christ. We come together to rehearse again and again our reliance on God and on each other and to recognize that alone we can only be a hand or a foot or an eye and that we need the rest of the body to function.
Then adding a final layer of complexity to his metaphor Paul tells us that we are receiving the body of Christ when we break the bread and share it in the eucharist. “The bread we break is a sharing in the body of Christ. We who are many are one body for we all share the one bread.”A lot of the instructions we have about the eucharist from Paul are given because the communities in both Corinth and Rome were not sharing “the one bread”. The eucharist was a meal, and the host and other wealthy members provided the food, but it was still very countercultural for people of all social classes to eat together and so it seems there was a “top table” for the wealthy and the host’s guests, and the rest ate inferior food, if any at all. So when Paul says “we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” (1 Cor 10:17) he means literally: stop eating different meals and come together as one, to share from the same loaf and so become the body of Christ.
And so we do - We come to worship, physically, with our bodies, as well as our hearts and minds. Anglican worship is very physical – we stand, sit, kneel, sing and recite together, we bow, we trace the sign of the cross, touch hands as we share peace, we listen, watch, eat and drink, “dancing the peculiar ballet of the people of God”. And Paul tells us, now we are one, and so we are given gifts with which to serve. We leave this place not as random individuals but now as one body, dancing together, incorporating the gifts of each who are here in the way we go out to serve together as a community. And we leave also to go about our individual lives and ministries but supported by our community of faith, not alone as we meet the challenges of being a teacher, a lawyer, a shop asst, a mother, a musician, a community volunteer, a grandparent, a nurse, business owner, a student …
We can feel connected and supported and then return next week to be the one body again and to be fed.
The dancers from Touch Compass dance in a way that brings wholeness and completeness to performance because they show you do not need a so called “perfect body” to be a dancer.
And they show that together you can create something with a complementarity that it is impossible to do alone. That is why I am a priest, because I believe that in gathering a community at the altar it is possible to draw out the gifts of the body and set it to work in the service of God.
We have much work to do as the body of Christ in this place.
I am looking forward to discovering what that work might be.
 Gerd Theissen The Social Setting of Pauline Christianity p160
“I will not take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Why does the gospel writer Matthew include this story about Jesus and the Canaanite woman in his gospel? He shows both Jesus and the disciples in a bad light. This woman, this Gentile woman, dares to approach “the master” and his followers, and calls out, cries out. She sounds to them like the demon who is said to torment her daughter. Send her away for goodness sake. Let us get on with being disciples of this master who is going to overthrow the Romans and bring about God’s kingdom – which will be exclusively for the people of Israel. And yes, even Jesus is arrogant and rude. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel …. I will not take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
Hang on a minute – has the Jesus of the gospels we know been replaced in this story? Where is the Jesus who says - let the little children come to me; where is the Jesus who saves the woman from being stoned for adultery? where is the Jesus who touches lepers and ignores the ritual washing of hands before meals?
Why would Matthew the gospel writer include this story? John and Luke don’t. Mark does but in a kinder version than this. Matthew does not flinch as he shows Jesus to be rude and racist.
If me calling Jesus a racist makes you flinch, I am sorry, but Jesus calls the woman a dog, a derogatory term used by the Jews of his time for Gentiles.
If it does make you flinch, you might have been happier with our gospel readings for the last couple of weeks – Jesus walking on the water or feeding the 5000.
Those stories are part of an understanding of Jesus as divine, as God, and so of course he can break the rules of nature, and do as he wishes. He is not a magician, nor “a conjurer of cheap tricks” to quote Gandalf, but his divinity breaks through and allows him to heal, to feed, to teach, in a way never seen before.
That is one thread which is woven into the gospels. It is the thread of a high Christology – an elevated and divine view of Jesus and who Jesus was.
Today’s story belongs to another thread, a much lower Christology. A Christology of the human Jesus, the Jesus who ate, drank and slept, worked, laughed and cried. The Jesus who wept at the tomb of his friend Lazarus, the Jesus who was grumpy with his mother at the wedding of Cana, the Jesus who rejected his family when they came to get him because they thought he was mad. The Jesus who died a ghastly human death. It is the very human Jesus whom we see in this account. Jesus says his message and teaching is only for the people of Israel, his own people. And in his defence, he is fitting absolutely into the norms of his time, here he is not the radical, he is being quite normal.
But the woman, this feisty unnamed woman from Canaan, replies in a very quick and witty way – yes but even the dogs get to eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table. She is not asking to sit at the table of the master, she knows her place, but she does want healing for her daughter and she is not about to give up. And she knows that there is enough to go around. Maybe she has heard the story of the feeding of the 5000, there were 12 baskets of crumbs left over then.
