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Saturday, 3 November 2018

non-sense faith



SERMON PREACHED at St PAUL’S, ARROWTOWN, and
ST PETER’S, QUEENSTOWN
ALL SAINTS’ (November 4th) 2018
(translated from November 1st)


READINGS:

    • Wisdom 3: 1-9
    • Psalm 24
    • Revelation 21: 1-6a
    • John 11: 32-44

It was a pivotal moments that I will not forget. The gospel was read in the small chapel, and the proportionately small congregation sat down to hear my colleague, presiding priest for the day, break open the scriptures.
He began with a tale about Jehovah’s Witnesses knocking on his door, and how we all knew that their reduction of the roll call for the Reign of God to 144,000 was fatuous.  We nodded in agreement. We nodded too as he made a few more points about Jehovah’s Witnesses. I have never been a huge fan of their theology, and though I wasn’t sure it was the time or the place the points were well made.
We were still nodding in happy agreement when said priest went on to affirm that of course we all knew that the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead was nonsense. I nodded happily. Then I realised what he had said. No, he maintained. It was obvious, he maintained, that if all followers of Jesus were in some way to rise from the dead there would not be room for them, so clearly this was nonsense.
How do you withdraw a nod? I sat with my most vacuous look for the next few minutes as he explained that we were all far more intelligent than those silly Christians who believed that boloney. I suspect I was still sitting with my jaw on the floor when he concluded, and we moved into a time of prayer and thanksgiving.
Prayer and thanksgiving for what and for why and to whom I wondered.
Perhaps there was a time when I would have agreed. I recall a brief window in my theological journey when I jettisoned all metaphysical dimensions to our faith. Our faith was a political program, liberate the oppressed, and that was it. The phase lasted a few weeks and died. It died because why bother? It died because what had seized my life some years earlier was not some political manifesto, though they are important, but an experience that, in the ilk of St Paul, I would call an encounter with the risen Christ. My life was not transformed by Karl Marx or Rachel Carson or I dunno, Robert Muldoon or Ronald Reagan or someone from the other side of politics.
Call it subjective fantasy if you like, and certainly the complexities of psychology come into it, but my coming to faith was not some sort of make-believe. It was powerfully experiential. Not everyone has the privilege that I have of a risen Christ invading my self-satisfied if crumbling time-before-faith. But I’m not sure that the magnificence of the God we encounter can be reduced to some sort of infantile loopiness, nor that contemporary Sadducees should steal the hope most human beings feel in the face of that greatest of oppressions, Death.
As I worked with Indigenous people in Australia and later with Māori here I became increasingly convinced that the narrow rationalism of western culture could be a real hurdle as we attempt to understand the radiance of the breadth and depth of God and God’s dealing with creation and humanity. We know so little! So often I hear a rationalist cry that my faith is a load of nonsense, that of course we know it’s nonsense, that it is irrational.
Increasingly I am unconvinced. So often I hear Christian practitioners themselves who, like the presiding priest with whom I began, feel the need to reduce the gospel to the measurements of their own mind. Fr David was telling me the other day of a golf professional who, when asked the width of a golf course, would answer “six inches,” that being the distance between the players’ ears. Wisdom, that.
