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Saturday, 6 March 2021

desiccated temples

  



SERMON PREACHED at St ANDREW’S, MAHENO

and St LUKE’S, OAMARU

THIRD SUNDAY IN LENT (7th March) 2021

 

Readings

Exodus 20:1-17

Psalm 19

1 Corinthians 1:18-25

John 2:13-22

 

The Jesus of the Fourth Gospel strides into his public ministry with confrontation on his agenda. There’s a time, the author of Ecclesiastes wrote, centuries earlier, to confront, and a time to refrain from confronting. Or he could have, for there's a time for every purpose under heaven. Jesus, if we look at him from a purely human and historical point of view, was painfully aware that the great integrity of his forebears’ faith, his ancestors’ faith, was near-destroyed. Jewish and other scholars of first century Palestinian history will remind us that the gospel writers’ view of late-Second Temple Judaism was somewhat jaundiced, and we should accept that. We might remember something before we point the finger too readily at great peril: our history and our present as a Jesus community is not a bed of roses, either. But let’s for now take the writings at face value. Jesus, the Jew, was sickened by the corruption of his ancestral faith.

We might consider, as believers in the Risen Christ, that deeper dimension that John points to. The man Jesus is also the Word, the Son, the supreme revelation of God who is indeed is God. Jesus is Lord, a title reserved, some would say, to Caesar, and Christians would say reserved to one greater even than Caesar. He speaks with double meaning of the destruction of the Temple – an event in the future when he spoke but in the past when John recorded his words. He speaks of so many things, but above all of the destruction of desiccated religion. He speaks if at this stage a little obscurely of his own resurrection, and asks his hearers, and John’s, and therefore us, to immerse ourselves not in desiccated religion but in the living waters of faith. Faith in his resurrection and the life he brings. He speaks too,  of change, of venturing into the unknown.

We too can become desiccated. We as individuals can reach that point where we are no more than going through the motions of s living faith. He speaks too to our institution: when the church as a body becomes no more than what poet RS Thomas refers to a dead spider in an empty chalice. Or when we become, as some very visible branches of a false faith have become, parasites, drawing the life forces from the most vulnerable members of society. We can become the Temple that must be torn down both as individuals and as corporate body. Our task is to turn again and again to the Source of Living Water who will lead us from that risk.

How? Certainly not by popping up skeletal and now ineffective remains of past practice. Jesus, mind you, was not jettisoning the past. He was jettisoning the derelict past. As a people of faith we are called to separate the dry dust from the living water – the scientists among you might note that this is not the most complex task. What in our backstory breathes resurrection hope? What breathes light and love and Easter joy? We will disagree over details, and will sometimes have to learn that few things are universally beneficial. Praise choruses to me might sound like wailing Tomcats, while traditional hymnody might sound to you like a dying swan. There's a time to negotiate, too, and it begins with listening.

Paul offers us a navigation beacon, as he writes to the wayward Corinthians (several years before John wrote). I came preaching Christ, I resolved to know only the essentials of the life, death, teaching and resurrection of Jesus. The rest, he says elsewhere, is dross – and he uses a naughty word we don’t use in churches. Where is the living, risen Christ in this activity, this meeting, this investment? Will this action of mine bring others closer to the experience of the risen Lord? Will this action tear down or build up? And if it builds up will it build up vibrant, Body Temple of Jesus or merely a return to a crumbling, echoing and empty edifice?

The same is true of my personal experience, too. Are the tasks I am undertaking uplifting, nurturing my soul, making of me living Christ-bearer, or are my attitudes and actions leaving me alone with that spider in RS Thomas dusty chalice? Do I pray, read scripture, rejoice at the handiwork of God that I see in nature and in humanity around me? Do I become the dusty edifice that must be destroyed or the dwelling place of Christ that brings life to others? Only we can answer that of ourselves, though God’s Spirit may prompt us, and others around us may drop hints.

Jesus tired of that which was dry, dusty, desiccated in the faith of his ancestors. He tires today of that which is dry, dusty, desiccated in the institution we cling to. Our task is to open ourselves up to fresh breathings of God’s Spirit – always with the litmus test “is this wind that blows through a thousand paddocks” the renewing, up-lifting breath of God or the searing blast of desert air or corrosive salt air? Does the wind that blows through a thousand paddocks whisper resurrection hope or ongoing, fetid despair? The choice, Jesus tells us, is ours.