Cannot Jesus share a few crumbs, take a moment out of his precious busy schedule to attend to the needs of her daughter?
Well, Jesus has met his match, his mind is changed and he commends her faith and the girl is healed. I heard a lecture some years ago from Professor Phyllis Trible, an eminent scholar from the US who spoke about this passage in one of her lectures. She said “By a deft retort, a Gentile woman healed a Jewish man of ethnic chauvinism and thereby liberated him to heal her daughter.”
The woman is the one who shows Jesus the error of his ways. The human, ordinary Jesus is rebuked and corrected. Had he forgotten the words of the prophet Isaiah? “I will bring the foreigners to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” (56:7). The foreigner herself sees that these words are fulfilled.
In modern day Canaan, in modern day Israel, the words of the prophet have again been forgotten. The Canaanites, the Palestinians, are again excluded and worse than excluded they are imprisoned by violence and poverty and lack of hope.
Matthew includes his story of the Canaanite woman in his gospel because in the life of the early church one of the most important questions they had to deal with was the question of membership. Was the church just for Jews or for Gentiles as well? What would be the rules of joining, were food rules to be applied, was circumcision necessary? There is precedence in Isaiah and other prophets for all to be included. But there is plenty of precedence for exclusivity as well:
the descendants of Moses invade the land of Canaan with little regard for the then inhabitants. Later Jezebel, the Gentile, Phoenician Queen, and great opponent of Elijah, after promoting her Gentile religion, is killed and eaten, interestingly by the dogs (1 Kings 9).
Matthew includes this account in his gospel to shock his readers into realizing that even Jesus and the disciples were once in the mold of excluding “the other” but no more. Gentiles are in; all are in. The world has changed, for the kingdom of God, the way of God is upon them.
Stanley Hauerwas says “To be a Christian does not mean that we are to change the world, but rather that we must live as witnesses to the world that God has already changed.”
Jesus becomes a witness to the world that God had already changed by healing the daughter of the Canaanite. The disciples become witnesses to the world that God had already changed by allowing her to become one of them, a follower of the master. How do we become witnesses to the world that God has already changed? How do we live the reality of God’s way, post resurrection.
We watch in horror as our world continues to divide on the basis of ethnic division and we see the exclusion of the poor and marginalised from the tables of the world. Israel and Palestine; Sudan; Iraq; the list is so long. And as long as the opponent is the other, the unnamed, inhuman opponent, then the answer to holding onto our own power and security, is to exclude them from the table and to keep it all for ourselves. The scandal of the separation wall between Gaza and Israel; the scandal of bombing a people with nowhere to flee to because you have fenced them in; and worse if it is possible, the scandal of ISIS in Iraq massacring Christians and other religious minorities. ISIS fighters have marked the homes of Christians with the Arabic letter N for “Nazarene”. The Anglican Communion and many others have changed their twitter badge to an Arabic N.
And in our own country our election campaign has degenerated into intrigue, slander and insult and racism. In a country where we have the immense privilege of the freedom to vote we throw away our privilege and do not deserve it.
We insult those around the world who cannot vote by devaluing our politicians and encouraging them to devalue each other.
Jean Vanier, the Canadian founder of l’Arche, which runs communities for people with intellectual handicaps, says that we exclude people because of fear: fear of difference, fear of failure, fear of loss or change. He also says we have a fear of “dissidents” – those who seem to threaten the existing order. The Canaanite woman was a dissident.
How does this play out in our own lives – who in our lives is the other – who is the woman begging us to see her as real, as human, as someone. Is it the person at work who annoys us everyday, is it our children needing our attention, is it the spouse we are separated from, but whom we still treat with animosity, is it someone who slept in the church porch last night, is it a politician on the hustings?
Paying attention to the other, listening to them is the very thing which will liberate us from our animosity and exclusiveness. No longer looking at them as the other, but as one who belongs, will in turn liberate us and allow us to be closer to God’s intention for our lives. And even Jesus has been there – he has been impatient, rude and uncaring – and he listened when a woman, the other, the unwanted, spoke truth and justice to him.
Matthew brings us this story so that we might listen to the other. Matthew brings us this story that we might bear witness to the world that God has already changed. Matthew brings us this story so that we too might bear witness to the changing of our hearts and lives.
 Wellington 2002
 p25 Matthew 2006 Brazos Press
 Jean Vanier Becoming Human 1998 Anansi Press, Toronto pp74-81
I am not one for long good-byes, but apparently this time it is not to be avoided. I’m here again to continue that task after having delivered last words not too long ago. That time grace and the lectionary gave me a portion of Jesus’ farewell address as a suitable launching pad for my final thoughts. Today a more whimsical force gives me the story of Jesus walking on water. I am going to resist the temptation to joke about my water walking skills in spite of having pictorial proof. When in Liverpool to resolve issues preventing our new organ from being completed I was photographed walking a cross a fountain that gives the illusion of such capacity. Nevertheless, feet of clay are not known for their buoyancy.
