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.
I roto i te ingoa o te atua, te matua, te tama, me te wairua tapu, amine.
Every time there is a flood or an earthquake there is debate about the building of houses, stormwater drains, culverts, streams.
I am sure the people of Chch had felt their houses were built on rock rather than sand, and that they would always be safe and secure.
Sadly they discovered they were not.
The people of Palestine of Jesus’ time were equally concerned about how their houses were built.
Rain came infrequently but when it came it was often a violent storm.
And so being sure that the houses were on firm rocky ground and not sandy ground was a priority.
But as there were months between rainfalls, you could be excused for getting a little complacent.
Jesus, as usual, takes something from everyday life, an every day concern of the people and turns it into a way of teaching.
This little story about the man who builds his house on the rock is the tail end of the Sermon on the Mount – we have had the Beatitudes, the teaching on love your enemy, teaching on prayer, incl the Lord’s Prayer … and Jesus concludes “Everyone then who hears these words of mine – that is the Sermon on the Mount – and acts on them is like a wise man who built his house on rock.
And everyone who hears these words and does not act on them is like a foolish man who builds his house on sand.
We are here at church this morning because we have heard the words of Jesus – we have heard that call and challenge to love our enemy, to be peacemakers, to pray – we have heard the words but have we acted on them? Have we done something about them; have they changed us – is the house of our lives built on rock or on sand?
And how can we tell the difference.
This reading set down for today also happens to be the reading that we chose for my father’s funeral back in 2005.
The Reverend Charles Waldegrave who was the preacher at the funeral spoke about the kind of qualities that the man who built his house on the rock might have.
He spoke about them in the context of my father’s life but they apply to us all – he spoke of being a person of compassion, of integrity, of acting with others’ interests at heart, of building your life on prayer and worship.
My father never attended bible study groups or a prayer group but he attended church every week - I described him as a very economic Christian – eucharist and a good sermon were enough to set him up for the week.
And he acted on what he heard – he looked out for others at work, he volunteered in community activities, he grew vegetables so he could give them away, he had a great sense of humour, he was quiet and gentle, and yet very firm and clear in his beliefs, his politics.
And Charles said while he certainly built his house on the rock of faith and family and community he would be the first to help his neighbour whose house turned out to be built on sand.
That was an aspect of this parable I had never really thought about. I had read it as two opposing or contrasting positions – rock vs sand and never the twain shall meet.
And yet of course would Jesus not be the first to say – how will you act towards the person whose house is built on sand.
Will you stand by and say – well you should have built on rock – I did – why didn’t you? or – fancy not taking out insurance – what a fool – or will you go across and say – come and stay at my house tonight, there is room for you.
So the dichotomy and division of this story falls away.
Yes we should build our houses our lives on rock – on the rock of faith, of whanau, of community, of love, prayer, compassion – in order that we might reach across the flood waters and invite our neighbour to bed down for the night.
And then share something of what we know and what we have with them.
Today we celebrate our partnership as tikanga, and te pouhere, the constitution of our church.
We celebrate the work our church, and the work our forbears have done to build the haahi, and to give us the best foundation for our life as church.
We honour the many years of prayer and work which gives us our church today.
We give thanks that we can partner together as neighbours and family across the separations of culture and nations.
The prophet Isaiah warns us that there are those who do not see and do not hear what the whole of creation is witness to – that the Lord is God and the mountains and the seas bear witness to God’s glory.
And God will cry out in frustration, like a woman in labour, at the indifference of the people who turn away and do not care.
We celebrate our partnership today because we share a faith in the one God, the creator of all, the son who redeems us and the spirit who dwells in each one of us, te matua, te tama me te wairua tapu.
I will always think of my father when I read this passage and give thanks for the rock of faith that he built our family on.
You will all have models of faith you look to as well – whether whanau or other people in your lives.
Give thanks for them today, for our tipuna in faith and for our church.
“brightness, a flashing forth, and a fire”….this is how the 11th Century theologian and mystic, Hildergard of Bingen imagined of the Trinity.
Today is Trinity Sunday!
Tackling the theology of the Trinity may be some form of madness! The tomes that have been written on it are innumerable, complex and often unfathomable! As one writer puts it , any human attempts to define the Divine is like trying to catch water in a net!
Nevertheless, the Doctrine of the Trinity cannot be easily dismissed nor deemed irrelevant for today. The Trinity is not dependent upon the Creeds, nor is it replaceable by Kingdom of God theology. As Carter Heyward and other contemporary theologians have developed it, in modern form, it is all about the mutuality and connectedness of God as dynamic community. The actions of creating, redeeming, and life giving have to be held together in some sort of image. How else are we to name our experiences of mutuality, connectedness and communion? I love the words Carter Heyward uses when she says..we are involved in this Trinitarian(radically relating) “godding”- all creatures are part of the ongoing processes of life and liberation in the world.
In the 12th Century, Meister Eckhart provides us with his very radical understanding of the Trinity. He invites us to let go our images and language for God, which he calls incomplete. He asks us to stop thinking of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, because they are images and therefore contain elements of illusion and limitation, of projection and externalization. Instead he says “I pray to God to rid me of God”.
He speaks of creativity; of the Trinity giving birth in us of being, knowing and doing.
He goes beyond the idea of relatedness…and speaks of Union, Oneness and of melting.
Within Celtic Christianity, there is a long and deep tradition of using the symbolism of the Trinity, especially within their prayers and blessings:
The Three in One and One in Three (St. Patrick’s Breastplate)
So how did this idea of the Holy Trinity begin to evolve within our Christian tradition? The first generation of Christians after Jesus’s death remained Jewish, so they were not Trinitarians. It was Gentile Christianity which developed the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. The earliest hints of it are in Paul’s writings: he uses the words “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.” At this point is not yet a trinity formation but rather a collection of three experiences, brought together in close association…
In our Gospel reading for today, from the story teller, Matthew, we find the same three elements occurring together, in what was becoming the baptismal formula –“baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”. This can only be understood as a very tenuous link to the so-called doctrine of the Holy Trinity. It is very unlikely that these instructions to the disciples are actually from the lips of Jesus. It is evident from the rest of his teachings and sayings that he had no plan to launch a world mission.These words are much more likely to be those of the early Christian movement after the death of Jesus.
Just as the early Christian movement struggled to put words to their ongoing experiences and understandings of Jesus, so we too have our different ways of apprehending and naming our lived experiences, our understandings of God .What we do know about doing theology is that we must never make something absolute out of what is dynamic and evolving.
Leading New Testament Scholars have undertaken penetrating research into the gospel texts to uncover much of the authentic words of the historical Jesus. Among these is the theologian John Dominic Crossan who presents us with a very human Jesus…a prophetic Jesus, with a political edge. A compassionate and justice-making Jesus, whose core narrative is the Kingdom of God.
The theology of the Kingdom of God does not replace the doctrine of the Trinity but it gives us another dimension for exploring Jesus’s understanding of relatedness in community and of mutuality.
The Kingdom of God is an English translation and it is masculine (from the Greek New Testament word Basileia, feminine). Jesus’s home language was one or other versions of Arabic. The use of the words Kingdom of God significantly reduces the originality and dynamism of what Jesus was onto. Crossan suggests a closer translation would be: the companionship of empowerment!.... This brings it alive! …it’s about co-creating communities and networks through which justice, healing, forgiveness and empowering companionship can happen.
Today, after our worship, we will have an open gathering to create a space for dialogue about companionship of empowerment and compassionate caring within our community of faith and beyond. A pastoral care group will begin to take more shape today but coming along to have an ongoing conversation will not be in any way be understood as an intention to become part of the pastoral team.
Sadly the idea of pastoral care has become rather imprisoned in the pastoral counselling movement. This approach has brought with it some excellent skills, ways to be present and to listen, but it has also become somewhat reduced to something of a case- work theology. I think it is important to address this disconnect from our rich theological heritage. There is a need to explore different paradigms of pastoral care. It needs to be an approach which is psychologically informed by contemporary research in human relatedness. It needs to have some good practical wisdom, safe practice with an awareness of good boundaries. It needs to address the inherent dangers of power imbalance.It needs to be grounded in the context of our community of faith… which is urban, non-geographical, with the City Mission as our neighbours.
Here at St Matthews we stand in a deep tradition of justice-making compassionate action… May the dynamism and relatedness of the Holy Trinity and the companionship of empowerment be with us, now and always! Amen!
“What language shall I borrow” was a phrase that kept popping into my head this week as I reflected on the Pentecost story. Not being able to recall where I had heard the phrase I googled and found it comes from the Good Friday hymn – O scared head sore wounded – “What language shall I borrow to thank thee, dearest friend, for this thy dying sorrow, thy pity without end?” And it is a phrase borrowed from that hymn for numerous books and articles about hymn writing, and theological language.What language shall I borrow to express faith, what language, what words can describe what I might want to say about God, about faith?The disciples at Pentecost found they needed to borrow a few languages; their own language, was not enough, they needed more.
In our time in the late 90s living in Canada we learned a lot about the politics of language. The politics of Quebec and the struggle to maintain the Quebec identity in the dominant English culture was a passionate subject. In Ottawa the politics of language ruled supreme – all our friends who were public servants had to be proficient in French to rise above a certain level in the public service. So they would go off on 3 month long courses paid for by the taxpayer to improve their French. In any public events French and English would be spoken and not translated, the expectation was that you would understand. On our first summer holiday we traveled to northern Quebec to the Lac St Jean and didn’t hear a word of English all week.
We went to a nearby town on a rainy day to do some shopping and the very helpful shop assistant turned cold on me when I switched from French and spoke to our girls in English. She simple walked away and stopped serving me! To speak English was to belong to the English oppressor who wouldn’t give Quebec independence.
In the Anglican church of Canada there is not a word of French in their prayer book and no translation of the book into French! To have translated their new prayer book in the 90s would have been interpreted as an act of political support for the independence of Quebec. Instead they use a translation done by the Americans of their Book of Common Prayer.
Language is a core part of our identity. In Aotearoa we have learned just in time that speaking te reo is foundational to our identity as a nation. And in our church we always use te reo to remind us who we are; we were a Maori church before we were a settler – pakeha church, bi-culturalism and being a people of two languages is who we are.
The disciples we are told could communicate with the multi cultural, multi lingual crowds – Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of unpronounceable places like Phrygia and Pamphylia.
Now we don’t really understand this Pentecost event as a literal event. It rather describes the remarkable job the disciples did in the early days of the church sharing the gospel and spreading the faith. So passionate were they about being followers of the Way that they overcame all barriers of communication and culture and enthused others with their faith, their energy. The Pentecost event is also a reversal of the Tower of Babel myth in Genesis chapter 11 where God scatters the people who until then had one common language, and gives them different languages because they try to build a tower “with its top in the heavens” (Gen 11:4).
Peter quotes the prophet Joel to describe what will happen after Pentecost, after the tower of Babel is reversed – young and old, women and men, slaves and free will see visions and dream dreams (Acts 2:17-21). Dream of a better world and a new way of being in relationship with each other. A world where God’s presence is felt and the Spirit appears as wind and fire, a world where God is present with the people and not sitting in the heavens looking down upon them.
What language do we use as bearers of the faith? Do we need to borrow another’s language or is our own sufficient? Much of the language of our church and liturgy is ancient – Pentecost, eucharist, acolyte, baptism – ancient words from another culture and language – yet they have become ours in our time.
We are people of the Bible, of the stories and images; we are people of the prayer book, its language, its structure, its prayers. If I say Christ is risen – you know to say – he is risen indeed – if I say the peace of Christ be with you – you say and also with you. Our liturgical and biblical language forms us as worshippers and believers.
Language is something we are very careful about at St Matthew’s. We make sure we use a variety of names for God, we use language that is inclusive of all people. We avoid hierarchical terms like Lord, we emphasise the gathering of the people around the table to be nourished.
Worship is not only about words but also about our body language and actions. We embody our worship, in standing, sitting, kneeling, processing, bowing, making the sign of the cross, eating, drinking, shaking hands at the peace, being censed with the smoke of incense.
I have been puzzled since my arrival at St Matthew’s that while we are very careful about removing the hierarchy from our language at 10am we still ask the congregation to sit in rows like an audience, the preacher preaches from on high, and we move up to the high altar for communion leaving behind the altar we have gathered at, along with a number of the congregation who cannot manage the stairs. There is a dissonance here that I think we can usefully explore in the coming weeks.
Barbara Brown Taylor says “Worship is how the people of God practice their reliance on the Lord … we practice the patterns of our life together before God, rehearsing them until they become second nature to us … from the opening acclamation to the dismissal, every element of the service has something to teach us about our life with God and one another. Practicing them over and over again, we build up the muscles of our hearts, souls, and minds, exercising our ability to respond to the presence of the holy in our midst.”
We build up the muscles in the words that we say and sing and in the way we gather and move, in our posture for worship. And we train those muscles not for worship on its own but for the rest of our lives in our families and jobs and communities. Here we practice compassion, justice, reflection, listening, receiving, offering, gathering, praying, worshipping, serving, so that on Monday we can be compassionate, work for justice, listen, receive, offer, gather, pray, worship and serve in our workplaces, in our homes and with our neighbours.
The disciples were given new languages not for their own faith formation but for the communicating of faith to others. The purpose of Pentecost was not to build up the core of believers but to share the good news of the gospel with others. Today’s Pentecost is you and me in our workplaces, schools, families and community groups. We don’t have to borrow another’s language or learn a new language – our own faith, our own life with the Holy Spirit is sufficient.
So what language will we borrow on this day of Pentecost, this day of many languages? We do not need to borrow another’s language, we need instead to rediscover our own, to reclaim our own faith and its words and actions. Pentecost is about moving outwards, sharing ourselves with others, offering the peace of Christ in the midst of all we do.
Peace, paix, rangimarie are the words and actions the world needs.
And it is in order to proclaim that essential Pentecostal truth, to be part of the miracle of communication and understanding, to share the peace which the world cannot give, that the Spirit sends us out today.
 The Preaching Life, p.64.&.68, 1993, Cowley Publications
In 2008 when Father Peter Murnane and two supporters undertook their now famous sabotage of the Waihopai communications base in Blenheim they almost failed after months of planning.
Peter recounts “believing we could never penetrate the electrified and alarmed security fences, we had planned to go over them, using a truck with a crane-arm. But on this rainy night, approaching our target in darkness, the truck became hopelessly bogged. With months of planning now rendered useless, my heartfelt prayer was: “God, we have nothing!” Against reason, we decided to proceed on foot to try what had seemed impossible. The alarms and electric current failed to function, so we cut through them undetected and easily deflated the huge dome. Many other people have reported praying as I prayed in that moment of hopelessness, only to find their hopes fulfilled, albeit in ways other than they had intended.”
Peter goes on to describe other times when he has felt at a complete loss and has found that praying out of emptiness brings him closer to God and leads him to discover previously unknown resources.
Images of Pope Francis praying in Palestine and Israel have flashed around the world this week – the Pope at the Separation Wall, praying under some spray paint that said “free Palestine”;
the Pope praying at the Western wall;
the Pope praying at the Holocaust memorial;
the Pope inviting the leaders to come and pray with him in Rome.
It is hard, I would think, to turn down an invitation to pray with the Pope!
I think Pope Francis would agree with Father Peter Murnane that praying from a place of emptiness and helplessness brings us closer to finding a God given way forward.
In our reading from John’s gospel today Jesus is praying. For the last couple of weeks we have been with John the gospel writer’s Jesus at the Last Supper as he prepares to farewell his disciples. And in our church cycle of Sundays we are today at the end of the Easter season. Thursday was Ascension Day which marks the end of the resurrection appearances and we are waiting, in liminal time, for the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
And as we wait Jesus prays for us.
