Advent 4 Oscar Romero Liturgies of Life Luke 1:26-30
This week we return to what we have come to consider the traditional Christmas stories. Last week it was all about John, kinsman of Jesus, pointing toward the one who would come to change the world as it was known and experienced.
So let’s begin with an easy question, shall we? What is hope?
If we look to today’s gospel, hope, we might presume, resides the other side of suffering darkness, of stars falling and heaven being shaken, in words that will not pass away. Beware, keep alert, keep awake – hope is not yet, not in what is.
If ‘in biblical reference we do trust’ when searching what is hope, we might find ourselves in Romans 8 that reads “for in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” In hope we were saved; hope that is seen is not hope; if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience – hope in this context appears to be something we’re quite passive before.
What about hope in the context we find ourselves? Some of you may know that for the last couple of years I’ve participated in an online community of Deep Pacific Change Agents. Every 6 weeks a group of us, mainly from Australia and NZ, ‘meet’ via Zoom. It’s hosted by an American woman, Carol Sanford of some international renown. Carol shares her thinking and challenges us to test it, not to unthinkingly trust it. We learn together as we share and test her propositions through our lived experience. We met a couple of weeks ago. I was struck by a question she posed. It went something like this “How often do we work on something we don’t know how to think about?” “How often do we work on something we don’t know how to think about?”
Is this nonsense, how is it possible to work on things you don’t know how to think about? Mind you how do you hope in something that is not seen!
Let us consider … what do we want the impact of our life to be? The life we’re currently living, by the grace of God and good health, we’ll continue to live for some time. Yet we don’t know what, or perhaps how our life will play out. Yes, we can strategize and plan and imagine its shape – but we don’t know what it will actually be. And the longer we live the more we realise the unlikely, unexpected surprising happens more often than not. How many 5 year plans made since 2015 included a 2020 Covid-19 global pandemic?
Say we want our life to contribute into the world – for good. Maybe we can be more specific – for the planet/the homeless/jobless/to relieve child poverty, for our whanau, for our community. Each of these points to a life lived toward something beyond us, for a greater cause.
The reality is that what we do emerges from who we are – as individuals, as groups, as entities. Our doing emerges, expresses our thinking, our understanding, our learning. How much time do we invest paying attention to this?
Because if we want/imagine/hope for something – a way for the world to be that is unlike the way it is – for this to come into being, to be the work we do, the impact of our life, it requires us to be able to pay attention to how our thinking outworks and to learn to think differently. Because our habits, our ways of thinking, is creating our current reality.
When I pose the question, “What is hope?” I pose it here. Not into a vacuum but into a Christian context. A context that tells a story of God with us, that we’re divinely companioned. The question of hope therefore is posed into a context of presence, not absence. The reading we hear from Isaiah today is a lament. In this tradition the lament is understood to be a “profound statement of faith in God from the midst of utter human hopelessness … the worshipper prays in the midst of [their] pain” , believing their condition is cared about, trusting the outcome to be held in God, that they’re not abandoned. What is hope, in this context? Might it suggest hope is about having courage to remain present in all of life’s challenges? Even in deepest despair a peculiar courage and resolve arises – for something deeper resides, holds and grounds us.
The lament, we hear, is a profound statement of faith. In the context of Christian faith, what has faith to say of hope? Again, if we turn to the bible, our search might lead us to Hebrews 11 which links hope with faith. “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.” Faith is assurance, conviction and understanding of things hoped for and not seen. Again hope seems something we’re passive before, faith is a trusting dependency that God will enact that which is hoped for. Could this be a way to interpret the world so to make sense of our human experience? Looking back we’ve created a story and we continue to tell it in like form into the future.
Yet “What is hope?” How about we ask, what is something we hope for? Say, a world without suffering? A world where honest, truthful mutually beneficial exchange prevails rather than one of incessant wrangling for power? Speaking to such aspiration Yuval Harari, author, Israeli public intellectual and historian proposes “Truth and power can travel together only so far. Sooner or later they go their separate ways. If you want power, at some point you will have to spread fictions. If you want to know the truth at some point you will have to renounce power. You will have to admit things … that will anger allies, dishearten followers or undermine social harmony. … Scholars throughout history found this dilemma; do they serve power or truth? Should they aim to unite people by making sure everyone believes in the same story or should they let people know the truth even at the price of disunity?
As a species,” he asserts, “humans prefer power to truth … we spend far more time and effort on trying to control the world than on trying to understand it – and even when we try to understand it, we usually do so in the hope that understanding the world will make it easier to control. Therefore if you dream of a society in which truth reigns supreme and myths are ignored, you have little to expect from Homo Sapiens.” 
Interesting, a little discomforting – maybe this too is a looking back, interpreting of human experience to create a story that continues to be told into the future. Are we willing to consider that what we hope for, more often than not, is founded on what we know and it’s prejudiced by a human preference for power over truth? Most of what we hope for is what we see. And it’s creating this world we occupy.
So what of hope?
Perhaps hope give us courage to live with what is, with the way things are, plans and expectations disconcertingly interrupted, courage to remain present even in the suffering caused by living fully. For “we do not hope for what we have” Thomas Merton reminds us. “Hope empties our hands in order that we may work with them. It shows us that we have something to work for, and teaches us how to work for it.” 
In this season of Advent on this Sunday of hope, if we want things, our world to be otherwise, maybe it’s time to pay attention, to be alert, keep awake to our habits and ways of thinking, for in doing so we will pay attention what we do and it might make all the difference to and in the world.
 Yuval Noah Harari 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2019, 281-282.
 Thomas Merton No Man Is an Island New York: Harvest, 1983, 13-1
November 8, 2020
Ordinary 32 Amos 5:18-24 Matthew 25:1-13
Today’s parable of the waiting bridesmaids might bring to mind the waiting that has gone on this week.
Our own politicians waiting for the final election count;
a certain other country waiting for their votes to be counted;
Cate is waiting to become a grandmother again.
Think of the waiting you did this week – in traffic; waiting for an answer to an email; for some news – good or not so good.
The bridesmaids in Jesus’ parable were waiting for the bridegroom.
He will come when the dowry negotiations have been concluded with the bride’s father.
Then the festivities can begin.
The bridesmaids needed lamps, oil lamps to light the way from the house of the bride to the bridegroom’s where the wedding banquet is held.
(Notice the bride is not even mentioned…)
Five of the bridesmaids have spare oil, and five do not.
The bridegroom is late; and when he arrives the five with the spare oil will not share with the five who have.
And the procession leaves without them.
Doesn’t seem like a model of Christian behaviour does it?
They are told to go and buy more oil, well obviously the oil merchant stores will not be open in the middle of the night, and when they finally get there the door is shut and the bridegroom says “I do not know you”.
So what happened to “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, …but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven. (Mt 6:19), no hoarding of oil there.
and “Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.” (Mt 7:7), here the door is shut. 
This parable seems the height of unfairness; what bridegroom arrives at midnight anyway, and the so called foolish bridesmaids had enough oil for a reasonable day of bridesmaid duties.
And how could he say he did not know them, presumably, they are friends or relations of the bride.
So we don’t get anywhere trying to sort out this parable in a logical kind of way.
Jesus’ parables are never logical, but this one is particularly frustrating.
Let’s think for a moment about the oil.
The bridesmaids needed to take extra oil; like trampers taking extra water for a tramp; students studying well ahead of exams; investors investing wisely.
You could always take the risk, carry a little less water and know that another group will bail you out and share their water.
You could borrow your friends’ notes and cram at the last minute.
You could invest all your money in high risk investments, after all you get a better return that way.
Until one day the other trampers don’t come, or won’t share; your friend’s notes aren’t as good as doing the work yourself; and there is a financial crisis across the world.
The oil is something each person has to have and can’t borrow from others.
We have to be ready, while we wait.
Let’s pause a moment there and look wider.
This parable is told right at the end of Jesus’ ministry on the Mount of Olives where the disciples are gathered after a day of testing the Pharisees and other leaders in the Temple.
Jesus has even promised that the Temple will not last.
When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, ‘Tell us, when will (the destruction of the Temple) be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?’
So tension is high.
Going out to be with this bridegroom is going to take some courage.
What happens the next night when the disciples are in the Garden of Gethsemane?
They fall asleep.
So if these disciples are going to be ready, what do they need?
What is it that we need to take with us?
The prophet Amos is pretty clear, it will not be our burnt offerings, sacrifices, and religious rituals and songs; these will see the door slammed in our faces.
Amos says instead “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream”. (5:24).
Amos is a prophet in a very divided time for the people of Israel (8th C BC).
Amos names what he sees and berates the people.
One of my commentaries said this
“Amos comes from a world of sharp divisions … the people of Israel are divided into two groups: those who will be ruled only by a descendant of David (the former king) – no matter how corrupt – and those who will be ruled only by someone they hope is like David, or who at least shows the promise of who David was on his good days.” 
The “day of the Lord”, the time of judgement, will be darkness unless justice rolls down like water.
So let’s get back to the oil.
The commentaries I read said the oil was either our “deeds of love and mercy” ; or our faith  and so a life lived in faith means the bridegroom will open the door.
The problem with that idea is that you end up measuring – have you done enough deeds of love and mercy, have you got enough faith.
How full is your lamp?
And I don’t think God is in the measuring business.
I think God is in the desiring business.
How much do you want to go to the party?
Do you want to go enough to make sure there is oil in the lamp, so you can get there?
Or what if, as Debie Thomas points out, the bridesmaids had decided to go anyway without any oil.
What if they took the risk and walked by the light of the others’ lamps.
What if they had trusted enough to arrive at the door on time but empty handed. 
I reckon the door would have stayed open.
How is the oil in your lamp doing?
Do you want to go to the party, to the banquet table?
The bridegroom’s only question is how much do you want to be here?
What might get in the way of our wanting to go to the party?
Thinking we haven’t been invited? all are invited.
Being busy, distracted, fearful, worrying about what to wear? all are invited.
Getting lost in duty and rituals as Amos describes? remember it’s a party we are invited to.
Bring the oil, bring the desire and then the door will be propped wide open.
If it feels like your oil has run dry, walk with someone whose lamp is burning and the door will be propped wide open.
Then we will see justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.
Think of all the new vocabulary we have added into our mental dictionary this year – PPE, clusters, bubbles, team of 5 million, going hard and early, epidemiologist, coronavirus, genome testing, serology, fake news, conspiracy theories, lockdown, level four, three, two, one, social distancing …
Words that when we hear them in the future, after all this is over, will evoke lots of memories and experiences. Key words that define this year.
Of course there are other things that define this year – different things for each one of us – some have joys to celebrate – births, marriages, overcoming the adversity of the year; some have sorrows to remember – our loved ones who have died – some of whom will be named in the prayers; others have loss of jobs and incomes; loss of opportunities; being constrained by our inability to travel the world to see family and friends.
The words of Jesus we heard today in our gospel reading are key words that define the community of followers of Jesus.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” it begins.
Mysterious sounding poetry. What does that even mean?
One of our problems with these phrases is that they have become so clichéd that we don’t hear them at all.
Another problem is that we hear them as commandments – with a “should” added in – you should be meek, pure and poor. Doesn’t sound very attractive does it.
Susan told us last week that there are 613 actual commandments in the Old Testament and Jesus chose just two as the most important – love God and love your neighbor.
The Beatitudes – as this list of sayings is called – are not commandments but descriptions of the community of people who love God and love neighbor.
Stanley Hauerwas says “This is not a list of requirements, but rather a description of the life of a people gathered by and around Jesus.” 
And they are not about us as individuals, but about us in community, with the diversity of gifts we share.
Let’s try hearing the reading in a different way from “The Message” Bible:
1-2 When Jesus saw his ministry drawing huge crowds, he climbed a hillside. Those who were apprenticed to him, the committed, climbed with him. Arriving at a quiet place, he sat down and taught his climbing companions. This is what he said:
3 “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and God’s rule.
4 You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.
5 You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are – no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.
6 You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. God is food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat.
7 You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourselves cared for.
8 You’re blessed when you get your inside world – your mind and heart – put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.
9 You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.”
This is a description – in the present – of what we are – and what we can be if we trust in the grace and goodness of God. But it still doesn’t seem very attractive because we don’t want to be at the end of our rope, to have lost someone, to be content with what we have – we want more, and to do better.
We are driven by the sense that if we work hard or work more we will do better and achieve more, and then the income we receive or the house we can afford are all due to our own hard work.
Michael Sandel, philosopher and author of The Tyranny of Merit: what’s become of the common good  – would say that our income and achievements are largely due to our parents, their income, and the luck of the draw of having innate skill and abilities. Not much to do with our hard work at all. And discovering this to be true, he says, makes us grateful and humble and the kind of person one might find in amongst the followers of Jesus. He doesn’t mean that we should stop our work, or our creativity, or our striving to make the world a better place but when we do achieve something we realise with humility it is not all down to us.
In the church world the “prosperity gospel” – where people believe that if they are wealthy then God has blessed them and if they are poor then God has not – is a sign of meritocracy gone crazy.
It always puzzles me that prosperity gospel preachers have clearly never read the Beatitudes.
Let’s take the Beatitudes, even though they are puzzling and unsettling. Let’s be unsettled by them and reminded to approach life with humility and gratitude.
Being grateful is taught as part of mindfulness these days, but being grateful is a core mark of our Christianity.
We give thanks today for our loved ones who have died – we give thanks for their lives, their sorrows and their joys. We give thanks that we can gather for worship at all, go to the movies, go to the opera; that we can sing and celebrate.
And we pray for our world that is suffering and mourning.
We give thanks for the formation or our own government and the freedom to vote in elections and referendums.
As Susan said last week we can now think about how we can be part of the world we voted for; what can we do in our community to further the goals we all have of alleviating poverty and saving the planet.
And sometimes that might start with our own attitudes that creep in – can we catch ourselves thinking – if those with low incomes just worked a bit harder they would achieve more – and instead remember that we are fortunate because of many factors, not just our own work. We give thanks with humility and gratitude, and seek to be amongst the blessed who are comforted, and who will see God.
“Which commandment in the law is the greatest?” The Pharisees asked Jesus.
And we know he replied “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” ... and then went on saying “the second is like it; you shall love your neighbour as yourself.” This is what Jesus seemed to think mattered most!
But did you know there were 613 commandments for him to choose from! I didn’t till a few weeks ago ... or if I did once I had forgotten. Clearly it was a question to test him, we would know that even if the writer of Matthew’s gospel hadn’t told us! And the testing questions went on between Jesus and the Pharisees with Jesus asking them “what do you think of the Messiah? Who’s son is he?” Perhaps a bit of intellectual rivalry, or antler-clanking going on do you think?
No one was really expected to remember all 613 commandments – 365 of which were negative (thou shalt not) and 243 positive (thou shalt). So it would appear that Jesus! following the usual practice of the teachers! had clustered them into two groups, which it seems he thought were pretty much the same! I find that very interesting. It is unambiguous: loving God and loving neighbour were like one another.
We have just had a general election.
Which commitment, policy, or promise in the election mattered most to you? What was most important – sufficient to influence your vote? Your tikanga and your life experience will undoubtedly influence your answer to that.
Some of us will be happy with the outcome of the election, and some not so happy. Some of us will see our concerns on the top of the ‘to do’ list and some will not.
As I was preparing this sermon I was prompted to ask myself how many commitments/promises were made by the various parties? It seems! according to one analyst! that there were well over 600. When I tried to find out more detail it was difficult but I saw that analysts clustered the various promises under headings. Headings such as Economy and Finance, Climate, Tax, Children, Housing, Covid-19, Environment, Culture and Community, and more ... Under each of the numerous headings there were further lists of promises/commitments. It caused me to ask myself which, of the uncountable areas named as commitments and promises, I had focused on when deciding which party to vote for: what mattered most to me?
I can admit, when I tried to check out the range of possibilities, I wasn’t aware of many of them! They had passed by my notice!
We assume that the Pharisees were well schooled in the law as set out in the Torah, we assume they knew 613 of them. They were after all contemporary ethicists (rather than theologians) concerned with how people lived, and supposedly concerned with encouraging people to live the law well and honourably. Jesus was, it would seem from the big picture we have of his relationship with the Pharisees, a bit of a challenge to this. The writer of Matthew’s gospel suggests Jesus doesn’t think they do too well at living out what they preach and teach. In the verses that immediately follow today’s reading (23:3ff) Jesus has the temerity to say to his followers, “do whatever they teach you, and follow it, but do not do what they do, for they do not do what they teach...”
In our society we are pretty hot on walking the talk: doing what we say. We hold our politicians to account for their promises and shout and holler when we think they are not living up to them. But I am challenged to wonder how I am living in response to the primary concerns I identified and that shaped my vote last week.
The society we have shaped is multi-layered: individual relationships, family networks, local organisations, and national organisations of which parliament is the most obvious. We can have influence at each layer if we are so inclined and, we can be globally aware and press our representatives to take our global community seriously too so as to engage and have influence, as we have seen in the Covid response – and hope to see re the climate crisis!
So what was it that shaped your vote? Was a concern for the wellbeing of yourself and your family: tax cuts, access to pharmaceuticals, what would be best for you and yours? Or was it a concern for others: our neighbours in our local community, those with the least share of our national wealth? Or was it concern for our global neighbours: refugees and immigration? Was it perhaps the earth herself: the climate crisis and pollution?
What mattered to you?
How are you planning to walk the talk of your concern?
Jesus said the first commandment is “to love God with all your heart and soul and your mind” But God is not a black hole that soaks up love! Loving God is not providing the fodder necessary to feed an egotistical God. Rather God is the very life force that enlivens all things and love of God is shown by doing things that are life enhancing; in the way we love our neighbours so they might flourish in their living. In 1 John we are told we cannot love God and ‘hate’, (or today we might say ‘disregard, the well-being of) our neighbours – and we know neighbours are not just the people who live next door!
I was intrigued to notice there was dichotomy that I could reflect on and which might shape the way I chose to act: that was to wonder if I voted from fear or from generosity! Fear of scarcity for myself and my family or generosity toward the well-being of others and toward the earth. Such a reflection, of course, if we dare indulge, leads us to be quite specific and to ask ourselves how we will walk the talk of our election priorities: will it be with scarcity and fear as our guiding motifs, or generosity and abundance?
What is the talk you will walk; what is the gospel you will live by?
How will you walk, and with whom as companions?
Have you given thought as to what you will seek to hold this new government to account for?
How we cast our vote speaks to our priorities and to what matters for us so is worth reflecting on.
We can’t all attend to everything with the same energy and commitment, and sometimes we can feel guilty when we see how much time and energy others pour into issues.
We can, however, all be grateful that others can do what we can’t.
And we can support them with our love and our prayers.
In our turn we can resolve to be faithful to the commitments we have been able to make, walking the talk, and talking what matters.
We, gathered here are church, we are not church alone but in our common commitment to the gospel of God; we need each other so the fullness of the gospel can be proclaimed in word and in deed.
October 18, 2020
Ordinary 29 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 Matthew 22:15-22
I do love it when the lectionary gives us the perfect reading – the day after our election we are reading about taxes and government!
The verse “give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s” is sometimes quoted in political discussions. People usually quote it meaning we should keep politics and religion separate.
The political leaders of Jesus’ day think they have caught him out. “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
You have to hear the smarmy tone as they sidle up to him.
Matthew notes that it is the Pharisees and the Herodians who ask the questions – normally two groups who would vie with each other for power but now they are united in their desire to trap Jesus.
And it might seem like an innocent enough question – but let’s remember the setting. Israel is occupied by the Romans, they are an armed occupying force. Everyone had to pay taxes to the occupiers.
So to say yes to this question (yes it is lawful to pay taxes to the emperor) meant Jesus was supporting the occupier, the oppressor of the Jews. But to say no – we should not pay taxes, would be to invite sedition and the wrath of the Roman soldiers.
Then there is another layer of meaning here – on the Roman coins was the head of the emperor – just like the Queen is on our coins –
but the Roman emperor was seen as a god, and was worshipped, and the inscription on the coins, said the divine emperor.
The coins were seen as a symbol of Roman power and religion and the most strict Jewish faithful 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 Jewish people 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 (via the coins) with 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 we imagine - 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.
Humanity is created in the image of God, and not one of us resembles another, how vast then our understanding of God can become.
As vast as the number of people and cultures who walk the earth.
And yet in all that diversity each of us still are called to give to God the things that are God’s. And Jesus is not half hearted when he makes that declaration He demands that we look at ourselves and remember we are each made in the image of God. We cannot split ourselves – well today I am Caesar’s out in the world but tomorrow in the Temple I will be God’s.
Do we sometimes feel split – our life of faith on the one hand and the rest of our life on the other? Do we feel trapped like Jesus?
Do we feel trapped or at least unsure how to express or live our faith outside of the church walls? Do we feel trapped by the stereotype of what a Christian is thought to be?
When Judith Collins prays in a church everyone is immediately asking – what does this mean? and is she targeting the conservative vote? No one ever asks – is she targeting the progressive vote?
And do we feel trapped too when our own church fails us on progressing same sex marriage; or makes unhelpful statements on the end of life choice bill; or when we hear of the years of abuse that went on at Dilworth School – and our hearts break for the victims. We feel dismayed, disappointed, let down.
So let’s do what Jesus did when he was trapped – not accept the premise of the question and step into a new space. Step into a space where everything we do and say belongs to God.
Our income, our taxes, our energy, our love.
Let’s not be Herodians and live with an acceptance of the way things are. And let’s not be Pharisees, rejecting the world altogether.
We can be followers of Jesus, challenging ourselves every time we come to worship, to go out these doors and embrace everyone as precious people made in the image of God.
As our new government gets set to spend our taxes, we can get involved, get political and roll up our sleeves for service.
There is a lot to be done.
God’s world needs us.
Our whole selves, bearing God’s image in our hearts and in our minds, and on our faces.
“The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers and burned their city.” “Bind him hand and foot and throw him into outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Don’t you love it when we encounter these vivid passages in our Bible of a wrathful, angry and destroying God, should we assume this to be a parable of a king to be about God? How do we put such images next to the loving all-embracing God who welcomes us always, forever ready to forgive and restore our relationship?
Today’s gospel from Matthew is the third parable in Jesus’ reply to the question of his authority. The first was the one of the two sons asked to work in the vineyard, one said “Yes” and didn’t, the other said “No” and did. The second one was of the wicked tenants in the vineyard. Each is spoken in the temple to the Jewish religious leaders. We read today’s parable as one continuous story – although it might be seen as two stories juxtaposed. Both use allegory to portray their message. The stories open with the declaration, “the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son.” Given this parable follows the two mentioned it is reasonable to identify the characters thus; the king is God, the son Jesus, the invited guests those who are like the wicked tenants, identified as the chief priests and the Pharisees. The first slaves who are sent out the Hebrew prophets, the second and third slaves sent out the early Christian missionaries, Jerusalem is the city that was burned, it was destroyed about 70AD, some time before Matthew’s gospel was compiled, the ‘good and bad’ who came to fill the banquet hall were the mixed membership of the church.
The first story ends with the wedding hall filled with guests. Guests, both good and bad, gathered from the street by the third set of slaves. It begins with the king calling those already invited to the wedding banquet of his son. According to the custom of the time, as accurate timepieces, much less cell phones with pinging calendar reminders were unavailable and preparation for a banquet was time consuming, invitations were sent out and accepted well in advance. Once the banquet was ready, the host would send notice. But, we hear, the guests “would not come”, without offering any excuses they simply refuse to honour the invitation. It was one thing, perhaps even a privilege to have been invited to such an event. Accepting an invitation in principle for some future event was easy and convenient enough. But now the invitation calls for action and the guests can only see its inconvenience. We might like to ask, “Is this story a parable for back then or is it a story of now?”
For we might be given cause to reflect upon the sense of divine call that brings us to this place of Christ following, however we understand that in our own lives. Maybe we're happy to accept the invitation to belong, to become part of the Body of Christ, the invitation is great – in principle. The invitation becomes however less convenient when it comes to the particular. We’re happy to embrace a discipleship that doesn’t move us outside our comfort zones, to live out ways of discipleship that don’t challenge us to change.
The king then sends out a second lot of slaves to these same people who’ve been offered and accepted his invitation to attend the wedding banquet. The king seeks to persuade them, tempting them with the lusciousness, the desirability and abundance of the feast that has been prepared and laid out ready for them. In order to receive this abundant provision all they’re called to do is respond. In ‘real life’ it’s most unlikely a king would give his subjects a second chance, much less try and persuade them to take that chance up but with allegory there’s a freedom to go beyond the usual. Maybe the author intends to make a point about this king who’s no ordinary king. This is God whose grace goes beyond ordinary expectations or experience.