For progressives it is all too easy to dismiss this story with a joke because it is outside our experience of the physical world. We are tempted to use it to get into a discussion of what is a miracle anyway. Alternatively, we defend our selves against those with the view that failure to believe the historicity of the story questions our faith. Instead, I would like to argue that while the story is suspect in terms of what we know about physics, it is metaphysically true.
What do I mean by metaphysics? It is that branch of philosophy that looks at reality and asks two fundamental questions: What is ultimately there? And what is it like?
To answer the first question it is important to look at what immediately precedes the story. Three things are reported in the 21 verses just prior to it. Jesus has learned that his cousin, John the Baptiser has had his head handed to Salome on a platter by Herod. Jesus went off alone to grieve but the crowds found him and he had compassion on them and healed the sick. The disciples tried to run them off because they didn’t want to invite 5000 folk to tea. Jesus ignored them and fed the crowd with five loaves and two fish. Having cured and fed them, he sent the 5000 home and then sent the disciples off in a boat back to Capernaum. Finally alone, he went up to a mountaintop to pray.
Those are the outward reports of the reality. But ultimately what was the situation? Clearly, this was the height of success of his ministry according to Matthew. He was the new Moses feeding the people with the new manna. The disciples had to be chuffed. You can hear them in the boat talking excitedly about what a day it had been and how they have backed the right horse, conveniently forgetting the earlier news about what happened to that locust-eating wingnut John. Jesus had not forgotten. He knew how those in power would view the day’s events. He knew John’s fate foreshadowed his own. He sent them off not because he needed to be alone. This wasn’t about him. He sent them off because they couldn’t be dependent upon him alone. Soon enough they would have to continue their journey without him.
There is yet another level to this reality. It involves the sea.
In the world’s religions born in India, crossing water was a common symbol of salvation or enlightenment. The waters represent the painful existence in the world, plagued by ills, a continual passing from life to death to rebirth. Tossed about on the turbulent sea, the wayfarer finds rest only on the other shore.
The Rigveda, the oldest of Hindu sacred scripture says:
Carry us across, as by a boat
Across the sea, for our good.
In the Bhagavad Gita the hero is told, “Even if you were the most sinful of sinners, Arjuna, you could cross beyond all sin by the raft of spiritual wisdom.”
In a collection of sayings from the Buddha called the Dhammapada, he says, “Few are there among men who go across to the further shore; the rest of mankind only run about on the bank. But those who act rightly according to the teaching, as has been well taught, will cross over the other shore, for the realm of passions is so difficult to cross.”
This motif of crossing troubled waters for either salvation or enlightenment is expanded further in Hebrew Scriptures where crossing the Red Sea is part of the Jewish foundational story of Passover. It is a story of liberation from slavery. After 40 years in the wilderness crossing the Jordan into the Promised Land follows it. “When you cross over the Jordan and live in the land that the Lord your God is allotting to you, and when he gives you rest from your enemies all around so that you live in safety.” (Dt 12:10)
So in answer to the metaphysical question of what is ultimately there, it is the reality that enlightenment and liberation do not come to those who stay in a safe place fenced in by their fears and needs for security. Enlightenment and liberation cannot be gained secondhand. We each have to make the crossing.
The second metaphysical question, “What is it like?” is revealed in the disciples’ night terrors. Terror of the unknown. Terror of death. Terror of powerlessness. Terror of being alone. Terror of loss. I suspect we have all had nights when we have been visited in turbulent times by these unholy terrors. What happens next depends on us. Do we forge ahead or return to shore?
Family systems therapist and rabbi, Edwin Friedman, gives an illustration in his book Generation to Generation of what is required to move ahead when a community is awash at sea. Someone has to be a nonanxious presence and stand up in the boat and point to the far shore. The others in the boat may start rocking it to get that brave soul to sitback down. But if that person remains standing and pointing others will either stand as well or jump overboard and swim back to where they started.
In our Gospel story Jesus is clearly that person. Jesus’ presence establishes that if he can cross these waters so can his disciples. So can we.
I don’t think making such crossings is something we relish doing. Like Jesus pushing the disciples to leave, it is the divine within us that pushes us into uncertain waters. The divine that seeks wholeness and peace on the other side.
