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Friday 1 December 2023

crawling cancers, hurtling meteors


(December 3rd) 2023



Isaiah 64: 1-9
Psalm 80: 1-7, 17-19
1 Corinthians 1: 3-9
Mark 13: 24-37


From time to time texts of apocalyptic raise their ugly head. I don’t mean in church, where at least in theory they can be broken down, “parsed” as it’s trendy and only partly correct to say, but in uncontrolled youth groups, on street corners, billboards, cheap books and advertisements. There they can do irreparable damage, convincing many who encounter them that no matter what price must be paid,  the God to whom they refer is a being that can be done without. To put it more dramatically, as Jean Paul Sartre and others have done, that God can be put to death as far as those who encounter – almost certainly “him” – are concerned.

In the hands of Jesus and other biblical speakers they were designed for what in broadcasting we called a “target audience”; an audience of believers who were experiencing persecution. They were to be a source of hope, reassurance, as we will see in our final hymn today, "A Safe Stronghold our God is Still" in which Martin Luther refuses to offer cheap hope.

Living in an extraordinarily apocalyptic age he offered what can seem to be no more than pie in the sky, the hope that even the most grievous suffering and loss can be transcended, is transcended in the encounter with Jesus. Five hundered years after Luther, I remain persuaded that he was right, though God knows I would not wish to be put to the test, and not one of us knows how we would respond in times of real persecution.

As I have said before, by “real persecution” I don't mean by the minor inconvenience of not being able to say the Lord’s Prayer at a council meeting or in school classroom, both contexts in which such use of a sacred prayer becomes a little more then a hollow recitation. No, as Martin Luther put it in his famous hymn,

And let the prince of ill

look grim as e’er he will,

he harms us not a whit;

for why? His doom is writ;

a word shall quickly slay him.

Luther’s hymn, although written from an undisguisedly male perspective, give us some idea of the extent to which Luther was prepared to trust in divine hope.

Divine hope, the writers and speakers of apocalyptic biblical scenes urge us to believe, can transcend all grief, as we sung in our first hymn, "Lo, He Comes"  “deeply grieving, deeply grieving, deeply grieving”; all suffering, all bereavements, and indeed all our own failures to believe are transcended.

The lurid scenes that we have heard recently, scenes of sheep and goats and gnashing teeth were designed as encouragement for us to trust in God, to hope in a God who will stand with us even when we fail to stand, and who will bring us and all people into the mysterious state that we give names such as “heaven,” “eternity,” “paradise,” and indeed “City of God.”

And though they take our life,

goods, honour, children, wife,

yet is their profit small;

these things shall vanish all,

the City of God remaineth.

(Though I’m more of a McKenzie Country or, for my Australian friends, Nullabor sort of believer, personally).

So over these next few weeks we will hear words that remind us of our fallibility, and for that matter our mortality, but words also that will speak of hope amidst despair, light amidst the darkness, and joy amidst tears. We will be reminded, as Isaiah put it, that “we all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities take us away,” And we will be reminded also, as Jesus puts it “that heaven and earth will pass away.”

But strange people that we are, we will also be reminded that none of these things are the end of the story. Whether the so-called second coming is our own personal mortality or the mortality of the planet we're destroying, or even the mortality of an expanding universe that must one day contract, we will be told that that is not the end of the Christ story or, weirdly, of our story or the stories of those we love and those we pray for.

Saturday 25 November 2023

chief end of "man"?


(November 26th) 2023


Ezekiel 34: 7-14, 16
Psalm 100
Ephesians 1: 15-23
Matthew 25: 14-3
When I was an undergraduate, in both my first year of faith and my first year of university, I was hanging out with an energized group of similarly enthusiastic young Christians. Though much of my theology has changed, become more nuanced since then, I have never regretted that first flush of enthusiasm, and remain in contact in a digital age with many of those friends.

