A U C K L A N D A O T E A R O A N E W Z E A L A N D
December 25, 2016
Christmas Day Isaiah 9:2-7 Luke 2:1-20
In some ways they shouldn’t have been surprised; the people of Mary and Joseph’s generation.
Prophets down through the ages had promised that someone would come; a special someone.
Maybe because it had been so long, and the promises never seemed to be fulfilled, they had given up really expecting anything to happen.
Times were tough though;
Romans in control of Palestine;
puppet token kings on the throne:
Herod and his cronies;
people struggling with taxes and soldiers;
the kind of environment that leads to people hoping for a better life; hoping for freedom.
Like the people of Syria, the Sudan, Iraq and Palestine today.
People hope and pray for change and in the end will lay their lives on the line to bring it about.
Civilians will risk being bombed, day after day, trying to go about their daily lives; aid workers and medical teams, the now famous White Helmets carry on helping and working against all odds.
People hope and believe they can find freedom and peace.
What was a surprise for the people of Jesus’ time was the way God came to their aid.
There was no army, no political or military leader, no revolution, no overturning of governments.
Instead there was a baby.
An ordinary every day event; happens across the world every single day. Yet for mothers and fathers across the world the birth of your own child is no ordinary event; it is life changing; can be scary; can be exciting; can be traumatic; can be peaceful and beautiful.
A child born in Palestine today is born into a world of conflict just like Jesus was.
A child born in Aotearoa NZ might be born into a life of poverty and struggle or might be showered with wealth and possessions.
Both can be happy children if they are loved and cared for.
I think every parent is surprised by the experience of childbirth, or adopting a baby.
Nothing can prepare you for the experience.
You have to live it and savour it.
Mary and Joseph were surprised.
Why were they the ones chosen?
Why this time, this day, and not another time, another couple?
Why angels and dreams and strange visitors?
But they would have also had the “normal” experiences and feelings of ordinary parents.
Will everything be alright?
will we manage?
Mary, we are told, remembered all that had been said to her and pondered these things in her heart.
She would surely have wondered and pondered a lot: what on earth does all this mean;
while she got on with the ordinary stuff of motherhood, caring for her family.
God it seems, uses the ordinary and the everyday to bring about the extraordinary and the special.
And really that should not have been a surprise either: all through the ages God had used unlikely, ordinary people:
Abraham and Sarah began the dynasty of the people of Israel very late in life:
Moses and Miryam were slaves in Egypt;
King David started out as a young shepherd boy; many of the prophets like Jeremiah were run out of town.
Mary and Joseph were nobodies.
But God chose them anyway.
So it looks like God could choose any of us for surprising tasks.
We might be parents astonished by the gifts of our children; not Xmas gifts but the gifts of love, pride in what they do and just being together.
We might be a friend to someone in real need of a friend;
we might find ourselves as a leader at school or at work when we didn’t think that was our job or our gift;
we might be welcoming family this year who have had a rough year and need our support;
we might be helping a friend face serious illness;
we might be taking on a new job in the new year which is daunting and exciting at the same time.
Any number of things we might do that are surprising to us; we look back and think; how did I manage that?
These things are not surprising to God and the fact that we stepped up and met the challenge is not surprising to God either.
For God meets us in the every day and the ordinary and somehow we keep on being surprised by that.
2000 years on we celebrate this birth and we can get stuck in the story of the birth and all its magic and we forget that the story is all about God meeting us in our lives; Immanuel, God with us.
God walks with us, journeys with us, stays with us in the bad times and the good.
There should be no surprise at all for God has promised that it will be so. Jesus showed us that is so.
God’s love is as predictable as the pop of a Christmas cracker.
It is always there.
We only have to pick it up and find a friend to share it with.
So here we are, too late for any more shopping, too late to get more food. As I thought of this a prayer from night prayer came to mind, it goes, Lord it is night, it is night after a long day, what has been done has been done, what has not been done has not been done, let it be. Perhaps we could rephrase a little, Lord it is Christmas, Christmas after a long year and lots of preparation, what has been done has been done, what we have is what we have, it is enough, let it be.
Whew! Christmas! Now we’re here, what’s it all about? I suspect you’ll get about as many different responses to that as there are people or combinations of people. Likewise how the project of Christmas is approached varies widely. There are some who prepare well in advance, who know clearly the protocol of order – Christmas shopping tied up by June (yes, I did have a friend who was that organised). And then others who specialise in the Christmas Eve dash. Some families have established traditions of food and order of festivity, who know whose hosting or whose turn it is, of who does what best, of who is in and who is out and absorb the inevitable expansion and contraction of family unit in that. Other families have traditions that specialise in avoiding anything that resembles a formal or set tradition. Still others do a bit of both and family expands to include any who might otherwise be alone. The traditions that make Christmas ‘Christmas’ as opposed to any other gathering, celebrating occasion, even as they may vary, we sort of know, don’t we? Things may fluctuate, change be negotiated but Christmas has its own particular rituals.
Increasingly, it seems to me, Christmas has acquired more trappings, a greater attention to the appearance of things. The requisite decorating of tree now has added to it the lighting of house and yard, complex liturgies of end of year Christmas do’s, of gift purchasing, of menu deciding around the ‘only at this time of year’ special food and latest fad eating. It’s less likely these days that Christmas will include religious participation, although many to enjoy the Carols in the park public events. The lead up to and Christmas itself can actually be exhausting. I sometimes wonder if we look forward to the pressure being over – as long as the day is good – as much as the day itself.
Makes you wonder really, what does Christmas mean? We know it’s the time of year with emphasis on the importance of family, of people gathering together. A time of year in which the gap between those with disposable income and those without is made apparent, a gap we seek to narrow by giving, so all can have chance to enjoy the gifts and trappings of Christmas. Close as Christmas is to the end of the year we can be drawn to reflect on the year and Christmas’s past, to remember and to give thanks for loved ones now absent or the gift of new family. As we get older the size of the event of Christmas tends to diminish, or maybe our role in the larger family affair does. Christmas can become a bit of a pared back affair and we might wonder more closely about what actually matters.
Even if that is so, even if Christmas is quieter, less frenetic, less full of gifts and abundant food, there’s still something about Christmas day that is distinct, that makes Christmas ‘Christmas’ even if the trappings are less. During those full on family time Christmas day occasions, have you ever had one of those moments – perhaps after presents are opened and food consumed – when you just feel glad it’s Christmas. Funnily enough, even though the food’s been great and the gifts appreciated there’s a moment of what you might call ‘still happiness’ just because the day is Christmas. Maybe in part its glow of Christmases past, about remembering and reconnection. Maybe it’s because the rush is over and holiday time beckons, maybe it’s that the weather’s warm and most are paused from their busy lives, which changes the feel of things.
It’s as if something arises in us. You might call it joy – joy of being alive, tinged with excitement, inkling of life’s potential, a moment of gladness for life, however fleeting the moment – it’s there.
At Christmas we tell the story that God comes to life, is alive in real time on earth. Make startling claim that we humans can bring God to life, vulnerable, needful of us and that we know how to nurture this God life for it to flourish. John’s gospel tells of the Word: God, life, through whom all things come into being, born into the world, knowable, not concealed from us. God with us, in midst of our ordinary life, part of the rhythm and pattern of life we know, of birth and death, immersed in God are we humans. That moment of ‘still happiness’ – perhaps it’s our touching this, our somehow knowing of this, we’re secure for we belong. This beautiful, complex vulnerable world is the place of God dwelling. Through intimate, complicated, vulnerable, tangled relationships in this world, life comes into being. We’re gifted life and belonging by a God who dwells intimate with us, knows what it is to be human in all its complicated messiness.
Taking the story of Christmas seriously means human life, existence is filled with light and purpose and meaning. If God really did this, if God chooses to be with us in this way, what does that do to our importance, what does that mean for our significance, what might it require of us? Let us ponder but not be overwhelmed by the implications of what this might mean or demand of us, rather let touchstones such as Christmas remind us of the simplicity, the smallness, the familiarity and the ordinary wonder of meeting God.
It is expression of our very human belonging to engage busily in outward trappings of Christmas celebration. But let them not so distract us that we forget, or pay no heed, to those fleeting moments of ‘still happiness,’ of joy, of thanks for life, our precious life and the precious life of this world which is given as gift to us.
I read on my twitter feed this week “there are two types of people in this world: those who top their Christmas trees with stars and those who use angels.”  In my family it was always a star on top of the tree. We could probably think of other categories – are you a ham or turkey family? do you listen to the Queen’s Christmas message or not? Does everyone give everyone presents or do you have a secret Santa sort of system; are presents for children in Christmas stockings wrapped or unwrapped. Do you prefer to come to church on Christmas eve or Christmas day – or both?
In the sessions we have had after church the last two Sundays led by Susan Adams and John Salmon we have learnt some history about where some of the traditions come from. And we also learnt that Christmas as a church festival was late to join the church calendar of celebrations – in the fourth and fifth centuries. And then it was a celebration much less significant than Easter. And on through church history it had its controversies with the Puritans banning Christmas Carols in England in the 16th century – in Scotland the ban wasn’t lifted until 1958! The tradition of people going door to door caroling comes from this time – if you couldn’t sing carols in churches, the people took them to the streets!
Like our personal Christmas traditions the gospel writers also had their own version of the story, and their own reasons for writing it the way they did. In our carols and crib scenes, in our visual images in our minds from story books, we have the Christmas story conflated into one story with lots of details added in which aren’t actually there. Remember the gospel writers Mark and John have no Christmas story. Matthew and Luke do, but the stories are very different, and cannot be reconciled. Matthew has Mary and Joseph living in Bethlehem; the birth is not actually described at all; they are visited by “wise men from the east”; they flee to Egypt to escape Herod’s persecution; then they move to Nazareth. Luke has Mary and Joseph living in Nazareth, going to Bethlehem because of the census; Jesus is born and put to bed in an animal’s feeding manger; they are visited there by the shepherds; they go to Jerusalem to present Jesus in the Temple; they return home to Nazareth.
Both writers agree that Jesus’ parents were called Mary and Joseph; that Mary became pregnant before they were married; that Herod the Great was king; that Jesus was born in Bethlehem and grew up in Nazareth. The rest Marcus Borg says are composed like overtures to a symphony. The overture indicates themes that are to come.
Matthew’s overture is refreshingly simple. It is the story of Joseph more than Mary. It answers the questions Matthew’s community were asking – can we be true to our Jewish heritage and be a follower of Jesus?
Answer yes – because Jesus’ genealogy through Joseph can be traced back to King David and Abraham; yes because an angel told Joseph what was to happen in a dream – like Jacob’s dream of the ladder going to heaven; and Jacob’s son Joseph’s dreams which saved the people from famine in Egypt; and yes because the holy family had to flee Herod and his massacre of children just like Moses was saved from the same fate in Egypt.
The birth story also answers another question – how is it possible that Jesus is human and from God, all at the same time. The answer – because his birth happened in such a way as to be sure we would know that “God is with us – Emmanuel”. God here, in the flesh, not a Greek god appearing and disappearing at will, or a god personified in a cruel emperor, but a human being, born of a humble woman in a humble way. God enfleshed with us.
Matthew always quotes the Hebrew scriptures to support his writing and about this special birth he quotes Isaiah “look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel”. Isaiah wrote these words describing a specific time and place during the reign of King Ahaz of Judea – in the 730s BC when Judea was as usual under threat from her neighbours in the context of the rise of Assyria. They feared invasion, they feared a siege – think Aleppo today – people back then were massacred at will too. The people want a sign of hope and Isaiah says – look over there – that young woman who is with child – by the time the child is a toddler, before the child can choose between right and wrong, the countries you fear will be deserted. Isaiah is trying to give hope to a fearful king, in that context for that time.
Matthew picks up this saying and turns it into a sign of hope to help his people understand who Jesus is. God is now to be understood as entering and acting within our world. “The divine promise is deeply hidden in God’s own being, just as the child is hidden in the mother’s womb.” And the promise does not at all hinge on whether Mary was a virgin or not – the word in Hebrew and Greek means a young woman of marriageable age. The writers do not want us to focus on the “miracle” of the conception – they are pointing us to a much greater “miracle” – the fact that God came and comes to be with us.
Bishop Marianne Budde, the Bishop of Washington DC says “Jesus comes to us where we are, as we are. He is not afraid of the mess we all too often make of things. For all the beauty of our celebrations, remember that Jesus was born in harsh, dangerous circumstances. We celebrate his birth not because it all happened perfectly, but because everything wasn’t perfect. Imperfection is where God chose to come, and chooses still.”
Marcus Borg talks about Meister Eckhart, a Christian mystic, theologian and preacher from the 13th century: “In one of his Christmas sermons, Eckhart spoke of the virgin birth as something that happens within us. That is, the story of the virgin birth is the story of Christ being born within us through the union of the Spirit of God with our flesh. Ultimately, the story of Jesus' birth is not just about the past, but about the internal birth in us in the present.”
