Today’s gospel is of Jesus being presented in the Temple, a feast day to be celebrated in about a month. This first Sunday of the Christmas season we continue the story that affirms the identity of this new born child. This child, uniquely significant to, prophesied and promised within the very particular tradition of Judaism. As Christians we now have a tradition we follow that witnesses the following of that tradition. As we listen to the gospel we hear repeated that by this ritual Joseph and Mary, acted “according to the Law of Moses, as it is written in the Law, according to what is stated in the Law of the Lord, they did what was customary under the Law.” We also hear the Holy Spirit rested on Simeon, the Holy Spirit revealed, guided and promised to Simeon. This meant Simeon had expectations – he looked forward to Israel’s consolation and to seeing the Lord’s Messiah before dying.
Each character in today’s gospel, Joseph, Mary, Simeon and Anna chooses to make themselves subject to the Law and to the traditions associated with that Law. These promises of divine revelation are made, the active presence of the Holy Spirit that directs and companions is known to those who keep the Law, who choose to reside within the boundaries of tradition, who consider and interpret the world as place where God acts. Does the tradition permission those within it to see divine imprint, does it provide a structure that releases the potential for those within to act in accord with divine call? Not to suggest God is limited to the boundaries set by tradition or only acts within them, simply that those within the tradition look for God and expect that which God promises to be made real.
Tradition thus understood is a positive thing, it permissions, provides useful structure, releases potential. I’d suggest it more common these days for tradition to be regarded less favourably, especially when it comes to Christianity. The idea of being obedient, faithful to tradition considered outmoded and suspect. Tradition seen to entrap, prevent, even stymy innovation. Tradition is from back then and is out of touch with the demands of now. Traditional church practice, ritual, language, music is seen as formulaic and stilted, enervating rather than energising. All of this makes traditional church inaccessible, almost incomprehensible to the uninitiated.
Now I’m making assumption that many of us are here because there’s something about the tradition in the guise it’s found here that’s of value, while also acknowledging that tradition needs significant translation for it to be relevant – and that’s inside the walls. How does it get translated from inside the walls to the majority of people who are outside, so the stories of this religious lineage we consider to have significance and be of worth continue to be told, to echo in the world? We could spend time debating theory, seeking that elusive authentic expression to lend us certainty to name it as true tradition. But to what end and for whom? Experience of what makes for effective communication would suggest rather that translation’s best done by example, revealed through the way we act and are. As we interpret the world is place of God presence, expecting encounter and to make it real in word and act, to be people who align our living with ways that bring and nurture life. I realise, however, it’s hard to translate, just as it is hard to teach, if we’re not too sure how much we know, in fact we realise we’re not very well educated in the why of tradition. If we don’t really understand why things are done the way they are, then it’s hard to translate the tradition into the practice and language of our every day, hard to live differently. If we haven’t quite figured out how to make this religious tradition stuff make sense in our world as we interact in today’s world it’ll be a struggle for our faith practice to be purposefully alive.
An example might help to explain. I was once asked to explore the idea of providing a space for people to spend time reflecting on Easter’s significance in which would be placed a series of floral displays themed around the Stations of the Cross. Now it was a tradition I knew of but wasn’t overly familiar with, I struggled to identify meaningfully with the tradition and flowers are lovely but I couldn’t quite make the connection. I thought of the people I met and walked with in the local community who faced many social challenges. What would it mean to them? Is this tradition just for people of privilege? Not according to the way we tell the story. So I thought of asking some of the young people, who share their artistic ability through graffiti, to create art works on the ‘stations of the cross’ to backdrop the floral displays. It was immediately apparent that significant translation would be required, religious rhetoric wouldn’t work.
Consider the first station, Jesus is condemned. However we imagine this, it tends to be over there, back then. As people of faith who declare the uniqueness of Jesus we likely see this drama as uniquely significant – the Pilate condemning scene a one off historical event over there, back then. Yet consider what happens within the scene – crowd behaviour, fear, misinformation, prejudice, power and the innocent condemned to death. Think for a moment of our world full of ethnic/religious/sectarian conflict, where innocent people are slaughtered from accusations requiring no proof. Or scenes where people of certain religions, ethnicities or races are the first to be accosted and accused, its apparent that prejudice distorts just process and innocence isn’t assumed. For some of these young street artists this would be a familiar scenario. If we consider the first station this way, we realise the challenges to faithful living are as real and alive now as they ever were. Given such example, how well do we indwell our faith and the tradition that expresses so we’re guided, our thinking and acting informed, our practice of daily living intentioned, such that we are its translation?
When you embarked on your journey of faith, acquired a tradition perhaps, where did you expect it to take you? It seems to me we’ve expectations, or should, of our faith – that we’ll be changed, that we’ll go somewhere on this faith journey. Those starting out, may be quite happy to discover the stories of the tradition like the Christmas stories of this special Jesus baby birth, also need an idea there’s somewhere to go and there’s a means by which to go – a map of the territory with landmarks, places and points of recognition.
Remember those dot to dot, join the dots puzzles? What happens when you join the dots? What happens when you join the dots incorrectly? Put in perspective of religion, at least a religion that’s had some continuity over time, there are dots that when joined provide us with a bigger picture map of faith journeying – a map that’s emerged from those who’ve journeyed before us. Such wisdom, lived experience of God journeying in life, affirmed across time, forms our Tradition and traditions. I see traditions not so much as rigid forms from which we stray at our peril but as pointers, dots, borders and boundaries on a map. I think we need the guidance of such maps. It requires a certain discipline, a decision to be faithful, to be obedient, like Mary, Joseph, Simeon and Anna, to make ourselves subject to tradition’s guidance. Uncomfortable though it may be, discipline tends to be beneficial for growth and maturity, it may be more palatable if we learn about, so come to understand, the why of the landmarks on the map. C.S. Lewis puts it this way, writing of theology I think his imagery applies also to tradition.
“In a way I can quite understand why some people are put off theology. I remember once when I’d been giving a talk to the R.A.F., and old, hard-bitten officer got up and said, “I’ve no use for all that stuff. But, mind you, I’m a religious man too. I know there is a God. I’ve felt [God]: out alone in the desert at night: the tremendous mystery. And that’s just why I don’t believe all your neat little dogmas and formula’s about [God]. To anyone who’s met the real thing they all seem so petty and pedantic and unreal!”
Now in a sense I quite agreed with that man. I think he’d probably had a real experience of God in the desert. And when he turned from that experience to the Christian creeds, I think he was really turning from something quite real to something less real. In the same way, if a [person] has once looked at the Atlantic from the beach, and then goes and looks at a map of the Atlantic, [they] also will be turning from something more real to something less real: turning from real waves to a bit of coloured paper. But here comes the point. The map is only coloured paper, but there are two things you have to remember about it. In the first place, it is based in what hundreds and thousands of people have found out by sailing the real Atlantic. In that way it has behind it masses of experience just as real as the one you could have had from the beach; only, while yours would be a single isolated glimpse, the map fits all those different experiences together. In the second place, if you want to go anywhere, the map is absolutely necessary. As long as you’re content with walks on the beach, your own glimpses are far more fun than looking at a map. But the map’s going to be more use than walks on the beach if you want to get to America.
Doctrines aren’t God: they’re only a kind of map. But that map’s based on the experience of hundreds of people who really were in touch with God – experiences compared with which any thrills or pious feelings you or I are likely to get on our own are very elementary and very confused. And secondly, if you want to get any further you must use the map. You see, what happened to the man in the desert may have been real … but nothing comes of it. It leads nowhere. There’s nothing to do about it. [You won’t] get anywhere by looking at maps without going to sea. And you won’t be very safe if you go to sea without a map.”
Tradition as a map to companion and guide us in life – it rather asserts there’s a territory to explore, not just of divine presence dwelling but also that in each moment we choose as to what we see as possible, as to how we understand and interpret what is taking place, as to what we do in response. What is more we discover we’re not alone. We’ve companions walking with us who know this journey to.
All the more so because we listen to them in the night, amongst these stones and candles.
Just as people have listened to them now for centuries, millennia even.
In the beginning
The Celts talk about “thin places” where time seems to stand still and where you feel like you can reach back in time and sense the story of your ancestors. Thin places in Aotearoa tend to be marae or urupa; but also churches, or summer baches where childhood memories can come flooding back. It might just take the scent of the pohutakawa, or the taste of a barbecued sausage, or the sand between your toes to remind you of carefree summer days, when holidays meant holidays with no email or phones to keep you connected.
In the beginning
These words at the beginning of John’s gospel also trigger memories and reflections in the lives of people of faith. This tale John is about to weave begins in the beginning of time, back in the creation stories of Genesis, back in ancient times of which no one has any memories. And so John weaves a tale of life that began in the beginning and now breaks upon the world in a new way. Now this life comes not in sea and stars and sun and moon as life did at the genesis of time, but in flesh, in human flesh, of the ordinary and the every day.
John does not tell us the tale of the baby and the shepherds and the wise men, but he tells us the essence of the tale – Jesus, the Word, became flesh and lived among us.
God was always incarnate, embodied, enfleshed in the people – but often they couldn’t see it. They kept God separated in the Holy of Holies in the Temple; or somewhere in the sky.
No matter how many times the prophets said, God is here, now, with the poor and the oppressed and the captives; people thought God was far away and remote and separate.
And so the Word became flesh and lived among us.
Jesus lived in Palestine, at a specific time and a specific place. He taught and ate and drank and prayed and healed and was killed for his teaching. Yet because he was
death could not be the end for him.
And so John wrote his tale of grace and truth that we might seek grace and truth within ourselves and within each other. Because God was always incarnate, embodied, enfleshed in the people and they hadn’t seen it. Perhaps now we might.
John begins his tale describing Jesus as the Word, capital W. The Greeks thought of the Word – the logos, as a philosophical idea to describe order in the universe – and it was definitely not flesh. It was separate, intellectual, the pattern of the universe. So this beautiful poem of
is in fact quite scandalous.
That God or the philosophical Word could become flesh and become humanity is quite ridiculous and shocking. The creation story tells us God spoke the world into being – let there be light, God said, and there was light. but it is another step altogether for the Word to become flesh, human, with all our physicality. Sweat and tears, and birth and death, sex and passion, food and drink, clothes and homes; being flesh, being of the world was not what “The Word” was about; nor what God was about. And yet Jesus was born on this holy night in unholy circumstances; with real people and real animals; and real dangers all around. And so in the reality of our lives Jesus can also be born. In our sweat and tears, and birth and death, sex and passion, food and drink, clothes and homes; into all of that Jesus is born. And the Word, capital W, becomes part of our words, little w; our words that can profess love or hate; our words that can encourage or shame; what words do we long to hear? I love you; I am proud of you; I miss you; and what words do we hear instead: angry words on social media; on the news; in our homes: anger and disappointment. If this story of the Word becoming flesh is to be real then we need to allow our words to change as well, as our lives are changed.
This life of grace and truth is there for all who seek it. This Word, these words do not belong to just the Bible.
The question for us here tonight is how does this tale of
become enfleshed in our lives.
One way is in the simple ritual of receiving the bread and wine of the eucharist – if this is the first time you have been in church for a while, or ever; you are welcome to come and receive the bread and wine, symbols of the life of Christ. In participating in this communion, we are reminded of the physicality of God. Not distant in some far away heavenly realm, but here, now in word and action: the body of Christ given for you.
And so we invite you tonight to allow God to be present with you, in you.
In the beginning was the Word; in him was life; and the life was the light of all people; and the Word became flesh and lived among us; full of grace and truth.
For the last Sundays in this Advent season we have been looking for hope; looking for people and ways of speaking with hope; looking for dialogues of hope. Cate began our series with a conversation from a funeral where she was challenged to remain in conversation with a group of young people mourning the death of a friend by suicide. The challenge Cate said was “to stay with, not turn away or slide into glib or well practiced turns of phrase that turn to dust upon their speaking.” Chris Clarke describes two scripts – one the individually focused script where the goal of our life is the acquisition of things; and the second script, the John the Baptist script where the goal is community and being grateful for the abundance of life. Ron Phillips described the power of story to transform lives that are very broken and devoid of hope.
There are 2 dialogues in our readings today – one from the Hebrew scriptures and one from the gospel of Luke. David the king of the people of Israel has led the people to Jerusalem where they will make their home. Until that time the presence of God was thought to be present in a shrine which they called an ark – not to be confused with Noah’s ark which was of course a boat. The shrine was carried with them as they traveled and housed in a tent when they settled in Israel. David thinks it would be appropriate to build a Temple to house the presence of God.
Nathan the prophet talks to God about this idea and God we are told is not pleased: Are you (David) the one to build me a house to live in? … “Did I ever ask for a house of cedar?”
and just as a reminder of David’s story – “I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep, to be prince over my people Israel”. Don’t think for a minute that you will contain me, the Lord of all, in a temple. The Temple does eventually get built by Solomon, David’s son, and the writer of 2 Samuel knows this – so this passage ends with a promise that David’s descendants will have their Temple. But the first part of this dialogue is the part that really rings true – who are you David, to try and contain me, the God of all in a house or a temple. If you want a future for your people your words need to be words of humility – something the people of God will be reminded of generation after generation by the prophets.
And yet they kept on trying to build the kingdom promised to David. An actual kingdom.
For the next 400 years there followed a succession of kings in both the north and the south until Jerusalem finally fell in 597 and the people went into exile. All this time the hope of the kingdom promised to David was kept alive. The prophets, however, started to talk in different ways, using the language of kingdom and of a king who would come, but their meaning was different. They had a hope and a vision beyond the physical kingdom to a time when the reign of God would not be dependent on the rule of a temporal king.
They began to talk of one who would come as a Saviour, a redeemer, a messiah to show them the way to true freedom and true relationship with God.
So by the time we come to our second dialogue of the morning, the conversation between the angel Gabriel and Mary, 1000 years has slipped by. 1000 years of waiting, of praying, of trying to figure out what was meant by the king who would come.
Many different expectations had built up, most of them expected still a temporal king with an army who would establish a new nation, built on justice and peace.
So when Luke has the angel say “you will have a son Jesus and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David” – there is 1000 years of history weighed in those words.
1000 years of battles and struggles, of hoping and waiting.
This time the dialogue is very personal and intimate.
Mary is to bear a child.
God will this time be “contained”, God will dwell within Mary, in order to be born, in order to be contained no longer by the expectations of history and the longing for a temporal king.
This very particular, intimate conversation with Mary changes everything.
We need not get too hung up on worrying about whether this conversation actually took place; was Mary really a virgin and so on.
As Marcus Borg says
“(these stories) are not history remembered, but metaphorical narratives that use ancient religious imagery to express central truths about Jesus' significance.”
This narrative brings us truth and hope.
Truth about God’s presence in the world in the person of Jesus and truth about God’s continuing presence in the world through us; through you and me.
At our Carol service last Sunday evening we heard this passage by Walter Burghart:
You must be [people] of ceaseless hope… Every human act, every Christian act, is an act of hope. But that means you must be [people] of the present, you must live this moment – really live it, not just endure it – because this very moment, for all its imperfection and frustration, because of its imperfection and frustration, is pregnant with all sorts of possibilities, is pregnant with the future, is pregnant with love, is pregnant with Christ.
So in this final dialogue between the angel and Mary – can we find ourselves?
Can we hear the words “you have found favour with God” spoken to us.
Can we name something in our lives that feels blessed by God.
We will protest no doubt – how can this be? how can it be that God would find favour with my work, my skills, my experiences?
and the angel will reply – nothing is impossible with God.
Then you reply – yes, here am I, the servant of God.
And so we have a dialogue of hope, pregnant with our own experiences, our own story.
Preaching this week is a speaking from the heart more than a speaking from the head. It arises from my experience of life, sometimes encounter in ministry, sometimes just because of life and being human in the face and encounter of real life with real people. Today is the first Sunday in Advent, New Year’s church day?! Advent we know is a time of looking back, telling the story of what has been and looking forward with expectation to what is yet to come. The beginning of an intentional time of preparation from which we proclaim in this creation, pregnant with divine possibility, God comes to life, in deed and in person. God – knowable, intimately familiar with the beauty and joy, suffering and struggle that is life in this world.
As is in WH this Advent we’re to explore a theme. At the moment our world is full of dialogues of despair. The characters that populate Advent face into their worlds of despair and bring a different conversation. “The Son of Man”, John the Baptist, the angel Gabriel, Mary, and Elizabeth all bring words and actions of hope, not empty hope or wishful thinking, but hope grounded in experience and faith. This Advent we will explore what happens when we engage in a dialogue of hope.” This year, perhaps more than ever, seems to me to be one that faces us, each and every day, with hard and horrid stories of the harm we can visit on one another and on our world. Although this isn’t new there seems this last year to have been an escalation, the underground what we might’ve hoped was small rivulet of xenophobia, misogyny, nationalism bigoted prejudice and hatred has become legitimised by certain leadership. What we might’ve hoped was a depleted rivulet has quite a flow. Division, fracture, violence and brokenness appear to prevail. The ripple of effect is known in our lives, in the lives of friends, our community, our city, our country.
In this place, this set apart place of church, I wonder often if we come here in part for some respite from these hard and horrid stories, we want and need solace and succour so we can bear the burden, the weight of these things. And of course this is a good and reasonable thing, to expect to find rest and rejuvenation here. However, it also seems to me that this is the place and we, the particular community of people, with calling to bring to this place in this time those hard and horrid stories and together to speak of them, to face them, to sit together with them. To acknowledge what arises in us in response to them whether it is fear, rage, frustration, helplessness, anxiety or deep sadness. Not for us to be overwhelmed by such things but so that in this place, with our seeking and searching companions we’re able together to bear this burden, lay down its weight for a while, for it to be safe here to be our honest truthful selves open to ask, is this the only way our world can be?
These hard and horrid stories reveal the way our world is, or has become. It’s not happened by chance, it’s become this way because a particular way of telling the story of being human has prevailed. Wired for catastrophe it would be easy enough for this morning’s biblical texts to reinforce our anxiety, if we took them out of their context and time, took them literally and pasted them into our day and age it would seem nothing much has changed. In some ways that’s true and yet is it not also the case that we name the stories we hear each day as hard and horrid because there’s another story, an alternate story that has different outcomes, changes the way things are. The way things are in our world isn’t inevitable or necessarily the way things have to be.
This is where we, the particular people in our time in this place who hear this story, come in. Each Sunday in Advent we add a word, a theme, hope, peace, joy, love, we gather these things and say they issue forth in the person of Jesus ‘God with us’ born on Christmas Day. The light from the Advent wreath grows brighter as each Sunday we add a candle until on Christmas Day five are burning – fine sentiment and beauty of tradition. Symbolic of deeper significance, not empty or wishful thinking though, these things are made real in time. What would it be like, in our challenging times, for us to take seriously the lineage of our religious narrative, see it as a resource for rather than an excuse to turn away from our world? Together seek, look for with expectation to find, to make real in the world hope, peace, joy and love. Not as an exercise in sentimentality but to seek where and how these things are present, with us, able to be discerned, seen and spoken of. As church we’re named the body of Christ in the world, together we’ve the potential to be God with us, hope, peace, joy, love for and in our world. Equally in this season God is revealed as present to us, how open are our eyes to see that presence where we least expect it, as we least expect it, needing the love and our nurture of people like us to grow into the fullness of life?
Earlier this year I journeyed with a family who’d lost a beloved child to suicide, the funeral was jam packed with friends, beautiful, talented, societal fringe dwelling friends on the cusp of adulthood. Amazing young people, questioning, challenging, bursting with creative energy in music and dress and word, seeking and searching, asking and probing to understand why and how and where they could fit, have place to stand to be themselves, bring their brilliance in to being, contribute to the world. Not really fitting the mould required to conform to the expectations for success, many cruise the fringes, explore the shadow lands where certainty and safety are tested.
I was asked, well perhaps challenged after the funeral as to what I saw there, what I thought of this eccentric, unconventional, testing boundary lot of young people. “I see,” I said, “a whole lot of beautiful, talented, creative young people bursting to express themselves, to have a purpose, to be told who they are matters, they don’t have to become someone else to already belong. You can see how hard it is for them to live within the confines of convention, the scars, the tattoos, piercings, the need for substances that numb. We, our society doesn’t seem to make space for this eccentricity even as we’re in desperate need of their energy and creativity, to take their questioning seriously, for the challenge it provides us about our assumptions, about what it is we value, whether the way we live aligns us with those values - whether we do what we say. It says something about how our society has become, when too many of our beautiful young people see no place or future for them in it.
What have our young people have to look forward to, if you strip away the acquisition of money, of material possessions – the house, the car, the bach, the boat, the holidays, the nest egg for retirement, the perfect body, the holy grail of never ending youth? A litany of linear acquisition through time, providing marker posts of success that can be tagged or ticked as they are achieved, but where is the art of being human in this? Where is the ‘who I am’ that is not about ‘what I have’ in all of this?” Each of us is an intended creation, each of us is needed in our community, for our community, we are each part of a whole.
It’s true that I felt it was a challenge laid down – the question asked of me. Who am I, kitted out in religious garb in a context where most of the people gathered had little, from askance suspicion of through to outright hostility toward organised religion, to speak? Who am I, not in relationship with most there, to stand, to lead and hold them through this pivotal gathered time of their grieving farewell? It is right for me to be challenged. about how it is I perceive those before me, whether I include them as they are in any words I might speak of divine inclusion, of those beloved of God. It is right for me to be challenged, whether I’m trying to cast a religious overlay over the context that would lack integrity to the people there, speak or put in their mouths words of faith that are without meaning and seek to make them say things they don’t assent to. It is right for me to be challenged, if I void divine presence from the whole context how am I a person of integrity. It is right for me to stand silent before the hostile stare, the suspicious glance, the agony of death in the prime of life, to stand with shuddering tears and heart full lament of song, willing to bear the weight and thrust of what is real in that moment. To stay with, not turn away or slide into glib or well-practised turns of phrase that turn to dust upon their speaking.
