Key idea: We all have gifts; we don't always know what gift we have; gifts have to be 'unwrapped'; some gifts have to be 'constructed'; gifts have to be used; our gifts are for sharing with others.
Who got presents this morning?
another name for presents is...? gift
Did you know what your gift was when you first saw it?
I have a gift – uncover box
What is in it? Who knows?
How will we find out? unpack the box
You might think they are rubber bands, give out the green rubber bands – discuss what they could be for...
But! They are a 'reminder' ! – wear all day to remind us to be kind to one another and to remember to say thank you and smile. These are little gifts we can give all day.
I have a friend who had a baby whose birthday was Christmas Day.
Are any of you born on Christmas Day?
My friend said her baby was the best gift ever... But she didn't know that her baby would have lots of gifts to share with her and with others ... she only discovered this her baby girl grew up. This baby grew up and became ....what ?
Sometimes we hear the story about Jesus being born and we are told that the baby Jesus was God's gift to the people of the world. What do you think that could mean?
Well no one knew at first, not until he grew up and the story writers began to tell us about the things Jesus did when he was and adult. Things like be concerned about people who were sick or who didn't have enough to eat, or getting angry when people were unkind to each other, or when they thought that getting rich was more important than being kind. He didn't like it when one group of people bullied another, or tried to make them work for little wages.
Jesus had time to listen to people and to try to understand what they thought would make their lives happier.
What do you think some of the gifts that Jesus had could be called?
kindness, friendliness, love, anger(about things that were unkind), time to listen, caring, love, fairness (justice), healing (salvation)
Which of these gifts do you have?
What about your friends?
What about your Mum, Dad, grandma, grandpa...? What gifts do they have?
It is very important that as we go about our days – at school or home or work – we try to remember the special gifts that are ours... the more we use them and get good at using them, then the more gifts we will discover we have.
SHOW ANGEL – give out little angels
On Christmas Day we hear the stories about angels who, in the Bible, are God's messengers. They bring special good news to the shepherds who are very poor. But the shepherds didn't just say 'thank you very much for telling us about the baby in Bethlehem' then sit down again and cuddle their sheep to keep warm ... What did they do? Well the story tells us they went down from the hillside to see for themselves what was going on, to see how they could be part of what was happening. Many of our Christmas carols are about this story, about angels and shepherds and the baby in the manger ... and going to see what was happening. It was as if the shepherds wanted to unwrap the gift they had been told about and have a good look to see what it was.
Lots of the stories we have about Jesus are about him giving messages of good news to people, especially people who are poor, or who are sick, or who are not happy for some reason (it is as if he was giving these people little gifts of hope and encouragement to them). There are other stories where he is telling off the bullies and people who are unkind – they might have struggled to hear the 'good news gift' I think. But the good news he told them all was that things could be different for them, for everyone – the world could be a better place, they could all be happier. For some it would be about having more to eat and better places to live, for others it would be a sense of peace in their hearts, a quiet mind because they had done what they knew was the right thing. In the stories we have about Jesus he uses images like heavenly banquets, and salvation, and he uses stories about bread, and treasure, wine and promises.
The world would be different if the people who heard what Jesus had to say got involved in making it different: they had to use their gifts to make things different – to bring love and happiness, kindness, peace and gentleness to each other – if they helped each other; listened to each other; were friendly with one another even if they were different and lived in a different country.
The presents we get from the shops are great, they are lots of fun and we should say a big thank you very much for them.
The gifts we are born with are even more fantastic – they never wear out, and, the more we use them the more they grow.
And, they can be shared with others to make a difference, to make people happier.
Every time we smile when someone is sad, we are sharing one of God's gifts to us; every time we are kind when others are unkind, we share when others are being greedy, we stop and listen when others are rushing about, then God is close, and the angels message of good news to the world is being proclaimed.
If we learn to use the gifts we have well (if we unwrap them and – as sometimes is necessary – take time to put all the pieces together and learn how to use them) they can make the world a better place. If we can do this with our gifts then that will make us all happy people too.
Christmas is the time of year when we stop all our busyness, when we tell the story of the baby and the angels and the shepherds, when sing the Christmas carols and when we are invited to remember to look for the gifts that were given to us at our birth – the ones we can share without having to go shopping!
That was the angels good news,
The gifts of love, peace, compassion, hope were the gifts baby Jesus had to share as he grew up,
Why do we come to church in the dark tonight? Why this night and not other nights? We come to church in the dark on Easter Eve as well but there aren’t as many of you that night. What is it about Christmas that means we want to come to church, and to be here at midnight to usher in the day?
If we were living in some European countries we would be going home after this to Christmas dinner – reveillon as the French call it. I remember my first French Christmas in New Caledonia at the age of 13 – before we went to midnight mass we left a pair of shoes each under the tree and then when we came home our presents were there on top of our shoes. Still to this day I don’t know how the parents got those presents there!
Maybe coming to church in the dark seems more magical: the candlelight; the joy of being with friends and family. The sense of expectation is heightened.
Maybe there is something too about claiming the darkness. We heard in our gospel reading tonight: The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. John, the gospel writer, proclaims with confidence that light shines and cannot be overcome.
I don’t think I was ever really afraid of the dark as a child, but lots of children are. We are cautious even as adults of walking alone in the dark. We have security lights and street lights to help us feel secure. In our apartment building the lights in the corridors never go out. In the city the lights never go out. If you want to see some stars you need to get far away from the lights of the city.
Tonight we embrace the dark. We keep the lights in the church lower. We have lit the Christ candle on the Advent wreath, where we have been lighting one candle a week in a countdown to Christmas. Each of the purple candles represents a week of Advent and each candle has a meaning attached to it. The first one is for hope, the second for peace, the third for joy, and the fourth for love. Advent themes that lead us into Christmas. The candles bring light and the darkness does not overcome them. Hope, peace, joy and love are not overcome by the darkness.
The world this year has felt like it could maybe be overcome by darkness. It would be hard to say whether this year has been more “dark” than others; every year has its tragedies and calamities; who is to say one is “worse” than the other. It all depends often on how close you are to the particular darkness. Parisians will be feeling in need of light after the terrorist attacks; the thousands of refugees spending their first Christmas in the cold of Europe have sought light and hope. Closer to home our child poverty statistics are pretty dark.
Simply turning the lights up; more street lights, more security lighting, more candles, does not bring about change. What we need is a different kind of light. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
Thousands of years before John wrote these words, storytellers passing down the story of creation from the memories of their foremothers and forefathers, had said the same thing. “In the beginning God said “let there be light” and there was light. And God saw the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness.” (Gen 1:4-5). Many creation stories from the cultures of the world speak of the coming of light as essential to the beginning of life.
Like our own story of Rangi and Papatuanuku, the sky and the earth must separate to allow light and to bring forth life.
John’s poem or hymn of the coming of the Word begins in the same place: with light. The light is literally light that shines, like a candle or the sun. And the word “phos” in Greek can also mean understanding, enlightenment or truth. Biblical writers always use words with multiple meanings to encourage us to peel off the layers and wander about in their writing.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
Understanding shines in places of ignorance, and the darkness has not seized it.
So tonight in the dark we seek light and we seek understanding, or wisdom. And this light is not just a light as bright as the sun to blind us and banish the darkness. Instead it lives alongside the darkness – like night and day, both were declared good.
Barbara Brown Taylor, an American writer, has a book called Learning to Walk in the Dark and in it she recounts being taken to a cave by a friend so she could experience real darkness. In one cave before turning her headlamp off she spots a sparkly stone full of light and keeps it as a souvenir. When she gets home and takes it out of her bag it looks like a piece of gravel.  She says “I have learned things in the dark that I could never have learned in the light, things that have saved my life over and over again, so that there is really only one logical conclusion. I need darkness as much as I need light.” 
We don’t want life to be hard, we don’t want suffering for ourselves or others but we know too that from “dark” times in our lives can come learning and strength and hope. To bring about change in amongst the darkness of child poverty or the refugee crisis requires spending time listening and learning. It requires us to spend time in the darkness so we can find out how peoples and governments can work together. We can’t magically fix these problems even on this the most magical of nights. Rather with the strength of the light within, we can together listen and work and bring about change.
Jesus’ journey into our world began in the same way as each of us; in the darkness of the womb. There is an early church tradition that Jesus was born in a cave – which is entirely possible if the house the family stayed in was built against a hill and the section for the animals (which was inside the house) was that end of the house. He was born into the quietness and darkness of a humble home with a family and animals around.  His journey ended in the darkness of a tomb, also a cave. Then light broke into the darkness, the light of new life, or resurrection.
And so we gather tonight in the dark, the dark of a womb, the dark of a cave, the dark of the night, the dark of creation waiting for first light.
This darkness is good as God created it, and safe. We know there is much in the world that is not safe, much in the world that is sad and wrong and evil.
And so we come this night to seek the light, the light that was created at the beginning of time; and the light that was born that first Christmas night.
The light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
 Chapter 6 “Entering the Stone” Learning to Walk in the Dark 2014 Harper Collins
 Ibid p 5
 Kenneth Bailey Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes 2008 SPCK chapter 1
It is time for my annual grumpy Christmas sermon. By the time we get to the fourth Sunday of Advent I am usually over Christmas. And Christmas isn’t even here yet. I am over it because it is the end of the year and I guess I am a bit tired. I am over it because a church Christmas seems so irrelevant the Herald newspaper has cancelled Christmas notices this year. (And then tried to charge us double what we paid last year for an ad that will simply be in the classified section.) I am over the commercial Christmas where Westfield is proclaimed as “the home of Christmas” on a full page cover of the same Herald on November 19th! And I am saddened to see the hundreds of people lining up outside the City Mission to seek presents for their children. What kind of merry Christmas can it be when our child poverty rates are rising not falling?
But luckily for me and for you – this year in the lectionary we have my favourite Christmas passage. So I will stop being grumpy. Because what we read today and what a commercial Christmas looks like have nothing in common. Today we hear of the visit of Mary, the mother of Jesus with her cousin Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist.
In Ein Kerem near Jerusalem there is a church built to honour the visit of Mary to Elizabeth when they were both unexpectedly pregnant with their sons. It is called the Church of the Visitation. The Magnificat, the song of Mary, which comes after the passage we read today, is reproduced there in 42 languages. Set in beautiful tiles on the wall of the courtyard of the church her words can be read by all who come. 24 years ago when I was just 3 months pregnant with our daughter Hannah we visited Ein Kerem while we were spending a month in Israel/Palestine. All the members of our group thought it was pretty exciting that we were there, pregnant, and so did we, as we prayed for our baby.
Mary was just an ordinary girl who went to spend time with her cousin Elizabeth. Mary was escaping the shame and scandal and gossip of being an unmarried mother. She may well have been running for her life. No one was going to believe stories of angels; she did what young pregnant women have done for centuries – she got out of town! Elizabeth would have been the object of gossip as well, being pregnant later in life and her husband Zechariah mysteriously struck mute in the process. So the two women took refuge together, supported each other.
I was just an ordinary mother too, like millions before and after me. But the joy of becoming a mother feels unique and extraordinary to everyone. I think the first time you get pregnant you feel like Mary did, unique, chosen, it seems so amazing. I can remember on our trip to Palestine desperately wanting to “look” pregnant but of course I was only 3 months – and as slim as slim! Mary and Elizabeth would have shared thoughts like that, they would have sewed clothes for their babies, talked about their strange experiences, encouraged each other. And Mary would have assisted Elizabeth when the time came for John to be born. The biblical version of an antenatal support group.
Woven into this very personal every day encounter of 2 pregnant woman are threads of Israel’s history – when we hear Elizabeth’s words “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb” many of us might think of the RC prayer
Hail Mary, full of grace.
Our Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou among women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death.
The Hail Mary is of course based on Elizabeth’s words and is still prayed by millions every day. It sounds beautiful and it is beautiful.
But when Elizabeth said these words, or when Luke wrote them for her, they were referencing words found in the song of Deborah in the Book of Judges, and said of Judith in the Book of Judith (Apocrypha) . The song of Deborah (who was a prophet and judge in Israel in the 12th century BC) describes the murder of the Assyrian general Sisera by a woman, Jael. “Most blessed of women be Jael” it says, and then the song describes in grisly detail how she struck him with a tent peg and a mallet (Judges 5:24-27). The story of Judith is set in the time of the exile of the 6th century BC but is not thought to be history, rather a tale of a woman Judith held up as an example for the women of Israel to follow. She too kills her enemy (cuts off his head while he is sleeping) and is praised “O daughter you are blessed by the most High God above all women on earth”.
“Blessed are you among women” began life not as a pious prayer but as a war cry of praise of women who joined men in the battle to redeem Israel. Now Mary and Elizabeth join this line of women who bravely stood up to the oppressor. The personal, intimate encounter has woven into it threads of the macro history of the people of Israel. Luke is writing politics here.
And Luke is writing politics in the next verses. Luke says when Mary discovers her part in the story of God’s coming to earth she sings. She sings words based on the ancient song of her foremother Hannah. She sings about God and God’s blessings for the poor and lowly and those who had waited for generations for God to fulfill God’s promises. Her song is a very radical piece of theology about God changing the world. The St Matthew’s Voices are going to sing a Magnificat for us in a moment – they have sung one each Sunday of Advent – this one is composed by our own Michael Bell – it is in Latin so I will just remind you of the words:
My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants for ever. (Luke 1:46-55)
Mary was a girl who felt called by God to take risks, be brave, and bring a child into the world who would be God’s son. God dwelling with us, Emmanuel, the word made flesh. A child who would show us the way. At one level this is the story of an ordinary girl who had a baby. The way Luke writes it, it is the story of women claiming their place in the changing of our world forever.
So sing with Mary, sing with Elizabeth, delight in their stories and their courage and our hearts and minds will be alive with the transforming love of God this Christmas season.
 Richard Horsley The Liberation of Christmas; the infancy narratives in social context, p 84, 1989, Crossroad
Joy is today’s advent theme. Joy. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.” Yet our gospel reading starts off with John the Baptist calling the people who came to be baptised “you brood of vipers” and various other names. Not very joyful! I wonder if I should try that at the beginning of a baptism service – call the gathered congregation a brood of vipers – and see how I get on!
The poor old crowd gathered hoping for some good news – they had heard tis was the place to be – here they would be baptized and renewed – but when they get there they are told don’t think just because you are descended from Abraham and Sarah that gives you any rights; and you are like trees that are going to be chopped down, roots and all.