The second time the invitees give a variety of excuses. Interestingly the preoccupation of the first who give various excuses is with good rather than bad things. They’re not out partying and drinking, no they’re distracted by the vocations to which God has called them. Maybe we’ll have time for God when we’ve finished being consumed with all the things that keep us busy. Perhaps there’s room to pencil God on our ‘to-do’ list, or we’ll simply make a mental note that God is important too. Perhaps God will just wait ‘til we’ve plenty of time.
The first part of the story is framed to speak against the Jewish leaders, perhaps as representatives of their people. Those who hadn’t responded to God’s call to attend the abundant wedding feast of God’s son, who refused to acknowledge Jesus authority. At first they simply did nothing when God called, then they were otherwise engaged and then they became actively resistant, persecuting and killing those who brought and reminded them of their obligation to respond to God’s welcome. The destruction of Jerusalem, the city that was burned, Matthew would wish to make clear was the judgement of God upon people who had rejected the invitation to the God’s banquet in the fullness of time. So as this story tells those invited had proved themselves not worthy. But God’s generosity and overabundant hospitality reaches beyond our imagining.
The king sends more slaves into the main street to invite those they find who will respond to God’s call and they do come and gather, both good and bad we hear. Historically, apparently the church of Matthew’s day offered such openness – it found an eager audience amongst those not welcome elsewhere, the irreligious and outcast, those banned from the synagogue because of mental or physical conditions. Again we might like to ask, “Is this story a parable for back then or is it a story of now?” As we reflect on this maybe we find ourselves thinking this analogy speaks of God writing off the Jewish people and replacing them with the people off the street – maybe even assume the people from the streets now invited are Christians – like us.
Well we could go that way but we still have the second, much briefer story, related to the first to tell. We’re in the midst of this abundant wedding feast, the hall filled with people, both good and bad, who have answered the king’s call. Then the king arrives, the first thing he notices is a man who’s not wearing a wedding robe. This is allegory remember, with its capacity to embrace extensions of reality, so we can put aside the finer detail of how people fresh off the street could be attired in wedding garments, maybe the king’s generosity could extend to include clothing the invited guests with such garment as they arrived. But the thing is that this man stands out, is noticed because he’s not clothed as the others. This story’s being told in the context of Matthew’s gospel with its own particular theme: no privilege on the basis of status. Only a life of transformed attitude and performance counts. Its Matthew’s Jesus who warns the disciples their righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees (5:20), that not everyone who says “Lord, Lord” will enter the kingdom of heaven, only those who do the will of the Father in heaven (7:23); that the kingdom of heaven will be taken from those who do not bear fruit and given to those who do (21:43).
The invitation to the wedding banquet, the call to be present – granted those found, those who hear and respond, isn’t dependent on a preapproved worthiness test. But something is asked should we respond – we’re expected to change. To don the garment appropriate to the context, in keeping with the occasion of feasting at this wedding banquet. What is this garment you might ask? Colossians 3 suggests, “Therefore as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.” They echo in the beautiful words from Philippians, “let your gentleness be known to everyone ... whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise think about these things.”
We may know how we’re called to behave and to aspire to live and be people who are clothed thus. We also know we don’t always or consistently succeed. It is so hard to be thus. We do not live in, do not see reflected in the face of the world shown us, such hope or aspiration – rather much the opposite. It’s a struggle for us not to end up simply reflecting that world shown us. It can be hard to hold onto the thread of hope from which such garment is spun. And yet today’s gospel asserts this is what is required of us. To declare, insist there is an alternative way to see the way the world is, another way to live in and respond to the world because there is another way to see it. Insist that the world reflects not just the humanly created images flashing before us rather the world is place that reveals and expresses God’s blessing.
Having responded to the invitation to join the feasting at the wedding banquet of God, we remain aware of our presence there as those who choose to change, to acquire the garment fitting for our place there. It requires something of us, even if some days it feels our faithful response is more form than genuine content. Each day, each moment to choose to look for, seek, notice and speak of a world threaded through with divine presence, of grace and blessing revealed. Of divine grace and goodness bringing all that is into being – more pervasive than and prevailing over anything that would seek or seem to extinguish or deny it.
This parable, so they say, was the third in Jesus’ response to the question of his authority. It was spoken to the religious leaders in the temple. Matthew doesn’t let it rest back there, though – he confronts and disrupts us now, if we have said “Yes” to the invitation to this wedding banquet, quite how are we clothed?
We are carrying a lot of burdens at the moment. The world is carrying a lot of burdens. Covid 19 of course, watching the death and the grief around the world. But also the isolation. The curtailment of plans to spend time with family or friends. The loss of jobs and income and futures. And then political burdens; watching the US presidential debate makes us fear for our world. Seeing the climate crisis and other urgent needs being sidelined while we focus on covid is worrying. And we have choices to make in Aotearoa which are challenging – the election and two referenda.
Compared to the rest of the world we are doing incredibly well but that doesn’t change the reality of loss of jobs for some and rising anxiety for many. If you are a student missing your final prize giving or a university graduate missing graduation and your OE; or a hotel worker with no job; or a person with all their family on the other side of the world; the fact that we are doing better doesn’t really help your sadness and disappointment.
Jesus says to his disciples that his burden is light – if they stop trying to be like the know it all Pharisees – and become like infants – and trust him, they will find rest for their souls. Sounds fabulous – like a walk on the beach, or sitting in hot pools – whatever helps you relax and forget your worries.
But is that real or just a short respite and then all the burdens come rushing back at you?
St Francis was someone who got rid of his burdens – he followed the instructions of Jesus literally – the one about only having one garment and to carry nothing with you (Mk6:8) – and around the year 1200 he gave away all his wealth and founded a community of people who lived very simply and humbly.
People still follow his rule of life today – monks and nuns and lay people who belong to the third order of St Francis. Their rule of life of prayer and service gives them a framework within which to place their burdens and lighten them.
Our faith gives us a framework within which to live. Our church, its traditions, our life of worship, when at their best, help us to live well in God’s world. When faced with challenging times like the Covid era or challenging choices such as the upcoming elections we look to our faith to guide us.
After church today we are having a discussion about the referendum on the End of Life Bill. We are blessed to have a group of medical practitioners in our parish and so last year we had a conversation with them, and today we are having another. We will be listening and learning from each other in order to help us with the discernment we have to do in order to cast our vote. We are seeking to lighten the burden that we may carry as we make a decision. We will most certainly not be telling you how to vote, that is up to you.
It is unfortunate I think that church leaders including our own bishops have chosen a strong stance against the Bill and have chosen to tell us how to vote. As far as I am aware there has been no consultation with the church at large about how we might come to a common mind or even to agree some common questions we would like to ask together.
There has been an assumption we will all think alike and the bishops in signing two different letters to the public have aligned themselves with some very conservative churches who are more used to telling their people what to think.
We have a couple of resources to share with you later and one is from the staff at Trinity Methodist College.
They say there is no one single ‘biblical’ answer to the question of assisted dying, so there is no one ‘Christian’ response, either. But as Christians, we are called to search our scriptures, tradition, experience, and tikanga prayerfully, critically, and in pursuit of compassionate justice, love, and healing, allowing these insights to shape our response as we come to cast our vote. 
We believe life is a gift from God, and know that death is inevitable for us all. We also believe though that death is not the end, that we remain in God’s love forever. We are given human skill and intellect which have created the miracles of modern medicine which heal and enhance our lives. We are all acutely aware now of the way simple public health measure also save lives. Most of us will have stories from our own families of people dying “good” deaths and those who suffered too much in their dying.
We now have the opportunity to vote on the End of Life Choice Bill – please be sure to read the material sent by Election Commission and to read what the Bill actually proposes. A while ago we sent out links to a video of our Diocesan Chancellor explaining each provision of the Bill . It was straightforward and clear. Take the time to be informed.
Know that people of faith will vote yes and people of faith will vote no. Each we hope will have come to their decision with prayer and reflection. If the Bill passes no one of course has to avail themselves of it. Some might choose to. Whichever way the vote goes our doctors and hospices will continue to give the best palliative care they can to their patients.
We have choices to make too in the general election – candidates and parties. As we discern that vote I think the biblical imperative is a little clearer – the question is not what will be best for me, my life, my tax rate, my wellbeing; but what will be best for those who have less than me – the OT writers have a summary term “the widow, the orphan and the stranger” which we might translate to “those with no income or protection, those without families to love them, and the foreigner or refugee”.
Who do we trust to care most about those in need and to care for the earth, God’s creation. Today’s psalm set down for St Francis Day – psalm 148 – is a good one to read when we are thinking – as we have been – about climate justice and the protection of creation. It finishes with “praise from all your servants, from the people close to your heart.”
If we are close to the heart of God, like St Francis and like Matthew, the far from perfect tax collector who is our namesake, we can lay our burdens down.
We can seek the companionship of Jesus who promised to reveal God to us.
We can take upon us the yoke of Jesus, and seek the gentleness and humility he offers.
With that mind we cast our votes and we seek to carry on serving our community in the name of Jesus as best we can.
But now it is harder than ever because everything is harder than ever in the midst of a global pandemic with no end in sight.
All our old habits of gathering, belonging, communing have been put on hold, our wider networks nationally and internationally seized up for who knows how long. And we don’t know when or whether they will ever return. We have all been distanced from each other quite literally. The old normal has gone forever.
And if all of that is not enough to feel sorry for ourselves, the two biggest church stories in the last month are Dilworth School and Mt Roskill Evangelical Fellowship.
So happy St Matthew’s Day to you all.
Even as we try to find out what it means to be church in the midst of a maelstrom is there anything there in this story of this man Matthew whose name we take to give us some clues of a way ahead?
What kind of church does he want us to be? Because it will be different from last year pre covid?
How can his story make us more effective and accessible and even more distinctive as a community?
Because being distinctive is something that St Matthew’s people pride themselves on being. I met a friend yesterday and told him I was preaching here today. Oh really, he said, that’s a pretty alternative kind of place, isn’t it? I’ll pass that on, I said.
We like to think we’re a cutting edge congregation, but are we cutting in the right places, are we really sharp enough?
We knew what we had to do when the rest of the church couldn’t cope with solo parents, so called as they were back then, so we invited them to come and dance between the pews and drink sherry with us.
When the rest of the church couldn’t cope with the gay community, we hosted a bible study group and then a regular service for gay people.
And it was the same with apartheid and racist rugby.
St Matthew’s knew what kind of a church it had to be.
As it did after the Christchurch mosque shootings, reaching out to the local Muslim community.
But what about right now in the midst of this pandemic that is killing and dividing us?
Matthew might have something to say to us on this patronal festival. After all it’s his birthday. What could we give him as a present?
He knew a thing or two about divided churches, like ours.
At end of first century the church was caught in tension between Jewish Christians who still tried to worship in the synagogues, where the Pharisees set the rules and fussed about them, on one side, and on the other, Gentile Christians who didn’t.
The Jesus Matthew portrays is still very focused on his own Jewish people, even telling his disciples to stay away from Gentiles, not bothering to explain Jewish customs because everyone should know them. So there’s a culture war as well as a religious fight going on.
As there is now across the church.
Let’s face it, we have to confess Jesus together with some strange bedfellows. Strange to us because we have so little in common not only in music and theology, but the way we see the world. Yet make no mistake. The Mt Roskill Evangelical Fellowship is as much a part of the body of Christ as St Matthew’s.
Matthew knew a thing or two about divided cultures. Jewish purity laws made the divisions very clear. Not over silly stuff like what shade of grey or white to paint your house. But who is ritually clean and unclean, how carefully you follow the dietary and social contact laws of Deuteronomy. Who is in or out. They make our quarantine laws look careless. The lines back then were crystal clear.
Especially if you were a tax collector. They were a bad lot in good Jewish eyes. Sub contractors to the agents who bought the customs franchises on goods and services from the Roman empire. The agents made forward payments to Rome then screwed down the subcontractors to collect the revenue, so corruption and coercion were rife. They were about as popular as finding your accountant was fiddling your GST payments and being investigated by the Serious Fraud Office.
So decent law abiding Jews had nothing to do with tax collectors except to hand over the cash when they had to and then treat them as social outcasts. Tax collectors had nowhere to stand in Jewish society, except to teeter on the edge, distrusted and despised. Matthew himself was one of them, he knew what it was like.
So what kind of a church is being called for in this story? What kind of a church would be faithful to what Jesus is demonstrating here when he says I’ve come for the sick not the healthy?
The sickness he’s talking about is social not medical; being left out of community. The sickness of exclusion and alienation and isolation. The sickness of those who have no place to stand with any hope or dignity.
And Jesus addresses that sickness by including people like tax collectors. Come with me he says. Come to dinner. Sit down and eat with me.
And the Pharisees who make the rules and enforce them are furious.
They ask the disciples, what does your boss think he’s doing? He’s breaking all the rules.
In this covid defined time of global crisis, when we’re all masked up and socially distanced from each other and our borders are locked down to the rest of the world, what does it mean to be the kind of church that Matthew describes and Jesus models?
And at a time when we are quick to judge and condemn those who break the rules of quarantine and masking and handwashing and distancing, slow to forgive and quick to anger, who are the Pharisees in our midst? Are we in their number?
We are living in times of incredibly hard moral choices, where the ground beneath our feet is tilted by social media driven conspiracies about dark forces at work. We have to condemn these lies yet we also have to find ways of engaging with the liars, meeting them in the midst of their fear and confusion. Because the more isolated they are the more extreme their rhetoric becomes. Have you noticed that the most alienated and angry of our politicians and church leaders are the ones promoting the most paranoid theories about covid vaccines and plots to control us?
I think the kind of church that Jesus models in our troubled time is as radically inclusive as he demonstrated around that dinner table on the night that Matthew joined him, as radically inclusive as that dinner table on the night before he died when there was even room for the man who would betray him.
It will be the kind of church that works hard at trying to understand the extreme and alienated voices. Engaging with them rather than amplifying them, calling them back into community that can cope with disagreement. No one else is doing that right now. We’ve got plenty of Pharisees quick to condemn, but very few who say let’s sit down with a cup of tea and talk.
I don’t have the courage to do alone where I live but I might if I had a community like St Matthews around me willing to try.
Imagine if we invited the elders of the Mt Roskill Evangelical Fellowship to come along to St Matthews and share a coffee and tell us what on earth they thought they were doing.
Let’s work to keep ensuring St Matthew’s is known in Auckland as a place where isolated groups of all sorts find a voice and a welcome, where all sorts of groups who struggle to find a place to stand and somewhere to belong, find a home here, or at least a waystation on their journey.
But there is another constituency who are just as alienated from the church of the old normal – those who find their inspiration and advice, even their pastoral care, online; who live and breathe in a virtual digital world, who wouldn’t come near us on a Sunday morning, with or without the covid crisis.
I’ve never had to preach the same sermon differently on a Sunday but I had to today, now and for the online version that comes later in the morning.
That digital version might become our new normal, as the covid crisis forces us finally to make ourselves accessible to an IT savvy generation and an online culture.
St Matthews is already seeking to do that. Few of our churches will have the imagination or the resources to even try.
And Matthew would approve, because it would be continuing a long held tradition of hospitality that this church has offered.
Matthew would like that. It would be the best kind of birthday present.
September 20, 2020
Over the last 3 weeks we have been considering our responsibility to care for creation and in this context our carbon footprint and what each of us is prepared to do to make a smaller impact on our environment. We have all been challenged to review our way of living and engage with each other around these issues with high levels of concern expressed in favour of change.
And so we have considered our energy sources, our energy use, and decided to be more mindful about flicking the switches of our homes. We talked about travel, our daily commuting, and public transport and our air travel. And then our food, where it comes from, the energy that goes into processing and transporting food. We have talked about intensive animal farming and the impact on the environment. And we have discussed our wasteful society, how we wrap, tear apart, throw out, chuck and dump and the Earth is meant to swallow all of this. We have also alluded to the increased risk to the poor of the world, with the world in climate crisis.
It has caused us to think and reflect and to take action to see what differences we can make in lowering our environmental footprint. For this is Creation we are talking about. As yet, we know of no other planetary system like ours. We are called to love the Earth and the fullness of it, the abundance of nature, yet so threatened because of lack of restraints.
But, there is still a feeling that we are perhaps tinkering around the edges, that we cannot render significant change as a small group of people, and the real change, change that will release a world safe for the next generations needs to be done on the macro scale. Change that is mandated because we as humans, and our Governments, see the planet is in crisis of our own making. Governments need to change their approach radically and societies need to recognize there will be no societies unless there is major change. Change starts with us but today is about calling for change, advocating for change on a large scale. We will discuss the details of that in our after church discussion.
Listen to the powerful words of Jim Antal in his book Climate World, Climate Church:
For the sake of humanity, the world, the ecosphere, and countless generations of unborn children and creatures, our present social and economic system needs a moral intervention. And so does the church. It’s time to declare a new moral era. 
I’ll read it again.
Notice that the moral order is not just about humanity, but it is the world and the ecosphere, that is all of life and its teeming abundance upon which we are dependent, and it is the countless generations following us, the unborn children, our unborn grandchildren, great grandchildren and their children. It is for these that we call for change. And it is for the already disadvantaged in the world who as sea rises, droughts parch arable land, increasingly common floods and forest fires make their already marginal livelihoods impossible. It is not primarily about ourselves but all of creation and that which is yet to be created. It is about intergenerational and interspecies justice. It is a fundamental issue of justice, how we impact the future.
We are in the middle stages of a crisis but it is as if we are driving over a precipice blindfolded, hoping against what we are told, and read, and see on our screens. Wouldn’t it be good if this nightmare was just that, some entertaining of dark fantasy that will in the end not happen, or that maybe this is just a really bad year and next year will be better? How many 100 year floods, forest fires and droughts do we need in 5 years to convince us? Unfortunately the science of climate change does not allow this blind hope. Instead rising GHG levels in the stratosphere are wrapping the earth as it were in a thermal blanket, and this needs to reduce markedly to render any hope for the future. The science is disputed by a few who have another agenda but the main culprit is CO2 largely from fossil fuel emissions since the industrial age, with diminishing forestation to absorb the CO2. It is since the industrial age that CO2 levels have increased exponentially. Hence our crisis.
We ignore the vulnerability of our planet at our peril and to the peril of generations and all species to come.
Reversing climate change is like stopping a huge ship. Stopping happens 20km out of port because of the momentum. If and when we stop carbon emissions, there will be a long lag time before there will be observable benefit. We were told about this 50 years ago and the common response was that they, whoever “they” are will work something out. So here we are now, on the brink of collapse, and we have a very small window of opportunity left.
It’s time to declare a new moral era.
In the past crises have been averted because people have been emotionally engaged. With the pandemic, we saw what was happening overseas, the overloaded hospitals, the bodies being loaded into mass graves and we fell in with the Government plan. There was general acceptance that the plan was right and this is what we needed to do for each other.
The threat of nuclear holocaust made NZ stand up against the powerful and say no to nuclear ships. We had seen the evidence of nuclear devastation in Japan and knew much worse was possible. And the superpowers were loaded with weaponry, enough to destroy the planet several times over. St Matthew’s was a leader in the antinuclear movement.
Now we see the bleaching of coral reefs, and out of control forest fires on parched forest reserves. And we see huge areas of Africa inundated with floods and people fleeing their homes. Climate refugees are on the way.
It’s time to connect the dots that this is a planet in crisis.
As the human species, we occupy more than our share of the biosphere. We do not live in harmony with nature; rather we try to control it for our advantage and we consume much more than our fair share of resources. It has been estimated that if everyone on the earth ate a standard western diet of 2 servings of meat daily and processed foods, say ham sandwiches for lunch and then meat and 3 veg at night, maybe bacon and eggs weekly for breakfast, plus cheeses and desserts, it would take the equivalent of 5-6 earth planets to feed the world. That of course is not possible. I know most of us do not eat like that but many do.
Scientists talk about global warming of 1.5 degrees average as our tipping point. We are very close to that. I suspect most people cannot get their heads round that 1.5 degree change, or 2 or more degrees for far worse consequences. The numbers seem trivial. They are not. The earth is a finely balanced system of complex interactions between species, sun, water, soil and air, all held in a delicate balance. Think of the human body. If our body temperature rises 1 degree above 37 to 38 we have a fever and feel unwell. Even more unwell at 1.5 degrees above, needing to go to bed, rest, drink plenty of fluid. At 3 degrees above we may well need hospitalization. These tiny incremental differences make a huge difference. Our bodies are perfectly and finely balanced keeping our temperatures at a constant. Of course, our bodies do not have the same daily variations of internal climate, but the average temperatures of the earth are a reflection of a precise setting for balance between the Earth systems.
Some tech companies claim we are in an irreversible situation and it is too late stop climate change. So they are putting their creative energies into cooling fabrics, building and roading materials with higher melting points. There is money to be made here. Agencies such as MarsOne plan settlement on Mars partly for the survival of the human species. It is all I suspect a reenactment of the Tower of Babel myth where humankind is in a search for ultimate control.
I find this completely lacking in moral direction. It is a plan to escape this mess here rather than pitching in with their enormous resources to reverse the damage.
We are heading into more and more perilous times. Our customary comforts are going to be less obtainable, there will be much suffering around the world as peoples can no longer live in their environment whether it be because of inundation with risen sea levels, or land no longer bearing crops because of drought; “1 in 500 year” floods happening yearly; vast forest fires; food scarcity, and temperatures which are too hot for work and living; wars over land and water ownership. We are starting to see this.
I take no comfort in my age. We are starting to see enormous upheaval, but our children are going to see much worse.
“It is time to declare a new moral order.”
It is time to give away feelings of hopelessness and despair and be a beacon of hope.
Not a reality-avoiding hope that something better is ahead beyond the grave, but hope grounded in love for each other, and for all living things.
It is time to stop the blaming and to take responsibility.
It is time to lament our role in this crisis and ask “What can we do?”
How can we effect change in our country and signal to the world that we are serious, deadly serious?
There is a small chance of holding calamity back if we take on near carbon neutral lifestyles and help lead the nation to do the same. People argue that there is no point in NZ changing if the bigger culprits do not. But in the past NZ has been a leader – the women’s vote – we were the first and all Western nations followed. There has been a lot of noting of our pandemic response. We are powerful when we go alone. The world does notice. Let’s continue to be a model.
But people say that will cost us too much. How we trade, what we trade, how we relax, how we travel, how we eat. Yes there is a big cost but this is tiny compared to the cost to the next generations of a depleted planet.
There is a common false separation of the economy from ecology. Economic hazard seems more important to people than ecological disaster. In the US major political players and parties wallow in denial about climate change in order to make room for corporations and those who profit from them to become the de facto rulers of the earth as we know it.
The Earth has remarkable repair capacity when it is treated with respect but today the environment and the economy are seen as valid occupants of each end of a seesaw. The growth orientation of economies goes up and the environmental impact is driven in the opposite direction. We are presented with a growth economy which involves more extraction, more emissions, more polluted waterways – I would love to be convinced it could be different.
Has the Garden of Eden myth set us up with some simplistic false notions? There is the creation narrative and then the man and woman are set up as having dominion over all creatures. But it was a scene of harmony, man and woman naming all creatures – classifying all creatures. But the temptation has always been to have more than the natural order of things allowed. And so the apple was eaten and we continue to do that.
Don’t get me wrong. There is a genius in human discovery that has created so much and we are beneficiaries of wonderful human exploration and creativity. It’s just that we have felt entitled to dominion over land, creatures and indigenous peoples.
Matthew Fox asks the question:
What does it mean to wake up to ecology, to learning to love our earth home with a deeper love, and to acknowledge how much we owe her, and how deeply we need to adapt our ways to her, if we are to keep her healthy and fit so that future generations of beings can thrive in her midst?
The future is to a large part due to how we have been living our lives for the past 200 hundred years and the decisions we make in the next 1-10 years are the only chance we have for changing that picture for the better. We are responsible for the future.
The Gospel narrative of today is very familiar and has inspired charitable deeds over the ages. The man beset by robbers and the passers-by, the dignitaries, the religious leaders, those with means, pass him by on the other side of the road. But it is the outsider, the Samaritan who takes action to save this wounded man. He tends his wounds and finds him shelter and a place to recover.
Let’s modernize this story. Let’s think of the earth as having been exploited, gouged, drained, chopped, flattened, polluted, an Earth struggling to sustain life systems upon which all of life depends. And let’s think of our journey through life. We have been aware of the ecological consequences of modern living for a long time. I was a teenager when I first heard about it. We have been warned. Voices have been calling for restraint for at least the last 50 years. But we have changed little. There have been proclamations and agreements to cut emissions like the Paris agreement but worldwide the emissions increase.
On what side of the road are we walking past this wounded world? Yes, obviously the oil industry passes by looking away towards vast profits; industrialists pass by saying we need more oil and coal to power our manufacturing; others need to protect their shareholders; Governments pass by, elected by their people but are afraid to mandate strict environmental policies because an election is looming and so they pass by reluctantly; picture ourselves flying by, looking for pleasures in distant places; picture large parts of the church passing by, preaching salvation for the afterlife as its main message.