It was as we talked and dared to venture to speak of all the things that mattered most, of disbelief and loss of hope, of beauty frustrated through lack of care and context, of displacement and struggle for identity in a world that seems only to hold up one image, one mirror of what it is to be a person of value and worth, of belonging. It was as we talked honestly and frankly and often about the failure of organised religion, naming truthfully frustrations of untruth, disillusion and disappointment that the tension shifted, the energy changed, the challenge now became, “How come there’s no place to talk about these things? Isn’t this what church should be like, what church should be about?” Maybe this is what we’re doing now, maybe this is what being church looks like - maybe we only have this moment to be that with one another. It was not expected this ‘God with us’ moment revealed in this exchange, it was not as I expected either – love, hope, peace of release and in a strange way joy of connecting. It was real though.
We’ve a story that laments suffering, fear, pain, that cries out with harsh words of accusation, anger and blame – honest, heart rending and true. We lament and cry out for we know things can be other than this way. That is the story we stand in. A story of divine presence with us, threaded through creation, through us, our life, all of life. It’s a story brought to life through people inhabiting it, strong enough together to be still and bear the weight and heft of life and still insist and speak into being the hope, peace, joy and love of God with us knowable because of one another. People willing through their bodies and in their lives to bring the life of God to life for the life of the world.
For weeks now we have had some tough readings – Matthew’s parables – the tenants of the vineyard who kill the servants and the son; the wedding guests who don’t come and their city is destroyed; the bridesmaids who get shut out of the wedding and the parable of the talents where the last unfortunate servant is cast into outer darkness. With all of these parables we have been understanding that they are told in the week before Jesus’ crucifixion and so the temperature is rising, the tension is rising, the stories get tougher and tougher. We have also understood that they are about grace. The oil in the bridesmaids’ lamps; the invitation to the wedding; the talents offered – they are all grace freely offered from God which we can refuse or reject. And rejection of God’s grace will feel like being cast out into darkness.
Cate said last week that we have to act on that grace given, to “trade” with it like the slaves in the parable of the talents:
Trading with what we have and who we are … to enable grace, spirit, love, faith, trust to abound…. We don’t need a lot to be abundant, but we do need an orientation and an intention to utilise what we have to grow that which benefits the life of the world - that is to join in the joy of the One who brings life to the world. 
So that’s all good – we have got the message – God’s grace is freely given and we can choose to respond or not. And responding with a yes is much better than a no.
And then we come to today’s reading, which follows on from all the others.
And it seems to be not about grace at all – but about good works. In the first and second century there was quite a debate about how people might be close to God – some said it was all about works like the writer of the letter of James “faith without works is dead” (James 2:26) – looking after those in need was a central part of the Christian life; then others like Paul said it was all about grace “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Eph 2:8-9)
It is as if Matthew has told all the grace parables and then decides he needs to throw in some good works reminders as well. This is not a parable – not a story – but rather an apocalyptic vision of the end times. Matthew and his community were expecting Jesus to return in their life time and to see the end of times. And when that day comes Jesus says there will be those who will enter the kingdom – those who fed the hungry, welcomed the stranger, took care of the sick, and visited prisoners. And those who did not – well they are for the hot place. So what happened to grace?
When I was on sabbatical earlier this year I spent time at the Church of the Epiphany in downtown Washington DC. Sundays at Epiphany start at 6.30am. The doors open and the welcomers are ready with a warm smile and a label for your name and your number (which you need for the breakfast queue later).
Well organised teams of volunteers then set up for The Welcome Table. Part one is groups from 7am-8am – there is Bible study; an art group; 12 step groups like narcotics anonymous; choir practice. Everyone is invited to take part in the discussions; they are listened to with respect and openness; some make sense, others not so much. It doesn’t matter the respect is the same.
Part two is the 8am eucharist led by the Epiphany clergy supported by a gospel style choir led by a man who was once homeless. Those who read, lead the psalm and the prayers are likely to have slept the night on the street or in a shelter. They do it well, having practiced in the 7am slot, they know the ritual, the responses.
Part three is breakfast – scrambled eggs, bacon, grits (the chef must be from the South), scone, fruit, coffee, orange juice. 150 or so can be fed each Sunday and so the names and numbers are called in groups of forty and people move through to breakfast, seated at tables, with flowers in the centre, proper plates and cutlery; the coffee is poured by the volunteers. Everyone waits patiently for their turn, sitting quietly in the church. My number was 119 so I waited a while and then moved through, was greeted warmly, chatting with others as we lined up to be served (I declined the grits). I was shown to a table, others were eating, we chatted about the food and the weather, as you might do with any strangers at a table. I noticed most of the guests were African American, most were men. Most of the volunteers were white, a mix of men and women.
People moved off, and the church was set up again for the 11am congregation; some of the homeless folk stayed. The liturgy this time was led by a more traditional choir. There were more people at the 8am service. Both services were relaxed and warm. On Tuesdays there is another group of volunteers who take church out into the park, along with lunch.
I asked the priest I met with about their work – do you do political advocacy I asked; or work with agencies to get people housed? Rev Catriona Laing said every person who comes here has a case worker and there is a plethora of agencies doing that work.
Our ministry she said is about being with people. Nothing more. Epiphany’s call she said, is simply to be with, to listen, to respect. To provide a spiritual home where people are welcome, truly welcome, not treated with suspicion or hostility. A place where people have a name, a place where people are seen.
I was deeply moved by my visit to Epiphany and in reflecting on it afterwards I decided it was because I was witnessing people being “seen” as Catriona put it. People with many challenges and issues: homeless, with addictions, mental health issues – we know the story. But each one was seen – and felt seen and known. Named, listened to, cared for.
In Jesus’ description of the end times the “righteous” who are about to be blessed with life in the kingdom are told it is not because they had helped the poor and the widows, but that they had helped Jesus himself – “for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink” and they say – when was it that we saw you hungry? – when was it that we saw you a stranger? we didn’t do this to you - how could that be? and he answers – just as you did it to one of the least, you did it to me.
You saw the need of a stranger – you saw them and helped them – not anonymously – but face to face – one person created in the image of God to another.
So maybe this passage is about grace after all – because to be able to look at another person and see them as a beloved child of God takes grace. Left to our own devices we aren’t too good at loving our neighbour but drawing on God’s strength and grace we might just be able to manage it. This teaching of Jesus today calls us to look at each other with the eyes of faith; to see each other as one created in the image of God – remember the challenge Jesus gave to the Pharisees a few weeks ago – give to Ceasar what is Caesar and to God what is God’s.
The image of God is imprinted within each of us and so when we pay attention to each other – when we see each other – and listen, and respect and honour each other then we meet Christ. Paul in his letter to the Ephesians prays that “with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which you are called, what are the riches of the glorious inheritance (like the talents) among the saints” and how all things are to be found with Christ (Eph 1:18,22).
We close out our church year today with this assurance that Christ is within each of us and in our world and with the challenge to be sure that we take notice. To be sure that we open our hearts to God’s grace and open our eyes to see each other as we truly are, created in God’s image. And next week we begin again with the first Sunday of Advent and it will be Mark, not Matthew this time who will be telling us to watch, and keep awake, alert for the coming of the “Son of Man”.
The parable of the talents … great, one of my first reactions was to wonder whether this was a manifesto for churches that preach and teach a prosperity theology. If God’s on your side you’ll get rich or the church will, or the leader of the church will – wealth and prosperity are the sure signs of God’s blessing – except it doesn’t quite work here for the slaves don’t get rich, just their master.
How many of you are familiar with this parable? If you are I’m guessing you’ve heard a lifetime of sermons on this parable, how many variations on the theme can there be? The parable of the talents is a parable about money. Accustomed as we might be to slip what talent means sideways, broadening it from being about money to rather or also being about skills, abilities, giving of time and so forth, in the context of this parable talent is talking about money, a lot of money. Unlike Luke, Matthew has the owner entrust enormous amounts of money, millions in today’s terms to these slaves. Money and God stuff are an uneasy alliance at the best of times for money is powerful, often powerfully misused in the world in the time of the telling of this parable and in our world today. If we were to interpret this parable literally, and propose it reveals that God rewards the rich for getting richer and punishes the poor for getting poorer, then I have a real problem with it. Not only could I not align myself with a God imagined thus, but to understand the parable in this way makes God in this parable utterly out of sync with the God of love of Matthew’s gospel thus far. So does this parable reveal something about the nature and character of God, or rather reveal something about humanity, about us? About how we respond to life in this world with the unique life gifted us in all its particular resourcefulness. Should we understand this world and our precious life in it as a divinely bestowed gift, then we’ve responsibility, for the choices we make have consequences not just for us but for the life of the world.
If we accept that talents in this parable is about money can we take a step back from our perhaps emotive response to the mention of money, and see that money is in fact simply a means of trade, an agreed system of exchange. Until fairly recently money has predominantly been physical currency, nowadays often as not it takes form of electronic exchange, a virtual reality transaction, new bitcoin currency’s emerging. Even so the use of money, in whichever form it takes, involves an exchange, a flow of a negotiated and agreed entity to which we attribute value. Because money has value, is linked to goods and services, it’s become a primary means for trade, worth, livelihood, status, the more you have the greater your power. That is if we agree to participate in and give primacy to the value of money as an exchange system. Maybe it is because money has such potency in daily life that it’s the image deployed in the parable today.
Deployed in this kingdom of heaven parable that was spoken into Matthew’s community, a community of people struggling to know how to be faithful, how to live as faithful followers of Jesus in the time between Jesus’ death and his promised coming again. A community endangered for adhering to the way of Jesus, aspiring to live perhaps as those who would inhabit the kingdom of heaven. Money is powerful in this parable about the kingdom of heaven, an image, Bill Loader suggests, for what’s potent in the kingdom and for the kingdom, the potency of the Spirit or at least of the life of God within us. The parable is to do with how and whether we allow the spirit, the life of God to flow through us for it, like money, is powerful.
It can be easy for us to go onto automatic, replay this parable in our heads because we know it so well, to not hear it afresh, not take time to pause and let it speak, to realise what’s actually before us rather than what we think. What we hear is that “it is as if a man going on a journey summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them,” the scale of money entrusted is in enormous. Then the man goes away – that’s all we know. The first two servants take all that’s entrusted to them and double it. The third one buries it. When the master comes back the servants, each in turn tell the master what they’ve done with the master’s property in his absence, what they chose to do in response to his trust in them. The first two, as we’ve heard, leveraged the money to make more money, entrusted with much they chose to make more, the master’s delighted. If it ended here the moral of the story might simply be: “Make the most of what you’ve got.” But this is no straight forward tale. The most interesting part is to come, the proverbial sting in the tail.
We then come to the third slave. This slave is afraid, through his words of fear we hear a summation of the character of the master. The master reaps where he has not sown and gathers harvest from seed that was not originally his - a pretty good description of hard business practice in any age. The third slave perceives the master in this way, through his fear the master is made real for the third slave in this way. Does the master confirm this characterisation by repeating the words of the third slave, or is he simply reflecting the third slave’s depiction, who could have, even in his fear, made a choice that would have generated even some small benefit? No risk was taken yet neither was any gain made. Notice that the master left no instructions. For whatever reason the first two slaves saw the resource they had been entrusted with and decided to do something with it. Discerning there was something to do, that they could do, empowered by their master’s belief in them, with courage and determination they whole heartedly took the risk of trading with the resource entrusted to them.
So in this kingdom of heaven parable, where currency of potency might be named as grace, the spirit, the life of God flowing through us, do we respond with fear or allow this potency to flow? Are we willing to entrust and give ourselves 110% to the enterprise of enabling the flow of divine currency or do we hold back in fear? Fear of what whole hearted commitment, abundant living might do to us, might require of us, might transform us into? Fear of being changed, of not being in control, of not being able to hold onto, to know and claim what is ours, for its benefit may be for the need of another. Fear that more and undeserving and unacceptable others we want to exclude are included. We diminish divine abundance to fit our fearful world view, allow fear and a diminished way of being to be the real.
If fear becomes our master then fear drives our encounter of the world, is the way we interpret the world. Forgetting that our life, our worth and inherent value is already divinely bestowed in us, we feel bound by the demands of fear or outer darkness will be our banishment. The way the world is, rich getting richer and poor getting poorer, is it an outcome of fear made real, as Dawn Hutchings suggests “in the first world … we’ve built an entire economic system that guarantees the rich will continue to get richer just as the poor continue to get poorer. It happens in the developing world where the poor continue to get poor while the rich prosper at the expense of those who are dying from Ebola or AIDs or [Bubonic plague], who have nothing to eat, no hope of escaping the outer darkness of their poverty, despite their weeping and the gnashing of teeth. We all know full well that millions and millions are suffering and dying, yet to protect ourselves we bury what has been given to us, because we’re afraid of being consumed by the wicked master who’ll surely banish us into the darkness if we do not keep safe what we’ve been given. We dare not risk losing anything at all, lest we end up in the outer darkness weeping and gnashing our teeth. So, for the most part we play it safe and we don’t take any risks and we spend our lives living in fear of that wicked master. These days there are a slew of wicked slave-masters. … the god of financial security: we’re supposed to work hard, shop lots, and somehow manage to save a fortune so that we can retire and live to shop some more. So, we live in fear of not, earning enough, not having enough stuff, not saving enough and ending our days on social welfare. Or the slave-master that insists that we all have a successful career, that has us all running around from pillar to post, [smartphone] in hand, from one meeting to the next, checking all the boxes as we climb each rung on the ladder to success … we live in fear of not accomplishing enough, of running out of time, of not pleasing the powers that be and ending up stuck in a rut. Or the master that demands that we always be right and so we live in fear of making a mistake. Or that master that insists that we fit the mould, we live in fear of not looking beautiful, young, sexy, and skinny. Or that master that keeps telling us that unless we are very, very careful everything is going to fall apart, so we spend our lives worrying about maintaining the status quo and we never ever take a risk, cause we know that the only way to keep things just the way they are is to play it safe. These taskmasters, whoever they are have us all where they want us, feeling like worthless slaves, living in darkness and so busy weeping and gnashing our teeth that we can’t see that we are free.” 
This parable isn’t a comfortable parable, maybe because in many ways it’s a parable of the way the world is. Every day in each moment we choose how we use who we are and what we have, whether to enact abundance or scarcity. In many ways scarcity is more reassuring for we set the parameters and know what we have. Living, being and doing abundantly is far more risky, taking all we’re given, our life in its resourcefulness and in our context and circumstances living openhandedly. Trading with what we have and who we are to enable the flow not just of divine currency - however we name that, for grace, spirit, love, faith, trust to abound, but also to ensure the flow of real life currency, money, resources necessary for life so each and all have sufficient. We don’t need a lot to be abundant, but we do need an orientation and an intention to utilise what we have to grow that which benefits the life of the world for surely that is to join in the joy of the One who brings life to the world.
There is a bible verse that speaks of everyone living under their own vine and fig tree – and, I dare to say, surrounded by their olive trees! It's a bit hard to imagine from our concrete jungle!
We have recently returned from Crete, a place where this vision of the good life still operates, where it is still what people aspire to. Where most of the food necessities come from their own farm. The 'farm' people spoke about, in the traditional village where we stayed, might be a small holding (no bigger that the section many of us would like to have to put a house on) or a number of acres with vines and olive trees they have been caring for for 1500 years, and of course, a flock of 'sheep/goats' as we called them because it was so hard to tell the difference.
However much land you had it grew enough for your basic needs and some to barter or simply give away. Even as visitors we were the recipients of this generosity many times over. Some of the work on this 'farm' is done by the land holder themselves and at other times the work is done as a community effort – such as the grape harvest and wine-making, at yet other times extra hands are employed like when it is time to harvest the millions of olive trees.
However the work of producing the food and wine is done, both the work and the produce are shared – sold or bartered or given.
Our experience of this approach to the land and to living is one that clearly identifies community as important. In conversation people expressed satisfaction with being part of a community of people including extended family members and neighbours, that would all help each other out so no one was without work to do or without enough to live on through the all the seasons of the year, including having enough to share with guests. The economic security of their land and their family/community, having the sun, and the shared 'stories' that shape who they are and how they live together was both a source of pride and the foundation for the satisfaction with their lives that was spoken about by those who engaged us in conversation.
We have a story too that shapes our living and relationships, we have our Christian story, and it begins way back, wrapping in some of the same elements that shape my Kreti companions: stories about those vines and fig trees, about community and shared care, about love and family and neighbour and knowing how to celebrate what is good, and to care for the earth.
Our urban location puts us at some distance from this experience day to day. It makes it much more difficult for us to remember that what we need for living comes to us from the earth and from our families and friends and neighbours. The story that we hear most often is one about what we deserve, not what we need, about the accumulation of surplus not generous sharing.
At the heart of the Living Wage Movement are a set of theological precepts.
I think this is why, world-wide, churches have been key players, if not instigators in the energy and activities of the Movement.
It is the theology that motivates my involvement in the work of LWNZ and
why I believe St Matthew-in-the-City should be actively engaged based on its own vision statement.
It is why I agreed to preach today as Living Wage Week ends for this year.
I want to remind us all that a Living Wage is not some leftie do-good idea, rather it is a key to our self identity as the body of Christ and it is something that can be done.
For me those theological precepts lie at the heart of what it means to be a human community.
Core to them is the fundamental perspective that we are human beings together, on earth. That together, humans and all other sentient creatures, share the goodness of the earth and all it produces – and we humans are required to be responsible caregivers.
Our Christian story also proclaims we are made in the image of God – that we have the capacity to reflect God – so love, compassion, and a desire for each other to flourish is in our very being – in our DNA as they say – somewhere!
So too is our capacity to judge what is damaging: what is violent or greedy; what is a display of hubris, (a forgetting that we are creatures of the earth and ultimately not gods or all powerful controllers and creators); we know what is a display of disregard for those who share this planet with us. And, we can judge quite well, what is damaging to the wellbeing of our planet home itself. We can change what is damaging to people and planet.
At the heart of is all is knowing our place: knowing who we are, knowing what we are in the scheme of things:
Our place is here: our home, it is Aotearoa NZ, it is Auckland, it is Mt Eden, or Milford or Whangaparaoa – our place is sacred – it is here we must begin to exercise care and compassion and strive for just relationships of mutual regard.
We are the human inhabitants of planet earth and the consequences of how we treat our earth home as well as our neighbours will have reverberations through history we must treat our sacred place with respect.
We have shaped our Christian story around the goodness of a God who loves us and trusts us to care for one another and for the earth that sustains us. And we are all players in that story we have chosen as ours, we all have an equal place – or should have according to our story because, as the old poster used to say, "our God 'makes no rubbish and has no favourites."
To this end we have a mutual responsibility of care for each other beginning with our community – with those who share our place with us.
And while we may not, these days, have our own vines and fig trees and olives trees and sheep/goats to provide us with security and a sense of place – what these things represent in the story of wellbeing and security we can have.
We can have an a level of economic security that promotes confidence in who we are and where we are, and
we can have the community engagement that encourages a sense of wellbeing and mutual compassion.
In this land of plenty
we can all have enough if we choose enough instead of a superfluity and act with generosity because we believe there is enough, instead of hording because we believe there is a scarcity.
We can all have a Living Wage, an adequate income to live with dignity providing the necessities of life for our children and enabling us to participate in our communities.
All it requires for these things to come to pass is for us all to decided people matter.
The story we tell to each other will include the expectation workers earn enough to live on.
It is within our capacities to provide a Living Wage, an adequate income for all who share the city and nation with us.
Together we are community, we need each other in order to live well and to flourish.
I support the Living Wage Movement and I encourage you to do so too.
Today I find myself standing in a place of not knowing. I’m not sure it’s the place I’m meant to be standing seeing as I’m in a pulpit, in church where there’s often expectation that some form of knowing will be promulgated.
Surely on this All Saints day, the poignant and powerful time when we risk remembering, drawing close our loved ones who have died, is the context we should speak with confidence of hope and promise?
Of course to stand not knowing is not necessarily to stand without confidence. Perhaps the challenge is to be confident to remain standing in the discomfort of not knowing. To stand not knowing and remember the saints of years gone by, loved ones whose loss exposes our essential vulnerability to love and to life. Made aware of our mortality, not-life-as-we-know-it, death, is for all of us. To stand not knowing and expect there to be saints in our day, perhaps more alarmingly that we embody saintliness in the life we inhabit, expect such example to be embodied in the lives of those yet to come.
Not knowing, what is that exactly? Is it an in-between knowing state, a transition time between certainties, a stumble before we’re grounded, find our feet again? Or might it have its own integrity? We struggle, I think, to find words to articulate our very real experience at times such as death. And the words we do find are unlikely to withstand the harsh scrutiny of reason, logic, science, intellect or plain common sense. So, quite reasonably, rather than taking time to dwell with and learn from what we do not know we hasten from the encounter.
For some the explanation is this physical world, our physical bodies are all there is and we should expect no more than what we know. The tangible reality of this life we know is the limit, anything else is imagining and wishful thinking. We should expect to take responsibility for living well and rightly, to align with ways of living that enable the flourishing of the life of all creation. These are not deferred to some after this life time or expectation of God tweaking, resetting the dial to make things right intervention. After all it’s not as if we haven’t been given enough clues of ways to live in relationship with one another and the world that lead to its life bringing transformation – even as we never quite get there. Today’s Beatitudes from the gospel remind us there is consequence to our choices, consequence to the way we live. Our habits of behaviour have outcomes; the way we live reverberates throughout creation.
So is there no more than us, is God a creation of our highest ideals, as Lloyd Geering suggests, the sum of our meaningfulness known by the way we live and are together? I think it’s important to sit with this as part of our not knowing in this season – to let ourselves consider this could be so. For, you see, this too isn’t provable one way or the other. For some it enables them to live well, to orient themselves in the world, to focus on this life, giving well and generously, not depending on some unprovable God concept to put things right later. For others God so imagined diminishes the horizons of life and hope, removes the potential in and possibilities for life, burdens them, for life thus becomes a self-creation and they may be ill equipped, with few and poor resources to build with.
The reality for most of us is we spend a good part of our lives in busyness, creating and participating in worlds of certainty and purpose. We negotiate our way through the expectations and responsibilities of our society, with our desires and drives for individual expression and authenticity. Most of us function well enough most of the time, unquestioningly enough, expecting perhaps not so much, that life is as it is. We might agitate for this or that, seek to right this wrong or protest that injustice but probably don’t test the bounds, the boundaries of life over much. Despite our best laid plans however life or perhaps I should say death has a nasty habit of breaking in to our complacency and disrupting the order of our days.
