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Friday, 21 September 2018

We become what we meditate



SERMON PREACHED at St PAUL’S, ARROWTOWN
ORDINARY SUNDAY 25 (September 233d) 2018


READINGS:

Proverbs 31: 10-31
Psalm 1
James 3: 13 – 4:3, 4: 7-8a
Mark 9: 30-37

It is not often, even as a fairly liberal sort of a fellow, that I begin a sermon by quoiting the Buddha. Actually Professor Google has made it a little difficult for me, and I am unsure whether the saying I want to quote originated with Gautama Buddha 2500 year ago or with twentieth century Buddhist teacher Eknath Easwaran. Either way, I first heard the saying from one of my earliest mentors, an Anglican monk, Alan Lewis, who indicated that he had borrowed it from Brother Roger of the TaizĂ© Community. Since both Buddhist Eknath Easwaran and Protestant Brother Roger drew heavily on Roman Catholic and interfaith contemplative traditions it’s probably a sort of cosmic, universal truth:
We become what we meditate.
For what it’s worth I think the notion if not the actual words that we “become what we meditate” predates Gautama Buddha. The psalmist was probably about two hundred years before Buddha, and in any case the game of “the source of my wisdom is older than the source of your wisdom” can become one of those sorts of contests that I won’t name in a sermon but that males are allegedly very good at, and are probably best not undertaken when the wind is blowing. They represent an ancient wisdom, the sort of wisdom that C. S. Lewis’ Aslan is referring to when he observes that “though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know.” Or perhaps, since Aslan is an image of Christ, that is a deeper wisdom still, the wisdom of a crucified God. But the point remains: “we become what we meditate.”
What the psalmist and – roughly in chronological order – Buddha and Jesus and his ostensible brother James and Eknath Easwaran and Brother Roger and countless others are trying to tell us: where our treasure is, where our deepest moments of focus are, there will our heart also be. Walk not in the counsel of the wicked. And most of us can take a moment of self-congratulation, because on the whole we don’t hang out with too many wicked people, and on the whole our hearts are not allied with too immoral and decadent a treasure. We are all too aware, sadly, of the tales of predation and abuse that have emerged from around the world from within and beyond the Christian community, our consciences raised not least by the #MeToo movement, but most of us dwell reasonably comfortable in the range of not too great a sinfulness.
Stephen Colbert, incidentally, while interviewing David Tennant during a very funny, but disturbing segment recently, asked Tennant to read a series of Scrooge McDuck and Donald Trump quotes and identify which sayings came from which source. “My money’s the best friend I ever had” was a McDuck saying. Other sayings, such as “Part of the beauty of me is that I’m very rich” and “You’re fired. And don’t come back until you’ve discovered the joy of the enchantment, the sheer ecstasy of making big bucks,” were more difficult to source-critique. Neither “we become what we meditate” nor “do not lay-up treasures on earth” were attributable to either McDuck or Trump.
But money is not the only false god that can distract us from the task of becoming who we are called, formed, shaped to be. Within the Christian community there are many demons of distraction. Power, prestige, piety, to focus on just one letter of the alphabet, are seductive deviations from the Way of the Cross to which Jesus invites us. The scandals of sexual abuse that have emerged from around the Christian world are brutal examples of all that can go wrong when we permit ourselves to displace the self-effacing, power-rejecting Jesus from centre stage. Jesus himself of course, despite the attempts of some publicity-seeking Christian gimmick-mongers, rejects performances of power display, suggesting to Satan at the time of the Temptations exactly where he can get off. False gods are not the Way of the Cross, and the genuine power of Jesus will eventually be revealed not in neon lights or phoney miracles, but in brokenness on a criminal’s cross. As it happens wherever we turn the cross into a display of power and prestige we are abusing the gospel, spitting on Christ, parodying love, blaspheming the Holy Spirit.
There are other – only arguably lesser – forms of abuse. When faith becomes all about performance – still as it happens sticking with the letter “P” – a temptation particularly attractive to so-called liturgical traditions, but at least equally tempting to Pentecostal and charismatic leadership, then we become proclaimers of a false god. Our buildings, grounds, robes, reputations – all potentially fine and deserving of love in themselves – become, as Paul puts it, so much dross if they are not used in the service of that greater good, the proclamation of the divine love proclaimed to us and even to all the universe in the brutal, unspectacular, hope-proclaiming moment of the death and resurrection of Jesus.
The psalmist, James, Jesus, and countless followers of that God-revealing tradition of self-denial speak with one voice. We become what we meditate. Walk not in the company of the ungodly – or ungodliness. Lay not your treasure on earth. Instead welcome the one who places a child in the midst of a crown and says “become powerless as this child is powerless.” Become a child – as indeed God-in-Christ becomes a child. Become powerless. It is there and thus that the eternities of God are revealed.