Yes, we see the damage done but who is going to come to the aid of the wounded Earth? Who is going to say enough, we have to stop and rescue the Earth before it is too late?
“It’s time to declare a new moral era.”
It is time to find another way than relentless growth by further extraction, production, acquisition, and waste on monumental scale.
It is time for us to mirror God’s love for creation and set that as our overwhelming priority.
How we might do this is in part the discussion we will have after church today. Is the Church going to be a leader in turning the world away from the brink of this nuclear moment. Let’s act together.
 Antal, Jim, and Bill McKibben. Climate Church, Climate World: How People of Faith Must Work for Change. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018 end of Chpater 3
Agents for Life
September 6, 2020
Today in our liturgical calendar is the First Sunday in the Season of Creation. The Season of Creation is a time when we decide to be more intentional in our noticing of creation. Play closer attention to creation, the gospel directs us to learn from the birds of the air, the lilies and grasses of the fields. Each is beloved into being and is sustained by our creator. And for these things we give thanks and praise.
It is also a season we pay attention to our relationship with creation. Be reminded of our fundamental interconnectedness. We’ve the habit of considering that being human makes us superior to the rest of creation. We’re prone to forgetting we’re made of the same substance as the rest of creation. In so doing we overstate our significance, our irreplaceability in the schema of this fragile planet. It’s curious to consider – if humans as a species were to die out, in time the rest of life on this planet would flourish. If the insect population were to die out, life on this planet would also die within 50 years.
The life, the existence of planet Earth, our only place of home, is precariously endangered because of human excess, so we’re going to pay attention to that. Pay attention to the choices we’re making and the repercussions of those choices for the continuance of the life of our only home. We can choose how we live and what we do differently. Different choosing changes things. So, yes, we’re going to talk about climate change.
Climate change – I could give you a lot of information about that.
I could talk about the science of it, the intricate and complex proving of the catastrophe that is at hand. But I’m not a scientist. And as journalist Nathaniel Rich writes in his book Losing Earth, “There has been no fundamental change in climate physics since 1979, only refinement.”  Or Rebecca Huntley reflects, “Climate scientists … realise that when it comes to the climate change cause, the bulk of their work has been done. All they are doing is updating the data on a theory already proven countless times to be true.” 
But I’m not going to talk about the science of it. I’m sure you’ve heard it before.
I could talk about wildfires, ravaged landscapes, of melting ice floes, stranded and disappearing polar bears. Or remind you of unprecedented cyclonic storms and record breaking freezing temperatures. Or speak of the anger of the First Nation people of the Torres Strait, or the people of Fiji or Kiribati. Who are helplessly watching their ensouled lands being washed away, witnessing the tearing apart of their ancestral, intergenerational identity, their interconnected way of knowing who they are. Washed away, out of their hands through no fault, no thing they have done, at the mercy of the actions of countries and economies well beyond their shores.
But I’m not going to about the landscapes of it. I’m sure you’ve heard it all before.
I could talk to you about Greta Thunberg, about the rallies of our young people pleading, activating, staring us down about our reprehensible lack of care, our intentional denying of them a future out of selfishness and greed. Of your children or grandchildren who won’t enjoy the natural playgrounds you explored and celebrated. Who won’t know the world we’ve taken for granted, the animals and creatures, landscapes and seascapes, the world we speak of, for it will have disappeared.
But I’m not going to talk about the next generation impact of it. I’m sure you’ve heard it all before.
I could talk about the links of a pandemic such as Covid-19 with human over stretch into untouched landscapes. Of humans who, for commercial gain, breach natural boundaries that keep us safe from interspecies contamination. Of overcrowded animal farming demanded by human consumption that creates breeding grounds for viruses to adapt and change the species that hosts them.
But I’m not going to talk about the destructive greed of it. I’m sure you’ve heard it all before.
I could talk about finger pointing, scapegoating and blame transferring of responsibility to those who are worse offenders than me or them or us. Of those who deny or of a sense of shame or guilt that cripples anger, freezes us, cows us into inaction.
But I’m not going to talk about the psychological impact of it. I’m sure you’ve experienced this before.
We know these things.
Has any of this knowledge moved you in any fundamental way to change?
Has it moved you so deeply that you cannot imagine continuing to live as you have, if that way of living is truly destroying the world?
It can be hard to make the link between what we do, how we live and the life of the world. To understand how intimately we’re connected with creation. It’s hard to make creation out there personal in here. So I want to ask you to do something, don’t worry, it’s not arduous, it can be done where you are. I want you to hold your hand out in front of you, to look at it, consider it. Consider the complex beauty and utility of your hand, look at it, feel it, the pulsing of life in it.
How did it come to be?
This is not a religious or scientific or philosophical question. It’s more: did you earn it? Did you deserve it? Did you choose it? Did you have part in its creation?
Or did you receive it? A gift you’ve grown into the knowing of.
How do we live so to best honour the gift given us, to reflect the dignity and beauty and unique nature of this gift?
The response to such question will be unique to us.
There is much we take for granted.
So it is with creation. It is a gift we receive, how do we live so to best honour the gift given us, to reflect the dignity and beauty and unique nature of this gift?
What would move us to deeply comprehend the situation we’re in? To accept the way we live does contribute to and cause this, what would it take for us to be rewired? What would cause us to be willing to examine our expectations of what makes for a successful life? To ask questions, deep questions about what truly matters to us, what we most value and whether the way we live allows those to be expressed. Maybe Covid 19 has forced the issue a little.
Even so, when the crowding pressures of production and productivity, of time poverty and income necessity, of social influence and mass misinformation, of obligations and responsibilities rise to overwhelm us, then climate change becomes another thing – too much.
Let’s take a step back, a step down.
Climate change is now a part of the way things are, the reality of this is irrefutable. For all the pressures on us, for all that we want it not to be this way, for all that we don’t want to change the way we live, or disrupt our expectations of life or inconvenience our lifestyle. A climate changing world is our reality. We know this, we experience this.
Rather than it being a burden out there, another external force pressing on us, what if we understood and accepted climate change is a part of our world, our ‘what is real’, yours, mine, not other.
For when we know what we have, when we know our circumstances, the resources that are available to us, we tend to turn to make the best of the situation. We tend to want life to flourish, utilising what we have. We want our uniqueness to contribute to that flourishing. And we know we need to do this with others whose uniqueness complements our own.
Maybe, when we decide for this, when we accept this is the way things are and that we have what is needed for the world to flourish we might live differently. Rather than as oppositional teenagers resisting an inevitability imposed on us, we might decide to be active agents for life.
 Huntley, Rebecca How to Talk about Climate Change in a Way That Makes a Difference. Sydney, N.S.W.: Murdoch Books, 2020, 46
This story of the crowds being fed with a few loaves and a couple of fish is told six times between the four gospels. All four gospel writers tell it and Mark and Matthew tell it twice, just to be sure we get it. No other story is told 6 times. So it must be important.
In Matthew’s version the setting is particularly striking. “Now when Jesus heard about the death of John the Baptist, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.”
John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin and prophet has been executed and his head is brought to Herod on a platter in the middle of a banquet.
Jesus is revolted, grief stricken, and concerned for his own safety and so he withdraws into the country.
The crowds follow and get there as he does, so he has no time to himself to recover, instead, he heals the sick.
The disciples come to Jesus and say for goodness sake send the crowds home so they can get something to eat.
Jesus says, you feed them. We only have five loaves and two fish they say.
(Sigh) get the crowds to sit down “taking the five loaves and two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, who gave them to the crowd.”
Matthew says Jesus blesses the bread, breaks it and gives it to be shared. These are the actions of the eucharist, we bless the bread, we break it, we share it. There is no doubt in the way Matthew records the event that we are supposed to think – ah – this is a eucharist, a thanksgiving for life, a sacred meal of communion.
And we also hear echoes of the Old Testament: Moses feeding the people in the wilderness with manna; Elisha feeding 100 people with 20 loaves; the words of the psalmist: Can God spread a table in the wilderness? (Ps 78:19) and echoes of Jesus eating with the disciples on the road to Emmaus, or on the beach after the resurrection; and of course the Last Supper.
Questions that we might have as rational 21st century people about – how did Jesus do this? was it really a “miracle?” one popular theory is - did people have food with them and were encouraged by Jesus’ actions to share? The gospel writers are not interested in those questions. Rather we are invited into this story with its many layers and echoes and invited to be there in the story and see what we notice.
I noticed this week that it is not Jesus that feeds the crowds. First he tells the disciples not to send the crowds away but to feed them. And then when that seems beyond them Jesus blesses what they have and then gives it back to them to distribute to the crowd.
“He blessed and broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples and the disciple gave them to the crowds.”
This is more than just being a more effective mode of distribution – it will go faster with a team – it is about Jesus blessing what they offered and then giving it back to them to do the work of feeding the people.
The disciples were operating from a place of scarcity – there is never enough – Jesus was operating from a place of abundance and plenty.
Think back to last week’s readings – the mustard seed that becomes a tree; the bread that rises one hundred fold with the yeast – these were definitions of the “kingdom of heaven” that Matthew longs for – and here we see the kingdom of heaven in action again.
This could have just as easily been added to that list of parables – the kingdom of heaven is like five loaves and 2 fish that when shared are enough to feed 5000 people.
This time it is a lived experience for the disciples, not just an image used to teach them. They offer up what they have and it is given back to them ten fold, a hundred fold, a thousand times more.
And also very importantly for Matthew this experience the disciples have is in stark contrast to what happens just before this: the terrible death of John the Baptist; violent and gruesome in the context of a banquet with the rich and powerful.
Now we have the contrast of John the Baptist, his head on a platter, and Jesus breaking bread and fish for the crowd. The violence and degradation of our world, and the hope offered in a piece of bread. How many places in the world see that contrast every day: death and violence and starvation; and hope and food offered. And there always seems to be more violence than food.
But Jesus in a very dramatic way is showing the disciples that what they have to offer is enough. The world might well be gruesome and violent; the world that will before too long kill Jesus himself; the world that will persecute and pursue the early Christians.
The disciples and the community Matthew writes for live in that world – they and we live in a world of violence and despair – but Jesus shows them that by offering what they have, the world can be changed.
When we lay the table for the eucharist the bread and wine is brought from the back of the church by the chalice bearers.
We do that to emphasise that the bread and wine is the offering of the people – like the bread and fish the disciples bring to Jesus.
We also bring our offerings of money which represent our working lives and we bring food for the City Mission, representing our care for others.
All of these things are offered, are blessed by our prayer of thanksgiving, and then given back to us.
We receive the bread and wine as a blessing for our week; the CM food goes to those who need it; the offerings of our money are used to pay for the running of our church community and for the service we offer to the wider community.
What else might we offer? What gift or skill do you have that you can offer today? What is there in your life – at work, at home, in the community – something ordinary and every day – that you might like to bring with you as you come to the altar today.
Think of something specific – if you are a teacher – think of a particular thing you offer – is it the way you listen to your class; or their parents; is it a creative artistry you bring to your lesson plans; is it music.
If you are a leader in your organization is it your ability to see the big picture; if you are caring for family members is it your ability to multi task.
As the bread and wine is brought forward today, offer your own skill or gift. See it blessed and given back to you.
And then expect that it will grow and that there might even be twelve baskets taken up of what is left over.
Social Services Sunday
July 26, 2020
Social Service Sunday Romans 8:26-28, 35-39 Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
JASPER CALDER AND THE CHOIR
It was the last few weeks of World War One, when Auckland was overwhelmed by the influenza epidemic. The vicar of St Matthew’s Rev William Eugene Gillam, who had done distinguished service as a chaplain on troop ships in the first three years of the war was out of action, very ill, and the curate, who was holding the fort in the fashionable church, had thrown himself into the needs of the community, volunteering on the emergency ambulance service. Not surprisingly, he came down with the flu himself, and in the terrible first week of November, services were cancelled at St Matthew’s. Out of his heroic work, Calder was idolised by the poorer members of the congregation, and when Gillam finally announced his resignation, they mounted a petition that Calder might succeed him. The key organisers of the petition were the choir. When the appointment of the vicar of Hawera was announced the choir walked out, and its leading singers stuck with Calder in all of his latest ventures. It is from this controversial split that the City Mission was born.
Jasper was unashamedly a populist. He loved success, he loved a crowd, he fed off adulation. He was “the chief”. His first concern was never with social concern.
He got on the wrong side of Bishop Averill who led the diocese of Auckland for 25 years. – Quite an achievement when his father was William Calder the long-time vicar of All Saints Ponsonby.
His sports services at Grey Lynn. His casual comments about gambling. Then his willingness to allow others to campaign for him to be vicar of St Matthew’s when he was serving as curate there. The choir went on strike.
There is no real evidence of social concern at that point.
He then is brought in to run the evening services at Holy Sepulchre late in 1919, and in the light of the St Matthew’s experience preaches a sermon on the need for church reform (to curb the power of Bishop Averill) and is immediately dismissed by the vestry.
His idea to form a city mission comes out of this. He supposedly ran it past Averill on the afternoon he left for the 1920 Lambeth Conference.
There was a lot of concern at that time that the workers were losing contact with the church, and the Methodists increasingly looked at social issues. The Anglican Diocese of Auckland was also concerned, and their social issues committee was active (although its solution was probably the temperance one.)
Jasper Calder probably had little awareness of these issues. He stumbled into them.
He began with services in a movie theatre, using a dance orchestra. It was all hearty fun entertainment religion.
Other – for example the Dock Street Mission of this church, and the various Methodist Missions – were quite active. But Calder soon discovered that the pastoral work of his mission tended to focus on men appearing in court on petty charges, and he found himself confronted with need.
THE CITY MISSION CHANNELLING SOCIAL CONCERN
It could be argued that for many years the City Mission as a result was based on ideas of charitable aid rather than justice. This approach has, of course, haunted the church. Appealing to our desire to do something, the agency is also helpful to get the poor off the streets and make the city safer. But it never had a holistic approach to social justice, and certainly not a consistent Christian view of social justice. Consequently, it has always been vulnerable to pressure from the secular government and city council for whom it is a convenient body.
Yet it is still a Mission, and as I ended writing the history of the Mission I was increasingly worried about why it was still called this, and what should, be distinctive about the social services of the church. But there I ran into a problem.
THE FOLLIES OF SOCIAL SERVICES SUNDAY
The Anglican Church in New Zealand recommends that parishes set aside one Sunday a year for social services Sunday. But that is about where it ends. For no denomination is more confused and directionless on social services in the community than the Anglican Church. It is not that the church does nothing. From very early on the church established most of the first orphanages in New Zealand, and today the scale of its social services is almost certainly larger than what anyone else does. (The Catholic Church may once have been larger with its huge number of people in religious orders, but that is a shadow of its former scale.) But the problem is that it remains a series of random services, operating very independently. In the Auckland Diocese, the ATWC, the City Mission and especially the Selwyn Foundation are huge operations, but they struggle to cooperate with each other (and the Selwyn Foundation would not even let me look at their minute books even though they branched off from the City Mission). There is or was a Commissioner of Social Responsibility for the whole church, now replaced by a Three Tikanga Social Justice Commission, but it just has Michael Hughes, General Secretary of the church as its interim chair.
The reason for this is that there is no clear social vision in Anglicanism. There have been attempts to organise such responses. At the end of World War One the Auckland Diocese like the Christchurch Diocese, attempted to set up a board for social responsibility, but effectively never got beyond temperance. Then in the 1970s and the 1990s there were attempt to create an overarching structure in this diocese, but the big organisations ensured that it had no power. Things are better in Christchurch, where all the agencies respond to a single Missioner, and in Wellington, where old people’s provision is under the City Mission, but without a shared value system or policy, none is really possible. Even the city missions have very little cooperation. This is in striking contrast to the other churches. However the Presbyterian organisation with its formidable national organisation effectively disaffiliated from the Church and Methodist and Catholic social services have struggled with resource issues. And the heart of the problem for Anglicans is there is a general feeling that the church ought to be doing more, but no coherent theology of social engagement. During the Depression, when many other churches gained this, Anglicans remained astonishingly cautious. The Church has it clear left wing elements (strong among clergy) and right wing elements, dominant among laity, who get concerned when anything other than a charitable model is proposed.
Now we might have got further in thinking of a model of social responsibility with the appropriate readings for the day. However it is emblematic of the problem that I am working from these unpromising readings. Still there is something to learn.
These are unlikely passages for Social Services Sunday, and of course they were never meant for this purpose. However, we might note the following:
The Mustard Seed
The Kingdom of Heaven is consistently compared to a slow process.
The smallness of the seed was noticed by Diodorus Siculus and Antigonus of Chrystus. Actually there are smaller seeds but this was the one that was proverbially tiny.
It is a tiny seed growing to a bush – indeed quite an invasive bush since it grows so easily, says Pliny. Moreover, here it is in a field rather than a garden as in other gospels. The case of micro credit. The small and humble has great potential. Deliberately this is not a cedar of Lebanon, and nor are the fully grown bushes much in themselves but they would sure fill the garden.
The mustard seed tells us that the kingdom is hidden.
And perhaps this is the story of the City Mission, small but persistent.
Why is the Kingdom so insignificant? The tiny mustard seed, the 4 m plant rather odd for the garden. (We would worry if birds sat on out carrots). Ae the bird symbolic of the Gentiles – probably.
The kingdom of heaven starts in an unpromising way, but the verdict needs to await its full growth.
The kingdom of heaven does not come with an approved label but with an inner potency. This is a homely image although the quantity goes beyond this. It seems to be about 50 lb or 22 kg. In this case this is the village breadmaker.
But Leaven is slightly disturbing as an image for the kingdom. “Common, uneducated fishermen and farmers, carpenters and women, tax collectors and disreputable characters – it would all seem rather distasteful. But God is like that. He takes distasteful characters and transforms them, and then transforms society through them.” (Matthew 13 in BST).
Note the scale of the cooking operation in the yeast parable. So it compares to the other parables of growth. The dough is folded over and over and slowly (and she can’t see it) the goodness is spread.
The kingdom of heaven has immense value and demands total commitment to it. Perhaps in the devotion of some of those women workers in the City Mission much less noticed, the matrons, the wrappers of food parcels, the library books deliverers, the Waiheke camp workers.
But perhaps also it is the lives of the people mixed up and inspired by something from outside, the leaven.
The Treasure in a Field
Imagine how many people have trampled across this field and had no idea what lay beneath them.
The poor man finds the treasure by accident. Rabbis very clear not that finders are keepers (although they have a right) but ensured by the purchase.
Palestine was rumoured to be full of buried treasure from the centuries of invading armies. The man finds the trunk but does not want to draw attention by digging it up.
The morality and indeed the legality of the man who found treasure in a field then buying the field at its ordinary price is very dubious and that is part of the shocking element. And how can one buy the things of God? But it is what he had to sell that is striking.
Now one colourful expositor suggests that the burying is precisely about the hiding of who we are and by works of mercy and generosity living the values of the kingdom. But that is so directly contrary to the light under a bushel that it cannot be correct. That sounds like the kind of special pleading that the City Mission tries to pretend that it is not a mission of the church.
So where might we discover this treasure? Presumably anywhere. It is in the field, and the field is the world.
In essence this is about the totality of commitment, embracing far more than expected in order to possess the treasure.
The rich man finds the pearl, and this was perfection. It is the powerful appeal of perfection.
Notice that this is a deliberate search unlike the accidental finding of the treasure.
Somebody complained to me that there is no sense in this decision. The one pearl and the many pearls have equal value. But this misses the aesthetic desire of the one perfect pearl, which every collector would know. Oh to possess the first edition of Shakespeare’s first folio or Darwin’s Origin of Species. Or the original Authorised Version of the Bible. And at various times this focused desire to make a difference has focused the social services hugely, but then they have run into the problem that Christians and in particular Anglicans, have not been all that committed to the social work. Will the church make any costly decisions? Or will the need to build a cathedral or protect failing parishes, take away our sense of mission. And could it also be that social services are sometimes set against other aspects of the mission of the church, when really there should be a sense of a single, united, purposeful desire to express God’s desire for the world to be loved and embraced and touched.
The kingdom of heaven touches and catches up all sorts. But the real quality of what has been caught and its real value will take time to see.
The parable along with the parable of the weeds does seem to deal with the persistence of evil. We need to be careful about seeing this as the anticipation of the failure in the church. (What Augustine called the corpus permixtum). More likely it is the presence of evil in the world and the purpose of God to purify the world.
The bad fish would have been non-kosher fish (fish without fins).
The further aspect is impatience. We want to see God act now. This is about God at work slowly, quietly in an inner fashion.
Think of the huge influence of the City Mission.
The net shows God will bring all things into judgement. Judas.
Perhaps in the dragnet we should notice the emphasis on all kinds of fish. People say this is unliely but this is a dragnet hauled between two boats.
Actually I think it is that latter parable which appeals to me in the present context.
This tells a great deal about the City Mission.
Renewing our Concern for the World as Christians
My sense is that rundown churches are quite happy to do quite a bit. But the people who really make a difference are there volunteering at Tre Heata or in the opportunity shop, or working through the prison ministries, or touching the refugees and the orphans both here and throughout the world. And in the end, surely we need to be renewed in the mission of Jesus himself since that day when at Nazareth he took as his text
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour.” [Luke 4:18-19]
I think only then will our mission as a church have a coherence and less institutional defensiveness.
What Are We Running From?
July 19, 2020
Ordinary 16 Genesis 28:10-19a Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
Today we hear the parable of the wheat and the weeds, a theme close to last week’s parable. But last week it was all about the soil, this week it seems to be all about the seeds. Just as with last week we get Jesus telling the parable then after some intervening verses we have the parable explained. As Helen said last week, Jesus wasn’t in the habit of explaining parables, spelling them out seems to make them something they’re not. The power of the parable is that it confounds. Riddle like, the parable opens us up to wonder, it continues to speak to us in many and varied ways. The very specific explanation we hear might suggest these are words from a Matthean community under stress. Jesus words enable them to make sense of their world in the midst of oppression and struggle.
As we hear today both wheat and weeds are sown in the world are included as part of God’s creation. Weeds are part of the growing environment of the wheat, part of what enables the wheat to grow to fruition. It’s not until the fruit of each plant, of wheat and of weed, is borne that the difference between each can be discerned.
Perhaps a salient reminder to us to be careful when we think we’re able to discern and judge that which is good from that which is evil. Are there echoes here of that mythical Garden of Eden tale that tells of our human desire to eat from a tree that would grant us knowledge of good and evil.
What makes for a weed and what makes for wheat – if we extend the imagery beyond the specific? Perhaps a couple of examples might push us to wonder. Some years ago as part of the Leadership NZ year we visited the Hinewai reserve on the Banks Peninsula. It’s a reserve that fosters the natural regeneration of native vegetation and wildlife. Much to the dismay of the neighbouring farmers, Maurice White, the initiator of this project lets the gorse grow. He discovered gorse to be a highly effective temporary nurse canopy for native regeneration. Rather than competing as do Manuka and Kanuka, when the regenerating native trees overshadow the gorse it dies off from lack of light. Gorse for him was not weed but, I guess, wheat in the process of native bush regeneration.
Likewise, we can be quick to decide or judge good from bad in our human environments and to act on this. And yet, what if we shift the frame a bit? During a workshop on the transforming power of place making an example was given of such perspective shift. There was a shopping mall in Australia that was struggling with an overabundance of under occupied youth. The larger number of them was male and they got up to the usual mischief that comes with under occupied young men. There had been a number of complaints made about this, especially by the elderly frequenters of the Mall who felt intimidated and had become afraid of them and so of coming to the Mall. The Mall decided to bring in David Engwicht an expert in place making. After consulting with all being affected a consensus was reached. These under occupied young men became wardens for the Mall. With vests to identify them, they became the custodians of the Mall, with a responsibility of care to look after the elderly and so forth. It transformed both the young people and the Mall. That which had been deemed bad, wasn’t inherently so, it needed understanding and to be given purpose.
Such examples we can understand – the idea that we might set up, from our own understanding or perception, ourselves or something as good, (not in an absolute but relative sense) compared to something else, which isn’t exactly evil, but not good. And we see in this way that ‘good and evil’ coexist in the world. Yet, as these stories illustrate and warn us we need to be wary of thinking we’re actually wise enough to judge. Which is all fine in theory then something dreadful happens, we could say the Covid-19 pandemic, we could say the actions that led to the Black Lives Matter campaign – surely this is evil? Who can we blame for then we can make meaning, understand somehow.