These wonderful Christmas narratives are not given to us to float off into a fairy tale land but to bring us face to face with God, now, today. Matthew’s version calls us to recognise Christ born anew every day, enfleshed with us. So what will we do with this birth? Put an angel or a star on the Christmas tree? What other choices does the birth bring before us? As we look back on one year and forward to another what do we yearn for, what are we seeking? What things do we want to let go of; what new things might be calling us forward?
Bring those things with you to Christmas this year; wrapped up in pretty paper if you like; and allow the stories to unwrap your hopes and needs. Allow the birth to open up something new within. Like Joseph who “awoke from sleep and did as the angel commanded” (Mt 1:24) and like Mary who said “Let it be with me according to your word” (Lk 1:38); say yes to this birth: God with us, Emmanuel.
Third Sunday of Advent Isaiah 35:1–10 Matthew 11:2-11
Hearing today’s gospel I’m wondering whether there might be some credibility to the claim that Jesus was Irish. Did you notice how Jesus seems to manage to avoid answering directly any of the questions asked of him? He responds either with a question or by redirecting the question so the onus of responsibility for the answer is put onto the one who’s asking. This could suggest that Jesus had no idea of what to say, but I’m guessing we’re not much in the habit of laying that on Jesus. Or it could suggest the often truth that the person asking a question already has within them the response they need, the answer they’re seeking.
Through his disciples John asks Jesus the question, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” A very Advent theme, especially given context of Isaiah both from our first reading but also as deployed by the gospel author, there is connection between past and future being made here. We look back to the prophetic promises from Isaiah, imagery of wilderness becoming place of flourishing, prophetic text of the future when such promise will be fulfilled. So, John is asking Jesus, are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another? And how is it that Jesus responds? Not with reassuring concrete certainty, no “Yes, you’ve got it! I’m the one, here to save the day, relax it’s all in hand.” Rather Jesus redirects the question away from himself, “Tell John what you hear and see:” the blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought and blessing is on those who take no offense at Jesus. Jesus tells them to tell of what is happening. It may be these things taking place do, indeed, relate to Jesus, happen in response to him, but what that means, whether it points to Jesus as the one to come – that is left to John to interpret. Jesus’ response is direct and simple, no justifying arguments or fine rhetoric simply ‘look at the evidence, see and hear what’s taking place now,’ what is the meaning you apply to these things?
Advent – the season of looking back, remembering the promise and of looking forward, to the return of the promise – at least that’s the character of the season tradition delivers to us. So it’s interesting in today’s gospel to find Jesus pointing to transformation happening in the now. That which is to come is being revealed. It’s taking place now. Not a future date or a past event but a present happening. The past may tell us what to look for, but without experience in the now what would prompt us to tell of such promise as real into the future.
Might we hear in today’s gospel a challenge to us – what about now? When we’re asked the question, and maybe, being religiously inclined we’re asked this more often than we realise, “Is wholeness, restoration, healing, justice, life as blessing something that happens now, is it come or are we still to wait?” Are we able to redirect attention in response “see and hear what’s happening?” Or have we come to talk about the idea of restoration, justice, healing, wholeness, divine blessing rather a lot, deliberate at length on what these things mean and how they should be possible but somehow we never quite get there for all number of reasons. Somehow we’ve become a bit vague on the vision, is it even realistic or reasonable to expect that sort of thing now. They’re things we forever work toward with a little less expectation, a little less hope the harder things get. Then again are they later things or can we see and name how they’re present, can we see and hear in this way? Insist on telling the story of life, of the world as place of divine presence, take our part in seeing and hearing how these things are being made real, acting so to make them real. Transformation is happening now. If we don’t tell, share the story of the experience, the promise of divine presence past, present and future, when we respond “hear and see” what will it mean for those asking, will it have anything to do with divine presence?
John, named in today’s gospel as prophet in Jesus’ time, is link in these in between times. John, we’re told, dwelt in wilderness places, despite the discomfort of this, people came to him. Why was that? Jesus asks, what did people go to the wilderness to look at, to see? The wilderness is a frequented place in the narrative of faith, especially for disruptive prophetic characters. We could put it down to the setting from which the stories arose, yet I suspect it’s a more universal motif of the human experience. Wilderness spaces, times, experiences are woven into the fabric of our lives. We encounter the wildness of life there, the untamed, precarious, scantly resourced fragile reality of life. As we look about our world, our country, our city, our neighbourhood, we don’t need to look far to recognise the abundance of wilderness spaces surrounding us right now. We don’t need to look far to recognise they indwell us as well. In fact some days it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed by the wildness of things.
Despite our instinct for survival warning us against close encounter with such spaces we find them perversely attractive. When disaster strikes, a person’s crisis is unveiled, we’ve an almost voyeuristic fascination to look and the media sure helps, to see how bad it is – from safety of distance. Curious rubberneckers, we can’t help ourselves – we want to see and know what’s going on, bear witness from our safe observer position. In truth I suspect wilderness places and times attract and repel us in equal measure.
What is it, to borrow from the gospel text, what is it that we go to look at, what do we go to see? Times and places of wilderness reveal life in its honest rawness, give us chance to look at, to see, to encounter life’s magnificent beauty and precarious transience without having to experience it directly. Give us chance to witness the resilience, courage and enormous compassion of the human spirit, to recognise these are in us too. Wilderness places, times, experiences open us up, they break open the predictable, the usual, the normal, create gaps for light of new awareness to shine into our lives, give us chance to consider our lives, our priorities afresh. Make us aware of our humdrum existence, that there is alternative, or maybe remind us that humdrum is existence but not life – encountering our fragile mortality is salient reminder. Witnessing wilderness it’s almost as if something’s calling us, being called from us, a sense of sharp aliveness we’ve lost along the way, smothered over with ordinariness of life and we’re yearning for restoration. The relief of wilderness allows our preoccupied minds to settle. In the stark simplicity of such place we begin to remember the vividness of the present. Reminded now is the only time, the only moment in which to be and do, now is the only time to fulfil potential and enable transformation. Listen to the wisdom of the Sufi Rumi in his poem: What Jesus Runs Away From: found in. The Essential Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks, 204. 
“Teaching in a new way,” the poem ends, refusing to deny divine presence, refusing to participate in that which prevents God’s flourishing transformation. Jesus says, tell John what’s happening now, transformation and restoration is taking place now. In this moment new life is breaking in, is changing the way things are. Change tends to be disruptive, painful at times, yet resisting denies the divine acting through us in time, it deadens us. Change opens fissures and cracks in our certainty for the light of new knowing to spill in, if we fist close the gaps we deny revealing the divine life breaking in for the world to flourish through us. Are we the ones who will enact the restoration of wholeness to those and those parts of us disfigured, blinded, deafened, made unclean, deadened and made poor in/ by life, to make known the blessing of divine presence or are we and our world to wait for another for it to be known?
Barks, Coleman trans. The Essential Rumi (New York: HarperOne 1995), 204.
So how are you feeling about it this year? Christmas I am talking about! Ready? Not ready?
Fed up with the hype and the shopping and the loaded expectations and the planning?
There are only 21 more days to the big day that it seems so much of the year hangs on whether you are a Christian or not.
It is a bit like the little boy says at the end of the Warehouse as he is climbing into bed "It feels like I've been waiting all year!"
I am always ambivalent about this time of the year.
My ambivalence seems to swirl around conflicting attitudes:
Did Christmas really belong to the Church and has it go away on us?
Does Christmas really belong in the list of secular holidays and are we trying to take it over?
Should I approach a minimalist approach to the festivities ... ?
Should I go all out and really make a celebration for family and friends: special food and decorations ... ?
Should the festivities and celebration be focussed on the 'Christ child' story?
Should they be focussed on celebrating the year past, the family and the summer holiday?
Should they be focussed on the church's liturgies and music and pageants, and out-reach dinners?
It seems many people I wonder the same things at some time or other. Some have resolved them one way and some another, and some are still experimenting. There seems to be no one way to manage Christmas.
It is a time of year that brings with it many complex feelings and emotions.
Whether we are Christian or not, Christmas figures – largely – in our annual calendar. Why is that? What is it about the Christmas season that we can't ignore? (Apart from the incessant advertising!)
Today is the second Sunday of Advent, there are two more before Christmas Eve and Christmas Day and we are right in the middle of the time of preparation – in our households and liturgically.
Last year I also preached on this second Sunday and I asked the question "Preparing for what?".
That is still a question in my mind and after church this morning John and I will be opening an exploration around Christmas. The first of two sessions. We will try to look at the origins and traditions that enmesh Christmas and to prise open space for our contemporary responses. This sermon is by way of an introduction to all that. A bit of a lecture I'm afraid!
It is very difficult for us to scrape away the accretions that have attached themselves to this season in the liturgical calendar. We tend to put the 'Christ Child' as we say, centre stage, as if that is who and what the season is all about – the birth of baby Jesus, the family, the gifts. There are centuries of magnificent art and, I dare say, thousands of pieces of music and songs about this nativity – but the question remains, is this season about a baby?
Historians have shown us that there was not much interest in the nativity aspect of the season prior to late in the 3rd century CE at the earliest.( It was certainly not celebrated prior to this.) The early church, as it emerged, was concerned with shaping identity, telling a story about its origins and positioning itself as different from the surrounding religious framework that celebrated Saturnalia and the return of the sun in this mid-winter season, or the birth of the emperor, son of the god Apollo. The focus on the baby Jesus was not of concern until well into the 4th Century.
The Council of Nicea in 325 did not recognise 'Christmas'. The term had not been invented. There was some recognition however that it would be good to celebrate Jesus birthday but the date had not been settled. The first documented evidence of the Western church celebrating 'Christmas' was not until 354 CE. The Eastern Church, some time later, also agreed the church needed to celebrate Jesus' birthday – but it insisted that 6 January was the correct date to do this. That is still the case in Coptic orthodox Christianity today.
When Matthew and Luke were writing their gospels about 50 or 60 years after Jesus death, and Luke perhaps even as late as 70-80 years after his death, the 'baby' and any suggestion of 'Christmas' as we know it, was not the issue. The emphasis was all about establishing authenticity for the movement, and an identity for Jesus that could be recognised as significant; about shaping a story and images that could capture imagination and raise up a following; it was about separating this cult (for that is what it was at this time) from Roman ideas and locating it in a distinctive position in relation to the Empire of Rome and the promises, behaviours and 'divinity' of the emperor. Matthew and Luke were offering an alternative to the empire and its power; they were continuing the work of the prophets, of John the Baptist and of Jesus; they were mobilising opposition to the oppressive regime. Remember, the Temple in Jerusalem had been sacked by the time Luke sets down his gospel and the Jewish people were being brutalised and dispersed.
Matthew and Luke set about telling their stories about Jesus nativity very differently, they differ on many details and emphases, but today we can say while these stories are not historical or factual, they are filled with truths and they certainly point us toward the power of their gospel message.
Matthew's emphasis is on linking Jesus with the stories of the First Testament in order to establish his credentials and appeal to the Jewish people who were now gathering around the Jesus story with its theology – so different from the dominant Roman imperial theology. Matthew uses the First Testament device of dreams to announce key moments and issues into the story; and he was free in his reinterpreting and reassigning of the names and titles and images identified at the time with the Emperor. Titles such as son of righteousness, light of the world, saviour of the world, king and lord. And Matthew has a focus on the men in the story and on how power is used. His telling of Jesus nativity is dark and foreboding figuring death and displacement.
Luke on the other hand puts the women in the story centre stage along with others who are powerless – the shepherds. The energy and activity of the holy spirit is core for him. His a joyful telling full of light and hope for all people, Jews and gentiles alike.
Biblical scholars suggest that, for those of us reading these origin stories today, it is helpful to see these two nativity stories as overtures to their respective gospels – summaries of what will be developed. We will talk more about all of this in the sessions after church today and next week.
But, the question remains why, in the face of all we know now days of history and science does this season with its story of a baby figure so strongly in both our secular and liturgical calendar?
The best way I have of approaching that question is to understand that the stories carry both a personal and a political message. Both dimensions were important at the time of their initial telling, and both have remained powerful through the centuries since whether we are aware of these dimensions or not. The stories touch us in the place of our deepest human longing – for love, acceptance, goodwill, justice and kindness. And they challenge us in our imagination and in our desire to create a better world where everyone has enough, lions and lambs lie together, where there is equity and justice. The images of babies, and mangers, light and the gifts, trees and feasts – indeed all the traditions that have accumulated around Christmas including the excesses and disruptions are all symbols of the deep political truths and dreams of a transformed world that the initial story tellers (Matthew and Luke) were pointing us toward.
So welcome to the complexities of Christmas. I pray, that like all good sacraments, whether we are aware of it or not, we will be expressing once again our dream of heaven come on earth, and our desire to overturn all that diminishes and constrains the fullness of life.