Saturday, 27 February 2021

leap

 

SERMON PREACHED at St BARNABAS’, WARRINGTON

SECOND SUNDAY IN LENT (28th February) 2021

 

Readings [altered from lectionary]

Genesis 22: 1-19

Psalm 22: 22-10

Romans 4: 13-25

Luke 13: 20-21)


 

 

Amongst the many metaphors and visual images used by Jesus, images and actions around food and feeding are amongst the most easily relatable. Wine, bread, yeast, these are for most of us highly relatable staples of existence. They are the stuff of everyday. In that alone they remind us that faith can be the stuff of everyday. That is at least one point that Jesus constantly emphasizes. “I am the bread of life,” he famously says elsewhere. Bread may not be critical to human existence, but food is: I am the food of life. Immerse yourself, habitually, in all you know and feel of me.

We forget that. We forget it perhaps because we are too familiar with eating and breathing faith. Those of us who practice faith easily find it to be of the stuff of life to pray, to sing, to mow church lawns and sweep church pathways. There is a sanctity in that. Perhaps because I live with so much awareness of non-faith it always amazes me not only that I see faith in myself, but that I find and see faith in others. Here we are in an infinite, growing universe, surround it often seems by infinite, growing problems, yet there are around us and amongst us, even we ourselves, who are willing to take the leap of faith that all existence is in the hands of a benevolent God.

Sometimes it is a leap. There is much to give us cause to doubt. Our human race does not reflect a lot of the image of God, that image that our scriptures tell us we transport in our very existence. Those we don’t like across the political or racial or gender or orientational divides don’t seem terribly signed with the signature of God. And then, in honest moments, we see ourselves in a mirror or in our mind’s diary and we wonder if we are too? St Paul, not in our passage but elsewhere, reflects grimly that all humanity falls short.  News media remind us daily that he wasn’t wrong. Then he sets the bar a little higher, suggesting that our faith should be such that we are willing to commit infanticide in our obedience to an unseen God; sadly our psych wards are filled with those who have read Paul too literally.

Perhaps I digress? Well yes and no. Our psych wards might be a little less full if we learned how to read these tricky scriptures of ours. Though I am a fan of Paul I’m not sure his reading of Genesis and the Abraham narrative is any more helpful than the Hebrew Scripture original helpful. We must learn to read his writings, too, with caution, for they transformed from topical correspondence to Holy Writ.

But what of a faith in which we learn to throw all caution to the wind. Let’s not raise sabres against our sons, but we might turn to other priorities in our private and our corporate life. We might ask pain-filled questions: can we lose these vain priorities that may actually be distraction? Can we serve, love, trust God with heart, mind, soul but not our desperate emphasis on structures, physical and administrative? Any person who has put up with my thoughts over recent years will be aware that I am often wrestling with the need to lose our false gods, our infrastructure, our shibboleths. I don’t want to place the Isaacs of our existence on the altar of trust, but perhaps we must?

I say “throw all caution to the wind,” and do so advisedly. Many of the great changes of church and society alike have been generated by great and often unexpected storms of God’s Spirit, the one who we variously call breath, wind, the ruarch, the spirit of God. The winds of change that blew the gospel across the Roman empire, the winds of change that for better or worse blew the church into recognition as an official religion of that empire as it crumbled, the winds of change that fired the prayers of the monastic movement, that fired establishment of hospital and university movements, that fired the reformation and its subsequent ripples through time.

There have been counter winds too – perhaps we’ve learned a little more about those in the last four years of American history; demonic ripples like Proud Boys and QAnon will not fade rapidly from our corporate memory. But in this context let’s look to the positive. Our growing understanding of the complexities of justice for minorities, defined by race, gender (not exactly a minority!), sexuality, and what we might call “bodiedness”: these are great Holy Spirit winds of change. Many of these winds have grown outside the boundaries of where Christians have often though the Spirit should blow, outside the confines of church structures and infrastructures, but are the breath of God no less for that. Breathe on me, breath of God. Breathe on us breath of God. Breathe again on humanity and all creation, breath of God.