Let’s turn to today’s story of Jacob, Jacob’s on the run. Jacob’s not on a holy quest, Jacob’s fleeing from the consequences of his actions, the repercussions of him duping his brother first out of his birth right and then of his father’s blessing. Jacob is fleeing for his life. Night falls, Jacob makes do with what he has, where he is to sleep. Something happens in the night in that place. Written back or written forward what happens there changes how Jacob is in the faith story. It changes him, our hearing of him – from shady character of questionable moral fibre, self-focussed, without regard for the one closest to him – to divine agent. The one in whom God invests the future posterity of this emerging nation and identity. As we learn later this is the one who’ll be renamed Israel. This night changes who Jacob understands himself to be, he awakens – same place, same landscape, same wilderness and yet … not, “Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it” Afraid, he says “How awesome is this place. This is none other than the house of God and this is the gate of heaven.” Nothing had changed and everything had changed.
We’ve this great theological word we have when we wrestle with God and the presence of evil in the world, the word is ‘theodicy.’ I sometimes think it’s so befuddling a word it’s usefully deployed to deflect from the genuine issues it faces. But actually it’s a prevailing question asked of me by different people from all number of different contexts, “If God is good, why does bad stuff happen? Why does God let it happen?” When such things are asked of me, when I hear this, I feel a bit like a jar of muddied water. A jar, with the water swirling and turning about, all shaken up. The thoughts and fears, confusions, ideas and ideals of the person asking and my own are swirling and turning about.
So many things I can’t answer, layers of confusion, of meaning seeking, of pain and disillusionment eddying about. I want the jar to be held still for a bit, so the confused and confusing demand to know can settle. So the drifting motes that make up the muddied confusion can be seen more clearly. Not because I’d then know but because then I’d have chance to see what was there. For things to settle in the jar I also need to be still. I can then discern that I am, over against the relentless weight of bad happenings.
Stilling myself gains me perspective – not so to disengage myself from concern or my contribution of care. But when we don’t still ourselves we become like Jacob, running from the repercussions of actions – mine or those of collective humanity, running for our lives in panic and disarray. We find ourselves in a darkening wilderness. We make camp as best we can. And as darkness falls in this wild and lonely place we, like Jacob, must rest. In our somnolent letting go, in our resting stillness, we discover a presence with us, we’re not alone, God is standing by us.
This isn’t to suggest God caused or let happen or made happen this pandemic, or the prejudice and hatred that led to the killing of people of colour – we humans are quite capable of crossing boundaries of nature or declaring that which is other to be of no value! We abdicate our responsibility when we attribute such things to God. But it might suggest that God is with us even in the bad stuff. Not as cause but as presence, with us even in our folly, with us even when we turn away. This isn’t exactly comforting, it doesn’t make everything all better, it doesn’t make everything all right and it doesn’t punish evildoers and those who transgress against us.
Last week the seed planted in good soil bore fruit abundantly. This week in good soil the weeds bear their unique fruit abundantly. Who decides whether the fruit it bears is of less worth than the fruit of the wheat? Last week we were directed to see the seed that did not fall on good soil as falling short. Yet we also know that some seeds need to go through the gut of a bird to propagate, some need extreme heat such as fire, some need the shelter of plant such as gorse and some need good soil to flourish. We’re accustomed to organising our world with binary opposites, it alleviates our anxiety, reassures us, but it’s not the world we live in.
We live in a world of wheat and weeds – it’s not as we’d prefer it to be, even as it is the way the world is. Of this we haven’t much say or choice. But each day, each moment we can choose to pause. To pay attention to the turmoil, to let it be as it is and see it for what it is – it isn’t who we are. As we put down the burden of our confusion, as we settle, we awaken to a sense of presence with us. Surprised, perhaps we too declare, “Truly God is in this place and I did not know it!!!” We might then wonder, “What have I to learn of divine presence in this place? Nothing is changed and yet everything is changed and it could make a world of difference.
At first glance today’s readings seem to be two strange and short pieces just left hanging there with no context.
But if you recall last week’s gospel – Jesus saying he came not to bring peace but the sword; today’s piece follows directly on.
As Carole Hughes said last week Jesus is speaking into the reality of the persecution and confusion of the first followers of Jesus who in the early days of the church find themselves ostracised from family and community.
After all the scary talk, Jesus’ tone changes – whoever welcomes you, welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.
In other words I go with you; God goes with you.
The passage from Jeremiah is there to expand the understanding of what a prophet is as the people try and discern who they should listen to, who might be a prophet for them.
Hananiah and Jeremiah were both prophets in the court of King Zedekiah, the last King of Jerusalem (594BC).
Each had different messages – Hananiah urged the people to revolt against the puppet king of Babylon; Jeremiah said to take their suffering and punishment and wait.
The people followed Hananiah and they didn’t win against the Baylonians, Jerusalem fell and the exile began.
Jeremiah said a true prophet will only be known after time has passed, with the benefit of hindsight.
Think about Nelson Mandela or Martin Luther King or Te Whiti o Rongomai from Parihaka; prophets who some saw as true from the beginning but from our vantage point of history all know to be the real deal.
Jeremiah became the prophet to be revered by any people in future times undergoing suffering and persecution.
He had words that were real for them in their suffering and promised a new hope.
Jesus too speaks to a people suffering and says “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me”.
Welcoming is something we place great value on here at St Matthew’s.
We strive to be a welcoming community; a place of hospitality.
We pride ourselves on being a place for all.
This line from the gospel though is not about that, not about welcoming others - it is about the followers of Jesus being welcomed themselves.
Being the recipients of hospitality.
When as followers we go somewhere to receive a welcome we carry Jesus with us, so that Christ is also welcome in that place.
That is quite a responsibility.
As we (finally!) gather today for our AGM – 3 months late – there is lots in our reports about our own activities and the people we have welcomed here.
visitors every Sunday
people gathering for weddings and funerals and baptisms
the vigils we held for Christchurch and Sri Lanka
workshops on climate change
living wage forums
our international network and clergy from our partner churches
The list goes on!
There is also commentary on places we have been welcomed as St Matthew’s – the City Mission; the Religious Diversity Centre; Ihumatao.
And we could list all the things we do as individuals in our workplaces and families and communities.
Then think about the last three months – in lockdown we were isolated from each other and our beloved church building.
Yet we connected in a new way as community in our Zoom gatherings.
(While a small number were unable to join, or some preferred not to) we welcomed each other into our homes and lives in lockdown.
I still remember the joy on the first Sunday of everyone coming online and greeting each other with surprise and astonishment that we had managed it!
And as the Sundays went by we had new and deeper conversations, welcoming each other and the gospel of the day into our hearts.
What was also happening each week was that we were being welcomed into the homes of 100s of others via our worship videos.
On Easter day somewhere between 400-500 people viewed our video.
On other Sundays it was at least 200.
We did 21 worship videos in all – including the Wednesday and Holy Week videos.
And it wasn’t just Cate and me our viewers were welcoming – it was each of you – in the welcome clips – or as readers, intercessors, singers, and in the still photos we used.
We have had lovely emails and messages from people across Aotearoa and overseas thanking us and commenting often on how much they liked the different faces – the community of St Matthew’s.
Whoever welcomes you, welcomes me.
You were welcomed, and so Christ was welcomed.
We did well; we pivoted, we got organised, we managed the technology.
And we did so in the midst of the anxiety and worry of the lockdown.
In the survey we sent you most of us either enjoyed the peace of lockdown or found it alright.
Most of us are worried about family and friends and economic futures.
We are committed to buy local and support local businesses and to live more simply and to focus on relationships and community.
We want to take the same decisive action on the climate crisis as we did with the virus.
We are though still settling back into our life together as a community.
Like all aspects of our lives things are the same but not the same.
Our collective national anxiety is very focussed on the border controls and the numbers there.
We all are carrying different worries about income, job security, health, families.
We are catching up with our grief.
Yesterday I took a memorial service for someone who had died in Level 4. In 2 weeks we have the memorial service for our own much-loved Tom Pallas.
The grief for those families is frozen in time and then begins again when finally they can gather.
We need to continue to be aware that we are all carrying that stress, and as our PM so often said, be kind to each other.
And as we move forward into our new normal, we will be exploring options for continuing video content (other than the livestream); experimenting with different groups to build on our zoom gatherings; working together on the climate crisis and other issues.
As we explore what our major areas of focus will be one of our guiding questions might be – who is waiting to welcome us?
rather than our more usual question of who can we welcome in.
Who is waiting and wanting to welcome us – online and in person.
The new community who will live next door at the City Mission?
Other faith communities?
The Living Wage movement?
Where might we be bold enough to go, knowing we take Christ with us?
The prophets of old were led into exile; the first followers of Jesus were led into times of trouble and turmoil.
We are certainly living in a time of anxiety and stress.
I want to celebrate with you today what we have been able to do together in this time and I am confident that we can continue to build our new way forward as we listen to each other and discern as a community.
We have indeed been all in this together – he waka enei noa.
We will go into our future together.
Confident in the reassurance that wherever we go, Christ goes with us and meets us there.
It is wonderful to be with you here this morning, and thank you for the opportunity to preach. I have now been in my role as Archdeacon, and working with the episcopal team of the Diocese, for over 9 years and one of the most enriching things that I do is worshipping with a different congregation each Sunday. I have about 36 ministry units in my region across central Auckland, out West, on the North Shore and up as far as Warkworth. And today it is your turn.
I must say though, that when I looked at the Gospel reading, I wondered why I always get the difficult texts, and perhaps Helen knew exactly what she was doing when she asked me to preach this Sunday. The issues covered include masters and slaves, destroying both soul and body in hell, using swords and setting family members against each other, and living in fear and the losing of one’s life. Wonderful theology! Just a few little subjects to cover! So how do I make friends when preaching on such controversial and difficult issues?
In saying that, I am excited about being here today to celebrate with you in the opening of the new offices. I think this occasion represents the priority that St Matthews in the City has placed on the health and wellbeing of the team who work from this place. COVID-19 has encouraged us to think about our life together, and how we care for one another and keep one another healthy.
2020 has certainly been an interesting year so far. During the COVID-19 lockdown many of us have deeply appreciated some time to slow down a bit, to refocus on the ‘local’, to enjoy time with family, and to support people around us in our journey together to prevent people from getting sick. In saying that there are many people around the world who are still deeply suffering, and who need our support and prayers. And there are many people in our local society who have been, and still are, struggling. The pandemic has highlighted the injustice in our world – both locally and globally. So, what can we do?
Well let’s look again at our Gospel reading this morning. On initial reading it is a divisive text. Here Jesus is promising to set a son against his father and a daughter against her mother, not to mention the daughter in law against her mother in law. Some have read this text to support family dysfunction and disunity – even justifying verbal abuse or violent behaviour within the family structure!
During the COVID-19 lockdown I was part of a global group of theologians who put together a resource in response to domestic violence during this pandemic, and it was published through the Anglican Communion Office. In this resource it stresses that many of our biblical passages have been used to justify violence, and especially domestic violence, and that we need to reinterpret and give clear teachings within these texts. I must say that this text this morning was not one of the passages mentioned in the resource, but never the less it could be considered a text that supports dysfunction and disunity and does not encourage happy families – quite the opposite in fact!
So, what is it saying to us? Well some would say that this text is a fine example of the biblical word’s not saying what, at first glance, it seems to be saying. It is an example of a text that is designed to shock us. It is also an example of where context is important. I would argue that we need to take context seriously in every text and indeed everything we do. Context is everything…, but I am bias being a contextual theologian!
Anyway, back to our Gospel reading. What does the context of Matthew chapter 10 look like? Well, the context is speaking into the experience of judgement and persecution. Jesus is addressing the faithful who seek to live into their Christian faith while facing conflict and discouragement, and even the threat to their physical wellbeing, because of the Gospel’s calling of justice. Sent on a mission of preaching and healing, the disciples have quickly learned what it means to face opposition and struggle. The cosy days of breaking bread with Jesus seem far distant when in response to sharing the Gospel they are rewarded with persecution. And sometimes we can feel a little like this – clergy and laity alike. When we stand up for justice, when we make ourselves vulnerable and go on a protest march – like I did, and many of you did, last week in the BlackLivesMatter march to stand up against racism and violence – or when we share some of our deepest concerns and insights with the people around us, we can be made to feel stupid. Or even worse – we get abusive words and sometimes violent actions thrown back at us. I am sure all of us have experienced times in our lives where we have felt persecuted or judged for standing up against violence or standing up for promoting healthy societies for all people. And some of the judgement comes from those who are closest to us – our family and our friends. I am sure I share experiences with many of you of leaving a family dinner or occasion furious because a specific justice issue is raised and very different opinions to yours are expressed. Maybe an unconscious bias raises its head and we try to highlight it. And believe me, and you will know, parents and brothers and sisters, let alone aunts and uncles do not take well to be being critiqued on such issues.
In our text today the point, or emphasis, is about the overarching importance of continuing to stand up for the Gospel of love and justice – even when we are judged. The individual, and the family structure, must be of less concern than the fight for justice. Because – and this is the important point – individual lives, family structures, and the whole of society will thrive when the Gospel of love and justice is heard and embraced. Jesus is not against the family. Rather he acknowledges that there will be times when allegiance to the Gospel causes a crisis of loyalty and forces a decision.
The Gospel shakes up values, rearranges priorities, and reorients goals. Following the way of Jesus does not mean a passive acceptance of the injustices and misery of this creation. Instead, we must model a way that gives signs of the realm of God that is to come, a strength that can be known by those who respond positively to the call of God in their lives – that brings freedom and love. We are a people who are called to shake up values, rearrange priorities and reorient goals. And violent events over the past weeks have highlighted that we need to do this more than ever. Thinking particularly today of the shooting of Constable Matthew Hunt, which is a deep tragedy.
In one of the online commentaries it reads:
‘The church that always manages to glide through life without ever rubbing anyone the wrong way may have reason to question whether it is truly Jesus whom it follows and honours.’
I know that this is ‘good news’ for many of you here at St Matthews in the City who have worked hard over many years in raising awareness of social justice issues across our city and nation. It is reassuring for me too, as I reflect on my ministry within the Anglican Church across this province. Because at times it has felt like we are ‘rubbing people the wrong way’. In other words, that through our stand for justice we have made people feel uncomfortable or very angry. And of course, this is precisely what this Gospel text is about. It is not about being quietly peaceful when it comes to justice, but rather it is about loudly challenging the injustices of our world. It is about bringing about change, and we all know that changing any institution let alone a mother or father’s unconscious bias is the most difficult thing in the world.
The sword language in our text today is not about chopping people’s arms or heads off, but rather it is a metaphor for cutting through the attitudes and actions that are unhealthy for our society. Words and actions that support racism, gender-based violence or any violence for that matter, homophobia, white collar privilege, to name a few. The Gospel is not about making people comfortable. You could say that it is about standing up against – not the people as such – but the opinions and attitudes and actions that speak of privilege and power over. It is about stirring people up to bring about positive change so that ALL people can flourish. In doing so, there is a risk that people get hurt and we fall out with our family, friends and church members. But I think that there is hope in these relationships when justice is realised.
To continue thinking about the metaphor of the family structure, I find it helpful when speaking into why we are shaking up values, rearranging priorities and reorienting goals. It is not just to annoy our family members, although sometimes we might secretly enjoy doing that. Rather the intention for change is so that the whole of society will thrive, not just the privileged ones. And when the whole of society thrives all relationships thrive, including our family relationships. In saying that, there is always work to be done. If we consider the context of our Gospel reading, the same overarching stories of abuse, persecution, unconscious bias and the falling out with those around us are with us today. Maybe the way we live and work together might be different from our biblical context, but the struggle for justice particularly for the more vulnerable in our society remain.
So, please do not give up on shaking up values, rearranging priorities and reorienting goals. It might feel at times that your family members in other parishes or dioceses or provinces are not always with you, but in order to bring about positive change there is always the fine line of keeping in relationship, which is important, but more importantly challenging values, priorities and goals in order to seek justice. But in doing this our text reminds us that there is often a personal cost. I don’t need to tell any of you here today about that. Many of us have experienced pain and extreme criticism in our striving for justice.
I cannot finish without mentioning verse 30 that we do like in our Gospel reading this morning: ‘Even the hairs of your head are all counted’. This brings it back to highlighting the attention and care that each one of us receives from God. We are all valued, no matter how frail, or afraid, or passionate or inappropriate we are – we are all deeply loved. When we fall out with others, or say things we regret, or don’t get the timing or phrase quite right in trying to articulate our ideals – we are loved. When our loved ones don’t get us, and we feel the pain – we are loved. For God loves us first. What we do in return is in response to that love.
So, may our response be about standing up for those who are vulnerable, and persecuted and who are not valued for who they are. In the name of God let us shake up values, rearrange priorities and reorient goals so that all may know and experience both the love of God and of one another.
Te Pouhere Sunday is a celebration of partnership across cultures.
“Pou” means post, like the large posts that hold up a whare nui; and “here” means to guide. Te Pouhere is the framework that guides how the church lives, prays, meets together; and how we give freedom to each partner to join in Christ’s mission in their own cultural context.
Our three tikanga of Maori, Pasifika and Pakeha are woven together and free to pursue our own ways of being. This constitution of our church was created in 1992 and it was a radical vision for its time. A vision of partnership and sharing of power, in particular at General Synod. As with all institutions it is far from perfect but it strives to create a more just and equal way of being the Body of Christ together.
We are being challenged to look again at our own cross cultural relationships in Aotearoa as we watch the Black Lives Matter movement sweep the world. After the horrendous murder of George Floyd the fires of protest have swept the US. And it does seem that even though there have been protests before and change has been promised before, that this time change is more possible. In conversations I have had in the past week with friends and colleagues in the US they are saying this time is different.
But also the craziness of “fake news” is also present. One friend told me about theories going around that the video of the murder of George Floyd was fake. And Trump followers are hanging on to their belief that the president is doing a good job. It is very easy for us to look from a distance and say how terrible it is in the US. And how their history of slavery has crippled their society and their race relations. And it is terrible and they need the support of the whole world to bring about change. We should always speak up about injustice when we see it.
I know our Episcopalian colleagues have appreciated the support of the worldwide Anglican Communion in condemning the photo op visit of President Trump to St John’s Lafayette Square. You know the one where he is holding up the Bible – quite why we do not know.
Bishop Mariann Budde, the Bishop of Washington said this:
The President just used a Bible and one of the churches of my diocese as a backdrop for a message antithetical to the teachings of Jesus and everything that our church stands for. To do so, he sanctioned the use of tear gas by police officers in riot gear to clear the church yard.
I am outraged.
The President did not pray when he came to St. John’s; nor did he acknowledge the agony and sacred worth of people of color in our nation who rightfully demand an end to 400 years of systemic racism and white supremacy in our country.
We in the Diocese of Washington follow Jesus in His Way of Love. We aspire to be people of peace and advocates of justice. In no way do we support the President’s incendiary response to a wounded, grieving nation. In faithfulness to our Savior who lived a life of non-violence and sacrificial love, we align ourselves with those seeking justice for the death of George Floyd and countless others through the sacred act of peaceful protest. 
And so we support them with our messages and our prayer and our marches. But we do so while looking at ourselves and allowing ourselves to be challenged. We need to learn our own history; we need to ask our own questions. Why is 51% of our prison population Maori? Why is there so much income and health disparity between Pakeha and Maori?
In the church why are most of the Maori clergy unpaid? We need to be open to challenge and to learn; to catch ourselves if we rush to make assumptions about someone from another culture; and to dig into the concepts of “white privilege”, colonialism and systemic racism.
In our faith tradition one of the places we can look for inspiration is the OT prophets. The prophets call out those in power and challenge the people to wake up and change their ways. The prophets are not polite; they call it as they see it. We heard from Isaiah this morning – Isaiah living around 540 BC when the people of Israel were in exile in Babylon but hoping to return.
Isaiah says to the people “Sing to the Lord a new song … let the sea roar …let the deserts and its towns lift their voice”.
Walter Brueggemann says that Isaiah is teaching the people “disciplines of readiness” to be ready for their homecoming to Jerusalem. 
The homecoming will not happen if the people are not living as people of hope, open and ready. He says first the people have to retell their “dangerous memories”, the truth of their own failings; and the truth that God has always been with them since the beginning of creation. And then they have to speak out against the empire that currently oppresses them – that too is dangerous. Then come the dangerous promises – the promises that God has made to the people of a return to home and the promises the people make to keep their hope alive.
“Sing to the Lord a new song … let the sea roar …let the deserts and its towns lift their voice”
And what will they sing?
They will sing praise to God who can be described as a soldier going to war; and then in the next breath a woman crying out in labour.
“For a long time I have held my peace … now I will cry out like a woman in labour … I will lay waste to this land and any who trust in false gods will be put to shame.”
Brueggemann says “The important point is that Isaiah’s poem is outrageous and unreasonable. It invites exiles to sing against reality, to dance toward a future not even discernible, to praise the faithful God who will not be held captive by imperial reality. The singing and dancing and praising is an act of hope, a betting on God’s capacity for an inexplicable future. It is the sort of hoping serious, baptised people must always do, always against the data, with trust in God’s promise.” 
So when we sing and pray and recite the story of our faith in the eucharistic prayer; when we march in a BLM march, or cheer marchers on from the sides; we claim that dangerous promise. We claim the hope that we can do better and be better; that we can look at ourselves and our history with the unflinching and searing eyes of the prophets.
And when we are found wanting we can pick ourselves up and sing to God a new song, praising the God who has created us good and created us better than we are.
Hannah Skinner, a chaplain at Manchester University in the UK wrote this:
And when a black man that I never knew suffocates beneath the knee of an oppressor that I’ll never meet…when life is crushed and death prevails… when the strength of the mighty is felt yet again upon the neck of those judged less safe, less precious and – ultimately – less human because of their skin colour…
Then anger surges like labour-pain, deep within my bones and forcing me to my feet. I am not black, but I am minority. I am not man, but I am sister. I will not meet George Floyd or lay my flowers where he met his curb-side death, but I live among my black and brown neighbours and encounter maybe something of his experience in them each day. So I will bring my minority anger, and I will stand as a sister-in arms – bright anger coursing through the fingers I use to weave each word and web of solidarity. From my own privilege I will offer up my anger alongside others, still dreaming that together we can create a world where children will be judged by the content of their character.
Power with those who protest, and power to them to bring change. Power with all us who are angry today, and power to us all to bring change. 
On this Te Pouhere Sunday we tell our story of partnership, of good things achieved and failures too, and hope that we can do better.
As the young people of the Diocese lead us in prayer before the BLM march we commit to looking at our own nation while calling for change in other nations.
We claim against all the data to be people of hope and faith who trust in God’s dangerous and wonderful promises.
Just then, in front of him, there was a man who had dropsy. And Jesus asked the lawyers and Pharisees, ‘Is it lawful to cure people on the sabbath, or not?’ But they were silent. So Jesus took him and healed him, and sent him away. (Luke 14:2, 3)
I am that man. I have had dropsy and it seems that Jesus (with the help of pharmacy companies) has healed me. Dropsy, hydropsy, is oedema which is fluid retention or swelling, it is the build-up of fluid in some part of the body. I have had dropsy because I have lymphoma, it’s a terminal aggressive kind of lymphoma. I retired and went away. Against predictions I made it to my own birthday last weekend and this birthday, 100 years since the Mission’s nativity here in this church. Two great weekends I did not expect to have.
So, I happily stand here and honour all those who have gone before us who have given the Mission its life, been its limbs and lungs, who have served and sorrowed in our doorways, those who have been donors and those who have been the diners, most of the names lost to memory, some of them were real saints and all of them sinners, all of them in some way part of the fabric Mission down the century.
I acknowledge this building, this sacred space, my fellow bishops Ross and Kito, Helen, Cate, Wilf and Linda clergy here at St Matthew’s, Chris our current Missioner (and through you Chris, I’d like to honour all of the Missioners who have served faithfully in that role, beginning, of course, with the notorious and wonderful Jasper Calder) and then all of you, …those from the St Matthew’s whanau, the Mission whanau, … all of you who have gathered here to offer thanksgiving and worship today. May the Good God be with us all.
Really, if you were to count all that I have said as not really sermon, but an introduction, it shouldn’t be counted as part of my eight minutes. Arguably, eight minutes should be the limit on any speaker or preacher this week after the eight minutes it took to extinguish the life flame from George Floyd.
The virus of racism has been surfaced around the globe and some are fearful, some are full of rage, mostly there is a blessed rage for justice and equality. In 1961, author James Baldwin was asked by a radio host about being Black in America. He said:
To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a state of rage almost, almost all of the time.
I am aware that the virus of racism is not so much background but foreground for us today, along with the virus unimaginatively called Covid 19, which is also killing people in all sorts of nasty ways even as I speak. 40,000 dead in Britain! Numbers unimaginable.
It all presses in on us.
But this is the place and the work of the Mission, always has been, to be standing right there, with those who are staring into the faces of death – homelessness or health issues or are just plain hungry – hungry for food for themselves or their family; those who yearn for a different way than the no exit lines of unemployment, and choked lanes of welfare benefits.