Wake up deeper. We all know about sleeping deeply, how good it feels to have slept deeply – but what about waking up deeply. Waking up deeper. I heard the phrase “waking up deeper” in a podcast  I listened to last week when I was on retreat and I thought what a great description of Advent that is.
Advent is our church season, which calls us away from the Christmas hubbub in order to focus our hearts and minds on the coming of the Christ child. Many of the Advent readings and hymns have the theme of staying awake and alert.
What are we keeping awake for? And why do we need to be more deeply awake? The earliest Christians thought they needed to keep awake literally in case Jesus returned. We would interpret those passages today to mean we need to be watchful, alert, awake to the signs of Christ’s presence amongst us.
We simply need eyes to see. Mr Brian Tamaki sees earthquakes and sees sin. We see earthquakes and we see people rushing to rescue, to feed, to offer comfort. We see truck drivers working through the night to get supplies through. We see the Navy leaving their birthday party to ferry people to safety. We see volunteers picking paua up off the rocks and putting them back in the water.
Isaiah the prophet (writing 740-700 BC) is working at a time when Jerusalem is coming under siege from all sides (northern kingdom, Assyria, Damascus) and we are told “this is the word that Isaiah saw concerning Judah (southern kingdom) and Jerusalem. (2:1). Isaiah didn’t write, or say some words; he saw them – he cast a vision. He saw nations gathering in peace on the holy mountain of Jerusalem. And there swords will be made into ploughs which plough the fields; spears will prune the vines. Weapons of war will become tools of peace time. Isaiah saw that it could be possible. Isaiah was deeply awake. The people were less awake.
They could not see the possibilities for peace. And eventually Jerusalem would fall and Isaiah’s vision would become a far away longed for future – way out of reach.
Jesus in this chapter of Matthew is answering the disciples’ question: “what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (24:3) When will everything finally be put to right?
When will the visions of the prophets come to pass? When will we see what Isaiah saw?
Jesus says “about that day and hour no one knows” – don’t try and predict it in the future.
Instead be ready now, be ready always. Wake up deeper.
The Advent themes of hope, peace, joy and love call us to be awake and notice.
What signs of hope do we see, right in front of us today. (Ian training a dog to be a mobility companion dog; our newborn baby Annabelle; 5 couples married here this weekend; members of our community facing health challenges with courage;)
Cate said this week – if we can’t recognise these signs of hope which are right in front of us how will we recognise Christ when he is born at Christmas? Advent gets us ready to see Christ, face to face.
We are going to be waking up deeper and sharing what we see on social media this year.
If you are on Facebook or twitter you can share a thought or a photo for our #ActofAdvent campaign. So this week we are looking #ActofHope. Join in with us so that we can wake up deeper together.
In the last couple of weeks I have also been looking back and reflecting on signs of hope in my life and work as I am going to be marking 25 years of ordination on Wednesday, St Andrew’s Day.
I was 28 years old and 6 months pregnant the day I was ordained deacon in Wellington Cathedral by the late Archbishop Brian Davis. The thing I remember most about the service was worrying whether I would faint when I knelt before the bishop, as I had discovered that being pregnant, if I knelt to pray, for some reason I would faint. I didn’t faint that day.
There was a bit of tut tutting in those days – ordaining someone who was pregnant! Would the baby be ordained too? Hannah enjoys telling people she is really a deacon.
25 years of ordained service means 1300 Sundays! (not that I have taken services every single Sunday of course). I have a book where I record all my weddings, baptisms and funerals – I brought it up to date this week and there are 115 baptisms, 56 weddings, and 97 funerals.
I feel grateful for the people who have offered me the privilege of sharing their lives in their happiest and saddest moments, and lots of moments in between.
28 was pretty young to be ordained – what was the good bishop thinking! And people straight away treated me differently, listened seriously to what I said. That was the scary part.
In the ordination service the bishop prays that the candidate will be empowered by the God of grace. I am grateful for that grace, which is “gentle as a dove” and “living, burning as fire”  all at the same time. Seven people in our diocese had that prayer prayed over them yesterday.
The way forward for the church and for God’s mission in the world is less clear than it was 25 years ago. It amazes me really that people still attend worship, still want to belong to a church community, when the church as an institution so often fails us. Yet I guess the reason you still attend and the reason I still show up on a Sunday is because we seek together something beyond ourselves, we are seeking something bigger. We seek the presence of the Spirit in our midst and to follow the paths of the one we call Christ. Joy and sorrow happen. Grace happens. Hope happens.
In commenting on today’s gospel, Nadia Bolz Weber says we should be welcoming “the thief who comes in the night” because the thief is the Christ who comes to take away all the baggage we don’t need, and all our certainties. I am sure people in Kaikoura and Wellington will tell us that to be suddenly without one’s possessions and security in a post earthquake world is a very horrible place to be. They will also tell us that they are discovering support and resilience they never knew they had. Nadia says “we should start making Advent lists – they’d be like Christmas lists, but instead of listing things we want Santa to bring us, we would write down things we want Christ to break in and take from us. In the hopes he could pickpocket the stupid junk in our houses, or abscond with our self-loathing or resentment …maybe break in in the middle of the night and take off with our compulsive eating or our love of money.” 
So we turn up at church to be challenged by the words of scripture, to be nurtured by the community, to be strengthened by the sacraments, to be inspired by the music, to practice again the pattern of life lived out in the eucharist – offering, thanksgiving, breaking of bread, and sharing. Practicing again the pattern of worship – gathering, hearing, sharing peace, being fed, being sent out. We practice here in church so we can live these things in our world where we are called to wake up deeply.
25 years ago I promised this would be my life’s work. As we begin again the season of Advent, as we begin again the cycle of worship for the next year, be awake, watch for signs of hope, be acts of hope. If we do this we do not have to wait vainly for a future time when Christ will return. We find the Christ is here, ready to meet us, face to face.
Today is the last Sunday of the church year, New Year’s Eve, I guess. The last Sunday of the liturgical year it’s often known as Christ the King, or the Reign of Christ Sunday. It kind of makes sense to end a year of telling the Christian faith story, of the unique influence of the man Jesus of Nazareth who lived on earth in historical time in whom divine presence was discerned, made startlingly real, to end the year saying things are changed. It makes different the way things are, it reveals a viable alternative way in how to be and order our life together in this same world. As we look around our world just now, it seems a most unlikely claim with little apparent evidence. But the story that makes this claim, the niggling, irritating, won’t ever quite go away faith story refuses to relinquish the claim that the world is indeed threaded through with divine presence. And ultimately it is beyond human capacity to unstitch that as real.
Whether it’s Christ the King or the Reign of Christ, each imply a geography of living, kingdom, sovereignty, there’s a location, and an acknowledged leadership, it’s not no-one over nowhere but someone over somewhere, it’s a concrete assertion. I suspect the notion of kingship or of reign over, even if it is Christ, sits uneasily with us. Raises spectres of patriarchy, of status and privilege acquired by birth rather than worth, misuse of power, corruption without censure. I wonder, though, how many of us have lived in a monarchy with a regent who actively rules, complete with a social stratum of support to know if it’s actually like this. I suspect most of us are accustomed to living in a democracy with its flattened class system where each adult has right of say in determining the leaders and laws of the nation.
The social system of monarchy may be outside our lived experience but I’d suggest we’re quite familiar with a top down power system. In our world, countries, rulers, people who’ve many resources do indeed exercise power over those made less by their fewer or no resources. Those with less are subject to, kept distanced, done to. It’s circumstance of birth, geography, race, religion or gender that renders them powerless. This is not new. It’s a common and kingly story of human life on earth, of systems of power and misuse of power, of injustice, abuse and careless disregard of the sanctity of life. Jesus’ crucifixion in today’s gospel is outcome of the power of such systems. Systems familiar to us and, uncomfortable as it may be to say, the way we often as not operate, it’s in us. Born into a society dominated by this paradigm we’re formed by it. Wired to survive, we strive to succeed, to have power, to gain for ourselves. Even if, for as long as we can remember we’ve resisted, spoken against, worked to unmask, to effect change, it’s hard to not ‘do our resistance’ by exact same way of operating, misusing our power to impose our alternative vision of the way things should be on those who differ.
It might be easier to simply not keep Christ the King Sunday, to avoid or dismiss its imagery, its location in our tradition. But before we discard it out of discomfort maybe there’s merit in considering why it has place. Is something being said through this, maybe being asked of us, to what system of living do we ally ourselves, what does it require of us and how do we live it out? Proposes it’s possible for us, or even more boldly, native to us to live in a way personified in the person of Jesus, as told in the stories passed down through time. As people who seek to live in honest transparency to divine presence, who value the gift that is life and seek for its flourishing, who name injustice, who refuse to participate in unjust systems, work for restoration, are willing to remain in the presence of suffering brokenness for in us is hope, a deep knowing that this is not the entire story.
Which all sounds rather ideal, does it not? Armed with such understanding, and the words of teaching attributed to Jesus that invert the established order, might it be that all we need do is apply this Christ as King, make it this Christ that Reigns and everything will be sorted! Let me think about that “the last shall be first and the first last, we’re to serve not to be served,” it’s an inversion, for sure, but it still operates within a ranked system. If we replace Christ as King, the ruler, the one in charge and claim Christ does things upside down so it’s actually different BUT don’t question the system itself, the fundamental underpinnings by which it operates then nothing really is changed. And it takes little time for Christ to become the power figure in a hierarchical system that we’re powerless in, for us to take the place given us and accept the inevitability of what will happen, without authority, mandate or right to make difference or change.
How might we disentangle ourselves? Well, I got to thinking about stories on my bus journeying this week. About stories with longevity, the ones that last, like our faith narrative stories and, funnily enough, like fairy stories and folk tales, which also include kings and queens and all number of other mythical beasties. They last, I believe, because they’re stories of life, by this I mean they are living stories. Such stories allow us to encounter real life, populated by characters we recognise, exerting influence in ways we know, even if events or characters in the story are mythically exaggerated, they inhabit the landscapes and engage in the activities of real life. Giving voice to our deeper truths, they name our fears, hopes, aspirations and dreams, let our best and maybe worst selves be revealed, unshackled from the chains of our ordinary day compromises and limitations. They allow us to stand face to face with what is, with what could be, to consider the consequence of choices without having to venture too dangerously there. Stories that’ve stood the test of time are adaptable, they relate to and resonate with real life, and their struggle is ours, mirroring the moving fluidity and flexibility of life as we grow and change. If they cease to resonate as truthful, to relate, to speak into or reflect our experience of life then I’m not sure we’d keep telling them. Might this be something of our uneasiness at having Christ the king included in our faith and liturgical narrative, has it become a story without life for it’s out of relationship with our life?
I wonder if there are questions that precede our judgement of this image. Might we first ask ourselves what we imagine our faith looks like in real life, ask ourselves what difference we imagine our faith makes to the life of the world, ask ourselves what the point is of faith bearing that we trust ourselves to? I think this influences how we create our image of Christ as king. It is after all we humans who’ve given this name to experience of the divine. It is after all a human claim of hope arising out of our divine indwelling, calling us to recognise and to be presence of divine life in the world. Does the faith that is in us call us to create edifices for God, concrete statements for God, certainties that mimic the grandness, grandeur of royal splendour, in service of a kingly God kept safe within religious walls? Or does the faith that is in us call us to risk treading trails of transformation that refuse to be converted by, become fixed certainties of power? Call us to trust that the integrity of our vulnerable imperfection is sufficient to make real the living, changing, ever revealing presence of divine life, to participate in transformation as we’re being transformed.
I want to share a model of kingship through a story of the incarnation told by 4th century Athanasius, slightly adapted and expanded by Brian McLaren.
“Once upon a time there was a good and kind king who had a great kingdom with many cities. In one distant city, some people took advantage of the freedom the king gave them and started doing evil. They profited by their evil and began to fear the king would interfere and throw them in jail. Eventually these rebels seethed with hatred for the king. They convinced the city that everyone would be better off without the king, and the city declared its independence from the kingdom.
But soon, with everyone doing whatever they wanted, disorder reigned in the city. There was violence, hatred, lying, oppression, murder, rape, slavery and fear. The king thought: What should I do? If I take my army and conquer the city by force, the people will fight against me, and I’ll have to kill so many of them, and the rest will only submit through fear or intimidation, which will make them hate me and all I stand for even more. How does that help them – to be either dead or imprisoned or secretly seething with rage? But if I leave them alone, they’ll destroy each other, and it breaks my heart to think of the pain they’re causing and experiencing.
So the king did something very surprising. He took off his robes and dressed in the rags of a homeless wanderer. Incognito, he entered the city and began living in a vacant lot near a garbage dump. He took up a trade – fixing broken pottery and furniture. Whenever people came to him, his kindness and goodness and fairness and respect were so striking that they would linger just to be in his presence. They would tell him their fears and questions, and ask his advice. He told them that the rebels had fooled them, and that the true king had a better way to live, which he exemplified and taught. One by one, then two by two and then by hundreds, people began to have confidence in him and live in his way.