So it is that we are in this decade being forced by God’s Spirit to throw all caution to the Spirit-wind once more, as economic collapse decimates the church blow by blow, yet whispers the promise of new, more Christ-centred, less human-dependent ways of rumouring resurrection hope in a sometimes somewhat confused and lost society.

What does all of this mean? What does it mean for us as Anglican Christians in a far south-eastern patch of the far south-east corner of God’s globe? It means we are going to be best at being leaven in the lump when we get back to the basics of our faith. Praying, reading – though I would add “understanding,” reading for meaning – the bible, living out the life of Christ, living as a people of resurrection hope, living as a people of justice and compassion, living not as an organization but as a people enriched by the experience of the risen Christ in our midst. It means proclaiming Christ by living for others. It means being conspicuous a little by our oddness – a people of the eucharist, of hymns, of prayers – and a little by our ordinariness, earthed in the rhythms of community life, picking rubbish from the pavements, saving species, visiting the lonely.

It is to this role as leaven in the loaf that we are called this Lent.




 


Friday, 19 February 2021

Greater cuzz, lesser cuzz

 

SERMON PREACHED at

HOLY TRINITY, PORT CHALMERS

FIRST SUNDAY IN LENT (21st February) 2021 




 

Readings

Genesis 9: 8-17

Psalm 25: 1-9

1 Peter 3: 18-22

Mark 1: 9-15

 

Back at the beginning of December we encountered the opening verses of Mark’s gospel-account. In those eight verses that we read that day – I don’t expect you to remember! – Mark produces a couple of quite remarkable stylistic quirks. He was inventing, in many ways, a whole new form of literature, a theologically weighted slice of life story about a historical figure, a figure who was known indirectly to the audience.

Mark loads the story with theological and spiritual meaning, yet paradoxically begins not by speaking of Jesus – and certainly not speaking of himself. He begins by telling of John the Baptist.

And now, fifteen or so sentences into his story, he turns to his topic. Sort of. The delay has been a part of his stylistic quirkiness. The delay is important: he tells us nothing about himself, unlike post-modern writers, because as far as he is concerned, he doesn’t matter. He may or may not be the Mark who accompanied Paul on some of Paul’s journeys, but Mark isn’t interested in that. He agrees with Paul: “It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.” Mark doesn’t matter except in so far as he radiates Jesus.

He began by writing not about Jesus but about John.  It is easy for us to forget it, but Cousin John was the bigger name in Mark’s era, much better known than Jesus. Mark is emphasizing the degree to which normal assessments do not apply when the Jesus story begins. A crucified Messiah, a revelation of God made complete in death (though we will add resurrection to that mix): this is never going to be a story that conforms to expectations. And having emphasized that the unexpected, the broken, the not neon lit is the place where God’s heart is revealed, Mark goes on to tell the tale.

Yet even now there is a twist. Nazareth is not the direction from which your average first century seeker would expect God to come. I think we can safely assume that Mark is following historical detail here, so it seems God, too, does not bow to human expectations. I have got into trouble occasionally when using real places to illustrate this aspect of the gospel, but perhaps if we were to think of – but not name – the communities in Otago from which the heart and revelation of God might be  low in our expectations that a god would appear then we will have the idea. Nazareth was, shall we say (to be safe), a Detroit ghetto, not a New York Central Park penthouse.

And things got more complex still. The stranger from Nazareth approaches the famous if prickly cult figure and asks to be baptized by him. My analogies break down. John the Baptist was well known, popular even in an “ouch that hurts” kind of way that would later get him beheaded, but if “people from the whole Judean countryside” went out to hear his message we can be pretty sure he was a headline-hugger. To that extent it might seem uncomplex that Jesus joins the crowds flocking to him. A hobo from Nazareth could do with a bit of washing and restoration. But John himself turns the tables on expectation: no, cuzz – not you. And the on-lookers might have taken a bit of a second look. But Jesus insists, John acquiesces, baptizes his cousin, and then makes the powerful declaration that is so famous “I baptize with water, but he will baptize with the Holy Spirit.”