I remember well one such friend wandering across the Massey campus with me. Out of the blue he put to me a question. “Who is this God who goes around constantly demanding that we worship him?” Strangely it was a question I’d not  ever put to myself before, and I have no idea how I handled it. But over the years that followed I returned to it time and time again.

I did so not with a deep sense of scepticism, or desire to be rid of God, but because I was fascinated by this obscure demand made of those who opt for the tag “Christian.” Couldn’t we after all just do a few nice things, enjoy a sense of purpose in life or perhaps even a ticket to something beyond life, perhaps a hotline to a few important requests sent out into a big universe, but cut out all the obsequious praise, praise, praise? Though I guess even then I had a vague sense that it is an only fair that the God who had invaded my life deserved a little bit of acclamation.

Still: it is an awfully big part of this Christian journey. Praise, praise, praise. And certainly part of the answer that I grew into was the glorious sense of self surrender that comes from pouring oneself out in worship, adoration, praise. Of knowing that my smallness in an impossibly vast universe was not, is not the end of the story. Praise seemed appropriate. Or at least some of the time.

As I went on through theological study, which has in fact never stopped, and active ministry I found myself … (as it happened as I wrote this very line my co-conversationalist from 1979 messaged me on Facebook. I sometimes wonder at the humour of our God. But I digress). I found myself focusing more and more on the ways in which God’s being is made known to those who choose to walk in the way of the cross. And it was precisely that terminology, that centrality of a symbol of execution, of inhuman suffering, that began to elicit my deepest gasps and most heartfelt expressions of praise.

For as I studied the doctrine of the Trinity and its anchorage in the biblical texts – because no matter what our Jehovah’s Witness friends might tell us that 4th century doctrine is firmly anchored in the texts of earlier centuries – as I studied that doctrine I found myself increasingly awed that the absolute power of the Creator of heavens and earth, of solar systems, galaxies, perhaps even parallel universes, that creator of chromosomes, grains of sand, majestic mountains, brain synapses and unfathomed mysteries of 10 kilometre deep marine trenches, that Creator came to be absolutely identified with the unimaginable though not unique suffering of an eloquent and compassionate young Middle Eastern man on the cross in a corrupt and crumbling empire.

Slowly, and then repeatedly, it came to me that the extent of this self-revelation of God in such horrendous vulnerability, could only be the ultimate expression of good news, of hope. Hope for all life even in the darkest corridors of human and cosmic experience.

For there on the cross, that most pain filled, lonely location, I find God in Christ entering into the torrid places of those who Bob Dylan calls “the countless confused, accused, misused, strung-out ones and worse.”

I don’t always remember to worship, to give thanks, to pray. If I were in Ukraine or Yemen or Sudan or Israel-Gaza right now I would probably forget. But I’m not and so in lucid moments of faith I find at least some sort of an answer to that question put to me some 45 years ago. But I’m not sure I’ve found ways to express the answer.

My guru Dylan helps me again a little, and he tells me that I am “hanging in the balance of the reality of man, like every sparrow falling, like every grain of sand.” Ultimately though when I find that God in Christ executed on a cross is able from the depths of human being to cry out with the psalmist “my God my God, why have you forsaken me?” and then turn that godforsaken cry into the hope of Easter and resurrection joy (as we shall reenact in a few months’ time), then I get the feeling a few stuttered words of praise, praise, praise are probably appropriate.

Though in the end I find perhaps the deepest praise is expressed in moments of silence as we connect with the still point of the turning and sometimes even crumbling world, crumbling universe even.

Let’s spend a few moments in silence.

Friday 17 November 2023

sometimes with words


(November 19th) 2023




Judges 4: 1-7
Psalm 123
1 Thessalonians 5: 1-11
Matthew 25: 14-30


I don’t know about you, but every time I read or hear read that passage (Matthew 25: 14-30) I find my ears ringing with that favourite phrase of Matthew, “wailing and gnashing of teeth.”