What does it feel like to be a community for whom Jesus prays?
Through this whole section of John’s gospel Jesus talks a lot about “knowing”; knowing each other, knowing God, being called by name, being close, dwelling with God.
In today’s section Jesus asks that the disciples be protected, and that the disciples might know joy (v13). Now by the time John writes these words the disciples and the community John writes for are not feeling at all protected. They are suffering persecution and they are being cast out from the synagogue. On the face of it Jesus’ prayer has not been “answered”.
So why then does John record it? To see what it feels like to be a community for whom Jesus prays.
Jesus’ prayer is not about doing things; it is not about achieving a bucket list of things.
Remember the cheesy movie from 2003 Bruce Almighty where a TV reporter gets to be God for a day and answers yes to every prayer? and the city descends into chaos as every lottery ticket buyer wins only a few dollars as the prize is shared between everyone.
Neil Darragh says “there are many possible distortions of prayer. Prayer can be a substitute for loving action … we can use prayer in an attempt to manipulate God (or others). We can use prayer as a kind of self-indulgent effort to be righteous without responsibility for others.” Jesus’ prayer is not that kind of prayer – it is about being, not doing. Being in relationship, indwelling. Not a list of things we might want; and not a list of things we want to change in other people (especially not that one).
Prayer is about being in the presence of God and allowing God to dwell within us.
Prayer is about enlivening our awareness of God and the world around us.
So what does it feel like to be a community for whom Jesus prays?
The gospel writer we call John was obviously comfortable with the fact that the hearers and readers of his gospel did not expect to literally feel “protected” from persecution because of Jesus’ prayer – otherwise he wouldn’t have written it that way – the protection he is praying about is a protection from despair, from losing heart in the face of moving forward without the physical Jesus with them; protection from losing heart and losing faith altogether.
What did Pope Francis say in his prayer at the Separation wall I wonder, and what did he pray at the Holocaust memorial? I imagine his prayer was a deeply felt cry of sorrow and shame at humanity’s inhumanity, and another cry for God to be present, to indwell the hearts of the leaders and the people of Palestine and Israel, to turn their hearts towards peace. He did not pray alone, he had invited a Muslim and a Jewish leader from Argentina to travel with him and pray with him. A powerful symbol of reaching out across the divides of faith and of not presuming to do this alone. How will God “answer” the Pope’s prayer? By continuing to dwell in the hearts and minds of all the people of Palestine and Israel, in their mosques, in their synagogues, in their churches, and on their streets and in their homes.
Pope Francis would know today’s prayer from John’s gospel well.
He knows what it feels like to be a community for whom Jesus prays.
How do we respond to Jesus’ prayer?
Remembering that his prayer is about being and not doing. We are invited in this liminal time to make space for God. To allow ourselves to be aware of the God who is beyond us and within us.
For some people prayer is awareness; for some people prayer is words – their own words or the words others have written, like the psalmists crying out to God, or words passed down in our Anglican tradition. Words can never quite sum up our longing for God so we listen to music and look at the beauty of creation. Or we can listen to Jesus who prays for us that we might be protected and that we might be one. We can create space and listen to his prayer, prayed for us. Jan Richardson is an American writer and this is her poem for today about Jesus who leaves us and prays for us.
It is a mystery to me
how as the distance
between us grows,
the larger this blessing
As if the shape of it
depends on absence,
as if it finds its form
not by what
it can cling to
but by the space
As this blessing
makes its way,
first it will cease
to measure itself
Then it will release
how attached it has become
to this place
where we have lived,
where we have learned
to know one another
in proximity and
Next this blessing
in which it moved,
the habits that helped it
the familiar pathways
that it traced.
Finally this blessing
will touch its fingers
to your brow,
to your eyes,
to your mouth;
it will hold
your beloved face
in both its hands
it will let you go,
it will loose you
into your life,
it will leave
each hindering thing
until all that breathes
and all that beats
is grace. 
 “Praying in emptiness” in Journeying into Prayer ed Neil Darragh 2012 Accent Publications, p136
As I won’t be back up here for a while, today feels significant to me. I do fear you might expect that considering that I should say something particularly wise or insightful or inspiring or memorable. But don’t get your hopes up.
In an effort to give it a go, I Googled “last words of famous people” for some clues.
Julius Caesar was good at casting guilt, “Et tu, Brute?” Churchill, a master of using the English language to inspire, yawned, “I’m bored with it all.” Film-producer Louis B. Mayer must have just watched a lot of his old B-movies. His final credits were, “Nothing matters. Nothing matters.” Elizabeth the First wasn’t ready to go, “All my possessions for a moment of time.” Oscar Wilde wins the gong for the funniest exit line, “Either that wallpaper goes or I do.” Charles Foster Kane was more mysterious. “Rosebud,” he whispered. Jesus, depending on the Gospel, had several closing lines “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” or “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” or “It is finished.” But Pancho Villa was most helpful, by setting my bar low, “Don’t let it end like this. Tell them I said something.”
It isn’t easy to sum up a long journey, be it a lifetime or the last nine years at St Matthew’s, in a few words. In today’s Gospel John gives Jesus four chapters to do it with his disciples. We call them his Farewell Discourses. We know Jesus said none of it. There are none of his hallmark pithy sayings and parables in John.
These discourses are John’s effort to summarise what he sees following in the Way of Jesus is all about. It is a new vision of Christianity when it is clear the old expectations that Jesus would return shortly in glory to redeem them are not in the cards. While Jesus is speaking to his disciples, in truth John is speaking to his community 65 to 70 years after the crucifixion. They are struggling with the reality of persecution. They are experiencing the pain of separation, not only from Jesus by that point in history, but perhaps more poignantly from the synagogue from which they have so recently been excommunicated.
This community could not begin to envision what the church would become. That it would some day build cathedrals and basilicas. Have dominance over the empire. Become the cultural norm in large parts of the world. They were living in a time where past hopes of their faith had not been realised and were wondering how to understand their faith in light of the new reality that Jesus wasn’t coming back soon or later.
John wants the community to hear a word from Jesus about a new understanding of a god who seeks transformation not redemption. His message is God is part of you and you are a part of God. This mystical and mutual indwelling is creating a new understanding of what it means to be human. Mutual indwelling is not to be understood as an authority-subject relationship, a master-slave relationship or even a saviour-sinner relationship. It is rather a startling, new way by which we are to understand the divine and our selves. John abandons God from above the sky. That God has now entered life. We know because we met the divine in Jesus.
We who have met Jesus now understand the divine resides in us as well. John has Jesus beseech us not to cling to him as the only source of the divine, but to look inwards. We are no less divine than he is. Claim our oneness with God and let that guide us.
In today’s reading, which the church is using to foretell the coming of the Holy Spirit to establish the church on Pentecost, was not about that at all. It was a statement of how we live henceforth knowing we are in God and God is in us. John is telling his community to rise to a new level of responsibility, a new maturity. The man Jesus isn’t going to rescue you. All of you are lives in whom and through whom the divine can live and work. Jesus simply showed you it could be done. Claim and engage that divine within you and new doors will open leading you into all truth. You are the bread of life, you are the living water, you are the good shepherd and you are the source of resurrection. Grasp the spirit and share it. Be who you are and in the process free others to be who they are.
In reflection on these last words I wondered what John might have Jesus need to tell us today? Would it be different? Yes, it is nearly 2000 years later and a lot of dogma has flowed under the ecclesiastical bridge since then. Jesus has subtly been transmogrified from being a doorway to understanding our own divinity to being the gateway to sharing the godhead with him. We have been convinced that control of who gets through that gate is in the hands of the church. This Christ has become dominant and we must be submissive. We are no longer the body of Christ; the institution we call Church with all its trappings of power is. We must submit to its rules and authorities to be part of something John’s Jesus tells us we already are. Of course, some don’t even have the option to submit to be acceptable, if the institution deems them beyond the pale, as we were reminded last week with the General Synod’s failure to fully accept the LGBTI community.
The world has changed a wee bit since John’s Jesus’ last words, and so has our knowledge of it. While in some ways it seems more civilised and in many places more democratic and freer, powers and principalities still oppress us. The oppressors are multi-national corporations who are now able to sue or control by economic leverage sovereign states for their profit. They are the 1% who rig the game so they can control 10% of this country’s wealth while the bottom 50% control only 5% of it. They are white males who deprive women of the rights to control their bodies or earn an equal wage for the same work. They are those who demonise unions and make it more difficult for them to organise for fair and just wages. They are those who blame the poor for their plight while depriving them of the means to change it. They are those who think it is acceptable that 275,000 Kiwi kids live in poverty while they send theirs to the best schools. They are those who discourage us to vote while they buy our representatives. But most importantly, they are those who think it is their God-given right to dominate and they are those of us who think it is acceptable to submit to them.
This week I have been following the Sir Douglas Robb lectures at Auckland University. Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson have spoken about what their research tells us about the effects of income inequality on all aspects of society. Not surprising, it is clear that the more inequality that exists in a society the greater its health and social problems are. But what struck me most is the spiritual consequence of inequality.
Dr Pickett pointed out that the naïve view of income equality says it “only matters if it creates poverty or if income differences seem unfair.” But she argues that a more accurate view “is that inequality brings out features of our evolved psychology to do with dominance and subordination, superiority and inferiority, which affect how we treat each other. Inequality increases status competition and status insecurity. It increases anxiety about self-worth and intensifies worries about how we are seen and judged – whether as attractive or unattractive, interesting or boring, etc.” It creates anxieties that keep us from being still and knowing that we are God and so is our neighbour.
So no, I don’t think John has to change his message. We just need to claim and own our oneness with the god within and frankly we’d better do so pretty soon. If not, as with climate change, we may reach the point when it is too late to reverse its devastating effects. Whenever we submit to oppressive powers or institutions out of fear or hope of temporal gain we betray our divine nature, each other and our planet. Jesus showed us a different way: Strive not to dominate or submit but to be fully who we are. It is the only way. It leads to loving wastefully and living abundantly and perhaps to a more equal society. And that is my last word. I hope I have said something.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled”… If we had stuck to the lectionary this reading would have been the reading at my induction service on 1 May.
But Bishop Jim and I didn’t think it was a very encouraging start to a new ministry “do not let your hearts be troubled”!
It is however perhaps an appropriate reading for today as across the church we absorb the decisions of our General Synod on same gender blessings.
“Do not let you hearts be troubled” will be being preached in different ways in the pulpits of our churches this morning.
This passage from John is often read at funerals; it is heard as a reassurance for those mourning – there are many rooms in my Father’s house and I go there to prepare a place for you. It is seen as a reassurance about heaven, and life after death.
The context in which we use scripture so often colours our thinking about a passage –
John the gospel writer did not have funerals in mind when he wrote these words.
“Do not let you hearts be troubled” is not actually about sadness at a funeral, but about deep distress, fear, and agitation in the face of persecution and suffering.
It is the outrage we feel at the sentencing to death of Meriam Ibrahim for being a Christian in the Sudan, it is the outrage we feel as we wait for the return of the Nigerian schoolgirls.
Jesus is telling the disciples to stand fearless in the face of persecution, as he will stand fearless in the face of death.
He tells them there are many rooms, or many places to dwell in his Father’s house – and again this is not about heaven – but John the gospel writer’s core theology of being in relationship with God.
The awkward translation “dwelling places” is trying to get at the double meaning of the word as a place, and as a metaphor for the “indwelling of the Holy Spirit”.
John’s theology is all about Jesus being the incarnation of God “In the beginning was the word and the word was with God” (John 1:1).
For John, Jesus is God in the world, right there in the flesh.
So when Thomas, ever practical, who can’t think in images or metaphors, says “we do not know the way to this house, where are you going, get the map out and show us the way.”
Jesus replies – I am the way – I know God, God dwells in me, and God dwells in you too, because you have known me.
Exasperated Philip joins in “show us the Father and we will be satisfied” just show us already! where, how , what, on the map, in a place.
Jesus, rather exasperated, says “Have I been with you all this time and still you do not know me?”
Knowing, abiding, dwelling, being in relationship; these are the things John writes about.
There are many rooms in my Father’s house; there are multiple ways to be with God because this is about relationship, not about a physical place.
The disciples know Jesus, he has said to them: abide in me as I abide in you; be with me, walk with me, to the cross, and you will know God.
The line “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” has been used over the centuries as an exclusive line, to exclude other religions, and to claim Jesus as The (only) Way to God.
Many a bumper sticker has been sold with Jesus the way printed on it.
But again the context we use scripture in can distort the original context –
Gail O’Day says “this is not the sweeping claim of a major world religion, but the conviction of a religious minority in the ancient Mediterranean world. These verses are the confessional celebration of a particular faith community, convinced of the truth and life it has received in the incarnation.”
John’s community hear these words after and in the midst of persecution and opposition and struggle.
And they experience the indwelling of God with them, they experience God incarnate in their lives, and they are grateful.
Our reading from Acts today describes the martyrdom of Stephen, the first martyr of our faith, a gruesome account.
But Stephen knew and proclaimed Jesus as the way he knew God.
So in our context what do we do with Jesus’ words?
We are invited to dwell with God in our lives and relationships.
We don’t have to come to a beautiful church to find God (although sometimes it helps), we are invited to find God in our workplaces, on the streets, in our families, in our struggles and joys.
When you stand up to a bully at work or school you are following the Jesus way;
when you volunteer your services at the City Mission or on a school committee or board you are following the Jesus way.
When you cook dinner for your family and love your kids even when they do unlovable things you are following the Jesus way.
When you step up to lead as a member of the Vestry of our parish you are following the Jesus way.
The Jesus way is the way of offering and service, it can be quiet or it can be bold,
it may take you on a path you are unsure of,
you might want to be careful as it can lead to the cross or to stoning.
Our General Synod which met this week looks on the surface to have chosen a careful version of the Jesus Way.
They were examining how the church might move forward on the matter of same gender blessings and the inclusion of gay and lesbian Anglicans amongst our clergy.
The Synod has mapped out a pathway to move forward but we have to wait another two years at least for actual progress while an approved liturgy for same gender blessings is written and the implications are thought through some more.
Marriage is not yet on the table.
So that seems very slow and very disappointing.
We have waited long enough and we do not want to wait any more, yet here we are.
On the positive side, the decision to move forward was unanimous. So that means that some in the church whose views on these matters we would find repugnant, have agreed that the church can move forward.
Now in our internal church workings that is a huge step forward.
To those outside the church and those waiting it is pretty meaningless, internally it is significant.
The church has also offered an apology
All too often our Church has been complicit in homophobic thinking and actions of society, and has failed to speak out against hatred and violence against those with same-gender attraction.
We apologise unreservedly and commit ourselves to reconciliation and prophetic witness.
An apology without immediate change and action might seem a little empty, I have heard some this week welcome the apology and others see it as indeed empty words.
For some the wait in front of us will be too long and they will give up on our church and walk away.
And since God does not just dwell in the church God will walk with them.
And for those of us who hang in here and wait and push and stamp our feet for a faster pace God will walk with us as well.
And we will stand with those who continue to be hurt by the church.
If we stay in the church and wait and work for change we are forced to stay and work with those with whom we disagree, and whose ideas and theology we find oppressive and exclusive.
Jesus invited all to his table, the sinners and the tax collectors and the Pharisees.
The Jesus way includes them all.
That is hard to stomach some times but it is the Jesus way.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled” – do not be distressed but stand firm, stand tall, kia kaha.