We could spend an entire morning wondering what that means – but we have other work to do before we can get home (and I can catch my plane). Perhaps we can paraphrase: “This Jesus will make known and available to you absolutely everything you need to know and experience of the Creator.” It’s a big claim, and John’s feisty followers, who may have been sliding into a bit of what we today might call “virtue signalling,” would have been aghast when they heard it – either from John at the time or from Mark years later. By the time Mark was writing, the followers of the Baptizer had a bit of street-cred: we were baptized by the bloke who Herod beheaded.

The events of Jesus' life were – surprisingly perhaps to us – less well-known. And once more Mark turns to strange scenes to narrate them. Jesus begins not with a triumphant success – in fact the only public triumph of his ministry will quickly turn to custard when the crowd turns on him in Jerusalem – but with a surreal encounter with darkness and evil. Mark is telling us something important: the way of Jesus will go to dark places, will not be revealed in neon lights, will not be trumpeted from the gold citadels of glamour and success. It will begin and end in darkness, wrestle with temptations, with apparent failure, and with mortality. Yet temptation, failure and death will not be the final word. Sixteen chapters later some frightened women will hear the words “he has been raised,” and they will flee in terror. Yet the message entrusted to them will reach even to us.

What do we make of this as we attempt to scan the future of our small parish, congregation, church? What do we make of this as so much that we once held dear, here in Port Chalmers, but also across the diocese, across the nation, across the former Christian world, appears to be crumbling around us? The answer is more complex and yet more simple than we think. The critical thing, though, is that God in Christ will not be restricted to our expectations. Jesus will go out to be tempted, to wrestle with our temptations. fears and doubts. They will not have the final word. He will go on to cast brokenness out of human lives, to touch us with love and light and healing. He will and does invite us to go with him, even in our century, stumbling after him as so much that we thought was important and certain crumbles around our ears. He invites us to the way of the cross. Later this morning we will get some glances as to how we might walk in his footsteps. For now we just need to know and cling to the words he later gave the frightened women, and which they faithfully stuttered out: “go … tell … he is ahead of you.”

 

Saturday, 13 February 2021

God in the meh

 

SERMON PREACHED

AT

St JOHN’S, WAIKOUAITI

ORDINARY SUNDAY 6 (14th February) 2021

 

 

 

Readings

2 Kings 5: 1-14

Psalm 30

1 Cor 9:24-27

Mark 1:40-45

 

As we encounter Naaman the General we encounter a strange aspect of our own Christian humanity. Here in Waikouaiti, around the diocese, and I suggest around the western world in mainstream churches we are aware of the struggle to keep our infrastructure alive and well, our churches earthquake standardised and insured, our buildings painted and polished, our liturgical vestments distinct, our prayers formalised and carefully structured. I for one am deeply committed to all these aspects of Christian life. But they are not the be all and end all, and we live in a faith-era when God’s Spirit may well be driving us back to bedrock. What is the core of our faith and its practice?

What, says Elisha, if we are looking for the saving works of God in the wrong place? Clinging to the wrong things? What if the works of God, the access to God, the gifts of God are right there before us as we walk and talk and sleep, and we need only to set aside our busy-ness and blindness to see them, experience them, be immersed in them? Or, to put it a more meaningful, active way, what if we set about seeing the hand of God in the everyday, in the ordinary, and indeed discovering that the ordinary is indeed extra-ordinary. Many who work the land are deeply aware of this: nature red in tooth and claw is nature the generous, too: the soils are turned, the rains come, the earth yields its crop (which is not to suggest that the work involved is not often brutally hard). The ordinary is miraculous, and Elisha sends Naaman off to bathe in the river.

Perhaps not an ordinary wash. Bathe seven times, says Elisha. Not an ordinary river, either. In the Jordan, says Elisha. Still, to Naaman the General it seems a little ordinary. I am reminded of the simple rites we have of communion. Go, says Jesus, eat bread and wine. But perhaps not eat as we would at a picnic. Eat with intent, eat with blessing, eat with the knowledge that this is the rite he gives us to knit together once more, to member together again, the whole history of God’s dealing with humankind and indeed all creation. This is the rite we must perform long after our buidings are gone.

As a people of God we must also be able, willing, and ready to see the spectacular in the ordinary. I have been a part of liturgies in which God is powerfully,  over­whelmingly present. I have been a part of (and admittedly conducted) liturgies which been a bit “meh” – preaching sermons is the same. Yet strangely I have often found that what I experience as a “meh” day others experience as a wow day. God will not be limited, thank you very much, to my small feelings.