Someone in the crowd bravely asks – well what then should we do? what possible hope is there? And John’s tone changes markedly – oh actually there is lots you can do – phew! If you have two coats, share one with someone who has none; share your food too. Ok – that we can do – sharing food with those in need through foodbanks and the City Mission; but also making food for friends who are ill or just because we love them – we do that – and that brings us joy.
Sharing our clothes, bringing them to the Mission or other op shops – rather than selling them on Trade me. When I was dean of Napier Cathedral we had a thriving op shop but once Trade Me started it was harder to get good quality items to sell and our very good income gradually declined below the level of the rent – and recently the shop has closed. I always figure if I can afford to buy nice clothes I can also afford to give them away.
Ok so coats and food the crowd said – what next – the tax collectors come – and you know they were seen as very wicked – they colluded with the Romans and stole money for themselves. John says – that is ok – just collect the agreed amount – cut out the extortion and you will be ok.
Today we might translate this to deal fairly with people; pay what they deserve; in employment terms pay a living wage; no zero hour contracts; don’t always try and drive the hardest bargain; if you are an employer you find joy in treating people with respect and fairness; seeing them provide for their families. This we can do.
The soldiers come next – the same instruction – don’t extort money; treat people fairly; be satisfied with what you are paid and what you have. We might translate this to dealing honestly with each other and with respect and care; do not bully and harass people. And be satisfied with what you have – do not always want what the next person has – that is also the 10th commandment “you shall not covet anything which belongs to your neighbour”. The fact that I follow a website called Kate’s Closet dedicated to what the Duchess of Cambridge wears probably belongs in this category! being satisfied with what we have brings joy. This we can do. So – share food and coats; receive and give fairly. That is what will bring us joy.
Then all of a sudden John the Baptist is back with fire and brimstone where the chaff will be tossed into that fire. These strong words of John the Baptist that surround the practical and helpful words, might be harder to hear but they are still there to challenge us. Challenging us to watch who we follow, to be careful who we listen to.
The vipers of the Baptist’s day were the religious and political leaders who eventually asked for John’s head on a platter. We hear voices like them today (although we gain nothing by calling them vipers). We can though resist voices which want to hate and voices which label and dismiss. The worst example this week was the unmentionable things Donald Trump has said about people of Islamic faith. And the many fundamentalist and so called Christian leaders who are not far behind him. But there are other examples closer to home. This week we heard about work our security services are doing to follow those who might sympathise with ISIS. Women who might be ISIS sympathizers came up. PM John Key commented and said in relation to women travelling to Syria “There's certainly a few women that have left, engaged in these weddings effectively at the very last minute, and gone to Syria, and all of those factors would point to the fact that they're going as jihadist brides’” 
“Jihadist brides” – Anjum Rahman, a leader of the Moslem community in Hamilton, who was a speaker for our Mandela evening recently, commented that to use such a term was fear inducing and labels women who can be easily identified in our community. John Bluck in his sermon on Advent Sunday said “the vocation of every Christian in a time of crisis is to say what’s happening … to speak the truth. … God is the one who works from inside the crisis, not outside.” 
Watch our language, speak the truth; do not label a whole group of women whom we know nothing about; because labelling them increases the fear and hatred of others whose only connection to them is the wearing of a headscarf.
Christmas tends to be a time of year when we gather with family who we might not see all that often; and because we don’t get to choose our family we often end up in conversations that might be more varied than our usual dinner conversations. I can think of times over the years when I have put up with racist and sexist comments and glossed over them for the sake of family. But now I am older and maybe wiser I think we have to gently but firmly stand up when people around us are talking about “jihadist brides” or other terms that label and demean.
We can tell positive stories instead. Tonight at our Advent Carols service we will hear 3 stories of refugees who have come to Aotearoa; they are stories of families being reunited after years and years of waiting. A short summary of their lives in no way honours the long years of sorrow and emptiness before coming to live here. But to hear their stories will inspire you – and give you new language and new words to replace the language of vipers in our media.
For the same reason we hear each Sunday in Advent the story of someone supported by CWS – today’s story is about women living in coastal Southern India; learning to develop their own micro businesses and standing up for their rights and those of their daughters. Good positive stories that need to be told. And we support CWS in their work and have the privilege of hearing their stories. I hope you have taken home a donation envelope and send it in.
John the Baptist said – share your coats and your food – deal fairly and honestly with people – that we can do. And we can call on our leaders to do the same.
So where is the joy again? The joy is in the every day, ordinary sharing of food, of clothes, of resources; the joy is in treating people with respect and love; the joy is in hanging on to hope and looking for joy and telling stories of joy when our media is screaming fear and hatred at us.
Tonight you will hear the stories of Yonadab, Joseph and Mohamed alongside the prophets Isaiah, Matthew and Luke. We have heard the CWS stories of Tarek and his mother; Giselle, and the fisherwomen of India.  What stories of joy will you tell at your Christmas table this year?
I was complaining to John the other day that I always seem to preach 'political' sermons, sermons that seem to be a challenge either to action or to thinking – action and thinking in relation to our world and our faith and theology. He responded by asking me 'What season is this in the liturgical calendar?' And, 'Are you intending to preach the Gospel?' To which I replied 'Advent' to the first question and then 'yes' to the second. I thought about it a bit then I remembered what I used to say to students "Any half good sermon should be a message to yourself." So here I go again in the hope of challenging myself with the gospel once more – and perhaps you too.
When we watch the news unfolding on TV we are presented with unfathomable violence in Syria and terror perpetrated by ISIS; mindless gun violence in the USA; incomprehensible poverty in this land that forces children and families to live in cars and an increase in food parcels; the dreadfully sad breakdown of relationships that sees women and men murdered by people they once loved; political manoeuvring to keep 'self' in power; pay-rises and bonuses awarded to those with already eye-watering incomes; and decisions by leaders that ignore the plight of our planet earth in favour of increasing consumption. We are seeing history made by war generals, politicians, the power-hungry and the profit-mongers.
Then we come to church, perhaps seeking an antidote to the horror or in the hope of hearing stories that build up our faith; that bring us comfort. And we hear "Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked path shall be made straight and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God." Great, we might think, I can hope for that, ... but we need to pay attention to the beginning of the reading set for today, the bit where Luke sets out the historical context!
That is where we hear that it was the 15th year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and Annas and Caiaphas were high priests. All who heard the writings of Luke would have known what this was telling them – what was encoded in that little bit of history. They would have know that when John began preaching his message of repentance and baptism Tiberius from his base in Rome was engaged in a bloody purge of anyone who seemed to be in opposition to him and the Roman rule, Herod was bleeding the treasury in Galilee dry, and eventually, in about AD29, was responsible for decapitating John the Baptist; and Pontius Pilate authorised Jesus' crucifixion only a few years later. The times were terrible – we are hearing stories about politicians, war generals, the power-hungry and the profit mongers!
John the Baptist in many ways was a 'voice in the wilderness' calling for repentance, for a change of mind amongst the leaders, for a conversion to a different way. It might seem to us he was dreaming of seemingly impossible changes that would bring about a world of peace with justice and love in the face of the corruption and violence he and his contemporaries were experiencing. And his cousin Jesus took up the 'dream' too, also calling for a change of heart and mind, for a broadening of the horizons of compassion. He was directly confronting those in places of power while at the same time building a people's movement to oppose the corruption, marginalisation and social disregard that was rife. Both Jesus and John demand a change in behaviour, as well as mindset, amongst their followers in how they treated each other and in what they were prepared to accept. They demanded a change amongst those with power in relation to their priorities and their sense of responsibility. Both men reached back to the first Testament prophets and wisdom teachers to give substance to the dream of a new and redeemed world, a world saved from despair. Both men were killed within a few years of each other. We should not be surprised about that. We too know what happens to those who speak and act contrary to prevailing power.
We could tell a version of Luke's story in our own time citing Syrian leadership and ISIS, noting the supply of weapons of war from Russia and countries in the western alliance; we could tell of the migration of millions of refugees trying to escape the horrors of their homeland; we could point to racism and sexual violence and to poverty here in our homeland; we could name those in leadership – presidents and dictators, CEOs and those holding ministerial office – all leading the way to water shortages, and poverty, to rising sea levels, to war and to the continuing abuse of women and children. We know the names of many of them. Do we have the courage to shout out about it, to be voices in the wilderness in our own time demanding repentance, demanding a change of mind about what is important in earth today? Are we preparing to doing that? As Bishop John said last week "There are no easy answers to any of it. But we can speak out."
We know that the primary theme in the liturgical season of Advent is preparing, getting ready. This year I have dared to confront myself and ask "For what? What am I preparing for as these weeks unfold?" In church we say in all seriousness 'we are preparing for the birth of the Christ Child' – the one we sing about as the hope of the world, the child of peace, the child of love. But the Advent readings we hear are not about that baby... they are about the world of 2000+ years ago, the horrors of corrupt leadership, and the desperate need for different thinking – for a change of mind and a broadening of vision. They are about not losing hope in the dream of a world where peace and hope and love are key markers in decisions and relationships. We need to be prepared to keep the dream alive even in the face of today's horrors.
John the Baptist, and then Jesus, the dreamers, were killed: one decapitated and one crucified. But the dream of peace with justice that empowered their lives has reached through the centuries to us. They leave us with a sacred and solemn charge. Does it still have power enough to challenge us to change our expectations of what is 'normal', to change our minds and our attitudes and behaviours about how we – all the people of the earth – live together and manage our finite resources?
I read somewhere once "we can choose to do justice out of love, or we can choose to be violent out of pain." There are lots of people today for whom violence seems to be the choice. For those of us who gather in holy places such as this and hear the stories of John the Baptist and Jesus and others, our ancestors in the faith, the invitation is to choose to do justice out of love. That requires courage.
Are we preparing for what this means for us in the coming year?
I would be hesitant to tell some people I know and love just what I was doing this morning. Going to church? Well, most of them have guessed I still do that. At St Matthews in the city? Well, for the hipsters and the people who know a thing or two, that’s not so bad if you have to go anywhere near a church.
But on Advent Sunday 2015 to be reading a story about the Son of Man, whoever that is, coming down on a cloud, well, I ask you.
And to try and take that story half way seriously, for a contemporary metro Auckland man or woman, is seriously delusional territory.
The verses that follow the cloud bit do offer a little more resonance with today’s life and times. On the eve of the climate change summit in Paris, a crisis meeting for which failure is not an option if you are among the hundreds of millions who live at sea level around the globe, the gospel words are highly topical: “Nations stand helpless, not knowing which way to turn from the roar and surge of the sea; people faint with terror at the thought of what is coming upon the world..”
Okay, okay. But the Son of Man coming down on a cloud? What are we going to do with that? And not on any old day, what’s more. But on this first Sunday of the church’s year, where we set ourselves up for Christmas and Easter and the whole long procession of living out the Christian story. This is one text, on one day that we somehow or other, have to take seriously.
I could crack a few more jokes about the things that come down on clouds and make some links to the new season of Star Wars and the latest James Bond, but that won’t help us engage with this inconvenient text whose time is out of joint.
And why do we have to deal with it on Advent Sunday? Well, it is the season when we’re asked, pre-Christmas, to do a stocktake on our lives. Not just a personal health check, physically and spiritually, but a 360 degree review of our life and the world around us.
And as we start to do that, we find ourselves in a curious bind. On the one hand, for not all but many of us, things are going along OK. As I sat at home in Pakiri, trying to prepare for this morning, the sun was shining and the roses outside were blooming in their early summer glory, and the green lawn shimmered, and there was no cloud in the sky.
New Zealand is in complacent mode. We’ve got the Rugby World Cup safely locked up for four years, even if the Aussies are venting their spleen by locking some of us up in off shore detention centres. We haven’t had a terrorist attack, yet. Business confidence is up, mortage rates are way down and chances are we’ll jog our way into Christmas inside a consumer spend up haze of happy hedonism.
God’s in heaven and there is a lot right with the world. Except it’s falling apart. That’s the other side of the bind we’re in.
There’s a new global crisis to report every night on the news. Isis terror, unmanageable numbers of refugees, climate change wreaking havoc, basket case economies in Europe and Africa. Add to that the corruption in athletics, football, the scandals of abuse in churches, schools, hospitals, police forces. Institutions that are meant to protect and heal and unite us too often alienate and divide.
And under all of that, the weight of suppressed memories of earlier tragedies that went unspoken and unresolved. I listened to a radio programme last week where survivors of Gallipoli spoke of their time at Chanuk Bair and Pyne’s Gap, living for weeks with dysentery, horrific infections, amidst rotting bodies, under sniper fire, following pointless orders. If their mothers had known what was happening to their sons, said the interviewer, the war would have ended immediately.
But they didn’t know and it didn’t end. It only got worse. Sebasatian Faulk in his new novel “Where my heart used to beat” says humankind did an about face in that war. The survivors who trailed home were different from the 19th century men who had first gone out. There was probably a day, a single hour, a moment, (in the midst of some unspeakable horror at Ypres or Verdun or the Somme when a soldier) was chest deep in gore and “in his heart had a new and terrible knowledge. That we were not what we had thought we were – superior to other living creatures. No. We were the lowest thing on earth… The legacy of those years is that they legitimised contempt for individual life”.
It‘s a contempt we’re still breeding, not only with Isis, but right here at home. In our own parliament two weeks ago, women members stood to try and tell their own stories of family abuse to challenge the casual accusations of rape being bandied about. We live on a thin crust of normality that covers a hidden landscape of history we have yet to own and talk about. Our take it easy, she’ll be right Kiwi culture has a low pain threshold.
The Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggeman calls this dysfunctional, desperate face of the world the “terrible ungluing”. The things that once held us together are falling apart, the inequality gap between rich and poor, hungry children and well fed, haves and have nots keeps growing and our ability to address that, engage with that, let alone solve that, keeps diminishing.
The Son of Man on a cloud may not be the best image to describe this, but the idea of “heaven and earth will pass away” still works for me. You have to reach up to the top shelf of all the language available to even begin to tap the enormity of what is happening to us and our world, right now. The measure of the crisis is almost beyond any words.
But we have to try.
Because the vocation of every Christian in a time of crisis is to say what’s happening, out loud, over and over. To speak the truth, even if it’s deemed unspeakable, unbearable; to uncover what is hidden, even if it’s inconvenient, disturbing. We have an Official Information Act to help us do that, but more powerful still, we have a gospel that says the truth will set us free and calls us to be alert to the kingdom, the reign of God that is breaking in all around us, even in the midst of the crisis.