TLBWY


Friday, 7 September 2018

be opened



SERMON PREACHED at St PAUL’S, ARROWTOWN
ORDINARY SUNDAY 22 (September 9th) 2018


READINGS:

    • Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23
    • Psalm 125
    • James 2:1-10, 14-17
    • Mark 7:24-37

Every now and again the readings seem to throw up combinations that are almost contradictory. How often I have seen churches and church institutions that have taken – I could say “mis-taken” – how often I have seen churches and church institutions that have taken Proverbs 22:1 to heart as a motto and a mission statement. (Have I ever mentioned how much I hate mission statements, sweated over for hours and then posted in a corner, to participants’ self-satisfaction, there to collect dust and be forgotten. Our mission statement is there in Matthew’s gospel account: “Go ... make disciples … baptize.”)
So there is a sense in which the claim of the author of the Proverbs (probably a collection of wise humans over many decades or centuries) can be played off against James: Show me your “good name … more desirable than great riches” and “I’ll show you my “if you show partiality, you commit sin.” Those who are obsessed with a “good name” are often obsessed with appearance, with looking good, with keeping noses and pews and record books squeaky clean. There are many church bodies and even church representatives, especially in allegedly “high places,” far more focussed on appearances and reputations than on being the loving welcoming hands and feet of Christ for all comers. One is reminded of the famous hospital with no patients of Yes Minister fame. For as long as the church is peopled with, concentrates on, those who are decked out  “with gold rings and …  fine clothes,” and none of the poor with dirty clothes, then it will tick the box of the authors of Proverbs, with fine desirability and repute, but will not be ticking the box of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The imagery of James can be taken literally and spiritually – many is the church that rejoices in its important standing in the community, the fine nature of its music and robes and buildings, but which turns away the hurting and the damaged who may disrupt its polished performances and procedures.
James, author of this right strawy epistle that Martin Luther so resented, recalibrates our spiritual and our moral compass. As church we should evaluate our mission by the presence of the broken. God knows we are all broken a little, or should be, but are we as an institution prepared to face our brokenness, to own up to and confess our sins, and to throw open our encounter with the living Christ to those who are the most broken in our midst?
Because what James has seen is what Jesus demonstrates in the sequences of healing actions that form so large a part of the gospel stories. Ephphatha. Be opened. Effectively: Be healed. Jesus does not show partiality – unless it is what the liberation theologians have long called a “bias to the poor” (and “poor in spirit”) – but exposes himself to hatred by caring for the un-beautiful and the raw and the vulnerable on the fringes of society. He ends up, at least in human terms, not with the “good name” of the author of Proverbs expectation, but with ostracism and crucifixion.
And there dwells the irony. For it is in being prepared to extend divine love to the most hated and broken – and we can only conjecture who they might be in our community, and indeed we should perhaps discuss that very question – it is in being prepared to extend divine love to the most hated and broken that Jesus gains or is recognized as having the “name above all names.” The authors of Proverbs did however see that: “The generous will themselves be blessed, for they share their food with the poor.” It is only by acting like the generous, self-risking Jesus that we can claim to be vehicles, bearers of the righteousness and hope (temporal and eternal) that he embodies. Only then, in stepping outside the realms of slick and polish do we become the “upright in their hearts” of the psalm.