And we might ‘tut-tut’ about the US of A and, say, the mass incarceration of black Americans, and the death penalty that is still legal in a number of States is shocking and shameful but the statistics that has the mass incarceration of brown people in this country is not much better and it all boils down to a matter of justice.
Justice delayed and delayed and deep justice that is plainly denied.
One can’t work at the Mission for long and not feel the words of Amos well up within us “let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream."
But Amos is not our text, not the Gospel appointed for today (Luke 14:1-14), that comes from Luke. By the grace of God it is my task to crack open the Word with my words.
The Gospel passage has Jesus going to the house of the leader of the Pharisees. It is surely a companion piece of Luke 10 and Parable of the Good Samaritan where Jesus is being questioned by scribes and Pharisees. That story is possibly the best-known pieces of the New Testament; in it Jesus is quizzed by a lawyer about what he must do to inherit eternal life and the answer: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind and your neighbour as yourself’. The answer only leads the lawyer to ask: but who is my neighbour? and the parable of the Good Samaritan is Jesus response, the neighbour is the one who acted as the neighbour namely the Good Samaritan who crossed the road to help the robbed and beaten man. The story is so well known that it as entered our everyday lexicon to refer to anyone who does good for others.
So, today some chapters later Luke has Jesus off for Shabbat dinner with the good synagogue going folk – what we might see as the church going, pious well to do and well educated of town – and the question of neighbour relations resurfaces because Jesus up and heals the man with dropsy right there and then without so much as a by-your-leave. So, the implicit questions become:
When should we help the sick? Who should we help? … and because we are at a dinner: Who should we have over to our place for dinner?
You might say that Jesus gets right up in the Pharisees grill – remember there is no actual grilling going on because pious Jews would have prepared all the Shabbat meals ahead of time – and he says don’t just care for your friends and family or those who society honours; you are to care for those with whom you have no relationship, no obligations.
If care is a synonym for love, and I think it is here, this is about neighbour love where the neighbour is somebody we have, what is called in philosophy, no special relationship.
I have a special relationship with my brother or my daughter. To love and care for them mostly arises from that special relationship. It was the Christian philosopher Soren Kierkegaard who first suggested that the love in special relationships was ultimately self-serving and therefore not a Christian love.
Similarly, some writers have questioned whether Jesus was interested in the question of justice at all. You see, justice is about giving and honouring the claim rights that someone else has over you or over society in general. According to Anders Nygren’s, seminal book, Agape and Eros, justice is a matter of duty and has nothing to do with Christian love. More radically Jean-Luc Marion argues that justice always ultimately belongs to an economy of exchange and love, what Marion calls the Erotic phenomenon, looks for no exchange. Love makes possible the true gift, a gift with no return. Charity if you like.
Now this is not the time or place to argue the details about Kiekegaard, and Marion, and the other who have attended to the question of Love and Justice. What I do think is that there is something in the insight about the difference between love for family and the spontaneous love and care for the other – the complete stranger. This is what Jesus speaks of in today’s Gospel. It is love that reaches across and beyond any reasonable limits we might have, a love that goes where no relationship exists – no relationship except the most basic bonds of compassion for another human being.
If you can recall, When the Samaritan first sees the beaten man by the side of the road we are told in our English translations that he is ‘moved with pity.’ Pity is such inferior translation here precisely because pity conveys a kind of dominance. Compassion is the better word. God has compassion on us as mother for her child, the bonds of compassion are as the umbilical cord, a fundamental gut connection between one life and another.
Jesus tells us that where that compassion is all there is, when the other is not a family member, or someone I have any kind of special relationship with, go to their aid too. If someone in need is ‘other’, help them, watch over them, care for them, be part of their healing, love them too. Deep down this is what drives the work and witness of the Auckland City Mission. It is what has driven it for a century, I pray it will drive it for another.
In the name of the loving, liberating, life giving God; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Holy Spirit poured out Pentecost Sunday, poured out on the faithful Jews gathered in Jerusalem for the Feast of Weeks. The tradition proclaims the disciples gathered were filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke in languages able to be understood by people from every nation under heaven. We, gathered now, are we also filled, empowered to speak in ways that can be understood by every nation under heaven? If so, what are we doing with this gift? Taking the good news, being witnesses to the ends of the earth, proclaiming a new way of living and being, made real, for this Spirit’s poured out on all flesh? Are we to stay revelling and comforted in the echo chamber of our own rhetoric? Or are we called and compelled to go from here, from ourselves, into the world, for the world, not for us to make the world like us, in our image, according to our liking?
For us to do this, to go into the world, we need to know the world into which we go. To see and recognise the world as it is. Be willing to stay with the way the world is, even if we’re not sure we like what we see, even if we’re not sure we can bear to hear the way it is. If we can do this, we give ourselves chance to discern the spirit of our world. We give ourselves chance to discern how we participate and contribute to this spirit and to choose other-wise. After all, it’s a part of us, as much as we’re a part of it. As we pay attention to our intention we become more able to listen, more willing to learn, to grow to understand how the good news we say we bear is good news for those we go amongst. Did not Jesus name the spirit to come the Advocate? The Spirit that pours forth at Pentecost is expressed in every unique language, welling up from the heart it desires to flourish.
How are we to gain knowledge of our world? The lock down time gave us many things. It gave us time to attend to our intention – to reorganise, reorder and reflect, to notice what’s important. I read a bit in that time, I listened to voices in and beyond the usual disciplines I explore. With the Covid-19 pandemic centre stage, many of these voices talked to or around the effect of the virus. I was interested in what I heard. Interested to learn at least a bit about the way things are in the world. Disconcerted at times I’ll admit but, heeding my own advice, I tried to stay with what I heard, to discern the spirit in and of our times. I want to share with you some of the voices I heard. As you listen I invite you to keep in mind the challenge before us – what does the good news we bear look like in our time, as Spirit sent people into the world what does an Advocate of good news look like?
First the voice of a journalist “The developed world’s response to the pandemic is imperilling health systems, economies and livelihoods already on the edge. … For many of the most vulnerable, the developed world’s cures are proving worse than the disease. At the extreme, families must choose between going hungry and getting ill. And their plight is exacerbated by Covid-style “underlying conditions” – chronic, pre-existing political, security, economic, and climate problems that grow ever more unsustainable. The pandemic is providing cover for malign governments to pursue or accelerate policies that place lives at risk, regardless of Covid-19. Right now, western responses to the virus are imperilling more people worldwide than the virus itself. 
From a young Pasifika leader: COVID-19 didn’t create inequity. It exposed it. “our decile 2 sch opened today. spent it watching ppl swap leavers notices for CV’s cuz money is low & mouths gotta eat. remembered every joke bout high school dropouts from the mouth of higher decile school kids that didn’t work a day of lockdown. it’s ironic. watched our teachers try their best with what they have while richer schools have unused resources locked away in unused labs. it’s ironic. when lvl 3 came, watched my friends bury their youth in every graveyard shift. day after day they were told they were essential but those chromebooks never came so i guess they were at the bottom of the waiting list. it's ironic. how ppl say “South Auckland broke the lockdown rules the most” when we ask to unarm the police. as if walking outside my house is reason enough to be shot in the street. it’s ironic. how we didn’t break the rules, our mobility rates are so high cuz while u work from home on zoom, we have the most essential workers. packing ur shopping, driving the buses, cleaning ur classrooms. it’s ironic. how Pasifika have one of the lowest infection rates but were put at the most risk. it’s ironic. turned on the TV to hear our domestic violence rates rose, then 5 mins later heard NZQA won’t lower credits cuz the time we have is enough. like any kid wants to write essays when they have to deal with being beat up. it’s ironic. they want us to earn credits but they never give us ours when it's due. it’s ironic. poorer brown kids living the life of the hard knocks, while white girls from Epsom are making racist tiktoks. it’s ironic. & no matter how hard i keep my head in these books, i’m reminded there are things only the streets can teach you. if education is key, why do our locks keep changing? if knowledge is power, why does it come at a price we cant afford? every problem of society taught in class can be found in the hood. 𝔡𝔬𝔫𝔱 𝔫𝔢𝔢𝔡𝔞 𝔡𝔢𝔤𝔯𝔢𝔢 𝔣𝔬𝔯 𝔢𝔪𝔭𝔞𝔱𝔥𝔶. it's ironic. how NZ wants to rebuild, but it's on our backs.” @rascal.gal on Instagram. Shared with permission. 
I wonder what you’re hearing. I wonder on this first day back in church, Pentecost birthday celebration day whether you’re thinking I shouldn’t be so grim. Maybe you’re right. But I want to invite to reflect for a moment. The voices you’ve heard speak of our world as it is. We live in that world and we happen to be people of enormous privilege by compare. With privilege comes responsibility, there’s something biblical about that, covenant of blessing and responsibility. So we know a little more, what are we to do? Let’s listen some more.
Top scientists ask “Regarding the future, should we be depressed or excited? Optimistic or pessimistic? The best approach is to be realistic and pragmatic. It is inevitable that humans will continue to develop technologies, but … we have to put boundaries around them – even though … we will disagree over where the boundaries should be. We need processes that assist us to reach consensus on such matters. … This requires much more sophisticated dialogues than those concerned simply with short-term political expediency. We need to take one of those forms of ingenuity that evolution has given us … the ability to be self-reflective – and synthesize what we can from the multiple of disciplines of science and the humanities to understand out nature and apply our ingenuity wisely. 
A moral philosopher thinks: “the period we inhabit is a critical moment in the history of humanity. … The next century will be a dangerously precarious one. If we make the right decisions, he foresees a future of unimaginable flourishing. If we make the wrong ones, he maintains that we could well go the way of the dodo and the dinosaurs, exiting the planet for good.
Not a pessimist. He sees there are constructive measures to be taken. Humanity … is in its adolescence, and like a teenager that has the physical strength of an adult but lacks foresight and patience, we are a danger to ourselves until we mature. … In the meantime … slow the pace of technological development so as to allow our understanding of its implications to catch up and to build a more advanced moral appreciation of our plight.
It’s vital that, if humanity is to survive, we need a much larger frame of reference for what is right and good. At the moment we hugely undervalue the future, and have little moral grasp of how our actions may affect the thousands of generations that could – or alternatively, might not – come after us.
Our descendants … are in the position of colonised peoples: they’re politically disenfranchised, with no say in the decisions being made that will directly affect them or stop them from existing. Just because they can’t vote … doesn’t mean they can’t be represented.” 
Journalists, young leaders voice concern for the disenfranchised, the consequences of choices made. Scientists, philosopher’s advocate for mutuality and accountability, voice whether there’ll be a world to live in depends on the choices we make. Nary a religious word between them. It’s time to wake up. To heed the call to live beyond ourselves, beyond our niches and echo chambers, to take each other seriously. For those of us who find ourselves in religious places like this remember, we are Advocate/Spirit bearers. We go into the world in and with the Spirit - it asks certain things of us, demands certain things be made real. Let the eloquence of a Rabbi speak, “I am disinclined to pessimism. I prefer hope. Love your neighbour. Love the stranger. Hear the cry of the otherwise unheard. Liberate the poor from their poverty. Care for the dignity of all. Let those who have more than they need share their blessings with those who have less. Feed the hungry, house the homeless, and heal the sick in body and mind. Fight injustice, whoever it is done by and whoever it is done against. And do these things because, being human, we are bound by a covenant of human solidarity, whatever our colour or culture, class or creed.
These are moral principles, not economic or political ones. They have to do with conscience, not wealth or power. But without them, freedom will not survive. The free market and liberal democratic state together will not save liberty, because liberty can never be built by self-interest alone. I-based societies all eventually die. … Other-based societies survive. Morality is not an option. It’s an essential.” 
We are here in our church, in our sacred space. Stones, coloured glass in the windows, candles, altar, the organ. We have been gone 9 weeks. 9 weeks which included Holy Week and Good Friday and Holy Saturday and Easter Day. We have proclaimed Alleluia Christ is risen every Sunday of Easter from our homes. And finally we proclaim it here today, this last Sunday of the Easter season.
We are here, but only a handful of us; we miss all of you who we hope will soon repopulate these pews. So while we are here we wait with anticipation for the day when we can all gather, around the table, to share the bread and wine of the eucharist.
We want life to be normal again. No social distancing and signing in at cafes. We want to have weddings and parties, and funerals. We want to be able to sing together, share the peace by shaking hands, and kneel together at the altar rail.
But I fear that in that longing we are like the disciples looking up to the clouds trying to find Jesus – where did he go – where did our “normal” lives go? The angels who come and ask the disciples – why are you staring at the clouds - are like the angels at the tomb in Luke’s gospel who ask “why do you look for the living among the dead?” (Lk 24:5) They also ask us – why are you looking for your “normal” lives. You can’t look back; you have to look forward.
We would rather return to our old ways; they were familiar and secure. We knew our routines, our jobs, our way of doing things. We want them back! And yet I think we are all finding the re entry a little strange. Some are not sure they want to leave their bubbles; others couldn’t wait, but find the people and the traffic a bit overwhelming. Students have to readjust to school routines. Parents miss their children (or maybe not so much).
We all need to take things at a slower pace while we readjust and not expect everything to be done in the first weeks of the return. We have to take time to find our new balance, our new way of being. And not lose all those things we enjoyed: the quiet and the birds and the lack of traffic. Can we weave those things into our new way of being?
Once the disciples realised they couldn’t hold onto the old way of being with Jesus, they gave up staring at the clouds, and returned to Jerusalem, to the upper room. And they gathered with their community, prayed, and listened and waited. They had no idea what the future would bring but Jesus had said to wait and so they did. Next week at Pentecost we find out what happened.
Had they known the enormity of the experience and the challenge awaiting them they might have quietly slipped back to their homes and lives. Instead they waited. We also need to take time to wait, to reflect, to see what this time has meant. As we go about rebuilding our economy and our communities we need to reassess our priorities both personal and national, and even global. At St Matthew’s we are taking time to listen to each other by way of a survey (please be sure to answer it) and in our Zoom discussion groups. We have been enjoying the small groups, and getting to know each other in a different way.
We have found too that of course Jesus is not contained in this space, beautiful as it might be. We knew that before, but we have really had to experience it these last 9 weeks. Finding God in our homes, and gardens, and in the peace and simplicity. Now we can continue to find God in all those places as well as in our workplaces and schools and cafes and shops. And then when we finally do return to our stones, windows, candles, altar, organ we will bring God with us from the world outside these walls into this space, and we will be the richer for it. So we wait, and give thanks for the presence of God with us wherever we are. We pray with the disciples and the women and the community of faith which stretches from their time to ours. Until the Spirit chooses to come amongst us.
Quite often when we introduce our speaking in church we refer to a date from the liturgical calendar. It can seem like a special code or something for anyone unfamiliar. The church has a calendar year, running alongside the regular one, populated and punctuated with events, framed around the birth, life and death of Jesus. Its imagery often matches nature’s seasons, at least as they occur in the Northern Hemisphere as well as the imagery, and energy of many already existing rituals from the life of the communities into which Christianity spread. Having lived with it for a while it seems to me the cycle of the liturgical season – with its seasons of celebration and lament, of reflection and ordinary time also maps the experience of life and living – the human landscape of life.
At the moment in the liturgical calendar we’re coming to the end of the season of Easter. The feast of the Ascension occurs this week, with gospel reading depicting Jesus withdrawing and being carried up to heaven. Ascensiontide then ensues until the feast of Pentecost on Sunday week. So today is the next to last Sunday in the season of Easter. An Easter season that began with gospel readings of resurrection appearances, then had imagery of Jesus as good shepherd, before speaking of the Father’s house of many dwelling places and Jesus as Way, truth and life.
Each of these Easter season narratives promise familiarity, care, reassurance of continuity in a way the disciples can grasp. They include disciples who are slow to comprehend, or maybe ones brave enough to say what everyone else was thinking. They include disciple disbelief and doubt. They include the need for solid, easy to understand, spelled out explanation. Last week Jesus was heard telling a bewildered Thomas he already knew the Way. Maybe because been living with Jesus had been the way – in their waking and walking, eating and drinking, laughing and weeping, arguing and reconciling, in their incredulity and unbelief at the unexplained taking place in ordinary life. Of course significant words were spoken, but maybe the way was known even more surely through the solid, walking together and with this Jesus. Known in their meeting Jesus who called them to know their unique, potent beautiful selves and gained them courage to express it. In experiencing Jesus insistent determination to live as he proclaimed, to speak plainly and bluntly at times, to name inequity, to live with enough. Known in Jesus’ raging at injustice, his weeping out of love and irresolute naming of power misused. In Jesus frustration and patience with overzealous disciples who walked doubtfully, trustingly, disbelievingly with him – enthusiastic yet uncomprehending a good deal of the time. The Way wasn't magically somewhere else. Perhaps more unbelievably it was with them, in them, where they were, with who they were, together.
Today’s gospel continues from last week, for reassurance sake, or as future promise Jesus now tells of the Advocate, the Spirit of truth, who is to come. Jesus will go from them, no longer be seen, but continuity will be known in the spirit who abides with, in, among them, as they love and keep Jesus commandment to love. Because we read retrospectively, or hear this through the filter of many years of interpretation and tradition, we doubtless hear this intimating Pentecost, the festival soon to come. Pentecost with its great outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the sometimes named birth day of the church – it can be tempting to get exclusive again. As if the Holy Spirit, breathing life into creation, hadn't been there until now (at least not in this special way). But perhaps today is a reiteration, a reminder, a reassurance that Jesus stands in continuity in the flow of divine breathing life into being. Perhaps this small gathered Jewish community hears echo from their tradition, when the Shekinah took leave of the Temple. The remembered visceral experience of divine absence, yet also knowing it wasn’t the end. In time faithful community reformed, changed for and by context, simpler yet as served the needs for their time, place and context. Jesus will die, they will viscerally experience his absence, yet they will, in time, know continuity that will reform, reshape them for their place and time.
Reflecting on the disrupted lockdown times we’re living through there seem parallels with the season of the church year the lockdowns began in. Lockdown level 4 began in Lent, almost at the end of Lent. In a curious way Lockdown Level 4 was like an enforced Lent. For 5 weeks there was little we could do and it gave us time to reflect. Reflect on what was most important, required us to turn to those we found ourselves closely housed with and learn out how to live together. Perhaps uncomfortable truths about relationships were revealed – that they didn’t match our ideals. It hasn’t been easy yet it has been possible. The ripple effect of this time will be played out in the days, years, decades to come and not just in fiscally.
As we transition through Level 3, post Lent, post Easter, we emerge into what may now feel a very uncertain world and discover we’re different somehow. Some of us emerge with a greater awareness of what is important and what can be lived without. Others of us face the stark reality of relationships disrupted or of life without work. For some of us it’s something we’ve never known – life that’s been a particular way is so disrupted we’ve no familiar signposts, or life road markers to negotiate life and this unknown, frightening landscape is overwhelming. And others of us will have to return to life on the streets as winter sets in. Some of us can resume daily pursuits, if in modified form yet many of us are still shut away.
Hidden for so long, fearful behind our locked doors, as we emerge perhaps we’re looking for signs of normalcy to break in and reassure. Like those post Easter resurrection appearances that broke into the reshaped, remade world of the disciples. But they're fleeting, heart-warming in the moment, yet equally bewildering because they don't quite fit us or our changed world anymore. And so we begin to talk together about embracing this change and the opportunities opened up by this break with usual. Like minded interest groups are gathering and activating this way. It can be tempting for this to become more about particular causes than for a greater good. Having been so closely guarded, we might need reminding of the need to lift our eyes beyond the parapet our isolation has created.
As we tentatively move to Level 2 we become even more reliant on the cooperation of one another. Ascension this week marks the time the disciples discovered, experienced together an absence of guiding presence, of being left to depend on their mutual resourcefulness. They chose to take time to pray together, to trust themselves to the rhythm and ritual of prayerful presence in the place of faith known to them. Maybe it was a way of processing, integrating, giving time for their experience to change them, for them to learn the language in body and word they needed, or the world needed from the gift given them.
We’ve experienced a rift in the world, with Covid-19. The response in most parts of the Western world has been to shut down, to flatten the curve so not overwhelm medical resources. The closed door syndrome when we're afraid is normal and probably necessary for a time. But it isn't real. We’re globally interconnected, it’s vital to be aware beyond our parapet. As Arundhati Roy, writes from India, “Whatever it is, coronavirus has made the mighty kneel and brought the world to a halt like nothing else could. Our minds are still racing back and forth, longing for a return to “normality”, trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture. But the rupture exists. And in the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality.
Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.” 
Maybe we can allow Ascensiontide wisdom to speak to us. We need time to still ourselves, to step into rhythms and rituals that call us back to ourselves, remind us of what’s most important. We need time to process, to integrate our experience and be changed by it so we act in new ways for the life of the world.
Some of the lines from our reading today may be familiar to you – “Do not let your hearts be troubled; there are many rooms in my Father’s house” – this is often read at funerals.
And Jesus saying “I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to God except through me” is one of those bumper sticker phrases which aims to exclude anyone from God’s love who is not a Christian.
Both of these passages we assume we understand because of those contexts which have been imposed upon us over time.
“There are many rooms/ or dwelling places in my father’s house” is heard as a reassurance for those mourning – “I go there to prepare a place for you.”
It is seen as a reassurance about the existence of heaven, and life after death.
And with apologies if this has been an important passage for you but John the gospel writer did not have funerals in mind when he wrote these words.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled” is not actually about sadness at a funeral, but about deep distress, fear, and agitation in the face of persecution and suffering.
“John” is writing in the late first century for a community struggling to come to terms with their identity as people of Jewish descent who are being rejected by their own because of their new beliefs and practices.
Do not let your hearts be troubled in this context is – it will be ok – you can step out on the Jesus road – and it will be alright because God will be with you just as Jesus was with you.
Jesus is telling the disciples to stand fearless in the face of persecution, as he stood fearless in the face of death.
He tells them there are many rooms, or many places to dwell in his Father’s house which is not “heaven” – but about being in relationship with God.
The awkward translation “dwelling places” is trying to get at the double meaning of the word meaning a place, and as a metaphor for the “indwelling of the Holy Spirit”.
So when the disciple Thomas, who is ever practical and can’t think in images or metaphors, says “we do not know the way to this house, where are you going, get the map out and show us the way.”
Jesus replies – I am the way – I know God, God dwells in me, and God dwells in you too, because you have known me.
Exasperated Philip joins in “show us the Father and we will be satisfied” just show us already! where, how, what, on the map, in a place.
Jesus, also rather exasperated, says “Have I been with you all this time and still you do not know me?”
Knowing, abiding, dwelling, being in relationship; these are the things John writes about.
There are many rooms in my Father’s house; there are multiple ways to be with God because this is about relationship, not about a physical place.
The disciples know Jesus, he has said to them: abide in me as I abide in you; be with me, walk with me, to the cross, follow my way, and you will know God.
The line “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” has been used over the centuries as an exclusive line, to exclude other religions, and to claim Jesus as The (only) Way to God.
But again the context we use scripture in can distort the original meaning.
Remember John’s context of persecution and opposition and struggle.
They have to find their “way” through this.
The word used for “way” can mean a road, or a journey, or a course of conduct, the way we behave.
In the Book of Acts the early church is described as people of the Way (19:23, 22:4).
The followers of Jesus lived and acted a certain way; they followed a path laid down for them.
And that way was far from exclusive; Jesus never excluded people from his table, his teaching, his followers. Instead he went out of his way to welcome the outcasts and the “sinners.”
So what might these overused and seemingly familiar, but not familiar, lines have to say to us today?
“Do not let your hearts be troubled” might not go down to well – really? when 100s of 1000s of people across the world are dying and when our neighbor has lost their job and when the kids are truly driving us crazy after 6 weeks of lockdown.
Our hearts are rightly troubled by all of these things and more; we are experiencing something life changing and world changing.
If our hearts were not troubled we might be concerned!
Yet perhaps we can hold that sense of trouble or distress within the container of our relationship with God.
Jesus who went to the cross, Jesus the good shepherd holds all of that distress.
That doesn’t really seem possible does it.
Like Thomas and Philip we want to say – how, show us how?
And Jesus replies – stay with me; be in relationship with me; walk my way and I will show you, step by step.
So our challenge now is to discern what the next steps will be for each of us in the Jesus Way.
What will be the path; where will it lead?
As we move out of lockdown (we hope!) we need to take the time to reflect – what have we discovered about ourselves in this time?
what do we want to retain?
our sense of Sabbath time, more time for family and walks; the birds, the lack of pollution.
And what are we looking forward to most – not just takeaways – but seeing people, family, and enjoying the offerings of our local businesses – the hard work of our neighbours.
And what are the hard things we need not to lose sight of; the stress and worry for those losing jobs and businesses.
And what do we want to see on the other side of all of this?