The old images of a God that comes in from the outside, on clouds or whatever don’t work for us because our world view has changed so radically. Angels don’t peep through the stratosphere, in-between the airliners. The God we know in Jesus Christ is the one who works from inside not outside the crisis, as participant not observer, as the one who shares in the suffering because it is God’s suffering. What happened to Jesus happened to God. What happens to the victims of abuse and oppression and pollution happens to the God in whose image we are made and in whose life we find our life and being, each one of us, Christian, Muslim, Jew, whatever.
And for that reason, for God’s sake as much as for our sake, we have to talk about what’s happening, find words to name the injustice, to unmask the lies. When we demean and do violence to each other, when we treat people who are different from us as less than us, especially right now if they are Muslim believers, we demean and do violence to God.
The only way to deal with this “terrible ungluing” that haunts us through this Advent season is to keep looking for words and then actions that will name the terrors that face us and share in the pain and confusion and the point to the ways through the troubles ahead. There are words and thoughts and lessons that are waiting for us to find. But we’ve got to reach for them. Listen to these words of the poet and priest Malcolm Guite:
I cannot think unless I have been thought,
Nor can I speak unless I have been spoken.
I cannot teach except as I am taught,
Or break the bread except as I am broken.
In this Advent season, within this marvellous community of St Matthews in the heart of this chaotic city, our vocation as people becoming Christian, however slowly and uncertainly, is to give each other the strength and permission to think and speak about the things that the world around us would rather avoid, and to risk being broken ourselves by sharing the weight of the broken people around us.
That sounds like a heavy order. And it is. But in the midst of delivering it, Jesus tells another story, right after about the warnings of the son of man descending.
He tells us to look at the fig tree sprouting. As soon as it does, and it is right now, then you can see for yourselves that summer is near. The signs of trouble also hold the seeds of promise. If you are able to take the heat and stand in the middle of the grief and trouble, to find some words to describe honestly what’s going on, then “stand upright and hold your heads high because your liberation is near.
In the middle of the storm there is a curious calm. When you let yourself be really engaged in the suffering around you, there is an extraordinary freedom to be found.
Be alert, says Jesus, pray for the strength to pass safely through all these troubles, and you will find yourself standing in the presence of God.
I want to read you a letter that I received by email this past week.
how sad that a Christian church will seek to honour the memory of a man who espoused Communism with violence, and, when he obtained power, treated in utero children as Hitler treated Jews. I guess that it’s just another demonstration of the descent of Anglicanism into a tool of rabid left-wing political and social activists.
I am feeling the weight of responsibility as I stand here this morning after what we have been considering for the past two days and the news yesterday of the attacks in Paris!..
The writer of Mark’s Gospel tells us Jesus said to his disciples “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray.
It behoves us to take stock from time to time and to ask ourselves “Are we being led astray?” and to wonder how we would know if we were! Can we tell national fanaticism from appropriate national and cultural pride? Can we find values in people different from us that enable us to celebrate our common humanity? Can we respect communities different from our own while condemning the actions of individuals?
This weekend we have been exploring the legacy of a world leader of our time, Nelson Mandela. He was here at St Matthews 20 years ago. We have been considering his challenge: to defeat the powers of racism, to overcome prejudice and social segregation, to build diverse and respectful nations. We have been led in our work this weekend by two Anglican Clergy: Bob Scott who worked for many years in anti-racism both here in Aotearoa-New Zealand and in Geneva, in the WWC Programme to Overcome Racism. The other person was Andrew Beyer, a priest of this parish who on behalf of St Matthew’s, along with other groups active in what became known as 'MOST' (Mobilisation to Stop the Tour) led of many hundreds of people week after week in 1981, in protest marches against the South African Apartheid regime, represented in what we called the ‘racist tour’ of the Springbok rugby team to NZ. The mobilisation of people power was successful from the perspective of those of us involved in the movement as the Hamilton game was stopped thereby drawing international attention to the issue of apartheid – that system of government that discriminated, separated and segregated at all levels of and structures of society according to race.. World pressure on the regime increased and shortly after the South African regime of apartheid came to an end.
Through the unrelenting work to keep in focus the issues of racism that Bob and Andrew were engaged in, along with many women and men (including our own George Armstrong) from different churches and community groups, the people of NZ were challenged sharply to face up to expressions of racism and discrimination in our own society.
It was easier back then to look overseas and to make loud tutting noises at what we saw overseas, than it was for us to look into our own communities and families and insist on an acknowledgement of the changes we needed to make in our own nation. But the work of anti-racism, of bicultural development and the urgent need to overcome personal prejudice, had begun and none could escape it. The whole country was engaged in the conversation and held an opinion one way or another: supportive or resistant; many families struggled with intensely held differences.
In 1995, 20 years ago Nelson Mandela came to this church.
He thanked the people here, from church and from the wider community who were also present, for their commitment to the struggle to overcome racism and to the consequences of intolerance.
more than 30 years since the ferment following the 1981 tour that focussed urgency for change here in NZ;
more than 30 years since the cry to honour the Treaty of Waitangi;
and more than 30 years since the Rev'd John Mullane Vicar of St Matthew’s, urged the Anglican church in its commitment to bicultural development that gathered momentum and led to the revision of our Anglican constitution,
questions of racism, prejudice, social segregation and racial stereotyping are back on the agenda of our ‘super-diverse’ city as they have not been for some time. The language is different, the focus has shifted, our communities are even more diverse but the impact of racism and prejudice are just as pernicious.
Today, once more, there is urgent need to open our hearts and minds and eyes to what is happening to the people of our communities. Once more there is need to look closely and notice the subtle expressions of racial stereotyping reported in our media, and to be aware of the not so subtle racism expressed in the negative statistics in health, education, employment.
Who are the leaders of today who will show us a way to a compassionate expression of our common humanity before we spiral into the ghettos of fear and exclusion that lead to violence?
What we do know about leadership is that anytime it leads us into fear, into isolation, segregation or hate it is bad; it is leading us astray, it has to be challenged. Leadership worthy of our allegiance is leadership that encourages us to overcome our fear of difference, that models and encourages respect, that includes and supports people and groups of people who struggle.
The apocalyptic reading from the Gospel of Mark that we heard this morning, is probably not (according to scholars), part of the collection of authentic Jesus sayings. But that is not to discount it as it certainly points to the overall purpose of Mark's Gospel. This gospel has urgency about it: there is no time to waste in changing hearts and minds, and there is no time to waste in choosing the 'way of Jesus' that leads toward a better, healthier world. The writer was addressing a community that seemed to believe the second coming imminent. This Gospel records persuasively, the ministry activity and teaching of Jesus highlighting how and why we should be following the Way of Jesus, choosing to live differently…
Another wave of persecution had begun for them, and with it violence toward those who did not conform or who dared to speak out against the prevailing norms and oppressive racist powers: 'nation will rise against nation', the writer has Jesus say, death and destruction are at hand. So, the writer urges through his gospel, take up the Jesus Way that leads to a different, better life for all. This Way includes standing against the powers of oppression and death, standing against structural injustice, against discrimination and standing for a kinder, gentler way of respect and inclusion. The 'Jesus Way' requires openness to difference, compassion, love, and justice for those on the margins; it leads to life in harmony with neighbours and the earth; to ways that release the life-giving spirit of God. We seek leaders who will lead us into these ways.
Hannah's prayer, the reading from the First Testament that we heard earlier, paints a word picture of how our world could be if God's vision for creation was realised: the bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength. Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread. but those who were hungry are fat. God will raise up the poor from the dust and lift the needy from the ash heap. And what is more all the components are present amongst us. We hear resonances of Hanna's prayer in Mary's Song when Jesus is conceived, it is the prayers of these two women that seem to lie behind the vision the Jesus Way leads us toward.
It seems to me, that once more churches like St Matthew-in-the-City need to hold a place for leaders who will encourage us on the way that leads us beyond our fear of change, beyond our limited experience of difference and toward peaceful and just co-existence. We can all be these leaders in our own places of influence – homes, amongst friends, at work...
It seems to me we have rested long enough on the achievements of the past. That once more it is time to mobilise and move further along the way toward the place where the feeble find strength, the hungry find bread and the needy sit in places of honour.
I can think of nothing better than to give Nelson Mandela the last word on this day. So, as he says in the final paragraph of his book 'Long Walk to Freedom'
"I have walked the long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hiss, one finds there are many more hill to climb. I have take a moment to here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can rest only for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger for my long walk to freedom is not yet ended."
On ANZAC Day I sowed poppy seeds in my garden and today as I write this sermon I have the joy of these beautiful red poppies; the quintessential emblem of the Great War. St Matthew in the City has a number of memorials within the church such as our choir stalls and pews, a number of brass plagues, and a marble memorial on the South wall. This parish lost many of its young men to this war. We are now in year two of the centennial of “The war to end all war.”
Many of you may have studied history as I did at school and I still remember the causes of the WWI and AJP Taylor which we studied for both School Certificate and University Entrance. Why we studied this for both exams has always puzzled me and I remember my history teacher explaining to me that by the sixth form we were expected to give much more detailed answers!
The social and political impact of this war was immense.
World War I resulted in the death of empires and the birth of nations, and in national boundaries being redrawn around the world. It ushered in prosperity for some countries, while it brought economic depression to others. It influenced literature. It changed culture. It did not end war.
The war, especially the Gallipoli campaign, also had a marked influence on the development of a distinctive New Zealand national identity.16,697 New Zealand soldiers died in WWI and about another 80,000 men who survived, suffering from the effects of wounds, gassing and shell shock. This shell shock is now called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD. We also had 550 nurses who were officially employed overseas and probably another 500 or so including doctors and volunteers who were not officially part the war effort and these were all women and are usually forgotten.
Our widow in the Gospel is also easily unnoticed and forgotten her generosity unobserved. The widow simply makes her gift to the temple treasury from an impulse of faith. An impulse that discloses her quiet gratitude and trust in God. Jesus sees in this woman a genuine heart, a grateful spirit and a generous attitude. Or is this what he sees. He sees the Jewish elite devouring the ‘widows houses’ and leaving them with nothing. This is a lament, an example of exploitation of the disadvantaged widows in the Palestinian society of the first century of the CE.
Jesus wasn’t praising the poor widow for her trusting gift; he was giving the religious and political elite the condemnation they so rightly deserved for creating and perpetuating a society that conditions widows like her to give away money she needed to feed herself with.
The thousands of men and women who volunteered one hundred years ago also had generosity of heart, spirit and attitude. Many paid with their lives and those who returned were changed forever by the experience. World War I had important effects on society at large. If you have watched the series Downton Abbey, this social change of the war is well illustrated. The household staff is reduced in number; technology in the form of the motor car and other forms of mechanisation has changed the way of production and work on the land less people are needed. New opportunities are opened up for the middle and lower classes. The women of the household are becoming managers of the estate and taking control of their own lives. Generally, the war brought an increase in progressive thinking. In many parts of the world, opportunities for lower and middle class people improved, while members of the aristocracy found their power waning.
While the men were away fighting women were employed in the civil service, munitions factories, on the land, docklands and tramways. All roles traditionally filled by men. However at the end of the war they were expected to give up these roles and return to life as if the War of all War had never happened. Of course some women did return to their traditional roles however many did not, women’s extensive war participation helped convince the British politicians that it would be alright to give women the vote nevertheless it took until 1928 for this to be achieved. On the other hand down at the bottom of the world New Zealand had given women the vote in 1893, why this happened is a topic for discussion at another time.
Women cut their hair wore shorter skirts even trousers, life would never be the same. Full employment due to the war effort, rationing, rent control and increased consumption of milk and eggs, and improved social provision meant that working-class families were better off. Indeed, on average working-class incomes doubled between 1914 and 1920 in Britain.
A New Zealand woman by the name of Ethel Watkins Taylor born in Onehunga and of Ngapuhi descent volunteered in 1914 as a nurse in the New Zealand Army Nursing Service. She serviced mainly in Egypt caring for our soldiers in a hospital of tents. When she returned to New Zealand she was appointed the Native Health Nurse at Te Karaka and was awarded the MBE for her work in the community.
The social change was immense.
A number of peace organisations were formed in response to World War I such as the Fellowship of Reconciliation and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. The determination of 1200 spirited women from 12 countries who gathered in The Hague in 1915 as war raged. They drew up 20 proposals for stopping the war by a negotiated peace and took these personally to world leaders. While they didn’t succeed, changes occurred for those who as conscientious objectors, refused conscription – a right which has since been endorsed by the United Nations but sadly is still not recognised in all countries.
The social and political landscape changed forever.
Today our world is engulfed in war again being fought in the Middle East. A conflict that seems so immense that it is seemingly impossible for our current world powers to stop. A negotiation towards peace is insurmountable. This current conflict has been described by theologian Karen Armstrong as being a result of Western social change being incomprehensible to the Middle Eastern Muslim mind. In Karen Armstrong’s book, Fields of Blood she states, “…we must find ways of contemplating these distressing facts of modern life or we will lose the best part of our humanity. Somehow we have to find ways of doing what religion – at its best – has done for centuries: build a sense of global community, cultivate a sense of reverence and ‘equanimity for all, and take responsibility for the suffering we see in the world.”
Mark’s Jesus advocated for social change he challenged the occupying Roman Empire and the collaborating Jewish elite. His message was one of empowering the disenfranchised such as our widow in today’s Gospel. It is doubtful that the intention of war is to bring about social change nevertheless this is what happened after the ‘war to end all war.’
 Lazarus was brother to Mary and Martha. They were family, they grew up together. Jesus knew them well, he stayed with them often, they were close. Families, friendships, the stuff of life. Mary sat once at the feet of Jesus to listen and learn, Martha complained to him and said, make her come and help me in the kitchen. Jesus declined, he was happy to teach Mary.
When word came to Jesus that Lazarus was ill he didn’t seem too concerned, nor did he hurry to his bedside; hardly the actions of a friend. And so when he finally arrives Lazarus is dead and already buried. Mary is angry “if you had been here my brother would not have died”. Jesus weeps, and is disturbed in spirit. What does that mean, he is disturbed in spirit? He is upset, he sobs. Jesus at his most human. But some of the crowd scoff “if he opened the eyes of a blind man, could he not have stopped this man from dying?” He goes to the tomb and tells them to roll away the stone from the entrance to the cave. Martha, ever practical, points out that it might be a little smelly. Somewhere here Jesus is no longer the human Jesus, the friend weeping, he is Jesus Christ, the son of God. John weaves the two together in this story. And Jesus says “Lazarus, come out”. How did the crowd react? Gasps, scoffing still, silence? And Lazarus comes out. He is wrapped in the grave cloths (wrapped up like an Egyptian mummy). “Unbind him, and let him go.” Unbind him.