Death faces us with not life, not life is something we do not know. We experience rather than know our response. We can speak of what we do know of these times. Stripped bare of our certainties, we’re made aware of how constructed our lives are, how secure they seem and yet how vulnerable when the lynch pin of life is pulled. All that’s been our world shrinks, our priorities diminish and we’re left wondering what matters most. And it’s surprisingly little, reduced to what’s most precious, to relationships, the way we care, nurture, support, sustain one another, to the memories, images, taste, touch, sounds, the intangible experiences of life. We discover curious things about love, of how it is a lived, embodied thing of how easy it is to speak of love honestly and truthfully, of love’s mutuality - that we lose part of ourselves when we lose a loved one. Despite that we dedicate most of our lives to doing, creating, participating in this physical world, necessarily and fruitfully, paradoxically we discover what matters most, sustains us and affirms who we are, is the intangible tangle of relationship.
Not knowing opens up a space in us, opens us up. Our certainties are somehow suspended for the world, our world, is no longer as it was and we are less sure of who we now are, how we are to live now. Curiously when we’re gathered together in our not knowing all of the differences between us are there with us and we remain together. We need one another in such time, we need the resourcefulness of our difference to piece us, a world together again.
Today we talk of death and life, of our comfortable familiarity with the physical, tangible world and perhaps less comfortable familiarity with the intangibility of relationships that prove most essential to us of relationship, we talk of whether life is just this world or more than just this world. Differences arise in our wrestle with mortality which have repercussions in our understanding of divine presence, in our living, what we hope for, the parameters of the world. For all our eloquence, however, all we can truly say is without death there is not life, without tangible there is not intangible and that we know what life is this side of death. Not knowing is how we live with such paradox with integrity.
Not knowing allows us to dwell with paradox and learn from it. Life and death are both present there, the reality that we dedicate most of our life to real and tangible things even though intangible relationships are our foundation. When faced with death we stand before what we do not know together, together in our not knowing. With all our differences we’re opened to each other, opened to understand, to see the world, who we are, who each other are more generously. It is our differences that teach and challenge us to consider anew our choices and understandings to negotiate life with all its paradox.
Our saintly call, the Beatitudes today reminds us, is to be people who make God’s justice real. Yet we humans are complicated, obtuse and obstinate creations, determined too often to follow the urgings of our own hearts and wills. Through encountering, entering into, engaging with the difference of others, with their struggles, trials and tribulations, wrong turnings and missed truths, perhaps even testing or trying them on for size, we learn a lot - about how and whether and what we choose and about ourselves. Do we test our choices and understandings by insulating ourselves from other options, from difference, or by encounter with them so we develop resilience and honest truthfulness?
On this day when we speak of ourselves as saints of this age, we’re aware the paradox of life is that opposites co-exist, it is our call to walk alongside poor and rich, mournful and joyful, merciful and merciless, peacemaker and warmonger, rejected and accepted. To alleviate suffering, be courageous in face of ridicule when we dare to insist this world can be one of just dealing and equitable sharing. We tell a story grounded in Christ yet with edges open to be surprised by God also in the difference of others. As we’re open to hear, willing to engage with difference, we can tell a more complete story of our world. A world where injustice is known because of justice, inequity because of equity, which of these comes to prevail depends on the wideness of our inclusion of difference in the face of all we do not know. You see the world’s story doesn’t necessarily or inevitably have to unravel the way it most often does. Today I stand before you, still in my not knowing yet I stand not alone but in the company of the saints of days and years gone by, in company with you, the saints of this day. Together blessed by our differences, we saints of one particular faith story can be part of unravelling the story differently, incarnating in word and in deed a just and equitable world that includes and values the richness of difference.
Everyone has a mission statement these days – from schools to government departments to companies to businesses. I looked up a few examples:
Facebook: Give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together
Coca Cola: To refresh the world in mind, body and spirit. To inspire moments of optimism and happiness through our brands and actions.
Closer to home:
Lifewise: Connected, just, and inclusive communities
Ministry of Education: Our mission is to lift aspiration and raise educational achievement for all New Zealanders.
Our City Mission next door had the most down to earth statement I came across: Helping people in desperate need by providing excellent integrated services and effective advocacy.
Sounds less like a religion and more like a place that gets things done.
The bigger the company – like Facebook or Coca Cola – the more they sound like a religion.
In today’s gospel we get to hear Jesus’ version of a mission statement.
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. You shall love your neighbour as yourself”
The commandments or laws that were laid down in the Hebrew scripture covered all aspect of life – food, clothing, economics, welcoming the stranger, caring for family and the widow and the orphan, worship. You name it there was a rule or a guideline. And some argued that all rules were equal. So making sure you didn’t mix wool and linen (Dt 22:11) in your clothing was as important as the commandment not to steal or murder. Hence the question from a lawyer to test Jesus. Remember, we are still in the Temple, and various groups are still trying to trip Jesus up. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”
Everything else recorded in the law and the prophets hangs on these two.
As Christians and as church communities we don’t need to look any further – our calling, our mission, our reason for existing is to love God and to love neighbour. When Jesus quotes the books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus he is not talking about emotional love, or the feelings of love or being in love. He is talking about action, ways of being, ways of being in relationship and in community. To love God, means to honour God, to worship God; and to want to live out the ways of God. To follow God in co creating a world where life flourishes – from the physical world of our land and our oceans – to the flourishing of humanity. If we love God we love and protect God’s creation. If we love God we love and protect our neighbour. We live connected to the earth and connected to each other.
We gather as a church community to express our love of God in our worship and in each other. Faith communities are interesting places – there is nowhere else in our society where an otherwise disparate group of people come together for a common purpose. School communities come close; a Rotary club comes close; an environmental action group maybe – there are many groups and communities where people gather. But faith communities of any religion bring together people from all walks of life, all backgrounds, ages and stages – all seeking … to do what? To find a way to respond to the call to love God and to love neighbour. Look at the people around you – they are a mixed bunch! Some you know the names of – some are complete strangers – and yet we are all here for worship, which we do together, in community.
At St Matthew’s we have the added strength of not being from one suburb or one part of town but drawing people from across our city. While that is a strength it also brings the challenge of figuring out how we are a faith community outside of the 90 minutes we are together on a Sunday. And are there things we want to do together or is it enough to be strengthened in our worship for our lives of ministry across our city? How much do we want to take action together; and if we do want to act as a community how do we discern what that might be?
These are questions that our Vestry have been grappling with on our behalf for a while now. Each generation of church leaders has to do this work again and then again, building on the work of our ancestors in the faith. Our current work dates back to the parish day we had at Vaughan Park back in 2015 and since then we have been discerning together how we might be called to love God and love neighbour. And rather than coming up with a 20 page strategic plan with 100 goals and KPIs (key performance indicators) we have instead affirmed our vision of wanting to be “a spirited place where people stand, connect and seek common ground”. And then we have created a structure within which we might work together and discern pathways and actions. You will be hearing more about that in our Forum after the service.
An important piece of this work has been the establishment of the new role which Cate has been commissioned for this morning. Three years ago we struggled to even afford a second position half time; Vestry are moving forward now with confidence – but have taken nonetheless a leap of faith that your giving will increase to support our budget. They did this knowing that your ministry needs support and facilitation. We clergy are not here to do ministry on your behalf but to facilitate and support your ministry. If we want to follow God’s call to serve our city as a faith community then that needs support and facilitation. So having 2 clergy means you all get to work harder, as we encourage you, rather than us doing all the work! The call is for all of us – love God; love neighbour. We will talk more about this after the service. I want to finish with words of Jan Richardson – this is called a Blessing for those who have far to travel:
A week or so ago I had a call from a reporter for the John Campbell show on RNZ and he wanted to ask about what the Bible says about money. It turned out the story was in relation to another type of church where the “pastors” get paid a lot more than we do! So we had a conversation about passages like “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mark 10:23) and how Jesus said you cannot serve God and wealth (Mt 6:24). Those passages that make us feel uncomfortable.
Today’s gospel is another one of those but it is not about wealth per se; it is a question about the paying of taxes. Maybe an appropriate question in the week when we finally get a government!
Jesus’ question about the taxes is about the politics of taxes and land and who is in charge. Our gospel readings for the last few weeks have been politically charged as we watch Jesus and the Temple leaders go head to head. We have had 3 Sundays in a row of parables laced with violence and tension.
Today the leaders think they have caught him out. “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” (Mt 22:16) You have to hear the smarmy tone as they sidle up to him. Matthew notes that it is the Pharisees and the Herodians who ask the questions – normally two groups who would vie with each other for power but now they are united in their desire to trip Jesus up.
And it might seem like an innocent enough question – but let’s remember the setting. Israel is occupied by the Romans, they are an armed occupying force. Everyone had to pay taxes to the occupiers. So to say yes to this question (yes it is lawful to pay taxes to the emperor) would mean Jesus was supporting the occupier, the oppressor of the Jews. But to say no – we should not pay taxes, would be to invite sedition and the wrath of the Roman soldiers. Then there is another layer of meaning here – on the Roman coins was the head of the emperor – just like the Queen is on our coins – but the Roman emperor was seen as a god, and was worshipped, and the inscription on the coins, said the divine emperor. The coins were seen as a symbol of Roman power and religion and the most strict Jews believed you should not ever even use the coins because that meant you were acceding to the Roman emperor being divine. And the Romans in fact let the Jews have different coins to use for transactions in the Temple because of this problem.
So a simple question about taxes was also a question about the divinity of the emperor and what the people should do when confronted daily with the need to acknowledge the divinity of this emperor who had invaded their country. Many like King Herod and the Herodians mentioned in this passage were the accommodating ones who found a way to live and let live; others like the Pharisees and other more radical groups were hardline in their opposition.
So which way was Jesus going to jump? Jesus says – bring me a coin – whose image is this – and whose title? – the emperor’s they reply – well then – give to the emperor what is his. And then Jesus turns to one of the people standing by him and says – whose image is this? Whose image is this person created in? God’s they reply – then give to God, the things that are God’s. And the people are stunned. Jesus has sidestepped the question of tax and turned it into a question of who we are created to be.
There is a parallel and similar passage to this gospel story in the Talmud, the Jewish Rabbinic teaching collected over the centuries. In it we read Adam, the first human being, was created as a single person to show forth the greatness of the Ruler who is beyond all rulers, the Blessed Holy One. For if a human ruler mints many coins from one mold, they all carry the same image, they all look the same. But the Blessed Holy One shaped all human beings in the Divine Image, as Adam was… And yet not one of them resembles another. (Sanhedrin 38a) 
Humanity is created in the image of God, and not one of us resembles another, how vast then our understanding of God can become. As vast as the number of people and cultures who walk the earth. And yet in all that diversity each of us are called to give to God the things that are God’s.
And Jesus is not half hearted when he makes that declaration – he does not let the Herodians get away with paying a few coins to Caesar and forgetting about it for the sake of peace and quiet.
He does not let the Pharisees use him for political reasons to get at the Romans either.
He demands that they both look at themselves and think about how it is that they are each made in the image of God, and to whom do they belong? To Caesar or to God? They cannot split themselves – well today I am Caesar’s out in the world but tomorrow in the Temple I will be God’s.
And we too are challenged with the same question. To whom do we belong? We are marked with the cross at our baptism. That cross is marked on our foreheads again on Ash Wednesday with ashes. We are marked as Christ’s own for ever. Is that just the Sunday part of us or our whole selves? Is it our lives, our relationships, and our money?
And then what about politics in this week of a new government? Reza Aslan, in his book Zealot, the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth  says that when the authorities ask Jesus the question – is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar – they are essentially asking him “are you a zealot?”, are you a revolutionary who is opposed to Rome. And Jesus’ answer coded though it is – as was their question – is a resounding yes. And Aslan reminds us Jesus’ revolutionary answer is not just that the people belong to God but also the land.  The people of Israel were drenched in the prophets who promised the return of the land; so when Jesus of Nazareth comes preaching hope and creating havoc, the ruling classes nervously ask him – are you another revolutionary zealot? And while Jesus answers yes, it is in a way they can’t quite grasp – but it leads to his death anyway.
Aslan says “Jesus was crucified by Rome because his messianic aspirations threatened the occupation of Palestine, and his zealotry endangered the Temple authorities. That singular fact should color everything we read in the gospels about the messiah known as Jesus of Nazareth.” 
As we move into a new political period with our new government, we will be paying our taxes as usual; we will have different opinions of course about what our taxes should be used for; we had our say last month when we voted and now we have to hold our government to account for those votes. In this week of transition we can give thanks that our government has changed peacefully and with good grace on all sides. So many countries do not give the right to vote to their citizens or their elections are accompanied with violence or hate filled speech. We are fortunate indeed that is not the case here. This question today about the temple taxes is super political and super religious. The two were never divided in Jesus’ time. The question challenges us too – to whom do we belong? To what or whom do we dedicate our lives? How do we bring our whole selves to discussions of politics, taxes, world issues, questions of faith. Whatever we do, we do as people of faith, living in the image of God who created us.
We are talking about weddings quite often in our family at the moment. Our daughter Hannah has recently become engaged. The wedding is not till January 2019 but that is not stopping the conversations. Some of Hannah’s friends who are already married suggested she might need a wedding planner. But Hannah explains that her sister has already set up at least 6 spreadsheets covering many aspects of the planning, and well her mother knows a thing or two about weddings. We would hope though that we will not suffer the same fate as the king in the parable for today. Would be a bit sad if people refused the invitation to come – all of them! Or maybe not – it would be cheaper!
Jesus’ parable this morning is a conversation with the Pharisees and the first Christians. And it is a pretty scary conversation. It paints a scary picture of the judgment and wrath of God. Jesus tells this parable in the days before his death. He has arrived in Jerusalem, thrown the money changers out of the Temple, and goes to the Temple each day to teach. The Pharisees and Temple officials are getting more hostile and Jesus does not shy away from winding them up either. Today’s parable is the third for the day and each one gets stronger in its condemnation. He is on a collision course with the authorities.
The parable has layers of meaning which would have resonated when heard by the community for whom Matthew was writing. In this parable there is not only the clash with the Pharisees but a warning for the first Christians as well. The parable starts off like many of Jesus’ parables: there was a king who invited people to the wedding of his son. Like the parable of the wedding with ten bridesmaids; or the parable of the father who had two sons; or the landowner working his vineyard; parables of everyday life and happenings.
The king sends out the slaves to call the guests to the feast (that was how it was done, no texts or email); the guests would have had warning of the invitation a few weeks earlier; and now they are called – come all is ready. But some do not wish to come, they are not interested; and others kill the messengers. Suddenly the parable has turned nasty, it is no longer an ordinary story. This is the first refusal; the listeners understand that Jesus is talking about the leaders of people of Israel who did not listen to the prophets who were sent to tell them about God. They were disinterested and even hostile to the word of God.
And then the city of the people who have refused the invitation is destroyed by the king’s troops – quite an escalation; The violence of this parable and the one we had last week can be a bit surprising or shocking. We expect the Bible to be all peace and love. But the people Matthew is writing for knew what this kind of violence was like – they knew the story of the people of Israel being sent into exile and the first destruction of the Temple in 587 BC; and they had experienced the destruction of the second Temple in 70AD by the Romans.
This week there was much in the news about the battle of Passchendaele and the 2000 NZ soldiers killed, 843 in one day. I wonder how many of the men listed on our St Matthew’s war memorial died at Passchendaele. Senseless deaths that scarred NZ forever. Our parable has violence in it because violence is part of the way we choose to live in this earth.
Then the king sends the slaves to invite other guests; no longer the chosen ones, but any one who will come, passers by, tourists, the poor, all those who didn’t make the first list. And they came; for sure they were thrilled to be invited by the king; fancy that being invited to the king’s son’s wedding; how cool is that.
Matthew’s listeners would have seen themselves in this part of the parable. They are guests invited in by Jesus; many of the people of Israel have not responded to the invitation and the first Christians have responded. They are in; they are at the wedding feast.
But ... the king comes into the party and there is a man who is not wearing a wedding robe and he is thrown out. This is the second refusal to respond to the invitation. Seems pretty unfair, the guests have been invited in off the street, they haven’t had time to put their best clothes on, they have come as they are.
Commentators over the years have puzzled over this part of the parable because the fact that someone is thrown out of the kingdom seems incongruous with the rest of the inclusive teaching of Jesus.
St Augustine said that in Jesus’ time guests were given robes at the door to put on and refusing the robe was an offence to the host; but there is no evidence that this was in fact part of the culture of the time. 
There is though a parable from a rabbi teaching in the year 80 (about the time Matthew might have been writing) that goes like this: “A king issued invitations to a banquet without saying what time the banquet would be. The wise attired themselves, while the foolish went on with their work. Suddenly the summons came, and those and those who were not dressed in clean clothes were not admitted to the banquet.”  The wedding clothes are said by the rabbi to be the clothes of repentance, to be worn before the summons comes for the day of judgment.
Think too of the images from scripture of being clothed in the garments of the kingdom:
“I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.” (Isaiah 61:2).
“As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ” (Gal 3:27)
“As God’s chose ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience.” (Col 3:12)
And what happens to the wayward son, the prodigal son who returns to his father after squandering his inheritance? his father says “Quickly, bring out a robe – the best one – and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” (Luke 15:22-24)
So maybe the wedding robe the guest had refused to wear is the call of Christ to clothe ourselves in humility, grace, forgiveness. To clothe ourselves in the grace of God, to accept God’s forgiveness, and to do so before the call comes to present ourselves at the wedding banquet.
There is in this parable still a time of decision, a time when we are called to be in or out; to accept the robe of grace, or not.
Matthew’s community are yearning back to the time when some of them had sat at table with Jesus “Remember how it felt at the table, he seems to say, even as the threat of violence and the vagaries of community continue to swirl around them. We will feast again.” 
We yearn in our world too for a peaceful table where all are welcome: If you are a Palestinian father today wanting to throw a wedding banquet for your son’s wedding and you live in the West Bank and the rest of your family live in the Gaza strip no matter how many invitations you sent to your family, they would not be able to come to the wedding because of the travel restrictions and the wall dividing the communities in Israel/Palestine today. Families divided by the border between North and South Korea; or north and south Sudan would experience the same thing.
This table represents the table to which all are invited. We who are churchgoers and who gather at the table of Jesus each week can fool ourselves into thinking we get invited here because of our good deeds, our right beliefs, our recycling and our support of charities. Think instead about what we might clothe ourselves in – mercy and humility, grace and love. Not the arrogance of the one who thinks they have no need of changing; that there is nothing in our lives which needs addressing or improving.
And then we pay attention to the people around us and those who can be invited to the party here and now – to our eucharist on a Sunday or to a time of hospitality and care which we might offer. God’s kingdom, God’s way is not something that happens at the end of time, it happens here and now. And we and all those we know are invited.
Jesus’ parable is a scary one. There is a possibility we might get thrown out of the party. But what we need to do to be included is not a long list of good deeds and good works, but to put on the robe of grace. To accept the robe of grace, the best robe, offered to us freely by Christ himself. Then we are welcome to stay at the party which lasts through eternity.
 p418 NIB Matthew commentary
 The Parables of Jesus Joachim Jeremias 1989 SCM Press p188
 Richard Spalding p168 Feasting on the Word vol 4, year A
Surprisingly enough today’s gospel passage isn’t a favourite for preaching. It’s considered a difficult text, in truth I’ve found it a wrestle this week and I’ve wondered why. On the face of it you might say it’s because it’s a tough parable with words of judgement and condemnation that make it uncomfortable. Yet the parable tells a real life, everyday story. Is it not true that we see such dishonest, double dealing, murderous self-interest daily in our news, in our communities? Is this the problem, we don’t like to find it before us in scripture? It faces us with our human capacity for corruption, brutality, murder, for nasty dealing and betrayal of trust - for personal, material gain, the gain of power, control, to take for ourselves that which is not ours. We recognise this in us and we’re uncomfortable for the sentence of judgement passed seems not unreasonable.
The parable opens gently enough, a vineyard carefully planted, means for its protection and processing of produce provided, echoing Isaiah 5, a well-appointed, intentioned vineyard. In Isaiah the vineyard is ‘the house of Israel and the people of Judah,’ a vineyard condemned for producing not the expected fruit of righteousness and justice but wild grapes of injustice and outcry. By contrast this gospel vineyard is producing fruit well, a good return on the landowners’ investment. This parable’s concerned with the tenants. Those entrusted to oversee and ensure the vineyard flourishes and produces good fruit. The vineyards’ producing well, the produce just isn’t being released, returned to the landowner.
It’s a plain enough parable in its telling a story, plain enough but not innocent. Curiously and foolishly, the landowner continues to send emissaries to collect the produce of the vineyard even though they’re being killed. The expectation there’s produce to collect never waivers. First one set of slaves, then another are sent, each and all are killed. Finally the landowner’s son is sent. No more respected than the slaves he’s taken outside the vineyard and killed. It’s said the tenants hope for inheritance, which is odd considering the landowner still lives. But nevertheless this is the motivation given. This is the parable. At no point does Jesus condemn. He asks the Pharisees listening, the Jewish leaders, the leaders of the Isaiah vineyard, what they think the landowner should do. Judgement and condemnation come in the words of their response. Somewhat cryptically Jesus responds with words of scripture “The stone that the builder rejected has become the corner stone” the implication of this isn’t lost on Jesus’ audience. The least expected person, one who refuses to participate in unjust ways of being will prevail, those actually producing the fruit of the kingdom and returning it to the One who gifts life inhabit and will inherit God’s kingdom.
This parable’s heard in a religious context. Not just we hearing it in this religious place or that it’s from a gospel, but it’s put in the mouth of Jesus, who’s speaking in the Temple of Jerusalem to the leaders of the Jewish religious community. And the parable intentionally utilises OT imagery, the vineyard setting of Isaiah 5, the servants sent are stoned, the fate of many unwelcome prophets, the stumbling block from Psalm 118 and talk of the kingdom of God. Does it mean this teaching is only for those who know these connections and are familiar with the significance of such imagery? Is the parable’s wisdom and application only for a faith community? Could it be understood, apply beyond such bounds?