TLBWY


Friday, 31 August 2018

deaf church, broken woman



SERMON PREACHED at St PETER’S, QUEENSTOWN
ORDINARY SUNDAY 22 (September 2nd) 2018


READINGS:

Song of Solomon 2: 8-13
Psalm 45: 1-2, 6-9
James 1: 17-27
Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-33


If you wondered why we end up with a hotchpotch selection of verses from a chapter in Mark it is because we are forced by our worship patterns to bend his writings into an unsuitable form. We have for several weeks been loitering with intent amongst the writings of John. His dense cyclical and poetic prose makes scene selections almost impossible. Similarly we now are confronted with the much more instinctive writer Mark. His different technique is to knit together fire-side yarns in a way that gave his original listeners a sense of the momentum of the journey of Jesus towards Good Friday (and eventual hints of the day of resurrection). His pace is relentless.
Mark takes stories, splits them open, somewhat clumsily at times, and inserts other stories into them. But, while he is an instinctive storyteller, he is like most story tellers, no fool. He always has his eyes on the implication of the Jesus moments he narrates. His insertions of stories within stories always serve not only to make their own narrative- or “story-point” but to expand and develop missiological points in the story: how then, he is always asking, should we behave? What priorities appear in these scenes?
In the verses we omit we find Jesus delivering some telling blows to the hypocrisy of religious leaders of his day. It appears that those who design the lectionary are wary of litigation, neatly sidestepping verses that might be used by preachers to expose double standards in places of religious leadership. Ironically the nuances of Jesus and Mark are probably wasted on those who exercise hypocrisy from ivory towers and carved seats of authority: in my experience hypocritical religious leaders never quite discern any way in which harsh sayings of Jesus might apply to them. But we are called to rise above hypocrisy.
Always a primary tool of interpreting the scriptures must be that of asking what the Spirit of God might be saying to the hidden recesses of our own lives. What behaviours of mine might Jesus be highlighting when he speaks of those who “honour God with their lips but set their hearts far from God”? Do I have dark recesses in my life where I am not keen for the light of Christ to shine?
The suggestion of much of our Scripture is that if we hide our true selves, our true colours from the searing light of Christ, we can be fairly sure that any merit in our public profession will be deeply tarnished. The searing gaze of Christ focusses on all of us who dare to call ourselves Christian. Do I publicly wring my hands about global warming, injustice, racism, sexism – while quietly doing little or nothing about it? Do I stand crippled by my immobility, while lives are torn around me? I fear so, and whisper words of thanks for a forgiving God. But I must whisper words asking that I be changed, too, journeying towards the likeness of Christ.
We all fall short, and we as an institution fall short. In large part this is because of our self-absorption, our selfish survival obsession, our determination to rely on a crumbling infra­structure. God is currently stripping away our Linus blankets, our reliance on false gods. The Syrophoenician woman is desperate, with nowhere else to turn. ‘To whom else shall I turn for words of salvation,’ asked Peter last week.
We are called to throw ourselves at the mercy of the God who always has reached and always will reach out to those who throw themselves at God’s feet in the search for hope and comfort. We are also called to be there for those who come into our orbit, seeking compassion, love, and hope. We must give as we have received.
We must do all in the power that God gives us to be truly compassionate. We learn from Jesus, and we are empowered by the Spirit of Jesus, to touch the lives of the broken. Where are the Syrophoenician women of our society crying out for children they cannot sustain, households they cannot hold together? Do we dare ask God to show us?
It is this call to compassionate action that James sees so clearly as he somewhat sternly addresses his church: “every generous act of giving … is from above.” Bitter struggles between wings of the church (in all its forms, but ours, too) that claim theirs is the true gospel, these are demonic distortions. We are called to be truly evangelical, truly liberal, truly catholic, truly all those things that point to a God prepared to touch and transform the untouchables and the lonely and the broken. We are called to give: to give hospitality, to give justice, to give light and love and hope to those around us. We can do that, those who have the skills, through the big institutional methodologies of social change. Others amongst us might offer water to a stranger, a lift to a hitch-hiker, a coin to a busker or a smile to passing eyes. The saying is right: it does no harm to practice random acts of kindness.
The searing light of divine judgement that I refer to often, is currently turning on our institutions. Where we have been hypocritical we are being exposed. Where we have relied on false securities we are being exposed. Where we have been too quick to judge others we are being exposed. This applies to us as individuals, too of course.
The challenge put to us by the gospel is the challenge of rumouring the compassion and the life and the light of Jesus wherever God places us. If we dare to ask how we might do that in Queenstown we might find answers.