There is a different wisdom-dynamic at work in the dimensions of faith. In faith the possibilities of God are beyond the distance from left ear to right ear travelling away from the skull. In faith the possibilities of God are as far as the east is from the west, as far as the journey to the boundaries of an expanding universe and beyond and back in a circuit to the place where the thoughts began. In faith the possibilities of God are infinite.
Yet they become localised in the life of the man of Nazareth, localised still more in the tiny symbols of bread and wine and the tiny words of scripture, and there begin to transform human lives. They become like the beat of a butterfly’s wing, infinitesimally small, yet they can reverberate through life and death and all eternity. They become the spark of hope that inspires men and women to sacrifice their lives in the service of a crucified God.
I think for example of the 20 Coptic martyrs of Libya who in 2015 refused under threat of death to deny their Christ, our Christ. So powerful was their witness to the unseen God, in the face of imminent execution, that a 21st captive, Ghanaian Matthew Ayariga, declared “their God is my God,” and while it is uncertain whether he was a follower of Jesus beforehand, he elected in that moment to be executed with the Libyan Christians. One does not have the sense that he or they died for a fairy tale or for a piece of romantic nonsense that should be dismantled by those with more powerful minds. One has the sense that he died for a living, death-transcending Messiah of God who in death and in resurrection was revealed as Lord. They are numbered this day amongst the saints and martyrs who gather with us and all Christians as we pray.
Faced with a bevy of pseudo-followers of Christ, a group who had chosen to dismantle the message of resurrection because it was too hard to believe, Paul the Apostle angrily, or perhaps sadly pronounced “they are more to be pitied than all people.”
As the people of God – or a branch thereof – in the Wakatipu, while it is unlikely that we will be called upon to be martyred for our faith, we are called to so open ourselves up to the mysteries, the beyond rational mysteries of resurrection faith, that we cannot imagine life or death without him beside us and within us in our living and our dying. The saints who we celebrate this day are those who by the initiative of God have transformed rationality to faith. To be honest there are good, bad and ugly amongst them, as there probably is amongst any group of Christ followers and even within each of us as individuals. The process for recognizing and naming saints becomes a little bit silly at times.
Biblical doctrine suggests that all who are in Christ Jesus are the saints, made holy by his belief, his self-sacrifice, his faith. The idea is captured well by William Bright in his great and heartfelt hymn:
Look, Father, look on his anointed face,
and only look on us as found in him;
look not on our misusings of your grace,
our prayer so languid and our faith so dim;
for, set between our sins and their reward,
we see the cross of Christ, your Son, our Lord.
The saints continue to gather around us as we pray, make eucharist, and serve in God’s world. Their lives continue to serve to remind us of the power of a life transformed by faith, hope, love beyond rationality. The response to such miraculous lives is not to dismantle faith and its mysteries, but to allow our arrogance to be dismantled by God’s Spirit. May God help us so to do.
Amen.
***
NB. This will be my last regular sermon for a while as I conclude my interim ministry in the Wakatipu faith communities. This week I enter a new role as Diocesan Ministry Educator in the Diocese of Dunedin. 
My thanks to those amongst whom I have ministered in the Wakatipu, and before that the whanau at Te Pou Herenga Waka o te Whakapono; to my referees, to my friends, and family, who have have continued to support me through interesting times past, and to the Bishop and panel from this diocese who have entrusted this role to me.
Kia kaha. 