At the very beginning of what we might call the theology of preaching is, or should be, the question “where is the grace?” or, or perhaps and, “where is the good news?” in the selected scripture, in the delivered sermon.

I stand in fear and trembling.

I want to break open that reverberating sentence, those gnashing teeth,  with a thought that I heard tucked away in Bishop Steve’s reflections on this passage in our Gospel Conversations this past week. 

Many years ago, to digress for a moment, Vietnam vets wore patches or bumper stickers with words to the effect of “when I die I do not need to go to hell, I’ve already been there.” It has seemed to me ever since that there is something profoundly theological in that statement, whether or not the carriers of the slogan meant it to be so.

The scriptures are a complex collection of writings, and in the brutal game of text wars, which is a spiritually obscene game, scriptures can be used to prove almost anything. But as a big picture observer, I tend to emphasize that broad overview of where the scriptures take us. With regards to something called hell they take us from countless Old Testament texts in which no consideration of post-life is given at all, to lurid presentations of Gehenna, a place perhaps like the peat swamp fires of northern Russia or the vivid imagination of Dante, a place of eternal and relentless burning.

I think we choose our hell. Psalm 139 reminds us that even there God awaits us, if we but open our eyes.

In the writings particularly of Paul, and in many of the attitudes, if not the vivid metaphorical stories, of Jesus I find the suggestion that the Vietnam vets were right.

It wasn’t Vietnam, but I made the mistake of watching Saving Private Ryan before I went to bed the other night. Fortunately I can sleep through anything once my head hits the pillow, but in those infamous opening scenes on Omaha Beach, it is very clear that many of the victims of war, and indeed a myriad other forms of human abuse, have seen the depth of hell. As they are this day in Gaza, in Ukraine, and the Israelis saw when besieged by Hamas, as women see in Afghanistan, and freedom fighters in Myanmar. Each day.  And many elsewheres, too. 

Bishop Steve I think hinted, as he dealt with the gnashing of teeth of this penultimate Jesus parable, mused on the ways in which we choose our own hells. Though in war, tragically, they are chosen for us. In hellholes of domestic violence they are chosen for us. Even in illness they are chosen for us, and we must cling to the slivers of light and hope that we can find. While some find some light others will not. In Private Ryan they did not. 

Particularly in his opening of the remarkable letter to the Romans, Paul indicates that, exceptional circumstances aside, humanity chooses its own hell. We allow ourselves to be given over to the implications of a judgementless universe, to existence devoid of judgement, of values, or hope, of vision beyond little more than immediate gratification. We choose our hells.

Sometimes they choose us, of course. But the God of the Cross, the God of Good Friday, whispers the profound words of Easter and does not leave us in any hells. We won't always find him, but he finds us. That's why the military chaplains kept going on Omaha Beach, even though bibles will sometimes wash up in the blood-stained waves. 

In his parable Jesus, as he speaks of talents, speaks of the opportunities and the abilities we have been given. He puts to us not a guilt trip, but the simple and really rather sensible question, “have we made enough of them?” Without going into the mathematics and vast capitalist economics of his parable he simply indicates that there are those who in the encounter of gospel help and gospel hope will spend lives enflamed and enriched by divine love, sharing, even propagating divine love. Those who bury it away in the depths of dark and damp ground will not. 

The sun rises on us, love surrounds us. We need only seek to replicate that, duplicate that, hand that immeasurable benefit on to touch the lives of others in any way we can. When we can. Thus we proclaim the reign of God (sometimes we might use words). That to me sounds a whole lot better than gnashing our teeth as we bury God’s goodness in the sand.



Saturday 11 November 2023

a nasty tale?




32nd ORDINARY SUNDAY (November 12th) 2023



Joshua 24: 1-3a, 14-25

Psalm 78: 1-7

1 Thessalonians 4: 13-18

Matthew 25: 1-13



There are few parables of Jesus that offer less of a sense of good news than the parable of the five wise and five foolish “bridesmaids” or “virgins.” Interpreters acknowledge that by the standards of Jesus there has to be an awful lot more spade work than normal to find the seeds of the Reign of God here.