TLBWY


Friday, 24 August 2018

being church after Pennsylvania (etc)



SERMON PREACHED at St PAUL’S, ARROWTOWN
St PETER’S, QUEENSTOWN
and the COMMUNITY CHURCH, GLENORCHY
ORDINARY SUNDAY 21 (August 26th) 2018


READINGS:

1 Kings 8: 22-30, 41-44
Psalm 84
Ephesians 6: 10-20
John 6: 56-69


I mentioned in passing last week the sense of heaviness that many of us feel as we digest revelations coming from inquiries around the world into exploitation and predation that has gone on behind closed doors in institutions that claim to be the churches of God. I referred to the sheer horror of revelations emerging from the Roman Catholic Church in Pennsylvania and elsewhere; I could have just as easily mentioned the horrors that emerged from two Royal Commissions in Australia, from which the Anglican Church definitely does not emerge unscathed. I would imagine many more horrors will emerge in the coming decade, and I’m sure few of us will find that our own networks of faith are untarnished.
It is not a pleasant observation with which to begin that process of breaking open the word that is my duty and ours week by week. Yet as we wrestle with the texts we have to be honest about ourselves as individuals and our-self as an institution. I am convinced that the Christian community is at the moment undergoing its greatest reformation since the sixteen century, and perhaps its most significant since the fourth century. I’ll be happy to explore those claims at another time, but for now let us just accept that these are tumultuous times, if not for us personally, then for the Christian community of God collectively. It is worth us recalling in passing that it is not just the monolithic institutions like ours and that of our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers, but that many of the independent – and sometimes rabid! – Protestant and Pentecostal churches, especially those whose almost cultic practices and often fiercely patriarchal authority structures have provided a bulwark to scrutiny, have been found to be harbouring predation and abuse.
Few if any of us are above reproach – certainly if the standards of Jesus or his apostle Paul are applied to us. As St Paul famously noted, none of us can sashay up to the pearly gates declaring our perfection.  We need to take Paul’s observations about the human condition very seriously if we are to be effective proclaimers of the Reign of God. We all fall short of perfection.
Most of us fall short in reasonably insignificant ways, though. Errors, what the bible names as sins, are writ reasonably large in my own history, and I have never ignored or denied that. On the other hand, when you read of the atrocities of predatory networks within the churches and other organizations, or the wholesale treachery that is exemplified in the politics of our neighbouring nation, or the utter corruption that is currently writ large across the consciousness of the United States, our sins are reasonably unimportant. Most of us are not called to be a King David, a King Solomon. – I’m not really sure I would have enjoyed that many wives and concubines. Most o0f us are not a Donald Trump, nor even a Scott Morrison (or whoever is the ephemeral Australian Prime Minister of the Day) or a Jacinda. Not many of us, as Paul says, are powerful.
We are called to be us. But we are also called to be people of integrity. Our lives are designed to be advertisements of the compassion and love and light and hope of the God we serve. Christian doctrine suggests we can’t do that on our own, that despite President Trump’s demonic declaration that he doesn’t need forgiveness, we do. I’d add that there are rather a lot of indications surrounding Trump’s tawdry life that suggest he does, too. “Be strong in the Lord,” commands the author of Ephesians, but in adding “and in the strength of his power” he is not suggesting that we should engage in histrionic showmanship, snake-handling or demon-delivering under neon lights, but we should open ourselves again and again to the persistent but un-showy Spirit who touches the deepest recesses of our being.
To be us and authentic we do need again and again to turn back and open ourselves to the searing gaze of God. The psalmist often suggests that in part that is achieved by turning away from ourselves, by turning instead to praise the unfathomable depths of the creator revealed in Jesus Christ, made known to us in the Spirit.
It is a rare thing for me to be out on walks in this region without being gobsmacked by the majesty and might of the God who twists mountain ranges, lays down schist, carves glacial valleys, yet cares for the sparrow or the tui, the chaffinch or the riroriro that watches as I pass. The psalmist gets that: “Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself and to lay her young” in the presence of the author of the universe.
In the midst of such awe, and despite the calamities on-going in world and church, we can do worse that to breathe a prayer to God, seeking the continued strengthening of our faith and life, modification of the dark places within our being, edification of our sometimes flimsy attempts to be good and compassionate and just human beings.
I will admit, though, that as I watch the tumult around me in world and church (and so select Luther’s famous hymn for this day) I have been and often am tempted to chuck away my association with the institution that, like me, so often and so conspicuously lets God down. I certainly don’t want to suggest that the Church, despite being called “body of Christ,” is God. Yet I often find poor fallible St Peter’s words powerfully appropriate: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” The Church is a horribly flawed institution, and I believe it must crumble from its present forms. The Church is not God. Yet it is what God in Christ initiated: “You are Peter, and on you...”
Not a monolithic institution, no, but a body. “Wherever two or three gather there God is”: I cannot be a faith-bearer on my own. We must find ways to be authentic gatherers-together, ways to ingest, as I have been saying these past weeks, the mysterious life force of Jesus, ways to be body and blood of Christ and bearers of Christlight in an always rapidly changing world. That was what the author of Ephesians was telling us. That was what Peter didn’t realise he was saying but later knew to be true. It was so true that he was prepared to be crucified, perhaps upside-down, for his faith. And though we are small players on the stage that is what we offer ourselves for, again and again. We offer ourselves collectively first and as individuals second, always holding tenaciously to the belief that just beyond our sight and understanding is the eternity to which we are summoned, in which we are judged, and in which all things can become clear.