Feeling a little concerned that I wasn’t ‘getting it’ I explored commentaries, other ways people had approached this parable, made meaning of it. All very interesting and cogent arguments were offered but there seemed a point at which people leapt into God talk. Suddenly the writers seemed to know what God was saying, know how this passage fitted in God’s plan of salvation history where Jesus died for our sins so we could have eternal life. I found myself going, “What? Where is that?” Before even beginning to read the parable we’re told it’s ‘The Parable of the Wicked Tenants,’ even if only the Pharisees name the tenants as wicked. Such title directs us to read or hear the parable expecting it to be about wicked tenants. I’d gained a whole lot of information but now found it harder for the parable speak to me, to hear it in a more or other than religious context. I felt I was being directed to think the parable had one particular thing to say.
One of the things that is delightful and bewildering about parables is the varied and different responses that can arise in reading them, as if they’re a means by which new wisdom and insight is revealed. The pressure I felt to conform my thinking to the correct way of hearing this parable bothered me. What was I missing, what was my continuing puzzlement and unease, why could I not just go with the majority view? The clarity of 2am wakefulness pointed out the irony of my consternation.
This parable focuses on the tenants of a particular vineyard, tenants who want ownership of a vineyard which is not theirs. The tenants’ task is to ensure the vineyard produces fruit. The parable warns against seizing ownership of the landowners’ vineyard and its’ fruit, against keeping the produce of the vineyard. The fruit of this particular divinely intended vineyard, the kingdom of God fruit if you like – is to be people who indwell the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of love, patience and gentleness, the spirit of wonder and true holiness. These things can’t be owned. They’re not possessions but ways of being and living. We lose our way when we seek to become owners of these things that cannot be possessed. Act as if we’re owners – able to determine and define the boundaries of divine inclusion, able to declare who belongs, who is adequate and the standard by which another, or we ourselves are acceptable. By trying to conform myself to a particular interpretation and understanding, agreeing the parable said one thing, had one right way to be heard and interpreted, I was asking myself to do the very thing the parable cautions against.
The tenant task is to ensure the vineyard, any environment or context we have influence in, is resourced for divine flourishing, for fruitful living to be made real. As tenants we’re to be open minded about where and how such fruit appears, let go our desire to limit, control, determine how that comes to expression and we’re to be open handed for the fruit borne is not ours.
Yes, I think there is a distinct fruit of the vineyard in which we’re located, fruit that’s to go from the vineyard. As tenants we’re tasked with ensuring such fruit is produced and returning it to the One who gifts us life. It may be it’s of benefit to the many and varied vineyards of Gods’ creating. Concretely what might that look like, let’s let real life speak, in the words of Greg Jarrell 
“We caught a glimpse of how this might work during the uprising in Charlotte. On the last night, most clergy had gone home to prepare for the important work of addressing their congregations the next day. The only clergy remaining were a pair of us – one black, one white – who did not have Sunday morning responsibilities.
At midnight, the police announced they were going to enforce the curfew that had been in place, though not enforced, for several days. The protest was now illegal. All present were subject to arrest. Police in riot gear arrived. Our energetic, peaceful protest became frenzied and anxious.
Preachers aren’t much account in these sorts of situations. So the Rev. Rodney Sadler and I did the thing that preachers know how to do: we prayed. Each down on one knee, in the middle of the street, we lifted our voices and prayed that there would be no violence. A couple of dozen demonstrators joined us.
Then we began to do the other thing that preachers know how to do: we preached.
Our congregation was a unit of 70 riot police, lined up two deep across Davidson Street outside police headquarters. As we rose to speak, protesters gathered behind us, until only a few feet separated them from the police. The two of us preachers occupied the space between the groups as an altar in the world, pacing back and forth while improvising our sermons.
We reminded those armed with batons, shields, rubber bullets and tear gas that the peaceful protest behind us was composed of their neighbors. We asked them to consider whether obeying orders to harm those neighbors was the moral thing to do. We encouraged them to disobey such orders. We spoke to their humanity, told them they were made by Love to be love in the world.
We named it and claimed it. “It” was peace – if not yet deep, abiding peace, then at least the absence of direct harm.
We can’t tell you why the police packed up their tear gas canisters, put away their batons and got back on the bus. Did prayer change their hearts? We don’t know.
But we do know that if prayer changes anything, it changes us. It makes us bold, ready to speak truth in desperate situations. Prayer moves us to throw our bodies behind our words, because Love would have us do no other.
Showing up happens in the streets – but also in the sanctuary, in the study, in the community meetings we attend, in every sphere where we exercise influence.
Peddlers of the gospel often speak about hope. We believe in a hope that we can’t fully account for. Yet hope-filled moments keep rising up, especially from our young leaders.
As we move into yet more troubling times, their counsel to us is wise:
· Listen carefully to the marginalized, honoring their experiences and work.
· Create spaces in our spheres for the disinherited to speak for themselves.
· Deploy our gifts and privileges in ways that destabilize oppressive systems.
· Show up as ourselves, acting authentically within our roles.
· Keep showing up, especially when it is uncomfortable.”
Over the last few months I have been constantly challenging various forms of authority while supporting our whanau at the Mission. These authorities include DHBs, ACC and various government departments such as IRD, MSD and its numerous divisions like WINZ and HNZ. I frequently come away frustrated, exhausted and very occasionally victorious. There are also occasions where they come to me for assistance and in these circumstances; one has hope that they are not always authoritative but able to be both compassionate and empathic. Nevertheless these occasions are rare to say the least.
Even though this Gospel was written over two thousand years ago, Matthew speaks to us explicitly about the irresponsible use of authority. Authority, as a concept, can be used to mean the right to exercise power given by the State (in the form of government, judges, police offices, etc.), or by academic knowledge in an area where someone has expertise. Those in authority all over the world in all facets of human life need to be challenged. Their words and actions are not always right nor appropriate for the innumerable situations that they face. Most of us appreciate some form of authority as it allows an ordered society and without it society would be chaotic.
Jesus is in the temple, itself symbolic of authority and power, primarily of God. In other words, the location of this story suggests that a major factor, when it comes to determining authority, is the connection as to when, where and why it needs to be defined. The chief priests and elders are the social, economic, political, and religious elite allied with and legitimated by Rome.
It takes a brave person to challenge this lot!
Authority is a loaded word. It bespeaks of power and control and the chief priests and elders know this. They aren’t concerned about whether or not Jesus can work miracles. Their concern is more practical. They are the religious and social authorities, the chief priests and elders of the people. They are the ones who make the decisions. In a corrupt temple system, they’ve paid highly for their titles, their authority and in this volatile political community; they have carefully balanced their authority over everyone else.
That is why they can’t answer Jesus’ question. Jesus’ questions place them in a catch-22 situation in that if they answer one way, they will lose not only their financial backers, but also their positions of authority. They will be forced to concede that the true authority, the one to which they ought to submit comes not from Rome (where they have earned their status), but from God. Therefore admitting that they have no real claim to authority and ceding their power and status to Jesus and the disciples of John, whose authority they would have just stated comes from God. Yet, if they answer the other way it would be a public relations nightmare. A lot of people believed in John and still did, so if they openly disputed John’s authority, it could create distrust and resentment among the crowds, undermining their authority over the people no matter what titles they may happen to carry.
Government’s usually to do this by enacting laws. That is where the chief priests received their authority, from Rome, but such laws and titles are only as good as their ability to enforce them. The Roman troops stationed in Jerusalem were insufficient to overthrow a popular uprising and the chief priests knew this. They had to keep the people happy, or at least complacent enough to not resist.
Jesus turns this authority on its head. The chief priests and elders choose a path of non-commitment, which ironically betrays their commitment. In refusing to say John’s ministry comes from God, they reject the claim that John and Jesus have God-given authority. To refuse this recognition is to reveal their own illegitimacy. Jesus has now exposed and discredited the whole religious leadership.
So Jesus now gives a parable about two sons.
The parable makes me laugh, in that there are two sons. The son who says “no” when asked to work in the vineyard but later does go and work in the vineyard, while the son who says “yes” but doesn’t get around to it. Our boys have always been like that. Number one son always says yes and I think intends to help but life just gets in the way. Number two son says no but always thinks better of it and helps. The joys of being a parent, and thinking we have authority over our children!
Putting this parable in the context of the time, we have two sons undermining the authority of the father therefore shaming him in the community. The focus on the father and discussion of doing his will propose an allegory about doing God’s will. The chief priests and elders answer condemns themselves for not doing God’s will. While the religious elite to not enter God’ empire, the socially marginalised and despised tax collectors and the prostitutes do.
The way of righteousness or justice is a scriptural metaphor for living according to God’s just and transforming purposes. It recalls John’s role in proclaiming “the way of the Lord” by repentance and baptism as the means of preparing for God’s coming in Jesus.
The chief priest and elders have had time, like the first son to change their minds. The tax collectors and prostitutes are like the first son; saying no to God’s will initially but then repenting with the coming of John and then Jesus. The elite resemble the second son, saying yes initially but not doing God’s will and not taking advantage of the opportunity to change their minds. Jesus has simply exposed the division within Israel; the excluded powerful elite and those marginalised of their society who believe.
In my work at the City Mission I will continue to advocate for the marginalised in our community who are regularly discharged from hospital to an address of “no fixed abode”. I will continue to assist those who find themselves without any identity or ability to access healthcare or income and therefore shelter. I will continue to support those subjugated under acts of legislation that they do not comprehend.
Our church continues to exclude a group within our society from marrying due to them loving and being in same sex relationships. This is authority and control over an excluded group. Exclusion was not an option preached by Jesus.
We can protest against authority and many of us have and will continue to challenge injustice by protest or disobediences. However what might a challenge to authority look like if rather than asserting human authority, indeed, rather than even questioning and undermining it, we turned around and listened and did the will of the father or mother?
Let us be mindful of authority and be like the son who changed his mind and tend the vineyard.
In this third and final session in the Season of Creation, Cate and Helen have kindly invited me to speak to you about climate change, in my capacity as the Co-convenor of the Anglican Climate Action Network. I have spent most of my life in research in both the physical and the biomedical sciences, and appreciating the world we live in through tramping, climbing and sailing.
In the 1st book of Corinthians chapter 13 we read:
“Three things will last forever -- faith, hope, and love -- and the greatest of these is love.”
So I want to speak today about faith, hope and love in relation to climate change.
But first, some background. In Antarctica there is a huge thick sheet of floating ice called the Larsen Ice Shelf. Twenty-two years ago, a large iceberg broke off. Then 15 years ago an even larger chunk broke off and collapsed into the sea, where it is still drifting around. Together, these icebergs are about the size of Auckland region. That is enough to sink hundreds of Titanics!
This was my personal wake-up call to climate change. I realised that my world would never be the same again, because climate change is not in the future, it is happening now.
Just eight weeks ago, National Geographic reported that one of the largest icebergs ever recorded broke off from the Larsen ice shelf. It is estimated to weigh a trillion tons. The process is continuing.
Why does this matter? Nobody lives there do they, except a few penguins and some seals? It matters because the Arctic and the Antarctic are the thermometers of the planet. They tell us a great deal about our geologic history and also what is happening right now to our planet.
We have all heard about the human causes and the impact of climate change, and I won’t go on about that now because you might all despair and go home! I shall speak about it after church. But what does this have to do with faith, if anything?
Martin Luther once said:
“if you preach the gospel in all aspects with the exception of the issues which deal specifically with your time, you are not preaching the gospel at all.”
Our own theologian Dr Nicola Hoggard-Creegan said:
“Christians speak of hope that can meet the despair of a world that is rapidly running out of options and…the language of repentance, as turning and taking a different course. With this approach it can engage communities and encourage them toward a different path.”
In other words, responding to climate change is about repentance, which means changing our values and our way of life. This means turning away from consumerism and individualism, and moving towards developing sustainable communities that care for each other and for our Earth. We need to learn together how to do this, and encourage each other.
The global Anglican communion which includes Aotearoa NZ has five ‘Marks of Mission.’ One of them is
‘…to transform unjust structures of society.’
We have learned that climate change will exacerbate socialinjustice because the poorest sectors of society suffer first and worst in any environmental challenge. For example, consider Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana in 2005: over 1800 persons died, mostly poor Blacks who couldn’t move away. Doing something to mitigate climate change 20 years ago would have reduced the degree of damage that occurred very recently with hurricane Harvey in Texas where I used to live and where some of my friends still live. And it is occurring right now in Florida with hurricane Irma; because warmer oceans suck up more water, increase wind speeds and cause far more flooding.
When sea levels rise in Auckland and storms become more powerful and more frequent, who will suffer most? Will it be the white middle class people living in Parnell (like myself)? Or will it be Pacific immigrants in Avondale? Which group can afford to relocate if necessary? Doing something about climate change now is helping to prevent social injustice in the near future.
Another ‘Mark of Mission’ of the Anglican Communion is:
‘To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth’
This means learning to live more sustainably, to stop overconsuming and exploiting the earth. To see ourselves as part of creation, rather than masters of its, must be part of our walk of faith. I shall speak after church today about what some churches are doing.
The Rt. Revd. David Moxon has said:
“Climate change reflects the denial of social justice. Unrestrained consumption is inherently unjust and is not an option for disciples of Christ.”
To sum up; climate change has everything to do with us, as members of a faith community!
So where can we find hope? Here are some pointers:
Science. Committed scientists from all around the world have given us an enormous amount of information about the impact of our lifestyles on the climate, and the impact of the climate on our future. Much of this information is included in the fifth report of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
Technology. We are in a transitional stage where energy technology is going ahead in leaps and bounds. Especially electric vehicles, solar and wind power and energy storage solutions. We hope eventually to have alternative meat sources or animals that don’t belch methane!
Divestment. Many institutions are now divesting from the fossil fuel industry and investing in renewable energy: we are in a period of transition from the age of fossil fuels to the age of renewable energy.
NGOs: Generation Zero, 350 and many others are doing great work, influencing Govt policy. Their Zero Carbon Act points a way forward to reduce our carbon emissions.
The Paris Climate Accord sets carbon targets for the future. It was signed last year by 196/200 nations, including New Zealand. It is very unfortunate that the USA has withdrawn from the agreement but it will proceed without them.
The Church of England in the UK is leading the way with a programme called ‘shrinking the footprint.’ We can learn a lot from them.
Political discourse: Climate change has become a serious political issue. The Green Party will launch their climate policy at 2pm today, and most political parties now have some sort of policy on climate change.
Churches. In NZ we now have an interchurch climate network, which is sharing ideas about what other churches are doing. In the Auckland diocese, the Anglican Climate Action Network has been helping to educate people in parishes for the last 10 years. I shall be speaking about that later. Also Synod yesterday past three Motions to do with education and mitigation of climate change.
All these groups are giving us hope in the face of a seemingly intractable problem. They need our support. I wonder which of these groups you support?
Some people speak of their despair over the future. In my view the way to defeat despair is to get informed, link up with others and get working on the things that matter.
Love: ‘the greatest of these is love’
I would suggest to you that Love is not a right, it is a calling.
We are called to love God, whatever our understanding of God may be.
We are called to love each other, especially within our families and faith communities.
We are called to love the poorest sectors of our society and of developing nations, who can’t buy their way out of trouble.
We are called to love our children and their descendants sufficiently to create a world that is fit for them to live in.
The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment has said:
“A long-term intergenerational approach is innate to tangata whenua. Kaumātua often make decisions based on a “mokopuna’s mokopuna” time scale – thinking of the impact on their
So do we think about our grandchildren’s grandchildren? Are we concerned about inter-generational equity? If not, how will I respond when one of my grandchildren says to me: Granddad, what did you do about climate change before things got as bad as they are now?
Finally, we are also called to love Creation:
So how much time do we spend in the natural world? Do we visit our wonderful mountains? If so, do we really absorb the grandour and listen to the stillness? Or do we just look out our car windows? Or closer to home, do we take time to observe the lilies that Jesus described, or the magnolias in our streets and gardens this Spring?
“Where there is love, there is life."
— Mahatma Gandhi
Faith is about repentance, thoughtful action, and being in community.
Hope can be generated by becoming informed, and working to make the transition away from individualism and consumerism towards sustainable communities that care for each other and for our Earth.
Love is our calling as Christians, to create a world fit for our mokopuna’s mokopuna.
This is the second of three Sundays we’re considering Climate Change – our responsibility to faithfully tend this gift of creation we receive daily, unsought, unbidden, without which we have no life, no home. Considering the precarious balance of our planet and the impact of this for our survival, I was struck by a piece of information shared with me this week, apparently when refugees arrive for resettlement they’re still wearing their house key around their neck. Even though the home is gone or inhabited by others now. They still hold the key. Given today’s theme there seemed something powerfully apt in this image.
Climate change, environmental destruction, the pace and scale of this is directly attributable to human acting. Despite those with vested interest who determinedly argue otherwise, the proof is pretty incontrovertible. This is the way things are.
It is hard to receive this information, it is hard to imagine that we have and do participate in this devastation, to imagine ourselves as agents of creation’s destruction. We do not knowingly choose this. Yet here we are.
What are we to do? How can we do things differently? Will what we do make any real difference unless joined to a larger group, a wider vision, a consolidated, concerted effort and intention for change? Who has and holds that vision? It is true we need to do differently for there to be an alternative outcome, a change in the way things are. And yet … is an intention to do differently sufficient if it’s simply another layer, overlaid on our usual way of doing and being, another should? How resilient is such veneer to the testing of everyday life? We’ve learned, had embedded in us through generations a way of understanding the human place in creation. In the Western world, even for those without a Christian affiliation, the shape the world is in now has become this way because of the actions and understandings of a particular worldview shaped by the Christian narrative.
From the beginning, the narrative goes, God breathes, speaks the world into being. We, male and female, are created in God’s image, or are formed of dust, we’ve divine breathe breathed into us – male then female we’re created. In this story we humans grant ourselves dominion over creation. We assume this role as we describe the coming into being of creation. As if we understand ourselves as co-creating, co-operating with divine breathing, bringing into being. Not as automatons, bound to or by divine directive, we say, no, we’re granted freedom to choose how we live out such creative genius, interpret the mantle we divinely bestow upon ourselves. As the creation narrative continues it tells of our flawed enacting of this.
As we consider our world, have we brought into being that which we speak? This creation story embedded in us, our speaking into being the way the world is, or the way of telling and hearing the story that dominates, is that human agency takes precedence in creation, that humans are granted controlling rights. In time it’s seems to mean we consider ourselves superior to the rest of the created world. The human capacity for self-reflection, self-awareness we imagine as unique to us and that which separates us from the less evolved rest of creation. Surely the disordered rawness of nature proves an absence or diminishment of divine indwelling, for God is a god of order and reason. Having escaped the chaotic miasma of heaving creation we’re tasked with creating order according to our likeness, to enact divine ordering. I wonder whether the Christian movement has particular culpability for driving the divine from the dross of this world to the heavenly realms, badge of holiness often granted those whose lives evidenced a shunning of this contaminated world. Yet I wonder how different we really are in our attitude toward the created world. I wonder how comfortable we are genuinely giving away our hold of superior power and knowledge in this created world.
To take seriously the idea that humans have and are simply a functioning part of creation, potentially means we need change how we understand ourselves as part of a whole living system. That in creation we’re equal in dependence and needfulness to plants, animals, insects, birds, fish, land and the water of rain and sea and rivers for our life. We’re just as vulnerable, not necessarily more purposed. We gain, understand our created completeness fully as we join to the creation around us for we’re part of a created whole not overseeing, above more than, as needful as not needful of each part of creation.
How many of us feel some resistance arising in us, a kind of indignant umbrage, for surely we’re more. Such ideas are fine for tree huggers, people who choose to work closely with nature, who like plants and animals and wilderness things but really not all of us are like that. After all look at all we’ve achieved, we’re superior in every way, we create new and innovative things, we’ve a deep understanding of the way the world works and we’ve learned to manipulate nature, to generate, improve health and extend life through such knowledge. We contribute to the world and society, we’ve different skill sets that we put to good use, all that stuff is fine but we have to negotiate the real world.
We don’t have to be a tree hugger or a person who likes to get hands in the soil or intimate with the natural world to understand and live in humility as part of creation, aware there’s real time impact in creation of the choices we make. Each and everything we do, thoughtless and thoughtful, reverberates through creation for we’re intimately interconnected. To comprehend this in an indwelt, in-depth way though may require us to unlearn, to recognise the narrative embedded in us of our human part in creation, to see it as it is, to see how we interpret and enact it, for its only one way of telling the story of creation.
Sharon Blackie, writer, mythologist, psychologist, and neuroscientist uncovers her experience of indwelling the creation narrative in this way “Before there was the Word, there was the land and it was made and watched over by women. Stories from almost every culture around the world tell us that once upon a time it was so. … Women: the creators of life, the bearers of the Cup of knowledge and wisdom, personifying the moral and spiritual authority of this fertile green and blue Earth.” Last week from Proverbs we heard of the feminine Wisdom, of her presence at the beginning, before the first acts of creation, from everlasting, in the beginning, before the world began. Today in Psalm 104 that which is created is she. Our faith stories are threaded through with feminine wisdom and presence, companion in creation.
Blackie continues, “Do you remember those days? Me neither. Other indigenous cultures around the world may still respect and revere the feminine but we Western women lost that story long ago. The story which I was given to carry as a very young child, the story which both defined me and instructed me about the place I occupied in this world, accorded no such significance to women. In this story, woman was an afterthought, created from a man’s body for the sole purpose of pleasing him. In this story, the first woman was the source of all humanity’s suffering: she brought death to the world, not life. She had the audacity to speak to a serpent. Wanting the knowledge and wisdom which had been denied her by a jealous father-god, she dared eat the fruit of a tree. Even worse, she shared the fruit of knowledge and wisdom with her man. So that angry and implacable god cast her and her male companion out of paradise and decreed that women should be subordinate to man for ever afterwards.
The stories we tell about the creation of the Earth and the origins of humankind show us how our culture views the world, our place in it, and our relationships with the other living things which inhabit it. And the key consequence of this particular creation myth is a belief, prevalent in the West, that women are naturally disobedient temptresses who must be firmly kept in their place. … The story of Eve in the book of Genesis is the underpinning for countless measures which have limited the actions, rights and status of women. No matter what women might achieve in the world, the fundamental message of the sacred texts of the world’s largest religious grouping, which for 2,000 years have supplied the foundational beliefs of our Western culture, is that men should not trust women, and that women should trust neither themselves nor each other.” 