It has been 35 years since I started seminary. During that time a lot of turbulent water has had to be crossed. It was 1979, the year of the Erebus disaster and Iranian takeover of the US embassy that ultimately brought the disastrous policies of Ronald Reagan to power. It was only five years after the first women were illegally ordained in Philadelphia. It was the year a new controversial prayerbook in the American church was introduced. My seminary still dismissed students who were found to be in same-sex relationships. Using inclusive language was considered subversive. Since then troubled waters have been before us year after year as a church. I think it will always be thus. What issues need to be crossed will change but not the need to cross them.
Today the turbulent waters are how we as a church will address climate change, income inequality and child poverty as we complete the task of full inclusion for the LGBTI community. Yet as challenging as it will be to cross to the other side of those swirling waters, there is one more that will determine our fate as an institution. Can we re-imagine God? If we can’t understand that the divine name is a metaphor that shapes our spirituality, we are trapped on this side of the sea.
In November Lloyd Geering will be releasing a new book entitled “Reimaging God”. He lays out the task before us, “It is important not to disown the cultural past that has enabled us to be what we are, but as Nietzsche said, ‘One repays a teacher badly by remaining only a pupil’. We need to exercise a critical acceptance of our cultural heritage. Much of its spirituality will have to be abandoned: its authoritarianism, its exclusivism, its patriarchal character, its otherworldliness, its sexism, its slave mentality and its condemnation of individuality. But we can draw upon and develop its basic concern with our common humanity, its focus on fellowship and hospitality, its goals for a nobler future and the human values that permeate its message.”
How we navigate these waters will determine whether the heart of the Gospel will remain relevant for future generations. I only hope a nonanxious Jesus will be out there pointing the way and urging us on.
So now it is time for you and for me to get into our separate boats and set sail. I wish you bon voyage and look forward to seeing you on the other side.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O God, my strength and my redeemer.
Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.
Jesus had been told that his cousin John the Baptiser had been beheaded by Herod. Herod had had a birthday party at his palace. There was entertainment, dancers and an abundance of food, John was part of the entertainment. Both John and Jesus have challenged Herod and his friends for their collusion with the Imperial power of Rome and the neglect of the poor and marginalised of Israel.
Jesus was upset, he needed time to reflect, perhaps to pray; but above all to be still, and not have people bothering him. Then thousands follow him to the deserted place.
We have an interesting juxtaposition of fear and death (in the story of John’s beheading) with that of fulfilment and abundance in the feeding narrative. The murder of John the Baptist is a result of power confronted and hypocrisy exposed. Where fear reigns, violence cannot be far behind. While the blood tinged birthday banquet represents the old order with its fear-mongering and death-dealing ways, the feeding of the five thousand heralds the new order: fullness of life and health for all (even women and children).
This juxtaposition couldn’t be more ironic or powerful. One moment Matthew is inviting us to focus on one more episode from the lifestyle of the rich and famous and in the next verse our attention is fastened on a scene portraying poor, sick and hungry people looking for relief. For the majority of the population in the first century Mediterranean world; food scarcity was the norm.
A few years ago when I was studying theology I was astounded by the comparison of the first century world and our own. Overcrowding, poor quality housing, densely populated cities, unemployment, poor health, urban drift and poor supply of food. They are the adjectives used to describe the world most of the people we see at the Mission. Nevertheless this is our reality and was the reality for the followers of Jesus.
We will never know how Jesus feed what was likely to be twenty thousand people, as the five thousand only referred to the number of men, and it doesn’t matter that we have an explanation. What is interesting is that this event is recorded in all four gospels. This miracle story is about highlighting having faith in a God of abundant life. Abundant life is not having more ‘stuff,’ it is more about doing and giving. This is quite a hard concept for some to grasp in our very consumer driven society.
Capitalism and consumerism drive the economics of our society. We are encouraged to spend our money in numerous places; the malls, cafes, restaurants, on travel and at various entertainment venues. We work to earn money and then spend it. It doesn’t sound very satisfying does it? For most of us this is an empty and unproductive way to life. The other side to this work-spend scenario is unemployment and the inability to spend. Throughout the world unemployment is now causing huge problems, especially unemployed youth. Our economic system of capitalism can no longer be maintained however we have no other viable option on offer. In the meantime we have worldwide social and ecological problems that need to be addressed urgently.
Warren Buffett, the world’s third richest man said of our economic system recently:
“… The rich are always going to say that, you know, just give us more money and we’ll go out and spend more and then it will trickle down to the rest of you. But that has not worked the last ten years, and I hope the American public is catching on.”
This is similar to the world that Jesus came to change and bring to the Kingdom of God.
The miracle in this story is not the feeding of many thousand with a meagre amount of food. The miracle is God’s compassion for us has no boundaries and requires from us only faith and belief.
The last verse of this reading is both poignant and powerful. …and those who ate were five thousand men, besides women and children. This is an inclusive statement that must have been ignored or lost for thousands of years given the battles women have had to fight for inclusivity over the centuries particularly in the church.