TLBWY


Friday, 17 August 2018

life force of the broken god



SERMON PREACHED at St PETER’S, QUEENSTOWN
ORDINARY SUNDAY 20 (August 19th) 2018


READINGS:

1 Kings 2: 10-12, 3:3-14
Psalm 111
Ephesians 5: 15-20
John 6: 51-58


It is little comfort for those who have lost friends and family in the 35 years or so since HIVAIDS spread across the globe, but the pandemic nevertheless brought to the consciousness of the postmodern world a renewed ancient awareness that had long been suppressed. We had tended to forget, unless we were hippies, the powerful image of blood as force, energy for life or death. That imagery runs throughout the scriptures of our faith and through the oral and written traditions of most if not all ancient faiths.

I find it a useful image as we attempt to understand the Eucharistic imagery that has been running through our John passages for three weeks now. John dwells on Jesus’ own image of eating bread, or consuming the life force of Jesus, presumably in the ancient rites of Eucharist. As I suggested last week, John is a master of what scholars call metonymy, of using a single image to encapsulate vastly greater meaning – as when “Washington” means “The USA and its government,” or “nukes” refers to the entire military arsenal of a powerful nation.

So for three weeks we have concentrated – laboured, really – on this imagery of ingesting the life force of all that Jesus is and did. We know from the doctrine of the Trinity that the task of the Spirit is to make available to believers all that we need of that life force of Jesus. It’s a simple equation: if we don’t need it (in the purposes of God) then it will not be available to us. Even the glimpse we get on this day of the Old Testament relationship between Solomon and God gives is a sighting of that equation, if effectively in reverse. So John reminds us of the powerful words of Jesus, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”

If you have been following the revelations surrounding the Roman Catholic Church in the USA, and Australia, and even hints here in New Zealand for that matter, you will be tragically aware of the extent to which the privileges of faith can be manipulated and abused. As many writers have pointed out, the moment at which the Church got into bed with the State, at least symbolically at the time of the Edict of Constantine in 313 A.D., was the moment we began to lose our integrity. 

The other day I was passing St Peter’s when I saw two young, rather giggly women walk into the church. Within seconds they were pulling faces and fleeing out again, still giggling. Who knows why? But it clearly wasn’t simpatico with their beliefs, tradition and aesthetic Perhaps it was in itself a metaphor for all that we have got wrong since the Emperor made us official more than seventeen centuries ago. 