Blackie sees a link, “The same kind of acts that are perpetrated against … our daughters and our mothers are perpetrated against the planet: the Earth which gives us life; the Earth with which women have for so long been identified. Our patriarchal … growth-and-domination-based culture has caused runaway climate change, the mass extinction of species and the ongoing destruction of wild and natural landscapes in the unstoppable pursuit of progress.” 
It might make us uncomfortable to hear the narrative interpreted this way, indignant and resistant to her strong assertions. After all, where does this leave us? Well we’re the ones now telling this story. We speak into being what we know. Like Nicodemus, we teach, though we do not understand, we experience this world yet do not know it fully. Are we willing to listen and learn from creation, to allow her wisdom to emerge? Direct our self-reflective attention to unmask and unlearn our embedded practices that are destroying creation. And act, yes act, deeply aware of our interconnected dependence upon creation and our part in restoring her wholeness.
Refugees flee from their homes for fear of losing their life, the key to their home they keep within grasping reach. We participate in ways of living that will destroy our only place of home and soon. We’ll soon be made refugees with no place to flee, no place for resettlement, we hold the key to retaining our home, it’s is still within our grasping reach, will we take hold of this and act?
 Sharon Blackie, If Women Rose Rooted: the Journey to Authenticity and Belonging September Publishing: Tewkesbury 2016, 5
Many years ago I found myself standing in a line a few feet from the rear hatch of a Dakota aircraft. Suddenly a bulkhead light turned from red to green and the line shuffled forward and then to my horror I found myself standing a few inches from the hatch looking down to the cows in a field some 2000 feet below. I had never been so frightened. Thinking desperately “why on earth am I doing this” I jumped. The second I jumped all fear fell away (if you can excuse the pun) for I had things to do. Count three thousands, check that my parachute lines had not become twisted, check that my chute had in fact deployed and then a brief moment to admire the view and take in an exhilarating descent. I had been well trained and drilled and whilst I hadn’t packed my parachute I had faith in those who had.
Faith and fear as it were.
Well in our two reading today we have two understandable examples of fear.
He has recently bested and killed the prophets of Baal in the great contest on Mt Carmel. He has been informed that Jezebel is going to have him killed and he is now persecuted by those whom he had sought to counsel. He had been beset with thoughts of suicide and has just fled for his life across an unforgiving desert. He’s now climbed a mountain and rests in a cave. His fear though will continue for God speaks to him twice, asking “what are you doing here” and in his fear and demoralisation he defends himself and bemoans his fate. He then has to endure mountain splitting winds, earthquakes and fire and sudden silence. And what a silence – a silence that allows him to hear a quiet, a gentle voice “the daughter of a sound” as once translation puts it. And in that quiet voice god simply indicates that all will be well – gives him instructions and sends him on his way.
And the disciples.
John the Baptist has been barbarically killed on the orders of Herod and Jesus and the disciples have retreated to a quiet, safe place. To their probable consternation they are followed by thousands who in seeking contact with Jesus will inevitably attract the attention of Herod. To make matters worse their rabbi performs a miracle and feeds them all. Something that would definitely attract Herod’s attention.
Then their rabbi goes off by himself up a mountain and they are stuck in a boat in the middle of the sea in very high winds. Then too top everything off they are assailed by what they believe to be a ghost which turns out to be Jesus. And, as for Elijah – there is sudden silence as the wind stops the moment Jesus and Peter enter the boat.
Before that however something remarkable has happened. Peter stepped off the boat and walked on water – emulating Jesus – although the text does make the distinction that whilst Peter walked on water Jesus walked on the sea. And if we think about it he has walked on water twice – as he returned to the boat with Jesus – and there is nothing in scripture to say that he was carried.
Now as some have done, you can engage in extensive study on the possibility of humans being able to walk on water and whilst there are over 1200 species on earth that can, humans it appears are not one of them There are some ancient eastern texts that indicate certain spiritual masters were able to do such things but most would agree that it’s something that just doesn’t happen. You can also postulate on other theories ranging from ice to sandbanks or you can ignore all that and just believe. Have faith in the scriptures.
Which leaves us Christians a little vulnerable doesn’t it. Some of us will believe that the events we call miracles did literally happen and some will say that it’s all just a story to illustrate a higher meaning.
Some 1700 years ago Origen of Alexandria taught a way of approaching scripture. He suggested that the stories in scripture have various layers of meaning. The first layer or the surface layer is often just that – a story. Nuanced story’s however, that touch those who don’t know how the texts function. Stories that build faith, give guidance, and stories that that give hope comfort and peace to those that embrace them.
He also taught that there are other layers of meaning waiting to be revealed. These layers required a method suitable to exploring text that is filled with symbols, myth, and allegory.
Unfortunately, those layers were often only accessible to the educated, the clergy and the hierarchy. And then of course as time progressed and the hierarchy devoted more of their energy to maintaining the hierarchy, the skills and knowledge of how to explore a text full of symbolism and allegory atrophied – and often disappeared.
For some today its enough to take scripture literally and to live in that knowledge. Others, who struggle to make sense of what is written, draw comfort from the tools now available to explore and understand scripture at different levels. But before we get too smug we need to remember that – as a current theologian puts it – “when it comes to reading scripture the important thing to remember is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and that we are now dumb enough to take them literally.” 
That might be a little harsh but it does remind us that reading scripture is hard work. We may well have forgotten more than we once knew of scripture, but it just makes it all the more compelling that we discover meaning in scripture that speaks to our current situations. And we have enough ‘situations’ going on in the world to fully occupy us.
It makes it all the more compelling that we seek to reveal other ways of being in the world, other ways to understand what it is to be human and what it is to be divine.
The other day I was in the company of a man who was in pain, emotionally, physically and I imagine spiritually. He had a history of illness both physical and mental and was just recently released from prison. Desperately in need of the 11 drugs that he had been prescribed he was lonely, angry and bewildered. His need was compelling and yet we knew that he could be extremely dangerous and had threatened to kill 2 workers of another agency and had required numerous security guards to restrain him when he entered the emergency department the night before. Yet despite this, the staff feed him, clothed him, obtained his meds and found him accommodation.
What was it that enabled the staff to give that assistance – in a particularly dangerous and fearful context. What is it that compels in anyone such a response in real and present danger.
A mixture of courage, compassion and anger at injustice all combine to ignite what I interpret as that spark of the divine inherent in us all. That spark that enables each human being to respond in love – despite the circumstances.
I suspect that spark exists in all humans – irrespective of creed or dogma. I also acknowledge that often that spark is supressed and almost extinguished. And it’s that spark that Peter exhibited – not whilst he was walking on the water but rather when he jumped over the side of the boat. That moment when he did show faith, did show courage, did recognise Jesus in his true nature, and did what no faithless person would – jumped of the boat. It’s the jumping that counted.
Sure he began to sink but only when he became frightened – an all too human response.
It is that same spark of the divine that ignited the response by the workers the other day. A spark that despite the very real danger gave them courage to reach out their hand to offer assistance. No lecture on the need for self-control nor engagement around matters of alcohol and drugs – just a hand. In the same way that Jesus immediately reached out and caught Peter when he stumbled. He did of course then address Peter in a very human way. “Oh you of little faith – why did you doubt”.
And that’s the thing that I like about Jesus – that he was human.
And that’s the thing that I like about us – that we all have a spark of the divine.
Transfiguration Sunday, Hiroshima Day, World Peace Day, a bit of a line up for one day is it not? World Peace Day, I imagine, arose in response to the event of Hiroshima Day. The day confronting us with the reality that human ingenuity misused will destroy life as we know it on this planet. The decision to use that technology in that bomb changed the balance of things. For there to be future on this planet, peace was no longer an ideological nicety it was a necessity. That first detonation took place on Transfiguration Day when brilliant light of divine glory overshadowed astonished disciples caught sleeping. On that day the brilliant light of fractured atom and shade of pluming cloud overshadowed we who were caught napping. Who are we to discern evil from good, we, capable agents of death, to act as if we have agency of life?
Today we are to speak of peace, but what do we know of peace? When we talk of peace, do we do so in terms of what it is not, not war, not conflict, not injustice? If so, our talk of peace is full of images of not peace, of war and conflict, disruption and dis-ease. What would it actually be like to live with peace, what would the world be like without the tension of war and conflict? War, conflict takes life, wastes time and consumes resource, for sure, but by diminishing possibility, defining immediate purpose it can also energise. It incentivises those who profit from its continuance and provides the rationale for those who work for peace. How do we live with peace? How can peace shift from being an absence of, a passive counterpart to active war or conflict, become a way of being and doing familiar to us?
The transfiguration is narrated as a moment in time, revealing a through time transparency. We could interpret it as Luke validating Jesus’ identity, his place in continuity and fulfilment of a faith lineage tradition. We could understand it revealing the porosity, the thin veil between the now we claim as real in historical, linear time and a continuum outside of time in which we’re held. Whichever way we do or perhaps don’t think this event took place, connectivity through time is presumed – connectivity, relationship, responsibility.
We might also understand Transfiguration to reveal the transparent interconnectedness of life in creation. Rather than depend only on our resourcefulness we humans could learn much from the multitude of other than human communities of life around us of how to live with, rather than against life. This last week I heard the story of the Japanese honey bee and its remarkable adaptation in response to its ongoing wrestle for life with the Japanese hornet. The hornet is a large and dangerous wasp it’s about five times the size of the honey bee. Both bee and hornet have similar types of colonies with a queen, a nest and larvae to feed. It is the job of the worker hornets to feed the larvae, the honey bees happen to be a great source of food. When a hornet finds a bees nest it kills a few bees then leaves a pheromone marker telling the other hornets a nest has been found and to come and help. Now a honey bee is unable to kill a hornet by stinging, biting or beating it to death. By contrast one hornet can kill 40 bees in a minute and 20 to 30 hornets can kill 30,000 bees in an hour, so it’s a real David and Goliath contest here. The pheromone marker the hornet leaves is also recognised by bee. Once they smell it they send about 100 bees to entice the hornet into the nest, they run into the nest and the hornet follows. The bees then turn and run back to the hornet and engulf the hornet in a ball, about 500–1000 bees. The bees disconnect their wings from the flight muscles and vibrate their flight muscles to generate temperature, they heat up the hornet. The lethal temperature for a hornet is about 2 degrees lower than that for a bee, the bees effectively kill the hornet by thermo-balling it. If the bees can kill the first few hornets the pheromone marker is dissipated so it won’t communicate to the other hornets and the bees nest is saved. Only the Japanese bee colonies have developed this form of defence, European bee colonies brought into Japan are unable to survive.
It is an intriguing evolution – notice the solution depends on the bee’s knowledge of the hornet and of themselves – it is a minutely nuanced knowledge – pheromones, lethal temperatures for survival, ability to separate flight muscles from wings. It is a collective solution enacted without using weapons, violence, venom, poison, biting or beating. The focus is not on destroying the hornet colony but on action needed to preserve the life of the bee colony and that is enough.
We know in our heads that violence breeds violence. We know if our life or livelihood is threatened we will act to defend ourselves. Increasingly on our world stage the “that which threatens” rhetoric is being used to separate us one from another, to disrupt and divide, to objectify any other as enemy. At the same time that which is threat or what that threat is or what is being threatened is less and less clear, it changes according to context. The emotions being stoked and stirred are those stimulated by situations of genuine threat, they are potent and powerful, demonising and dangerous, they freeze us in defence mode, we focus on surviving, not living. Negotiating peaceable outcomes that require risk of relationship are much less likely.
Consider again the bee colony. The solution was not focussed on the destruction of life but on what was needed for its continuity. It requires an intimate knowledge of those who are other, who are threat, to understand how to disempower the triggers that bring destruction. It also needs an intimate understanding of ourselves, to understand our responses to that which threatens us, threatens the continuity of life and trigger our destructive responses. As we look to one another we may find that which is ‘other’ looks a lot like us.
In this place we also have resource of a faith narrative. The account of Jacob’s wrestle with a figure at night is curiously apt for today. Jacob’s returning to meet his brother Esau, from whom he’s estranged. Their history of acrimony is due in large part to Jacob’s actions. This wrestle Karen Armstrong suggests, is as much about Jacob being reconciled with himself and his past as it is being reconciled with Esau and God. Jacob “is the first of the patriarchs to make a return journey. [From this time] it was no longer sufficient to “get up and go.” The patriarchs had to learn that no one could go forward creatively into the future without having made peace with the past. By facing his brother, Jacob would confront the “face” of his God; but he would also confront himself. Jacob was having to come to terms not only with his wronged brother, but with the “Esau” within. … Only when he confronted those aspects of himself that filled him with fear and disgust … could he heal the conflict in his soul and experience the healing power of the divine. … A mysterious stranger came to [Jacob] during the night and wrestled all night with him. At the end of the match, we hear, Jacob became aware that his fighting had been with his God. When he awoke he found himself profoundly blessed.”
Rabbi Alana Suskin writes, “Each and every one of us lives in a society that determines our feelings of what is “natural”, “right” and “rational.” These cultural biases are difficult to examine because they are like water to a fish – so ubiquitous and so pervasive, we simply do not notice them. Are the norms of one’s society, which are so deeply embedded within us that they feel “natural,” a compass toward what is what and good?” He suggests that “Religion offers us place to stand and examine the cultures in which we live. When we live and breathe the ways of our faith, it gives us compass by which to measure societal norms as separate from ourselves.”
In order for us to be able to move into the future and make real creative solutions for peace we, like Jacob, need to know not only that it is possible but that it’s incredibly important for us to return, to wrestle with, face and at least begin to make peace with our propensity to ‘make war’ evidenced in our past, dogging our present to become as the past was again. Through being willing to return, to engage wrestling with those things in us that trigger our destructive responses, we may find ourselves wrestling with those we make enemy. As we wrestle with the discomfort of honestly facing who we are, with all we’ve become, we may find, strangely, the face of our God before us, our God is the One with whom we’re embroiled. Jacob wasn’t left unmarked or unaffected by his encounter, renamed, with new identity. Honest encounter may redefine us. Are we willing to be marked as people who choose to name, act and speak against those who fan decisions and dialogues that provoke division and destruction? Transfiguration – connectivity, collected wisdom shared in time and through time. Are we the ones who listen and learn, take seriously our place, part and responsibility in this time for there to be a future time?
Mustard seeds, trees, birds, yeast, bread, treasure in a field, pearls, fishing nets, fish and a furnace of fire …. Barbara Brown Taylor says “these flashes of the kingdom come at us so quickly there is no time to settle down at all … (they are) like snapshots, like scenes glimpsed through the windows of a fast moving train.”  The glimpses are all a little mysterious or strange – a tiny mustard seed grows into a large tree, a mustard plant doesn’t do that, it is a weed. Unleavened bread, without yeast, was considered holy. Yeast was cleaned out of the house for the Passover. Finding treasure in a field and then buying it without telling the owner is rather dishonest. And who in their right mind sells everything he has to buy one pearl? The only parable that would make sense to Jesus’ listeners is the last one about fishing, and sorting the good fish from the rubbish caught in the net and throwing the rubbish away.
We get a bit tripped up on the language “the kingdom of heaven”. Kingdom conjures up for us medieval ideas of kings and queens on thrones and ruling from afar. Or perhaps Game of Thrones and the houses of Westeros, Dothraki, and Dorn. And the heaven part makes us assume this is about life after death. The other gospel writers use the term “kingdom of God”, Matthew uses “kingdom of heaven”. It is hard to find a good word in English to convey the meaning of the original Greek word basilea – we could use realm, or reign; some people like commonwealth or community, or way. I will mostly use the word “kingdom” as short hand for all of those things. However we translate it, it is definitely not about life after death, but about life here and now.
John Dally says “the kingdom of God seems to describe a system of earthly government in which God rules directly, rather than King Herod, the Emperor Augustus, or any other head of state.” He goes on to quote Nelson-Pallymer “the kingdom of God is present on earth whenever life accurately reflects the will and sovereignty of God. It is the way life would be if a compassionate God were imitated instead of Roman governors, client kings and the Temple establishment.”  Paul picks this up in his letter to the Romans – nothing will separate us from the love of God – not death, nor rulers, nor things present, nor powers. (8:38).
There is another way. The kingdom of God is about the here and now and it is about finding God in real life. It is about politics and jobs and income and health and community. Now we might hear that and want to leap to action – what can we do we wonder to bring about God’s kingdom here on earth – we must work harder, be more active in politics, change the world as fast as we can.
John Dally points out that preachers, when speaking of the kingdom, use words like build up, establish, spread, extend. All words involving our actions. But Jesus and the gospel writers never use those words. They say “enter, receive, inherit, wait for, proclaim”. “Human beings have no role whatsoever in creating or sustaining (the kingdom), much less enlarging it or getting it noticed: it is whole and complete and comes as a gift.” 
The kingdom of heaven is like a tiny mustard seed; like yeast; like treasure hidden; like a single pearl – it is hidden, it is tiny, it is precious; the tree grows, the bread rises, naturally and of itself.
We are invited to see it, to join it, nothing more. The kingdom of heaven is present here and now, hidden in plain sight, in the ordinary circumstances of our everyday lives. 
In our discussion last week with Helen Robinson from the City Mission we talked about the lunches that we serve once a month, and are serving today. And we talked about how it was important not to be feeling that we were swooping in doing this great thing for people in need; but how we humbly offer what we have and join those at lunch, in their home (the Mission), and seek to build relationship and in doing so discover the presence of God hidden in plain sight in the lives those sitting at table with us.
Many of you I know find the kingdom of God in work you do in the community and in your workplaces – Rose at her JP Clinic at the Ranui Community Centre; Nutty on reception at the hospice; Amanda working as a lawyer in the hospital helping staff and patients resolve critical issues; Stephen mentoring a steady stream of young people who come to see him about a career in international relations; Cate chairing the Board of a decile one primary school; Gavin describing the care of the staff who look after Felicity; James designing computer systems so businesses can function well. This is all kingdom work, “signs of the kingdom of heaven, clues to all the holiness hidden in the dullest of our days.”  (BBT)
Yesterday our Vestry, our governing body, met for a day to reflect together on the direction of our parish. We prayed and read scripture together, and sought to discern signs of the kingdom amongst us, and places we might find God at work in the community, so we can join in on that work.
There are all the things we do in our everyday lives as individuals which we as a community can support. We support each other by gathering, by hearing and telling our stories, in prayer, in times of joy and times of sorrow. Then there are things we can do together as a community – like the City Mission lunches. Like gathering on Wednesday this week with members of the Jewish and Muslim communities to think about our upcoming election and the issues that are of concern to us all.
As a Vestry we highlighted some areas we want to work on together: connecting more with our neighbours here in central Auckland; with members of the Chinese community; exploring whether we might build on the carpark site next door; exploring how we might be seen as relevant to the lives of those around us; looking at whether our Sunday morning worship is meeting our needs. We pushed ourselves not just to think of things we can offer the community around us; but how can we join what is already going on outside our walls; how we can find God at work, hidden in plain sight; where and how we might be hosted in the community. We also talked about our structures of governance and how we can get more of you involved in the life of the parish. We will report more fully to you on that after or August meeting.
“The kingdom of heaven has come near” Jesus proclaims right at the beginning of his ministry (Mt 4:17). The kingdom of heaven is here, now. How are we going to join God’s kingdom, God’s way this week and next? How might we strengthen our own individual faith and our community so that we are equipped to spot the kingdom. Mustard seed, treasure, pearl, fish; trees, birds, fields, pearls, nets; was the language Jesus used. What is our language? at home, at work, at church, in the world? Up to you to go seek it, find it, and then come back and tell us – the kingdom of heaven has come near.
 The Seeds of Heaven; sermons on the gospel of Matthew, 2004, p41
 John Dally Choosing the Kingdom: Missional Preaching for the Household of God, 2008, p45.
The parable of the sower, one of the better known parables I’d say. Maybe because in NZ so many of us have been gardeners, not just to beautify but to supply food for the table, this parable resonates closely with our life and experience. Strangely enough, even though the imagery of this parable is quite accessible, it’s easy enough to follow what’s going on, from quite a young age I’ve never liked this parable much. It always seemed to me there’s something inherently unjust in it. Not only to the seed that gets sown on rocky ground, eaten by birds, scorched by sun or strangled by thorns so it never gets to flourish but also to the soil that by chance happens to be poor, have short lived fertility or be rocky, not yet having had chance to be ground small enough to be part of fertile soil. It just seems mean, as if they only get the one chance and circumstances conspire against some of them from the start. Mmmm … maybe I’m being a bit literal (my indignant child self).
When training at St Johns College I recall this parable becoming topic of discussion during a lecture on Mark’s gospel. A statement was made to the effect. “Of course we all know what the parable means, what Jesus was talking about.” I found myself squirming a bit, did I really know categorically? Couldn’t there be more than one meaning depending on who you were, where you placed yourself in the parable? Were we meant to take it as written – some people ‘got it’ and they and through them the life of God flourished, some people kind of did but it all got a bit hard, when push came to shove, survival mode kicked in and they retreated, some people got overtaken by, well, life generally and just got too jolly busy and of course some just never had chance to even notice. But that doesn’t necessarily mean people intend not to be fertile places. It all seems a bit harsh, judgmental, and exclusionary to only get the one chance. Or have I become too literal again – who ever said the sower only sows once. One of my younger colleagues with some glee laughed out loud and said, “Well, duh, of course we all know.” I sank deeper in my chair, something she happened to notice, she caught my eye, “What you don’t?” she quizzed me. I demurred momentarily, after all I was meant to be training for ministry, before responding, “But how can we ever be sure we know the one thing this means?” “Seriously?” was her more than a little astonished reply. By the way I never did get chance to hear from her what this parable means - I wonder what wisdom I’ve missed.