Last week Diane Robertson spoke to you of a project called Family 100. I was a researcher interviewer on that project. We wanted to find out what kept people in poverty. Listening to families stories for the twelve months was at times painful and at others times I was full of admiration at their resilience and lack of self-pity. There was always someone worse off than them.
The disciples never quite got it. They always seem to annoy Jesus. It was a little like having teenagers who just never quite get the message. However I do sympathise with the disciples feeding thousands with such a small amounting is indeed daunting. Matthew’s miracle depicts what happens when you move from a worldview of scarcity - “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fishes” - to one of abundance and gratitude. Despite their shortcomings, God used those reluctant disciples to care for the poor and hungry.
The twelve baskets of leftovers are a reminder that in God’s economy there is always more than enough. God’s endless supply of goodness and generosity is available illustrating the transforming power of a God always on the lookout for the vulnerable. And in our willingness to share our ‘stuff’ (our food, our money, our time ourselves) we find our own transformation- sometimes a joyful process, often a costly one, always a consequential one.
Frederick Buechner said “Greed is the mathematical truism that the more you get, the more you have. The opposite of greed- the selfless love of God and neighbour- is based on the truth that the more you give away in love, the more you are.”
God is still at work performing miracles through disciples eager, reluctant and everything in between, miracles that easily rival those reported in today’s reading.
My work at the Mission needs your donations of food, clothing and money because without them we cannot provide the food parcels to those that need them. The distribution of five loaves and two fishes at this gathering was likely to have been the sharing of everyone’s food resource there that afternoon. The idea of everyone sharing their resources such as food and water may also be the way to deal with our world economic problems. This is the essence of this miracle story, compassion by giving and caring.
We, therefore, must be ready to assist others, be more God-like in our ability to demonstrate compassion to others, and be ready to feed others as God constantly stands ready to feed us. Let us not be people of indifference. Let us instead take the time, as did Jesus, to feed with compassion and love those who come to us seeking solace.
Isaiah 44:6-8 Psalm 86:11-17 Romans 8:12-25 Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
The Church of England has been in the news this week for finally getting women bishops over the line.
What also made the news was that they are giving clergy the option of taking the devil out of the baptism service.
Instead of asking parents do they “reject the devil and all rebellion against God” and if they “repent of the sins that separate us from God and neighbour.” They will now “reject evil, and all its many forms, and all its empty promises”, with no explicit mention of the devil or sin. There was a great soundbite of one of the Synod members making an impassioned speech “I urge you to keep the devil” – the mind boggles!
Our baptism service says “do you renounce all evil influences and powers that rebel against God.”  Still pretty strong language but without the devil in person. When I talk with parents ahead of a baptism we talk about the strong language which seems a bit much when they are bringing their perfect little baby for baptism. But I am often surprised how easily the parents get what this is about. They want to make a choice for good for their children; they want to protect them and lay claim to the goodness of our world, while recognizing that evil is a reality their child will contend with.
In the parable we have today, Jesus brings evil into the picture. Matthew the gospel writer labours the evil part rather heavily in his explanation.
Jesus again reminds his listeners that he was not really a farmer. Last week he was sowing seed on rocky paths and in thorny ground and this week he tells a story of a farmer who leaves the weeds to grow.This time the farmer sows good seed for good wheat in his field, carefully plowed, and tilled and prepared. And overnight an enemy – a rival farmer? sows weeds among the wheat. And the farmer’s slaves say – oh dear let’s get in there quick and weed the plot so the weeds won’t strangle the wheat. But the farmer says, no leave them, we will sort them at harvest time.
Now I know nothing about wheat but I am reliably informed that the weeds here are “darnel wheat” which look exactly like ordinary wheat until the ears of the wheat grow and the real wheat bends over with the weight of the ears; and the false wheat, the darnel wheat stay straight because they bear no fruit, no harvest. 
So it is not until the harvest that you can tell the difference. Jesus says “let both of them grow until the harvest”; That little word “let”, apheimi in the Greek, also means to forgive; Forgive them until the harvest …
Matthew adds an explanation and says the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one. But you can’t tell by looking which is which. You can tell later, when they bear grain for the harvest. And Matthew spends a lot longer than Jesus on throwing the weeds into the furnace.
Like Matthew I think we are often quick to condemn, to judge, to put people in categories and demonize them.
We are always very quick to name the evil ones of our world. Right through history but also in modern times:
Hutu and Tutsi in Rwanda; Bosnian Serb and Croat; Palestinian and Israeli. We think we know what evil looks like and think it should be rooted out.
We don’t recognise the humanity of our opponent; we do not see that they are children of God as well.