On a day when we gather to mourn our loved ones what use is a reading about Jesus raising someone from the dead? What are we supposed to do with that? It all seems too fanciful. And what about the people we love who have died too young, what about them? On our list of names today I know there are children, young people. What was so special about Lazarus? What about our brothers and sisters and friends whom we weep for, what about them. What was so special about Lazarus? Unbind him, unbind him and let him go.
Why does John give us this story? Well, there is the tomb, there is a stone which has to be rolled away, days have passed, there are grave clothes left behind, and the women are there. Is this about Jesus’ own death and resurrection?
Maybe; but I am drawn back to those words: Unbind him.  This is the same word used by John the Baptist when he says “I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.” (Mark 1:7) Unbind could mean untie him, the simple untying of the grave cloths.
Unbind, the same word used for the promise to Peter “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:19) Peter was being given, power and control over life itself, whose sins would be forgiven, who would be set free.
The same word used when Jesus heals a woman crippled with disability and is criticized for it: “And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?” (Luke 13:16). People set free from sin; set free from bondage; people set free from what binds them. Unbind her and let her go.
The raising of Lazarus certainly echoes the resurrection of Jesus. But it is more than Lazarus being raised (as if that is not enough). Unbind him; set her free.
Today we come to mourn and we come to be set free. What is it that binds you? What are the grave cloths that hold you down, or hold you back. It might be grief, it might be resentment, it might be disappointment, it might be fatigue, it might be violence, it might be someone else controlling your life. They are like the “shroud” the prophet Isaiah spoke of “that is cast over all peoples.”  The shroud of death and fear which darkens our sky.
What binds us are not just personal fears but world issues as well: poverty, violence, racism, environmental crises. We are bound tight in our grave cloths. Death haunts us at every turn, in many guises.
One writer says: “As followers of Jesus, we cannot save death and dying for the end of our lives.”  Paul in his letter to the Romans says: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead, so we too might walk in newness of life.” (Romans 6:3-4). Our baptism service says “We thank you that through the waters of baptism you cleanse us, renew us by your Spirit and raise us to new life.” 
Every day in our lives as Christians we stare death in the face. We experience death in the loss of our loved ones and we experience death in all the things in this world which diminish us and dehumanize us. From the global tragedies to the personal tragedies. Why do we bother? Why do we carry on? Because Jesus calls us to stand up and walk out of that grave. We rise every day from the waters of baptism and claim our freedom. We hold out our arms as he unwinds the grave wrappings and sets us free.
James Wall, writing in the Christian Century some years ago said “Death is part of God's plan, of course, but that is no reason to accept it without protest.”  We claim life every day. We claim life in the face of death. And we can claim life because Jesus has been there before us. Lazarus and Martha and Mary have been there before us. Jesus wept, Mary and Martha wept. It wasn’t a game or a pretence, it was real. They wept, they suffered, they knew pain and sorrow.
“Lazarus come out” he said. “Unbind him and let him go”. Can we hear those words for ourselves and know they are spoken to each of us? Can we embrace life with confidence knowing that God is with us, loves us and weeps with us?
We respond to God’s call each week in our liturgy in different ways. In the eucharistic prayer we are using today which is more traditional than our usual liturgy we say “Glory to you Lord Christ; your death we show forth; your resurrection we proclaim; your coming we await; Amen! Come Lord Jesus.”  Those words stare death in the face and walk out of the grave.
In the liturgy we have been using in ordinary time we say “Jesus threw open the doors of freedom, casting out the darkness of our hearts”. There is a Taize chant we often sing before communion “love triumphs over fear.”
These words are all about what we bring bound up to the table and what unbinds us and sends us on our way.
How do we live out those words which send us from the table? How do we live out the resurrection we celebrate, as we eat bread and sip wine?
We live out those words by living our lives of faith. By caring for a partner who is dying; by walking with our friends who have lost a child; by bringing hope and laughter to someone who is depressed; by cooking and mowing lawns and sharing cups of coffee. By protesting and lamenting and saying to God, this is so wrong, and believing in God anyway.
“As followers of Jesus, we cannot save death and dying for the end of our lives.”  We walk free from the tomb of death every day. Hear Jesus calling you out. Unbind him and let him go; unbind her and let her go; the words are spoken for you.
 The original version of this sermon was preached in Waiapu Cathedral, Napier on 1 November 2009 and published in my thesis Guests in the House; Preaching a Cathedral Ministry Feb 2010 (Seabury Western).
Do experience a sense of euphoria – yeah! miracles happen, Jesus can fix physical imperfections, Jesus can fix me!
Or do you experience despair – what am I doing wrong, Jesus hasn't fixed me!
Or do you experience a sense of emptiness, sadness even – nothing like that can possibly happen, ever, miracles don't actually happen.
Well, I thought I would 'bring' Jesus to church today, so to speak, to see if he could shed some light on the matter – help us to see what is this story might be about.
I know it is a bit unusual to bring Jesus into church, and in fact it is a bit risky. If we could hear Jesus speak about this 'incident report' we might not recognise what he says as being him at all! I'm a bit nervous because we are not always welcoming to people we do not know well, and, we actually don't know Jesus very well. And, we are often cautious about people who turn out to be different from what we expect – the Jesus of history is likely very different from the Jesus of the Church's stories about him.
You know I am not actually going to bring a physical man called Jesus to church, but I do want to consider the story we have just heard from the perspective of an earthy human Jesus – someone with 'wisdom' to share about life and community – rather than from the perspective of the more 'traditionally church' 'risen Christ Jesus', the divine one who can 'change the course of nature'.
It seems to me that in church we most readily abandon the man Jesus on the Golgotha hillside and look back at the 30 or so years of his life from a place of 'virtual reality'. It is as if 'Christ' is the avatar we 'play' with, that we have built on the historic person of Jesus. We have become such good 'gamers' in the virtual story that we find it very hard to identify the difference between history and metaphor, the individual and the collective, miracles and healing, even between Jesus and 'the Christ'. And, it is the 'Christ' that has come to dominate our interpretative perspectives when we hear the stories drawn from Jesus life such as this one about Bartimaeus. This is not surprising really, thanks to Paul, the Christ obsessed convert and spin doctor, who offered the hearers of his own day (and those of us who followed) an emphasis on protest against structural injustice, redistribution of wealth, the possibility of peace, the celebration of diversity...
We owe Paul a heap of thanks, because it was him and his obsession that was instrumental in creating the myths that embrace the man Jesus – those big stories about life, and healing: creation and salvation – that still have the power to change lives today (and which are at the heart of 'church at its best).
So let's join the story where blind Bartimaeus is sitting on his cloak at the Jericho gate midst a crowd and meets Jesus. Scholars say there is no evidence of historicity in this story but that doesn't matter because it is pointing us toward a significant 'truth'; the kernel of the myth that surrounds Jesus and makes claims he can change lives.
To help us understand the 'truth' contained in what is often discussed as a 'miracle story' let us note a few interesting features of the story:
Bartimaeus – is a curious name meaning 'son of poverty'
Bartimaeus asks to 'see again'
The Greek translates literally as "he looked up" rather than 'received his sight'
The crowd was trying to double his disability by making him mute.
Jesus tells Bartimaeus to 'go' not to 'follow'
This story told by Mark, with all its interesting allusions, comes at the end of a long journey through towns and villages where Jesus has, once more, been teaching crowds as well as his disciples.
Sometimes interpreters locate it in the genre of allegory rather than 'miracle' story. Then we assign ourselves places within the story amongst the many allegorical features so we can ponder our behaviour.
This is not un-useful, but what if we take another tack?
What if we consider it as a parable, a piece of wisdom teaching from Jesus such as we are invited to do by contemporary 'Jesus scholars' (Borg, Galston).
Then we come to Jericho, where we find Bartimaeus yelling at Jesus. Jesus says to him 'what do you want from me now?' or words to that effect. "Let me see again" Bartimaeus replies. The earthy, human Jesus replies to his apparent loss of vision with "Go, you know all you need to know: the vision you want to rediscover is out there amongst the people".
As with all good teachers, Jesus tells Bartimaeus to go, to get on with his own stuff. He – Jesus – doesn't want just followers and perpetual students hanging around, he wants people with vision of what can be done to make the world a better place and the courage to act on that vision.
It seems to me, many of us need to rediscover our vision of a more kind and generous world, to recapture our courage to get on with the work of building relationships, giving a voice to those we all o frequently silence, and generally to start living in ways that demonstrate we believe the world can be a better place.
'Go', says Jesus the wisdom teacher 'you know what needs to be done – get on with it! He might say to us today "Stop being perpetual students who hang about attending this lecture and that, this workshop and that, accumulating more and more information. Rather go and ensure the structures of society are not racist or promoting racial discrimination, insist on a fair distribution the wealth we have, do all you can to support efforts to manage climate change"...
I want to say – if you need a miracle, and we all need one from time to time, then let it be this:
Jesus, the wisdom teacher, encouraged his followers, ordinary people, to have faith
that ordinary people (like us) have enough insight into our own social situations to know what needs to be done to make them places of respect, compassion and wellbeing
that we can find enough courage to bring necessary change about, if we support each other rather than silence each other
that the vision of a creative future is to be found in the diversity of our community as we learn to live and work together
Jesus sends out 70 to represent him – the All Black squad has 31 players but I am sure by the time you add all the support staff and coaches you will get closer to a good biblical number of 70. We send our players out to take on the world and we watch their successes and their failures. There is much commentary on their training, their abilities and those of the opposing teams. We would never send our All Blacks out unprepared, without training; and certainly not without bags of gear – their uniforms, suits, boots; all with appropriate sponsor logos for maximum exposure.
Jesus on the other hand sends 70 of his disciples out with nothing but themselves. Why 70? Well Moses commissioned 70 way back in the days of the exodus from Egypt (Exodus 24) and 70 was considered a number which encompassed all peoples – because there were 70 descendants of Noah listed in Genesis chapter 10. So sending 70 meant sending enough to cover the whole earth and all peoples. (Let’s hope the All Blacks can keep managing with 15 of their 31).
Of the four gospel writers Luke is the one with the widest vision of how the Jesus movement is going to reach to the ends of the earth. Luke is the only writer to have Jesus send out 70 disciples (instead of 12). Luke (or the writer we call Luke) is also the author of the Book of Acts which records the expansion of the early churches. Luke places an emphasis on connecting with the Gentiles or foreigners. He tells more stories about women, has a focus on the poor and the outcast. Without Luke we wouldn’t have the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, and the road to Emmaus. We also wouldn’t have the angel Gabriel visiting Mary, the shepherds in the birth story, and the Magnificat and the Song of Simeon.
The setting for today’s passage is Samaria – remember Samaritans were despised by their Jewish neighbours – and so Luke has Jesus send the 70 on their first mission to Samaria where they might expect not to be welcome. But they are not to take bags of camping gear in case no one welcomes them – they are to have no purse, no bag, no extra pair of shoes. If they are welcomed they are to stay, and if not they are to move on. They are to be clear that they come in peace and not with the usual Jewish / Samaritan hostility.
The 70 are just to bring themselves, their knowledge of Jesus, their desire for a better world, their faith, and the clothes they stand up in. Wouldn’t work for a rugby team. Or would it? Once the rugby team gets on the field, it is just them and what they have. They have prepared, trained, worked hard, but in the moment, it is just them and the clothes they stand up in.
The latest TIME magazine (Oct 19) has a series of articles about the refugee crisis. But the most powerful thing as often with TIME is a photo essay called “The things migrants carry” – beautiful pictures: a ring with a cross on it; a pendant with some verses of the Quran inside; a phone charger; some medical supplies; a small handbag; a watch; and someone with nothing, just the clothes they stand up in. Visual images of the exodus of refugees, walking with hope, walking in desperation, carrying nothing.
What do we carry with us each day – for at least a year after the Chch earthquake I carried my phone charger and a bottle of water in my handbag – those were the two things we needed that day. When I travel I always pack more clothes than I end up needing – just in case…
We are sent out each week from church by the deacon. The deacon who serves both church and community. The one who connects us. We are sent out to live, breath, serve, work, laugh, cry, care for others. And what do we carry? What are our tools? Our hands, our hearts, our knowledge and love of God, of the way of Jesus. How well equipped do we feel for our lives as followers of the Jesus Way? What training do we need? Our worship each week is designed to refresh us in the faith, to renew our hearts and minds; to remind us of our patterns of prayer, confession, forgiveness, commitment, service, our need to be fed by the word of God and the bread of life.
Is that enough? It may well be – I think of my father who I describe as an “economic” Christian. He went to church pretty much every Sunday, but never to Bible classes or study groups or prayer groups. He got what he needed on a Sunday morning. My mother on the other hand attends all the groups. For some of us Sunday is enough; others need more.
I have been wondering what we might need to offer here at St Matthew’s to equip us, to send us on our way. In recent weeks we have had a few sessions for “new” parishioners and that has been a fruitful discussion and learning. Next year we might offer that series again, and some other things too. There is a survey you have been given today – I would be very grateful if you could complete it before you leave today – and also I am sending it out by email this week. So if you fill it out today ignore the email! I have listed a few possibilities but you may have lots more ideas so put them down. Of course we won’t do everything but I feel we could do one or two things.
Jesus sent the 70 out with no bags because they had what they needed within themselves. They had a love for Jesus and for each other; they had sat at his feet and listened and learned; they had broken bread together and prayed together. All of this they carried with them; like the disciples on the Emmaus road “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us” (Luke 24:32)
What do we need as each week we are sent out to love and to serve? Think about it and we will see what we can do together.
It’s not just Catholics – or even Christians – who look to him as a voice of common sense from what is, perhaps, a surprising source. Despite his continuing conservatism in key areas such as the role of women and aspects of sexuality, he’s seen as a leader, as a clear voice on current issues.
Yet, he says little that is new.
His challenge on climate change in the encyclical Laudato si’ has been issued by many others for some time.
His call to give hospitality to refugees from Africa and Syria echoes many other voices.
His approach to poverty and the impact of wealth inequality is widely discussed in the UN and in economic circles.
So why is he listened to when others have not been?
I suggest that’s because he is a symbolic figure in a symbolic position – when the Pope speaks, he is heard as speaking on behalf of something much bigger than himself. He is one individual, but represents and points towards things beyond himself.