While in no parable of Jesus is there absolute equivalence between the characters and scenes he creates and the characters and scenes around him and around us, the work is more tenuous than ever here.

Who are these so-called wise bridesmaids who condemn their mates to an impossible search for oil in the middle of a Palestinian night? Who is this draconian groom who comes home at midnight with slaughter on his mind? Should toxic bridesmaids turn on chaotic bridesmaids like piranhas in a feeding frenzy? Is this a “be ready or burn” variation on a “turn or burn” narrative loved by so many in the history of Christian evangelism?

This is in any case no normal wedding preparation. Why are these young maidens waiting for the groom? It’s rather unusual behaviour in any context, when the bridesmaids tend to wait with and upon the bride (hence the name!).

Yes, Jesus extrapolates the obvious meaning from his own strange parable. Be ready. That theme inescapably dominates this entire block of Jesus teaching, but the behaviour of the bridesmaids is not an entirely helpful.


Jesus often makes villains the unlikely heroes of his story – a grumpy judge, a corrupt manager, a Samaritan – so that may not surprise us.

Yet again we are asked to look at ourselves. What sort of a bridesmaid am I? As a chaotic person I find myself trembling. Is there any hint of grace in this passage? Do I condemn others to darkness? Am I condemned to darkness?

Complacency is a deeper theme than chaos. Am I blasé about the faith and the call to compassion and justice that I hear in the gospel?

Well yes. So, I’m back with the foolish virgins again.

Evangelist-comedian Adrian Plass told a story of a Pharisee who again and again hears Jesus telling him and other Pharisees to repent and amend their ways. He has responded many, many times by repenting and amending his ways and reached the point that he feels he can do no more. He tugs on Jesus’ sleeve and says, “Master I don’t think I’m going to make it into your Kingdom.”

Jesus smiles in response: “It is not you that I'm speaking to, my friend,” he says, “but to the complacent and the hypocritical.” The challenge of course is to be neither of these. Fallible, yes. Deliberately exploitative or in any other way hypocritical, then we might be pushing the limits of divine compassion.

I know that there are many areas in my life, possibly yours too, in which I have precisely pushed the limits of divine compassion. Have I fallen outside the boundaries of divine mercy? Am I condemned forever to gnash my teeth with the foolish bridesmaids? “Look not,” says the famous hymn, “on our misusings of your grace, but look on us as found in him.”

If I am deliberately playing games with the gospel of God then the answer is (almost) yes. I think of those who have abused others financially, sexually, psychologically, in the name of Jesus. These are the ones who fall most conspicuously into the category of using the name of the Lord, their claimed God, in vain.

I don't want to be sloppy in my understanding of who are and who are not hanging out at the wedding of the groom. Sloppy is not a part of gospel-discipleship. There is a mysterious time when we have to face God, and especially as western Christians, acknowledge our sin. We are all lined up with our lamps going out.

For those who are wantonly destructive of other human lives, for those who are predators or parasites draining the life force from those around them, there is stern warning in messages about the judgement of God.

Psalm 139 tells us there is no place to hide from God, even the depths of hell, whatever that might mean. I believe that deeply. The love of God does not end with our decisions or our death.

The foolish bridesmaids are not sent off to burn in eternal torment. The prepared bridesmaids do not get off lightly in this parable either: their behaviour in sending their friends out into the night is hardly gospel. Yet for as long as we strive to serve the light, the life, the justice revealed in Jesus, the invitation to the feast, or as I prefer to call it “nosh up” of God remains.

Paul in our little extract from the letters to the Thessalonians reminds us of the inescapable eternity of love: “Since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.” We are not called to fret and grieve for the generations coming after us and those around us who do not share our faith. They are in their hands of God. We are called to do our best, like the little pharisee tugging at Jesus’ sleeve. We and ours are embraced by and helped by the eternal love made present by the Holy Spirit of God.