I want to see the homeless who have been housed stay housed;
I want to see us tackle homelessness and poverty with the same energy we have tackled covid 19;
and can we apply the same worldwide energy to climate change.
When Jesus invites us to follow his Way – these are the things that we can do in our context.
At St Matthew’s over the next few weeks we are going to be having conversations together about our new world that we are entering. What do we want to leave behind; what do we want to embrace; what role can we have as people of faith in the public conversation that is evolving?
As we do this Jesus invites us all to walk the Jesus way, being held, and abiding together in the many dwelling places of the house of God.
So far on Sunday’s in our Easter season we’ve been hearing stories of disciples’ experiences after Jesus death. Experiences of encountering a presence, a companion with them, they come to recognise as Jesus. Almost every time this presence appears, breaks into their world, they’re gathered, with another, going about their normal activities. Today the focus in our gospel shifts. Perhaps this ragged band of gathered followers is trying to make sense of things. Put some explanation around, some flesh to the one they’d gathered around. To strengthen and make meaning of the curious draw Jesus had, that he called out from them. Remember we’re embedded in a Jewish community here, a tradition replete with shepherd and sheep imagery narratives. Imagery used to evoke meaning and response, to enable understanding and stimulate action. I wonder the response arising in us to images of shepherd and sheep. I think there’s value in noticing and paying attention to the response these images engender in us, especially if we attribute them to God/Jesus. Unintended or unattended images of God can have potent impact on us and in us, especially if we’re cast as a sheep.
Lynda Patterson, a late Dean of Christchurch humorously illustrated this in a reflection included in a 2015 Lenten Bible study. “Once I was talking to some Catholic friends in Auckland, they invited me up for their little daughter’s first communion celebration. Little Casey was very excited about is and grabbed the phone to tell me about how she held out her hand and the priest put a wafer in it and then he said the special words. Her Mum took the phone and said that Casey had been particularly taken with the words, “God be with you” when she received the host. So much so that she marched home, sat her mother down, presented her with a pink wafer biscuit from one of the packets in the pantry and whispered to her mum in her most reverent voice, “God will get you.”
Out of the mouths of babes … It struck me that that’s a reasonable assessment of what some people think of God. [God] is out to get us.
[Lynda’s] grandmother was a keen embroiderer and [her] first encounter with theology was in the texts she embroidered and illustrated and left in various significant spots around the house. One of her favourites was “Thou God seest me” from Genesis 16:13. It was in every room of the house, accompanied always with an enormous and rather threatening eyeball. As a child it made [her] quite anxious. It was particularly disturbing to sit in the bath with the eye of God gazing down from slightly to the left of the bathroom mirror. [Lynda] always found [her]self adding an awful lot of bubble bath.”
She reflects, “I wonder how many of us secretly believe God is out to get us. God is the looming presence which makes itself felt whenever we’re doing something slightly dodgy; God is the admonitory finger which waves whenever we have an unworthy thought. The eye of God watches at the keyhole and sits under the bare light bulb interrogating us about our failings. We build up the image of God who is high up and far away – too high up to tolerate our slightest weakness and too far away to feel a great deal of sympathy for us.”  I wonder if this resonates with any of you. Even a more benign shepherd image is still other than a sheep and a sheep’s still need fully dependent.
Today’s gospel from John seems, in this Easter season to be moving us from resurrection revelation toward a naming, a validating of Jesus’ identity. The gospel passage is ever so slightly confusing. We hear of sheep and sheepfold, gatekeeper and gate, of thief and bandit, shepherd voice calling and sheep hearing, shepherd entering and sheep going out. Jesus explicitly claiming to be the gate, then explicitly claiming to be the shepherd and, depending on how you look at it, he might at the same time even be the gatekeeper.
So Jesus-the-shepherd enters Jesus-the-gate because Jesus-maybe-the-gatekeeper opens it for him ... so that he can get to the sheep. Confused? Perhaps he’s having an identity crisis, mixing metaphors … or maybe he’s trying to make a larger point.
Jesus as shepherd, well that’s familiar but Jesus as gate, how are we to understand that? There’s an interesting little detail, easily missed, which may help to clarify. But we have to visit Gospel of Luke, in the 13th chapter Jesus tells his disciples to “strive to enter through the narrow door, for many I tell you will seek to enter and will not be able.” This teaching from Luke is much better known than the gate-teaching in the John that’s often lost. This can create a problem because, if we’re not careful, we’d read “I am the gate” in John and think it’s Jesus talking about the same thing as in Luke. It isn’t.
The teaching from Luke tends to be remembered because of its moralistic overtones, as if to say you must walk the “straight and narrow,” and strive to make it into God’s Kingdom. It may be what the writer of Luke’s gospel is having Jesus say. But this differs from what the author of John has Jesus saying. This is a very different teaching.
I don’t know whether you noticed but the sheep aren’t the ones entering the gate (door) – Jesus is going in the gate (door). The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. Notice Jesus goes in to lead the sheep out. Not in. The sheep’s coming and going to find pasture is secure when they hear their name and respond to being called. But first Jesus goes in to lead the sheep out, it makes you wonder: if we’re being led out, where are we being led out from? And, maybe more importantly, where are we being led to?
So if you understand yourself as one who’s chosen to respond and meander towards the one who knows your name, what’s it feel like to be called a sheep? A sheep’s become symbolic in our culture of someone who’s a mindlessly compliant follower of social norms. Many an Internet commentator has delivered withering, independent-minded diatribes against the unquestioning masses they deride as “sheeple.” Even if you’re comfortable with being compliant, there’s the discomforting reality that sheep are none too bright.
Hilariously commented on in the Monty Python skit, Flying Sheep , in which a tourist begins talking to a farmer leaning on a gate, looking into a field. The tourist is shocked to see sheep up in the trees – nesting – the farmer has come to the conclusion. They observe the sheep trying to hop two-legged around the paddock, unsuccessfully trying to perch and to fly. The trouble is, the farmer explains, that sheep are very dim. Despite all the evidence to the contrary they’ve been convinced by a sheep named Harold that they are, in fact, birds. Harold, the farmer explains is “that most dangerous of all animals: the clever sheep. He’s realised a sheep’s life consists of standing around for a few months and then being eaten, a depressing prospect for and ambitious sheep.” Might this suggest being clever is a problem? I don’t think so. But you might want to ask where Harold’s cleverness left the sheep? Harold’s doubtless correct in wanting there to be more to life than being eaten, but that doesn’t mean a sheep can make itself a bird – make itself something other than it is.
Do you sometimes wish you could be different, or your circumstances changed or that life in the world were different? I wonder whether the call in us is not toward being something different, but rather toward being more truly who we are. As we uncover this we change, our world changes and we become part of changing our world. The shepherd imaged today doesn’t round up the sheep with a whistle, or herd with whips and prods and dogs. This shepherd calls the sheep by name. Is our wisdom to recognise, to know our name when we’re called? Our skill as sheep is to listen – to listen from the deep place in us from which we recognize who we truly are.
Maybe when we’re called from the sheepfold, we’re called from ways of living that limit or entrap us to abundant life. Inside or outside the sheepfold there are risks and there are many clamouring voices. Choosing to respond and align our life toward the one who knows our name may not lead to a life miraculously made easy, certain and secure. But it may be known in the nature of the life engendered in us – we find ourselves opened to possibility, in some way freed, with courage and a passion to enquire and explore life beyond our familiar bounds. It’s strange to think we’d recognise our name being called. It might almost suggest we’re uniquely intended, honoured and respected. Our choice to respond and follow the one who calls enacts this, brings it to life and makes it real. Once called we’re not to stay in but to go from the sheepfold to give as generously as we’ve been given, to risk granting others the recognition, honour and respect already given us. Even as their being who they are is different from us, even as we may be changed in order that sufficient space is created for them so that they can share pasture with us.
The story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus is I think my favourite Bible passage.
I love to wonder about Cleopas and his unnamed companion – women tend not to be named in the Bible so maybe she is Cleopas’ wife or daughter.
I love to imagine their conversation, a mixture of grief and also hope as they talk about the strange tale of the women and angels and Jesus being alive.
I love the mystery of the stranger who appears and walks with them, listening, and then explaining the scriptures to them.
“Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”
They are engaging with their hearts more than their heads.
But they still don’t recognize him.
The day draws to a close and Cleopas arrives at his home and so invites the stranger to stay – an absolute obligation in the culture of the time. 
Then I love the account of the meal “When he was at table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them”
You might recognise there the actions of the eucharist, of our communion service, where we take the bread, bless it, break it and share it.
The words are the same ones that the writer of this gospel will use of Jesus at the Last Supper (22:19) and the feeding of the 5000 (9:16).
He took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them”
It is then that Cleopas and the companion recognise Jesus.
I love this part of the story because it is about the eucharist – the sharing of bread and wine which we normally do every Sunday together as a community.
During lockdown we cannot gather, and we cannot share the bread and wine. We can’t even invite a friend, let alone a stranger, over for dinner.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to cook dinner for a friend tonight.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to share in the eucharist together.
I think I have felt alright up till this Sunday about not sharing the eucharist.
I have missed it – but today as we hear this story my heart has started to long for the bread and the wine.
At St Matthew’s we have real bread for communion, made to a secret recipe, from the late Puppe Wall, the recipe passed down to her granddaughter who makes it for us still.
The bread has a perfect texture and a slightly sweet taste.
When Puppe was with us the bread would arrive warm on a Sunday morning. There are a couple of loaves in the freezer at St Matthew’s, waiting for us to warm them up, bless them, break them and share them.
In this lockdown season while we long for that bread we can also pay attention to the other part of the Emmaus story. The part where our hearts might burn as we read and absorb the word of God.
Like the prophet Jeremiah who said “Your words were found, and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart” (15:16)
or the psalmist: “How sweet are your words to my taste; sweeter than honey to my mouth” (119:103)
As Anglicans we are people of the word and the sacrament – equally.
Now is a time when our being fed by the word is coming to the fore; while our hearts also yearn to be together and to break bread together.
As we take time to slow down and focus on what matters in our lives we can also notice the sacrament of life all around us.
The word sacrament simple means a sign – a sign of God’s presence with us. So the bread and wine are signs of Jesus; water is the sign of baptism.
One writer, Claudio Carvalhaes says this:
The whole universe can be a sacrament. Everyday every person will be grateful for something.
One day we will listen to the birds as a sacrament and we will sing back to them in gratitude.
Another day we will tell a story to a child either in our house or online to somebody else and count this storytelling as a sacrament.
Another we will eat and say to the earth how grateful we are for our bountiful meals and save some for the hungry.
Another we might celebrate the rain we receive as God’s sacrament.
If there is no rain, our shower will be a sacrament, our washing of the dishes will be a sacrament of who we are.
On the seventh day we gather together on our online worship service, count the thousand sacraments we experienced and tell each other how our gathering can be enriched by so many other sacraments, keeping our hearts positive all week long! 
What signs of God’s presence have you seen this week?
What sacrament can you give thanks for?
How might you continue to give thanks, until we can gather again and break bread in community.
We come now to the story of the final ‘witness’ to the events of Easter.
To the story of the last disciple to experience the resurrection of Jesus – he hadn’t believed what he’d been told.!
This gospel reading, the week after the hype and excitement of Easter, is a thudding back to reality... dead men don’t get up and walk ... to say they do is ridiculous.
This year, in my mind, the ‘doubt’ the writer of John’s gospel tells us Thomas experiences in the face of stories about Jesus walking about, resonates with a question raised by the book ‘Searching for Sunday’ which was the book, the group I was part of, was reading in Lent.
In it the writer raises the question “What if we made this up because we’re afraid of death?” (p.187). (This being the resurrection). She was reflecting on her own Easter experience, noting the bravery it requires to raise doubts.
I’m not really concerned with trying to investigate the background of Thomas. Cate has noted previously that although he has been named in other gospels, he is likely to be simply one of the characters in the story John wants to tell.
It would seem ‘John’ has imaginatively created the character of Thomas for the purpose of this story – he is a symbolic figure. The story itself does not appear in any of the other three gospels – nevertheless, it raises a very important issue about faith!
We need to remember here that historical accuracy is not this writers main concern, but rather faith and theology are.
We have heard many times that doubt is not the opposite of faith but rather an essential component of faith.
It may seem counter intuitive to say this, but certainty has no part in faith!
If we are certain about something we don’t need faith!
This is what John is reassuring the persecuted community of early Christians, who were his audience, about. While they could have no certainty about how the future would unfold, they could have faith there would be life after the pain and difficulties – albeit a different life from the one they had become used to.
Scholars suggest to us, that though the story of doubt is focused on Thomas, he represents all the disciples, and the communities of followers – and probably us too, if we are honest.
I would hazard a guess most of us have wondered at some time or other, and perhaps still do, what the our Christian faith is all about;
what the good news of God is all about; ...
what it is we struggle to have faith in ...
what the resurrected life is that the disciples, and Thomas, with all his doubt, point us toward?
It seems a pertinent question today as we try to live with some sense of normality while the Covid-19 virus rages and our normal everyday ‘life support systems’ are not available to us and we have to keep our distance from friends and family, stay home as much as possible.
How, now, shall we live?
It is easy to be fearful that we too might succumb to the virus, and even die because of it. It is very easy to be fearful of leaving the security of home and the walls that keep ‘others’ out, it’s easy to be suspicious of ‘others’ to worry they might inadvertently bring illness and perhaps even death as a consequence.
Ordinary expectations are being shaken – we cannot buy just what we like when we like because others have stripped the supermarket shelves before we arrived. There is not even one tin of bake-beans for us an there is no flour, nor any certainty!
How now shall we live?
Life is in danger of being reduced to isolated self-protection while the enemy rages.
The authors of the book we call John’s Gospel (scholars tell us there more than one author) in preparing their material probably in the mid 70s CE – in that time of Roman persecution of Jewish people, a Jewish leadership collusion with Roman overlords, and the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem – may well, like us, also have asked “How now shall we live?” while hiding themselves away in their homes and isolating themselves from others in fear.
The locked room we can understand, the frightened disciples we can empathise with, Thomas’s response to their fantastical story of having seen Jesus risen from the dead, might well be our response – who wouldn’t dismiss such a thing!
But John was not setting out facts of history. He was not describing an event, he was telling a story to inspire the frightened early Christian community. He was offering reassurance, drawing attention to the way life continues even in the face of fear and death.
He was emphasising ‘life overcomes death’: locked doors and solid walls cannot keep life from happening; nor the walls of fear and doubt.
Jesus moves through those walls in this story. Not a resuscitated dead man who will die again one day, but a life resurrected from despair, set free from fear, and fear of death.
The risen Christ is the image John uses of life inviting us to live boldly to live without fear even in the face of death and an uncontrollable world.
Our world will likely be different from the one we have known.
This is how we will live now: boldly, considerately, kindly, taking care of each other and telling stories of hope.
I’ve been struck this year by the different characters that populate the scriptures that lead to Easter. I know they are the same texts every year and so the same cast of characters yet what I noticed this year is who gets included in this story that leads to Easter. Who is included and what is included.
Jesus wept at Lazarus’ death before raising him; a man born blind given sight and Pharisees and Jews portrayed as intransigently resistant, Palm Sunday procession, triumph to tragedy in a week. The sensory opulence of Mary at dinner table, squandering scent, anointing then wiping Jesus’ feet with her hair; of disciple Judas community, breaking of bread included, and darkness, and betrayal. Water and towel and servant washing of feet; commandment to love as we’re loved by Jesus in so doing we reveal ourselves as his disciples. Soldiers with lanterns and weapons, ear slicing, high priest trials and disciple denials, questions of truth, sentencing and soldier flogging, thorn tearing crown wearing, cross carrying, inscription bearing, soldier lot casting and clothing dividing, sour wine, agony of dying, side piercing, Joseph and Nicodemus spice bearing linen cloth wrapping burial custom and in new tomb laying.
These are the things we’ve heard that have led to this day. Easter day when we proclaim the story did not end there, that was part of the story, not the whole. But before we pass quickly to such glad tidings I want to pause. This story is not a fun story but it would not be the story it is if it did not include the characters, their parts, their actions it does.
This year in noticing the characters this story speaks to me as one of radical inclusion. Please do not hear me suggesting this as some colonising claim of all people under the Christian banner, no not at all. Rather I notice that this story includes a whole cast of characters we might usually deem outsiders, scapegoats for us to exile. Especially those with role we decide cause this death.
But this story is not just an over there, or back in time, or a carefully scripted drama to entertain. This story, this type of story is being enacted now. It’s a fundamentally human story. It’s a story of each one of us. It is our story. If it’s a story of radical inclusion, then it tells of the radical inclusion of all of who we are, as we are. Including those parts of us we’d prefer not to acknowledge or face too often.
Just as each of the characters has necessary role for this unfolding narrative of divine presence, so, then, does each part of us that make us who we are.
Perhaps we’ve had sense at times of falling short, disappointed, perhaps, frustrated at ourselves. As a species on this planet, we’re increasingly aware the ways we live are not sustainable, do not benefit our world, each other, our planet. At the moment we’re made even more aware of our vulnerability with this virus arising from within our natural world.
Let us sit honestly with all of this. Feel its weight and heft, acknowledge the burden of it. Let us let it be, put it down for a moment. Sitting with it, let us relinquish our strategies, our ways to try to fix things. They’re oriented and informed by the very impetus that got us here. Instead of thinking we have to be different, other than we are, let’s be still and take some time to listen to our story. Notice the way we tell our story, notice the character parts, the actions, the decision and choices made. They all have part in making us who we are. They’re a rich resource.
As we acknowledge them and see the part they play in enacting the drama of our life, we see they also impact our world. Perhaps we’re not happy with what we see. Perhaps we’d prefer to live differently. But before we attribute to ourselves the mantle of knowing from ourselves how to do that let’s stop for a moment. We know not what we do – I think this is the season for such quote. Let’s turn to our gospel, look to Mary weeping, bereft, seeking the Jesus she’s lost. Mary knows it’s Jesus when he names her. She comes to herself and sees the Rabbouni she’s known from that self. Do not hold on, let me go, she’s urged.
Like many things in our life, we want to hold on to what we know, to a story that fits us. We want to hold onto the story of faith that we know, that is familiar to us, that reassures and comforts us. But in so doing do we seal the story off. The expansive openness we proclaim in reality is open to include those who see and tell the story our way. Open to those who enact life within the boundaries we set for belonging. Inadvertently we seal ourselves off from it. We cease to hear it continuing to speak to us, teach us, disrupt us.
Easter dawns this year in a new world of Covid-19 that’s broken open our familiar world immediately and radically. Everywhere we’re scrambling, politically, financially, medically, perhaps most immediately socially. Words are being spoken of being in this together, behaving in ways for the good of our community, our nation. One hopes these are signs of hope and change. But they’re also times of honest revelation. In his article in the Guardian, Kenan Malik quotes Michael Gove saying “‘The virus does not discriminate, but,’” Malik continues “societies do. And in so doing they ensure the devastation wreaked by the virus is not equally shared.
Last week, tens of thousands of Indian workers, suddenly deprived of the possibility of pay, and with most public transport having been shut down, decided to walk back to their home villages, often hundreds of miles away, in the greatest mass exodus since partition. Four out of five Indians work in the informal sector. Almost 140 million … are migrants from elsewhere in the country. Yet their needs had barely figured in the thinking of policy makers who seemed shocked by the actions of the workers.
All this should make us think harder about what we mean by community. The idea of community is neither as straightforward nor as straightforwardly good as we might imagine. When Donald Trump reportedly offered billions of dollars to a German company to create a vaccine to be used exclusively for Americans, when Germany blocks the export of medical equipment to Italy … each does so in the name of protecting a particular community or nation.
The rhetoric of community and nation can become a means not just to discount those deemed not to belong but also to obscure the divisions within.
“We’re all at risk from the virus,” observed Gove. That’s true. It is also true that societies both nationally and globally, are structured in ways that ensure that some face far more risk than others – and not just from coronavirus.” 
This is the way things are, let us be present, be honest, be open to the pain and the desire arising in us for things to be other-wise.
When we claim rhetoric of triumphal victory at Eastertide, of death vanquished and overcome we can forget this is a story of vulnerability, of deception, of deep betrayal, of failure, of death. And a story of our human capacity to love so deeply we're willing to forfeit our very life. It is our story. It reveals a way to live letting go, present to our fundamental vulnerability yet unafraid, present to the way things are without deception.
What happened at Easter? What happened to cause Easter to be so pivotal for us? To make our faces light with smiles and our hearts unburden?
At Easter, in the story we tell, there is trust, letting go, death. Then there is a deep reassuring knowing, an embodied experience of continuing presence.
Today we hear of Mary’s embodied experience. Mary, mind full occupied with grief and despair couldn’t see the Jesus she knew, intimate, until he called her to herself. She was re-membered, could see things as they were and could see the one she loved, Rabbouni, Teacher. Could see in time to let him go, to let her way of knowing him go, so new ways of understanding could arise.
In Christ’s suffering and cross, the words in one of our NZPB liturgy’s say, God’s glory is revealed.
Could it be that God’s glory is revealed through the muddle of inchoate pieces we accumulate and name as who we are – through our perfect imperfection? When we sit down, are honest with ourselves, able to accept that we’re cracked and chipped and imperfect, we open ourselves to restoration and healing, for divine grace to be known through us. We’re opened to want a world of this, like this.
with material from The Last Week Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, 2006 Harper Collins
two processions entered Jerusalem on the day we call Palm Sunday
it was the beginning of the week of Passover – the most sacred week of the Jewish year
the Passover celebrated the time when Moses and Miryam led the children of Israel to freedom from being slaves in Egypt
Jerusalem is crowded with pilgrims; everyone who can travels there to worship at the Temple
from the east rode the procession we all know about with Jesus on a donkey riding down from the Mount of Olives cheered on by his followers
the other procession from the west from Caesarea Maritima, came Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor; he entered Jerusalem at the head of a column of Roman imperial cavalry; Pilate rode a horse, high above the crowds
the Roman governor always came to Jerusalem at the time of the Passover, in case of trouble, after all this was a Jewish celebration of the people being liberated once before from an oppressive ruler
and the governor came to remind the Jewish people who their ruler was – Rome.
“a visual panoply of imperial power: cavalry on horses, foot soldiers, leather armor, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold. Sounds: the marching of feet, the creaking of leather, the clinking of bridles, the beating of drums. The swirling of dust.” (Borg and Crossan p3)
just think of any Netflix series on the Roman empire and you get the idea
remember the emperor of Rome was seen as a god; often called the son of god or Lord or savior; these inscriptions would be in the banners the soldiers carried
I think we usually imagine Jesus’ arrival into Jerusalem as something spontaneous but Jesus had planned his arrival – the disciples are sent to get a donkey, whose owner is expecting them and in Matthew’s gospel they are given a password “The Lord needs them”
Jesus has planned his procession to be the polar opposite of Pilate’s procession – challenging the empire and its theology
so from the east comes Jesus in contrast – on a donkey –an echo from the prophet Zechariah (9:9) “look your king is coming, humble and mounted on a donkey”
Zechariah goes on to detail what kind of king Jesus will be: “he will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations” (9:10)
and the people welcome Jesus, cutting branches from the trees and laying them on the road
they shout “Hosanna” which originally meant “save us” and along with “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” is a line from Psalm 118 (25-26) always sung at Passover.
the gospel writers are definitely setting up this entry into Jerusalem as the arrival of the Messiah, so long waited for down the centuries
and the war horse Zechariah speaks of is Pilate arriving on the other side
so this is no cute family festival we reenact today
this is political, dangerous; two kingdoms confronting each other – the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Caesar
“A kingdom of peace, a kingdom of justice, a kingdom of radical and universal freedom. A kingdom dramatically unlike the oppressive empire Jesus challenged on Palm Sunday.” 
our palm crosses that we make and keep are symbols of protest, symbols of standing up to the Caesars of our world – the things that burden and dehumanize us and the peoples of our world
in this time of pandemic our palm crosses can be a source of comfort but let’s not lose their political purpose, reminding us that we follow the One who challenged Caesar and was killed for it. These crosses take us through the way of suffering and to the resurrection.
Our world is suffering, we are suffering. This Holy Week we will walk beside Jesus to the cross as he embodies our suffering. We will walk this week always knowing that resurrection has already happened and that the resurrected Christ is with us.
On a day when we are worried about our loved ones and our community and our world what earthly use is a story about Jesus raising someone from the dead?
What are we supposed to do with that? It all seems too fanciful.
What was so special about Lazarus?
Nothing really – Lazarus was brother to Mary and Martha.
They were family, they grew up together.
Jesus knew them well, he stayed with them often, they were close.
Mary sat once at the feet of Jesus to listen and learn,
Martha complained to him and said, make her come and help me in the kitchen.
Jesus declined, he was happy to teach Mary.