1. The Symbolic ‘One’
Even in relation to huge seemingly impossible issues, one symbolic individual can focus attention, shift the ground, revise our world-view – and keep on doing so beyond their lifetime. Think Nelson Mandela, Kate Shepherd, Martin Luther King.
A while ago there was a lot of talk in NZ about “doing something” about refugees, about increasing the numbers we might take, with little effect.
Then we saw the pictures of the small body of Syrian boy Aylan washed up on a Turkish beach – that one image, the plight of that one small boy, resulted in almost immediate Govt action as a result of the ‘noise’ made in protest.
Symbolism around an individual – or a single image – can make a difference, can raise the pressure, can help people change their minds and Governments change their policy.
It is easier for us to imagine the significance of a damaging situation when see it focused on one individual than we can from a set of huge statistical numbers. One matters.
2. Jesus worked this way
If you look at Jesus’ parables, they almost always tell the story of one person. He recognises that a point about compassion is best expressed in relation to a single individual – as in the story we call ‘the Good Samaritan’.
That’s not simply about the individuals in the story. It’s a challenge to Jesus’ hearers to shift their ideas, a challenge to all of us who hear to shake off our prejudices, to enact compassion towards all around us – and it’s a challenge to religious leaders, too, to change ingrained rules and priorities. It’s focused on one symbolic figure, but it’s not about that one.
In this morning’s gospel, we have Jesus focusing on wealth issues in response to one “good man” – then expanded, at least in part, by the gospel writer commenting on how hard it is for a rich person to live a fulfilled life – harder even than for a camel to get through the eye of a needle (that’s probably the bit that Jesus actually said)!
Biblical scholars are increasingly certain that Jesus was a wisdom preacher rather than a prophet. That he spoke in parables and short sayings, packed with insight, but making you think to get the point. These all aimed at shifting perceptions, ideas of life, priorities:
Do not be anxious about life... How happy are you who are poor... Many who are last shall be first...
And he adds humour:
the camel and the eye of the needle compared with a rich person wanting a fulfilled life;
a ‘good man’ needing to give away his wealth rather than following all the standard commandments.
Jokes, used to aid memory of his hearers.
And in these words, Jesus reflects a core biblical theme: economic justice is crucially important; how we deal with wealth and poverty is central in biblical ethics.
3. The impacts of wealth inequality
Most of us have heard many stories or seen lots of pictures of individuals suffering the effects of poverty, yet somehow those have not motivated us to action around the core issues of money, wealth, economics.
Perhaps that’s because all of us are entwined with money-issues, whether we’re wealthy or not. It’s very personal for us.
Yet, it’s important to recognise that this is not about me. Symbolic stories point to something more than any individual. Jesus’ story about the rich man is not telling us, individually, to give our money away. That’s not how Jesus’ stories work: they are designed, rather, to make us think, to review and revise our priorities, to shift our view away from ourselves and to the larger picture of community, of society, of the world in which we are a part.
In these stories Jesus is pointing up the impossibility of fulfilled lives for communities when some are very rich and others struggle.
Wealth inequality – usually defined as the gap between the top 20% in a society and the lowest 20% – and its impacts on persons and societies is currently a central concern for economic theorists. The form we have it today is seen to be embedded in capitalism, and that’s pushing for a re-shaping of the capitalist structure.
What’s more, there is strong statistical evidence that the more unequal a society is, the lower its life expectancy, the higher its crime levels, the poorer the health of it population. That so whether the country itself is poor or wealthy, and the impacts affect even those who are well off.
So, many of the things we blame on the way individuals live or on poor performance by CYFS or the police, seem more likely to be an inevitable result of the wealth imbalance. More significantly perhaps, the wealth imbalance and the attitudes and policies that drive it, also underlie the issues we noted at the beginning:
The conditions of conflict that produce the refugees seeking a better life;
The disastrous effects of international poverty;
Climate change and governmental inaction in making effective changes.
One difference we as individuals can make is to live and speak the gospel story about the “good man”.
If each of us and all of us together, building on the message of Jesus, recognise that specific rules of behaviour or particular items of faith are not as important for a good life as the way we approach money, thatbecomes a symbol of a different world.
If each of us and all of us together, recognising the challenge Jesus makes to the doctrines and structures of faith and church, seek to ask questions of our Christian community about priorities that favour commandments over compassionate use of wealth, thatmoves from symbol to action.
If each of us and all of us together, hearing Jesus’ wisdom about the ultimate impossibility of fulfilled life for a community while wealth inequalities exist, take courage to critique social and economic policies, that puts direct action at the heart of our life together.
Many of you will be aware of Pope Francis’ recent Encyclical or Letter, addressed to “everyone on the planet” Laudato Si: On Care for our Common Home. One of its major themes is our responsibility for what is happening to the Earth, our common home. And so it has been hailed as significant for its environmental message and for its call to action on climate change. And there can be no doubt that the timing had an eye to the major international conference on climate change which is to be held in Paris in December: “our last chance” as many have called it. Of course this is a good thing in itself, and it is helpful for Christians to have this urgent cause set within a religious context.
Today we celebrate St. Francis of Assisi, who is also known for his special devotion to all of creation. Pope Francis (who took that name deliberately) clearly links his Letter with St. Francis. The title, Laudato Si, is Italian dialect for “Praise be to you, (my lord)” the opening of St. Francis’ Canticle of Brother Sun which we sang a version of earlier.  So we have a Letter which is clearly about environmental concerns, closely tied to the Saint who, of all the saints, is most immediately identified with the care of creation.
But it would be a grave mistake to think that that is the only subject of this Letter, or of Francis’ teaching. In both, for Christians, there are several other related aspects of immense importance.
The first is the link made throughout the Letter between care for the Earth and care for the poor. The latter is classic Catholic Social Teaching – and not Marxism, as the Pope pointed out recently on his trip to the USA – well even if it is Marxism it is still Catholic Social teaching. So the Pope calls for social and economic, as well as environmental change, an integral theology. Francis too was entirely devoted to care for the poor and marginalised.  But it is surely worth asking why Francis felt and acted in this way? Certainly he regarded every living thing as of inherent worth and value. But why?
There are two linked reasons why creation is so precious in Francis’ sight. First, he sees all things as God’s creation and therefore worthy of reverence because of that: to contemplate creation is “to hear a message from God”.
Likewise, T.S.Eliot, surely one of the great religious poets of the twentieth century: We praise thee, O God, for thy glory displayed in all the creatures of the earth, in the snow, in the rain, in the wind, in the storm; in all of thy creatures, both the hunters and the hunted....
They affirm thee in living, all things affirm thee in living; ..
Therefore we, whom thou hast made to be conscious of thee, must consciously praise thee, in thought and in word and in deed. 
Looking at it in another way, Francis sees God in Christ in all of creation. A reflection from a modern religious might give us the idea:
My brother recently chided me for wasting days and nights in fruitless prayer and search for a dog lost in the woods. ‘After all’, he said, ‘it’s just a dog, and you’ve got pressing things to do.’ I’ve got to make him understand there’s no such thing as just a dog. Every dog expresses uniquely the dogginess of God, a quality of God that can be found nowhere else. God is that dog lost in the woods. While he is lost, though I may not and need not find him, there is no other way for me to seek God here and now except by seeking the lost dog... The dog, lost or found, cannot be loved too much... [for] love itself has no excess. (William McNamara, OCD)
In much the same way, Francis devotion to the Crucified Christ thus extended to embrace all God’s creatures.
And this includes, of course, humankind. In every person, he saw Christ: in Clare, his pupil and friend; in the leper, whom he first recoiled from and then embraced; in the Sultan, his “enemy”, yet with whom he achieved at least a measure of dialogue and from whom, who knows, a broadening of his ‘world-view’.
So what does this all say about our role here, as part of creation? To praise the Creator certainly, as T.S.Eliot says. But, and here we venture into a contentious issue: what is our role in relation to all these other creatures of the Creation? Surely not one of dominion and exploitation, with ourselves at the centre. But one of stewardship and care? But not one of abandonment either. we have done so much damage; we must have a duty to make reparation too, where we can.
Faced with this deeper Franciscan focus and the Pope’s call to action, what might our response be? Holiness, said, the Pope on his USA visit last week, consists in small acts of kindness. So let us start there.
First with our relationships with others, taking the three examples from Francis: someone who is a friend, maybe a pupil, maybe a colleague – pretty easy there. Someone you don’t like or recoil from, because of disability for example? Someone whose ideas you find difficult or repulsive – or challenging?
On a communal level: one of the themes which runs through the Letter is that of “the common good”. The common good is most often used to refer to social policies, for example to combat poverty or inequality. While the Pope does use the phrase in that context, he also uses it to refer to our responsibility for climate change, for the oceans, for the preservation of biodiversity. Are our policies and actions here in Aotearoa the best they could be? If not, what might we do about that, both individually and collectively?
What if we extend these questions to the global context? Here it might seem that there is little we can do. But we can try and influence our country’s stance at the December Paris meeting on climate change. Another issue which has been in the news this week is the adoption by the UN General Assembly of the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These cover social, economic and environmental issues – the Pope’s agenda.
So, here’s a programme for our new Social Justice Committee? (which meets for the first time on Tuesday).
Finally, there is one other factor which is part of the Franciscan ethos, and the Pope’s letter. It is exemplified in the first verse of today’s reading: But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and not to us.
I was determined that today’s talk would not be about animals and birds – but let us nevertheless end with a story, or two stories, about Francis and birds. You may know the first story, of how Francis once preached to a flock of birds. They did not fly away but waited and listened and then left at his dismissal of them? Here is a parallel story, from a medieval Franciscan manuscript:
Rapt in devotion, Francis once found by the roadside a large flock of birds, to whom he turned aside to preach, as he had done before to another flock. But when the birds saw him approaching they all flew away at the very sight of him. Then he came back and began to accuse himself most bitterly saying ‘What effrontery you have, you impudent son of Pietro Bernadone’ and this because he had expected irrational creatures to obey him as if he, and not God, were their creator.’
This is our task then: to praise God, in word and deed, and with humility, as one, but only one, of God’s creatures.
God of mercy, giver of life,
earth and sea and sky
and all that lives,
declare your presence and your glory.
 The text is included later in the Letter and there are echoes of the Canticle throughout.
 The Pope says of him: that he is “the example par excellence of care for the vulnerable and of an integral ecology lived out joyfully and authentically”.
The gospel of Mark reads like those headline banners that run across the bottom of your TV screen on the BBC or CNN. I tend to read them when I am at the gym on the treadmill and it only takes a minute or so for them to start repeating again. Today they probably read – refugees continue to flood Europe; the Pope arrives in Cuba; and maybe a rugby world cup score. Mark’s headline banners would be: Jesus continues to draw large crowds; Jesus heals everyone; Jesus confuses his disciples with strange teaching; then they would repeat again: Jesus continues to draw large crowds; Jesus heals everyone; Jesus confuses his disciples with strange teaching.
The gospel writer we call Mark is just trying to get it all down and get the story circulating. No words are wasted or embellished; it is all a bit breathless. The mood goes up and down too. In chapter 9 we have had the “transfiguration” where Peter, James and John have a vision of Jesus and Moses and Elijah; then the dramatic healing of a young boy “possessed by a demon”; all very exciting and upbeat; and then suddenly (today’s passage) they are on the road and Jesus is talking about his death; the disciples are arguing (again) who will be greatest; and then he is telling them to become slaves and bother with children, who no one but women bothered with. A rollercoaster of up and down; feelings of great excitement and then challenge and bewilderment.
When Barbara Brown Taylor examines a biblical passage she uses all five senses and asks what colour is the passage? What does the passage taste or smell like? This passage today starts off with fear, the shadow of betrayal, and fear of the unknown. Purple maybe. Or a stormy sky kind of colour. The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.
Then silence and embarrassment; a bitter taste; or maybe the taste of a stale, dry biscuit. ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’ But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. Silence, embarrassment.
Then Jesus tries to teach them, lift the mood. The last will be first; welcoming a child is where you begin. This part about Jesus welcoming the children conjures up picture perfect Sunday School books; and saccharine sermons about welcoming sweet children. In Jesus’ day children were worthless until they could work and certainly did not merit the notice of a teacher like Jesus. So the welcome of the child belongs with the last being first. Children were most certainly last. This is not a sweet tasting image but a challenging one. Hot spices; wake up. Red alert. Change your ways.
Mark’s community had lots of questions – which is why Mark starts writing his gospel full of quick headlines. Why did Jesus die? Why are our leaders continually arguing who is the greatest? What about the slaves and those of lower status – do we really have to include them in our midst? Each line of Mark’s writing is an answer to a question.
And the letter of James, written a generation at least later, elaborates. Watch out for envy and ambition; seek wisdom and peace; not murder and conflict. Things seem to have got worse, not better in the Christian community. Mark’s headlines don’t seem to have stuck and so James, like the other letter writers, tries to guide the church.
Are these snippets of teaching and glimpses into the life of Jesus any use to us today? As we tackle the challenges of our age are they any help? This month we have been reflecting on the care of creation and the challenges of climate change. But we can ask the same question of any issue we face – does the Jesus story help? The purple, dark clouds of despair certainly gather gloomy over our heads. The earth is warming, the seas are rising. For decades now we have been arguing, who is right; who has the best science; which political deal might be a way forward. It feels stale and dry in our mouths. We have heard it all before. Now as the headline flashes past on our screen we barely see it.
There has been the case in the news this week of Ioane Teitiota, from Kiribati who has been trying to argue that he and his family should be allowed to stay in NZ because of rising sea levels from climate change. If we continue the way we are there will be no Kiribati for him to call home. The churches in Polynesia have been calling for us to pay attention to climate change for some years. Archbishop Winston Halapua talks about “moana” theology. A theology of the sea which connects us all but which also has danger in it, the danger of the rising sea.
And what is Jesus message? red hot as usual; spicy. Look out for the child; look out for the least. Of course we say, we would always do that. Yet we are deporting a family to Kiribati. We are continuing to dither on climate change goals which mean that eventually we will have to welcome all of the Kiribati people as climate change refugees. We are not looking out for the child and the least at all. Yet as individuals we feel pretty powerless; we are the confused silenced disciples not understanding and not knowing which way to turn. And so we need to start as Jesus did with the people in front of him; the child in the crowd. He said welcome this child, this one right here, and you welcome me, and by welcoming me you welcome God. Finally a brighter colour and the taste of fresh fruit and hope. Start here with what is in front of you.