Saturday, 27 October 2018

Be little Melchizedeks



SERMON PREACHED at St PAUL’S, ARROWTOWN,
ST PETER’S, QUEENSTOWN, and the COMMUNITY CHURCH, GLENORCHY
ORDINARY SUNDAY 29 (October 28th) 2018


READINGS:

    • Job 38: 1-7
    • Psalm 104: 1-9, 24, 35c
    • Hebrews 5: 1-10
    • Mark 10: 35-45
In the powerful, often heavily ironic narrative of Job, our Lord challenges the arrogance even of a seemingly righteous human being, Job, who dares to question the actions and plans of God. This absolute right of God often becomes a flash point in theological debate. The sense that the author of Job has, and the prophet Jeremiah has, and that the apostle Paul has, that the actions and decisions of God are beyond reproach, are often deeply challenged. The response of the biblical God was  to lay down the challenge: “tell me, if you understand.” If we think we can second-guess the author of an infinitely expanding universe, biblical authors suggest, then we may just be growing a little big for our boots.
This is not a pastoral answer, nor designed as one. If we have lost a loved one, we do not need a platitudinous statement about the authority of God to do whatever God wants. Times of pastoral crisis are not the time for theological abstraction. Times of pastoral crisis are the time for the silence of love, for a smile, for a hug if the sufferer is a willing “huggee.” This is not to suggest that there are two Gods, a stern “I can do what I like God” and a caring, loving God. Times of suffering, when the bodies of refugees wash up on Mediterranean beaches, or asylum-seekers suicide in Nauruan hellcamps,  or when our loved ones dwell in city morgues, these are not the time for erudite theology. These are times for compassionate love. But as we journey through the scriptures we find an endless both/and. God is the God whose will is unfathomable, and God is the tissue silently offered to a weeping, bereaved mother.
The psalmist turns to the heavens and quivers in awe at the incomprehensibility of the author, the creator of their near-infinite vastness. Though I do not have a scientific cell in my body, I am aware of scientists’ growing glimpses of the complexity not only of vast and potentially parallel universes but of the infinitesimally small intricacies of atoms and their component parts. These complexities do not deaden but heighten  my sense of the impossible, unfathomable majesty of the Creator. When I used to stand beneath the desert skies in outback Australia I had no words for my awe. When I see the impossible beauty of a sunrise over the Remarkables I have no words for my awe. 
Yet this is the God who cares for the fall, as Jesus put it, of a sparrow. This is the God who I, for example, have experienced taken me through some incomprehensibly dark times (and mine are small league) in recent years, yet nudged me onwards to this point. This is the God who led me here to where I have found new energies and purpose, not least in the love that I have experienced in and amongst you people of this Parish of Wakatipu. The God whose hands fling stars across space, who is also the God, as Kendrick expresses it, whose hands in Christ are nailed to a cross, is the God who has brought me through my small crucible of fire and is now leading me to new challenges and ministries,. This God will one day will lead me through my own death, not necessarily a benign and pretty one, through my own dying and on to the incomprehensible realms of eternity (more, I think, than just a nitrogen cycle).
And though the author of Hebrews uses vastly complex imagery, this is, I believe, what she is beginning to tell us. She links the suffering priesthood of Jesus with the strange, shadowy priesthood of Melchizedek, then calls all of us to walk in those same warm footsteps of suffering and rising Jesus. Though her symbolism is often all but incompre­hensible to a twenty-first century believer, she is wrestling with the mystery of an infinite God who enters into the misery and grot of human life – far worse than the small darknesses I stumbled though in the past two or three years. This God enters human suffering and there breathes the magnificence of resurrection-life, however shadowy as yet. 
This is the God who renounces the glamour of the heavens, as it were, and enters into the struggling grot of being human. Perhaps I should re-emphasise: the small nastinesses I experienced over the past three years or so before I came to you are mere parentheses compared to the suffering experienced by those in the deeper darknesses of human experience, in Syria or Nauru, or trapped in cycles of chemical or economic despair. But the author of Hebrews is trying to tell us of the infinite God who cares enough to enter our small or great hell-holes and there breathe eternal hope, and will again even when our journeys lead us into the complexities of loss of life and love. For this God – whose majesty the psalmist praises to the heavens – is the God who “deals gently” with us, offers us love’s embrace in myriad forms, and leads us through doubt and despair to resurrection and its light.
And, in turn, we are called to be, however imperfectly, bearers of that light. We are called to be “little Melchizedeks,” caring for others in their need. The mysterious figure of Melchizedek, who became associated with high priesthood and with the high priesthood of Jesus, is originally encountered as a care-giver. That above all is the way by which we can breathe the mysteries of eternity in the lives of those around us. Three years ago, as some of you know, my life seemed to be crumbling around me. In the wisdom of God, the love of family and friends nudged me through those seemingly impenetrable darknesses. The God of infinity mysteriously orchestrated beacons of light for me, and I stumbled on. We    me too ­ –  are called to be light-bringers to others, to be blessing to those around us. May the God of infinity draw near and help us to be bearers of Christlight to all who we meet.

Amen.

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 Taizé 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