As the conflict escalates in Gaza there seems to be no way out of the violence and suffering. And yet ordinary Israelis and Palestinians are trying their hardest.
I read this week about a group called the Parents Circle – parents who have lost children to the violence – one mother writes
“To all the mothers who have just joined the dreaded club of the bereaved, both Israeli and Palestinian, we at the Parents Circle-Families Forum extend a hand to you. We too have heard the knock on the door which changes your life forever. We understand that the pain of a mother losing a child is the same no matter where she comes from, what colour her skin is and to whom she prays at night. The tears falling on the pillow are the same colour. We cannot allow the violence to continue. Let us raise our voices together to stop this senseless killing. Stop the violence, stop the horrific rhetoric. No-one has the right to use our beloved children as pawns in a battle that can never be won.
Let us join together as one and beg our leaders to … stop and understand that the cycle of violence will continue until all that is left is the sharing of graves.”
If God were to judge humanity today as Matthew describes and root out all the evil, all the darnel wheat; none of us would survive. We all have the capacity for evil; we all sin at times. We know from history that good people can do unforgivable things. And yet God allows us to grow in God’s world. God allows us to grow and lets us grow; forgives us as we grow; and waits to see the bearing of the grain, the fruit of our lives.
Paul promises in his letter to the Romans that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; 23 and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in* hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes* for what is seen? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
And so we yearn for a world set free from the bondage to evil; parents who bring their children for baptism claim freedom in Christ, they want their children to be blessed and to grow with love not hate in their hearts. We cannot fix wars and massacres and genocide but we can reflect on our own attitudes to those we think of as “other” or “children of the evil one”. We all have people we label, put in boxes, make assumptions about.
We all have people in our lives we jump to conclusions about; and write off. In this election time there is lots of labeling and writing off of people, politicians and policies going on. As people of faith we are called to be discerning, to reflect, not to be quick to judge. And our discernment involves not just our personal actions but the way we react as a society; the way systemic evils of racism and sexism and homophobia wrap their roots around the good wheat and try to strangle them.The way we live and act towards each other can reverse that process and the good roots can instead strangle the weeds.
Jesus says to us, let the wheat be, let everything grow and take their place in the field, and chances are they will turn out to be good wheat too. The harvest will come, in the meantime you get on with loving and forgiving and believing in the good of my created humanity. Get on with claiming life and hope for your children.
The second question in our baptism service is “do you trust in Christ who brings forgiveness, freedom and life” and the parents reply “in faith I turn to Christ”; like the wheat turning to the sun to grow and thrive, we turn to Christ and seek help for our broken and suffering world. We cry out as a woman does in labour and “we hope for what we do not see and wait for it with patience” certain that the good wheat will prevail in the end.
Last year Stephen and I spent 3 months in Washington DC on sabbatical. We lived at Virginia Seminary in Alexandria and at a welcome reception they held for us and other visitors we met various people who in their kind American way invited us to their churches and homes. One person we met worked at the Pentagon and invited us to the weekly Wednesday Episcopalian Eucharist. We were intrigued – a visit to the Pentagon, the heart of American military might - for church?
We went on the appointed day and after going through multiple levels of security were escorted by our host and given a tour of some of the huge and impressive building. It is like a small town with thousands of people working there with their own shops, hairdressers, restaurants. As we headed for the chapel our host explained that the chapel was new, built after 9/11 on the spot where the hijacked plane had hit the Pentagon, killing 125 Pentagon workers as well as the 64 people on the plane. The Pentagon had never had a single chapel before the terrorist attacks, various groups had used different spaces. After 9/11 it was agreed they needed a chapel, on the spot the plane hit, and it needed to be an interfaith space.
So when we walked in it was set up for an Anglican Eucharist, but against the wall you could see the Ark with the scrolls for the Torah to be read in a Jewish service and on Fridays Moslem prayers are held. The response of those working at the heart of the American military, when attacked on 9/11, was to pray. I was astonished. This didn’t fit my expectations at all.
Jesus tells a story about a farmer who goes out to sow seeds, but this farmer is not a careful farmer, preparing his soil and sowing with precision so as not waste precious seed. What kind of farmer scatters seeds on rocky ground and amongst the thorn bushes? Some of the seed falls on good ground and this seed produces crops way beyond what any farmer might hope for. But the farmer doesn’t seem to do anything special to make this happen, the crop just flourishes.
Now the gospel writer we call Matthew gives us an interpretation of the parable.
Jesus did not usually explain his parables. Parables are intriguing stories to make his listeners wonder and think. But Matthew and the community he is writing for have lots of questions in their post resurrection – post Jesus life; and the question they seem to be asking here is “why does the good news we are preaching of JC not always take root and grow?” Well it must be that some of the people we are preaching to are not good soil, we have scattered the seed but the people on rocky ground are never going to hear the word and grow. Matthew’s interpretation answered the question of his community.