Their influence spread to others, and the movement grew and grew until the whole city regretted its rebellion and wanted to return to the kingdom again. But, ashamed of their horrible mistake, they were afraid to approach the king, believing he would certainly destroy them for their rebellion. But the king-in-disguise told them the good news: he was himself the king, and he loved them. He held nothing against them, and he welcomed them back into his kingdom, having accomplished by a gentle, subtle presence what never could have been accomplished through brute force.” 
 Brian D. McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy, (Zondervan; Grand Rapids), 2004, 64,65.
Blessed are you – simply for being here – blessed are you. We are here for many different reasons today. Some of you are here because you have a loved one who has died in the last year, and their funeral was here. Some of you are here to hear the choir sing. Choir members, you are here to sing and to see how the Requiem you sing as a concert actually works in a liturgy. Some of you are here because you are always here. Some of you are here because you have wandered in by chance. Blessed are you.
Blessed too are the people whose names we will read during the great thanksgiving prayer, or whose names you will remember as we pray. There are names on the list of people who died very recently, others long ago. Some old, some very young, some in between. For some of us the grief is so recent and so fresh we can barely breathe. For others the tears flow again, but more softly. Some of us might want to recite that poem by WH Auden  “Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone” – as we cannot imagine how the world can just carry on its normal business when our loved one is gone.
The poem finishes:
The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good. 
And yet to our frustration the world carries on – people go to work, to school, as if nothing has happened. Yet as the first raging of grief subsides or even in the midst of it – we come to give thanks for a life, and say their name, and give thanks for who they were and are. For each life, whether short or long is complete in itself. And in the midst of sadness and grief we can still be thankful.
That is partly what Jesus meant when he said “blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.”
Wherever you are in your grieving and loving and giving thanks, you can allow the words of the Durufle Requiem and the choir to speak for you. Don’t read the translation on your order of service (because frankly the words are not really for our time); just listen and add your own translation in; whatever it is you want to say to your loved one, to God, or to yourself. Words of thanks, words of anger, words of love, words of regret, words of joy, words of sorrow; tears and smiles; goodbyes and hullos.
Do your own translation, let the music carry your prayer and your thoughts.
But then let me warn you the words of Jesus we just heard from the gospel reading might come crashing in and not seem quite resonant with your personal prayers. Jesus is like that – gets in the way of our own plans and thoughts. I said before that in the midst of sadness and grief we can still be thankful and that is partly what Jesus meant when he said “blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.” However the Beatitudes, as this list of blessing is called, are not really about us as individuals. Blessed are you who are hungry, who weep; when people hate you; these are not descriptions of individual struggles but the life of the early followers of Jesus who were hungry for God, were weeping at the state of their lives and communities, oppressed and hated by the Romans.
Jesus’ words are a commentary on their community and way of life. Then he ramps it up with the “woes” or curses – woe to the rich, the full, the laughing, those who are praised. Again not so much the individuals but to the society who ignored the needs of others and carried on in their own self satisfied way. Those who were blessed, the followers of Jesus, were the saints, and the rest, well they were the lost.
These words of Jesus are about life here and now and in every generation – life in all its complexities and paradoxes – life with all its questions and lack of answers. Who are the blessed, and who are the lost? Blessed are the hungry – those who literally are hungry and who will be fed today at the City Mission next door. Blessed are the hungry – who will be fed today from this table – we are hungry for our ritual bread and wine – which represents to us life with God, life in community. Blessed are we who hunger for God in their lives – even if we are not sure who God is or how we might meet God. Blessed are the hungry, who seek, who look, who want to know God and who want to feed the hunger of our world with love and service. At this table all are welcome and all are fed.
In the same way the mysterious words of the Requiem are sung for us all and those for whom we pray. The words weep for us and we are lifted up by their beauty. Blessed are those who weep.
Woe to us though if we think we have life figured out; woe to us if we are self satisfied and sure we know everything; woe to us if we neglect the hungry at our door. Instead we are invited to be here today – hearts and hands empty, hungry – ready to be filled with the beauty of music and the touch of God’s grace. We do want to say “stop the clocks” – stop the clocks long enough for us to be in this moment here. In this moment where nothing else matters.
Nadia Bolz Weber is a Lutheran priest from the US and she has written a book Accidental Saints – Finding God in all the wrong people and this is part of a litany she wrote for All Saints’ Day:
Blessed are they who doubt. Those who aren’t sure, who can still be surprised.
Blessed are those who have nothing to offer.
Blessed are they for whom death is not an abstraction.
Blessed are they who have loved enough to know what loss feels like.
Blessed are they who don’t have the luxury of taking things for granted anymore.
Blessed are they who can’t fall apart because they have to keep it together for everyone else.
Blessed are those who no one else notices.
Blessed are the forgotten.
Blessed are those who know there has to be more than this.
Blessed are the kids who step between the bullies and the weak.
Blessed are those who hear that they are forgiven.
Blessed are the merciful, for they totally get it. 
Blessed are you – simply for being here – blessed are you.
It is a good thing we did not elect him mayor of our Super City! Everything would be turned upside down. Things would be in chaos. It would seem, if the Lucan teller of this tale is to be believed, that Jesus would have us all be sinners who say sorry, rather than people struggling to do the right thing and live within the constraints of our laws and the expectations and protocols of our social system!
We are told in today's Gospel reading that the efforts of one who abides by the demands of society and the religious practices demanded of him by the fellowship he belonged to; who does his best to be an upright and responsible citizen and a leader of the Temple, are not sufficient to justify him: his efforts are inadequate to deserve our respect.
On the other hand, the despised tax collector – the collaborator with the Roman authorities, who has purchased the right to collect taxes and tolls from his fellow citizens; who according to popular perception has made life difficult for the local workers is, now that he stands at the back of the church and asks for forgiveness – to be applauded, emulated even! He went home justified. This doesn't seem quite right. And I'm really not sure if I would think it was at all right if I'd been over taxed and was struggling to make ends meet while he lived in relative luxury.
It seems a step too far for those of us who want to do the right thing and try hard to achieve it.
If we judge the Pharisee – in the way the parable invites us to – disparaging his efforts to be a socially responsible citizen, then we are behaving in the same way as those to whom the story was addressed – the ones judging others contemptuously. After all the Pharisee is only describing things as he sees it and doing the best to do the right thing.
But, if we behave like the tax collector and stand around in the back of the church beating our breast and saying how wicked we are, who benefits from that? How helpful is that to our community and the people who have been ripped off and now face financial hardship?
It's hard to figure this one out.
It would appear, on the surface, that the breast beating tax collector is the one to emulate, while the one who made a contribution to others through his leadership, tithing and prayers is not.
It seems to me too simplistic to say that those not generally valued by society, in this instance (for example) the tax collector, are the ones valued by God above others.
And even the interpretation that we are used to hearing that suggests we should be like the tax collector and own our sinfulness in a humble way does not satisfy me although it is clearly present in the story that we are loved by God, justified by God, not by anything that we might do to live righteously and earn that love simply because we are. This is one comforting message from the story but is there another? If we reflect a bit deeper is there another insight that Jesus might have been hoping we would understand, if he did ever tell this parable this way. (This might be Luke's message to the struggling Christian community he was addressing but was it Jesus message?)
It is easy for us, we have heard the story often, to 'hear' the expected reversal motif we know to look for in parables, in the example of the humble tax collector who will be justified and exalted by God and not in the puffed up Pharisee.
If we consider the big picture of Jesus' life that the Gospels present to us, the general sweep of Jesus' teaching and life, unpicked from the historical overlays written much later, we get the idea that Jesus is concerned to build a kind and generous community that cares for all the members even those it is easy to marginalise, to push aside. The examples that we have in the stories and parables that illustrate Jesus teaching are of Jesus seeking to build relationships of mutual concern, of acceptance of diversity, and of inclusion of difference; where none go hungry, are violated or disrespected.
Jesus is prepared to challenge and even overturn laws, systems and expectations to do this – whether or not those systems and expectations are religious or secular. The disciples who follow Jesus are encouraged to do what they can to bring this about. It seems to me the reversal we are looking for is tucked in here.
I want to read across the grain of this story, to read between the lines of what is being said. I want to 'read' the white space between the lines and around the edge of the page to explore what might be still hidden for us to find!
For me, today, this is not a story about personal/individual successes and failures, it is not about satisfying a judge outside of our human community who will decide if we are in or out, worthy or unworthy – righteous or justified – it's not a story with a moral twist directed at us individually. You may have noticed as I have, that all three of the characters 'Luke' uses to tell his story – the Pharisee, the Tax Collector and God (who is not directly present), highlight something unexpected: each of them is concerned with self, with personal piety and with power to vindicate actions.
As I see it today, against the background of our own contextual issues, the reversals this parable points to are
the importance of being in right-relations with others – crossing boundaries and barriers
the importance of doing something to change matters we know are wrong, and
the importance of using the power we have as community.
None of these things are directly present in the text of story as we have it!
I guess I am speaking then of the 'truth hidden from the wise', the 'treasure hidden in the field' – or 'written' in the white spaces around the text.
We are being invited to put aside our concern for self-justification and to take up a concern for the well being of others; we are being invited to do what is 'right', and being asked to point to the potential for change that lies among us; we are being encouraged to stop leaving things to a God 'outside' of our lives and to own the collective power we have to press for creative life-giving decisions – tap into the God amongst us. I think these things are the kernel of the parable – these are the reversals there for us to discover!
So, with the shift in power from 'them' to 'us'
It was good to hear the new mayor put the Living Wage back on the agenda of the Council – some of us will be keeping the pressure on about that.
It is good to hear of renewed discussions about real possibilities for affordable housing – some of us will keep the pressure on this
it is great to hear the United Nations call to the Government to tackle the issues of children living in poverty and all the vulnerabilities that surround that, some of us will keep the pressure on here
Housing First is a brave and complex project that the City Mission has embraced, some of us will support this
We know these things are right, not because they will earn us stars in heaven, but because they will make for a healthier kinder community.
This is timely as the new city council settles in and we have an opportunity influence priorities.
As I see it the parable compels us to shift our concern from ourselves to others.
It is not so much that God loves us 'simply because', but that we loves others enough to desire their wellbeing.
We need something of each of the characters in the story,
we need to know how the systems that shape and organise our communities and our lives work
we need to build relationships so we can influence them
taxes are required: to be paid fully, to be collected fairly and reasonable, and distributed to places of need.
Life-giving and empowering energy lies amongst us – God present with us – together we have the power to engage in the building up of the people we live amongst. Let's use it, and embrace the chaos Jesus creates.
There’s this judge who feared neither God nor had respect for people, that’s what we’re told in the lead in to this parable tale today. Sounds like a member of one of today’s tribes, the one often declaimed by us of a generationally other tribe – the It’s All About Me Tribe. The judge isn’t necessarily doing anything wrong, it’s just as if he doesn’t really care, can’t be bothered with the woes of others, especially annoying females who pester. The only thing that causes him to act is to silence her annoying persistence. The only reason he grants her the justice she seeks is to make the problem she is to him go away. It is not until this moment, not until the judge grants the widow justice that he is named unjust. What is that about?
That the label unjust comes at the moment he grants justice might suggest the judge did actually know what justice looked like, even as he chose to ignore it. The context into which Jesus taught was Jewish so we might assume this judge is part of the Israelite community. The covenant community of Jeremiah where knowledge of how to live rightly and justly one with another is written on heart, embedded in the knowing of each member. This judge knows what justice looks like. The judge feared neither God nor respected people – there’s nothing to fear or need to respect people when you don’t make yourself vulnerable to relationship – justice, injustice – they’re a theoretical irrelevance when there’s no cost to your own hide. However, whether he wanted to or not the widow’s constant pleading forced the judge to relate to her, to form relationship, even if briefly, he was changed enough to act for someone else.
As you know the gospel has integrity within the context in which it’s spoken, it’s a parable of encouragement for the times to come, when Jesus will no longer be with the disciples. The parable promises that prayer works, if the disciples pray always and do not lose heart, like the pestering widow to the judge, what they pray for will be granted. I want to examine this a bit more closely.
The judge/unjust judge is likened to God, God who will grant justice to God’s chosen ones who cry to God day and night. Remember, the judge feared neither God nor had respect for people, a figure removed from engagement, from relationship, who judged, perhaps impartially, it would seem impassively. Might this speak of God? In Matthew when the disciples are taught they must love their enemies, pray for those who persecute them that they may be children of God, God who “makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” Creation comes, is coming into being through, by divine, Godly impetus and grace. Evil or good, righteous or unrighteous, these are things we are granted freedom to enact, to be or become.
How might we understand prayer and justice granted then? The widow brings before the judge her case for justice, she names that which is unjust and seeks justice be granted. We in this place and in other places name before God that which is unjust, we know what injustice looks like, we imagine, desire, pray for justice. Naming injustice, as the widow did, unmasks that it is indeed present amongst us. Naming it makes it inescapably real. Having made injustice known, who do you think will grant justice? If we who fear God and respect people know what justice is who, other than us will enact it? God? God made flesh? We who make God flesh now?