As a church community we have a new social justice committee who are going to guide us in actions we can take together; and who are going to be a conduit of information for all the actions you are already taking in your own contexts and lives. We are going to get going on the renewal of our precious green space outside our church. We are going to start with what is right here; the gardens, the paths; the green space which can be a haven for us and our neighbours in our city. Fixing up our gardens won’t change the world, solve climate change, and bring about world peace. But the conversations we have with each other and our neighbours about what we want and what they need, will change us.
The conversations we have with the city about this church and its place in the city will change us and maybe the city just a little. You never know we might even make a headline or two.
Few, if any of us, who have seen the waves of refugees in their thousands trekking out of Syria and into Europe, can fail to have been moved. What has our world come to?
Few, of any of us, who have seen the pictures and heard the stories of the hundreds of migrants packed onto leaky boats or dying in the back of trucks can fail to have been moved. What on earth is happening?
Few, if any of us, who have seen the video clips of the fires in California that are razing forest and buildings to swaths of charcoal (or of the devastating floods in Japan) can help but wonder what we would do if we were living there. Whatever is going on?
Few, if any of us, if we know young people trying to buy a modest first home in Auckland, can help but ask when will it end? What on earth has gone wrong?
It is all far from the vision and hope of the Genesis poet who wrote "God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good."
A few weeks ago I reflected on the 'big story' that we tell as Christians and how in different times and contexts those stories are dressed and glossed differently according the purposes of the story-teller. Today we have heard one of our big stories. We have heard the creation myth from Genesis. This story, is a magnificent poetic reminder to us, to wonder about who we are as creatures of the earth. At each phase of the recitation, from the separation of the earth from the sky; the dark from the light; from the creation of plants and animals and creepy crawlies, to humankind, the poet declares "God saw that it was good."
To be creatures of the earth, sharing the earth and sea and sky with all the other creatures and plants and hearing that it is all so very good, is one thing, it warms our hearts, but to imagine for one minute, that all creation is there for our benefit because we are the pinnacle of God's creation, is quite another thing: it sets us up for a fall – as the story of Adam and Eve prefigures.
It seems to me that we have pinned too much on verses 26 and 28 of the Genesis poem, these verses include the words often translated from the Hebrew as "dominion over" and "subdue". In our all too frequent western predilection for power and control we have stuck with these words, and shaped our God-story around them believing that this poem provides us with the rational for our human superiority over all things, that all aspects of creation, as set out in the poem, are for our benefit. And, if they don't seem to be working for us we are not above believing a few earnest and well phrased prayers will fix it! This perspective has found its way into many theological frameworks even, if we are not alert, into more progressive theology where we are keen to see the god-spark in ourselves.
The ancient Greeks knew this thinking was erroneous, they knew that this was 'hubris', the most destructive aspect of being human: thinking that we were equal to the gods with power over the dynamics of earth and over creaturely relationships even as they had. The ancient Hebrews knew this thinking was misleading too, and so the creation poem reminds us we are but one of God's creations and all of creation was good, with its place and contribution. In the gospel of Mark we are told of an occasion in which Jesus tries to point out to his friends who are wanting special favours that they are one of many and have responsibilities – reminding them they must look after others, they must serve the needs of the many and not seek privileges for themselves or think they are better somehow and deserve more. it must have been a salutary lesson for those friends after all their commitment and hard work.
Notwithstanding the warnings that are liberally scattered through our scriptures, of what would become of us if we let 'hubris' get out of hand; if we let our pride in being human and our sense that we can manage/control all things, blind us to our limitations, we have continued along this path. Now we find ourselves on a precipice as it were, and very soon our little planet-earth will be unable to help us. Planet-earth will be unable to keep restoring the harmony, the balance of creation that we keep destroying; it will be unable to keep cleaning the air we pollute, to continue purifying the water we contaminate, to keep the seas stocked and the soils fertile.
Our story needs retelling for our time. We are the storytellers today. Like all good myths the story we tell needs the power to bring about change in the hearts and minds our contemporaries.
But, we have created a conundrum for ourselves, and this needs careful thought as we embark on our story-retelling. While we have taken to heart the story of incarnation – God in human form – and relocated the divine spark from heaven to earth now to be found in each of us, and so brought the all powerful king and judge-God to earth to live amongst us and within us as the vulnerable power of love and compassion, we haven't always recognised vulnerability and compassion as that god-spark so we have failed to take on the responsibility of godly risk-management for how we inhabit the earth. We haven't sought to live with gentleness and humility caring for our companion creatures and for the ground beneath our feet.
It seems we are failing to accept that the trajectory – the path of unending GDP growth that we are on - is not about love and compassion but rather about greed and hubris.
It is time to wake up to the unwelcome fact that no matter how smart and technologically advanced we are today, we cannot control the unintended outcomes of all we do, even when our intentions are good! To maintain our lifestyle we are outstripping the natural processes of the earth to restore itself; we are destroying animals and plants at an alarming rate; we are destroying our own life-giving habitat.
So let us reframe the poem, let us recite it using a different interpretation of the Hebrew word rada: instead of 'dominion' and 'subdue' let us use 'care-giving' and 'nurturing': let us help the earth to fulfil its life-giving potential and so be life-givers ourselves rather than life-takers; be restorers not destroyers, be celebrators of abundance rather than hoarders on account of scarcity. We need a partnership, the interdependence of earth and creatures and plants if humanity is to survive.
But, while we speak, while we tell the story of humanity's relationship with the earth in a different way, the urgency of our predicament requires we demand action by those who make decisions on our behalf. Whatever their political stripe we need to see commitment to managing climate-change by a move away from fossil fuels; we need to demand commitment to managing land fertility and its capacity to produce food; we need to hear commitment plans for restoring housing to the place of homes rather than investments; we need evidence of commitment to wages that reflect the dignity of work and are sufficient to live modestly.
Each of us too needs to consider our part and what we do in our personal lives about fossil fuels and the bi-products we consume, about the food choices we make, and our attitude and expectations about housing and wages.
And then we might say: It was the sixth day. God looked all around at everything that was made: light and darkness; earth and seas and sky; plants and birds and fish and creepy crawlies; the sun, the moon and the stars. And God said "that's good, that's very good." Then God took some time to think, and to wonder about all that had been created. Then God said "I need some help to care for all these wonders. Let there be humankind to help me, let their hearts reflect my heart and be filled with love for all creation." And so it was, and God looked around again in wonder at all that was. Then God said "That's good... that's very, very, very good."
“The earth dries up and withers; the earth lies polluted under its inhabitants … desolation is left in the city: (Is 24) “The streams will be turned into pitch; and the soil to sulphur; the land will become burning pitch. Night and day it will not be quenched; from generation to generation it will lie waste; thorns will grow and nettles and thistles; it will be the haunt of jackals.” (Is 34)
Do you think those words are from a climate change action manifesto? Sounds like it, but they are from the prophet Isaiah chs 24 and 34; Isaiah paints a picture of what will happen to the earth if the people lose touch with God. It is in the context of the people of Israel heading into exile (from 587 BC fall of Jerusalem) at the hands of the Babylonians with war waging this way and that. Absolutely similar to the exile of current refugees from Syria and other countries. The words of utter desolation of people and land laid waste sound very current. And then all of a sudden we have the passage Caspar read for us. The tone changes to one of hope “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom”.Many scholars think the editors of Isaiah put this passage in the wrong place – it seems to belong with the later chapters of Isaiah from ch 40 on which have all the hopeful passages from the end of the exile “Comfort, o comfort my people …”
Barbara Lundblad says “Isaiah dares to speak a word out of place. A word that refused to wait until things improved.”  While these words don’t seem to belong, they show us it was the prophet’s job to name both the despair of the current situation and the hope for the future. And so in the same breath we have desolation and hope.
The writers and prophets of the OT were always firmly grounded in their understanding of God as creator of the earth and the people. To tend the earth and care for it was the task of the people. And if the earth was suffering it must be because the people had failed in their duty to God. OT people saw a line of cause and effect from actions of the people – to the actions of God towards the earth. We would no longer say that the rivers have dried up because God is “punishing” the people for their wicked ways. But we do understand now that our actions lead directly to the drying up of rivers or the rising of sea levels and so have the potential to wipe out whole communities in the Pacific Islands. Isaiah and others instinctively understood that actions have consequences. Now we have the climate change science to show they were right. Prophets did not predict the future but named the reality of the present. In this case they seem to have predicted the future as well.
“Isaiah dares to speak a word out of place. A word that refused to wait until things improved.”  It is when people speak words out of place that change happens. At the recent film festival we saw “Merchants of Doubt”  a documentary about both the tobacco industry and climate change and how the various messages get twisted and used by different groups according to their own interest. From the climate change perspective it traced how the world has gradually shifted to understand the science of climate change and how the early deniers claimed “science” was on their side while many were not in fact scientists. The early lone voice of James Hansen has now become more the norm of the client change debate. He was one who dared to speak “a word out of place”.
In our gospel reading today we have the story of Jesus’ encounter with the unnamed Syrophoenician woman. Remember that Jesus as a Jewish man would not normally interact directly with women (a rule he broke all the time) and certainly not with a Gentile (non Jewish) woman. And so he responds to her request for healing for her daughter with a very rude and derogatory reply “let the children be fed first (ie the people of Israel), it is not fair to take the children’s foods and throw it to the dogs.” She is the one then to “speak a word out of place” and talks back to him “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs”. And her word out of place changes Jesus’ mind and he heals her daughter. She speaks out, she protests, she names the reality of the divisions between Jew and Gentile, man and woman. She protests and change happens.
This story of healing is not told by Mark to recount the individual personal story of this one woman and her daughter; Mark tells it to make a much bigger point about the breaking down of divisions and the way the new community of followers of Jesus is going to be. Even Jesus had to be challenged in order to break out of the exclusive mould that was the norm for his time. And so the new community of followers could be brave enough to break down their barriers too. 
The same is true in the healing of the man who was deaf and had a speech impediment. The language of this story echoes the language of Isaiah “The eyes of the blind shall be opened, the ears of the deaf unstopped; the tongue of the speechless shall sing for joy”. Any of Mark’s readers would recognise the language from Isaiah and make the link from one individual healing, to the healing of the earth Isaiah speaks of: “the tongue of the speechless shall sing for joy and the waters will break forth in the wilderness and steams in the desert”. The personal healing and the healing of the earth are all the same. They are all part of the great dream and vision of the kingdom, the realm of God.
And the healing comes about when someone speaks a word out of place – the prophet Isaiah in the midst of the doom of the exile; the woman rejected by Jesus; the man who could not speak but his friends hoped he might.
As the world looks towards the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris in December and as the world continues to warm, we are looking for leaders who will speak – who will name the reality of where the world is and give us ways to act for change and give us hope that we can change. Sometimes the key to change is not just to paint the doom and gloom but to give people hope and even some certainty that if we change our ways it will have an impact and will be worth the effort. For people of faith the ground we stand on when looking at environmental issues is the heritage of 1000s of years of understanding of our relationship with our creator and so our relationship with the earth. The earth suffers when we forget our sacred duty to care for it and not abuse it. The earth flourishes when we are in tune with our creator and the creation. It is not by chance that the opening words of our Bible are “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth …” (Gen 1:1) but that is next week’s sermon.
In the meantime, as Archbp Tutu said “love the earth as much as God does.” 
Many years ago I sat on the knee (metaphorically speaking) of a bishop. Our parish had gathered to discuss an issue that was contentious and threatening and our bishop opened the proceedings with some advice on how we might approach the topic before us. In thinking about and discussing this issue we were urged to draw from the resources that had – traditionally – stood our church in good stead. He went on to describe the merits of a three legged seat or stool – the legs of which could be seen to represent Scripture, Reason and Tradition. – for it was by those three legs that the church had maintained itself in steadiness throughout the years and was able to manage its ecclesiastical conundrums and difficulties.
Relying on all three legs in balance we were encouraged to draw from each those things that which would assist us in reaching a decision. We all nodded and made him himing sort of noises.
I must say that at the time it all made good sense – I remember being impressed with the wisdom of this analogy. Ah – but I was young then.
Well today we don't have time to delve into a lot of scripture and I'm far to canny and unqualified to resort to pure reason – so its the third leg today – tradition. For Marks reading does seem to focus on Tradition – the word is mentioned 6 time in the reading and alluded to often - certainly in the first few verses.
I like to think that in many respects I'm a reasonably traditional sort of fellow and in other respects not so traditional. I do however enjoy many of the rituals of Christmas and Easter, our family has many small traditions that help bind us together and I'm often surprised when something we have done on a regular basis is repeated at the request of our children with the words "well we traditionally do such and such in this circumstance or time of the year". As I've said – these things help us as a family to be a family – we welcome new members to the family by often invoking small rituals at birthdays and celebrations of one sort or another and we seem to have a number of unwritten rules that ease difficult situations or by which we can give support to those of our family that need it.
I'm sure you all have family traditions that achieve similar things. We of course have our own traditions here at St Mats – Puppe bakes our bread for communion, we continuously develop new liturgies, we offer great music – we use smoke for our major celebrations – the list goes on.
Off course not all tradition can be seen in such a benign way.
I'm reminded of a story about a relieving minister at a small church. When it came time for the words of institution, he stood behind the altar, spoke the words, raised up the wafer and chalice, and then invited everyone to the table. No one moved .The whole congregation sat still and silent. Finally, someone came forward and whispered in his ear.
Immediately the minister went back to the altar, lifted high the wafer, broke it in two and then invited everyone to the table again. The congregation gave an audible sigh of relief and Communion proceeded. They couldn't take communion until the bread was broken. That was the tradition and well – it just wasn't right to come forward without the action.
Despite all the words – both explicit and implied – 'given for you' "come gods people" none of the congregation heard them – none could heed the call until the wafer was broken.
In this instance the congregation subdued the ancient intent of the action replacing it with a new tradition that had assumed a sacred status obscuring the original meaning and ritual.
Its tradition that Mark now writes about in our Gospel today. The tradition of the elders as practiced by the Pharisees and some of the scribes.
This tradition comprised a comprehensive and complex holiness code and laws that regulated personal and community life for all Jewish people. By one count there are over 600 mizvot or "commandments" in the Torah.
The purity laws of Leviticus specify in detail – clean and unclean foods, purity rituals after childbirth or a menstrual cycle, regulations for skin infections and contaminated clothing or furniture, prohibitions against contact with a human corpse, agricultural guidelines about planting seeds and mating animals, and decrees about lawful sexual relationships, keeping the sabbath, forsaking idols, and even tattoos.