I suspect this reveals as much my suspicion of easy or obvious explanations, especially when it comes to things of God and faith. Part of this is that the easy, obvious explanations often claim the high ground of being right and so by default anyone who questions or proposes alternative explanation must be wrong. It breeds intolerance and exclusion, the need to defend a particular position can then make religion rigid and suspicious of difference. The other part is that if we approach such parables with the mind-set that there is a right and a wrong way to hear and understand, then we’ve already closed our ears, our hearts and minds to the divine speaking afresh to us through them. We deny the very spirit of their uttering – refuse to be surprised, overturned, confounded by the simple wisdom that unstitches all our clever thinking.
Maybe it’s because Jesus gives explanation that we tend this way but maybe it’s also because of the way we’ve learned to listen. As I listen to the parable I find myself becoming concerned about whether the seed sprouts and about the adequacy of the soil. Which causes in me a bit of surreptitious looking about, a clandestine cross examination – of myself, of others by compare – who is which soil? A looking for fault, divisive judging mentality that seeks and expects to find inadequacy, right and wrong, whose in and whose out. I struggle to find this a good news parable.
So usually when I listen to this parable I hear it to be mainly about soil and a bit about seed. But this time as I listened I was struck by the abundance of the seed that’s sown rather than the relative paucity or richness of the soil. This time I was struck by the profligate nature of God who sows over and over again, with unwise abundance and generous abandonment. It made me pause and think, are the seeds of this profligate God always being sown on and in us?
This returned me to issues of soil but with an altered perspective. How many of you would sow seeds straight into soil without any preparation and expect a flourishing crop? Not many I suspect – well not after the first few tries. If you want a more abundant crop you’ll probably spend some time finding out about the soil type, feed and till and supplement it, give it chance to release its potential so it can be ground for the seed that takes root to flourish. What’s more we know that all seeds do not flourish in all places - thank goodness for variety of seed and soil and climate. Even the most inhospitable climes can prove fertile for some sort of seed, some sort of plant to grow – only in that particular place, in those particular conditions does it flourish. Therefore what makes for a good soil evidently can vary. Whether a soil is deemed good depends upon what you expect the seed sown in it to yield. So there are different fruits, seeds suited to different soils and the need for some preparation – thank goodness for a profligate God with many and varied seeds.
It might take us a bit of time to consider and accept the idea of us being an adequate site for God gardening. Multiple factors have and do intersect that affect our receptivity, our willingness to hear, our capacity to yield to God. External factors have and have had significant impact on we becoming who we are, on how we develop, are formed. We process such external factors internally, negotiating with our inherent sense of self such external factors impact and influence us. Influence how open we are to difference, how accepting we are of change, of being changed, how readily we adapt, accept and/or invite newness. The boundary between these inner and outer worlds is of course never quite so distinctly or clearly defined. When you’re about to do something you’ve been warned against, how many of you hear an admonishment from a person who’s warned you not to? How many of you can replay in your heads moments, things you’ve done or said, or had done or said to you that have had formative impact – for good or not so good. What are the odds you remember the not so good ones the most? We’ve this curious propensity to remember the negative, almost as if we prefer to hold onto it. What if we apply this to a God context? If God stuff’s been an external factor in our life we’ve likely heard about good and evil, right and wrong, heaven and hell, judgement and sin and guilt for insufficiency. Given our tendency to remember the not so good, it doesn’t take much for us to not think too well of ourselves, to not imagine we’re a site for a bit of God garden flourishing. We exclude ourselves, as if to protect God from us for surely we’re inadequate, unworthy, arid rather than good soil.
Familiar we might be with the idea of soil types, feeding and tilling the soil so to enhance its capacity to receive and to make seed flourish. Yet strangely we don’t seem to apply such wisdom, patience, understanding and attention to ourselves and our life in God. To imagine the God who brings us each into being desires that each of us are fed, sustained, prepared so to receive the seed of a flourishing life uniquely suited to who we are. We worry about our adequacy, our being good enough as if there’s a singular ideal of good we have to measure up to and of course never quite do. Yet we know there are many seeds and many soils and many different fruits that are borne only out of their unique combining. Maybe our biggest hurdle is to accept, to simply receive – the potential for our full and fruitful life resides within the seed – it is the ground of our accepting that will enable it to flourish.
Do you remember as a child whining to a parent – my brother or my sister won’t play with me... In our household we all refuse to play Monopoly because Miryam always wins.
Jesus is thinking of that kind of situation when he says “But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’"
Children playing games or playing instruments – who will join in the game – who will dance to their tune – who gets to decide on the game? The people Jesus is describing are confused by the approach of John the Baptist on the one hand – an ascetic who lived in the desert and certainly did not party; and Jesus on the other hand who eats and drinks with “sinners”.
The people just don’t get it, especially the wise ones, the leaders, the educated. Rather it is the children and those with no education who are prepared to throw their lot in with Jesus. They have less to lose, and so they have eyes to see the truth of who Jesus is.
The Pharisees, the scribes, the powerbrokers, on the other hand, are expecting a Messiah who will conform to their expectations. Who will be the one to overthrow the Roman Empire and confirm the authority of the religious leaders instead. But of course Jesus is not the Messiah they expect. He is rather the one spoken of by the prophet Zechariah who will enter Jerusalem in humility on a donkey, not on a horse of war. He will bring peace and set the prisoners free. It is humility and service that will bring freedom, not power over and against someone else.
This question of who do we follow? to whom do we listen? whose tune do we dance to? that is a daily question for us all. Literally who do we follow on social media? which news outlets do we listen to? which posts? which blogs? In my recent time in the US I was acutely aware of the 24 hour stream of news; with the TV news focused on president Donald Trump – and nothing else – they seem to have abandoned the idea of a selection of news at the top of the hour – it was non stop political commentary. The print media though was experiencing a resurgence – the NY Times and the Washington Post were gaining subscribers.
While I was away I was also following the media back here and in particular the drawn out struggle over what is to be done about Christchurch Cathedral. And then this week when the government increased its offer to the Chch Diocese I wrote a blog reflecting on the issues.  I got lots of responses and the Chch Press published it; I was prepared for a lot of negative reaction as this has been such a hot topic. But my questions around the role of the church and society seemed to strike a chord with people.
I talked about the old world of Christendom where society and church were the same things being long gone, and yet here we have the government trying to preserve a Christendom model of church for the sake of the tourists and the heart of the city. And they want to spend over a $100 million to do it. The Christchurch Synod has some tough choices. Imagine if it was us – needing to rebuild our beloved church and the government was offering us the money. It would be hard to say no – how would we discern what to do? We need to keep the members of the Christchurch Synod in our prayers – they have a tough couple of months ahead of them.
In our own lives with smaller decisions than building cathedrals, we still need to make decisions. Who do we follow? who guides us in our choices – our family/ friends/ work colleagues/ politicians? When we have a choice to make at work who guides us? I know while I have been away you have heard three of our parishioners “telling their stories” and they each gave examples of the focus and choices of their lives. If we want to be guided by our faith and by the Spirit how do we make that real? In our reading of scripture and our prayer lives how do we discern the Spirit?
Jesus offers an image to his listeners “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
The image of the yoke has many layers to it. First of all it is the yoke of a horse or oxen pulling a load, ploughing a field. Secondly the Torah or the Law so assiduously followed by the Pharisees was called a yoke – the yoke of the Law. The intention was that the law would be a framework to live by, a way to order community and relationships so that people could live in freedom and harmony and in right relationships with each other and God. But the law had become a heavy yoke on the shoulders of the people, it was a burden.
So Jesus invites the ones carrying this heavy burden to come to him. The leaders, the scribes, the Pharisees and the people with them – come to Jesus instead and try on his yoke for size. His yoke is easy – not meaning simple, but a correct fit, a good fit. And how many places are there in the yoke – two – two to carry the burden, one place for you, and one place for the one who walks alongside you. The yoke is shared – who walks beside you? a friend, a lover, family, a spiritual companion, or perhaps Jesus himself.
The yoke fits, the burden is lightened by companionship. And we are to learn from the humble one on the donkey who is gentle and who gives us rest.
So our work of discernment is done with companions, with the Spirit of Jesus walking alongside. Jesus does not say you must dance to this tune or dance to another tune, like the children playing their games; or like the Pharisees laying down the law. There is not one way, not one set of rules. There is a path to find, a way to walk, maybe a dance to dance.
One of the questions I return from my sabbatical with is – how can we better be companions to each other on our faith journey? Today Jesus invites us to walk together and take his yoke, which fits well and is gentle and humble.
Ah, the Abraham sacrificing Isaac story, it’s a great story isn’t it, a great tale? The Patriarch of the religions of the Word – Judaism, Islam, and Christianity is willing to sacrifice his beloved son, the son of his old age, the only child borne by his wife, removing stigma of her barrenness, because God told him to. A great story because we sure don’t forget it. But being a great story doesn’t make it a good or easy story. Of all today’s readings it’s perhaps the one best avoided. It’s challenging to listen to. We identify with it for we know how to be parent and what it is to be child. It reveals there are perhaps fault lines running through our faith story, inconsistencies, if we insist God is good and loving. Fault lines we’d rather not know about for they make the story and us vulnerable to criticism and critique. The Abraham willing to sacrifice Isaac story raises for us questions I suspect we’d prefer not face or even ask because what if we couldn’t bear the answers? It might cause us to ask what sort of man this Abraham is and he a Patriarch, example to us of faithful living we’d rather not emulate, what sort of faith test is this he’s put to, will it be asked of us, what sort of faithfulness does this demand and do we aspire to it, and undergirding all of these what sort of God is this that demands such a monstrous thing?
Of course this is if we come to this story with our presuppositions intact, with already formed ideas of what God should be and be doing, of how Abraham as a father should act, of what should happen and what we think is going on here. Ears and minds full of our own rhetoric we shape the words as we read, interpret the story as we listen, judge it according to our expectations, what we think it should say, what we want it to speak into where we are from where we are. The context of our life, all we’ve learned about the bible, about God, about living faithfully, about right and wrong, about being parent and/or child, all our experience of life influences how we meet this text. We try, perhaps, to make this story fit, however awkwardly into our world where God and characters like Abraham have place. Or maybe we don’t, rather we leave it in that corner of difficult, not much examined things, our inattention excluding such stories from having undue impact so not to disturb our overall view of Abraham or God.
When we hear this story I suspect we get drawn into it, as we listen from inside the drama we judge the story, the characters, Abraham, God, what happens by our own standards. It’s difficult to extricate ourselves from inside the story, to step back with fresh ears to hear. It’s inevitable our presuppositions influence our capacity to perceive. Such meeting the world and engaging from within our version of the way things are is not, of course not only a religious tendency.
Let me illustrate with a story told by Eduardo Sirelli worked for an Italian NGO, involved in technical cooperation with Africa. In one particular project the Italian people decided they would teach Zambian people how to grow food. They arrived with Italian seed in Zambia’s absolutely magnificent valley going down to the Zambezi River to teach the local people how to grow Italian tomatoes and zucchini. The local people had no interest in doing that so they were paid to come and work and sometimes they would show up. The Italians were amazed that local people in such a fertile valley would have no agriculture. Instead of asking them why they didn’t grow anything we simply said “Thank God we are here. Just in the nick of time to save the Zambian people from starvation.” Of course everything in Zambia grew beautifully and we had these magnificent tomatoes. We were telling the Zambians “Look how easy agriculture is when, the tomatoes ripe and red overnight, 200 hippos came up from the river and they ate everything. And we said to the Zambians “My God, the hippos.” “Yes, that’s why we have no agriculture here.” “Why didn’t you tell us?” “You never asked.” Sirelli’s advice, if you really want to help you do it by developing relationship and the first thing you have to do is to shut up and listen.
When we hear today’s Abraham and Isaac story let’s take seriously the refrain ‘Hear what the Spirit is saying to God’s people and, in the words of Eduardo Sirelli, “Shut up and listen.” Ask, rather than assume we know. Listen to what might be being revealed to us today from this text, of the human wrestle to know how to enact a relationship of integrity with the divine in this world, in our context, the challenge to know how to discern that which brings life then to act for its flourishing. And today we do so in context of Refugee Sunday. The one day in our liturgical calendar we pay attention to the daily crisis for life of millions of people who through no fault of their own no longer have a place to stand, a place to live.
Refugees – those who seek a refuge, shelter, protection, safety from danger and trouble, we as much as hear their stories today. Horrifying images of millions of people forced to flee, seek refuge away from what was home but has become a life destroying context of conflict and too often unreasoned hatred. The statistics are mind-boggling, so unimaginable to become mind numbing, render us unknowing of quite how to respond.
What resource might this Abraham story be for us this Refugee Sunday? Abraham and Isaac are beginning patriarchs in the faith tradition in which we stand. If we consider the narrative as it unfolds since then we can see this narrative coheres around characters who are made refugees. Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden; Abram and Sarai from home, with only promise of what would become; Moses, then the Israelite nation from Egypt; truth speaking prophets; Mary, Joseph and Jesus, from baptism Jesus into the wilderness, a from which he steps into his identity. It almost suggests it is the call of faithful people, our call to understand ourselves as refugees.
I somehow doubt we’d choose to exchange place with someone who’s a refugee, prefer to be driven from home, in fear for our life, be stripped of all security, unknowing and utterly vulnerable to whim of chance and circumstance. I doubt we’d prefer to have all that secured us, made us who we are, by which we know ourselves … gone. And yet, and yet are we not, like Sarah and Abraham, Miriam and Moses and the many in our faith story, also people of faith?
If this is so, we’re not well resourced to know about this. Maybe this Refugee Sunday we’re to stop, listen and learn, not just assume we already know what Refugee Sunday is about, to do for, do to the refugee. If our call is to live as if we were refugees we may need to listen to the story of one who is refugee to know how and what it is to be refugee, why bearers of faith have been refugees. How on earth is this imaginable or even possible that living as if we were a refugee would be asked of us? How on earth could there be anything good in being a refugee?
So let me tell you a story: “It is the story of Acholdeng, A Dinka woman from the southern Sudan who, starving, had walked with her baby son Rial for four days and three nights to reach an Oxfam feeding centre. Once she had had a husband, a cow, a field. But last year, he had died, the crop had failed in the terrible droughts, people were dying around her and she had barely eaten for two months. With the baby she set off to look for food. The story of this four-day trek is a terrible one – being turned away from feeding centres, the baby and herself creeping ever nearer to death. When they finally reached the Oxfam centre Rial was barely breathing. He was found to have diarrhoea, to be anaemic and to be suffering from hypothermia and dehydration. Exhausted, mother and son curled up on a blanket and slept. She awoke later and was given more food and then something amazing happened:
Even as babies were dying, one by one they [the mothers] left their children on the mats and joined together in a circle … They started singing. It sounded like the tiny bells which the Dinka attach to the horns of their best cattle … They sang courting songs, songs of prosperity and hope, songs of praise to the cows they didn’t have and to the life they only half had. They clapped. They moved back and forth, pounded the baked earth. Whistled and laughed. It was light in the darkness.
Slowly Acholdeng hobbled over to join them, taking up the rhythms and the dance. In minutes, all those in the centre – assistants, mothers who had been grieving, children and doctors – were dancing and singing. It was a great act of defiance against the rotten climate, the accursed war, the land that wouldn’t produce, the armies, the cattle raiders and all the troubles.”
From Acholdeng and these mothers we learn about hope, about community – its potency and how much we need it, about the immense resilience of the human spirit, about what matters most. It’s not that we would choose to be in such place or wish it upon another, but it is sadly and shockingly true that this is the real life way it is for too many people. We should seek to alleviate such suffering and perhaps more potently use our privilege and power to address its cause, our human capacity to be inhuman and the systems we generate that perpetuate such inhumanity.
Refugees are absolutely vulnerable, utterly dependent upon circumstances and others like us, as we are from birth. And yet amazingly so many are not overcome – anchored in dignity and sense of self not gained through material possessions but in something deeper, some urge, desire for life even as it is. And, perhaps most surprisingly, despite all and everything that life brings with it hope.
So this Refugee Sunday we might begin with a lesson in humility. Recognise we’re engaged in a relationship of mutuality with those who are refugees – we may be the ones in the position to give something from the excess of our abundant resource. Yet what we receive in return is treasure beyond price – a life stripped bare revealing of what matters most, of the precious gift of life, of the simple abundance, the resilience of the human spirit and the hope that arises from within it. Thankfulness, abundance of spirit, hope is stirred in us. Even if just for a moment we find our hearts curiously restored, and it was not we who had to pay price of its uncovering.
The circus was finally coming to town. He was nine years old and had never been inside a Big Top. Please can I go Mum, please? She knew the price of a ticket and said, We’ll have to see. But every day he persisted, and weakly, reluctantly, she said, Alright. Are you sure, he would ask. Yes, she said, I promise. It proved to be a promise she couldn’t keep. And 40 years later, he still hasn’t forgiven her.
They met one morning in 1936 in Parliament Buildings, a suitable solemn venue for a prime minister and a prophet. Being Wellington, it was probably raining and blowing a gale, just to add to the gravitas of the occasion.
Michael Joseph Savage, the popular Labour premier but not much loved by Tahupotiki Ratana. Four years before Ratana had delivered a 30,000 strong petition to Parliament to make good on the promises of the Treaty of Waitangi. It hadn’t happened so the prophet came calling.
Ratana was an important figure for Anglicans. Our bishops had praised his work as a faith healer and inspirational leader. In 1922 half the Maori Anglicans in Wellington had joined Ratana. My predecessor as the Bishop of Waiapu had seconded a priest the Rev. Piri Munro to travel with the prophet and support him. The ties were very close. Embedded in the entrance to the Ratana Temple to this day there is a broken fragment of the Marsden Cross at Rangihoua, the birthplace of our church.
So when our bishops in their wisdom, decided to excommunicate Ratana and his followers, because he was becoming too powerful and talked too much about angels, anger and alienation set in that we are yet to recover from. And when I tried to reopen a conversation with the bishops, 50 years later, about apologies and healing broken promises and reconciliation with the Ratana movement, we got nowhere.
That 1936 meeting with Savage was all about the broken promises of the Crown not the church. Ratana didn’t do a lot of talking but he did a lot of speaking symbolically.
He brought three gifts to Savage.
A kumara pierced with 3 huia feathers. A bird made extinct by predators that Pakeha had introduced and a vegetable that Maori had little land left to plant.
A greenstone tiki to speak of Maori riches and mana now being destroyed.
And a broken gold watch and chain belonging to Ratana’s father, who had no money to repair it.
Savage must have found this encounter challenging. “Brother, these things are speaking to me, I can hear them,” he said. It’s reported that Savage took the greenstone tiki to his grave.
The thing about broken promises, big or small it that they won’t ever let you go until you do something about them. Those on the receiving end of the break refuse to forget them, even if those on the delivering end suffer from amnesia, prejudice or just act dumb. Broken promises take on a life of their own. They reap a whirlwind, one that is gathering strength right now with our American friends in Washington and even in Britain as a new front builds over northern Ireland.
Every family represented in this church this morning has had a taste of that power, as we live through the aftermath of bitter divorces and relationship breakups, betrayals of friendships, violence and abuse.
The church enjoys no immunity from these consequences of promise breaking. In the marvellous film called “Calvary” an Irish priest played by Brendon Gleeson, innocent of any wrong doing, suffers the backlash of his village from the generations of child abuse covered up by church. His parishoners had come to hate the church they loved, while still saying “Yes Father, No Father.”
It is extraordinary how far we go to cover up our broken promises, perhaps because we know how powerful they are and what havoc they can wreak. Take the lengths we have gone to diminish the Treaty of Waitangi, even without Winston’s help. It started as the bedrock of our nation and only 32 years later had been declared as a legal nullity by a learned judge. We’d even managed to retranslate the words of Lt Gov Hobson that he said to each chief at the Treaty signing, ‘he iwi tahi tatou’. It doesn't translate as “we are now one people’ as Dr Brash and the One NZ Foundation claim, but rather ‘we are two peoples together in one nation’.
Thankfully, we have since the 1970’s started to redress those broken and forgotten and distorted promises our forebears made on our behalf. The kumara crop is flourishing, inroads are underway against the predators that wiped out the huia, the mana of the tiki is rising again and the Treaty settlements process makes the broken gold watch repairable.
The Treaty once forgotten, near illegible with water and rodent damage, was rehoused last month in a secure state of the art $10 million vault, earthquake proofed but still not immune from the seismic shocks of promises that wait to be honoured.
And every little step towards that honouring needs to be celebrated. Like the Crown settlement this month with the people of Parihaka, whose village was destroyed in1881 and their leaders exiled for their non violent resistance to land confiscation.
There is a long way to go before the promises made to Maori are fully honoured and we are able to all enjoy the peace that will come from that. Not only personally. It will be the sort of peace that First Testament writers describe as shalom, when the justice is restored and the social fabric that surrounds us is woven strong and wide enough to embrace both rich and poor.
It’s what today’s gospel means when it talks of building our house on a rock.
You can take that literally or symbolically. It’s best to take it both ways, when you are building in a war torn, earthquake prone country like ours. We’re getting better at acknowledging the seismic risks of living in these ‘shaky isles’ but we are still to recognise the devastation of the NZ Wars in the 1860’s. As Anglicans we should, because they destroyed overnight 40 years of missionary work and came close to discrediting the incredible achievements of our first bishop, George Selwyn.
But this Te Pouhere Sunday is not a day to end by bemoaning our failures. This is the day to celebrate a marvellous achievement that happened at the General Synod /Te Hinota Whanui in 1992 when delegates from this parish and all our churches brought a new Anglican Constitution into being that did honour the promises made in 1840 and to Maori ever since. Promises of mutual recognition and respect, shared decision making and resources. The right of each Tikanga to organise its own affairs, to choose different cultural expressions of faith, and to keep open all avenues that lead to common ground.
It was a revolutionary document that still baffles other parts of the Anglican Communion. It sets into practice and law, a model of governance that the Crown is still years away from matching. It lets Pakeha, Maori and Pacifica be themselves yet stay connected. It requires each of us to stay accountable to each other as Anglicans, and to feel incomplete without each other. It ensures the church we are building for a future Aotearoa, a country where Pakeha becomes a minority as is rapidly happening in Auckland, will be a church build on strong foundations. Built on rock.
Or to use the language of the constitution, where we will be moored to the same post.
That’s what Te Pouhere means. The mooring post. That’s what we call the central document of Anglican order.