God dwells in each and every one of us and in the people walking past our doors this morning.
Jesus invites us all to walk the Jesus way, abiding together in the many dwelling places of the house of God.
 Interpreter’s Bible vol IX p 744 Abingdon Press 1995
The image of Jesus as the shepherd is perhaps one of the most well known in history. Paintings, statues, sculptures, some of the earliest frescoes from the catacombs in Rome depict Jesus as a shepherd. The 23rd psalm which the Singers will sing at the conclusion of this sermon is certainly the best known psalm. The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…
Somehow Jesus as a shepherd has become a soft image in our collective minds – maybe it is the cute woolly lambs, or the image of a handsome Jesus, long hair, standing on a hill with his shepherd’s crook; it all seems romantic and rustic and bucolic.
In reality shepherds were a tough bunch – as they are today – living and working outdoors in all weathers; keeping their sheep safe from wolves and rustlers; finding water and pasture for them in a very dry Palestine; making sure they grew ready for market.
The prophet Ezekiel picks up the strength of the shepherds when he accuses the leaders of the day of not being shepherds to the people.
“Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals. My sheep were scattered, they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill; my sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with no one to search or seek for them.” (34:2-6)
The prophet rails for some time about how the leaders have failed the people and how God will now step in and be the shepherd.
When Jesus picks up the metaphor of the shepherd his listeners would recognise the well known Old Testament passages such as Ezekiel.
And Jesus continues the theme of criticising the leaders, this time the Pharisees, for their lack of care and at times their abuse of the people.
This passage we read this morning in John follows directly on from the story of the healing of the blind man, during which Jesus offers a strong critique of the Pharisees.
Jesus barely catches a breath before he is after them again, upping the temperature levels by calling them thieves and bandits.
They are the ones who climb the walls of the sheepfold at night and steal the sheep. They come to “steal and kill and destroy”.
This strong language has another layer to it – during the siege of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 AD (which is prior to when John wrote his gospel) the “Sheep Gate” , was one of the gates blocked by the revolutionaries who were fighting the Romans.
As the Roman troops closed in the extremist Jewish fighters would not let the people hiding in the Temple escape to safety. There was no shepherd to lead them out through the gate. The gate was locked. This memory was seared into the minds of those who did eventually escape the slaughter and leave Jerusalem to the sacking Romans.
One commentator  says the word translated “bandit” in this passage actually means “insurrectionist” or “revolutionary”. We might use the word terrorist.
The mothers of the girls kidnapped in Nigeria are praying that a shepherd might lead their girls to safety, when their own government has seemingly done nothing.
The #Bring Back our Girls campaign has drawn the world’s attention to the plight of these girls; and we pray today that they will be brought to safety.
There are hundreds of thousands, millions of other girls in our world trapped, with gates closed, in poverty, with no access to education, and no shepherds to lead them out.
The emotion and anger we feel about the girls in Nigeria gives us maybe an insight into the character of the words of John’s gospel carefully chosen to arouse the emotion and memory of the listeners of his day.
John layers all these images in his account of Jesus the Good Shepherd.
Whenever the gospel writers go after the religious leaders of their day, we who are religious leaders of today could well pay attention. We too can easily fall in behind the Pharisees who liked to make the rules, be in control, and have no doubts as to who God is or what God says and does. God says and does, what the Pharisees say God says and does. The Pharisees are the ultimate gatekeepers.
Today (Sunday May 11) the General Synod/ te Hinota Whanui of our church meets at Waitangi. This is quite a big deal. It meets only once every 2 years and gathers representatives of all our dioceses and hui amorangi, including the Diocese of Polynesia. General Synod is the place where decisions that affect the whole life of our church are made.
Tomorrow (Monday 12 May) the Synod will hear a report from the Ma Whea? Commission on Same Gender Blessings and Ordinations.  This Commission has been led by former Governor General Sir Anyand Satanyand and they have held meetings and taken submissions from all over the Province. Some of you I know were involved in presenting to them. The Commission has come back and presented the Church with 10 options – it is now like a secret Anglican code as people discuss whether they want option D or E or I.
Once they have heard the report and the debates the members of the General Synod will have the future of our church in their hands. They have a clear choice in front of them – will they close the gate? and try and keep the church locked in the 1950s or the 1850s, thinking that if they all pile up in the gate and stand there they can stop the movement for justice and inclusion of our lesbian and gay sisters and brothers which our hearts so yearn to see.
Or will they open the gate and follow Jesus, the shepherd who is calling them by name, to come out from behind their fears and prejudices, and to welcome all equally at this table and in this pulpit and at this altar to be married.
We here at St Matthew’s have long had the gates open wide and we are richer for it. And we call today on our leaders to step up, to be without fear and to allow the voice of the Shepherd to call them forward. The time of waiting is over, we will wait no longer. We will wait no longer to welcome all equally to preside at this table, to preach in this pulpit, and to be married at this altar.
Unfortunately we know that even if General Synod makes a positive move this week for the blessing of same gender unions the equality of marriage will still be a way off as that will involve complicated changes to our constitution. All the more reason for the process to get started today. And in the meantime our clergy who are already ordained and living in same gender relationships will be freed from the tyranny of double standards and those awaiting ordination can pass through the gate as well. Jesus says at the end of our passage today “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (10:10). I came not to lock people up in the Temple; I came not to lock them up in the sheepfold; I came not to tie them up in rules and outdated biblical interpretations; I came that they might have life.
Life – love, companionship, service, calling, work, joy, freedom, bread, wine, prayer, a future, hope, purpose – life in abundance.
“I came that they may have life and have it abundantly”.
In the week leading up to ANZAC Day TVOne showed the Peter Burger film “Field Punishment Number One”  about the conscientious objectors in World War One and the incredibly harsh punishments they all suffered.
It was a hard film to watch.
There is a beautiful scene though in the movie where three of the men are in prison in France.
They sit down for a lunch break from their forced hard labour and are given thick white bread to eat – not their usual fare - with the words Merry Christmas.
“So it’s Christmas day then?” one asks the guards.
And as they sit in the cold with snow almost falling one leans back and says
“oh that’s good – can you feel that sun on your face?”
Another looks puzzled for a second and then responds “Smell that pohutakawa; its great this time of year isn’t it?”
The first replies “Its tea tree – someone is smoking a trout for Christmas dinner”
“That’s what it is alright”
“no doubt about it – I’m gonna get sunburnt if I’m not careful”
The third man is looking confused and so they ask him
“what did you get in your stocking this morning?”
He gets it, interrupts and says “Listen – and they do – ah it’s the kids splashing down at the shallows – hope someone told them about the crabs!”
And the scene fades back to the ongoing ordeal of Archibald Baxter.
Our two companions walking the road to Emmaus this morning are not suffering such dire circumstances but they are in despair.
They are lost, they do not know what to do.
The one who gave them hope for the future of their people - their prophet, who seemed to be mighty in word and deed, has turned out not be so mighty after all.
What are they to do?
A mysterious stranger joins them on the road and they do not recognize him.
They do not know him.
They have known Jesus well it seems, they have listened to his teaching, but they do not recognize him now, this post resurrection Jesus is different, changed, elusive even.
This stranger listens to their tale and then does some teaching of his own, talking about Moses and the prophets, explaining perhaps that God was never going to give them the triumphant victory over the Romans they wanted. Moses might have had victory over the Egyptians but that was followed by 40 years in the wilderness, (where the people were fed with bread, manna from heaven they called it); and he explains how Elijah was chased out of town in fear for this life (and a widow gave him her last bread); and how Isaiah spoke of a servant who would suffer with the people, and not bring the victory they imagined.
Isaiah said along with the other prophets:
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house. (Isaiah 58:6-7)
Jesus taught Cleopas and his companion as they walked along and still they did not know him.
But they ask him to stay with them as the day is ending.
The word used here for “stay” is often translated “abide” in the gospels.
“Abide with us, because it is almost evening”.
John’s gospel has Jesus say “abide in me as I abide in you; abide in my love” (John 15).
The word is more than “stay”, it means: be with us, let us know you, abide with us a while.
And the stranger stays – and they gather at the table for a meal and they ask the stranger to bless the bread as was customary.
“Jesus took the bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.”
In that moment they recognize him, they see him, they know him.
And he vanishes.
Jesus took the bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them; as he did at the Last Supper; as he did in the sharing of the loaves and fish with the crowds of thousands.
These actions of taking, blessing, breaking and giving are actions Cleopas and his companion recognized; they are actions we recognize as the actions of our eucharist.
The risen Jesus is to be found now in the gathering of the community at the table, or on the beach, sharing bread and fish.
But he does not stay.
One writer says “God’s presence is always elusive, floating, dancing at the edge of our awareness and perception” .
Thomas Boomershine says:
“The reality of the resurrected Jesus’ presence is located in the memory of the listeners and in their recognition of the connections between Jesus’ liturgical gestures and the liturgical actions of the Eucharist. In these visible images, the invisible One is seen.” 
In these visible images and actions, the invisible one is seen.
Jesus does not stay physically with them, except that he is present when the people gather.
And they know him in a different way - in each other and in the bread and the wine that they share.
The prisoners in the Field Punishment movie all have moments when they feel hope and support in their times of deep despair and suffering.
The scene I described was triggered by the sharing of bread together. They took the bread offered grudgingly to them, and it became a sacrament of memory and sharing of love and life as real or even more real than the harsh conditions around them.
And then it was gone, elusive, but the hope remained in their hearts and they carried on one more day.
On Thursday I joined you, the community who gathers here at this table, on your journey, on your roads to Emmaus.
We will walk this road together for a season; it remains to be seen how elusive God is going to be.
I expect though that God will show up when we gather at the table and we take, bless, break and give the bread to each other.
I expect that God will show up when we feed the hungry and speak up for the poor and the excluded.
I expect that God will show up when we welcome people with radical hospitality to be baptized or married or buried.
I expect that God will show up in your lives of work and service and ministry in the world.
I expect that God will show up at your tables, especially when you invite a stranger to abide there.
For God is in all those places already ahead of us.
Many others will join us on the road, they will all be welcome.
We will invite them to abide a while with us.
And my prayer will be that when we gather “our hearts will burn within us” as we open the scriptures together, as we break bread together, as we pray and sing together.
Our hearts will burn with desire for our elusive God;
our hearts will burn with joy for the love we know;
our hearts will burn with anger for the sorrows and injustices of our world.
Our hearts will burn with frustration at the slowness of our church to get over itself on the issue of gay marriage.
Our hearts will burn within us.
And we will share our joys and sorrows, frustrations and celebrations.
In the Book of Acts we hear the classic description of church community life:
“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” (2:42) – it is not very complicated really and I am blessed to be beginning my walk to Emmaus with you all as companions today;
And the risen Jesus elusive, invisible, visible, is walking right beside.
Sermon for the Induction of the Reverend Helen Jacobi
May 1, 2014
The Rt Rev Jim White
Sermon for the Induction of the Reverend Helen Jacobi as Vicar of St Matthew’s-in-the-city
Feast of St Phillip and St James
Helen what a joy to be here. It is a good thing. I greet you as the one called by God to be vicar - priest, pastor, and preacher in this place. I want to say thank you to the Appointment Group who worked to discern that call.
Helen I delight in the fact that you came to a point that you felt that you could do ‘no other,’ here is where God is calling you to be.
I want to greet your friends and whanau, especially those who have travelled some distance to express their love and support of you and your ministry, I want to greet guests amongst us – although I hope you feel like you belong here and this is your place. Let me greet Episcopal Colleagues – Bishop Murray, Bishop George, Bishop John, tena koutou; and especially Pihopa o Te Tai Tokerau, Pihopa Kitohi, tena koe.
I greet the wonderful Rainbow Community Church whose home has been here for decades.
And the last shall be first; I greet the congregation of St Matthew’s - it is good to be here with you.
It could be said that it has taken an overly long time to get to this point – namely the installation of the first woman as vicar of this parish. St Matthew’s, which under the leadership of John Mullane, was a driving wheel in the advancement of ordination of women throughout the 1970’s. the ordination of women to the priesthood was a milestone that this church got to nearly forty years ago now. Forty years is usually a biblical way to say ‘a long time. It sure is good to be here now.
In need to say that it is not an entirely good thing for me to be here. I always find standing in this pulpit a daunting experience. I am very conscious of some very fine preachers who have stood here and I always suffer intense bouts of imposter syndrome as I climb the stairs. I have the most vivid image of Nelson Mandela speaking from this pulpit. And while the good and great have delivered life-giving words from here, of course it is really the week by week preaching, crafted with a care and call to be God’s people, that has contributed most to the long walk to freedom. It is right that you have been called to this pulpit Helen. You have a fine reputation as a preacher and I know you will occupy this space well.
I want to say something about St Matthew’s–in-the-City. It is such a mouthful. I’ll break the task into three, working backwards. I’ll say something about in-the-city, something about St Matthew’s and something about St Matthew.
In-the-city. How our queen city has changed! For a start in parts our city is much more welcoming of queens.
It is not just clergymen that go about in dresses. In this and many ways our city is changing for the good.
I served here over twenty years ago and at that point there were very few residents in the city; now this neighbourhood is the most densely populated region in the country. Amongst the biggest observable changes to my eyes are the children in walking buses - walking along Hobson Street and down to Freeman’s Bay Primary School. Who would have thought so many children would live right near St Matthew’s twenty years ago.
But over the years our city has changed in dramatic ways and one imagines we will face great changes ahead – not all of them planned or even foreseen.
This city, like many - and even most - western cities, will, for instance, certainly face issues for good and ill arising from increased immigration and multi-cultural communities. A question for us from here in this city (and in a sense in the city, every city) in this period of late-capitalism is: can we believe? I mean, at a time and place when apparently you can believe what you like as long as it sells, and if we take our lead from our Prime Minister, we can be pretty relaxed and sanguine about most everything, and at a time when all certainty and all defiant purpose is looked at sideways as if it were authoritarianism or sign of latent fundamentalism,
can we believe? … believe in anything good? …. let alone God? Yeats words seem most apposite
The ceremony of innocence is drowned; The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity.
Of course, it seems that one dare not utter those or any lines with too much conviction for fear that one becomes one of those “worst” who are full of passionate intensity. Such is the postmodern world we occupy and preach into. Nobody describes this better than Umberto Eco:
I think of the postmodern attitude as that of a man who loves a very cultivated woman and knows that he cannot say to her "I love you madly", because he knows that she knows (and that she knows he knows) that these words have already been written by Barbara Cartland. Still there is a solution. He can say "As Barbara Cartland would put it, I love you madly". At this point, having avoided false innocence, having said clearly it is no longer possible to talk innocently, he will nevertheless say what he wanted to say to the woman: that he loves her in an age of lost innocence.
Post-modernity can be such fun. But all the irony is so empty and therefore ultimately very troubling.
Troubling for us because we believe in the opposite; we believe in love, in a God who is love, a God in whom we live and move and have our being a God who has a purpose (a telos) for creation and for each and every one of us.
Can we believe? We must and we do believe in a good God or fundamentalism will surely fill the emptiness left by eternal irony.
Likewise in market place of the city, where captitalism is celebrated as such a wonderful egalitarian and non-elitist force, where the market can be so liberating for some, we also know that capitalism is profoundly unable to deliver adequate resources for the majority of the world’s population to flourish. We have to believe and work for something for each and enough for all.
There are two icons or images I have held in my mind as I have prepared for tonight and thought about in-the-city. One image is global the other is local. The first, the global image, really could be an icon of our time and it comes from the cover of the recent Time Magazine with the hundred most influential people in world in it.