And we can too easily fall into the same trap and label those who we might disagree with as being the rocky ground and the thorns. What might the questions be of our community be instead? Our question needs to go back to the original parable which is more about the actions of God than the response of people. The actions of the reckless farmer, sowing seeds everywhere, and the plants popping up where you might least expect them, like at the heart of the Pentagon.
What is this seed? The seed that the sower scatters might be the word of God, the teaching as Matthew writes; or it might be love, or the Spirit, or God’s presence, or God’s justice, or God’s surprises, God’s inspiration. The parables always describe the kingdom of God, God’s realm, God’s way. The way of God in this story is reckless abandon, sowing the word, or love, or justice, or inspiration, everywhere. Everywhere – not just inside churches, not just amongst people who agree with our theology, not just amongst people who like the same music we do, everywhere. Everywhere in your lives, in your families, and homes, and workplaces, and encounters. Do we have eyes to see and ears to listen?
Where has some seed popped up and grown in your life this week when you didn’t expect it? Have you had an unexpected conversation with someone, read an article by someone you thought you would disagree with, been to a social occasion you didn’t really want to go to and had a great conversation? Jesus says “let anyone with ears listen”. As people of faith we are encouraged to listen, listen and watch for the way of God to be revealed.
I am spending as much of my time as possible listening – listening to your stories of life and faith, listening to the various leaders of the city as they tell me how they see St Matthew’s and how we can serve the city.
What I am really interested in us doing as a faith community is listening together to the voices of our neighbourhood. Like the old Sesame Street song “who are the people in your neighbourhood?”
In the 2011 census there were 3255 people living in the western half of the Auckland cbd census area; in 2013 they counted 10,104. 7,000 people have moved into this side of the city in the last 12 years and I am not sure that St Matthew’s has really noticed.
Our church is placed in the most densely populated neighbourhood of our nation, yet very few of us who gather here on a Sunday live in walking distance of the church.
Most of you pass many churches in order to come here for the music, the theology, and the beauty of our sacred space. And that is great – I am very glad you are all here!
My question is though - how can we listen to our neighbours? How can we look and see where the seed has been scattered and where it is growing. For God recklessly sows seeds in all corners of our city and if we don’t take a look we will never see it. What is going on in the lives of the 1000s of people who live in the apartments and work in the offices around us, what are the students learning and seeking, what are the families and children facing? How would we know?
We are doing some work together on our own pastoral care as a community; we have another session with Allanah today.As we learn to listen better to each other we will be more ready to listen to the voices of our neighbourhood here in the city.
God shows up in the most unexpected of places; and that is because God is like a reckless farmer who sows seed everywhere: on the path, on rocky ground, in shallow soil and in deep soil; and we are certainly not able to discern just by looking which is the rocky ground and which is the soil. Our own assumptions get very much in the way.
Instead we are called to listen, and be open, and to watch and to be astonished when a bountiful harvest appears in front of us. For as sure as the rain and the snow come, says the prophet Isaiah, so does the word come from the mouth of God, and it never returns empty. God’s word, or love, or inspiration or justice, or peace is sown in our hearts and lives in the lives of those around us.Let anyone with ears listen, watch and be amazed.
Today is the feast day for two troubled men who had great influence on the early church.
Most of us can recognise a troubled person when we meet one, even if we are not sure why. Troubled people have been there all through history, but sometimes the overlays of time and heroic reputation can make it difficult to recognise them - and stories enhancing their reputation are what come to give character and substance to these people - they become 'larger than life'. That is, I think, what has happened to Peter and Paul. We have stopped recognising them in all their troubled confusion and complexity and come to see them primarily as heroes of the early church - with a modicum of greatness flung around their shoulders: men of inspirational, heroic mana!
Today it seems important to me to see them for who they were; to bring them back to earth and restore their humanity - for there lies their strength, and our encouragement. They were just men!
We know Peter was a fisherman, who lived with his wife, in his Mother-in-law's house; he was a man in whom Jesus saw great promise and 'solidity'. According to the writer of Matthew's gospel, the story was that, Jesus called him 'the rock' on which I will build my church. He was the one who dared to stick his neck out - when Jesus was not at all popular amongst leaders of synagogue and state - and declare he was the messiah, (the one they were waiting for) son of the lively and life-giving God. But, sometime later, this same man of promise and proclamation, denied ever knowing Jesus; he denied ever being his friend, at the very time when, perhaps more than ever, Jesus needed a friend. He said he 'never knew him' in those awful hours when Jesus was being judged, condemned, and led off to execution.