As we consider the landscape of our city, our country the people scape as well, how many of you are a little uncomfortable with the way things are? We don’t have to look far to see there’s an inequitable sharing of resources, and to see the effect this has. We don’t need OECD reports to know the gap between rich and poor is wider than ever, that NZ is right up there with the worst statistics for child poverty. We know we participate in an economic system where those who have, get more, and those who have not, get less or nothing and bear brunt of societal scorn. This is not anything new, even as it is shamefully worse than ever, it’s the way things are, we belong to a society that chooses a system that works out this way. It’s the system that prevails in the first world, of which we are a part, but is it a just system? Does it prioritise and value life and it’s flourishing, does it ensure a distribution of its sufficient resources so that each has enough for their need? If we name this system unjust, act in defiance of it, for justice to prevail, to be granted, especially if we invoke faith anywhere in the conversation will we be scorned as naive fools, not credible for even suggesting such a thing?
And yet, if we do not, if we see injustice and do nothing, if there’s no concrete consequence, no outworking in real time of that which we call faith, what is faith? Simply something to provide us with relief, assuage our conscience, justify our continued participation in the unjust systems that prevail? How will we respond to the gospel query “And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
Let me share with you Peter Rollins parable ‘Finding Faith’ from his book ‘The Orthodox Heretic.’ “There was once a fiery preacher who possessed a powerful but unusual gift. He found that, from an early age, when he prayed for individuals, they would supernaturally lose all of their religious convictions. They would invariably lose all of their beliefs about the prophets, the sacred Scriptures, and even God. So the preacher learned not to pray for people but instead he limited himself to preaching inspiring sermons and doing good works. However, one day while travelling across the country, the preacher found himself in a conversation with a businessman who happened to be going in the same direction. The businessman was a very powerful and ruthless merchant banker, who was honored by his colleagues and respected by his adversaries. Their conversation began because the businessman, possessing a deep, abiding faith, had noticed the preacher reading from the Bible. He introduced himself to the preacher and they began to talk. As they chatted together this powerful man told the preacher all about his faith in God and his love of Christ. He spoke of how his work did not really define who he was but was simply what he had to do.
“The world of business is a cold one,” he confided to the preacher, “And in my line of work I find myself in situations that challenge my Christian convictions. But I try, as much as possible, to remain true to my faith. Indeed, I attend a local church every Sunday, participate in a prayer circle, engage in some youth work and contribute to a weekly Bible study. These activities help to remind me of who I really am.’
After listening carefully to the businessman’s story, the preacher began to realize the purpose of his unseemly gift. So he turned to the businessman and said, ‘Would you allow me to pray a blessing onto your life?’
The businessman readily agreed, unaware of what would happen. Sure enough, after the preacher had muttered a simple prayer, the man opened his eyes in astonishment. ‘What a fool I have been for all these years!’ he proclaimed. ‘It is clear to me now that there is no God above, who is looking out for me, and that there are no sacred texts to guide me, and there is no Spirit to inspire and protect me.’
As they parted company the businessman, still confused by what had taken place, returned home. But now that he no longer had any religious beliefs, he began to find it increasingly difficult to continue in his line of work. Faced with the fact that he was now just a hard-nosed businessman working in a corrupt system, rather than a man of God, he began to despise his work. Within months he had a breakdown, and soon afterward he gave up his line of work completely.
Feeling better about himself, he then went on to give to the poor all of the riches he had accumulated and he began to use his considerable managerial expertise to challenge the very system he once participated in, and to help those who had been oppressed by the system.
One day, many years later, he happened upon the preacher again while walking through town. He ran over, fell at the preacher’s feet, and began to weep with joy.
Eventually he looked up at the preacher and smiled, ‘thank you, my dear friend, for helping me to discover my faith.’” 
Will faith be found? Faith that does differently, faith that reveals/names injustice and acts so justice is granted. Systems of injustice will not cede power gracefully, there will be a cost. We are formed by these systems, they are in us. For the system to change we have to relinquish something of who we are, we have to change, we cannot remain the same and expect change. We may not know ourselves for we will not be as we have been, the world, the society familiar to us will not be the same, not be as it is.
Do we actually want this? Will faith be found?
 Peter Rollins, The Orthodox Heretic: and other impossible tales (Massachusetts: Paraclete Press, 2015), 57-60.
Mind the gap – as they say in London on the Tube. Distance. Gaps. Distance between people, places and ideas. In our tales from scripture today there is lots of distance and separation between the people and the places. Jesus is said to be walking in the region between Samaria and Galilee. Those two regions actually border each other so does Luke mean Jesus is in the no man’s land between the two regions and peoples who hated each other? Like a no man’s land between the trenches in WW1, or on either side of the wall between Israel and Palestine now. Distance.
Then ten lepers approach – they keep their distance as required to by law (Leviticus 13). Jesus does not approach them – he simply tells them to go and show themselves to the priest – meaning they have to be certified as healed and then be allowed to re enter the community. The distance remains until they have done that.
Luke’s audience for this story would have immediately leapt in their minds to the OT story we heard from the Book of Kings. Naaman, a Syrian general also has leprosy. He, however seems to allowed to be with his family and in society. He has in his household a slave girl, from Israel, captured in battle. She would have every reason to hate her master and keep her distance, but she chooses to intervene and suggests Naaman seek healing from Elisha the prophet. This requires letters of request and safe passage the king of Aram (Syria, including present day Aleppo) to the king of Israel. The king of Israel suspects a trap and wants to stay away from this problem but Elisha intervenes and asks for Naaman to be allowed to come. Elisha also keeps his distance and does not meet Naaman but issues instructions for him to wash in the Jordan. Naaman does not want to come down off his high horse, literally, and expects a much bigger show of magic from the prophet. Convinced in the end by his servants, again a class of people distant from him, he washes and is made clean.
In both these stories people have barriers up – barriers of class, race, expectation; they have physical distances of geography, and distance engenderd from fear of disease and fear of the other. In Naaman’s story the people who bridge the gaps, who reach out to close the distance, are the unnamed slave girl, Elisha the prophet, and the servants. If the girl had not urged her mistress to urge Naaman to try and get to Elisha, nothing would have happened. If the servants had not urged Naaman to swallow his pride and get in the river Jordan, nothing would have happened.
In the story of Jesus and the 10 lepers the distance between the lepers and Jesus, and the lepers and the rest of the people, is maintained until the story shifts and one of the lepers returns. We have the distance between Samaria and Galilee – both physically separate – and separated by their hatred of each other. We have the lepers standing away from the community. We have Jesus sending them to the priests – healed but with no sense of interaction or even compassion really. Then the story pivots and the distance collapses. “One of them turned back. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him.” Ah say the listeners of the story – ah say the readers – lovely. But wait, there is more “he was a Samaritan”. What – no! the barriers go up – a leper – and a Samaritan – he is the one? Where are the others Jesus asks? Is only the foreigner here (does Jesus say foreigner with a disparaging tone of voice? or a welcoming one?) Then the gap is closed, the barriers are down: “get up and go on your way; your faith has made you whole”.
All of the 10 were healed, the one who came back is made whole. One reached out with gratitude and thankfulness. he Samaritan, the foreigner was the only one to return to Jesus with gratitude. The Samaritans, the ones expected to be dishonest, or dangerous, and certainly disliked if not hated, by the people of Israel. The Samaritan returns to give thanks. To give thanks for healing, for clean skin, for freedom, for release from being an outcast. Gratitude for being able to reenter society, gratitude for a new future, new possibilities. And knowing all these things were beyond his control, but in the hands of God, he returns to give thanks. It is that sense of thankfulness which bridged the gap. Gratitude closed the gap between Samaritan and Jew, between outcast and rabbi; gratitude reached across the distance, the divide.
Distance, gaps, mind the gap. In a city like ours we walk and drive past hundreds if not thousands of strangers every day. Do you remember the scene in the old movie Crocodile Dundee when Dundee tries to shake hands with all the passersby as if he will see them all again? From outback Australia to New York; they all think he is crazy.
We live with distance every day – we cannot know all our neighbours in a city; but we also allow the pressure of life and the rush of the city, the traffic, to create distance between us. Life in apartments can be the loneliest even with other people through the wall right next to you. Hirini spoke last week of the racial divide that can be made worse by the politics of Donald Trump or Don Brash and his new group. We need leaders who break down the walls that divide us, not build them up.
On the worldwide scene the calamity that is Syria stems from multiple divisions and hatred. Our story from the book of Kings is set partly in the region of Aram which is part of modern day Syria and includes Aleppo, so much in the news. Division, hatred and distance still haunt the people. And we watching from afar feel powerless to do anything, except lament and say: God, why and how long? When we gather each week to worship we take a stand against distance and division and close the gap. We gather with strangers, people of many cultures, many social groupings, many walks of life – as Archbishop Tutu once said – with God’s rainbow people. And what do we do together? We give thanks. The central act of our worship is the eucharist. Eucharist means to give thanks – we call that part of the service “the great thanksgiving”. When the Samaritan leper returns to Jesus “he prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him” – the word for thank is eucharisteo – the same word used when Jesus gives thanks at the Last Supper over the bread and wine. When we offer our gifts of bread and wine at the eucharist we are giving thanks for the gifts of God in our lives and express our faith in God for our future.
Our act of giving thanks as Jesus did brings us close to God and close to each other. Our act of giving thanks is what makes us whole. Our act of giving thanks closes the gaps, shortens the distances, brings down the walls. It is quite radical – where else in our society in 2016 do we get to hang out with all sorts of people who we would not otherwise meet? A school maybe, a sports club or community group? Those groups tend to be more homogenous than church, especially a church like ours in the heart of the city. But before we congratulate ourselves too much and start to feel too cosy, remember what Jesus says to the leper who returns – get up and go on your way – he cannot stay and hang out with Jesus – he has to go and get on with life. And so it is with us. We gather, we give thanks, we experience community, closing the gaps and distance between us, and then we are sent out to be God’s people in the world. To find new places to give thanks and close gaps, modelling ourselves on the pattern we learn in our liturgy. Mind the gap. “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you whole.”
Friends, I share with you greetings from the congregation of Aotea St. James, Methodist Mission Northern, Lifewise and the Airedale Property Trust that funds much of the mission work that Splice and Lifewise offers this City Centre.
Helen, thank you for inviting me to your place this morning, I'm pleased to take any opportunity to stand with the folk of Auckland City Centre in their hood, for their good.
Friends, I'm one of an estimated 47,000 City Centre residents. I have been hanging around these streets for almost four years as a Chaplain at Large, a role offered to the City Centre as a gift by the folk of St. James Presbyterian and the Aotea congregation of Methodist Mission Northern.
But friends, we can talk about those niceties at any time at all. What we don't do very often is to focus on the gospel passage for today, and being a Presbyterian, I would normally inflict a significant 5-point sermon on you, but Helen has told me the sound turns off after 12 minutes!
The invitation of Jesus to Matthew, the tax collector who was working from his booth, was 'follow me' and clearly he did! And there must have been one of those, 'your place or mine' moments. Would they go to the Synagogue, the Temple, the place of sacrifice, the Holy place, the Righteous place, the bosom of Abraham place, perhaps like this place? or his, Matthew’s, place, and Jesus and his mates went off to Matthew’s place, where the 'invited’, the 'called' one, Matthew', is the host, and his mates and their mates are the gig.
And so todays gospel simply and starkly, not only mentions the call of Matthew, but more importantly the decision of Jesus not to go to the house of religious thrones, the cradle of faith, but to Matthew’s house, and this is at the heart of the story, the point of the story.
Matthew is invited, called, as we say, from his tax haven, and then there's that 'your place or mine' moment, and we enter the den of 'inequality', not the sanctuary, but the place of depravity, where Jesus and his friends, new and old friends eat and drink of the lavish spoils of decadence found in tax collecting, and he is there along with others named by the religious as 'sinners'.
Outside beyond the party are the theologians, those who have a sense of monopoly on God, the Pharisees, the parishioners, the priests, the Levites, Sanhedrin, the members of the synagogue and the temp-lish kind, the folk representing the states religion and ritual, the folk for whom this gospel, was written. This is the gospel, put together very deliberately it seems, for a people who should have known better. Is that Us???!!!
What I discovered very quickly on taking up the role of Chaplain to the City Centre, was the clear decisive disconnect between what was happening in most, if not all, Sunday focused religious expressions, and what happens beyond our temples in this village of 47,000 people, the Auckland City Centre. And this wee gospel extract this morning should be contextually reflected on, this day, 25th September 2016 in Auckland City Centre.
We, the God worriers and God warriors, the theologians, the Priests and parishioners, the worried well, state religion and ritual aligned, our safe haven of Cannons, Law books, books of order and creeds, all of which support us, help hold us together in fine corsetry too difficult for most to penetrate, we are the focus of this gospel that identifies the 'names sake' of this very building on September 25th 2016.