Pity it doesn’t have clause about sexual orientation and gender as well as culture and ethnicity. But the spirit of justice and inclusion is well bedded in the document as I’m sure Maori will remind us next year once again when the General Synod comes to vote.
It’s not often in this society that Anglicans can feel ahead of the game. But when it comes to constitutions, in a country that doesn’t have one in any written form, we are the envy of most other institutions.
How well we put it into practice is another story. How eagerly we seek the common ground between and cultures that the constitution compels us to search out, is another story that we have yet to tell. Our theologians have yet to help us connect that common ground with the “new order in Christ” that this morning’s epistle talks about.
At a conference at St Johns College in October we’re going to revisit our failures along with our successes in this groundbreaking constitution and our journey towards a just society, bicultural and multicultural. St Matthews in the midst of this chaotic city, on the doorstep of the City Mission, is on the front line of that journey.
I would love to have told the story of our constitution to Savage and Ratana at that meeting long ago. It would have given them both hope, even if our bishops at the time weren’t so sure. And I’d have liked to be able to tell our bishops that their excommunication of the Ratana Church only served to add fuel to the fire of the movement that led to the election of the first Maori bishop.
Funny how things happen. Funny how God’s plans unfold. It’s a bumpy ride. Best to have a mooring post to hang onto.
When I was a young Anglican and 'being prepared for confirmation' – as we used to say – by an esteemed canon of St Mary's Cathedral as was, I was introduced to the clover leaf.
The canon thought it was his duty to introduce my group of young teens to a core concept in Anglicanism. He was going to teach us about The Trinity he said.
Some of you will remember 'confirmation class' and the teaching about what was considered 'essential for an Anglican to know'. I don't think we were taught the catechism as least I don't remember, but, how to understand the Trinity, we were certainly taught and that I do remember.
And I don't remember either what we were taught about the bible! But, along with a very clear memory about the importance of the Trinity, I learned that, if you protested against 'silly rules' you could get them changed! I learned the Trinity was like a three leafed clover, and I learned I could get away without wearing a hat and gloves – which were expected refinements to women's dress at that time – and that I would be expected to wear to church once I was confirmed into adult membership. Trinity and hats and gloves are forever linked in my mind.
I have never worn a hat to church, but like all good Anglicans I certainly did learn to picture God through the idea of the Trinity, and to speak about God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
And, I certainly did learn that challenging what seems to be normative, can have life changing outcomes.
Just as I gave up the hat and gloves as essential for church attendance, I later gave up the Trinity as important to my faith and practice as an Anglican. But, I am still protesting unjust and 'silly' rules and do see critique and protest as key characteristics of my Anglican faith!
Canon Charles taught us that just as the clover leaf had three separate and distinct leaves but was one clover leaf, so God had three separate and distinct aspects but remained one God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, or Ghost, as we said back then. He clarified this further by asking us who we were and noting that we were, at the same time, daughter, sister, and friend – or another similar combination of persona – or, more simply 'three or more ways of being' but still one person. It was not till many years later that I discovered we had been carefully taught what was probably one of the church's most important heresies. It was an easy way of understanding why these three, God, Jesus (because that was who we thought the son must be), and Holy Spirit, were seemingly interchangeable in prayers. But of course this is not so, they are not interchangeable and each have their separate identity and role in the Christian story.
When it come to the Trinity that is a fascinating story. It's a story of pragmatism and power, of identity and difference, of interfaith and cultural contexts.
How we understand the Trinity and why we have the Doctrine of The Trinity, it seems to me, are largely based in cross-cultural miscommunication, with words like hypostatis, homoousios, and homoiousios, being bandied around. (John might talk about this later in the discussion time). These words originated in the Greek language, and were translated into Latin, and later into English, but without a direct concept link and without a Biblical reference either. And now we are trying to make sense of them 1700 years later in our contemporary English without a frame of reference either! Gobbledygook they were and so they remain!
Arguments as to whether God was three persons but one God, and who came first and was therefore the most important, and whether Jesus was really God, a divine being or truly human, flew around... none of it made a lot of sense to me back then and I must say it still doesn't! But, as I mentioned I have learned something of the story of how this confusing and convoluted doctrine came to be on the first place: courtesy of Constantine, in 325, when he was anxious to clarify who was Christian and therefore entitled to the tax exemptions he had settled on the Christian church so he could unify the bishops behind his campaign to consolidate his empire! (John will talk more about this in the discussion after church today).
So, 1700 years later, is there anything helpful to us in the notion of Trinity? Certainly the Anglican Church here continues its affirmation of the doctrine, and only last year we were reminded by one of the Auckland bishops that the correct formula for the Trinity was 'Father, Son and Holy Spirit'. Notwithstanding this, there have been many attempts to update the concept, and to make it more relevant by using such language as 'Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer', and similar that allows for less anthropomorphic concepts to take hold. We are familiar with these here at St Matthew-in-the-City. A couple of weeks ago I used a Trinitarian blessing citing 'the curiosity of Eve, the courage of Mary and the energy of Sophia', and another proclaiming 'love, hope and challenge'. You can tell I am well schooled in the use of 'three', but three doesn't make THE TRINITY that is reserved for the formulary Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
No matter what words are used, or how Trinity is reframed these days to express the essence or 'beingness' of God, or what formularies are approved by the Church for speaking about God, I still want to say there is nothing essential about Trinity for Christian faith or for speaking about or addressing God.
The helpful thing for me regarding the Trinity and the various combinations of 'threeness', is to remind me there are many ways of coming to know and to speak about God, and many ways to give emphasis to aspects of our Christian faith – but there is nothing essential about 'three' – apart from this being considered the perfect number.
The reading from Matthew's Gospel we heard this morning ends with Jesus' instructions to his disciples to 'make disciples' and to teach them to do as Jesus taught them. In other words, feed the hungry, clothe the homeless, comfort those who are troubled, and to care for the earth. The longer passage, of which this is a part, contrasts this with the guards who are pledged by money to report on activities that indicate any signs of the renewal of activities such as these for they may disturb the status quo. What the words 'make disciples and baptize them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit' suggest is that, the life changing impact of the heirs of God is not ended! It suggests that the story of God's activity in the world since the beginning: to bring justice and compassion among all people, is not over. It suggests that those who join those committed to such work will not be working alone, but rather with Jesus (one we know as a son or child of God) and with the Holy Spirit in continuity. It's our challenge, still, to choose which group we will commit to: the guards who pledge to maintain the status quo, or the disturbers, the ones who challenge and protest.
For me it is important not to get side tracked by the seeming 'Trinitarian Formulary' of this verse and to use it as a proof text. Rather it is important to recognise the efforts of the writer of the Gospel, the one we call Matthew, who was writing for a Jewish audience, to hold to the teaching of Jesus (in a world where there is a panoply of Greek and Roman Gods), that God is One God, and this God is with us when we choose justice and love, compassion and peace. The words of that text, which scholars tells us, are all too often used to justify the Trinity, were rather, for the gospel writer links with the language of the First Testament writers and intended to prove the veracity of Jesus teaching, ministry and a challenge to his followers.
For me it is a text that, rather than 'proving the Trinity', links past, present and future. It enables me to stand with the First testament writers and Jesus as they struggled to understand the intimate pervasive presence of God; the courage of Jesus in challenging the status quo of his day and all that held in place practices and protocols that inhibited the life and flourishing of the people; and the future that I am willing to engage with and act to ensure will be life giving for future generations.
We each find ways to interpret the teachings of the church so that our faith is not stultified, and we can be very glad that our traditions set before us a precedent in which this is not only acceptable but necessary. I encourage you to keep asking questions about doctrine and formularies – these are human constructions and a may or may not be helpful any longer to your faith.
Pentecost Sunday, that which follows Ascension, which follows Easter, which follows Lent. The narrative of ritual and tradition by which we tell the story of this faith lineage with which we are aligned, the story we tell that reminds us of who we are. The family story, as Jeremy said, that may or may not have happened exactly this way but nevertheless is true, nevertheless reminds us of who we are as family, as good news tellers in this place, in our time.
At this juncture of the story, at Pentecost we hear of a community gathered, “devout people living in Jerusalem from every nation under heaven” are gathered, they hear this sound as of a rushing wind from heaven and assemble, they witness an event and are, by turn, bewildered, astonished, amazed, disturbed. Of course, it is a particular community, a community of devout people in Jerusalem, people of Jewish lineage. Looking back, we can learn they are gathered there, not by chance, or randomly but with intent. They are gathered for a festival in keeping with their faith lineage, they are gathered for the festival of weeks, the second great feast in Israel’s yearly cycle of holy days, originally a harvest festival it became a day to commemorate the giving of the law on Mt. Sinai.
We can look back and learn, see the connectivity and the continuity into which this bestowal of Holy Spirit, divine breathing into of life happens. The prophetic words of this Jewish context put into Peter’s mouth interpret, makes sense and meaning of what is taking place. Claim is made that this is something new, this bestowal of the Holy Spirit, a new revelation and perhaps superior to anything before. It is an interesting presumption, for understanding of what is taking place requires the prophetic words that arise from a community whose stories are threaded through with a world breathed into life, indwelt by divine spirit and presence.
This story becomes foundational in that of a Jewish sect that emerged to become known as the people of the Way and in time Christians, followers of the Christ. Today is celebrated as the birthday of the church.
On this day of Pentecost, as we listen to the account of the Pentecost event, we imagine what happened back then. We hear that devout people from every nation heard the sound of a violent rushing wind, they assemble and then are astonished for each can hear the marvels of God being preached in their own language. Peter interprets – this is not drunkenness but the fulfilment of Joel’s prophetic words predicting a time when the spirit of God will fall upon all creation empowering prophecy, visions, dreams, wondrous displays in heaven and signs on earth. We look back in linear time to locate this event, this Pentecost happening.
But what about the fulfilment of Joel’s prophetic prediction, where in linear time do we locate this? Do we, as Peter proposes, see Joel’s prophecy as being fulfilled at that moment in history? Or, as we listen, do we see this as a “still to be fulfilled ideal,” project it into the future sometime, for surely what Joel prophecies has not come to pass, or if it has it’s not in a way we understand.
You see I’ve been wondering, when we arrive at Pentecost, speak of it, talk of it, or imagine it somehow it is always a bit removed. Pentecost’s somehow not about now, somehow not about us. Rather Pentecost happened over there to someone else back then or it’s prophesied to happen later or maybe it’s a nice thing to think about but it doesn’t really make a lot of difference to real life now. And maybe it doesn’t, maybe it’s just a cool story to tell that orients us a little differently to life, to how we understand things, a bit more mindfully open to what we allow as possible in the world. Perhaps it makes us aware of our need to pause to be renewed, resourced by the divine inbreathing us.
It could be said we directly benefit from Pentecost, for we’re descendants of those newly inbreathed who, from Jewish roots, emerged as Christians. The Spirit in this moment brings the church into existence and empowers it, as it is sometimes explained. So it could be said we benefit from Pentecost but how are we of benefit from Pentecost?
The biblical text, the traditions through time in which we claim we stand in continuity, they can become things over there, next to us, things we’re obedient, with integrity for that’s what being faithful is about, is it not? But do we allow them to be things in us, in us so to change us, or perhaps in us so we participate in the changing of the world?
During a recent Vestry workshop, each of us was asked what it was that had drawn us to St Matthew’s. It was interesting to hear how, for many, it was because St Matthew’s had used its voice to speak against injustice, actively and vocally participated in protest against unjust systems and structures, advocated for the disenfranchised, lobbied for change. Against such things as apartheid, for such things as a nuclear free NZ, for the LGBTQI communities, for homosexual law reform, for marriage equality. Prejudice against difference remains ever present in our society, however many of these injustices are less acute now. So what is it that St Matthew’s uses its voice to advocate for now, what are the issues of injustice before us? Within the church excluding those of other than heterosexual orientation from marriage, holy orders, from the fullness of its life remains a bitter injustice. Without the church the injustices of homelessness, of an ever increasing divide between rich and poor, of our planet in peril through climate change, result of human greed and foolishness are rampant.
So how are we of benefit from Pentecost? At Pentecost we’re told the Holy Spirit breathes upon, fills those gathered, the sound of it is heard and causes all to assemble. Each and every person hears of the marvels of God in the language they know, they receive it as they are where they are, they don’t need to become other than themselves to receive, to hear and to breathe. We’re directed to understand this fulfils the prophecy made by Joel, that all of creation, each and every person from greatest to least is filled, blessed, breathed upon, gifted and empowered to express, to be their God intended selves.
Pentecost reminds us of the way things actually are – that each and every person and the whole of creation is breathed and breathes into being divine presence. Pentecost reminds us who we are, reminds us what is possible, in fact further than that it reminds us what is real right now, in each moment. Each breath is a bestowal of divine potentiality and this is what a world that is conscious of this looks like.
We participate in structures and systems that benefit us, yet they’re denying and diminishing the capacity of others, of our creation to breathe. We can, as we do with scripture, with our traditions such as Pentecost, make these issues, problems from back then, over there, someone else, for the future. We can refuse to accept that we are part of perpetuating injustice. We can talk about, perhaps even act to alleviate the symptoms of suffering and yet do nothing to untangle, uncover the fundamental injustice of the systems that perpetuate the unjust share of resources, because we’re in the habit of living this way, because we would be inconvenienced.
Pentecost tells us our breath is intermingled, our suffering is mutual, our dignity interdependent. Pentecost may have happened, an event in time back then but the place of Pentecost in our story, our tradition of understanding, of God revealing to us who we are, is far more eloquent than that.
We locate our lives within a framework of lineal time, past, present, future. But for you and I the only certainty we have of life is right now. Humour me a moment, as you sit, as we are in this space I want you to become aware of your breathing. I want us to pause for a moment and to ask you to become aware of your breath in and your breath out.
This breath in this moment, you are alive – this you can know. This breath is life in this moment.
What if this breath, in this moment, is our Pentecost? Each breath in each moment we’re enlivened with divine spirit to make Pentecost real – to make this creation a place of divine blessing for the flourishing of each and all. Pentecost reveals to us the potentiality of now. Our people cannot wait, our planet cannot wait. What if this breath, this moment, this now is all we have.
Ok, I own it, this gospel has got me stumped. Around and around I’ve read and sought to discern something from it, paused and prayed, allowed daily life and experiences to flow through the passage, through me to see what might arise in response to this gospel. And nothing, well in fairness lots of things but disparate threads and scraps of thought that never seem to quite coalesce. It bothered me, my ego demanded of me that I at least had something vaguely cogent to share with you. As the week progressed, feeling a little alarmed by this, it suddenly struck me, maybe not knowing was my response. Maybe sharing the various threads and scraps of response arising in me after spending some time with the gospel would be sufficient and so this is what I bring today. Along the way, as I sought the shared wisdom of others far more erudite than myself, I felt some relief to discover some of them also saying they weren’t sure quite what the author of the text was having Jesus say.
Today’s gospel passage from John has many a mixed metaphor, or a figure of speech, as the text translates it. We’ve a sheepfold, with a gatekeeper who lets a shepherd for the shepherd to bring out his sheep. The sheep know the shepherd for they recognise both his voice and their name called. The shepherd leads them out from the sheepfold and his sheep follow. Thieves and bandits can get into the sheepfold but not via the gate. This is the figure of speech, the metaphor part – apparently no one listening understands what Jesus is talking about so the author of John has Jesus interpret – “I am the gate,” Jesus says. What!!?? I didn’t seeing that one coming, not once but twice Jesus states, “I am the gate” so we know it wasn’t a mistake. Ok, so Jesus is now the gate, even so the sheep only listen to the one who calls them, are saved, come in and go out, find pasture and have life abundantly, they’re not stolen, killed and destroyed by thieves and bandits.
It seems rather as if the author of today’s snippet of scripture got very excited and decided to throw in a whole bunch of pastoral images associated with divine care from scripture, as if to see what would happen. For, should this passage have continued, we have Jesus declare “I am the good shepherd” but let’s not go there today.
I recognise such passage is metaphorical, I’m not intending to try and figure this out in literal sense. However, in the figure of speech part of the reading, the bit before Jesus clarifies what he is saying by confusingly interpreting what he means, I would have thought Jesus was pointing to himself as the shepherd, the one admitted to the sheepfold by the gatekeeper (let’s not go there). The one who goes into the sheepfold, whose voice the sheep hear when the shepherd calls his own sheep by name. The one who leads his sheep out, the one who, when “all his own,” are brought out, goes ahead of them and the sheep follow because they know his voice. Interestingly the following sheep go out, that’s all. They leave the sheepfold and follow, who knows where?
Wow, we could have fun with this, especially if we approached it with the intention to exclude, to claim privilege or status of divine stature and approval. Sure we’re told this is a figure of speech but what fun’s been had over the years by those who’ve aligned themselves as Jesus followers! Just take the image of sheepfold, for example, do you find popping into your head the idea of ‘church’ or ‘Christianity’ or some manner of concrete entity that is place of segregating identity? Perhaps as a place or space that keeps people safe, together, away from all manner of threatening nasty beasties? This isn’t to judge such thought as right or wrong, simply to indicate how we’ve been shaped to hear or think. Sheepfold does conjure images of a safe enclosed resting place for sheep (or other herded flock) to protect them from marauding dangers in the wilds – that is true. Such image is useful to portray a protective place of refuge or sanctuary in this figure of speech context. However, to be equally useful outside of such metaphorical context requires an ‘other than literal’ translation. It’s also interesting to note that thieves and bandits appear to be an ever present danger to the sheep when they’re in the sheepfold.
If we were to interpret that the shepherd is Jesus, he enters through the gate, calls his own sheep who respond to his voice and their name. These sheep are called from, to follow Jesus from the relative safety of the sheepfold. We hear in our translation the phrase “When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them.” Literally translated the Greek more accurately reads, “When he may drive his own out, he goes before them.” The Greek verb used ‘to drive out’ (literally ‘to throw out’) often has the sense of violence or coercion – like John 2:15 when Jesus drives out the sheep and oxen and the persons selling in the temple. In this case the shepherd ‘drives out’ the sheep, but by going before them and calling them and they hear his voice and follow. It quite changes the sentiment of calling from gently following a shepherd’s lead to being impelled to journey away from place of comfort and safety.
That the shepherd goes into the sheepfold and calls his own sheep by name and that those sheep follow because they know his voice, suggests there are other sheep in the fold – this sheepfold isn’t an exclusive joint. What’s more a little later in this same chapter of John we hear Jesus speak of having different sheep in different folds. So, yes, what we hear is that some hear Jesus’ voice and follow him and some don’t – that’s all we hear. We can decide to interpret this to mean we’ve had a sense of being called by name and we know others who speak of their sense of responding to their name being called – all well and good. The invitation to then judge and exclude others who seem not to have responded to Jesus’ call – that’s something else entirely.
So now we transition to the second part of today’s text when the author of John’s gospel helpfully (or otherwise) has Jesus explain this figure of speech. Apparently it is plain to see this figure of speech illustrates that Jesus is the gate for the sheep, (by) or through whom the sheep come in and go out and find pasture (now we know where they’re going!). Immediately, I imagine, we hear the interpretation of this text narrow. Not necessarily because of what is before us, these words of John’s gospel, but perhaps because of other scriptural passages suggesting few will enter the narrow door, pass through the eye of the needle, or John’s later words that Jesus is the way the truth and the life – texts that have been so thoroughly misused.
How might we understand the role of the gate? However we interpret a sheepfold, I think it’s fair to say it’s a place we come and go from. A gate is a place of transition, with purpose to provide an access way, those who pass through are noticed, a gate enables coming and going. A gate signals, identifies there is a place or space to come to and go from, unlike a wall that’s fixed, movability is the function of a gate, to enable flow. Given the tendency to want to get a fix on Jesus, perhaps utilise him to filter the acceptability or otherwise of those other to us, such image of gate as enabling and allowing flow, flexibility of function and purpose is curious.
Even though in this explanation of the figure of speech Jesus is gate somehow the sheep still listen to the voice that calls them for, “All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them.” In the interpretation we also discover where the sheep go out to – pasture, sustenance is found outside the sheepfold. The text does say that those who enter by the gate (Jesus) will be saved (commentators confirm, this isn’t about eternal life this is saved from the thieves and bandits, by the way), the sheep who enter through the gate will come in and go out and find pasture … will have life and have it abundantly. It doesn’t say no one else will come to and go from the sheepfold.
Mixed metaphors, fluidity of meanings, possibilities of understandings, the challenge of getting a fix from which to present and argument, a way to interpret or understand this text has flummoxed me this week. Snippets and fragments of wondering is all that has occurred with no way to wrestle them into some cogent form. Maybe that is a learning, we’re forever trying to wrestle God to ground, to lay our hands on divine purpose and meaning so we can tout it as a the meaning, the knowing, the wisdom for this place and time. It is uncomfortable to abide with an elusive, ever revealing, ever morphing God who reveals and conceals in equal measure. For it rather pushes us to depend on relational flow, which may require we spend a bit of time in relationship, developing our relationship to strengthen our bonds of understanding and trust. It would be far easier to be certain and concrete and told what to do.
The story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus has always been my favourite passage in the Bible. And in checking my sermon file I realised that this was the passage I preached from on my first Sunday at St Matthew’s 3 years ago. So for me now it is also about my life here in this place. I think it is my favourite passage because it is about what I do from one week to the next. Talking with people, walking alongside people, unpacking the scriptures, and breaking the bread. But this passage is not just about the priesthood it is about our community gathered around the table and our common journey together.
Our two companions walking the road to Emmaus this morning begin in a place many of us know well. They are feeling lost, despairing even. In telling the stranger what is wrong they say “we had hoped”  – we had hoped he was the one; like we had hoped our father would improve; we had hoped she wouldn’t be made redundant; we had hoped for a better outcome; we had hoped …..
They are lost, they do not know what to do. The one who gave them hope for the future of their people – their prophet, who seemed to be mighty in word and deed, has turned out not be so mighty after all.
What are they to do? This mysterious stranger joins them on the road and they do not recognize him. They do not know him. They had known Jesus well it seems, they have listened to his teaching, but they do not recognize him now, this post resurrection Jesus is different, changed. This stranger listens to their tale and then does some teaching of his own, talking about Moses and the prophets, explaining perhaps that God was never going to give them the triumphant victory over the Romans they wanted. Moses might have had victory over the Egyptians but that was followed by 40 years in the wilderness, (where the people were fed with bread, manna from heaven they called it); and perhaps he explains how Elijah was chased out of town in fear for this life (and a widow gave him her last bread); and how Isaiah spoke of a servant who would suffer with the people, and not bring the victory they imagined.