So Jesus is called to Bethany when Lazarus is ill, but when Jesus arrives in Bethany Lazarus is dead and buried. Martha and Mary are angry “if you had been here my brother would not have died”. Jesus weeps, and is disturbed in spirit.
What does that mean, he is disturbed in spirit? He is upset, he sobs. Jesus at his most human. But then he goes to the tomb and tells them to roll away the stone from the entrance to the cave. Martha, ever practical, points out that it might be a little smelly. And Jesus says “Lazarus, come out”.
How did the crowd react? Gasps? scoffing? silence? And Lazarus comes out.
He is wrapped in the grave cloths (wrapped up like an Egyptian mummy). “Unbind him, and let him go.”
Unbind him, unbind him and let him go.
Why does the gospel writer John give us this story? Well, there is the tomb, there is a stone which has to be rolled away, days have passed, there are grave clothes left behind, and the women are there. Is this about Jesus’ own death and resurrection?
Maybe; but I am drawn back to those words: Unbind him.
Unbind her and let her go.
What is it that binds you?
What are the grave cloths that hold you down, or hold you back.
I am pretty sure today it is fear and anxiety,
also disappointment at your cancelled life right now,
also fatigue and worry,
also being addicted to the news feeds
could also be boredom and cabin fever
worry about finances, jobs and the future
worry about family members.
If you are an essential services person you will be worried about your contact with others.
All of these are heavy burdens we are carrying.
We are at risk of getting bound tight in our grave cloths of worry and fear and anxiety.
But even now, even in the midst of these very real and reasonable worries in our isolation bubbles, Jesus calls us to stand up and walk out of that grave.
We hold out our arms as he unwinds the grave wrappings and sets us free.
Because we can still claim life every day.
We claim life in the face of death.
And we can claim life because Jesus has been there before us.
Lazarus and Martha and Mary have been there before us.
Jesus wept, Mary and Martha wept.
It wasn’t a game or a pretence, it was real.
They wept, they suffered, they knew pain and sorrow.
“Lazarus come out” he said. “Unbind him and let him go”.
Can we hear those words for ourselves and know they are spoken to each of us?
Can we embrace our limited, lockdown life with confidence knowing that God is with us, loves us and weeps with us?
Even if the worst happens and we lose a loved one, remember Jesus weeps with us. And love carries on beyond the grave.
There is a Taize chant we have been singing in Lent at St Matthew’s – “within our darkest night you kindle the fire that never dies away”.
We can’t sing those words together right now but we can sing them at home.
We live out those words by living our lives of faith.
By protesting and lamenting and saying to God, this virus that is sweeping our world is so wrong, and believing in God anyway.
We can walk free from the tomb of death every day.
Hear Jesus calling you out.
Unbind him and let him go; unbind her and let her go; the words are spoken for you.
On Thursday evening I popped into Pak and Save in Albany, just for one or two things. Not such a good idea, I’d not witnessed anything quite like it. 10 minute wait for a trolley, 30 minute wait at the checkout. But what really struck me was the feeling, the palpable experience of almost panic, it felt as if there was a thread, only a thread holding people back from stampeding into it. It’s swirling around, this disruptive unsettling feeling. It’s hard to imagine the reality of the Covid-19 virus. We hear of its effects overseas in frightening detail, which, though distanced, can be overwhelming. And the very time we want to reach out and touch, to comfort is the very time we must refrain.
While driving home I decided to pay attention to the unsettled disruption in my belly, to try to understand its cause – fear was the word that came to mind, yet of what was I afraid?
It may not be made real yet, here, immediately in our lives, but it’s closer day by day. This was to be our last chance to gather on Sunday for a while. Helen may be cross about it but I think it unlikely we’ll be able to gather in one place on Easter day. We can decide to do something in common in our scattered places on that day so we know ourselves connected. Perhaps intentionally enact a darkness to light ritual, or decide to pay attention in a particular way. We can decide to do something in common even as we cannot be in the same space. Prayer fully we can know we companion one another. And we plan for there to be virtual, live feed connectivity.
This new real is hard to imagine.
We have to change our behaviours to prevent the spread of a virus. A virus we cannot see, that can be carried and communicated even as the one carrying is unaware for they’re asymptomatic. It’s hard to get your head around.
Right now it feels as bit as if we’re neither here nor there. Adversity can bring out a spirit of innovation, tenacity, collegial creativity. But we’re not quite there yet.
Anxious and distracted we have to face this new way in a world of distanced togetherness.
Today we were to listen to scripture enacted, the gospel from John of the man blind from birth being healed and the ensuing “argument/discussion”.
How do we make connection between our experience of being a gathered community of St Matthew’s, this gospel and the ‘real’ world we know we’re going to walk into, necessarily separated, that’s not like we’ve known before? Do St Matthew’s and this gospel text simply fulfil a religious need in us? Or might we find them to have application beyond, to be deeper than religion’s possession?
As I’ve listened to this gospel over the week it seems to me to speak quite a lot about resistance to change. Within the narrative of the text the resistance, of those with religious power, to change the way they interpret the world, or rather to change how they interpret what happens in the world, despite the evidence before them.
A man born blind does receive sight but I’m not sure this narrative’s about miraculous healing per se. The blind man seems almost a pawn, a character used to reveal something, for John’s Jesus to make a point.
From the outset we’re introduced to a world view. Jesus and his disciples meet a beggar, a man blind from birth we’re told. The explanation for such condition, so the disciples interpret it, is because of the sinfulness of either the man or his parents. “Neither” Jesus declares, but the interchange provides opportunity for Jesus to reveal the effect of their unquestioned/unexamined interpretation. Without actually asking the blind man what he wants (which is a bit presumptuous), Jesus proceeds to spread mud and spit on the blind man’s eyes, sends the man to wash in the pool of Siloam and the man can see.
Then a whole number of arguments and interrogations ensue about the man’s identity, about the genuineness of his blindness, about who’s permitted to be named as the source of such healing. Over and again the statement of facts of what happened, of identity, is repeated, whether by the man born blind or by the parents of the man born blind. Leading questions from such factual response receive blunt response, I don’t know, we do not know. I/ we only know what happened.
As the text unfolds, with holy humour the farcically untenable position those with power insist on holding is exposed. Even so, with spluttering bluster they claim their hold of the holy high ground and with it the right to sin accuse, diminish and dismiss the personhood of another.
Holy humour, perhaps it’s a good reminder for us to laugh at ourselves more often. If we took ourselves less seriously perhaps we’d be open to see things as they are and let them be. Resist the temptation to impose our flights of interpretive fancy upon what is plainly before us.
In the times we find ourselves in, we can be tempted to overuse our access to information. To interpret it in a way to rationalise our fear and anxiety, even to the catastrophic.
Let’s be reminded to stick to what we know. We know the Covid-19 virus is rapidly moving across our world. Without underestimating the effect of Covid-19, statistically most people who get infected by it will recover. We’re fortunate to know, from the experience of countries whose management of this virus has minimised its impact, there are ways we can socially organise that will inhibit its spread. So we’ve been asked to accept the mantle of citizen responsibility and change the way we live.
The beginning conversation around Covid-19 was about not letting it be communicated. Was about living as if you had the virus, was about avoidance and prevention. This remains the intention, to slow its spread, to try and prevent a community outbreak. But increasingly the language is changing. Increasingly we’re being asked to live for one another. To live in socially responsible ways out of care for one another, especially those most vulnerable to the Covid-19 virus. We’re being asked to actively notice and care for our neighbour, to change for the good of one another and for the good of our society.
But it doesn’t remove our anxiety and our fear, that thin thread of almost panic among us. We’re being asked to live differently, unaided by the systems and structures that order our lives, without the distractions and diversions we use to cope and stimulate meaningfulness. And for many there’s no reassurance of economic or career continuity. We live present to the effects of the unseen Covid-19 virus and we know it’s not going to end anytime soon. Anxiety and fear are appropriate reactions.
What might the gospel narrative have to speak into all of this? Did you notice the somewhat enigmatic ending of today’s gospel, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains”? Maybe being blind is just being blind, if you’re honest about it. But if you’re blind and insist you’re not your responses inflict others with your shortcomings.
Anxiety and fear are appropriate reactions in the times we find ourselves. Yet they need not be our response to one another.
We need each other in these times. We need to hear and to speak how we are. We need to hear the resonance of our honest selves in the honest self of another. Communities of trust and deep care such as St Matthew’s matter in such times when we, together, are sensing, feeling and finding our way, negotiating how to live fully as who we are in a world changed. Let us, in our keeping safe distanced way, continue to be such community for one another that we may be valuable and rich resource to those who come into our care in these times.
March 15, 2020
Lent 3 John 4:5-42
Cast your mind back to last week’s reading – about Nicodemus.
Nicodemus comes to speak to Jesus at night; he is educated, a man held in high esteem; a leader and an insider in the Jewish world, and he does not understand what Jesus is trying to teach him.
Today’s passage which follows after the Nicodemus passage in John’s gospel is like a mirror opposite.
The Samaritan woman has no name; she meets Jesus in the noon day heat; she has no education; she is an outcast in her community; she is a Samaritan (hated by the Jews of Jesus’ time).
Jesus initiates the conversation and at first she has no understanding of what he means but by the end of the story she is gathering her neighbours to hear this man. “He cannot be the Messiah can he?” Two contrasting stories about two encounters with Jesus.
Back to our unnamed woman. She had come to draw water, at noon, the hottest part of the day, and she had come alone.
Women usually gathered at the well in the cool of the morning or the evening, and they went as a group. They went as a group to protect themselves from the embarrassment of meeting a man by accident alone; and to help each other lift their water jars onto their heads once they were full.
This woman comes alone and at noon when no one else will be there because she is not part of the group – she has had “five husbands”, so the other women will want nothing to do with her.
And Jesus, a Jewish teacher speaks to her, breaking all the rules of propriety and crossing the traditional line of enmity between Samaritans and Jews. Jesus is thirsty, and he has no bucket to draw water.
She is surprised and shocked. “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” Instead, he mysteriously offers her living water.
“Everyone who drinks of this water from the well will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty.”
What kind of water can that be? She wants some of that, but how, and what is it?
This water is like the waters of creation at the beginning of time,
like Noah’s flood washing away the sins of the people, like the waters of the Red Sea parting for the people to cross to safety,
like the storm on the Sea of Galilee stilled by a word from Jesus,
like the river of life in the Garden of Eden and in the book of Revelation, like the river Jordan where John the Baptist called people to a new beginning.
It is like the first drops of rain a farmer feels on his skin after a drought; it is like a hot shower after a long day’s work;
it is like a waterfall in the middle of the bush; it is like the sea at your favourite beach on a summer’s day; it is a water tank or well built in a village in Fiji or in Tonga; it is like clean drinking water brought into people following a flood; it is a cool cup of water drawn up from Jacob’s well in the heat of the noon day sun.
Jesus offers this water to our nameless Samaritan woman and when she has tasted of this water which quenches the thirst of her soul she rushes to get the whole village.
She no longer cares that they think she is a woman of loose morals; she forgets the accusations and the gossip and the ostracizing looks.
She rushes to tell them. “He cannot be the Messiah can he?”
And they come and he stays two days and they also believe.
They also drink deeply at the well.
Are we thirsty? Are we parched? Do our bodies and souls cry out for water? For living water that never runs dry?
Today on this first anniversary of the Mosque shootings in Christchurch our souls have been fed again by the example of our Moslem sisters and brothers and their example of compassion and forgiveness. Their compassion quenches our thirst.
One of our book groups are reading Barbara Brown Taylor’s book Holy Envy. “Holy Envy” is when you look across at someone else’s religion and wish you had some of that – like the Muslim commitment to prayer, or the Jewish commitment to Sabbath.
BBT says instead we need to learn from each other and strengthen our own faith as a result.
The book group reading her book noted her use of water as an image when describing sitting alongside people of other faiths.
“I do not imagine two separate yards with neighbours leaning over a shared boundary.
I imagine a single reservoir of living water, with two people looking into it. One might be a Muslim and the other a Christian, but there is nothing in their faces to tell me that. I see two human beings looking into deep waters that does not belong to either of them, reflecting back to them the truth that they are not alone.” 
As the world deals with the Covid 19 pandemic it is very tempting to give into anxiety, paranoia and panic.
Instead we need to sit together and reassure each other we are not alone. We need to listen carefully to sources of information that are trustworthy and to listen carefully to each other. How are we doing?
What do we need from each other? How we can drink of living water and not the poisoned well of misinformation and xenophobia.
On Friday we had a gathering of some of our pastoral carers in our congregation and we made some plans for how we can stay connected and support each other as we weather the Covid 19 storm. We will keep working together and journey together.
When Stephen and I were in the US a few years ago we travelled to Arizona to go to the Grand Canyon. We drove from Las Vegas to the Canyon via a bit of a loop through the Arizona desert. It was only the beginning of June but the forecast was for 40 degree heat and we had read the warnings about taking plenty of water even on the main highways. We were very glad we did indeed buy many litres of bottled water and copied some people we saw at a gas station getting ice and chilly bins to keep their water cold.
The Arizona desert is I think one of the most beautiful places I have ever been, incredible colours and rock formations spreading as far as the eye can see. On our way up to the Canyon we stopped at an ancient Pueblo Indian village and stepped out of the airconditioning into the most searing heat; we managed maybe 20 minutes walking around this fascinating place, drinking every step of the way, but you could feel your body dehydrating as you went. How the original inhabitants survived there is a miracle.
Standing in that heat that day and desperately wanting cold water, not the hot water in my water bottle, is the nearest I can come to understanding how thirsty the Samaritan woman was, when she met Jesus that day by Jacob’s well.
Are we thirsty? Our world is thirsty.
“Everyone who drinks of this water in the well will be thirsty again but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”
Drink deeply today and then offer to help another find their source of water, of strength, of hope; sitting alongside them and looking deep into the waters that belong to none of us and then drinking together from the well that is God.
Stillness, dark, night… together in silence we’ve breathed together. In stillness the rhythm of our heart settles, stills. We have settled, stilled.
Into this quietness I speak – in a way I’d rather not – it seems loud, breaks into our gathered stillness, yet it is asked of me here.
Hearing the narrative of scripture of this time of year through the voices of different people speaking the parts of the characters who appear is a potent bringing to life of this Jesus story. Actual people looking at actual people with flashing eye and engaged verbal exchange lifts words off the page, puts us into, places us in the dynamic of interchange.
Under cover of dark, of night, quietly Nicodemus comes to Jesus.
Why does he come? He doesn’t appear to come with a question. He does ask some but latterly, in response to Jesus, arising from his puzzled confusion. No, Nicodemus comes and makes a statement.
Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.
It is slightly odd that Nicodemus does so. Why? Well, we’re listening to the story of Jesus as the gospel of John constructs it. We depend on what we're told, we don’t have any inside information that might come from being on the ground in Nicodemus’ historical time and place. And thus far Jesus has done little publicly that could be construed as a sign of which we hear Nicodemus speak.
Maybe this passage is, as some suggest, misplaced. That it would be better if it were positioned toward the end of the gospel. Someone representative of a religious authority of the day is acknowledging Jesus – that the signs done by him testify he does indeed come from God and is in the presence of God. Further that the representative of the religious institution comes in darkness, in confusion and incomprehension. The passage unfolds to claim those who acknowledge and accept Jesus authority, his unique status and way of being and knowing will emerge from darkness to light. Meanwhile Nicodemus remains in the shadows, quietly slipping out of the scene as he did into it. But this account isn’t placed there toward the end of the gospel, it doesn’t conveniently fulfil a logical progression as we might expect.
We could also explore that John’s gospel has a consistent rhetoric against the Jewish establishment. Diarmund O'Murchu, commenting on the violence in the Biblical scriptures quotes Thomas Yoder Neufield describing "John as dangerously dualistic and anti-Semitic”.  The Pharisees, of whom Nicodemus is one, were actually quite progressive, willing to include people into the chosen people fold provided they kept the letter of the Law in practice and life. I’ve read it proposed, with reference to this passage, that Nicodemus was a Pharisee on the up and up, who wanted to learn what Jesus did so he could get an inside running on success in the God business. Only to have revealed that he had no idea, or rather the idea he did have – that God revealed looked a lot like signs and wonders, was not God.
You see Nicodemus names and gives Jesus identity as one who comes from God. John has Nicodemus recognise something in Jesus early on in this gospel – before Jesus actually does anything. I wonder how that redirects us when Jesus then proceeds to do signs. Do we too look to them as proving Jesus’ “Godness” or do we remember Jesus words to Nicodemus. No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above; no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. Do we remember Jesus' response, or non-response, to Nicodemus?
I read a piece by Brandon Ambrosino in the Huffington Post this week. He was reflecting on Lent, the discipline of Lent. Ambrosino began by recounting an interchange with a teacher he named as Dr. P., a philosophy lecturer at college. Dr P had asked his class if anyone had heard of Nietzche, Ambrosino responded, wasn’t he the one who said ‘God is Dead’. “Dr P laughed, “Nietzche did say ‘God is Dead’ that. But do you know what he meant by it? Do you know the story of the madman?” Dr. P told us Nietzche’s parable from The Gay Science about a madman who rushes into a marketplace, carrying a lantern and announcing the death of God. When his listeners respond with mockery and laughter, he realizes that he has come too early, and that no one is ready to hear his message. He smashes his lantern and leaves the marketplace, and breaks into several churches, where he asks the chilling question, “What after all are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchres of God?”“
As a young, earnest Christian he and his classmates were much distressed by this and rushed to Dr P’s office to remonstrate. Then, a year later, “in a different class with Dr. P, [Ambrosino] discovered that maybe Nietzche was right. Dr P professor began the lecture, he recounts, by writing two Greek words on the blackboard: eikon and eidos. The first he translated as “image” or “icon,” and used it to refer to God as a wholly God – tout autre, wholly other. The second, the Greek term for “idol,” Dr. P explained was what happens to God when we comprehend [God] firmly in intellectual hubris. Dr. P told us that when we’ve finally understood all there is to know about God, then all we’ve really understood is a God we’ve created in our image. “Whenever you think you’ve arrived at eikon,” he warned us, “you’ve really only gotten to eidos.” 
We’re to be born again, so we’re admonished, being born again it sounds quite lovely doesn’t it? Many a born again Christian have expressed their delight and wonder at their experience. And yet, being born is a messy, difficult, life endangering experience. It’s one of those liminal, life thread-hanging moments. And for the most part we don’t remember it, don’t remember being born. Influenced as I am by the birth of a granddaughter this week and the stunned, slightly freaked out experience of my son who while at same time as recounting the birthing process had a wondering delighted grin across his face as he cradled his new-born. Giving birth is painful, being born is … messy, air gasping, warm fluid embrace to cold air separation shocking. Birth isn’t something we’re in charge of, not something we can of our will decide to do. It thrusts us into an unknown in which we’re entirely vulnerable. Into an unknown upside down world where we require the touch, the nurture and care of those who’ve negotiated this world ahead of us.
According to today’s gospel to see, to enter the kingdom of God requires us to be born again, from above, in spirit and water. If this is something we desire it requires us to be willing to be born again – messy, life endangering, utterly upending us. Nicodemus expresses his incomprehension. And John has Jesus express his dismay that Nicodemus lacks familiarity with something so foundational, “And you a teacher yet you don’t know this?” We speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen, Jesus further proclaims.
This faith business is grounded in our experience, it's not simply theoretical. When we still ourselves, when we pay attention to the beating of our heart – whether this is in literal stillness, or perhaps when engaged in something more physical – gardening, exercising, creating or appreciating art in image or word or music – in those moments when your body, mind, being seems as one, you step into a flow. Perhaps you understand, name this as experiencing a sense of presence. Perhaps you name this as divine presence. Why? What have you learned that causes you to name it this way? Are these signs?
Which brings us back to the beginning, why is Nicodemus a character that appears at all? He comes from nowhere, is granted caricature status as a Pharisee. He doesn’t lead with a question and yet is cause of a Jesus tirade, sorry, soliloquy and disappears. The occurrence seems misplaced. Yet this event is well loved, the riddle-like essence of it tweaks something in us. Are we equally puzzled, equally discomfited because we've no more idea of what Jesus is talking of than the baffled confused Nicodemus character?
Are we willing to face, pick up the challenge laid down. If we think what we name and nail as God, as coming from God is God, maybe it's time for upending rebirth. Maybe seeing, knowing God, living in a way to be included in the kingdom of God, is like being born, it thrusts us into the unknown, upends us, makes us vulnerable, needful of those who've been here before, for its nothing like we know.
 Murchú Diarmuid Ó. When the Disciple Comes of Age: Christian Identity in the Twenty-First Century. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2019, 76
Jesus is in the wilderness, in the desert for 40 days; alone, hungry.
Jesus goes into his wilderness time straight after his baptism.
He has heard the words “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Words of affirmation, words of love, words of promise. A good start for Jesus and his ministry. But then …
“Then he is led into the wilderness to be tempted.” oh. Doesn’t seem like a promising start.
Jesus spends 40 days fasting in the wilderness – what is this supposed to remind us of? The 40 years the people of Israel spent in the desert after escaping from Egypt. The time of the exodus, absolutely crucial and formative for the people of Israel. So this is to be a time of formation and preparation for Jesus too. And also the 40 days Moses spent on Mt Sinai before being given the law and the 10 commandments. (Ex 34:28) Jesus is the new Moses.
So then the “devil” comes along with three challenges.
If you are the Son of God – if you heard correctly – this is my son the beloved with whom I am well pleased – if that is right – then what is to stop you turning these stones into loaves of bread – after all you are hungry …
hey you could feed the hungry of the world at the same time.
Jesus replies with words of scripture from the book of Deuteronomy 8:3 “one does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”
– words of Moses to the people of Israel reminding them that God fed them in the wilderness, and showed them they were completely reliant on God. Just as Moses taught the people so Jesus is teaching the devil. He will rely on God thank you very much; not on his own power or desires.
The devil responds with like – he then quotes scripture back at Jesus – he takes him up to the top of the Temple and says well,
let’s see if this scripture you quote is worth anything and he quotes some lines from Psalm 91
For he will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways.
On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.
But the devil doesn’t quote the next line of the psalm
You will tread on the lion and the adder,
the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot.
(Hidden humour from the gospel writer Matthew I think)
Jesus says – do not test God (Dt 6:16);
I the human Jesus am not God, and I will not put myself in God’s place. Adam and Eve made that mistake way back at the beginning of time.
The devil tries one last time; I will give you all the world if you will worship me. Angry this time, Jesus quotes Deuteronomy (6:13-14) “worship God alone” and sends the devil away “Away with you Satan!” And the angels came and waited on him, fed him, helped him.
The temptations of Jesus are all things that will take him away from who he really is. The reality of how much he believes that he is beloved is what is being tested here. Will he rely totally on God to supply his needs? Will he be tempted to have a go at a few magic tricks? Will he trade the kingdom of God for the kingdoms of the world?
Or will he remain the faithful and beloved one. It is the human Jesus who is being tested here; he was hungry, tired and might have been very ready to try a different way.
The temptations are also all things that we want Jesus and God to be or do. We want to be able to pray that God will magic away all our problems; stop the Covid 19 virus; stop the bushfires; stop war; stop people from dying.
Turn stone into bread – feed the hungry. Intervene when are foolish enough to have thrown ourselves from the Temple by destroying our planet – we are in freefall and we expect God to hold us up.
We want Jesus to bless our kingdoms and their splendor – our successes, rather than the Jesus way of humility and love.
Stanley Hauerwas says “the devil is but another name for our impatience. We want bread, we want to force God’s hand to rescue us, we want peace – and we want all this now. But Jesus is our bread, he is our salvation, and he is our peace.” 
In Take this bread Sara Miles recounts her unexpected and totally surprising encounter with Jesus as bread.
She opens her book with: “One early, cloudy morning when I was forty-six, I walked into a church, ate a piece of bread, took a sip of wine. A routine Sunday activity for tens of millions of Americans – except that up until that moment I’d led a thoroughly secular life, at best indifferent to religion, more often appalled by its fundamentalist crusades. This was my first communion. It changed everything.” 
Later she says “I couldn’t reconcile the experience with anything I knew or had been told. But neither could I go away: for some inexplicable reason, I wanted that bread again. I wanted it all the next day after my first communion, and the next week, and the next. It was a sensation as urgent as physical hunger, pulling me back to the table at St Gregory’s through my fear and confusion.” 
Those of you reading Sara Miles’ book this Lent will follow her journey from this amazing day and she what she does as a logical next step – feed others, from the altar of the church.
Which ends up being a bit shocking for the regular churchgoers.
Thinks about today’s passage and who the devil might be, as you read her story.
Those of you reading Climate Church, Climate World by Jim Antal may have read his commentary on another bread story – Jesus feeding the 5000.  He comments that Jesus used what he had – a basket of fish and bread – gave thanks and began to share it.