This wee Gospel extract identifies where Jesus will be standing in our community of 47,000 people this morning.
We will see him out there, where he has meet and invited the worst of the worst to follow him. He will be found, receiving hospitality from those who have not measured up to our piety, our rationale, our ritual.
He will be with those rich and poor, for whom 'mentally ill' has been the label attached to their fore-heads.
He will be with the Board Trustee who struggles with definitions of fair-trade, fair-play, and fair-pay.
He will be out there with folk for whom 'love' has an ugly face, a demeaning face, a face not recognizable any longer.
He will be out there with the unforgiven, lost in guilt, shame, cracked and still no light coming in.
He will be out there with those who show and know no mercy.
Have you ever been out there?
He will be out there, in places of huge discomfort, offering comfort, using the only tools, gifts he has, Courage, Compassion, love, forgiveness, mercy, grace, Love, courage forgiveness mercy grace Compassion, courage, mercy, forgiveness Mercy, forgiveness, courage, grace, love.
He will be out there going to 'their place' rather than 'ours', and so let us shift, from Jesus day, to the 25th September 2016 Auckland City Centre.
And this invokes another reality in the story, that we're not always ready to grapple with!
When guests come to your place you have a sense of control as the host. That is usually reciprocated by the 'when in Rome’ rule, from another gospel narrative. However, in today’s glimpse of the gospel way of living, we go to the house that is despised, how would you feel? the home that symbolises all that is corrupt and sinful' how do you feel? We go to the place where the 'ground of our being' is ultimately disturbed, how do we feel? We wonder why this is happening? But this is what Jesus does in this story!
And so in your mind's eye now, in the footsteps of Jesus, so to speak, venture beyond this place, to that place, like Matthew’s place.
And all you have to offer is the way of life, the gifts of life, that you have crafted out in your journey, take them into the context of a dramatically disconnected dysfunctional community. You're now in a community where isolation is a hallmark, where suicide is a very regular occurrence, where people can freeze to death on the street at night, where there is no local school for our children, where silos of diversity thrive cultivating a vacuum in social infrastructure in which despair and dispeace will probably ignite in some tragic way sooner than later. Where people walk the streets with head phones, ear plugs, so that all sound is blocked out and you can only hear what you choose to hear. Where smiling is a questionable act of friendliness, where loneliness is disguised under some 'must have fashion’ created in a sweat shop in another place. Where kindness must have alteria motives, where you expect to be frightened. That's where today’s gospel takes us to, in Auckland City Centre.
Soon after arriving in the City Centre I discovered a great monument down in Emily Place. It is a monument celebrating the life and work of a city centre Chaplain and Missioner. The story of this man, chiselled in polished marble, a great story of dedicated mission.
A beautifully crafted, chiselled story from our city history.
But just a line or two from the bottom of the chiselled story, at some point, someone, noticed a spelling mistake. And then at some point, the missing letter of the misspelt word has been chiselled in, and chiselled above the line! Many times I have thought about that missing, offending, rogue letter, not where it is expected to be, and how maybe, that missing letter, represents the gospel focus on the ‘lost’.
Nothing about the word or the sentence on that marble dedication makes sense until the missing letter has its place, and its rightful place, above the line? Jesus of Matthews story was out there with the rogues, those offending the realm, the missing and out of place, those deemed to be sinners by the religious who were watching Jesus at work. Those who should have known better were garnishing Jesus with scorn, at his behaviour, his determination to challenge the religious court and all its years of crafted self-righteousness.
Friends, there are three, out there, beyond these walls activities/projects that your Missioner, Priests, Chaplains and Deacons are working on in response to today's gospel. And this is your invitation not to be part of the scornful religious camp but at the party with the disciples with gifts of love, compassion, grace and forgivingness.
• 'Housing First' is a partnership project being led by Lifewise and your City Mission. Moira Lawler and Chris Farrelly are focused on re-crafting an internationally recognised model that addresses homelessness, for our Auckland City Centre residents. This is not a model that creates, develops and nurtures a homeless community on the streets of the city centre, but rather 'starts' by offering, providing a permanent home for homeless. And in their 'own' home, residents will be nurtured with love and dignity as is appropriate. This project will bring into stark focus what it means to be a neighbour, the gospel coming home to roost, as we engage with the city's most vulnerable residents.
• In the next few days we will be voting for Local Body representation. The number of City Centre residents on governing City Centre Boards is less than satisfactory, but that will continue as long as the City Centre is perceived only as a CBD, a place where the City State, commerce, and education are perceived to be the drivers and focus of community life.
Unless there is a concern to develop the 'soul' of the City Centre, the City State will continue to ignore residents and it will be an ego centric playground for planners, policy writers and politicians who have no connection with the realities of residential living in our part of this growing city.
Social infrastructure will continue to be ignored. Isolation and disconnection will thrive, and the health of the most intensely populated village in Aotearoa New Zealand will degenerate even further.
• And related to that, the retention, acquisition and development of public spaces to be enjoyed by all, but most particularly for the 47,000 residents today, and for the 1000's of new residents who will go into apartments currently being built. This issue has to be a priority if we really are concerned for the health and well-being of all residents in the City Centre.
Friends, translate the Gospel for today as you wish, remember the invitation to Matthew included the decisive moment for Jesus, where he declared to the world, that the party was at Matthew’s house, and that's where he belonged, loving, forgiving, hugging, weeping, caring, showing grace and mercy, forgiving, compassion, courage, loving forgiving was his way to life.
As some of you may know I’ve been out of the church circuit for about a year or so. In that time I discovered, perhaps not surprisingly, that the biblical text is not heard much outside the church context. It’s not much referred to, much less sought out as a reference, a source for gaining knowledge, a resource for negotiating the tangles of life – it’s got nothing on Google. As a person who’d stood at the front like this and proclaimed from it, proposed that it does contain wisdom, deep knowing, an overarching record through time of journey and struggle of people. One we can identify with, find inspiration, hope that indeed within it is good news that relates to REAL life. That the biblical text is largely absent from the life of the majority of the population gives me pause for thought, not just about the bible but about the religious enterprise, is it more substantial that the air we blow into it – is it more than just a human enterprise?
When preaching into a Christian context the biblical text is, more often than not, the beginning point. For one who aligns themselves with the Judeo-Christian lineage, scripture might be understood as a narrative, telling in myth and metaphor, history, poetry, prose, in letter and in law, of the experience of being human. The way humans have chosen in and through time to be, live, orient themselves in relation to one another, to creation and of course to God – for inherent to scripture is that creation is indwelt by God through whom all that is comes into being, without whom there is no life.
Assuming we assent to scripture as having unique influence, perhaps even authority for us, we might see it tracing or telling a sort of overarching story. As we allow it speak to us – to disturb, dismay or delight us – perhaps we find it echoes our experience of life. We join a through time story of human life in the world, in all its wonder and woe. It’s a curious narrative, one that’s out there, over against us, yet also close by, in here – in our hearts and beings.
Encountering the biblical text within church context again, returning from that outside place is a curious experience. It’s easy enough to speak inside the doors of things of faith, of bible and God. But if we say this scripture expresses more than just religious themes. If we think it says something about human potentiality – in all its glory and brokenness – that precedes and eludes the bounds of our Judeo-Christian communities and assert that the divine threads through all of life, indwells and imbues creation, without whom creation doesn’t come into being – then how is the knowing of this communicated, how is it heard, how does it sound in a world where the text is not known?
Do we need to know of God, consciously, I mean, do we need to know the story to be known by God? Does scripture, this strange tale of human/divine encounter apply to those outside the insider community? Now, perhaps this is irrelevant – it’s an insider text, only for those who are chosen, inaccessible to those not chosen. The problem I have is that I happen to believe in an inclusive God who desires relationship, who intended creation into being, who meant it, you and I to happen.
Scripture comes into being through the communities who inhabit it. For it to have integrity in meaning requires understanding and translation. Tempting as it may be to devolve such responsibility to academia we are not so absolved. John’s gospel opens with words familiar to us, read at David Braddock’s funeral this week, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life and the life was the light of the world.” As followers of the Word made flesh we, albeit often stumblingly follow in the steps of Christ. We, in our time are to make the word flesh, bring into being the light of divine life in the world, translate the story of divine presence in ways that people may comprehend.
As we read, hear, inwardly digest today’s gospel I wonder how we might apply such idea – translate this into life, if you like. Today we might call this a gospel of foolishness and irresponsibility that makes no reasonable sense. Putting the whole flock at risk to look for one recalcitrant beastie, turning the house upside down for one coin them likely splurging more than you found on the party afterward, ridiculous. I have strong childhood memory of the image of Jesus bearing a lamb on his shoulders. It directs me to hear this story to be about Jesus finding and rescuing, seeking and finding, about a woman searching, cleaning and finding and then of celebration and joy. I know it’s always been there but for some reason this time I noticed more the cause for celebration “over one sinner who repents.” It’s not all about the shepherd or the housekeeper looking and finding, it’s also about being willing to be found and participate in relationship.
Many years ago I was at Lynn Mall, with my daughters, 3 and under a year. Despite what I thought was my close attention, in a moment my eldest daughter completely disappeared. I searched everywhere I’d been, went to every exit there was – and there are a surprising number when you’ve lost a littlie!! Panic stricken, with heart in mouth I eventually made my way to the Management office to confess I was one of those terrible mothers who mislaid their children and to ask for help. They were lovely, made contact with the security people in the Mall, after what seemed forever a tall, burly security man appeared bearing my blond haired, blue eyed missing daughter. Looking a little puzzled she declared, “Hi Mummy, this man told me I was lost.” She’d no idea she was lost, not until she was found, she’d been having a lovely time playing in the toyshop. Who decides what lost is and if you don’t know you are lost what is it to be found?
And there’s the rub, the foolishness of faith that proposes we’re intrinsically connected with the source of our creation. Creation was intended, we were intended into being before we knew anything of it even as we can have a knowing of this. It’s kind of hard to prove intellectually, made no more credible when further proposed that creation’s an expression of divine love, of a God who desires relationship with us. A God who, as in today’s gospel, seeks and searches, who desires relationship with each unique creation, already beloved, made whole in God. Yet it’s not a relationship forced upon us against our will. It is something always of our choosing.
Dr. Abraham Heschel, a Jewish academic theologian and author whose work I enjoy, even as it puzzles and unmasks me at times, writes, “More grave than Adam’s eating the forbidden fruit was his hiding from God after he had eaten it. “Where art thou? Where is man?” is the first question that occurs in the Bible. … It is man who hides, he suggests, who flees, who has an alibi. God is less rare than we think.” “Man was the first to hide from God … and is still hiding. The will of God is to be here …; but when the doors of this world are slammed on Him ... He withdraws, leaving man to himself. God did not depart by His own volition; He was expelled, God is in exile. … It is not God who is obscure. It is man who conceals Him. … He is waiting to be disclosed, to be admitted to our lives. Our task is to open our souls to Him, to let Him again enter our deeds. … Life is a hiding place for God. We are never asunder from Him who is in need of us." 
To align yourself within a religious lineage such as Christianity is a choice. The stories of the community of people gathered through time tell of divine encounter. Of a God who gifts us life and freedom to use that gift. Freedom even to exile God from our life, it is hard to imagine. In and through this life God seeks us, calls us, desires to meet and be met by us. That we are here in this place suggests that we, each in our own way, to greater or lesser degree, have opened our eyes and ears and hearts to God – are willing for God to be alive in us. How, other than through the lives of ordinary people like us, can the light of the life of the world be known? How, other than through willing and genuine encounter with the other, with each person we meet can the Word be made flesh, be translated into the world? It matters how we are and what we do. It is, of course, in us to conceal ourselves from God who sees us as we are but today we choose not to. We cannot make those who’ve exiled God do otherwise, God grants them such freedom. Their doing so diminishes the richness of God expressed in the world. It is a loss for us all yet the boldness of faith would claim, it cannot eliminate God whose hiding place is life.
 Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man is Not Alone: a Philosophy of Religion (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1951), p153, 154.
It is spring and the weather is warmer, spring flowers are in bloom and our days are longer. On Friday we celebrated a ‘World Day of Prayer for Creation’, this is the beginning of the Season of Creation that continues to the 4th of October St Francis Day when we celebrate with our Blessing of the Animals Service.
Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox churches thorough the world are coming together to celebrate this time to encourage us to look at care of creation, and today is Ocean Sunday. We are surrounded by oceans and the sea is an integral part of our life whether we go fishing, sailing or just taking walks along our beautiful shoreline. Collecting kaimoana from the sea is a traditional part of life for us and it is threatened by lack of care and stewardship.
Bishop Desmond Tutu states that we face a human rights challenge with Climate change and the results of climate change are climate refugees to add to the overwhelming numbers of refugees resulting from political unrest. The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby talked recently of inaction regarding climate change being potentially fatal to humanity. These are strong and frightening words.