As we watch the brutal and deserved exposure of corruption in the Catholic Church in Pennsylvania we cannot be too complacent: no branch of the church, since Constantine, has been immune from corruption. As I have suggested here already, the current dismantling of our potentially demonic power structures is God’s judgement.

Too often in ingesting the body and blood of Jesus we have inoculated ourselves against its true demands. It demands not that we become rich, powerful and sleek players in society, but that we become vulnerable, even broken followers in the Way of the Cross. For too long our church leaders – and the more hierarchically empowered the more corruptible they have often been – for too long our church leaders have seen themselves as princes and politicians,  deserving the admiration of the faithful, and expecting society to tremble at their pronouncements.

While some – I’m tempted to say few – have been walking embodiments of the humble servant king, they have been so despite rather than because of their inherited place in society. Let it be quite clear here that I am not pointing fingers at anyone or any station in the church, but rather observing that the more priests, bishops, and even lay-leaders set themselves – ourselves – up as heroes in our own narratives the further we stray from the humble, soon to be broken Jesus.

Instead Jesus invites us to ingest his life force; his humble birth and homeless ministry, his lonely death abandoned by all but the faithful, powerless women, his teachings of love and compassion and justice. Only after these does he impart his mysterious yet universe-altering resurrection and inconceivable future, and invite us to join in them. I suggest our bearing of the cross in Wakatipu should not primarily be in the spit and polish of magnificence, but in gentle acts of compassion for those who are hurting in our midst, for the lonely and bedridden and those who are frightened by the future.

In a region with the fastest growing property prices in New Zealand that is no easy task, but around us many are hurting; our task is neither more nor less than to ask God to show us ways to bring resurrection life and hope to them.

TLBWY


Friday, 10 August 2018

rumouring resurrection


SERMON PREACHED at St PAUL’S, ARROWTOWN,
and St PETER’S, QUEENSTOWN
ORDINARY SUNDAY 18 (August 5th) 2018


READINGS:

2 Samuel 18: 5-9, 15, 31-33
Psalm 130
Ephesians 4:25 – 5:2
John 6:35, 41-51


There are current movements, consciousness-raising movements, in our society that I believe are deep stirrings of the Spirit of God. The work of the Spirit reaches far beyond the confines of the Church. She was, after all, the one who “hovered over the face of the deep,” the one who, as James K. Baxter puts it, “blow[s] like the wind in a thousand paddocks.”
In stressing her work beyond and ahead of the Church I don’t refer to the secular movements such as mindfulness, or the passion in the last decade for “mission statements,” all those nonsenses that are generally psycho-babble and business-babble. Those are too often rites and foci that are processes borrowed from Christian traditions and then denuded of all reference to God.
I refer rather to movements that have advanced ahead of the Christian community, showing love, compassion and justice at times when we are left wringing our hands, wondering about how to advance past our next financial crisis, or finding new ways to make those not within our community feel worse about themselves than they may or may not do already.
One wonderful movement of God’s Spirit in society is the movement known in Australia as “Beyond Blue”; in New Zealand and elsewhere it hasn’t a catchy programmatic title, but is the movement around the world to raise consciousness about the struggles of those suffering depression, and simultaneously remind us all that there is help available when all seems too heavy to go on. In New Zealand of course the popular face of the movement is that of Sir John Kirwan. The campaigns are powerful vehicles of hope to all who struggle with depression and other mental illnesses, the immediate sufferer and his or her family and friends. They remind us all, sufferers or not, that we are not alone. John Kirwan I believe deserves every iota of his knighthood and other accolades. 
There will be few of us untouched by mental health, and in particular by depression, though the shades of mental health and depression are often intertwined. For many centuries church and society acted hand in hand, stigmatizing and deploring those who struggle with and especially those who succumb to mental health issues. But these days we have grown to better understanding. We are learning to reach out. As I said last week: are you okay are powerful words.
When we see in the Scriptures Jesus reaching out across the abysses of social stigma to touch those who are ostracized, we are seeing God’s love, God’s compassion incarnated. In Jesus God’s love is made visible for those struggling with the chemical imbalances that generate all mental illness. We are reminded that it’s okay to seek help, and it’s okay (and more) to offer help.
It’s probable than many of us here can hear echoes of moments in our own life journey as the psalmist cries out in today’s psalm. I make no secret of the fact that there has been more than one moment in my own journey, without wanting to sensationalise matters, where I have felt that those around me would be better off without me. 
They are long past now, but that is not the case for everyone. Only weeks ago I heard that an old school friend had taken his own life, and was saddened to hear what I had not known, that he had battled with depression for years. I say again: I am reminded over and over that as Christ-bearers and indeed simply as decent human beings the words “are you okay?” are amongst the most powerful in our satchel. They were words that kept me from the brink during some dark times. They are words that we must learn to utter – and follow up on – as we attempt, enabled by God’s Spirit, to be the hands and feet and body and blood of Jesus, to be living bread of life because our risen Lord is living bread of life, to be living bread in the world into which we have been called.
When the psalmist cries out from the depths across the universe it is still with vestiges of hope; “with the Lord there is steadfast love.” Sometimes, inexplicably even that hope dissipates. Interestingly, in Psalm 51, which we read last week, the psalmist cries: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Paradoxically it is God, God in Jesus, Godself in the very depths of divine being that cries those words from the cross. 
The scriptural authors went to great trouble to communicate the inconceivable belief that God’s light and life and hope as revealed in Jesus reaches even into that experience of utter god-forsakenness. It is God-self, God present and revealed in Jesus, who cries out to an empty universe. Were that the end of the story our narrative of hope would be hope-less indeed. We would remain, as Paul put it, crushed, perplexed, with no in-breaking of light and life at the end of the tunnel and the end of all tunnels. But we are not called to be a people of hopelessness.
The God who dies on the cross breaks out of death. This is beyond our comprehension. Perhaps all we should try to comprehend is that the disciples, the women and the first witnesses after the women, were dumbfounded by the events of the first Easter morning, yet they went on to risk and, in many cases, sacrifice their lives to tell the story. He is risen. If we seize against all odds and hold to against all odds our “amen,” to that affirmation, if we become the walking, talking amen, the ratification and even embodiment of the light and life bringing joy of the resurrection, if we rejoice in the resurrection that is affirmed in almost every syllable of our liturgies, then we can be the magnets to Jesus that he calls us to be. 
That is why in eucharist we take the strange action of ingesting that which we are commanded to believe is body and blood for us. By doing that, we absorb as it were life-giving energies of the resurrecting and resurrected, sorrow and even death-transcending God. We can deaden our message of hope if we perpetrate only doubts and barriers of innumerable kinds to the community around us. Let us instead make it our prayer that we be the resurrection-rumouring people of God in Wakatipu – or wherever we might be.

TLBWY

Friday, 3 August 2018

being bread in the world


SERMON PREACHED AT St PAUL’S, ARROWTOWN,
and St PETER’S, QUEENSTOWN
ORDINARY SUNDAY 18 (August 5th) 2018


READINGS:

2 Sam 11.26 – 12.13a
Ps 51.1-12
Eph 4.1-16
John 6.24-35

I avoided David last week, though it is worth noting that as a murderer he rates as one of the most abject sinners of the biblical witness. Psalm 51, if not written by David, certainly captures the essence of a failed human being recognizing his need for divine, unmerited, life-restoring grace. For those of us who have not ever laid claim to a blameless life, the words ring powerfully true:

Have mercy on me, O God,
    according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
    blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
    and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions,

    and my sin is ever before me.

Sadly the Church, in many of its forms from left to right, liberal to conservative, has forgotten the radical nature of the grace that David’s abject fall and divine restoration represent. Those from left to right, from liberal to conservative, who have turned God into either a domestic plaything or a distant abstract concept, those who play self-interested games with the gospel tend to forget how powerful, or as John Newton and later Philip Yancey emphasized, how amazing divine grace is.

Grace and restoration are no get out of gaol free ticket. Where civil law contradicts the tenets of our faith by perpetrating injustice and other evils, we are invited by the gospel to civil disobedience and peaceful protest. Otherwise the gospel demands that we adhere to standards and expectations of our given societies’ law. But what of this grace, as depicted in the psalm and in the story of David? 