These laws encompassed nearly every aspect of being human birth, death, sex, gender, health, economics, jurisprudence, social relations, hygiene, marriage, behavior, and matters of ethnicity – Gentiles were definitely· not pure.
Some of these purity laws encoded simple common sense or moral ideals that make sense today, such as prohibitions against incest. Others regulated hygiene and sanitation.
Still others sought to maintain Israel as a unique identity that differentiated itself from pagan nations.
Ultimately, the purity laws and holiness code ritualized an exhortation from God: "Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy".
When scripture asks, "Lord, who may dwell in your sanctuary?" the "proper" response is that only people who are ritually clean may approach a holy God. At the center of the purity system, both literally and symbolically, stood the Temple, where one performed rites of purification.
Its debatable just how much or how little ordinary first-century Jews concerned themselves with maintaining ritual purity, but the Pharisees whom we have heard so much about in Marks Gospel certainly did.
We have recently heard how they repeatedly confronted Jesus because of his flagrant disregard for ritual purity. Jesus the Jew touched a leper, his disciples did not fast, he ignored sabbath laws, he touched a woman with a discharge and handled a corpse, and immediately after this week's story he heals two Gentiles.
In our Gospel reading this week, Mark recounts a clash between Jesus and the Pharisees about food purity. Why, asked the Pharisees, did Jesus's disciples eat with "unclean" hands? A direct challenge to Jesus drawn squarely from the traditions of the day with the central accusation in this clash being that the Pharisees considered Jesus and his followers as ritually unclean sinners.
Here Mark clearly places the pharisees as the central opponents of Jesus because they were the central opponents of the church late in the first century when the gospel was written. With the destruction of the Temple in AD 70, the principal opponents of the pharisees, the Temple-based Sadducees, were destroyed. At the time of Jesus (c. AD 30), two-thirds of the ruling council, the Sanhedrin, were Sadducees, and only one-third were pharisees. After AD 70, the Sanhedrin was entirely composed of Pharisees.
Mark certainly gives the pharisees a bad press yet its hard to imagine that all pharisees were blind to what Jesus had to say. We know that the pharisees saw themselves as a reformist group. They were mainly lay people, not priests, and they believed that the faith of Israel ought to be something lived in the daily life of every Jew, not merely something observed by the priests in Jerusalem.
Everything belonged to God, and the Torah touched on all matters of life. Keeping Torah was a way of living continually in God's care, and acknowledging God's presence every where and in every thing. Hard to point the finger when there.
Unfortunately given the human propensity for justifying ourselves and for scape-goating others, the holiness code and purity laws lent themselves to a spiritual stratification or hierarchy between the ritually "clean" who considered themselves to be close to God, and the "unclean" who were shunned as impure sinners who were far from God. Instead of expressing the holiness of God, ritual purity became a means of excluding people considered dirty, polluted, or contaminated.
Jesus did not by into the argument at all – he quotes Isaiah – "you abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition" and in doing so rescinded any distinction of ritual purity as a measure of spiritual status.
In Marcus Borg's view, Jesus turned the purity system with its "sharp social boundaries" on its head, and in its place substituted a radically alternate social vision. The new community that Jesus announced would be characterized by interior compassion for all, not external compliance to a purity code, by radical inclusivity rather than by hierarchical exclusivity, and by inward transformation rather than outward ritual. In place of "be holy, for I am holy", says Borg, Jesus deliberately substituted the call to "be merciful, just as your Father is merciful".
The old tradition is supplanted by a new one.
No one is excluded – not Roman collaborators, or lepers, not prostitutes, nor the possessed. No one can now be excluded by who or what they are.
Well what went wrong?
Well I guess we need to answer that question by looking at ourselves.
Who today might we regard as "outcasts", who might we regard as impure, unclean, dirty, or contaminated.
Are the "who: those who are mentally ill, are they people who have married three or four times, extremely wealthy executives, beneficiaries, people who hold conservative political views, or maybe people who sell sex on our streets?
What boundaries do we build to keep ourselves, our institutions and our communities clean.
On the other hand how do we embrace both holiness and compassion, instead of choosing one or the other? Or how do we remove the boundaries we have built to keep ourselves our institutions and our communities separate.
How could we participate in what Borg calls a "community shaped not by the ethos and politics of purity, but by the ethos and politics of compassion."
Perhaps the last words of today's gospel give us a clue.
The spirit of the Pharisees Judaism intended that the external rituals or traditions would keep the inward heart focused on the central message of the Torah. The goal was to keep a people mindful of their duty to God and neighbor whilst immersed in the details of daily life.
Jesus knew that even the best intentions can become corrupted. They can become substitutes for devotion to God while our hearts are occupied with thoughts that promote our own agendas and ignore others. We can ''honor God with our lips," while our "hearts are far from God".
A clean body by itself is not enough. Cleanliness may be next to godliness but it makes a poor substitute! We need to have pure hearts before we can have pure words. Our inner health will determine our status with God – not the traditions and rituals we adopt. Our relationship to god is not determined by what we eat but by what we do.
And so back to the Bishops seat. The three legs – Scripture, Reason and Tradition. A stool of course is made up of more than its legs. It needs a seat to hold everything together.
And if one of the characteristic of Progressive Christianity is its willingness to question tradition, (and by that definition I guess Jesus is probably the proto progressive) then I can imagine the seat holding that questioning secure.
If that questioning applied to the three legs becomes the norm - the new tradition then I'm quite comfortable (if you can excuse the pun) with the analogy.
Despite how uncomfortable at times that tradition might be. Amen.
There is a hashtag on twitter at the moment #ThingsJesusNeverSaid. One of the tweets this week was obviously from a preacher struggling with John chapter 6 as we have been for the last 5 Sundays. It said “Take, eat, this is my body. But first let’s write thousands of pages of theology about it.”  #ThingsJesusNeverSaid@fatherTim.
As Susan said in her sermon last week all this talk of eating and drinking body and blood was offensive to Jesus’ audience and can be offensive to us as well. And as we get to the end of chapter 6 today we see the result. John tells us: “Many of Jesus’ disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.” The rest of us write thousands of pages of theology about it! which can be another way of turning back or avoiding the living out of the gospel.
The disciples or followers turned back, they returned home, to pick up their lives again. They found Jesus’ teaching too hard, too challenging. “I am the bread of life” he said “I am bread from heaven”; come break bread with me and you will have eternal life. That doesn’t seem so hard does it? What was so challenging about this teaching that made them turn back?
They had witnessed the miracle of the feeding of the 5000 with the loaves and fish belonging to the little boy; they had heard Jesus reflect on this miracle and make claims about himself; how the bread he gave was more important than the manna, the bread that had fed the people in the wilderness with Moses.
Well nothing was more important for the people of Israel than the story of the escape from slavery in Egypt, and how God fed them in the wilderness till they made it to the promised land. Jesus was saying his bread was more important and more lifegiving. They turned back, they went home.
Jesus went on to claim that he was living bread from heaven, a reference to being the word of God or the wisdom of God. In Proverbs 9: “Wisdom has built her house, laid her table, come eat of my bread and drink of my wine, and walk in the way of insight.” Bread as wisdom; I am wisdom Jesus claims; I am God’s word. They turned back, they went home.
Everywhere they went Jesus gathered all people to his table; even the unclean, even the sinners, the tax collectors and the prostitutes; to eat with the unrighteous was to make yourself unclean in the eyes of God; Jesus gathered them all to his table.
For first century people in Israel/Palestine hospitality was expected and an absolute duty. To welcome the stranger at table was part of God’s way; except that is if your were a tax collector or other unclean person.
And once the person shared bread with you at your table you were then responsible for their wellbeing and protection. They became your responsibility. Jesus wanted the disciples to gather everyone to the table, especially the unclean and the unrighteous. And more of the followers turned back, more went home.
By the time the first century Christians get to hear John’s gospel many Gentiles were part of the faith community. For them meals were important social occasions too; occasions to show off your wealth, occasions to honour some guests more than others, those at the top of the table were fed better quality food and wine than those at the end of the table. Social status and hierarchy was upheld and cemented in the meals of the household. Jesus tells them too that all are welcome at the table and all will receive the same bread and wine, all will be fed by Jesus himself. And they found this teaching difficult, more of the followers turned back, more went home.
Charles Campbell, one of my professors I studied with in Chicago a few years back, says “it is no surprise that a meal, (the last supper) serves as the image for the radical reversal of power Jesus embodied throughout his ministry” . Jesus had been upsetting people all along by breaking bread with them; and so making himself responsible for their wellbeing. And the disciples whom he expected to be hosts at the table with him were not comfortable with these implications at all.
Campbell says Jesus uses table fellowship to stand up to the powers of domination, hierarchy, and the violence of exclusion of his world. It was part of “putting on the whole armour of God” and standing up to the rulers, authorities and cosmic powers, which Paul talks about in Ephesians (6:11). Susan pointed out last week that we need the writings of something like Ephesians to help us live out the theology of John. I didn’t choose the Ephesians reading for today because it has that imagery of armour which feels bit militaristic for our ears. But it is about standing up for what we believe in “Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness”. This was all a bit too tough for the disciples and more of the followers turned back, more went home.
Another writer Loye Ashton  says the disciples turn away because they want to separate the holy, the religious ritual, the spiritual, from real life, the life of flesh and blood. And Jesus does the opposite – that is what incarnation is all about. God becoming incarnate, embodied. John says without the spirit, flesh is useless (v63). And so Ashton says this applies to all of life and the way we treat our earth “We eat up the world without appreciating how God has infused creation with the Spirit; thus we use and discard it in materialist ways. The ethical imperative at the heart of John’s incarnational theology of the Eucharist is clear. Will we treat the world around us as incarnational or simply as material?”  Therein lies another whole sermon I think!
If we do not turn back and go home, if we stay at the table, by taking the bread and the wine, the body and the blood, we commit to engaging with the world, with the word made flesh, God’s creation. Those who turned back wanted their religion to be holy and separate; those who stay at the table choose to be part of life incarnate. Those who turned back chose to go along with the violence of exclusion, of excluding the “unclean” from the table.
In our OT reading Joshua says “as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord”; he chose for Yahweh, not for the gods of the Canaanites. We make a choice for God when we respond to the invitation to come to the table. It is a radical choice. Not one we have to make. Most of our friends and families don’t make the choice to come and be part of this worship or the worship of other churches. They choose not to be fed and challenged by the morsel of bread and wine which embody and symbolise our engagement with God’s creation; our choice to see the spirit of God enfleshed in the world.
Jesus asked Peter; do you wish to go away also? Peter answered “to whom can we go? We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God”. For me and my household we will serve the Lord. Here we stand, we can do no other.
As we come to the table today, hear Jesus calling us forth, to partake of the bread of life, promised from the time of Moses. Many found this teaching difficult, many of the followers turned back, many went home. We are here today, invited and included; without thousands of pages of theology we can eat and drink and embody God’s love.
As a preacher the Gospel reading today is one of those that makes me want to say. "Oh dear, whatever is this all about?" More bread stories and more what to do instructions. So much for the simple stories about Jesus that we 'long to hear'!
Just so you know, I am share with you my thinking about this couple of readings as it is unfolding. So I am very happy to talk with you over morning tea if you are interested in pursuing any of the ideas further.
I thought initially that I would cheat and only address the Epistle. This seemed straight forward, and as relevant for us today at St Matthews as we think about who we are as a congregation of faith in the city, as it was when Paul wrote it to the infant churches in Ephesus.
You will know by now, if you didn't know before, that Ephesus was a cosmopolitan commercial centre. There were many religious traditions practised there, many languages, many cultures and races – a bit like Auckland today. Paul is writing to the various embryonic groups of Christians in Ephesus. His concern, as expressed in this letter, is to remind the groups that though they may be made up of people amongst whom there is great diversity, they need each other. And what is more, the charge to them as Christians is to uphold unity and peace notwithstanding the differences and diversity amongst them. This, he says, would be achieved more readily if they treated each other with humility and patience, respecting the range of skills and abilities amongst the various people, and doing their best to model themselves on the one they had come to call the 'Christ' (Paul seldom speaks of Jesus).
In our reading today, we hear Paul telling them to be wise about how they live, not to be naive about what is going on around them, and to hold fast to what they know about God's vision for humanity in the midst of the complex social environment they live in. All that seems relevant to us here at St Matthews – don't you think – as we keep reminding ourselves of these characteristics.
But as the week unfolded, and my brain cogitated on the two readings, it didn't seem enough to focus on Ephesians and I thought I had better have a go and see what I could make of the Gospel. I had become curious about why there were so many readings from John's Gospel paired with Pauls letter to the churches of Ephesus. I began to think about them in a bigger framework than the particulars of biblical exegesis, or even trying to shape a logical deconstructive argument (which is often what those of us who want to claim the 'progressive' label are wont to do.
The Ephesians reading is about behaviour, how we behave ourselves, and how we behave toward others: it is action oriented – directive and unambiguous. By contrast the Gospel of John is much more esoteric, it is image laden and shocking – cannibalistic even today! John has been going on and on attempting to unpack for us the bread image that is used so frequently in the scriptures – from Moses to Jesus. John wants us to be in no doubt that while Moses fed the people in the wilderness with mana to sustain their physical bodies in a time of great need, it was God that provided what was necessary, and, it is God that provides Jesus, as sustenance for the nourishment of our faith: bread of life; 'living' bread as it were. This bread John tells us will give us not just physical life but eternal life: not quantity or never ending life (that would be terrible, hellish for most of us), but access into 'God's life', eternal life, or into the elemental substances and energies of all that is – for now and for always. Eternal life: quality not quantity is what he reminds us Jesus offers.
But all this is very difficult for us to unpack. It always seems to me to be complicated theological stuff; material that I say 'yes' to because it sounds good and I think I should, and then I skip on, or alternatively, I say "that doesn't make sense, it requires more mental gymnastics that I am prepared for, so I'll give that bit a miss!"
Today, however, I want to suggest that that this reading from John's Gospel, and those we have been hearing in this cycle of bread readings, had a deeply significant impact on the Christian community as it took shape, and consequently on us today.
I want to suggest that in these readings from John, the logos – the word of God – and the mythos – the big behaviour-changing story about God – come together. And, what is more, it is the 'behaviour-changing' story, or the myth, that we are bringing to life each week as we celebrate the Eucharist – sharing together, symbolically, the 'life-giving bread' in remembrance and with thanksgiving. This myth, this big story shapes who we are. It helps us to tell ourselves who we are, and to tell others who we are, and in so doing it shapes the culture, the ethos, of who we are. It shapes how we comport ourselves, how we seek to relate to one another, and what our values are.