Seventy percent of the earth’s surface is covered by oceans which contain 97.5% of the water on the planet. It is estimated that the oceans formed between 4.6 and 3.8 billion years ago. Life began in the oceans because of the nutrients that were washed into the oceans and provided the content for primitive unicellular bacteria to develop, so one could say that the oceans are the primordial archetype of God as all life emerged from the oceans.
It is probably this archetypical power that explains why the sea holds such a fascination and sense of deep threat to us all. For us we awoke on Friday morning to a tsunami alert after an earthquake on the East Coast of the North Island, this sense of threat became very real, although fortunately short-lived. As Joseph Conrad has it, “The Sea has never been friendly to humanity. At most it has been the accomplice of human restlessness.”
Today’s Season of Creation Gospel locates Jesus on the Sea of Galilee, although Luke refers to it as the lake of Gennesaret. At a literal level this is an account of the call of some Galilean fisherman to follow Jesus. However this is a story of faith, courage and transformation.
In 1st century Palestine fishing at night was normal as there was no means to keep fish fresh, it was then sold in the morning and eaten that day. Fishing at night must have been difficult and dangerous. Simon had been fishing that night and had not caught anything when Jesus says “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch”. Simon Peter must have thought Jesus was a bit crazy and after all he wasn’t a fisherman what would he know. However he did obey Jesus and caught so much fish that another boat had to help with this harvest.
Today if Simon Peter was to put his net down his catch would be significantly compromised. Overfishing has resulted in smaller and fewer fish. The nets would be heavy, not from aquatic life but from a disgusting array of rubbish, poisons, and toxic waste. Human waste chokes and poisons marine life in ways that cause immense suffering that most of us never see, nor want to face. We have a lot whale stranding’s here in New Zealand all too frequently. Scientists suggest that this could be a result of the rubbish that these mammals are ingesting.
Jesus’ teaching on the lake of Gennesaret is not just a metaphor for how the Kingdom of God will manifest itself. That teachable moment has important significance for this particular time of ecological destruction, because it shows us that the very illustration that Jesus uses – the basic, natural and life-giving phenomenon of fish thriving in a healthy aquatic ecosystem, that very process is under threat of annihilation.
In July a seven day consultation, “Encountering God in the Storm” was held in Suva, Fiji instigated by Archbishop Winston Halapua, Bishop of Polynesia. Archbishop Winston invited Anglican leaders to consider the implications of climate change for the church’s mission, in a place where they can ‘put their feet in the ocean’ and see the immediate effects of rising ocean levels. In our church mission statement the fifth mark of mission is: “To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth.”
Some 676 of Fiji’s villages are at risk of flooding because of rising sea levels. Several communities have already been forced to relocate. This year alone the nation of Fiji has contended with Cyclone Winston and numerous earthquakes making the people of Fiji among the most vulnerable to climate change.
This consultation looked at not only economic impact of climate change but also the social impact of increasing climate change pressures has on families. The impact of climate change is holistic; everyone and everything in our ecosystem is affected. Archbishop Philip reflected at the end of the consultation that the challenges are enormous but some creative responses are inspiring.
During the week I read of an innovative idea to save marine life destruction. A company in the UK is making the holders for canned drinks out of waste product from brewing beer. Instead of those plastic holders polluting the oceans and killing precious marine life. These holders break down and offer nourishment to marine life. We need significantly more sustainable innovations like this to make an impact to this global disaster facing our planet.
Just as Jesus’ teaching ministry in first century Palestine was meant to shake people up and get them thinking about things in a new way so that they could hear the Gospel clearly. We hear so many examples of what humanity is doing to desecrate the Earth, it is important for us especially as Christians to remember that God shows up in the last place you would think to look. To proclaim the Good News about what God is doing to restore the oceans, seas, rivers and streams especially as they connect to the human and other than human lives around and within them. A day of prayer is a start, supporting sustainable change, writing to political parties concerning environmental issues and being stewards of our own land are essential if we are to leave this planet in a condition that it will sustain life for our future generations.
The fishermen in today’s Gospel stepped into the unknown when they followed Jesus that day on the shores lake Gennesaret and became fishermen of people spread the Word of God. They faced the unknown, fear, hardship and exclusion nevertheless they listened and learned from the words of Jesus and we are still listening to the Good News. We need to continue to move from the comfortable shallow water into the deeper water to achieve change no matter what might happen. Doing nothing is no longer an option.
I would like to conclude with the words of Koreti Tiumalu, “We cannot build a Pacific Climate Movement without engaging our faith communities. Faith is pivotal to our people, and like the ocean, it connects us. In the face of the climate crisis, we need prayer to carry our people and faith to build resilience.”
Our neighbours at the City Mission serve dinner every night of the week. What is served depends on the donations of the day. Sometimes there is plenty, sometimes there is not. Last Tuesday evening the food served was a bit special. Rather than coming in and lining up at the counter for a portion, the City Mission regulars were welcomed to tables laid with white table cloths where they were served a 4 course meal. They were served by some rather famous waiters – TV stars, rugby players, politicians; they ate food cooked by some top class chefs. By all accounts it was a special night. Those who served were humbled by the experience. They were all well used to being served at fancy dinners. This time it was their turn to serve.
In Jesus’ time sharing of meals were important ways of socialising – they were very structured affairs, whether a family meal or a gathering of friends or business associates. Jesus is invited one day to the house of the leader of the Pharisees, for a Sabbath meal. This is not a family tea, this is a highly structured and ritualised meal in the house of the wealthy.
The meal would have been served by slaves and servants, and Jesus notes how the guests take the places of honour.
There was at any of these meals a hierarchy of seating – the top table was reserved for the top guests, and each table was ranked. Now there wasn’t a seating plan or name cards – it was much more subtle than that. An invitation would have been sent and it would include the guest list. So you could figure out ahead of time where your place was on the list. First century Palestine was a very stratified society and so everyone knew their place. Then on the day of the banquet a messenger would come with a reminder invitation. 
If you were of a humble disposition you would sit lowish in the pecking order but if you were ambitious you would probably risk pushing up the ranks a bit and see if you could get away with it. The risk was that your host would come and embarrass you and say – excuse me but please give up your seat for this guest. The trouble was that the best table had the best food and wine and the lower table had the cheap stuff, with lots of bread and not much else. 
Jesus seems at first to be simply commenting on the social etiquette and reminding people of their manners – he quotes Proverbs (25:6-7) – it is better to be asked “friend, come up higher” than to be embarrassed. But then he goes that bit further and says don’t invite your friends to dinner, because they will repay you – indeed all invitations, gifts, were very definitely expected to be repaid by something of similar value – but instead invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. All groups of people who were considered unclean in Jewish law and so very unsuitable meal companions.
I am sure the Pharisee, the host, a religious leader, was thrilled by Jesus’ advice. I wonder what place he gave Jesus at the table?
Meals and banquets are often the subject of Jesus’ teaching – sometimes the banquet is the heavenly banquet of the future, sometimes the way the kingdom of God will be, sometimes Jesus is simply enjoying a good meal with friends.
Jesus wasn’t really interested in people’s table manners, he was instead challenging the social order of the day and offering a new model for living: friend come higher up, come and join us at our table.
Dr Rosemary Dewerse said in a recent blog:
“Spaciousness is something I believe Jesus invites us into. As we follow him we are caught up into the big dreams of God, visions that have room enough for everyone, for every living thing in creation. Following Jesus we have the opportunity to see things from God’s-eye-view, a perspective of reconciliation and boundless hope. And we can live, even amongst the crap and tears and struggle, expectant of kairos, of the inbreaking of the Spirit who goes before us. 
Jesus is doing much more here than reminding us of good table manners; Jesus is challenging us to think about space and hospitality – in our lives personally; as communities; and on a global level too.
Global conversations are dominated at the moment by the American elections – by the Trump mantras about building walls and excluding people of Moslem faith. And while I am sure all of us sitting here today reject those kind of politics I worry about the public discourse, the public conversations that become normalized. I remember last year when we hosted a dialogue about housing speakers who shocked us with stories of racism and abuse from our own communities.
Jenni Broom reminded us last week to watch our language when talking about refugees – using words like “waves” and “hordes” of refugees demean the people of whom we speak. And now in France Moslem women are being harassed for swimming in modest swimwear. Some municipalities are trying to outlaw the “burkini” (swimwear designed for Moslem women). This is the height of absurdity and yet exclusion becomes the norm and not the abnormal.
In our city of Auckland as we become incredibly rich with cultural diversity we have to work at welcoming all to the table. Racism or prejudice creep very easily into our private and public discourse. As we come to make our choices in the council elections soon listen carefully to candidates and who they wish to welcome to the table, and who they might exclude.
And coming back to our neighbourhood – this place. The City Mission not only serves dinner every day but also lunch if and when there is food donated for lunch. Some members of our community have suggested that we might take on a Sunday lunch once a month. As we leave our worship here on a Sunday to go to a café, or home to a warm lunch, people begin to queue next door. What if once a month we organized ourselves to prepare lunch so it could be served to our neighbours? Some of us can cook; others can donate the ingredients; others can assist the Mission staff to serve and clean up. We haven’t worked out all the logistics yet but we are working on it. So think about whether you might like to be on a team.
The writer of the letter to the Hebrews says: “do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” The writer is referring to the time when Sarah and Abraham hosted 3 strangers to lunch (Genesis 18) – they told them they would have a child – Sarah laughed and said – don’t be silly I am too old. But the angels were right. You never know what happens when you offer hospitality.
We gather around a table every week. A table with no name places, no hierarchy, where all are welcome, all are given places of honour. What do we learn at this table? What are we sent out to do? Who might we welcome and say – friend, move up higher, take my place, let me serve you.
“I don't know how to preach this stuff”, I found myself saying despairingly through clenched teeth after reading the lessons set for today.
“I don't know how to preach this stuff” were the words coming out of my mouth as my eyes filled with tears. “Why me again?”
Why can't the gospel be what is says – good news?
How come I draw the dark and troublesome passages?
Surely the world is a tough enough place for us humans to live in, what with war and violence, upheaval and deprivation, extremes of wealth and poverty, and climate extremes bringing floods and drought – searing heat and freezing cold.
It seems to be spiralling out of control on many fronts at the moment.
Surely we could do with words of comfort and hope right now?
And I sat crying – at the mess our world seems to be in; at the uncomfortable Bible readings set for today that I was trying to face up to; and with my mentor’s admonishment to 'preach the gospel' and not to skip the bits that I don't like, ringing in my ears. I was a bit of a sorry mess!
Then Jesus words in John 14:25 came to mind “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” Where is that peace you promise? How can I find it?
And what began to take shape seemed so counter-intuitive, so upside down, that I couldn't think any more and put away my books.
I am still searching for that peace that Jesus promised his followers: ‘the peace that passes all understanding’ that the church blesses us with week by week. But from the murk of my distress emerged the clear sense that this peace will not be an absence of unrest, nor an absence of stress, nor a quiet and calm restfulness with no disagreements or unreasonable expectations or rivalry – it won't even in a sort of polite tolerant tension. Rather, it seems to me, it will be peace that comes from a deep down knowing that I have done my best to be faithful to the baptismal call that has pursued me all my life. That call which invites each of us to be a servant of God – a 'servant of justice' as Isaiah says.
To be a 'servant' such as this leads directly to the peace we long for but which is only to be found in the counter-intuitive demands of the gospel.
But, I must say quickly, in case you hear a self-righteous settling into interior satisfaction, or self-righteous individual certainty about what is 'right', that God's ways of justice and peacemaking to which we are called to commit ourselves to as 'servants' may well require upheaval of the very things we feel most secure about and look to for our greatest support. We only have to read the stories in the gospels about the dislocation, confusions and misunderstandings, of the disciples and the others who sought to follow Jesus to get a picture of the discomfort and upheaval that could occur.
Remember: My peace I give to you. Not as the world gives. (we should anticipate is will be different from our expectation!)
And, of course, there is the troubling verse in today's gospel to further shake our expectations: “I came to bring fire to the earth …. Do you think I came to bring peace to the earth? No I tell you, but rather division.”
Luke's Jesus doesn't just head to the seat of political and religious power to turn things upside down and make change – we are used to hearing about that, about the journey to Jerusalem and the confrontation with political leaders and temple leaders.
Luke's Jesus confronts the very heart of the community, the core structure, the place of safety and security – he confronts the family!
No more could families and family loyalty and the maintenance of harmony be an excuse for not seeing what needs to be done to bring justice; no more could the excuse of 'my family needs and wellbeing' be used to avoid getting involved.
Family is being dethroned from its right to make unconditional claims on us.
Even here, in the family, the challenge to change our ways is being made. It seems every place is to be unsettled by the demands for love and justice-making that will bring life, peace and hope to people both in our family and beyond our own familial circle. It seems all the certainties – family, tradition, culture, religion and political power – are to be turned upside down.