Friday 3 November 2023

Phylacteries, again




31st ORDINARY SUNDAY (November 5th) 2023



Joshua 3: 7-17

Psalm 107: 1-7, 33-37

1 Thessalonians 2: 9-13

Matthew 23: 1-12


It will no doubt come as a surprise to you that I have the occasional difference of opinion – perhaps even the occasional falling out – with others of my trade. I see much that is chicanery in the realms of faith, and sadly much chicanery amongst what we might call the professionals in the realm. Not many in this diocese thank goodness: there’s something rather attractive in being amongst professionals who choose, by and large, to work in the most far-flung of western contexts. While I’m in now with you in perhaps the most stunning context, certainly in New Zealand, this is not a diocese that clergy queue up to come to.

But that’s another story, and I have to say one of the great graces of my life-journey has been being able to come amongst you not once but twice. And I hasten to add this is not a “leaving sermon,” in case it's starting to sound like one.

I have been fascinated though by the propensity of professional Christians, mainly clergy, to grasp their phylacteries. I said that in public recently and received a torrent of abuse from one or two who thought that this was a personal attack. One person decided I was being antisemitic – a little surprising since the phylactery metaphor came originally from Jesus the Jew! Perhaps my critic don’t know that? 

Most clergy are reasonably aware, though, that Jesus was Jewish. But the phylactery metaphor applies in other ways. I remember in Australia, where clergy receive a quite generous car purchase and replacement allowance, one parishioner muttering that their newly ordained priest would now go out and purchase a flash car because he was ordained. He didn’t, holding on to his aged Kombi for many years. It wasn’t me, though later I had a Kombi too. Flash cars, though I lust after them, have never been my hallmark, as you may have noticed!

Bishop Kelvin, commenting on this passage, noted that the titles and ceremonial and especially the ornate episcopal chair, the cathedra which gives its name to the cathedral, were the most excruciating aspect of his episcopacy. As I hinted in response, while many if not most bishops I have known, especially Steve and Kelvin, have been wonderfully humble men and women, there have been one or two who exhibited conspicuous delight in the badges of their office. Lesser clergy, too. Phylacteries are a common disease, sadly.

They were in Jesus’ time, too.  (Yes all time is his, as we will say on Easter Morn, but that’s not what I mean). They were originally a symbol to the wearer of the centrality of God’s Law in their lives. But symbols can develop a dark life of their own. The first bishop of this diocese seemed to take great delight in staying in what Jesus might call palaces, the mansions of the rich in Southland and Otago. Bishop Nevill generally displayed little interest in people of a lower social or socio-economic class, except on occasions when they were awed by the majesty not of God (of which we will soon sing), but of  his and other bishops’ finery.

But we must all be careful of phylacteries. In what way do I advertise what might be my advantages in life? What do I parade in the market place? How often and where do I seize the best seats, metaphorically and sometimes literally? To what extent do I actually or in appearance parade my self-importance (though I hope by now that I have learned that it would be a lie to do so!)? Give that I am often representative of the more ceremonial end of Christianity do I by my liturgical drag or titles or roles slip into the belief that I’m important? 

There’s more than one kind of phylactery. Do I imagine I am more intellectual or more pious or more “saved” than those around me? God forbid, as St. Paul often said, though if I ever do slip that way I soon find God or an agent of God slapping me down.

In the end, as Christ-bearers (a word I prefer to the much abused word and nickname “Christian”), in the end we are called to be just that. No more, no less. Just a bunch of people who have been called into connection with God through Christ. That’s what it means to be, in the words of 1 Peter, “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, to proclaim the virtues of him who called you out of darkness.” Just a bunch of people called to pray, to intercede, above all to give thanks to the God who draws all history, all creation, all people out of nothingness into eternal light and life and love. No phylacteries, just love, and acts of loving service.

May God help us to be that people.