[ I wonder Helen if you, like me, registered (and celebrated) that an Anglican priest and preacher, made it onto Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world in 2014? I should have liked to weave Barbara Brown Taylor into this sermon somehow but it will have to be another sermon. ]
Returning to the cover of the Time magazine it was Beyonce – an African American woman sensation on the cover. Hugely powerful and yet she is there because she sells in her bikini – she sells - and not sea shells on the sea shore! – but entertainment and herself for millions; and part of that selling is through the deliberate commodification of her body. The cover is a celebration and it is glorious, liberating, and troubling.
Troubling because it doesn’t really feel emancipatory. Troubling because it is an icon of the body fetish of our age; it is that fetish writ large and legitimized by the fact that it sells -or should I say, she sells, (as she sings) she is “the boss.”
The second image I have is memory of a few nights ago: I parked my car up in the carpark out front and in every doorway of this church had at least one homeless person sheltering in it. These wonderful resilient and defiant people find a home for the night in the doorways of this church. It is fantastic and tragic. These are fantastic people and I know they sometimes smell and can be unpleasant and they urinate against and under the doors and the staff here clean it up and it isn’t romantic and it is a troubling and difficult edge of life in our city pressing hard on this place. In the city where the rich and fatuous debate the overheated property market some have no home and no capital gain to speculate about. And we need to talk about, pray about, dream what kind of city we want to be part of and would amount to Thy Kingdom come
How might we respond to these images – this context?
This is where you are called to be – in-the-city - as it says on your foundation stone - – “To the glory of God.”
St Matthew’s – I want to draw the attention to the apostrophe “s.” Somewhere in recent history the apostrophe “s” got dropped and it became the fashion to say “St Matthew in the City.” Because I am married to an English teacher I get talked to a good deal about the possessive apostrophe. I’ll save you the English lesson tonight – the big point is that possessive apostrophes matter. The theology lesson is that they matter too. This place and community is named for St Matthew but it is not St Matthew. As Yoder would put it: “The Saint you are not.”
It is misplaced hubris to imply that you are the Saint. I challenge the congregation here to reflect on this and other ways you puff yourselves with excessive pride and self-congratulation. This is a hospital for broken sinners not a palace of perfected saints.
So, you are named for St Matthew let me conclude with some quick comments about St Matthew – inspired by the Gospel passage.
St Matthew was a tax collector. Unlike today, at the time of Jesus Tax men were not universally liked or admired.
They were essentially private contractors to the Roman Empire. They bid to get the role and then they added their margin when they collected. Sometimes they added big margins. Violence was part of their powers of persuasion. Extortion was not foreign to many of them. So, taxmen were not part of polite and nice society.
That Jesus called such an unlikely and unlikable person to be a follower and that Matthew followed speaks for Jesus, for the power of the Good News, and for Matthew. Here at least, and I mean ‘at least’ because it is there over and over, is the radical inclusion of the call of Jesus. All have a place in the kingdom of God, even the most marginalized and the most despised belong. A community that takes seriously and prayerfully its naming for St Matthew will surely find itself following Christ out onto the uncomfortable edges and into the midst of disquiet over and over. It is surely your calling to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” You do this because of the good news you know in Christ. St Matthew’s has done this for years and years on many edges and issues - many that now seem so mainstream. Some will recall that this was one heck of place to be during the 1981 Springbok Tour and now, well, now it seems everyone protested against the tour. I applaud you I give thanks for St Matthew and those who bear his name.
So, St Matthew’s in-the-City. A new chapter in your life and a new priest, pastor, preacher to partner you in ministry and mission. It is good to be here tonight. Thanks be to God who calls us.
Gracious God, open our hearts and our minds. Give us the wisdom to believe what we have seen and what we cannot see. Help us to follow you with open-eyed faith. Lent, Holy Week and Easter Day have come and gone. The beauties of the labyrinth, the music, the glorious music of last week are now a wonderful sustaining memory. Our numerous services readings and hymns which make Easter worship such a festive celebration are complete. To Dmitry and our singers we are so appreciative of your beautiful music and you all deserve a rest today. Michael, thank you for being with us this morning. Even our weather has changed in a week, summer is over, the days are shorter and the temperature is dropping. The autumnal colours have arrived; our garden has red and yellow hues getting darker each day.
Our Easter holiday is now over and most of us have returned to work. For those of us so involved with the special services of Holy Week and Easter it’s time to settle back into our more usual routine. We now walk through the fifty days of Eastertide. This is a time of reflection; confrontation with the everyday; a time of transformation. Today we meet the disciples, still in Jerusalem, frightened, mourning their teacher and friend has been crucified, which was an undignified death, given only to those who challenge the ruling imperial hierarchy of Rome. It seems strange that the disciples haven’t left Jerusalem and returned to the relative safety of Galilee. It seems they just don’t know what to do. Their beloved friend and teacher is no longer with them; they have no leader to guide them; they are full of fear and uncertainty. This fear and uncertainty we can relate to. It is the fear that comes with change and with change comes uncertainty. Change in leadership, change in the way we operate in our daily lives all leads to fear from some of the unknown and hope for others of a new beginning.
In John’s Gospel, Thomas is mentioned only three times, he is not a major disciple. In chapter 14 however when Jesus says, “I go to prepare a place for you…You know the way to the place where I am going” it is Thomas the pragmatist who replies truthfully, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going; how can we know then the way”(14:5). And earlier in chapter 11, when Jesus speaks of going back to Judea, Thomas knows that for Jesus to return to Jerusalem is to go to his death. Thomas was not a fool. He counted the costs before making a decision. Nevertheless, it is he who bravely urges the others to follow Jesus: “let us go also, that we may die with him.”(11:16)
In this light Thomas’ reaction to the news of the risen Christ should not be surprising. For Thomas’ reality had come just days earlier in the form of a cross, when his teacher and friend had been crucified; when he had fled and deserted Jesus.
Thomas doubted and has been labelled “Doubting Thomas” for thousands of years. However, after the resurrection, all the disciples doubted. They doubted the women’s story that the tomb was empty, calling it idle talk. It took seeing Jesus for them to be convinced that the women had to see either Jesus or an angel. Thomas doubted but once he saw, he believed. Not only did Thomas confess the living Christ, he backed it up with the rest of his life. The early church no longer viewed him as ‘Doubting Thomas’ but ‘Missionary Thomas’, with historical stories or legend telling us that he preached as far as India.
What would life be like without doubt?
The opposite of doubt is certainty. Give someone certainty and there can be no room for faith, for faith is hope in what is not seen. We can live faith for it is open, endless and eternal. Give someone certainty and we risk sowing the seeds of arrogance and bigotry. The theologian Paul Tillich says, “Doubt is not the opposite of faith; it is one element of faith. Faith is an act of a finite being who is grasped by and has turned to the infinite.”
The first person to confess the divinity of Christ was Doubting Thomas. He refused to believe the disciples when they told him that they had seen Jesus. It’s the questioners and doubters, the ones who are puzzled and unsure, who keep the faith of the Church alive, and open the way for encounters with the risen Christ. Gregory the Great said of Thomas, “His scepticism was more advantageous to us than the faith of the disciples who believed.”
On Friday we as a nation along with Australia commemorated ANZAC Day. This is a day to remember our young men who went to “fight for King and Country” on the other side of the world. When they were fighting that terrible battle at Gallipoli there were many who must have been doubters, as was Thomas. Why and for whom were they fighting? This battle was not a great battle of the Great War but it lasted nine months and 2721 New Zealanders, roughly one fifth of those who fought on Gallipoli, lost their lives 99 years ago. We remember this day as a symbol of our national identity when we were recognised as New Zealanders.
This Thursday our 19th vicar Helen Jacobi will be inducted into this parish. Our first female vicar! Alleluia!
The circumstances surrounding Helen’s appointment has been met with doubt and fear of the change and the possible implications for us as a progressive community of faith. It was the same fear of change and the unknown that gripped the disciples. Fear of change and doubt are very normal human emotions. Without these reactions we would not confront those things in our society and community that need to be changed. We would accept the status quo, which is not something that St Matthew in the City is known for.
Easter is a time of transformation, a time to confront our doubt, being open to encountering our faith and accepting what we cannot see. As Jesus said in the upstairs room “… Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”(John 20:29). It is about taking a new path or reacquainting ourselves with a forgotten path as we journey towards finding the grace of God.
This story is not about Thomas’ doubt; rather it is about an encounter with the grace of God which has been embodied, enfleshed, in Jesus Christ. When he is confronted by God’s grace, Thomas is confronted by a whole new reality. This is what Easter means - that we are forever transformed people. Easter isn’t just a celebration it’s a way of life.
Easter is always a joyful occasion. It is at the heart of our Christian faith. But it is shrouded in a mystery laced with questions. Preachers struggle with how to speak of it in a meaningful way. This is especially true for us on a progressive Christian path.
There are a number of retired clergy who worship here because they have moved beyond the traditional doctrines of the church. Their understanding of faith has evolved. They come here because we are a place that encourages thinking outside the box in which the church has put God and Jesus. I’d like to tell you about one of them today because I know he isn’t here. He has told us that we will see him most Sundays but never on Easter. His reason is that he has never been able to swallow the “dead man walking” understanding of Easter and “he died for our sins” interpretation of the cross.
He knows that I have repudiated both of those ideas many times but he also knows that I face a dilemma today. How can I remain “Christian” and turn my back on the central story of our faith? How can I as a representative of an institution that has 2000 years of history, and which is littered with faith statements formulated when the world was quite different, be intellectually honest and relevant to the world in which we live and yet stay connected to our tradition?
It isn’t easy, so I sweat blood over my Easter sermons. For, to paraphrase Paul, if the resurrection didn’t happen, why have we gone to all this trouble to be here today?
We like to claim that Christianity started organised, that Jesus organised it, and that it has been getting more and more organised over time.
It’s true that Jesus was a superb community organiser, but he was not a particularly committed institution builder. That wasn’t what his ministry was about. And it’s not really what his message was about.
Napoleon Bonaparte once met with an important cardinal. He grew increasingly frustrated with him as the meeting progressed. He finally erupted, saying, “May I remind you, your eminence, that I have the power to destroy the Church?”
To his surprise, the cardinal shrugged ruefully and then replied, “Your majesty, why should you be able to achieve what thousands of clergy have been attempting and failing at for nearly two thousand years?”
The church is too often tone deaf to the music of Jesus. Instead, the church wants Jesus to dance to its own tune.
That wasn’t what Jesus had in mind.
There is no evidence Jesus was trying to establish a new organised religion. Just a quick skimming of the Gospels makes pretty clear that Jesus wasn’t a fan of organised believing. He flouted its rules and challenged its assumptions. It didn’t make him very popular with the priests. Still, he didn’t seem to be bothered by what the religious thought of him, even though he knew that they couldn’t tolerate indefinitely his defiance of their presumed authority.
While Jesus had no love of organised religion, he did seem to have a place in his heart for a disorganised one. The Jesus Movement was a disorganised band of pilgrims, fluid and ragged, seeking the new way of being they saw in Jesus but did not fully understand.
So, if you are here this morning harbouring doubts in the back of your mind about organised religion, then perhaps, like Jesus himself, you may find that you still have a spot in your heart for disorganised religion.
If that’s the case, then maybe, just maybe, the Jesus movement is for you.
But movements are funny. They don’t just gather steam, like a locomotive, chugging towards the future. They’re more like sailboats in a variable breeze. They glide and then stop dead. They are always changing direction, looking for the next gust of wind.
And people don’t just climb aboard and stay there. Most movements include people who come and go. Some come only for a season or two. Some leave and come back—Peter himself seems to have been a little like that. And the disillusionment of Judas was such that he all but brought the whole movement down with him when he decided it was time for him to depart.
We don’t know exactly what happened after Jesus was executed. We only have Paul’s account written about 20 years after it happened and the four Gospel accounts, the earliest of which was written about 40 years after Jesus died. They vary in some significant ways. Paul doesn’t give us the story of the resurrection, he just testifies that the Risen Christ appears to individuals and groups over time. In the original version of Mark there are no resurrection appearances at all, only an empty tomb. The witnesses vary, as does the location. Did the Risen Christ appear in Galilee or Jerusalem? Did he appear in bodily form or in a more mystical way? The earliest tradition suggests the latter. When did it happen? Mark says he was raised in three days, which would have been Monday. Luke and Matthew revise that, saying he was raised on the third day, which would have been Sunday, the day the early Movement celebrated the day of resurrection. Yet in John, after appearing to Mary Magdalene, Jesus didn’t show himself to ten of the disciples until a week later, and to Thomas who proclaimed him “My Lord and My God” until a week after that.
Since no one can prove me wrong, here is my theory about the first Easter. I believe our ragged little band of his followers were so shocked by what happened to Jesus, which was the last thing they expected, they took off for the Galilean hills, terrified. They returned sheepishly to their homes and resumed their former lives, perhaps with friends and family sniggering at them for being such suckers for another false messiah.
But once the shock wore off they struggled to make sense of their experience. They did this by scouring the scriptures where they came to see Jesus more in the mould of Isaiah’s suffering servant than a King David returning to conquer the Romans.
They remembered Rabbinical teachings that had been around for a century that spoke of a suffering Messiah named Simon who would die a bloody and violent death, but whom the angel Gabriel said God would resurrect in three days that he might liberate Israel.
They also lived in a Greco-Roman world that had many folk tales and myths about gods that died and were resurrected: Osiris in Egypt, Dionysius in Greece, Attis in Asia Minor, Adonis of Syria, Bacchus in Italy and Mithras in Persia, to name just a few. An interesting point about these gods is that when they were resurrected they came back disguised but bore marks that revealed their identity, not unlike the nail holes and spear wound Jesus would show Thomas.
Based on my experience of how we humans process major shifts in our lives, I agree with those scholars who think that it took six months to a year for his key disciples to experience the Easter moment. I also think the story of the Road to Emmaus explains how they experienced the risen Christ. You will remember that two disciples not mentioned previously realised they had encountered the risen Christ after a meal where the stranger took, blessed, broke and shared bread with them. It was in loving fellowship around a meal that many might have experienced their Easter Moment.
When those moments occurred, this ragtag Jesus Movement began to discover that hate had not killed love. That the God they experienced in Jesus was in them. Love and compassion could not be dominated or destroyed, even by Rome. When they discovered this they were transformed and had to tell the world about it. These fearful followers suddenly found that there were worse things to be afraid of than death, specifically not being fully alive.
Yes, this Movement began a long ago time in a very different world. But our humanity has remained much the same. We still live in fear. We still know exploitation and oppression. We still know alienation from each other, the divine, and our selves. We still face our Golgothas, where we feel forsaken. We still need to love and be loved. When we discover that we are one with the same source of love as Jesus, then we know our Easter Moment has arrived. We have joined that ragtag Movement. Then we can proclaim, Alleluia. I am risen. I am risen indeed. Alleluia!
We have gathered together tonight as have our Christian ancestors for over two millennia to wait in hopeful anticipation. Tonight we connect with the spirits of those ancestors as we remember and take part in the most ancient of Christian liturgies and sing the most ancient of Christian songs and wait the most ancient of Christian waits. We wait for resurrection.
We occupy a very sacred space tonight, an in-between space - a liminal space, a space that exists between death and life beyond death.
We are on the mystical threshold of the transformation of the pre-Easter Jesus to the post-Easter Jesus.
That is not to say a Jesus with dual identities like Superman - a human one and a more than human one, but a space in which the one person Jesus exists on the cusp of two realities.