For a moment let’s not dwell too much on the narrative tragedy of the death of the son of David. The low life expectancy of David’s era provided ample opportunity to believe the punitive wrath of God was at work in myriad ways, and caution is needed if we apply the interpretations of his time to our own. God does not kill babies. But the greater, timeless message is that grace is a measureless invasion of God’s life-redeeming love.

This is not, I emphasize, the sort of airy wave of a hand that has seen sexual predators protected from due justice across the churches. Churches must submit themselves to the authority of a Royal Commission in New Zealand as they eventually did in Australia. Grace is not about the continued protection and employment of predators, but about restitution even of the most despicable human beings after dues have been paid and sentences served. Grace is about ensuring that potential victims are protected and actual victims recompensed as best as is humanly possible. But thereafter, grace is about healing the human heart. Much of its meaning may even dwell beyond our sight, beyond our understanding in those unfathomable realms we loosely call “eternity.” Divine grace is bigger than human deaths.

It has to be so. To believe less, or to dismantle the possibility of healing and redemption, is to leave evil and sin in a state in which it dominates the love and redemption that is at the heart of God. The David story tells us, unfortunately in quite brutal ways, of a God who does not breezily wave a hand at sin and evil, but who demands that perpetrators face their actions. The gospels may have something important to say about restorative justice, but not about some limp and meaningless avoidance of questions of evil.

Christ-followers must hold on to the belief, no matter how difficult it is in an age of disregarded intellect and celebrated infotainment, that God is in control of cosmic and of human history. To believe less is to trivialize the gospel. We must incorporate into our faith the difficult demands of forgiveness, but we must not ignore the demands of judgement. The litmus test for us must be the life and actions and teachings of Jesus. Jesus refused to breezily wave away sin and responsibility, especially as perpetrated by religious hypocrites, but set about restoring the hope of those victimised by society and its prejudices.
 
The challenge for us is to find ways to be Christlike. This is a challenge that can only be met, as we put it in liturgies, by the help of God. We daily participate in and perpetrate an unjust world, and need the help of God to see and redress that. Only as we open ourselves up to the Spirit of the God who is revealed in Christ can we be a people who practise sensible judgement – or at least its more human shadow form, sensible analysis and evaluation. We are called to practise this in the world in which God has called us to live. We are called to sensible action to redress the wrongs, the sin around us. With the help of God we can become signs of those justice-principles that God calls us to be.

We live on a small stage. Nevertheless, however small the stage, we need to practise forgiveness and reconciliation, up-building, edifying love, mutual support and encouragement on that small stage, finding our small part to play. We must be informed participants in the world around us, naming injustices. We must be signs (as the great bearers of God, even King David, were to become) of God’s concern for the hurting. With God’s help and informed dialogue we can learn to avoid knee-jerk and uninformed responses to personal, local, and international events. Instead we can use our strange but profound traditions and scriptures as lenses through which to bear Christlight in our community: sowing love where there is hatred, peace where there is discord – we know the prayer.

As Paul put it to the Corinthians, “as often as we eat this bread, and drink this cup, we proclaim Christ’s death until his coming again.” Our task is to receive this bread charged with the meaning of God’s reconstituting love. But our task also is to be that love, to be God’s bread  in God’s world. Our task is to look beyond a world obsessed with itself and its own entertainment or self-aggrandisement. Our task, as Jon Sobrino reminded us, consists in making “someone else’s pain our very own” and allowing that pain to move us to respond to their need and the unjust structure that created it.

Our task, aided by God’s Spirit, is to be a people who know that if God’s love, revealed in Christ, active and effective in Christ’s life and death and resurrection, can touch and warm and transform us, so it can through our lives touch and warm and transform lives around us, even despite us. Our task is to become bread, Christ’s living bread to those around us. Our task is to be the hands and feet and body and blood of transforming Jesus in the world in which God has placed us. We will do so imperfectly, but assuming our imperfections are not predatory or criminal, and that we turn repentant again and again to the God who transforms us, then we can be the signposts God wants us to be.

TLBWY