Saturday 28 October 2023

because of light and love





(October 29th) 2023



Deuteronomy 34: 1-12

Psalm 90: 1-6, 13-17

1 Thessalonians 2: 1-18

Matthew 22:24-36


I find it valuable when reading the scriptures of our faith to make some attempt to step into the headspace, even the heartspace of the central characters. The scriptures were written of course in a age vastly different to our own, stylistically, but on the whole humans are humans, and much of our journey is common ground. We are born, we learn, we love, we grieve. We breathe. We cease to breathe. And here, however stylistically written, we find an account of a great leader, an influencer in ways our contemporary Tik Tok influencers can only dream of, entering into death, that final mystery beyond all our understandings.

Like so-called Dives in Jesus’ famous tale of Lazarus and justice-based judgement, I would genuinely welcome someone popping back from death for a cuppa and a chin wag about the actualities of eternity. It doesn’t happen. As Jesus hints in that story, the human mind would pop with the complexities of never-ending love and life. Rationally I’m with the author of the final chapter of Deuteronomy. Moses breathed his last and the story, though of course not the influence, ends. At first it’s even where our psalm takes us: “like grass which is green, but by nightfall is withered up.”

That of course is the rationalist in me. But the end of the Moses story is not the end of the God story. there is an other dimension that seizes me and drives me on despite all that I see and rationalize around me. But hold that thought for a moment.

But the psalmist does try to take us further. In God there is no unrighteousness, and though the psalmist speaks only of the glimpse of sap and new life in chronologically weary bodies – for resurrection theologies were not as yet part of Hebrew understandings – the psalm closes with bold hope in a God in whom is no unrighteousness. That later Hebrew of Hebrews, Paul of Tarsus, will come to put it another way, trumpeting from the depths of his own journey that death itself, that universal unrighteousness, will be destroyed. Or as the great holy man John Donne put it, still more centuries later,

One short sleep past, we wake eternally

And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

And so into contexts of grief and loss, individual or as horrific and collective as mass shootings in Maine (or Christchurch), or wholesale slaughter in Israel and Gaza, or Ukraine and Russia, Yemen, Sudan, or countless other killing fields, in such contexts we dare to stutter words of hope, and to reach out hands of compassion (and of justice). Paul did that, too, as he wrote to suffering churches, or sometimes complacent and cosy churches, in his ministry. That again is why we need to step into the shoes of the biblical characters.

To speak words of hope is a least one aspect of the love of God, the total love of God of which we are agents. Terribly fallible agents, but God’s totally fallible agents nevertheless. I suspect no hand would go up if we were asked who has loved God with all of heart and mind and soul. No hand should go up. That’s Paul’s point over and again when he talks of sin: all he says, fall short. It’s what Jesus addresses when in the Fourth Gospel he promises an advocate, the one we call Holy Spirit, who can and will pick us up each time we stumble.

Which brings me back to Moses. That great influencer who had no Tik Tok. He got some things wrong in his leadership. That’s why, symbolically at least, he reaches no further than Pisgah – which probably meant, incidentally, no more than “the highest place.” Whatever dwelt beyond the horizon remains inexplicable. But such was the mystery and the awe that Paul and others would experience centuries later that they would proclaim, to borrow Paul’s words, “If we have hoped in Christ only in this life, we are of all people most to be pitied.”

The story of Moses ends not with  TS Eliot’s bang or whimper, or Dylan Thomas’ dying of the light, but with a glimpse of that which is beyond words, the promise that Moses glimpses as his lights go out and a brighter light begins.

And because of light and love, though also because of judgement, justice, forgiveness and reconciliation, we are called to live and proclaim that light even though all many of us manage is a slightly self-conscious mumble. Christ is risen, the first fruits, proclaimed the early church, and so must we.