Jesus taught Cleopas and his unnamed companion as they walked along and still they did not know him. But they ask him to stay with them as the day is ending. The word used here for “stay” is often translated “abide” in the gospels. “Abide with us, because it is almost evening”. The word is more than “stay”, it means: be with us, let us know you, abide with us a while. And the stranger stays – and they gather at the table for a meal and they ask the stranger to bless the bread as was customary. “Jesus took the bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.” In that moment they recognize him, they see him, they know him.
Jesus took the bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them; as he did at the Last Supper; as he did in the sharing of the loaves and fish with the crowds of thousands.
These actions of taking, blessing, breaking and giving are actions Cleopas and his companion recognised.
We know these actions – we share them together every week in the eucharist; they are what binds our community together. In three years of sharing the eucharist with you I have come to know you, and you me; but much more importantly, in knowing you I come to know Jesus. Knowing God, discovering the divine, is something we do in community.
Apart from a few hermit monks no one can know God alone. We need each other and we don’t get to pick and choose who is part of the community because all are invited. Today some of our number have cooked food for the City Mission lunch and so our table is extended even further.
Our life in community needs organising and so today we commission our Vestry, the group of people to whom we give the responsibility of governing the life of our parish. They make decisions on our behalf and set the direction we are heading. They take on the responsibility of worrying about the building and the finances, things which are essential for our community life. Today we also restart our annual stewardship programme seeking our financial commitment to the parish. You have elected our Vestry and now we need to give them the tools to do their job. Please read the brochure, think about your commitment; what can you do to support our community. It belongs to all of us and we all are called to play our part.
Our Emmaus passage is about community but it is also about being on the road. This week I begin my sabbatical which will last for 2 months. I am very grateful three years into my ministry here to be able to go on the road for a while and see what is out there and reflect on what is back her, for the benefit of our journey together. I will be in New York, Washington DC, Toronto and Chicago – visiting churches from whom we might learn something; looking at urban ministry projects; talking about marriage equality with people who have led their churches to a place where marriage is for everyone; and stretching my brain in a couple of seminary courses. I am looking forward to meeting strangers on the journey who will become companions. I am looking forward to seeing colleagues and friends who are already companions. I hope and pray that I will recognise Jesus in these many places and that my heart will burn with what I see. And I know I will look forward to being back again, to break the bread with you and recognise Jesus in our midst.
Is Truth Dead? The cover of TIME magazine from last week sums up the current political conversation in the United States.  I wonder if this could have been the cover of the Jerusalem Times the year Jesus was crucified, if they had had magazines back then. Maybe. Is Truth Dead?
Our understanding of what is true today is based in the desire for provable, scientific facts. Anna Mansfield, writing in the Washington Post says “Our current concept of truth is largely a product of the Enlightenment, when humans codified a way to state a question, pose a hypothesis and collect observations that either supported or changed their understanding of the ‘truth’.” 
The rise of the “fact checkers” that seek to verify statements of politicians is borne out of the desire to verify what they are saying and hold them accountable. The fact checkers are working hard these days with the rise of “fake news”, events and opinions simply made up as a figment of someone’s imagination. Alarming stuff.
Mansfield goes on to say that Donald Trump and other leaders like him are operating in a different kind of a world based on emotional truth. You can quote facts all day and people will still “believe” him. “Facts don’t matter if the emotional impact is real.”  I think when I was at high school we had history lessons about this – it was called propaganda back then.
So what about our Easter story. What kind of truth is it? Is it fake news? The Matthew version of the gospel story that we read this year has all the political intrigue of present day Washington DC. On Good Friday the story finished with Pilate, who was the Roman governor, commanding that Jesus’ tomb be guarded so the body could not be stolen by his followers. The priests and the Pharisees were worried by what Jesus had said, and were concerned the disciples would make it look like he had been raised from the dead. And so the tomb was sealed. Which makes Matthew’s story perhaps the most dramatic of the four gospels because it then requires an earthquake to break open the sealed tomb. In the other gospels the stone has been rolled away already when the women arrive. Here there is an earthquake, and an angel; and the poor guards faint with fear. They can no longer see what is happening. Matthew places great emphasis on “seeing” – the women go to see the tomb (not to anoint the body as in the other stories); the angel says – come and see the place where he lay; and that they will see Jesus in Galilee; then suddenly Jesus is there and they see and touch him; and he too promises that the disciples will see him in Galilee. It reads a bit like a fact checker – see here – see this – see for yourself.
The story then carries on past what we read this morning – back to the political some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests everything that had happened. After the priests had assembled with the elders, they devised a plan to give a large sum of money to the soldiers, telling them, ‘You must say, “His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.” If this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.’ So they took the money and did as they were directed. (Mt 28:11-15)
So you can change the story if necessary. Keep it quiet. The trouble is Pilate and the Pharisees and the soldiers are dealing with the physical, visual aspects of the story. Matthew is writing about something else altogether.
He is writing about seeing the world with eyes of faith, seeing the world with God’s eyes if you like. Stanley Hauerwas says “Of course we cannot see the resurrection, because God cannot be seen. But we do see Jesus, who has been resurrected. Accordingly, the resurrection is the condition that now makes it possible for us to see truthfully all that is in God’s creation.” 
The guards saw the empty tomb; the chief priests knew about the empty tomb and that did not make them believers. The women saw Jesus but women were not considered reliable witnesses in Jesus’ day so their word could not be relied upon. And yet all four gospels agree it was the women who were the first witnesses to the resurrection. Not a very reliable way to build a case. But the gospel writers were not building a case for 21st century fact checkers, they were communicating a different kind of truth.
Hauerwas again “The truth that is Jesus is a truth that requires discipleship, for it is only by being transformed by what he has taught and by what he has done that we can come to know the way the world is.” 
Matthew was giving words and meaning to people’s experiences, uncovering for them a truth they knew as followers, and now needed to be able to pass on to others. Those in the next generation who have never met Jesus would also now be included in the discipleship and follow in the way of the resurrected one. Why?
Because to do so, to follow, made a difference. Made a difference to the way they saw and experienced the world; made a difference to their choices, the way they lived. And – this is where Pilate and the politics meets the story again – to be a follower of Jesus meant to see him as “lord” – not a term we are very comfortable with here at St Matthew’s (it sounds too hierarchical and masculine) – to call Jesus Lord, meant Caesar was not Lord. To call Jesus Lord meant that God’s reign was more powerful than Caesar and his soldiers and Pilate and the corrupt religious leaders.  Cate said in her Good Friday sermon that when Pilate washed his hands of Jesus and let him be crucified we see respresented in the story all the times we look away from injustice in our world. To claim to see Jesus and to kneel at his feet and worship him was to see through the unjust politics of the time to another way.
So what kind of truth is this then? Is it just a first century version of fake news? Well that is for you to decide, to discern. What do you see when you look at the world and your own life? Are you able to see hope? Are you able to see love? Are you able to see light in the midst of darkness? Faith does not remove the pain and sorrow from our world, indeed faith helps us to see pain, sorrow, injustice and face them sqaurely. Resurrection is life overcoming death, hope overcoming despair, love overcoming hate. Resurrection does not happen, cannot happen without there first being death. In Jesus’ case a death of torture and suffering by a politically oppressive regime. So resurrection faith does not jump over pain and sorrow to a polyanna world of sweetness and light. Resurrection faith is anchored in the real world of sorrow: war, drought, famine, homelessness, climate change, chemical weapons – whatever is top of your list of the world’s sorrows. Resurrection faith faces these things head on and says love will not be overcome, hope will not be overcome. Jesus says to the women – go to Galilee – go to the place we all lived and worked in – go there to our home – and you will see me again – and you will know then what is your purpose, your work. Today Jesus says to us – go to Aotearoa, go to Auckland, see me there where you are, in your life, in your work; see me there. What will we see?
Something that is real or just fake news? Each one of us is invited to make a choice. When we see the empty tomb do we go for the cover up story and remain silent; or do we say
Today we enter the second day of our three day Passion ritual. Last night, should the weather have been a little less threatening, after ritual of washing and stripping church of decoration we would have left in silence into the night. The darkness of Judas’ betrayal.
This morning, in light of new day we gather to listen, to witness to the repercussions of such betrayal. In this place we gather around this labyrinth, an earthed and enacted place of pilgrimage. As we embody our walk with divine presence, wander its pathways, we discover we are our journey.
In our Lenten time of preparation for this Passion season and for Easter we’ve taken time to reflect on water, and in a season of plentiful rain we’ve surely had an enacted experience of water. Each Sunday service, we were invited to walk our way toward the font, placing a stone in water, laying down with it things that burden us, so we might be refreshed, renewed. And in that time we heard from scripture passages about water: in creation stories, of the water of life, of our sacred responsibility to ensure a just share and for its good care.
The Passion narratives and that from today’s gospel have little mention of water. On Easter day, in the other side of death festival, we include water in ritual form, but on this side of death the Passion narrative water is mentioned for foot washing and for Pilate’s washing of hands. Foot washing an act of revelation, example for us to emulate of humility, service, hospitality. Hand washing, an act of interrupt, example for us to shun of denial, refusing justice, abandoning care.
When we hear the faith story of the Passion I suspect we feel called, urged, impelled to act as Jesus did, or be at least willing to follow his example. This is why on Maundy Thursday the service most often includes the ritual washing of feet enacting humility, service. We express our desire to be as Jesus – to serve, in humble act offer hospitality in gracious gesture of washing the feet of our faith filled companions. For as the order of service informed us, “By this act, Jesus radically crossed the boundary of privilege and power that divided teacher from student, and invited us to follow his lead.”
We look to Jesus, God with us, to learn from, to be like and we look away from those in the story who are not like God.
So we’re prepped, to tell, hear, receive this narrative of Jesus’ Passion as a story that tells us of God, about God. Perhaps because this is what we expect the Bible does, it tells us about God, reveals God to us. And the more we understand God the better we can live correctly, be accepted.
So I was interested to come across this piece from Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel. “The Bible”, he suggests, “is primarily not [our human] vision of God but God’s vision of [us]? The Bible is … dealing with [humans] and what [God] asks of [us] rather than with the nature of God.” For “God did not reveal to the prophets eternal mysteries but [God’s] knowledge and love of [humanity]“ 
So what might it be like to hear this Easter story as a story of what it is to be human, of what God is asking of us, of our being known to and beloved of God?
Let us consider Pilate in today’s story, the part where water is mentioned. Pilate whose example in the Passion narrative this day we turn from. With bowl of water, we’re told, he washes his hands of this Jesus affair, seeks to absolve himself of any involvement, to not be responsible, not be the one who metes out the injustice he perceives. That Pilate does this, the image and implications it bears are the reason that hand washing is not recommended on Maundy Thursday. We don’t want to align our actions with one who has authority to intercede for justice and chooses not to act, who’d rather wash his hands, to not know, refuse accountability for the consequences of his action.
However Pilate and Judas are included in this story, God’s story of what it is to be human, of what God asks of us. Both are necessary to this story. If Judas and Pilate and those who testified against Jesus in this narrative we tell, had not acted and spoken as they did, we would not have this story to tell. We might have another divine indwelling of creation story to tell but it wouldn’t be this one around which we gather, with our rituals redolent with image and sound and scent.
It wouldn’t be a story which places betrayal, denial, abandonment, refusal to act against injustice front and central. A story which includes the worst that we can do, we humans, one to another and to that which brings us into being, that deep mystery that lies in our heart, at the heart of this event called life.
At Easter and not just at Easter/Holy Week, but all through our journey of faith we’re called to follow, encouraged, urged to be and do, to emulate in thought, word and deed the way of Jesus. Scripture is woven through with rich stories of holy ones, eccentric, fringe dwelling, irregular and some I suspect quite mad but holy ones. We seek them out, look for and to them, that we might hear as they hear, keep close company with the divine as they do. In being and doing enact justice for life to flourish, be honoured, acknowledged, celebrated as divine gift.
We look to be that way, and prefer, perhaps to not look too closely at the way we are. Or rather recognise our falling short as part of our becoming – we are this now but we’ll improve, will become more like we’re meant to be and less like we are. But always hoping and striving for that which we are not renders us not present to now, not mindful of the immense gift of life now, not thankful for this moment, of which there will never be another.
Pilate and Judas, denying disciples and crucifying systems, they’re all included in this narrative of God’s vision of us, of we who are, known by God. Without Judas there would be no crucifixion. Without crucifixion there would be no death, without death there would be no next story told. We wouldn’t be here now, we wouldn’t gather on Holy Saturday, on Easter day and tell of our experience – the other side of death. This is not the day to speak of that. This day we stop and stare, astonished, aghast, heart torn at our participation in putting to death God who dares to show us who we are and who loves all that that reveals.
This narrative we tell is a narrative of life. It is the story of our life. We can know, dwell aware of divine presence now. All that we are is included in this narrative. On this day of denial and abandonment we’re given chance to acknowledge, admit, let it be true that betrayal, denial, abandoning of the good, to serve that which maims and kills is part of us. We participate in this narrative. Until, unless we let this be true, consider how these are in us, we cannot learn how to forsake them, we cannot be aware of how subtly and thoroughly they thread through us. It is then we can bring them before God, we who “know not what we do.” It is then these life denying, abandoning, destroying ways in us can be crucified. It is then we risk not knowing but trusting we’ll be made anew.
It is a curious irony, revealed by this Passion narrative, that our less than perfect human brokenness causes the death of Jesus and reveals Christ, the light of God-with-us, or to quote Leonard Cohen, “Forget your perfect offering, there is a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in.” We would prefer to experience ourselves as whole, not fractured and broken, incomplete, of course but it is the way we are, it’s how the light gets in.
Denial of this, ourselves, really as we are, prevents us enacting, indwelling, being our authentic broken selves. The whole of our life is included in the breadth of divine narrative that breathes us into life. The fractured failing of our lives opens us to be fully present in honest naked vulnerability before the One who loves us into being. When we are this within this narrative of hope, we can be changed, as we let die that way of being and entrust ourselves to the living God.
 Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man is Not Alone: a Philosophy of Religion (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1951), 129
Cast your minds back to 2003, the last Lord of the Rings film – the Return of the King. Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli are forced to travel the Dimholt Road, known as the paths of the dead. Inside the caverns under the mountains they find skulls and skeletons and then are confronted by the spirits of the dead who cannot rest until they have fulfilled their oath to the heir of Gondor. Aragorn is the heir and he commands them to fight for him, which they do, and they are then released from their torment and rest in peace. Some of the best scenes of the movie! Can’t believe it was 2003 – although of course true believer fans such as myself have watched it many times since!
Just last week during the Arts Festival there was a show with a similar theme, but this time not a fantasy movie but real life. The Bone Feeder, is a new opera by Gareth Farr. It tells the story of the early Chinese community in NZ. In 1902 Chinese families had arranged to send the bodies of their loved ones home for burial and as the show programme recounts “on October 26, 1902, the steamship SS Ventnor left Wellington bound for China with 499 coffins. The Chinese families believed that if they did not return their loved ones home, they would become hungry ghosts, unable to care for their families nor be cared for in turn. Tragically the ship struck a rock at Cape Egmont, sinking as it limped towards Hokianga Harbour. 13 lives were lost. Over time, the distinctive coffins floated ashore, to be found by Te Roroa and Te Rarawa iwi. Local oral history tells the secret of bones found and kept safe until their families came for them. In 2013, this at last came true when a delegation of Chinese, the descendants and kin of those lost, travelled North to thank the iwi for their guardianship. The Baisan ceremony was performed in order to ‘feed the bones’ and finally satisfy those hungry ghosts.” 
The opera tells this story in a very moving and also at times humorous way. The “ghosts” are restless until they find peace when their descendant arrives to pay due honour to the ancestors.
I think the prophet Ezekiel would have liked both The Return of the King and The Bone Feeder. Ezekiel was a pretty dramatic guy.
Ezekiel was exiled with the children of Israel in 597, they lived in Babylon. Ezekiel starts out his life as a prophet of doom pretty much – declaring that the people have got what they deserve. He would go into a trance and then relate the visions he saw. Often he would act them out – he ate a scroll of the words of God and declared them sweet to taste (Ezek 3); he took bricks and built a model of the siege of Jerusalem (Ezek 4); he lay down on one side for 390 days, the number of years of punishment God was going to give the people (Ezek 4); then he shaved his head – burning some of his hair and scattering the rest to the wind (Ezek 5) to show what was happening to the people of Israel. All rather dramatic and actually pretty crazy.
As time goes on Ezekiel teaches the people new ideas. They have had to deal with exile from their homeland which is bad enough, but also exile from the Temple, their place of worship which has been destroyed. The people believed God resided in the Temple and if they worshipped there then all would be well. They have to find a new way to relate to God, away from the Temple and away from the places God was said to reside. Ezekiel teaches them that God resides in their hearts
I will take you from the nations, and gather you from all the countries, and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances. Then you shall live in the land that I gave to your ancestors; and you shall be my people, and I will be your God. (Ezek 36:24-28)
The idea that God could be found within people, instead of an external Temple was radical and new.
When Ezekiel has his vision of the valley of the dry bones, it is in this new more hopeful time. God has punished the people in exile but God will also breathe new life into them. At the beginning of his vision Ezekiel can only see devastation, a whole valley of dry bones. Like Aragorn entering the valley of the dead, or the tragedy of 499 coffins being lost at sea. There can only be sorrow and loss and fear. Ezekiel is told to “prophesy” to the bones; to cry out to them, in sorrow maybe, but also in hope. To speak life to them; the power of the word of God being so strong. And so in his vision the bones are recreated into humans and the breath, the spirit, the ruach of God fills them.
I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil (Ezek 37:14). The people can begin to have hope that one day they or their descendants will return home – and 70 years later in 520 they will return and the Temple will indeed be rebuilt.
Ezekiel’s way of communicating is very physical. And yet he integrates the physical and the spiritual. Our modern world has separated the physical and the spiritual – in Ezekiel we see them come together. The breath, the spirit is within the bodies, not separate from them.
When we look at our world and ourselves where do we see valleys of dry bones? In the famine in the Sudan, in places of drought, in people struggling with poverty in our own land. Maybe your own life at the moment feels like a valley of dry bones – because of loss or grief, or plain boredom at work. Ezekiel invites us to prophesy, to speak, to claim the spirit of God. Ezekiel invites us breathe in a life giving breath and to seek to transform our experience or that of others. Our Christian life and prayer is not a magic wand for change, but we can bring change and hope for ourselves and each other when we seek a new spirit, and a heart of flesh, not stone.
This passage from Ezekiel is one we will read again on Holy Saturday at the Easter Vigil service. As we gather in the darkened church we imagine the darkness of the tomb of Jesus, or the tomb of Lazarus. We gather and listen and wait. We hear read the story of creation, the story of the people passing through the Red Sea to freedom, then the valley of the dry bones. Each reading sets the scene, reminds us of God’s actions though the ages, and prepares us to welcome Jesus, who like Lazarus, walks from the tomb. This year we are going to open up the baptismal pool and we are going to be invited to walk down into it (without the water, you don’t have to wear your bathing suit); and to walk up the other side. As we have been walking to the font each Sunday in Lent to lay down our burdens symbolized in the stones, so we will walk down into the valley, or the tomb, and up and out to the other side, with God’s ruach breathed into us.
Prophesy mortal, speak, proclaim hope, proclaim life, be ready for spirit to be alive with you.
Ezekiel’s vision can become real for us if we claim it, if we choose to speak and to act.
This past Wednesday was World Water Day. Since 1993 this day has recognised the importance of universal access to clean water in developing countries as well as the more sustainable management of freshwater resources everywhere. It is therefore timely, perhaps, to ask what is the place of water in our prayer, our relationships, our being-in-the-world?
For me, personally, there is no experience more sacred and prayerful than when I am in the mountains, descend to hands and knees and cup to my mouth handfuls of water, filtered by roots and moss.
Along with air, water is a critical requirement of sustaining life. Without water all living things eventually suffer, then die. In short, water is a fundamental physiological need. The simple act of giving water to the thirsty – whether they be people, animals or plants – is hence an act of mercy.
Notwithstanding recent floods in Auckland, these are changing times, when drought is at the door of many. When the presence and purity of water is under threat, we are surely called to reflect on the significance of water flowing through our lives.
Beyond sustaining our bodies, water fulfils higher order purposes. It has cleansing properties, washing away dirt and bodily wastes. It meets our social needs, encouraging playfulness- watch families on a beach! It appeals to our sense of beauty – consider fountains and waterfalls. According to psychologist Abraham Maslow, water meets a complete hierarchy of needs in our lives – from physiological to expressing our identity. For us on faith journeys, water is also deeply sacramental and symbolic. Yet, if our experience of water is compromised, can it retain a scared place in our lives?
On the shores of Lake Erie in the mid-1980s, I recall ‘geologian’ Thomas Berry pointing to the murky waters saying “if we allow waterways to become polluted, our understanding of baptism becomes degraded”. Berry was saying that the power of the symbol is sustained by the integrity of its elements. Impure water can dangerously corrode the meaning of baptism. Offering water to the thirsty, an act flowing from the blessing of baptism, is but the beginning of mercy; as Christians we are also called to act in defence of the quality of water.
Three images in the media have recently spoken to me of the fragile state of fresh water in NZ. First, herds of cattle are straying and defecating into lakes and rivers. Farming has long been our country’s sacred cow and to question its practices can sometimes seem tantamount to treason. Yet public opinion is turning. We can no longer ‘go with the flow’ and accept reckless farming practices as a priority over water quality.
Second, consents have been granted for the extraction and export of billions of litres of artesian water each year. That this water would be bottled and exported has added to a sense of dismay. But are multinational corporations extracting and bottling water any more morally questionable than large-scale irrigation for dairying in otherwise dry and ecologically sensitive parts of our country?
Third, Forest and Bird just received a donation of $5M from a couple wanting to strengthen its commitment to defending freshwater in Aotearoa. In other activism, last year students marched in Wellington, presenting a petition calling for all f