This is a space between a human Jesus, with all the fragileness and brokenness and wonderness that comes with being human, and what he became after his execution to the various communities founded in his name. That transformation, that profound transition is what happened in the tomb. A place we think of as inactivity and stillness is tonight more like a caterpillar’s cocoon. There is a busy-ness, a stirring, a happening in there.
And like our own in-between spaces, it is not an easy transition, nor will it be painless, nor when it is finished will we be the same as we were when we started. That is of course the nature of transformation. It is the nature of what happens to us in liminal spaces.
Sometimes we end up in these great in-betweens for reasons we choose but usually we are thrust into them. The death of a loved one, a serious accident, medical illness, the loss of a job, an earthquake, a missing airliner, an overturned passenger ferry. These are the profound events of our human experience that sneak up on us, sometimes with warning but usually without. We are quite familiar with this space. We spend a lot of time in this great in-between.
Tonight to understand the significance of these in-between spaces, we need to confront our own understandings of transformation, of resurrection.
In speaking of a pre-Easter Jesus and a post-Easter Jesus we need to understand what is at stake. Marcus Borg warns us that we should actively be making that distinction so as not to lose both realities of Jesus, both understandings.
The human reality of Jesus is more often at risk of loss, often overshadowed by all the pomp and grandeur the Church bestows upon the risen Christ. Within that royal and divine realm, we forget the pre-Easter Jesus was fully human like us, not God masquerading in human form, but really, truly, authentically human. If it were all a masquerade, what good would this Jesus be to us? A god only pretending to be human is just that, and not very inspiring. A human doing remarkable works, one who allows us to see our own magnificent capacity to love is a much more powerful story. A human undergoing the process of resurrection is much more meaningful than a man masquerading as a god performing what amounts to parlor tricks.
A literal understanding of resurrection also does the faith communities these narratives grew out of a great injustice.
The Gospel writers’ intentions were to describe their experience of what the life and death of the human Jesus came to mean to their respective communities.
Mark, the first Gospel writer (though he falls second in the canon) ends his community’s Gospel with an empty tomb and no post-resurrection appearances except for what seems to have been added to the end of his Gospel sometime in the first century. Mark’s Jesus is often described as a ‘primitive’ Jesus due to the lack of pomp and grandeur present in his Gospel.
But as each subsequent Gospel is written, Jesus becomes a grander and grander character. By the time we get to John, who wrote last, Jesus has gone from being a remarkable teacher, healer and mystic to something supernatural, something not from this world, something that has always existed, the Logos - the Word - he has become God.
We have to keep in mind that these narratives grew out of specific communities with specific concerns in different times and in different places.
It would be as If each of us were to write a Gospel today out of our own context, about our own understandings of Jesus, in our own reality, in our place and in our time. Our Gospels would likely all look and sound very different to how the New Testament Gospels present Jesus.
These narratives were written in times of great transition and we sometimes forget, in times of great distress. Christian communities over the time the Gospels were written were undergoing profound persecution by the Roman Empire, not to mention the internal struggles that were happening among them.
These narratives were written and shared to provide encouragement to one another, to give meaning to Jesus’ suffering, to give meaning to their own suffering, to find hope in the Jesus story.
It was in these liminal spaces that the Gospel communities underwent transformations so profound that a supernatural language was the only language that could be used to describe their encounters with the risen Christ. They came to believe that the human Jesus not only encompassed their hopes but pointed to a reality that could only be described as ‘divine’.
Tonight we are in an especially good space to meditate on our own encounters with the risen Christ. How have those experiences transformed us individually and as a community of faith? Were each of us to write our own Gospel story, what would yours be like? What language would you use to describe what your faith means to you in a liminal space?
Liminality is more about the journey than the destination. It is not about simply getting from point A to point B. It is about how we cope with the change and challenges along the way. It is a process of dying to an old way of being in order to embrace a new one. And once we think we have fully and finally arisen, we are once again catapulted into the in-between where we start another process.
Transformation is a constant process. It is the human heart in seasons. It is the reason Easter happens every year, not just once in a lifetime. It is meant to remind us that resurrection and transformation are always happening. The journey is ongoing.
I leave you with this;
The in-between times are what happens on the road to Emmaus, they are the journey to the cross. They are the Israelites wandering in the desert. They are Moses going up the mountain; they are the space between here and there, between life and death, between death and life beyond death. They are the places between persecution and liberation. They are the places of pain and anxiety. They are the places of healing, the places of mourning, the places of growing and transforming. These are the great in-betweens in our lives of what was, what is and what is to come. This is resurrection. AMEN
Today we are meditating on an event that changed the world, sometimes for the better and sometimes not. But either way it was a significant change. Anyone who has been involved in trying to bring about any kind of social change knows how difficult that is, and that Jesus did it by dying makes it all the more remarkable.
Think of society as a garden, full of a rich diversity of productive plants in beneficial relationships with each other. Think of culture as the soil they are embedded in, from which they draw essential nutrients, and to which they contribute their own stuff for its enrichment. Social change movements, at their best, want to fix a world dominated by exploitive relationships. In Jesus case, Roman occupation and Temple enforced purity laws. Most social change movements work from the ground up, focusing on the soil itself, since this is what creates and sustains the dominant relationships. After all, culture shapes the very ways we see, hear, feel, taste, smell, breathe and think in both the most mundane and the most transcendent ways we live our lives.
The problem with this analogy and this theoretical approach to social change is we are the soil as well as the fruit of the plants. We both embody our culture and reproduce it season after season. It's inside us and out there, always. This makes attempting social change by focusing on the soil an exercise in futility. Here is an example:
In Argentina 50 workers took over abandoned factories and revitalised them under worker control. Once they had taken over the factories and began to organize to run the business, they hit a big wall.
They called in a consultant to help them. He began by going around the room asking them to describe their situation and concerns. By the time he got to the seventh person, a lot of people in the room were crying. This person put it very eloquently, “We took over the workplace; the owners and the upper management were gone, because they didn't want to be a part of a workplace that they thought was going to fail. And we took it over and made it work. We were so excited. We made our wages equal. We instituted democracy. We had a workers' council. We made our decisions democratically. And after a period of time, all the old crap came back. All the old alienation came back, and now it just feels the way it used to feel.” He concluded, “I'm afraid Margaret Thatcher was right, there is no alternative.” This is why they were crying.
The problem was the basic assumptions we have about life, we received from the culture that raised us. It is embedded in us. It is the ground of our cultural being. These Argentine workers were attempting a radical transformation of their lives and the world around them, and they hit a wall. That wall wasn't "out there," but inside them. They had run full force into their own passivity, the very passivity that had been an integral part of the hierarchic system they were working to transform. They had come square against the fact that they were the problem as much as the oppressive owners were. And, to boot, they didn't know what to do about it. Their first reaction was to capitulate to the only way they had of making sense of their predicament: “Maggie was right.” That is, they fell back on a deep belief their society had enculturated into them from the moment of their birth. This recognition that it was their own internal complicity with the powers that had oppressed them liberated them to move from passivity to passion. They began to transform themselves. This enabled them to breach the wall. It changed the way they experienced work, their workmates and themselves. The factories succeeded.
It was this wall John was trying to break through with his version of Jesus’ Passion. It is not even close to an historical account, and to read it that way is to miss that it is a work of art painted by a Jewish mystic responding to his cultural situation and his desire to change it. Everyone in it represents the cultural context the Johannine community is facing about 70 years after the crucifixion, from Judas to Peter to Pilate to Mary to the Beloved Disciple. Even Jesus has become a symbol.
To understand this version of the Passion it is important to understand the culture it was created in. Remember, our Christian faith was born in the synagogue. The first Christians were Jews who only wanted to expand Judaism to include Jesus, just as such figures as Isaiah, Hosea, Amos and Micah had been included. That is why they kept trying to relate Jesus to Abraham, Moses and Elijah.
The tensions between the old tradition and new possibilities were not always comfortable, but they were tolerable until external pressures were brought to bear. In 66 CE the Jewish-Roman War broke out in Galilee. When it expanded to Judea, the Romans in 70 CE destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple. At that moment Judaism entered a struggle to survive. By the time hostilities ceased, Judaism had lost its national home, its holy city, its Temple and its priesthood. It could no longer tolerate a revisionist movement that sapped its energy and challenged its boundaries. At that point the Johannine community was forced to flee. Tradition says it went to Ephesus. There they tried to re-enter the synagogue but tensions with the orthodox led the leaders to expel them in 88 CE. A movement that had sought to define itself as an expansion of Judaism now found itself completely outside that framework. This created a wall in the community. Some equated the Jesus experience with the God experience, but others found that difficult. They could affirm that Jesus was the fulfilment of Jewish messianic expectations but they could not overcome their enculturation to accept the oneness Jesus claimed with God. They would eventually return to the synagogue, while those who stayed John describes as beloved disciples.
Finally, this fragile faith community had to endure and embrace a culture hostile to their religious views. The exploitative and oppressive Roman Empire viewed them as a threat to Pax Romana, and persecuted them harshly. In the face of that cruelty, there was no longer any real hope that Jesus was returning anytime soon to destroy the oppressor and establish his kingdom.
This is the culture the Fourth Gospel was created from. In the light of it John’s passion sums up the new vision of Christianity his Gospel has laid out. His purpose is to bring us into a dimension of life that we have never known before. He gives us a Jesus who offers us new life, a new consciousness and a new doorway into the mystery we call God.
He does this by using mostly historical figures in the telling of Jesus’ final week to represent the situation being faced by the church in his time. What the mystic artist paints is not just an external drama, but an internal drama as well. All the characters have counterparts in the human psyche:
Peter with his wavering between darkness and light represents all of us as we struggle internally to be born into a new consciousness of what it means to be fully human.
Pilate represents not only the external powers and principalities that seek to control and oppress us, but internally he symbolises our desire to survive in the face of them. While he sees the truth that Jesus is beyond his power, he succumbs to the threat that if he releases Jesus, he is not Caesar’s friend. He has to choose between Jesus and survival. The instinctual human drive to survive decides. Internally, Pilate has not absorbed the idea that to gain our life we must lose it. We cannot participate in the new life Jesus represents without doing so.
Mary is outwardly a symbol of the Jewish people who rely on tradition to protect them. They are walled off from a new understanding of their faith that Jesus represents. Internally, they seek security in a dangerous world. Seeking security and seeking a new consciousness are not compatible.
The Beloved Disciple is a mythological character, an archetype, who, like Lazarus, has passed from death to life. He lives in the light. He has been transformed into one fully alive. He knows that, like with Jesus, the life of God flows through him. He is a new creation and the first citizen of a new Israel. He sees, believes and understands.
At the other end of the spectrum of response to Jesus is Judas Iscariot, a literary figure, not a historical one, who John uses to represent darkness. He is the darkness to Jesus’ light John begins his gospel with, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” He is the part of us that says no to all the possibilities that Jesus represents. He is unable to move from darkness to light, from death to life. It has been suggested that in Jungian terms Judas is Jesus’ shadow side, which he embraces by shining the light from within it.
Without Judas in the story, darkness isn’t darkness until it is greeted by light. Death is not death until it is confronted by life. We do not know who we are until we are met by who we could be.
Through this imagery of dark and light, John’s Jesus invites us to step out of our craving for security and our compulsion to survive to embrace the darkness; to transcend it that we might enter a new consciousness that reframes all the values our culture has planted within us.
As we gaze upon the cross, let our eyes then turn to the labyrinth. It is a symbol of the internal journey we must all take to find a life free of domination, exploitation and fear. While not straight, neither is it a maze. It is a pathway through the cross where our true humanity can be found - one with the divine mystery. That discovery changes everything: How we see each other, our purpose, the world, and ourselves. What we have to remember with the Argentinian workers is we cannot get there passively. It requires passion. Amen.
I was tired, stressed and dirty. Looking around I could see I wasn’t alone; we were all looked a bit dusty and rather tense. We were all aware of the powerful people in Jerusalem flexing their muscles; making it clear that they didn’t like what Jesus was saying; what he was doing. We were all talking in a mixture of loud and slightly hysterical voices; most of us looking, a bit scared really. I wondered if this was the end of our teacher; I worried about what would happen to him. I worried about what would happen to me. Would my life become humdrum, would I have to go back to just sweeping floors and preparing meals? Would it be dangerous? I looked over at Jesus; He seemed to be thinking his own thoughts. He didn’t look worried; just calm. He turned, caught my eye and smiled.
Then something strange happened – I watched him take off his coat, pick up a towel and pour water into a bowl. The others began seeing it too and eventually we all stopped talking. What was he doing? Then he bent over Andrew and picked his foot from the floor and began washing it. I looked around catching Mary’s eye. I don’t how we missed this. One of us usually finds someone to do the feet washing. Maybe it was a sign of our stress. Mary shook her head. No, it wasn’t about that. She pointed to what Jesus was doing. Watch. It still felt really uncomfortable to see Jesus washing feet though. A servant’s job. Funnily enough, He didn’t look out of place. He washed and wiped Andrew’s feet in a way that was careful and kind. There was something else going on here.
I was a bit nervous when it came to my turn. I was torn; I really wanted to grab the bowl and take over, this wasn’t how it should be. But something kept me in place and I offered my feet for washing. Initially I was self-conscious of how bad my feet were. I felt guilty and apologetic. But as he began, those thoughts left me. My focus shifted in that moment from me to what Jesus was doing. I was no longer worried about my own stuff. I felt forgiven. I sensed his love and compassion for me. I felt in this mundane trivial act Jesus had blessed me.
Peter was next: “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” As usual wanting to know what was it was all about up front. Jesus could see he didn’t really get it. Peter had the same reaction as me – it seemed all wrong that Jesus should be washing our feet. Watching him with Peter I saw my mistake; we were focusing on ourselves when we needed to be focusing on him and each other.
“Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Somehow this was part of His connecting with us. Jesus washing our feet was intentional and instructive. He was telling us to make our hospitality, the ways we attend to one another intentionally careful. He seemed to be saying that in the small things, when we give of ourselves, for each other, we are at one with Him.
So then Peter wanted more of it, hands and head as well. He wasn’t listening on that deeper level.
“You are clean” Jesus told us that mostly, we were already essentially pure, spiritually clean. It felt like he was seeing more in us, than we could see in ourselves. It might sound a bit strange but it was as though he was there right inside me. I could feel something deep down that it is hard for me to put into words even now.
But he said “mostly”. I heard the murmurings of betrayal. My first thought was, will it to be me? Would I somehow sabotage this new way of living. Was I strong enough to keep following his teaching? Did he see weakness in me? I often do get it wrong; don’t trust him enough.
It seems like that is in me too, the potential to let him down; to be the betrayer. I looked around; it could be any one of us. All of us while we are pure of heart; also have the potential to collude with our own darkness.
When I’m away from him I doubt if this sense of care and wonder is real. Then I am with him again and am sure. So I need to hold onto that; we need to hold on to that, because there are clearly hard times ahead.
Ever had a tune going through your head that just won’t go away? The one in my head right now is one I used to teach the children of my parish years ago when my theology was more uncritical. It started looping through my head while I was reflecting on what it is like for us on this Sunday to go from singing Hosannas to the anointed king to crying out in bloodlust for his death only minutes later. But what is even more annoying than having a cheery little tune running non-stop, is having to hum most of the words because the lyrics are a victim of an aging memory. What I do remember is its theme. It is about some of the surprises found in scripture like when David as a young boy goes out to do a man’s job confronting Goliath with only five smooth stones and a sling. To which David’s father observes in the song, “He couldn’t be my son,” he said. “God would have a better plan,” which is followed by the chorus:
Surprise! Surprise! God is a surprise. Right before your eyes.