Friday 20 October 2023





29th ORDINARY SUNDAY (October 22nd) 2023




Exodus 33: 12-23

Psalm 99

1 Thessalonians 1: 1-10

Matthew 22: 15-22



There is an almost shocking familiarity between Moses and his God in the depiction that we have of Moses’ determination to, as it were, unmask the God with whom he is chatting, in whom he is trusting, and in whom, indirectly, he is asking his people to trust.

To get the best out of the Moses scene we need to realize it is stylized. The setting is one in which the relationship between the Hebrews and their neighbours is fraught – we might remember the situation in the Middle East today, except that this narrative is clear that God, not bombs (or their equivalent) will provide the way out of trouble. But Israel has betrayed God with last week’s sacred cow: can the relationship be restored? God’s ongoing relationship is depicted as very cautious and tenuous, propped up only by God’s grace, or gracious forbearance.

Let’s step away from military parallels between the modern State of Israel and the ancient People of God – despite, of course, the DNA connection. We who are Christ-bearers have also too often made our sacred cows, and I don’t think I need to list the myriad ways we have neglected our responsibilities. I am not here speaking of the wider western world; I dare speak only for the community of faith – perhaps I dare speak only for myself?

But I want to park Moses there for a moment, in his daring tête-à-tête with God. It’s a little outside my experience, perhaps yours too. But there are important messages in the other readings, too. 

In the Psalm, for example, we find the author turning not to petition God to seek favours, but simply pouring out his or her heart in praise to God, with awe, with love, with a deep dense of the underserved privilege of access to the one from whom and towards whom all creation moves. 

It is a big call, of course; can we really speak of a God in the face of so much human-made and nature-made horror in the world, even in our own lives?

The psalmist dares to say yes. We only kid ourselves if we think difficulties in believing are a modern phenomenon. It’s not what we might call “sexy,” (or “chic” if we’re prudish), to cling to a belief in an unseen being, but it was ever thus. Surrounded by some pretty toxic enemies the psalmist, like the tellers of the Moses story, dared to believe. And – not unlike the donors and planners and builders of the great cathedrals of Europe – the fruits of risking belief often came long after the light of their own individual lives was extinguished (at least to human sight).

We and our forebears, Hebrew and Christian alike, have been called to believe despite all odds. It is no new thing. Moses’ crew found it much easier to turn to the much less complex option of a golden cow. Paul, so unpopular in many circles, believed against all odds. He poured out his lifeblood proclaiming resurrection hope to a disinterested world. 

Where his words sometimes fell on fertile soil he too often found, as in Corinth and Galatia, that the new and enthusiastic beliers soon turned to their own form of Golden cow: in Corinth they turned to showy sexual libertinism and social elitism. In Galatia they turned to rigorous, life-suppressing ritualism and again, probably, social elitism. 

In Thessalonica Paul seems to have found fertile ground and faithful stewards of the gospel, though later in the letter Paul will issue stern warnings to those believers, too: “Don’t be a slave of your desires or live like people who don’t know God,” he will tell them. Paul has been stung too often by the foibles of Christ-bearers. 

Matthew recalls Jesus’ condemnation of recalcitrant and renegade Sadducees, who have turned faith into a means of exploitation and oppression: too often we the Christian people of God have been the Sadducees, and Paul was at the very least taking a pre-emptive strike in writing to the Thessalonians, warning them of the risks ahead.

There is much to learn from Moses. I say again, few of us will or even should have the easy familiarity with God that was the hallmark of the great servants of God through history. Nor should we – perhaps they didn’t either, for I suspect the narratives cover up the fear and trembling with which they tapped God’s metaphorical shoulder. 

In the end though we find that to a person they all, even the one we came to know as Son of God, balanced that easy familiarity with deep reverence and awe. Aslan is “not like a tame lion,” as Mr Beaver warns the children towards the end of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I suggest even the second person of the Trinity, the one we know as Jesus and Christ, is not our mate but an inspirational revelation of the who and the how of God.

Strangely, perhaps, it is Moses in our highly symbolic first reading, that most models that balance between familiarity and awe.