The writer of today's Gospel, Luke as he is known, (writing late in the first century or, perhaps, in the first decade of the second century as some contemporary scholars think), lets us know that the world of that time was not all calm and tension free – it was not a place of unity of belief and practice – no matter what we would like to think! It was a difficult place: Christians were persecuted by non-Christians, and they argued between the amongst themselves. We are still arguing about our differences today as we are only to painfully aware – and it may always be that way.
But, it isn't peace that is at stake: the absence of argumentation, the absence of difference that we expect when we talk about peace.
Rather it is life and love and hope that is at stake.
It is Jesus' vision for a new and different way of relationships between humans and the earth and all the creatures of the earth that is at stake...
And we are warned: even family, even church, even national pride can't get in the way of this...
So how's the weather?
Isn't that what we talk about when all else seems too hard?
Luke is very clever here, at the end of this story he is telling – he drops his hearers right into one of their safe places, a conversation about weather!
Oh yes we all know how to read the weather... we all know how to talk about the weather!
Now we have to learn to read life and health and community wellbeing just as accurately, and talk about it just as much!
The peace we seek is to be found in knowing we are aligned with the call to be a servant of God's justice; knowing we are followers of Jesus' way, the way that leads toward life and hope and love even when it seems to turn everything we know on its head.
Not only must we learn to recognise the signs of the times, we are encouraged to do what is ‘right’ where ever we can, in whatever situation we find ourselves – and we will all be in different situations.
And what is it that is 'right' we ask quickly; how will we recognise what is 'right'?
The great commandment to ‘love one another and to love our neighbour as ourselves’ is the clue.
It is this commandment that underscores Jesus' vision of the kingdom of God come on earth and motivated the struggle toward this vision that Jesus engaged in right up to his death.
And, it is in the face of this command to love one another that Luke’s Jesus says today, somewhat sadly, “I come to bring fire to the earth. How I wish it was already kindled”
The fire Jesus wants to kindle in this image is most probably the fire that heats the earth-oven found in the midst of every village that cooks the bread. That bread we are called to share without privilege or favour among all the people…
“Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb 11:1).
The writer of the letter to the Hebrews gives us the best definition of faith you will find in the Bible. It trips nicely off the tongue like a line of poetry. But what does it mean? Well that’s another question.
Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. The word translated here as “assurance” is hypostasis in the Greek and really means something more solid than an “assurance”. It is not like “I assure you the cheque is in the mail”. It means a foundation, or something that is standing under you.
Makes me think of the upright poles in a wharenui – the pou tokomanawa in the centre or the amo panels at the front – often there are carvings of the ancestors and one will be holding up the next one on his or her shoulders and so on as they reach for Ranginui, the sky and heavens above.
So a foundation, or something or someone who is standing under you and holding you up.
Amy Peeler says “If upostasis is something basic, something solid, something firm, then it provides a place to stand from which one can hope.”  A place to stand from which we can hope. A place to stand from which we can reach.
Where is your place to stand? It might be a place you love, your home, or somewhere you grew up, somewhere special, your turangawaewae. It might not be a physical place, your place to stand might be with a person or a group of people, your grandmother, your family, a beloved partner, children. Your place to stand might be in your thinking, music, art, or creative work, or day to day, every day work. Your place to stand might be in your spiritual life, your prayer, your sense of the other, your sense of God, your sense of self. And it will probably be a combination of those things and others. Faith, then is about finding this place to stand, and then from this place, hoping and reaching. And what are we reaching and hoping for? In part we are reaching and hoping for “things not seen”; we cannot see God, we cannot see the future. And yet we are told faith is theconviction of things not seen, like evidence in a court room, which is usually pretty tangible. These things not seen will become evident, obvious. Confused?
Joan Chittister says that as we reach and hope, as we act in faith, we destroy the idol that is ourselves. “It is only the deep down belief that we are not the be-all and end-all of the universe that can save us from ourselves. It is the awareness of being part of something vast and intelligent and well-intentioned that gives purpose to life, that leads us to seek beyond the horizons of our smallness to the hope that tomorrow, we can all be better.” 
So by looking and seeking beyond ourselves we can begin to see or know the unseen.
By being true to ourselves, knowing on what we stand, we can begin to see or know the unseen.
The example the writer of the letter to the Hebrews gives is that of Abraham and Sarah who felt called to leave their home and travel to a strange land with the promise that their descendants would be like the stars, when they at that stage had no children.
Jesus tells his disciples to be dressed and ready for action, lamps lit, like the servants waiting for their master to return. Live ready and open to what might come; expect God to show up in your life.
We come here this morning hoping to meet with God (as well as each other) and we have tangible signs of God’s love in bread, wine, music, words. God though does not reside in church.
In her book “Grounded” Diana Butler Bass tells a story about going to church on the 10th anniversary of 9/11 in Alexandria. A guest preacher reflects on the anniversary and then begins to talk about the 4,000 people who had died in the war in Iraq and Afghanistan as a result. Diana is confused – 4000? there were tens of thousands, surely – then she realises he is only talking about the Americans who were killed. She writes:
“I gasped audibly. …. Hoping not to make a scene, I slipped out of the pew and left the building. I sat down on the stairs outside, trying to let my sorrow and fury subside.
As I attempted to compose myself, I noticed many people walking around the neighbourhood, far more than usual … they were all heading toward King St … Without a second thought, I followed the crowd.
… it was Art Walk, a yearly festival. Painters, sculptors, weavers … musicians … As I stood on a corner and looked out on the scene, all my senses were alive, coaxed to full attentiveness by vibrant colors, bright chimes in the wind, the cool sound of a saxophone …. children were laughing …. neighbors greeted one another … The energy, the creativity – how wonderful it was! …
My cell phone buzzed. A text message appeared on the screen from my husband. ‘Are you coming back to church?’ ‘I don’t know,’ I texted in reply.
It seemed so obvious right then, but I have no idea why I had never noticed it before. For years, the church kept me safe inside a building. All the while the Spirit was out here on the streets.” 
Faith is the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things unseen. Faith is within us, around us. We find faith when we find a place to stand, supported by others, and begin to hope. This church is a place that can help us do that – after all we claim here at St Matthew’s to be a spirited place where people stand, connect and seek common ground. 
But this church or any church is not what faith is about in the end. Faith is about your life and the way you live it in God’s world, lamp lit, ready for action.
“Vanity, vanity, all is vanity” – no, not a quote describing an American Political Convention – but the writer of Ecclesiastes who says – what is the point of working hard, of seeking wisdom; we end up with nothing. Some very honest words from this writer. The Book of Ecclesiastes is a collection of sayings and musings from an unknown author in maybe 200BC. The author talks back and forwards about the challenges of life, and his most famous passage is “for everything there is a season – a time to be born, a time to die…”. In this piece when he uses the word translated as “vanity”, it does not mean being vain – as in – don’t I look gorgeous today – it means how insubstantial things are, how they are made of nothing – like all my efforts were in vain. I think we can be surprised sometimes by how honest biblical writers can be. This is not “everything will be alright because God loves you”; this is “life sucks – I seem to get nowhere”. He also says “Eat, drink, and be merry”, because we have worked for it and who knows what those who come after us might do with what we leave them, better to enjoy it now! God has given us these good things to enjoy and so we shall. “Eat, drink and be merry” – also not a phrase we expect to read in the Bible. Both Ecclesiastes (9:17) and Isaiah (22:13) use it and it pops up again in our gospel reading.
Jesus is preaching we are told to a crowd of thousands and a bright soul pipes up – wanting Jesus to solve a family dispute. Rabbis such as Jesus were often called upon to sit as judges in community or family cases. In this case, in Mosaic law the eldest son of a family got double what the rest of the sons got. (And of course the girls didn’t get anything). So probably this man wants a half share, equal with his older brother. Or the land was left to all the sons together but was not split up – so they worked it together.  And so this son wants the land sold and the profits shared. (Think the Prodigal Son (Luke 15) asking his father for his inheritance before the father dies). Jesus is known for changing the rules and breaking them so the younger brother is hopeful he will be on his side.
Jesus declines to be drawn in and instead gives a very strong rebuke in the form of a parable. A rich landowner has a bumper crop – not a lot to do with his skill probably, more to do with the weather and the skill of his workers on the land. But plenty of farmers in Jesus’ audience would have been pleased to have his problem – what to do with this crop? And note the landowner says “I” and “me” all the time – what shall I do with my crops; I will pull down my barns and build bigger ones to store my grain. While our rich man can quote Ecclesiastes (eat, drink and be merry) he has clearly forgotten Isaiah 5:8 where the prophet describes the unrighteous. “Ah, you who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no one but you, and you are left to live alone in the midst of the land!” Those who only look after themselves to the exclusion of others will end up alone.
In Biblical times people lived very much in community, the concept of individual ownership was not as we have it today – and even if a landowner owned a farm the decisions made about the farm were made in community, thinking of the workers and all those whose lives depended on it. Otherwise Isaiah says you will be left alone.
Which is indeed what happens to the man in the parable – he is happy, his barns are built, he can relax. …Except God says – this very night your life is being demanded of you – the same phrase you would use for a loan being recalled from the bank – your life is being demanded of you – and what use then is all your stuff? Now I would love to hear some sermons from the US today on this passage – it would be very easy to pivot to equating Donald Trump with the man in the parable – building bigger barns and keeping it all for himself. We could do that too – and so escape having to look to ourselves. For those of us who have the privilege of enjoying our “stuff”, our clothes, our furniture, our books, our cars – these are challenging words, for you and me. What is our attitude? Are we hoarding like the farmer in the parable? Or can we sit lightly to what we own? Jesus says instead of storing up treasures for yourselves be rich toward God. “Rich toward God” – what does that mean?
Think for a moment of the readings from the last few Sundays and we will find that we have been given some clues about being rich towards God. 3 Sundays ago the reading was the Good Samaritan – compassion and care for our neighbour, especially our neighbour who is very different from us. Two Sundays ago – the story of Mary and Martha – Martha you are distracted by many things (many possessions?)– Mary has chosen to listen – listening; Last Sunday Jesus taught his disciples to pray and to trust in God in prayer. Luke has lined up all these passages to give us some clues when we get to this challenging parable. (It doesn’t get any easier next week we will be told to sell all our possessions.) So being rich towards God involves: compassion and care for neighbour; listening to God and each other; prayer; not being ruled by our possessions. These are the things that store up for us “treasure in heaven”, or bring us close to God.
If the landowner had thought about these things he might not have built bigger barns but instead found ways to share his crop with his neighbours; listened to the prophets; prayed about his actions (instead of having a dialogue with himself – I will say to my soul); and not finished life wedded to his possessions.
That is how we might read this parable at a personal level; what happens if we broaden our scope and take it to a community level which is certainly how Jesus’ listeners would have heard it. As we worry about homelessness in our community, and the need for more houses, how do we look at the Unitary Plan and the need for denser housing. Do we say “Not in my backyard”? or do we embrace the changes knowing more people will have access to housing? Yesterday’s Herald newspaper had headlines yet again about housing – but about houses increasing in price dramatically as they are onsold time after time instead of being rented to families who need them. We need more controls to make sure houses do not sit empty. As we see growing poverty in our country do we pay a living wage from our businesses or do we say that is fine for others but not for me. Then at a global level do we reject the call for more refugees to find a new home? Do we reject those immigrants who long to come and share our beautiful country. Do we say no our land is for us alone? So now the parable becomes about a society or culture and our collective attitude to wealth, and land, and justice. Jesus’ time was no less political than ours. The rights of landowners and peasant workers, rights of inheritance, paying taxes, who had much and who had nothing – were all very hot political issues.
What treasured possessions in your life might get in the way of storing up treasure with God? What as a culture or a nation gets in the way of us being hospitable and compassionate to our neighbours who need us? So two hard choices today: We can despair with the writer of Ecclesiastes – and say it is all vanity – what is the point of worrying about anything; or we can be challenged by Jesus – what are the riches of your life? what really matters? what motivates you? How best can we share what we have.
John, my sister Elizabeth and I were stranded in Limoux – the French village where Helen and Stephen stayed – there was a strike in Paris and the trains we not running and we could not get back to Carcassonne where we were staying. The temperature was 40 degrees celsius and we were hot and tired after a day out. A group of us had been dropped by a bus at the train-station: English speakers and a couple of French locals. Eventually we discovered that there would be no further transport available that day. The French people wandered off, the English couple were not interested in working on a solution with us – that left three young men from Pakistan. The men came to us offering to work with us on finding a solution. But first they needed to find a place to pray as it was an appointed prayer time for Muslims. They found a place for their ablutions and to kneel, and despite loud disparaging comments from the other English speakers they knelt to pray. Then one of them rushed away leaving us on the grass wondering what next. Just as we were getting really anxious he returned saying he had a possible solution. The English couple said they had ‘options’, and wandered off leaving us behind. So we trekked off slowly after the three young men who were fast walkers (we would need to hurry we were told) and the