It's baffling to the wise.
Surprise! Surprise! God is a surprise! Open up your eyes and see!
Then I hum a few more verses. But then there is one other piece I don’t have to hum. It comes after a verse that describes what we have just participated in, the crucifixion. In response the song observes, “He couldn’t be my God,” I said. “He’d have a better plan!”
That line is one more reason this song annoys me.
If I interpret it like the church has always done, that the death of Jesus on the cross was our God’s plan for making us feel better about ourselves, it fails miserably and is intellectually offensive.
Suppose you come to me for spiritual support about something that is making your life hell. There are so many examples to choose from. Suppose it is a no win choice with which you are faced at work or guilt over hurting someone unintentionally or your partner has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or your doctor has just told you your cancer is no longer in remission and there is nothing more she can do. I have found the church’s response -- that everything is going to be OK because God sent his only son to a cruel and bloody death for me -- totally stuffed. And if that is all I offered you at such a moment, some of you would tell me to sod off and the rest of you would think it.
To find any comfort and insight I have to look at the events we have relived this morning without the veneer the church has put on it. I need to look at its unvarnished truth. Remember that it took four hundred years for the church to reach the general consensus that Jesus must’ve been fully God as well as fully human. Then for the next 1600 years the church rarely mentioned the latter.
Let’s reclaim the truth that Mary Magdalene sings in Jesus Christ Superstar, “He’s just a man.” There is no evidence that Jesus saw himself as anything more. He didn’t know his “last name” would become Christ.
He’s just a man who faced a difficult world, like all other men and women who came before him and all who have come after him. Disease, poverty, injustice, death have always been part of the human condition and they still are and always will be. Our sense of powerlessness in the face of nature and human institutions is still a fact of life, just as it was for Jesus and for everyone before him. Life has been difficult for humanity ever since we sacrificed our fins to crawl out of the primordial soup and evolve to a point where we could trade relying on our instincts for free will.
As an aside, I have to wonder if that “free will” thing was an intelligent design decision. It ranks right up there with why God would drive wedges into humanity by making some of us attracted to the opposite sex and others attracted to the same sex or by painting our skins so many different colours. What was the point of that? Isn’t life tough enough without those hurdles?
But back to the point: Jesus was just a man. Yes, he was a man on a mission. The mission was to give us an “Aha!” moment. Yes, life is tough, but we are not its victims. We are more than our animal instincts or our totally unpredictable and inconsistent free will. We are something more because of our capacity to love.
I don’t think scientists will ever find a gene that will explain that capacity. Its source is beyond our DNA. Being human we struggle with mystery, so we keep seeking its source. Failing that, we all try to name it. Robert Burns named it a “red, red rose.” Jesus called it Abba.
What today’s reenactment reminds us of is that it is that capacity to love, from wherever it comes, that frees us from being victims. By entering Jerusalem in an ironic mockery of a royal procession, by suffering betrayal from those who should’ve known him best, by being unjustly charged, by being rejected and cruelly mocked by those he came to serve, and finally being enthroned on a cross with the satiric label “King of the Jews” above his head, he became for us the ultimate embodiment of our capacity to love. Sadly, the church has confused his embodiment of love with his being its ultimate source. Sad because it makes us forget he is just a man. It blinds us to our own capacity to embody such a love unknown.
Today this man’s story is still incomplete. Holy Week still awaits us. Easter is still only a promise. But today we cannot escape the truth that love preserves us from becoming victims of the powers and principalities that surround us. We now know that our capacity to love cannot be washed away by a flash flood or shaken by an earthquake.
It is what allows us to go on in the face of whatever comes our way and ultimately what unites us and makes it all somehow worthwhile.
Yes, it is a truth we know, but as I did with the lyrics of an old song, we sometimes forget. That’s why we re-live it every year. That’s why we will continue to do so during Holy Week and why we will come back next Sunday to sing out joyfully its truth, to the words, “Christ is risen! He is risen indeed.” If just a man can do it, so can we.
Now, if this sermon rings a bell, it may be because you were here on Palm Sunday eight years ago when I preached it the first time. I’ve never repeated a sermon before but the first time I preached it was momentous for me. It was the day I came out of the closet as a Progressive Christian. I remember being quite anxious about my first public venture into uncompromising heterodoxy. It turns out I needn’t have been. You didn’t call for my burning. You wanted more, and thus, our journey began. The next day our new website went live and podcasts of our journey went around the world inviting others to join us on this road rarely taken. It made all the difference. Over 4000 people a month join us on the journey. 26,000 sermons were downloaded the first year. But it has not been an easy road. It is a demanding, challenging, sometimes lonely road. Not unlike the road we will take with the man Jesus this Holy Week, but its reward is liberation and the promise of new life. As we have not yet arrived, let us continue.
Our Aotearoa Christian history is full of haunting stories but none more so than that of The Revd Hare Maehe Ruarangi. He was an Anglican chaplain who chose to stay with the smallpox victims in Hopu Hopu outside Hamilton during the epidemic in 1913. His ministry with these dying people, and his refusal to leave them, led to his own death from the disease. Hare Maehe’s sacrifice is marked by a small gravestone under the trees alongside the main road south. The trucks and cars on the expressway rumble by oblivious to this simple memorial (so simple his name is misspelt and no one has bothered to correct it), testimony to a modest man of God whose self emptying love still sets a benchmark for us.
There are plenty of other such stories from the saints and martyrs of our New Zealand and Pacific church. Charles Fox is another of my inspirations. He was a very slight and short man of indifferent health, growing up in Waipawa in central Hawkes Bay, he joined the Melanesian Mission in the Solomon Islands and served there for the rest of his life, as a teacher, scholar, labourer, linguist, translator. As a very small boy, I met him at my grandmother’s house while he was home on leave, and I still remember the feeling of being in the presence of someone very special. During the Second World War, during the Japanese invasion, Charles remained in the island in great personal danger, working undercover as a coast watcher, and continuing his missionary work. His memory in the Solomons is legendary even today, where he’s buried at Tambalia, alongside the other martyrs of that brotherhood, legendary because of his complete disregard for his own importance and self interest.
These are important stories for our understanding of the Farewell Discourses because they point us to the core of what Jesus demonstrates on his walk to Jerusalem and Golgotha, and the quality that’s needed of us if we are to enjoy this entwining and indwelling of the human and the divine.
The Greek word for it is kenosis, literally the emptying of self. And on the face of it’s an impossible ask. What’s more, it is deeply offensive to the individualistic, me first consumer culture we swim in; a culture driven by meeting personal needs and wants; proving, fulfilling, affirming, realising, satisfying ourselves, and maybe making it one day into the society photo page in the back of the New Zealand Herald, with a squiffy smile and a glass of chardonnay. Kenosis is about letting all that go, giving away, stripping back every shred of self importance, self justification, self advancement, burrowing down into that core of our being which we think is so essential and precious but might in fact be an empty space.
The Trappist monk and mystic Thomas Merton, son of a New Zealand artist, once wrote these incredible words about that interior space:
At the centre of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalising of our own will.
This little point of nothingness and absolute poverty is the pure glory of God within us, as our poverty, our indigenity, as our sonship.
It is like a pure diamond blazing with the visible light of heaven. It is in everybody. And if we could see it we would see billions of points of light coming together in the face and the blaze of the sun which would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish forever. I have no programme for this scene. It is only given. But the gate of heaven is everywhere. By this light we shall see the light.
If God really is in us and between us, as we say in our liturgy, if the very source of our life is the Spirit of God, rather than some personally copyrighted, privately owned essence, then self emptying is no longer impossible. It becomes more about reconnecting with the source of light and love that we each carry as the sons and daughters of the One in whose image we are made, the Holy One in whom we find out who we really are and where we really belong.
The life style Jesus models on the journey through Lent depends on trusting this to be true. Without that trust, the walk is impossible to make. The heroic lives of a Fox and a Ruarangi and a Merton only happened because they somehow knew that what they had to do really would lead them into the heart of God. Somehow they had that confidence. And what others saw as their self emptying, risk taking, selfless sacrifice, they saw as simply the job that had to be done.
The job was the work of love, staying where they were needed and useful, keeping faith with the people around them. That’s the kind of love Jesus commends to his friends around this table of the last meal together. Not love as a feeling or an option to choose from a menu of religious qualities, but love as a commandment - steady, sustained, respectful even of the people you don’t like, looking out for each other through good times and bad, in an out of season, because that’s what we do as Christians, that’s our core business, and by this the world knows we are disciples, because we love one another.
The Passion story describes just how far Jesus is prepared to go on this steady path of self emptying love. At the table surrounded by frightened friends who are about to let him down, then later in front of the zealous high priests and the cynical governor and the hostile crowds, then finally hanging on the cross between two thieves, Jesus takes this kenotic creed all the way. He puts himself onto the ground zero of all that is evil and corrupt and deadly and he is only able to stand there because he knows what he promised the disciples would enjoy he already is experiencing, Namely “ I am in God and God is in me.”.
Enjoy is a funny word to use in a setting as grim as this. Yet joy is what Jesus ends up talking about in these Farewell Discourse.
It’s the sort of joy that Martin Luther King talked about days before his assassination, when he said I’ve been to the mountain top and I’ve seen the promised land. It’s the joy that flows from having walked the walk and obeyed the commandment to love as best you could. You have kept faith with this difficult child, you’ve done all you can for this friend in trouble, you’ve kept fighting for rights and recognition for this group whose suffering is no longer noticed or known. And out of the frustration and the setbacks and the exhaustion of your efforts, against all the evidence, you glimpse and taste something of how the world might be when God has finished working through us.
It is like the pain of childbirth, Jesus tells his disciples, there is anguish and then there will be delight. Mothers know about that joy and men can only watch and wonder. My Auntie Edie never bore children but she knew about this delight I’m trying to talk about. Edie was a First War nurse, who worked in appalling conditions in Cairo and Alexandria. She never married, her boyfriend we never talked about was a soldier killed in action. After the war she came back to Napier and served the rest of her life as a Plunket nurse, then caring for elderly members of the family, and sometimes kids like me, though not often enough. Edie was inclined to give you sweets and treats you shouldn’t have and whisk you off to the movies. I loved that quality at the time but but even more enduring as I’ve thought about her life was her selfless giving. She embodied that spirit of public service that teachers and police officers, public servants and nurses especially lived out back then in this country, for little money or personal advancement, but took great pride and pleasure in. Love might have been too big a word to use, was not their word, but serving others in and out of season, and finding real delight in doing so, that was coming close.
For some of us, there’s a bit of watching and wondering going on as we read these farewell discourses and ask ourselves whether we could ever love so selflessly and generously, whether we could find the courage to stand in the ground zero places of suffering and despair. And there are plenty of them to choose from right now. With the families who waited for Flight 370 to land, who wait for their houses to be repaired in Christchurch, who wait for surgery, and jobs and food for their children.
The most remarkable promise of all the expectations offered in this passage is the promise of delight that will come when we put ourselves out there where we’re needed most and give ourselves over to others in the service of love.
Does that really happen? How can we know?
Well, only by watching others who love selflessly and generously, beyond all measure like God does. Never as completely as God, only in hints and glimpses which is all we’ll ever get in this life, but that is more than enough to be going on with. And when we catch a glimpse of that sort of self giving love in our heroes and our aunties and whoever else, our lives are never left the same and the standards we reach for are somehow lifted higher.
One of the books that changed my life is called “The Savage and Beautiful Country”, the author McGlashan’s title for this territory of delight.
Delight is a secret. And the secret is this; to grow quiet and listen, to stop thinking stop moving, almost stop breathing; to create an inner stillness in which like mice in a deserted house, capacities and awarenesses too wayward and fugitive for everyday use may delicately emerge. O welcome them home, for they are the long lost children of the human mind.. delight springs from this awareness of the translucent quality of things
The promise of these farewell discourses is that a self giving life of loving and serving others before we serve ourselves does bring delight and joy. Not because of some sort of cosmic payback reward scheme, but simply because delight is what you experience when you’re in the close company of those who inspire and enliven your love. If we’re lucky we’ve had a taste of such delight from lovers and children and friends. And the logic of love extends endlessly outward and inward from that, in the words of the prophet Isaiah where he describes God’s steadfast love: “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return till they have watered the earth, so shall my word be that comes out of my mouth; it shall not return to me empty.”
If we live in God and God lives in us, in the very core of who we are, and we learn to listen to that presence and trust that awareness, elusive as it is, then delight will follow as surely as night follows day, and as Jesus promises, “our joy may be complete”.
I keep meeting people whose life of faith is something akin to a hijack drama.
They started off happily enough, going to Sunday School or church with parents or grandparents, enjoying the guidance of a savvy school chaplain or a good pastor. Then suddenly some catastrophe struck – the sudden loss of a parent or a sibling, a marriage collapse, unemployment, something that shatters their still fragile trust and understanding of God and how God works in the world.
That’s bad enough, but what’s worse is that these bruised and betrayed people never find a way back to the faith that nutured them , often as young people. And the blame focused theology that framed their thinking then, still frames them now, years later.
There is so little I or anyone else can say. You can urge them to start again. You can assure them the theology that shut them down was as shonky back then as it is now.
What these people missed out on was a decent preparation, a sound apprenticeship in believing, an orientation course that would open up minds and hearts to the possibilities and generosity of God. If you don’t get that grounding, then even if you come to faith later in life, even in a blinding flash, then the first disaster can still tip you over.
Such preparation is a privilege. I have huge admiration for people who haven’t had it and still manage to keep believing and hoping and praying. The church tries to build such training through its rhythm of festivals and seasons. We’re in the middle of one such training time.
Lent is all about getting ready for the Christian passion or Passover and the events of Holy Week and Easter. We are getting ready to follow Jesus through Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday into Easter Eve and Easter Day. To cope with that journey we need to do some homework. That won’t guarantee we complete the journey or comprehend it, but we need to get our act together as best we can. The first disciples tried and mostly failed, even though they had the advantage of some team talks by their leader.
Maybe we can do better. We still have the speech notes of those talks. They’re called the Farewell Discourses, reassembled and recorded in three chapters of the Gospel of John. They are often quoted but usually out of context.
When you read them in the setting they were written for, these discourses become very powerful and very intimate stuff.
Here is Jesus on the eve of his execution as a criminal, sharing a final meal with his closest friends, even as one of them betrays him and another is about to deny knowing him. It is a time of intense anxiety and fear. The incredible three years they had together are rapidly dissolving. Any one else would have walked away. But Jesus speaks directly into the face of all this personal disintegration and chaos. He talks to his friends with breathtaking intimacy and honesty. He draws them into the mystery of God treating them as privileged insiders. For all their failures and betrayals, however much they felt they had been hijacked by the violence that follows, that’s what the disciples were then. Insiders with the inside story.
And that’s what we are now. These discourses are our training manual, our road map for the journey that lies ahead of us. Over these two Sundays, we’ll listen to what it offers us as we revise, remember, rethink what we can expect of God; what we see in Jesus, what can we dare to trust from this discourse about how to live and how to love.
Well there is some amazing stuff on offer.
What Jesus lays out here is the chemistry between the human and the divine. Up till now that’s been focused in his physical presence, his words and actions. You could see this evidence, record it, even taste it when you broke bread with him. Now all that’s about to change. The relationship between human and divine is about to shift because Jesus is about to be taken away. “ I have come into the world and now I am leaving the world”.
Now it’s up to you. Because from here on out you are no longer simply human, you’re also agents of what is divine and holy. I no longer have to mediate for you with God, you can do it yourself, such is the love God has for you, the trust God has in you.