Now please do not mishear me. A myth is a very important story about something that, in some way, once happened and now has the power to change lives and behaviour through people remembering and re-enacting that story. However, without regular re-telling and re-enactment the story loses potency, it becomes just words, just a 'once upon a time' story. But if subsequent generations retell and re-enact the story it gathers life and power, and its significance grows and changes as it speaks to successive generations differently in their own time.
A grand-child once asked me as I was reading a bed-time story "Is it a true story?" They knew the story was not reciting events of history, but they were listening for resonances of 'truth' as they knew from their life experience.
That is what we do with myth – we listen for the resonances of truth that tell us who we are (our best selves), they tell us what is important, and remind us where we fit in the scheme of things alongside others.
Today we will retell in words and actions the death and new-life story of Jesus, we will retell and re-enact the story of life-giving bread available to be shared amongst all people.
Myths usually take place at the very edge of our human understandings, they push us to the very edge of our human certainties, to the liminal places where imagination kicks in and change can occur if we dare to ask "what if...".
The 'bread of life' story of Jesus, that we retell and re-enact – this story where word and action meet in the potential for change – is for me at the edge of my capacity to comprehend, it is here I am glad of the behavioural instructions that Paul provides in his letter to give me guidelines to be going on with till I come to trust my companions. We could say that Paul is providing for the Christian community, through his behavioural instructions, the ethos of who we are as the 'living body of Christ' of which he spoke previously. In a way we are being invited to ask "what if we lived this way?" Then to test it out by stepping into the unknown to see!
So, I want to say that logos and mythos come together in ethos: that what we say about the story that shapes us is acted out in how we live together: in what we do with one another and for one another and amongst those who are different from us but with whom we share the earth. The vision statement that has been developed by a process of consultation and refinement amongst this community seeks to put some contemporary shape to the story for now, here. How we act it out will tell if it reflects the truth of who we are or not.
It seems this is so for us as a nation as well as a community of Christians. If we listen to the words that are used by leaders in our nation we can hear the current story that is being shaped about who we are and the values and priorities that we espouse. We may or may not like this emerging story, we may or may not be trying to counter it with a different story. But it will be in how we enact the story or counteract the story, that the values and the ethos of our nation will be demonstrated.
For me, and I hope for you, this weekly celebration of the story of 'life-giving bread' is both deeply reassuring (for which I am grateful), and uncomfortably challenging.
The story is a story of compassion and concern, it is one that seeks to value diversity and respect, it is one that seeks honesty compassion and peace.
I am convinced, as Paul was, that we need each other as companions, able to support each other in living into the life-changing challenge of the Christian story, because, it isn't just about the coming together of myth and logos to produce the ethos of who we are as a Christian community. It goes further. It goes to the place where courage is required, and imagination, and faith in the life-changing power of the story we tell; it leads us into the place where our ethics are shaped, where we are required to actively pursue justice-making love, peace and compassion.
It isn’t possible to speak today without reflecting on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Seventy years ago today the plutonium bomb Fat Boy destroyed Nagasaki, and many of its inhabitants. The American bomber was running out of fuel and Nagasaki was a standby target. Thursday was the 70th anniversary of the dropping of Little Boy on Hiroshima. The beautiful powerful mushroom clouds and the sustained flash of light associated with them will always scar the twentieth century memory. 2001 pales into insignificance when compared to the hundreds of thousands of civilians who lost their lives at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
They were the explosions that released the startling energy and light of an atom, and indirectly the energy of the sun on earth. After these explosions we were less innocent. We know that nature is not just mild and biddable, it is power and energy of unbelievable proportions. We now know we control something too big for us. At the time the US government and scientists risked everything to try them out. And they had dozens more bombings of Japanese cities planned. Politics since that time has been very largely aimed at managing and containing risk in a world with 15000 nuclear weapons, 450 on hair trigger alert in the United States alone.
Oppenheimer the author of the bomb famously said: I am become Death, the shatterer of worlds.
I have had two personal acquaintances with Hiroshima. The acerbic English professor across the hallway when I was teaching in a liberal arts college in North Carolina turned out to be the son of the Hiroshima bombardier, Thomas Ferebee. On the other side, and more recently a Japanese student who was studying why the atonement makes no sense to Japanese told me one day that she had been born in Hiroshima. Her great-grandfather had a premonition on August 5th 1945 that he should walk away from the city. He took his grandson, her father, with him and survived. They saw the bomb explode from the distance and walked back. Life continued amongst the ashes. By some extraordinary sequence of events she embraced Christian faith. These encounters made me realize how these historic tragedies had tentacles that spread very far from the epicentre.
The people who dropped those bombs, most of them anyway, probably didn’t know the full extent of what they were doing. They were after all, partly experiments. But it is odd that the reaction to these tragedies is still muted. Unlike the other atrocities of the twentieth century Hiroshima is regretted, in the way one might regret a natural tragedy, but it is not condemned outright. We do not speak of it as a war crime. Although our attention is largely taken up elsewhere the Doomsday clock is now set at three minutes to midnight, almost the closest it has even been.
How can we live with the memory of all of this, and with the threat for the future it entails? Our response, the response of the Church is that we can still live and hope because in Jesus we have the antidote to death: the bread of life. But that is complicated. And because in the world of the Bible nothing is as it first appears. There is always a deeper reality. It is ironic that August 6th has long had another meaning: it is the feast-day of the transfiguration, that time when Jesus went up a mountain with his disciples and his face shone with light. When Moses and Elijah appeared and Peter wanted to erect some tents. Jesus was revealing that things are not as they appear. That life and light and matter are all connected. They were connected long before the atomic bomb and modern physics showed us these things. Transfiguration though is probably more than ironic. It is also an example of synchronicity. Two events paired together. Synchronous events do not cause each other, but they seem to share a meaning, in this case one is darkness and the other life. They represent death and life. Both show the secret of the way in which energy and light and matter are all connected. One was powerful and deadly. The other was obscure and private, and although also linked to death, it was a death that brought us life. Transfiguration is like the last word to the scandalous deaths of August 6 and 9 1945. The light of Christ can banish even the scorching heat of the fires of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It shows through the eyes of faith that meaning is present in the universe if only we look.
Today’s gospel speaks of another conversion of the sun’s energy for human purposes: This time it is through the peaceful and natural process of photosynthesis and the cultural practices of bread making. Bread has been given a bad press recently but it is a miracle food and nutrient rich. Bread is in part responsible for the meteoric rise of human kind in the last 13000 years. It is marked by the invisible signs of culture. A baguette is not a naan. But they are made of the same stuff. The symbol of bread resonates through the Scriptures. The unleavened bread of exodus and Passover, the mana in the desert, the bread that gave Elijah sustenance for 40 days, the bread Jesus did not make of stones, the bread he shared with 5000 just before today’s gospel, the bread of his body, the daily bread we pray for in the Lord’s prayer, the bread and wine of the Last Supper, and the bread he broke at Emmaus. All these breads resonate with the ongoing bread of communion for the last two thousand years.
If we think about it bread is a sign of God’s accommodation to human culture. Jesus claims to be the bread of life. Bread, which is the positive result of human effort and cooperation is marked forever as linked to Jesus. It is a sign of God’s love, it bears in it the presence of Jesus amongst us still and it symbolizes all our hopes. For this bread will not perish we are told. And this bread is the exorbitant promise of life coming out of death. I am the bread of life resonates back and counters the hopelessness of Oppenheimer’s words, I am become death.
And we are here in part to keep those words of life alive and to share them. Although we are few, the world is hungry for signs of spiritual meaning and the exorbitant hope they come with. It is only if we do acknowledge the hope that we can also acknowledge the death. Perhaps that is why we have not yet really come to terms with what happened in Japan 70 years ago. Although we are few, especially here in New Zealand we keep alive the faith that Jesus holds out to us, the bread of eternal life. In a world that is obsessed with death this inwardness, this spirituality, this affirmation of life matters more than anything else.
The spiritual hunger around us is revealed in the symbols of redemption in so many stories, movies and television. I have just watched the gripping Flemish TV series Cordon. The storyline involves a deadly flu that breaks out in the centre of Antwerp which is then cordoned off and cut off from the rest of Belgium. I don’t think I am giving anything away when I say that it has a new baby born in unlikely circumstances to a young girl, and a boy who was going to save people from the plague. We are greedy for signs and symbols of hope and new life. The world wants to see the face of God. In Jesus we have the source of all these symbols and signs and reality here in the bread and wine of the communion. And although world leaders, and powers and principalities continue to court death and to play with the weapons of war, we can also testify that there is a child and young man who are with us still and hold the deeper secret of life.
“Jesus said to them ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty’.” (v35) The people have come looking for signs and miracles – they heard Jesus has fed 5000 people; they want to see that happen or even better a miracle like the one from the time of the Exodus, the manna that fed the people in the desert. They want signs, they want evidence, and they too want “to perform the works of God” (v28). But Jesus says – this is the work of God – believe in the one God has sent. (v29) ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty’. This line could be seen as a mission statement for Jesus. Certainly for the Johannine Jesus, and probably for the other gospel writers as well. Like all John’s writing it operates at many levels – John is talking about actual bread and water – Jesus has just fed 5000 people in the desert; Jesus speaks about the needs of the poor and the hungry; and then it has symbolic levels – food for the heart, water for the soul; Jesus feeds our souls; and then the combination of real food and soul food we discover in the eucharist and in baptism. The bread of life in the communion service; the water of life on the baptism service. There is history there too – the people of God being fed in the wilderness at the time of the exodus and passing through the waters of the Red Sea to freedom. Layer upon layer of meaning from John: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” – real food, soul food, sacramental food, food from faith history.
Writers of mission statements and vision statements today never get to quite nail it like the gospel writer John. Statements like Nike’s “let’s do it” are pretty good.
In our own humble way we have been working on our vision statement here at St Matthew’s. We have wanted to take stock, to reflect and think and answer the question – why are we here? why do we exist; what is the vision we want to aspire to? 30 parishioners gathered at our Visioning Day at the beginning of June and since then a small group have worked (quite hard) to formulate some words we can look to to guide us. Like the gospel of John they are layered with meaning, and we hope you will find a place for yourself within them.
St Matthew-in-the-City: a spirited place where people stand, connect, and seek common ground
St Matthew-in-the-City – our very name defines us – in the city – our location, our connections are with the city in all its vibrancy and all its challenges. We can never be tempted to be cut off in our own little religious hideaway.
a spirited place – this place is key to who we are, these stone pillars, the windows, the light, the organ. Many churches might say we are the people and the building is immaterial – for us the building matters, the church building is a key character in our story. And it is a spirited place – spiritual, spirit filled, energetic, fiery, moving, not static. Like the breath/wind/spirit of God that moved across the earth on the day of creation (Gen 1:2) we allow the Spirit (capital S) to move in this place and in our lives.
where people stand, – and we are about people – this is a place where people gather, and stand; a turangawaewae; people stand here to worship God, to stand next to each other – rich and poor, housed and homeless, tourists and locals. We stand together on issues of concern – at times we have marched together – on the Hikoi of Hope, against the Springbok tour, for peace, for justice. We take stands, we stand together.
connect, – we connect – we build relationships, we look out for one another; the regulars connect and get to know each other; we connect with other groups, churches, communities, businesses.
We are a place where people can come and find connections. And we connect on the web – we have many followers across Aotearoa and across the world who are interested in what we have to say and how we worship.
seek common ground – ground is about the actual ground – our land, which we hold in common together, like the old English idea of “the commons”; and common ground is about coming together to find a safe place for dialogue and debate, for learning and growth; common ground is about finding things in common with people of other faiths and cultures. It is not about all thinking the same thing!
St Matthew-in-the-City: a spirited place where people stand, connect, and seek common ground.
Then we have some sentences which flesh out who are and how we operate together – they are our values and descriptions of who we aspire to be. We know we don’t live up to them all the time but we aspire to them.
Encouraging critical thinking and progressive theological exploration.
You don’t check your brain at the door when you come here, we like to think and to challenge and to learn. We do not feel at all constrained by the inherited doctrines and traditions of our church – in fact we love to challenge them!
Worshipping in an Anglican tradition with creative liturgy and inspiring music.
We are an Anglican church and we worship in that tradition, using the best we can find in creative writing and music. We have no problem with chanting an ancient chant alongside a brand new composition; we find what speaks to our souls.
Welcoming all people – no exceptions – to the table.
All are welcome here – people of different faiths and no faiths; people of any background and sexuality; they are welcome at the communion table, the morning tea table and the discussion table.
Fostering respect, compassion, understanding and generosity in a spirit of manaakitanga.
Manaakitanga means hospitality and care; we want to be a community who lives and breathes manaakitanga.
Supporting each other to live out the radical way of Jesus of Nazareth in the world.
Why do we come; what is the point of all this – it is more than our Sunday gathering; our intention in being here is to be able to live better in the world. To attempt to follow the Jesus Way, to live the Jesus Way in our world, not just for one hour on a Sunday.
Engaging in just and radical action for the dignity of all and the sustainability of the Earth.
We care about the needs and rights of others, and about the earth, our fragile home. We care and want to act in ways that sustain the earth. This is going to be a particular focus for us in the year to come – the earth – our patch of land outside the church and the Earth, God’s creation, which needs our care.
Valuing our church as a beautiful taonga in the heart of Auckland City, where celebrations and events take place, and people find refuge.
We look after our heritage, this building, its fabric on behalf of all who wish to gather here. From the homeless who take refuge here to the businesses who hold events here; from the celebrations to the funerals; all who come look to us to be caring for the stones and passing them to the next generation.
Lots of words! Lots of aspirations. I hope you can find yourself in amongst them; I am sure you have ideas which you think should be added in or some you think don’t belong. The small group that wrote this on your behalf debated every word I can assure you! We hope the words are layered enough that everyone can find a place to stand and room to move.
What now? well words are great but now we carry on with the job of living them out. The Vestry and other groups within the church will be looking at their work in the light of our new words and looking at how we continue to put flesh on them. I certainly feel privileged to stand with clergy who have gone before me in this place and who have passed this heritage on to me. You all stand with the thousands of people who have passed this heritage on to you.
St Matthew-in-the-City: a spirited place where people stand, connect, and seek common ground.