And Paul, well, as those of us who went to Sunday school know, he was a Roman citizen by birth, as well as a Jew, well educated in the pharisaic school, and a persecutor of those who listened to the teachings of Jesus, or professed to follow his way. His name was Saul, he was in the employ of the Roman occupation in Judea and identified with the oppressors who made life so hard for the local Jewish population. From our perspective, he was a man who didn't seem to like women very much - though he was prepared claim some as 'friend' and to use them if he thought they could help him establish his credibility! Women through history ever since have struggled to overturn the attitudes he shaped toward women, and to overcome the restrictions he imposed way back then about what we could do and what was proper!
Yet both of these men, troubled and conflicted as they were, came to be key figures in the development of the early church. Without Paul's letters and Peter's proclamations we would unlikely to be sitting here today.
But, sit here we do, you and me. And I don't want to talk much more about Peter and Paul. It is easy to look over our shoulders and make judgements about them, but if we dare to admit it, most of us are 'troubled' people too:not sure what we believe, not sure if this 'Jesus Way' we hear about is worth the struggle, confused about a church that now seems increasingly irrelevant to our lives. And, we too often fall short of our own best intentions: struggling with our families, out of tune with our children, worried about the mortgage and our health, putting our individual wants before the needs of others. We can be disappointed in ourselves, even ashamed.
Sometimes we 'take it out' on ourselves and compromise our mental health, sometimes we 'take it all out' on those who are a bit different from us.
Sometimes we take it out on others in our family who have less power that we do - women, children, the elderly. It is usually people who can't answer-back, or retaliate, who become the ones we 'beat up on'.
We see the outcome of this 'taking it out, this 'lashing out' in anger, all too frequently - we see it in our hospitals, in women's refuges, on the streets, in schools (like last week), and in the car-parks - people being violent toward one another, even killing ordinary people because they can or because their victim has what they want. The death a week or two back, of the dairy owner in Henderson, Mr Arun Kumar by a thirteen year old boy and his friend an illustration of just how troubled we all are. That children can stab each other with scissors and even kill another person (whatever the motivation - fear, addiction, greed) is an indictment on us all for the way our society is spiralling into dysfunction. The violence in our society is not only physical however, that is the tip of the iceberg! Violence is present any time there is a misuse of a power differential, any time a person is not paid a living wage, any time another person is treated disrespectfully, any time we fail to acknowledge the humanity of those who are different from us - sexually, culturally, racially or in faith tradition - any time our Something needs to happen to change this situation.
Something needs to happen urgently.
Something needs to happen in the same way something happened to Peter and to Paul.
We don't really know what happened to them... there are stories of course, told to try to explain the strangeness of the shift in direction, to try to make sense of the change their friends experienced.
Those who knew them seemed to think only an action of God was serious enough to explain why Paul stopped persecuting the Jesus-followers and started supporting them - even working to expand the number of 'Jesus communities' that were to become the church. In other words to become a missionary for the cause of justice and inclusivity.
And Peter, it would seem he did not fall into despair at his inability to live up to his own expectations of himself, or Jesus' expectations of him. He came to recognise, through a 'dream', that God could be seen in all people not just Jews. Apparently, so tradition says, he went on and become a foundational member of the church in Rome itself!
It seems they
· Caught a vision of how the world could be if the teaching of Jesus about love, transformation, inclusion and community were taken to heart.
· Caught on to the courage and capacity for compassion that people who know they are loved can embody, and
· Caught a glimpse of how a community of people, committed to the vision of a world in which respect for persons across differences, enables mutual care about how they relate to one another, and pushes communities towards more equitable sharing of resources.
These men were not perfect, and neither are we, and it is no use waiting till we are before we try to grasp more securely the vision of a sustainable, hopeful, respectful future such as the image of 'heaven here on earth' brings to mind - and its implications!
Like them we can decide to pause in the busyness of our everyday lives and listen for the 'voice' deep within ourselves that invariably stirs us to recognise both pain and joy. And hearing it we have choices to make.
It is a conversion that most of us could do with to guide the choice; a shake up; a change of heart, one that propels out of the 'normalcy' we have settled into. Together we can insist on positive change in church and society, and together we can be courageous enough to act for that change however we can - there is an election coming up!
It is time for us to accept that it is us, you and me, that have to get on with the work of proclaiming in words and getting on with the work of honouring difference, advocating for the need for workers to be paid enough to live on, promoting the importance of safe, affordable housing for the vulnerable elderly of our city, and lifting our children out of poverty. These are troubling times, and we need to be troubled people who are prepared to step into the 'Jesus Way' that both shook up and then consumed the lives of Peter and Paul. Amen.