Jesus cements all this in one remarkable prayer which condenses this promise: “The glory that you have given me I have given them so that they may be one, as we are one. I in them and you in me..”
In other words, the bond of love and trust that led us to see Jesus as the Son of God is now transferred and shared with his friends. We become caught up in an interdependence with God. Humanity and divinity are entwined like never before, in a depth of intimacy unknown before.
There is nothing in the Bible that explains just what form this intimacy might take, and religion has been scrambling for ever to do that by prescribing words and music in vain. For the intimacy comes like the wind and all we can do is wait for the signs of it coming and open ourselves to the gale.
Eileen Duggan wrote a poem about that:
When in still air the planets shake
Like springs about to flow
A wind from off Australia
Is gathering to blow
And I who have my signs of you
Am weatherwise in vain.
Oh you are gale and wet to me
But come, my wind and rain.
Descriptive language breaks down in attempting to explain what Jesus is offering here, so we have to resort to poetry like that, and symbolism.
The first biblical metaphor is the vine and its branches. Familiar enough to talk of vineyards and Israel as God’s vineyard and God as the gardener. But here we have Jesus as the whole vine, the new Israel, in the same way that Paul sees him as the body. The source of life for all its limbs and branches. Both images speak of eucharist, but the context here focuses on the inseparability of vine and branch, and the confidence that even after radical pruning the new life will flow again and new growth will follow.
And the next metaphor is the dwelling place. Jesus is the Way. He still provides a unique access path into the heart of God. Western Christianity has traditionally chosen to paint that uniqueness as exclusivity, forgetting that in the same passage Jesus spends much more time talking about many dwelling places in God’s house. Not high places and low places, first and second best, but different places with room for all who come. The echo here is with the second letter to the Corinthians (Ch 5) – the promise of a house not made with human hands, and in the midst of our afflictions, we long to be clothed with this heavenly dwelling, prepared by God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee. This about the inclusive nature of God, generous beyond all measure, who comes to us before we come to God.
The third image to express this entwining of the human and divine is consecration, the ritual reserved for the hereditary priests of the Temple. The word literally means to “make holy” and it was used as a metaphor of the relationship between Jesus and God. Now Jesus includes all his friends in this once elite and limited group, reserved for only Israel’s most privilege and devout. So you and I, our piety unpolished, can join the ranks of the sanctified, echoed again in the first letter of Peter; that democratising, barrier breaking call to claim a space to stand in God’s dwelling place: “Come to him like living stones and let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, where all can offer gifts acceptable to God..”
All of this is made possible by the gift of the Spirit of God, described by Jesus as another Advocate to take over where he leaves off, doing the same work he did in Palestine, but now on a universal scale, forever. “This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him or knows him. You know him because he abides with you and he will be in you.”
This indwelling Spirit of peace and love, no longer limited by geography or gender or language or culture, is known to us as a presence we can experience, but also as a capacity to see things we couldn’t see before. This Spirit does what Gladys Knight and Roberta Flack sing so beautifully about: “ I can see clearly now, the rain has gone..” The ability to see God at work in the world, to find our way where there was confusion before, that is the gift this Spirit gives.
Just before this promise of Spirit is made to the disciples, Philip has been anxiously asking, ”Show us the way to God.” The Spirit answers that question, not by demanding answers from Jesus but directing attention to what we do and say as followers And we can dare to believe that, such is the depth of this indwelling Spirit in us, such is in us, the extent of this entwining of the human and the divine.
This is the extraordinary offer held out to us in these Farewell Discourses. What we need to do now (and we’ll do that next week) is explore just how we go about accepting the offer and what it might mean for our walk into Holy Week and Easter and beyond.
I resonate with the retired bishop who said, “The older I get the more deeply I believe, but the fewer beliefs I have.” For that reason I struggle with the Gospel of John, which has been used by the early church to create creeds and formularies that describe a Jesus I no longer recognise. I find my self at war within myself: my training and formation by an institution grounded in those creeds in opposition to what my reason and experience proclaim to me to be true. As a result, whenever called to preach on John’s gospel, I do so with some trepidation. No less so today as we join Jesus and the Samaritan Woman at Jacob’s Well.
It is often read literally as a historical event where Jesus is reproving a woman of unsavoury character while claiming for the first of many times the name of God, “I AM.” This claim has been used by creedal Christianity to assert that Jesus is fully human and fully divine. However, this dualistic theological idea would not have occurred to the writers of John. Because of how it has been used I am tempted to walk around the story and not engage with it. But in doing so I would miss an important point that enriches what I believe, while not necessarily supporting the beliefs I have been taught.
There is a lot packed into this story but not all of it is explicit and no simple reading of it does it justice. While biblical literalists often use the Gospel of John to support their notion that Jesus’ mission was to be God in human form that he might be a blood sacrifice for our sinful selves, this story suggests a very different mission. His purpose was raising our consciousness to understand that we who are divided by race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, politics, theology--the list seems endless--must seek reconciliation with one another if we are to find our true selves. It is a story of enlightenment. Last week Nicodemus came to Jesus in the dark of night. The very next chapter in John begins with Jesus meeting the woman at the well under the midday sun. This movement from darkness to light is the gospel’s subtle way of saying this encounter is very important to what Jesus was about. Yet, the message of reconciliation seems to have been too subtle for the church with her all too human nature, which has regularly divided and subdivided into competing groups for over two millennia. We at St Matthew’s are all too aware of this phenomenon.
To comprehend John’s purpose behind this story, which never happened but, nonetheless, I know to be true, we must understand the purpose of wells in Hebrew literature. Like the bars on K Road, wells were where people went to meet a potential future spouse. Abraham sent his servant to a well in his hometown of Nahor to find Isaac a non-Canaanite wife. The servant came back with Abraham’s niece, Rebekah. When it came time for their son Jacob to find a wife, Isaac instructed him to find a wife amongst his kin. Jacob stopped at a well near Haran where he met his first cousin Rachel. Eventually she and her sister Leah were both his wives in one of those traditional biblical marriages conservatives go on about. Moses also met the woman who would become his wife at a well when he was on the run for murder.
So, with this understanding of meeting at wells as a mating game, did Jesus come to the well where Jacob found Rachel to look for a bride amongst his kin? John is saying yes. Immediately preceding his encounter with the Samaritan woman he meets up with his cousin, John the baptiser. There is a dispute about who Jesus is in relationship to John. John clears it up by describing Jesus as the bridegroom and himself as the best man.
If Jesus is the bridegroom is he seeking marital bliss with the Samaritan woman? If so, who is she? First, remember this is a fictional story. She is a character in the story. She never existed. Thanks to the parable of the Good Samaritan we all know that Jews and Samaritans are not keen on each other, but there is a lot more to it.
Who were the Samaritans anyway? It’s not a simple answer.
After Solomon’s unwise, oppressive reign there was a civil war around 930 BCE between the ten northern tribes who wanted to secede from the Davidic dynasty and the two southern tribes, Judah and Benjamin. The North won but, like the American Civil War and our Land Wars, the repercussions continued. The tribes of the North tried to redefine themselves vis-à-vis Jerusalem by building their own capital city they called Samaria. Then they transformed the sacred shrines in the Northern Kingdom into their own indigenous holy places to compete with the Jerusalem Temple. With time they no longer identified themselves with the royal house of David but with original patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and especially Jacob, who had changed his name to Israel. Their holy scriptures ended with the Torah, rejecting everything produced by the Davidic dynasty.
The hostilities between the two kingdoms did not abate. Their history was one of constant warfare. They often allied themselves with opposing powers. For instance Assyria was the Northern Kingdom’s ultimate enemy and the Southern Kingdom’s ally. This went on for about 200 years until Assyria destroyed the Northern Kingdom while Judah looked on from a distance.
To prevent future rebellion Assyria transported many of the people of Israel into exile in Assyria and repopulated their former homeland with people from other conquered countries. Eventually these people inter-married with those left behind.
But this isn’t the end of the story. A couple of hundred years later it was Judah that was conquered by the Babylonians, with many taken into exile. Perhaps having learned from what happened to the ten lost tribes, they kept themselves separate from non-Jews by adopting such practices as strict Sabbath day observances, kosher dietary laws and mandated circumcision. When they eventually returned they saw themselves as quite distinct from and superior to those who had remained in their conquered land. They saw them as having mixed blood and corrupt religious practice. This is when the “half-breeds” became known as Samaritans while those returning from exile were the Jews.
All this is encompassed in the woman asking Jesus, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?”
It is on this question Jesus’ courtship of the Samaritan woman turns. They have a deep theological conversation about human boundaries and what role Jesus would play in a world of deep divisions.
When they discuss water from the well versus the water of eternal life, Jesus is promising a life together that will last forever. His living water is the spirit that binds human life together. That bridges the divide between competing groups.
When he explains that with living water she will never thirst again, she takes him literally thinking she will never have to draw water again. He then asks her to call her husband. She acknowledges not having one, to which he says, “No, you have had five.” This is not about her being somehow immoral. It is a reference to II Kings (17:24-34) in which we are told that the king of Assyria resettled people from five countries throughout Samaria. Samaritans inter-married with them and accepted their gods. These are the five husbands of the unfaithful Samaritans symbolised by this Samaritan woman.
She is impressed by his knowledge of her life, but continues to hang on to the divisions between them, asking does this mean Samaritans will have to worship in the Jerusalem Temple. He basically tells her, “bollocks.” By the time John’s gospel is written neither temple still exists. John through Jesus isn’t talking about religions that all too often divide people. He is speaking about enlightenment -- being one with the Spirit that is God. Then we will be fully human as he is fully human. This is the marriage Jesus is offering her and us.
John is offering a new vision for Christianity, one that unfortunately didn’t take hold. One where there are no divisions between us. In this story he is saying if Jesus can bridge the gulf between the Jews and Samaritans, no gulf is too wide. Granted it isn’t an easy sell. The disciples when they return are shocked. But they usually don’t get it. On the other hand, neither do we. When we resort to creeds and defining right beliefs and right worship to determine who is in and who is out, aren’t we perpetuating the divisions between us? Aren’t we divorcing ourselves from the Spirit Jesus offered? We continue to thirst.
I was telling a friend that I would be speaking to you this morning. She asked what it was about. “Eternal Life” I said. “You mean after a person dies?” “No, eternal life right now.” That is what I want to talk about, eternal life, not bound by time or space; eternal life is where God is.
In the gospel reading this morning we heard a discussion between Jesus and Nicodemus.
Nicodemus, is a Pharisee, a Jewish teacher, who comes in the night to talk to Jesus, the story goes. The darkness contrasts with the light that has come into the world, the light of Christ, and that is talked about more, later in this chapter. (John 3:20). In this story darkness also hides Nicodemus; it’s risky for him because he is a leader of the Pharisees, so he comes at night. He is a seeker with questions. Something about Jesus called to him: the miraculous; the spectacular; something out of the ordinary sparked his interest.
Nicodemus says in verse (2) ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’
He gives Jesus a certain status when he calls him Rabbi. But when he says he knowsJesus is a teacher come from God, he is using his intellect, he is making an observation rather than talking from experience. He thinks God must be with Jesus. It would seem that Nicodemus is off to a good start in understanding something of who Jesus is. But Nicodemus is still on the outside looking in. He is saying he likes what he sees but no more than that.
In verse (3) Jesus tells Nicodemus: ‘no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ And later in verse (5) no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and spirit.’
Needing to be born from above or of the Spirit, in order to enter the kingdom or realm of God points to a deeper meaning in this story; when Nicodemus takes Jesus literally he is obviously mistaken. Nicodemus exclaims at the physical impossibility of being born a second time.
This requirement to be born from above or of the Spirit isn’t about the physical world; Jesus is pointing beyond the individual to a greater ‘realm’ as the kingdom of God is sometimes translated. Talk of the Kingdom of God intimates that there is a place we are trying to get to. But it’s not about a place. There was no concept of outer space and an edge of the universe then; so the unknown, the space where God is, was talked about as though it was above.
What this is really pointing to is mysterious and difficult to put into words. Spong describes it (in his book The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic) as being open to a different dimension in life.
Nicodemus talks about “we”: we know you are a teacher who has come from God. In this story he may be speaking for other Pharisees but he could just as easily be speaking for any of us. It’s safe to stick with what we know; it’s comfortable to shut out the new and the call to change. It is too easy to keep to within the boundaries of our own reality, our own world. And it’s not a clear either/or thing. I may be particularly limited in my thinking in one area and open to God in another; or be open today and tomorrow closed off. Our transforming is an ongoing process not a once only thing; it takes both a life time and a moment by moment awareness. We won’t see our limitations if we don’t look for them and if we don’t listen to each other.
Responding to Nicodemus, Jesus implores him to listen; Jesus says in verse (11) we speak of what we know and the ‘know’ here is experiential. Jesus knows God or the Other on a whole different level. And he says ‘we; He is not alone in this experience of God. The offer is there for us; for all for all of us. Jesus says in verse (15) whoever believes in him (the Son of Man) will have eternal life. This believes in is more like an abiding in, a being joined with and it’s about having faith and then letting go and trusting so that God’s love infuses each moment, each eternal moment, and all of life. Eternal life is about something timeless but also of a particular quality; the quality of being one with God as Christ was. Here in the liturgy at St Matthews we talk about the God beyond, between us and within us and what I am talking about today is the God within us. It is eternal life in Christ, a level of consciousness or awareness; a dimension to being fully human.
If we become open to this other dimension in life, to eternal life, we add a new perspective to the way we view things; a God perspective. It’s something available to us, a gift given, if you like, but it’s one we often miss, like Nicodemus.
What does this mean for us in our everyday lives? When we are caught up in the business of the day it’s hard to be aware of the God within. We can try though. It’s a kind of praying. But we’re often not there. When we become disturbed by events or annoyed at ourselves or someone else, (and it happens so easily doesn’t it?), it can help us to consciously shift to this other perspective, be open to that other dimension and ask: what does God say about this situation? What would be the just or loving thing? Does this disturbance really matter in the scheme of things? What would God have me say or do? This can take us out of ourselves and allow us to be open to God in our everyday existence. This is to pray and try and act from that other dimension; to try and act as Jesus did; expecting that we will often miss it and get it wrong but going with it none the less, knowing there will be many opportunities to practice.
Another place we can be really more conscious of this Other, God, is in silence. I wonder how long it has been since many of us experienced silence; turned off every electrical device; the TV, computers, ipads, phones, all of them, and went to a quiet place away from the children, the grandchildren and the dog and just stopped. Then the challenge is to quieten the mind; let the thoughts come and go and be open. It’s not easy and often takes a while. Then there is an opportunity to experience that other dimension. Outer silence gives space, sanctuary if you like, for inner silence. We can be taken away from our individual self consciousness to a place of connection, connection with God.
Jesus was able to live and die for others because he lived fully in that loving dimension. And for those of us on a Christian spiritual path, this is our example. Jesus showed us the way to God; to oneness with God. If we can be open to something beyond our physical reality and expand our view into something other; something loving; a place we know about from the life of Jesus; it’s possible to experience glimpses of being one with God.
Trying to be open to this other dimension or perspective in our everyday lives and to that expansiveness that we experience in silence, brings us a tiny step closer to understanding what Nicodemus seemed to miss: the gift, the potential to be at one with God; eternal life right now.
 Spong, John Shelby. (2013). The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic.HarperCollins. New York. Pg.89.
 Morris, Leon. (1971). Commentary on the Gospel of John. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Michigan. Pg 336
Is the stove off? Is the cat out? Did I bring my cell phone charger? What about my walking shoes? And did you get their phone number?