And Antal assumes others then did the same. Working with what they had and then joining with their neighbor, piece by piece, person by person. We do not need Jesus to turn stone into bread, or miraculously feed 5000 people. We have been given the tools to use, the bread to share. It is our choice what we do with it.
As we begin our Lenten journey our world is facing the anxiety, not just of climate change but of the Covid 19 virus. There are many temptations in front of us: panic, obsessive reading of accounts in the media; denial; fear. Let’s help each other with those temptations; help each other to stay calm and real. Stay connected and tell each other what we need – and be a community to each other. It feels like we might be entering a wilderness time; but we can be the angels who waited on Jesus. We can attend to each other and journey through to the other side.
My reaction to this gospel today is really? Seriously? Be perfect?
If last week’s gospel wasn’t enough – Jesus carries on with “you have heard it said, but I say to you” – stating and then redefining the law and the expectations of his followers. And the kicker at the end “Be perfect therefore as your heavenly Father is perfect”. Give me a break!
If you ever had a romantic view of the sermon on the mount – Jesus there sitting on a rocky outcrop with his disciples all gathered around listening to poetic blessings – today’s section finally puts paid to that idea. So today we are “turning the other cheek”, “going the extra mile”, “giving someone the coat off our backs” – interesting how this section of the sermon has found its way into the sayings of the English language.
As Cate said last week there are different ways to approach passages like this – we can go down the rabbit hole of explaining each line and understanding its cultural context – for example
39 Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also;
Striking someone on the cheek was done by a slave owner or someone of higher authority to indicate submission; to turn the other cheek could indicate that you were not being submissive but standing up and looking them in the eye; and saying bring it on!
Or 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.
This one is for the Romans. In Roman law any citizen could be conscripted and made to carry the heavy gear of the soldiers for the distance of one mile (think Simon of Cyrene carrying Jesus’ cross).
They restricted it to one mile to stop the resentment of being forced to march with the soldiers over long distances – not good for the levels of civil unrest. To carry two miles would mean the soldier had violated his own law and could be subject to discipline. So we could do fun facts about tricky bible verses.
Or we could avoid these verses altogether because like last week’s gospel they have been used in the history of our church to suggest people should put up with unjust suffering. Women suffering violence from partners have been told to “turn the other cheek” and “pray for those who persecute you”. People enslaved and oppressed have been told to “love your enemies”. Oppressors will use any tool at their disposal including sacred scripture to corrupt. Watch out for the prime example of that in next week’s reading.
Or also as Cate said last week, we can allow ourselves to be confronted by these tough words, confronted by “the notion of a God of accountability with expectations” .
Jesus is very confronting in this passage – he says to his listeners “You have heard it was said … but I say to you.” You have heard it said – not just by your neighbor up the street – but you have heard it said by Moses, in the Torah, in the book of Leviticus and other books of the law – but I say to you… So Jesus’ listeners are quite rightly going to say – who is this who thinks he is better than Moses and our ancestors who passed down the law and interpreted it for us generation by generation. Confronting all right – this is what got Jesus killed. Claiming to have a new teaching a new way.
Can we in our time and culture allow ourselves to be confronted and find what it means to resist evil and violence in the way that Jesus meant. Not by being walked over but as Myer Boulton says: looking for “a deeper, more radical resistance; non cooperation in the underlying paradigm of hate and brutality involved in evildoing.” 
Stanley Hauerwas says this is not just about Christian ethics, doing the right thing. There are plenty of good people who abhor and work against violence who are not religious.
“The sermon (on the mount) is not a list of requirements, but rather a description of the life of a people gathered by and around Jesus.” 
So if we are a people gathered around Jesus we will seek and grow within ourselves the ability to live out this new paradigm, this new way of being. We will fail all the time but we will believe it is possible to get up and try again. We will believe that because of Jesus, and because of the cross.
As we get ready to enter Lent and begin to walk the way of the cross we will be reminded again that in the cross Jesus faces all the violence of the world and does overcome. On Ash Wednesday we are marked with the sign of that cross on our foreheads “remember you are dust and to dust you shall return; turn from your sin and be faithful to Christ”. We take time to be real about the sin and sorrow of our world, and our myriad failures as a community and as a people; and we seek to reset, to start over. This does not make us perfect but it does join us to Christ’s overcoming of evil and to the hope that the world will one day see an end to violence.
Hauwerwas again “Perfection does not mean that we are sinless or that we are free of anger or lust. Rather, to be perfect is to learn to be part of a people who take the time to live without resorting to violence to sustain their existence.” 
When Jesus says: Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. The translation is a bit limiting – commentaries say the word telos means goal or end or purpose; so something which is brought to its completion; lacking nothing; perfection as in fulfillment or reaching one’s intended outcome. 
I had a look at different translations to try and understand this word and the Maori translation uses “tika” which means correct, or on a straight path; it can mean truth or justice. I think “tika” is better than “perfect”.
The Message version of the Bible says “Grow up. You are kingdom subjects; now live like it; live out your God created identity.” 
If we are created in the image of God we have it within us to love our enemies; to not accept the premises violence, greed and oppression which sometimes seem to rule our planet. We cannot change the whole world and stop war and famine. But we can control how we behave at work, at home, in community. Is there violence in our home/ or the home of someone we know? What do we do about it? Is there bullying in our workplace? Do we stand up to the bully look them in the eye and say enough? Or do we collude with their behavior?
In this election year will we pay attention to policies around child poverty or the living wage, or climate change; or will we just look for the best tax cut for ourselves? Is there someone we cannot forgive; someone we hate; someone who has control over our hearts?
Be perfect as God is perfect; be tika; be the people we are created to be.
I want to begin by asking you whether, when you know you’re listening to scripture it changes the way you listen. Whether it changes what you expect of the text.
Scriptural text is most often the foundation, sets the theme, if you like, for someone such as me to pay attention to. From which a sermon, a reflection, a wondering, perhaps a sharing of mutual not knowing is spoken. Often preparation includes a closer examination of the scriptural text. Using biblical criticisms in their various guises a studious dissection of the linguistic, historical, cultural and/or religious influences on the text takes place. As if, by doing so we will disinter a deeper meaning, uncover what was really meant.
Yet, at the same time we speak of scripture as a living word not fixed in meaning and form. Rather of scripture as a relational companion, a source of inspiration forever revealing new insights of how to live as those beloved and called to speak this into life. It’s as if on one hand we want to pin scripture down, be able to set it apart, admire it, and also have it handily available to dissect, determine and control it. On the other hand we delight that scripture eludes our capture, a living word it speaks freshly to us and draws us deeper.
I recall, when at theological college, one of the lecturers in biblical studies inviting us to consider when we read or hear scripture that what’s significant in the text may not be what the text says but where it takes us. As if to suggest a scriptural text has integrity that we might discern as we pay attention to our response. Maybe this is what it speaks to us; perhaps we take the text apart to fulfil our own needs.
Today’s gospel we’ve heard only in part, the lectionary includes a longer passage. For some reason, and I suspect I can imagine why, a choice was made to omit verses from the full gospel text. I want now to read the omitted verses. Remember today’s gospel verses and their admonitions follow closely Matthew’s beatitudes. Immediately preceding them is Jesus’ declaration he’s come not to abolish the law or the prophets but to fulfil them. That not one letter or stroke of a letter will pass from the law until all is accomplished. As you listen I want to ask you to notice what arises in you in response, just watch your inner landscape and notice.
The gospel continues thus, “You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.
‘It was also said, “Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.” But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
‘Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.” But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be “Yes, Yes” or “No, No”; anything more than this comes from the evil one.”
On hearing this text, where have you been taken? What response or responses have arisen? Where have you gone in your inner landscape?
Upon hearing it, do we find an urge to go into the text?
We can do this of course. We can go into the text, unpack it, pull it apart and put it safely in context. That would help to distance it from us. That would give us space to consider the content more objectively, be perhaps curious and more wondering than reactive. It also might mean we can choose to disregard it. See it as outdated and no longer relevant, applicable perhaps in its time and place. Or, perhaps we choose to gain perspective by following Jesus directives. Spoken first in the beatitudes and then that the law and the prophets would not being abolished until all is accomplished. It causes us to look deeper, to the heart of what the law demands – more costly to us than negotiating relationship contractually even if correctly, according to the letter of the law.
But I invite you to resist the habit of burrowing into the words in the text. Instead, let’s ask why we’d exclude these verses from today’s gospel. It was their exclusion that attracted my attention. Was it to protect ourselves and/or those among us who’ve had them used against them/us, who’ve found themselves abused by such verses? Is that because such texts have been misused by the institutional church? The church who claims to stand in the lineage of this Jesus who insists the vulnerable, most powerless has priority of care. A text misused within the walls of church institutions and as the church has influenced opinion in wider society.
The law and prophets of which Jesus speaks arise from a hierarchical, patriarchal context. One we inherit and largely still inhabit, inside and outside the church. Taking such scriptural text literally, the institutional church has chosen and still chooses in many places, to perpetuate a legalistic application of such literal interpretation. An interpretation and application that continues to privilege those with power, (and this is still mostly men), to the enormous cost of those this makes powerless. The very thing against which Jesus speaks, acting against the very ones with whom the church proclaims it stands.
Like it or not we, here, are part of this lineage. Is it easier for us to simply stop reading these bits so we’re not reminded of this, made uncomfortable or accountable? Or maybe we should ditch the idea of being answerable to some notion of a God who commands, declares through law and prophets there are ways we can live well together and there’s repercussions for not. Ways we so fallibly enact in edicts to keep those with power safe from threat of change. Maybe we want to avoid the difficult bits, prefer to keep only the good, reassuring bits of scripture.
Keep bits like the passage from Deuteronomy, which is one of my favourites. One I often use in marginally religious occasions, but when I do I take out the God bits. It makes it comfortable but what does this passage mean if it’s without conditions? Are we able to know which choices lead to life and which to death for the generations yet to within the limit of our few years?
We need only look at our world stage to see how easily and quickly truth’s become a negotiable ideal. Commenting on Trump’s avoided impeachment, Andrew Gawthorpe of the Guardian writes, “If [the Republican party] stuck by the president through the Ukraine affair they will stick by him through anything. They have acted like the totalitarian functionaries who Hannah Arendt said view the difference between truth and falsehood as something which “depends entirely on the power of the man who can fabricate it … [and further] those who use their power to construct a world of falsehoods for their supporters eventually have to destroy the power of those who would challenge it with the truth.” 
“Such phenomenon”, George Monbiot, also writing for the Guardian proposes, “is not confined to the US. … A culture of impunity is spreading around the world. “Try to stop me” is the implicit motto in nations ranging from Hungary to Israel, Saudi Arabia to Russia, Turkey to China, Poland to Venezuela. Flaunting your disregard for the law is an expression of power.” 
What has this to do with listening to where a scriptural text takes us? Do we avoid certain biblical passages because they offend or because they confront? Maybe this is one of the places today’s scripture takes us – to confrontation. It confronts us with religion – how humans, human religious institutions such as churches use or misuse the power of holy writ to control. It confronts us with the notion of a God of accountability with expectations. Expectations of relationship that we’re to enact live out in real time. What we do makes a difference if there’s to be life and a future.
Human constructs or no, religions that have stood the test of time tend to be confronting. Not because of what they do to us but because of what they cause us to recognise. Life is a gift and we are vulnerable. A fearful proposition! We prefer religion that’s nice, consoling, perhaps comfortingly disturbing. But religion’s not always nice, it’s often confronting. Maybe that’s part of its point. But religion as we know it’s been colonised for so long and we’ve been colonised for so long have we forgotten? Do we even want to know we’ve responsibility to enact this religion of expectation that confronts and reveals how we can live well together?
Today’s scripture confronts us with the notion that we know how to choose for death or for life as we live in fidelity to expectations of living in ways that enhance relationship. In risky, vulnerable ways that have curious integrity with our real – that life is a gift and we are vulnerable. Confronts us with the notion we’re accountable for the consequences of our choices and actions. Whether we, one another, our world have life now and into the future depends on the choices we know how to make. In light of the dis-ease that’s besieging our world at the moment it seems to me we do not protesteth too much, neither do we proclaimeth enough in word and deed.
Anyone feeling chronologically confused this morning? Our gospel reading has Jesus as a baby again – over the last month we had Christmas, then the visit of the Magi, then his baptism as an adult, and last week he was out and about calling disciples for the team.
So what’s going on?
Well, today is 40 days since Christmas; and Jesus would have been presented in the Temple 40 days after his birth so this feast day gets dropped in where it belongs, 40 days after Christmas, and this year it happens to be a Sunday.
In the account, the gospel writer Luke actually seems a little confused about Jewish rituals – the 40 day rule was actually for the “purification” of the mother after childbirth. (It would have been 80 days if Jesus had been a girl – the mother of a baby girl was doubly unclean – but let’s not go there.) So Mary and Joseph go to the Temple for Mary’s purification ceremony; and to offer a sacrifice in thanksgiving for their firstborn son, (they offer two birds rather than a lamb which tells us they were people of limited means).
Waiting for them at the Temple are two people: Simeon and Anna.
Both in their senior years; both we are told people of prayer and devotion to God. Luke says they have been waiting for God to reveal the Messiah – the one who would save the people – to them.
But I imagine it was not really as clear cut as that.
I imagine Anna and Simeon were ordinary people going about their lives. Anna spent a lot of time at the Temple, she may have lived there as one of the women attendants; Simeon lived in Jerusalem.
Think of older family members you admire – or some of our congregation in their senior years – Anna and Simeon would have been like them.
Anna and Simeon were alert and watching; observant of the world around them; seeing God at work in their daily lives and the lives of those they met. They noticed things, they gave thanks, they prayed. They brought the good and the bad to God. They would have been reciters of the psalms which offer praise and lament, joy and sorrow, in equal measure. They would have listened to the words of the prophets who promised a better future.
They were Advent people, expectant and hopeful. They would have seen the Temple rebuilt in their lifetime, the Temple of Solomon that had been destroyed in 587BC was rebuilt by Herod in 20BC, so it is still new in the minds of the people when Jesus is born. The building of the Temple was seen a sign that the Messiah might be near. And so they watched and waited.
How well do we do at watching and waiting? How well do we do at noticing and naming God at work in our lives and in our world?
We have been to the beach at Long Bay Beach twice in the last week – yesterday for our families’ bbq and last week on Akld Anniversary day. On Anniversary Day the beach was pretty crowded by NZ standards, but still plenty of room for everyone! A gorgeous day and as we walked along the beach I would have loved to be able to take a census of the people – Moslem women dressed modestly from head to toe, with heads covered, swimming next to pakeha girls with virtually nothing on! A group of Sikh men playing beach soccer in their turbans; Chinese people wearing the widest brimmed hats against the sun; large family groups of people of Polynesian descent;
children of all ethnicities digging sandcastles ….
An amazing array of God’s rainbow people as Desmond Tutu would say. Everyone happily enjoying the day – an image of the way God created the world to be if ever there was one.
So I give thanks for that day and the image I now carry in my head of God’s creation.
During the week, here at the church, we were reminded of how tough life can be as a group set up camp in the church garden and despite help from the City Mission we had to call on the police for help to move them on. An example of how we fall short every day of delivering on the world God has created for us.
Like Anna and Simeon we can offer words of praise and lament, joy and sorrow, in what we see in the world around us.
Next Sunday our reading is about salt and light – us in particular being called to be salt of the earth and light to the world (no pressure). 5 of our parishioners are going to offer a short reflection on how our worship and life as a community supports the work or volunteering that they do. When I asked, a couple of people responded to me saying – I am not sure I have ever really thought about that – all the more reason to, I said! Our worship and life of faith is not something that exists on its own, as a segment of our life. My prayer is that our worship life is usefully connected with the rest of your week. That it helps you with the task of being able to notice God at work in the world.
Barbara Brown Taylor says our liturgy is training and practice for our lives
“We pray, we listen to God’s word, we confess, we make peace, we lift up our hearts, we hold out our hands, we are fed, we give thanks, we go forth. We practice the patterns of our life together before God, rehearsing them until they become second nature to us.” 
Then we go out and do the same in the world: We pray, we listen to God’s word, we confess, we make peace, we lift up our hearts, we hold out our hands, we are fed, we give thanks, we go forth. That is what Anna and Simeon did and they were blessed to see God in the form of the baby Jesus.
Lucy Winkett, the vicar of St James, Piccadilly in London puts it like this;
“there is no way for a Christian community to become clear sighted without committing itself to prayer – every day for some, most weeks for others - to return to the source of life in Christ – and …, pray in the knowledge that everything – all the tragedy, joy, confusion, hubris, kindness, fury and violence – all of it – is held in the clear sighted gaze of God; the only one who sees us and everything as it really is.” 
God sees us clearly and we are called to see God – clearly or not so clearly as best we can. The important thing is to be waiting and watching and looking and noticing.
What might you notice this week? Your task for the week is to notice one thing – one time or place or person that you give thanks for; and another time or place where you and others have fallen short, or where we as a society have fallen short.
Like my examples of Long Bay and people camping in the garden.
And bring those images in your head with you to church next week.
God sees us clearly and we are called to see God – clearly or not so clearly as best we can.
Like Simeon and Anna in the courtyards of the Temple, the important thing is to be waiting and watching and looking and noticing.
It is Anniversary weekend, so we are at the end of January 2020 only eleven months left to the end of the year. Most of us are back at work and planning our year ahead. This is a time of hope and opportunity, a time to consider a new occupation or project and a time of renewal or change.
Matthew tells us, Jesus begins his ministry after hearing of John’s arrest, with no other explanation.
According to Reza Aslan, in his book Zealot, the economy of the fishing town on the shores of Galilee, Capernaum had become almost wholly centred on serving the needs of the new cities, “especially the new capital, Tiberias”.
The majority of Capernaum’s residents had been left behind by the new Galilean economy.
It would be these people whom Jesus would specially focus his attention. Those who found themselves cast to the fringes of society, whose lives had been disrupted by the rapid social and economic shifts taking place throughout Galilee.
Unique to Matthew, these words indicate that Jesus’ move to Capernaum, “in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali”, took place so that “what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled.”
The Romans rule Galilee with the assistance of the client rulers such as Herod and landowners. The population is suffering.
The quote, “The people who sat in darkness”: reflects the darkness of this imperial Roman control that is contrary to God’s purposes.
Jesus ministry is to manifest God’s salvation by transforming personal misery; by announcing God’s empire; by forming an alternative community; and anticipating the future establishment of God’s empire.
Jesus began to preach a word of metanoia: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” The word metanoia, or repent, means to turn around, change or become new. These are positive words coming from Jesus.
Not the usual interpretation of repent because you have done something wrong.
The light is Jesus presence, which manifests God’s empire. His pubic ministry of preaching, teaching and healing is about to commence.
As a light to the world, the community of disciples will continue his message of transformation.
Matthew continues by relating the call of the first disciples, fishermen who unconditionally obeyed Jesus when he told them to “follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”
One hundred years ago Jasper Calder answered a similar calling and commenced a ministry of “winning souls for Christ” under the name of the City Mission of the Anglican Church. Jasper saw the church as not only an evangelical entity but also a social establishment. The Mission quickly became a ministry of social support, advocating against injustice due to the economics of the time.
Within ten years we were experiencing the trauma of the Great Depression.
This mission is now known as the Auckland City Mission and we continue to offer social support and advocacy against injustice to the desperate people of Auckland.
Over the last one hundred years the Mission has adapted to the call of Auckland’s social needs in many ways: Selwyn Village opened in the 1950s and we had Herne Bay House during the Aids epidemic. If anyone is interested there is a timeline of the Mission’s services on the wall on Hobson St where our new building Homeground is being constructed.
While in our temporary home in Union St, we continue to develop to meet the needs of Auckland’s society who are on the margins.
We are offering new hope with the opening of a new wahine service: Te Whare Hinatore, the house of light, curiosity and a desire for change.
Let me share the story of Hinatore from the Maori creation story.
During the period when Rangunui (Rangi) and Papatuanuku (Papa) were still in a close embrace, two of their tamariki, Te Maamaru and Peketua, glimpsed a light under the armpit of their mother Papa.
They went to investigate as they were unhappy living in a dark, cramped place but were stopped by Whiro (another child of Papa and Rangi often represented by having a negative and/or obstructive attitude).
The light they glimpsed was Hinatore.
Through the brothers’ adventure to find out who or what she was, they experienced curiosity, the desire for change, hope for something better and the awareness of something new.
Within our new wahine programme Hinatore represents each individual wahine’s personal dream or vision of what their life could be and their journey towards it. This service opened on Friday in their own building in Union St offering fifteen bedsits for the wahine who has been referred.
This is a very exciting and positive programme with a new team and vision for the Mission.
Our world has need for metanoia, we need to turn around and change for our environment. We need to embrace each other regardless of gender, race, class, faith or sexual orientation.
The message of Jesus’ ministry is relevant to us now and as it was to Te Maamaru and Peketua.
The Mission is looking into all their services in preparation to our return to Homeground. We are changing where change is needed to respond to the needs being faced in our own community.
Similar to the inhabitants of Capernaum 2000 years ago, social and economic changes have meant we have an increasing population of the marginalised.
I often wonder if Jasper Calder envisioned his Mission would be working for social change into a second century with no sign of need ceasing in sight.
This is the Sunday when we take up, once again, the Advent story that we began to tell back in the beginning of December. Now we reach the part where the main character, the one we have been preparing to meet, the one we have been waiting for, is revealed.
Over recent weeks we have taken a bit of a side-trip from the main story-line and been focused instead on the story of the birth of Jesus with all the attendant glorious music and rituals that have grown up (in the Western Christian church) around that birth story. Today we take up once again the main thread of the story of the one who was to come and lead a fragmented community, an oppressed and persecuted people, back together, the one who was to offer reassurance that they were still ‘the people of God’ (or could be if they chose to be).
Once upon a time Epiphany was a major festival, a sort of culmination of the Advent waiting and preparation. It was much more important than the Christmas festival with its association with the Roman festival of Saturnalia, and the feasting and merrymaking that were the hallmarks. The earliest gospel to be written, Mark, doesn't even have the nativity story in it. But when the Roman emperor Constantine got involved in institutionalising the Christian movement early in the 4th C the date of both Epiphany and Christmas were agreed, and set at either end of the 12 days that marked the period of the new year and the turn from winter dark to the lengthening again of the hours of light. These days, Epiphany, as a significant festival and liturgical season, has almost lost its significance (in the Western Church) and is overshadowed by Christmas and the baby Jesus story that precedes it, and Lent and the crucifixion that follows; it is sort of sandwiched between birth and death stories.
For the early eastern Christian church the feast of Epiphany was focused on Jesus' baptism, and the manifestation of who Jesus was as a ‘son of God’. In Matthew’s telling of the story of Jesus' birth, it is the magi from faraway places and their gifts – echoing the prophet Isaiah – and the baptism of Jesus that are important. This story identifies the baby with 'the one who is to come' and lead the way into the promise of God. Matthew’s telling highlights the meeting between Jesus and his cousin John at the Jordon River where, John baptises Jesus and we hear that God says” behold, my son, in whom I am well pleased”. (Note, this Jesus was an adult, not a baby.)
It seems to me, Epiphany is in continuity with Advent, with John the Baptist’s call to prepare the way for the one who is to come. Now, in Epiphany, we hear the story of how John baptises the one whom they have been waiting for, Jesus; and following his baptism, Jesus' ministry proper gets underway, with God’s blessing.
Christmas is bit of a distraction, an interspersed winter festival, bit of a nod if you like to Roman religious sensitivities. It is no wonder that it was not significantly observed in much of the Protestant church – it was even banned in some places as unbiblical and was only celebrated as in Britain as a major Christian feast by Roman Catholics until Victorian times.
Matthew however realigns our emphasis. He shifts us from Christmas, with all the Victorian rituals and glorious music that have come to shape it, back to the main story of establishing who Jesus is, and a different way of being a people together. He backs up his assertions with blatant connections echoing Isaiah to 'prove' that Jesus – and the stories that had grown up around him by the end of the first century when he, Matthew, was writing – were 'truly' in continuity with the Torah and Jewish history. He wanted the Jewish people to know who Jesus was.
Matthew’s context, like Isaiah’s, was troubled: the temple had fallen and the people of Israel were looking for hope and reassurance that God had not forgotten them. Matthew (in the story that was read last week) sets a star over Jesus at his birth and in its light the men from the east come bringing gifts of great value. But rather than succumbing to the power of king Herod, and his threat to kill the boy-baby, they defy him in an act of civil disobedience and leave by another route – thus thwarting his plan. The Jewish people could not help but hear in this story those echoes of Isaiah Matthew was offering as validation: the light on the mountain, the nations from afar streaming toward it bringing their wealth, the promise of God’s favour, and of course the story of Moses raised in exile to avoid Pharaoh’s slaughter of the male babies