Leaving on a journey, even a short journey, is a piece of work.
If you’ve done the job properly it’s a relief to get going.
If you haven’t, the journey will be anxious and doomed to incompletion.
Lent is a journey in itself, but a journey of preparation for Holy Week and Easter. Clay will guide you through that time of reliving those epic events of Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Eve and morning. In the Christian story, they frame our understanding of life and death and life beyond death, our life and death and resurrection.
Lent is the time we try to get our head ready to get around all that, so there are some preparations to do, some cats to be put out, some spiritual training needed.
We used to do that by giving up things. Like cigarettes when everybody smoked and Craven A was still good for your throat. Now you can not do chocolates, for 40 days, or Twitter, or watching the Paul Henry Show.
The point of giving up things you like for Lent, and some people really do like Paul Henry, is to remind ourselves that the Christian life is more about letting go of the things we need than holding on to them, it’s about reviewing priorities and constantly reordering them.
And that is very hard. We prefer to keep on keeping on with the things we enjoy and grow accustomed to. Religious habits most of all die hard, especially if words and music are involved. Replace Dmitry and his singers with a punk rock group next Sunday and watch the firestorm rage.
But a couple of times in the Christian year, we build in a journey of spiritual preparation and soulful refreshing. Advent to prepare for Christmas, and Lent to prepare for Easter. And we use stories, not punk rock groups, (though they could also do the job) to break the old mould of our religious habits; stories that we can enter into and put ourselves personally into the roles of the disciples who walk proudly alongside Jesus, then not so proudly, then very nervously, then fall asleep, then run away.
Or we simply join the crowds in the stories ahead, cheering this young rabbi, everybody’s friend, then calling for his execution and jeering him as he dies.
It’s always more comfortable to join the stories in this passion season with a little distance, a step or two removed from Jesus, such is the intensity of the drama and the terror of it all.
But not today, in this first story of the season. There are only two characters. Jesus and the devil. This is up close and personal stuff going down here. It’s called the temptation of Jesus but it’s also the temptation of each one of us, if we dare to make the story our own.
It’s actually more about testing than it is temptation. That’s a better translation of the Greek word. And just as God tested the people of Israel in their journey through the wilderness to the Promised Land, testing their faithfulness, their willingness to keep trusting and hoping and keeping the commandments, (that’s why Jesus keeps quoting Scripture to the devil, even though this devil has read it all before.) In the same way, says this story, God tests us, especially our willingness to stay open and focused and alert to what the Spirit might be saying to us, where the Jesus model might be pointing us.
And to stay open and focused, the first exercise in this spiritual training is to get rid of the rubbish that fills our heads and hearts from the media led, market driven consumer society around us, promising endless possessions, instant results, total control, even guaranteed peace of mind, if you buy the right insurance. Try telling that to anyone who lives in Christchurch this week.
All these promises form the great temptation, the great testing of our day. If your house is earthquake proofed, and lifted above the 100 year flood level, if the food on your table is Heart Foundation ticked, if your workplace and your back yard is OSCH certified, if your savings are inflation proofed and your pension fund properly hedged, if you drive to the conditions and don’t treat the speed limit as a target, if you keep spending up and borrowing more, up to the limit the banks set, and you’re fully insured, then peace of mind and the good life is guaranteed. You will be in control of your life.
Well, the journey through Lent to Easter is about learning all over again that ain’t true. The only way into that new life we’re offered on Easter morning is to let go all those dreams of safety and control and guaranteed outcomes.
In this testing encounter with this Scripture quoting toting devil, Jesus says thanks but no thanks to the offer of instant results, stones into bread, and the promise of complete protection, and the lure of endless possessions.
We know all about these temptations in our media and our own history. They’re offered every night in the ads for Powerball and Lotto and How to be a millionaire. I’ve got a stack of promises from Readers Digest and Magnamail about the winning the grand prize if I fill in the form and subscribe today. The false promise is everywhere about us, right now and way back.
The complete protection guarantee is wound into our missionary history with the Maori prophets like Te Ua assuring their followers they’d be bullet proof if they held up their hand and said the right prayer.
We love these promises of instant results when you press the right button on your remote control. But their lure runs much deeper than that.
This story is asking us to let go these dreams of being able to control our life on our terms, to the exclusion of others, and take the risk of walking into Lent with empty hands and eyes wide open.
WH Auden wrote a poem about this challenge.
The sense of danger must not disappear;
The way is certainly both short and steep,
However gradual it looks from here;
Look if you like, but you will have to leap.
This is not the leap off the temple tower that the devil asks of Jesus. This is the leap of faith that dares to give away “the dream of safety” and walk with Jesus into the wilderness, without any guarantee of where and how that will end.
The journey Jesus models is a journey of kenosis, the Greek word for self emptying, letting go everything that clings to security or self importance or self righteousness, or superiority of any kind.
In the story the devil keeps asking Jesus to be like God. And what Jesus shows us instead is how to be human, demonstrating the kind of humanity that will bring us into the life God intends for us, and invites us to reclaim on Easter morning, in all its fullness.
The humanity that will get us there is more about giving than receiving, letting go than holding and keeping, forgiving others rather than counting wrongs against us, and forgiving ourselves rather than clutching regret and guilt; including rather than excluding; trusting, hoping, ready to begin all over again.
That’s the kind of humanity this story asks us to dare to follow, and when we do we join a long tradition of brave and faithful people, who have walked this way before us, many of them from this place called St Matthews.
This is a good place to begin the Lenten journey. Join the walk. Let go, make the leap, and leave behind the dreams of safety that stop us taking the first step.
By way of introduction for those of you who may be visiting this Sunday this congregation is in the midst of a transition in leadership. There is both celebration and disappointment amongst us. What we share in common is uncertainty.
Within that context, I some times think God, the Divine Comedian, has an impish sense of humour. Asking me just at this time to preach on mountaintop experiences seems mean, if not a wee bit cruel. But I am trusting that it is exactly at such times that we are invited into the holy.
Right now I can’t go with Moses up Mount Horeb where hidden by a cloud Yahweh reveals his backside to him. I am down below with the Israelites wondering what could possibly be going on over the next forty days and nights up in the cloud. Nor am I in a place where I can accompany Jesus with Peter, James and John, the leaders of the early church, up to the top of Mount Tabor to see the transfiguration of their master and the appearance of Moses and Elijah at his side or to hear the divine voice spoken from a cloud. I am down at the foot of the mountain with the rest of the disciples wondering why we weren’t invited along and annoyed they aren’t telling us anything about what happened there.
Of course, that is the nature of mountaintops: real life is down below. Down in the valley or on the plain that look so picturesque and perfect from above, real pain is happening. Sickness, injustice, betrayal, broken relationships, rejection, grief, fear and anxiety litter the landscape of our lives. The mountain in the distance seems to taunt us with what might be.
I have had many opportunities to reflect on the Transfiguration over the years as it is always the last Sunday of Epiphany and it has its own feast day as well, on August 6. It is always celebrated on the Sunday before Lent because it is the perfect bookend to the beginning of Epiphany with three wise men visiting Jesus, like three apostles viewing his transfiguration, followed the next Sunday with his baptism and the same words echoed today. “This is my son, my beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him.” But each time I encounter the mystery of this story, it is from a different perspective. I listen, but hear different things each time. In part it depends on how I approach the story.
Sometimes I have approached this story with historical questions: How did this happen? Where did it happen? Did it happen? Other times I have approached it with solely theological questions: What connections can we make to this story? What does it say about God? But there is a third way to approach it. It is the way of the poet and artist, who approach it with their imagination.
The last painting Raphael, the High Renaissance Italian painter, did before his death in 1520 was of the Transfiguration. I saw it at the Vatican. He thought it was his best and it lay at his head during his wake. It captures the glory of the mountaintop and the pain of those on the plain. In the upper portion of the painting Jesus is hanging in the air in front of a luminescent cloud. Moses is to Jesus’ right and Elijah to his left floating up to meet him for a chat. On the ground prostrate before him are James, Peter and John dressed in colours that symbolise faith, hope and love.
The church commissioned the painting and to appease them Raphael shows Jesus presiding over humankind. Below the mountaintop experience he painted a cave. It is a dark and chaotic scene. The apostles are trying in vain to cure a lunatic. A lunatic in this case was an epileptic. An epileptic in Raphael’s times terrified people. They thought she or he was possessed by demons. The only cure was to burn them at the stake.
In the foreground is a woman, painted as brightly as the transfigured Christ, who is looking St Matthew in the eye and pointing at the epileptic being protected by his father. She appears to ask the question: Aren’t you going to do something? Is he to be condemned for his condition?
Certainly the church at the time would say yes, we all are, for only through the Risen Christ portrayed above can we be saved. This was a very convenient answer as it enhanced the power of the church, the body of Christ, over society. I can’t really go there: Too much power in the hands of those on high. This answer leaves us in the valley, victims of despair.
I look at the painting and see a different answer. The season of Epiphany is all about light. It begins with a star glimmering on the plain and ends in a blaze of glory on the mountaintop. This imagery speaks to my understanding of Jesus. As the painting portrays he had something in common with Moses. They were both lawgivers. While Moses gave us ten, he gave us only one: “Love one another as I have loved you.” He also had something in common with Elijah the prophet. Like Elijah he spoke truth to power.
But he was more. He is the still small voice within us Elijah heard in his cave speaking truth to us.
Jesus was more than a lawgiver and prophet. He was an Eastern mystic leading us to enlightenment. This is something we who see and think through an exclusive Western filter often miss. I agree with Cynthia Bourgeault who in The Wisdom Jesus makes the case that the church got him wrong from the start, so we miss what he was up to. She argues persuasively that his purpose was to bring us to higher levels of enlightenment until our beings were fully integrated; one with our selves, our neighbours, nature and the divine. His was a path up this mountain of enlightenment. His path seeks to lead us to that alternate reality. It is the one Psalm 46 hints at: “Be still and know that I am God.”
Once we see that reality, we can’t un-see it. Once we experience it we, too, are transfigured -- spiritually changed -- a new being. No longer will we reside in the dark cave of Raphael’s painting. No longer do we have to cling in hope of being rescued by external power. Jesus is beckoning us to come to the mountain and begin the climb.
Lent begins this Wednesday, Ash Wednesday. It is the beginning of a forty-day journey. May it end on Easter Day with us in the clouds with Moses and Jesus where we will hear that we, too, are Beloved. I know I’m eager to leave the valley. Anyone care to join me?
It is always a privilege to stand in this pulpit. It is hard not to be mindful of luminaries who stood before and bore witness to the hope that lies within. Of course, I can’t help be mindful of Bishop John’s eloquence last week. It is a rare thing for me to be in the same community on consecutive weeks.
“Lorde, Lorde …”
One of the little jobs I did when I served here was to strip down the rather wonderful brass mechanism that works the lectern in here. Like Ezekiel’s dream, there are wheels within wheels to make things go up and down for perfect adjustment.
Betty Jorgenson and I laid out all the parts and sat on the nave carpet and polished it all within an inch of its life.
As I reflect on it now it may well have just an attempt for me to make myself feel worthy to stand here. Who knows about true purpose?
Working out my own elevation with polish and elbow grease – of course, a poor substitute for prayer and Elihom’s grace.
Be perfect, therefore, as your Father is perfect.
Today we come to a high point in the Sermon in the Mount with this admonition to be perfect like God is perfect.
It is hard to know how to take this injunction it seems like it is given to be unattainable because none of us is perfect all of us is finite and all too frail.
Even Ella, aka, Lorde, may be a ‘Pure Heroine,’ but even she ain’t perfect. She may have won another award, a Brit award even, but nobody is perfect and you might hope that she wouldn’t even try.
I have been thinking about this being perfect all week. Indeed, another Brit Award single has been running through my head: From 1989, Fairground Attraction’s “It’s got to be perfect.” It is one of those earworm things, once it is in it is hard to get out.
Let me change tack for a moment.
Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
I was just a day or so into working here. John Mullane had died and Don Cowan and I were doing the interim priest thing. Don had worked as City Missioner for many years and he knew this part of town and many of the locals – although it has to be said that now St Matthew’s is the most densely populated part of New Zealand, when I was here there was a resident population density closer to rural proportions.
Anyway, a guy came in looking for Don. Don wasn’t here I talked with him instead. Listened to his story. He needed money. I gave him some - $10 I recall. I told Don about the encounter and the man who had been looking for him. Don told me I shouldn’t have given him money. We talked about that and he finished by saying, “wait and see.” Inside the fortnight there was a stream of folk coming in asking for Jim. Pat Blood was working here at that time trying to straighten out the accounts and I recall he came looking for me to tell me that there was a chap wanting to speak with me and said he knew me. Of course, I had never met this guy before.
I was so naïve.
Eventually I learnt: It is about what is actually achieved and what one wants to achieve. Purpose. Very little of good purpose was achieved by me giving money.
I learnt: do not give money to everyone who begs or who wants to borrow. I learnt about listening, making cups of tea and wandering up with folk to the Mission.
It is the same purpose thing that is at stake when the Gospel speaks of perfection here.
All of the threads from the Sermon so far are drawn together – by all the threads I mean all the injunctions and admonitions – they are drawn together in the sentence “Be perfect, therefore, as your Father is perfect.”
The Greek word for perfection here has telos at its base. Telos is purpose or goal.
When Jesus tells us that we are to be perfect like God we are to have the same purpose in mind, the same goal.
While it looks like nonsense to command humans to be perfect, this is not the case.
The kind of perfection here in not one of sharing in the nature of God because, of course, we cannot share in the infinite nature. Rather we are being invited, indeed commanded, to share in the infinite life in as much as we can share in the same purpose.
We can have the same purpose as God has in God’s self in ourselves.
Some might ask, what is that purpose? and we know it is surely love.
Of course, our God loves with an infinite capacity thus God’s perfect love is absolute and of infinite proportions. But we are bid to love God and neighbour with all of our capacity, with all our heart, all of mind, all of our soul, and all of our strength. Like God we are love with our whole being. We may be small and finite creatures but we can love perfectly just like God loves perfectly, with all of our capacity.
So, in us and in God there can be nothing lacking in our completeness of purpose.
The perfecting of love is found first in loving God.
God, speaking to Abraham, says, "I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be perfect" (Gen 17:1). Aquinas would have it that “We walk before God not by bodily steps, but by spiritual affections.”
As I reflected on Aquinas’ words I can’t help but note that it seems that this is becoming the year of pilgrimages. A surprising number of groups and individuals are making pilgrimages up north. The Bishop of Dunedin is about to begin a pilgrimage form one end of his Diocese to the other. The new Bishop of Waikato has just completed a five-day pilgrimage across her Diocese. Physical bodily steps are spiritual affections one after another, a way of meditation and a kind of prayer.
I think that many in our world, in our wider community beyond the church are looking, seeking, aching even to find some clues to spiritual affection.
They want to know and even love God.
They want to know how to pray. It would be great thing if Christians were known as pray-ers as genuine and deep lovers of God. We might ask ourselves about how we are going in our perfect love of God.
Of course, the second dimension of our perfection comes in loving our neighbor hence, love your enemies, turn the other cheek, give to those who ask.
This is obviously costly love. This is love that risks not being returned even spurned.
It was the poet W H Auden’s birthday this week and amongst his great lines is the couplet:
“If equal affection cannot be, / Let the more loving one be me.”
This neighbor love looks like absolute folly and, … it is …. and would always be but it is Jesus who calls it forth from us, he who emptied himself, who gave up all, even his life.
Our Epistle might well have come from Colossians today
12 As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. 13 Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the God has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14 Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.