Naaman was blinded by his own sense of privilege. A leper is normally a pariah, and he was certainly forced further towards the fringes of his society by the debilitating disease. But even in his condition he demands obsequiousness, demands privileged treatment, demands five-star treatment. He receives the outcome he longs for, but not the methodology he thought appropriate. Privilege will blind us to the places where might see God. He attempts to place demands on the ways and places in which God might work: God will have none of it.

I opened with a litany of the issues we face as a western, privileged people of God. Over and over again I have found signs and messages of the harsh warnings the western Christian community is being delivered: we have sat for too long in a privileged state, demanding that our privilege be preserved by God, and demanding simultaneously that God rescue us from the closures that are threating our existence as a visible people of God. As Western Church we are undergoing death by a thousand cuts. Like Naaman we are telling God how it must be stopped and how we must be redeemed. The history of the people of God tells us that God does not desert the People of God – but God also delivers some very harsh reprimands.

I reserve the word “resurrection” for the historically unique event of the action of God in resurrecting Jesus from the dead. My theology is conservative enough to believe in that – however shakily at times – as an event in history. Unseen by humans, though the resurrecting Christ was seen by some and their accounts still reverberate around the globe. Unseen because we cannot see so great a sight as eternity defeating death – but let’s leave talk of that till Easter. I reserve the word “resurrection” for that Easter event – and for the yet to be event of our own resurrection after the last great mystery of our death.

Many of my colleagues through my career have spoken of resurrection as a cyclical thing – daffodils after the winter, church rebirths after closure. I prefer to think of these as “phoenix rising.” Cycles of life – more prosaic than God’s utter, immeasurable redemption of creation. But as a part of the warp and weft of existence they can remind us that God is as miraculously present in the normalities. Then, every now and again God asks us to reach beyond the normalities – to let bread and wine be for us body and blood – to let a moment be charged with the grandeur of God, saturated with the promise of God. Naaman wouldn’t accept that.

But at a time when we are watching God’s stern pruning of our complacent western church, we might find messages of hope amidst the warf and weft of financial and administrative and architectural normalities. Our infrastructures collapse and close and that may be just one more message of God’s work in the world. But God is with us – with us in the closures, in the uncertainties. God, in a sense, asks us to bathe seven times in the Jordan – to take a slightly unusual approach to the strange times we live in, to find the sacred despite the mundanity. Our privileged existence as Western Christians has blinded us to much that we are called to see and be. But God calls us to hold tenaciously to the promise that God is with us always, even to the end of the age: as things get tough we can enter into our phoenix experience of so much crumbling around us, to hold to that promise, that God is beckoning to us to emerge cleansed from the waters into which we are challenged to dip ourselves.


 



Saturday, 6 February 2021

eagles' wings

 



SERMON PREACHED

AT

St LUKE’S ON THE TAIERI (MOSGIEL)

ORDINARY SUNDAY 5 (7th February) 2021

 

 

 

Readings

Isaiah 40:21-31

Psalm 147:1-11, 20c

1 Corinthians 9:16-23

Mark 1:29-39

 

To understand the magnificent poetry of second Isaiah we have to place our passage into the context of the passage in which he originally framed it – that of course should always be the case with biblical passages. For once the historical setting of the passage is a little less important to know, except that Isaiah’s people were an utterly crushed and broken people. They had lost their spirit. We have probably seen pictures conquered or enslaved victims of colonial expansion: Second Isaiah’s people were as them.

And to them Isaiah spoke a word of hope:

those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; 
they shall mount up with wings like eagles, 
they shall run and not be weary, 
they shall walk and not faint.

It is deservedly one of the most well-known and loved passages of Hebrew and Christian Scripture. Some with long cinematographic memories will remember Chariots of Fire and the stirring rendition of these words by Ian Charleson, playing the part of Eric Liddell. “They shall mount up with wings like eagles.”

It is a timeless passage, but it is at its most timely when a people are broken. In 1981, when I was a young undergrad seeing Chariots of Fire for the first of many times, I was not a broken person, nor part of a broken people. I was cock-a-hoop in the full flush of youth and of new-found faith: “they shall mount up with wings like eagles.” But my country, our country, too was a place of confidence. Waitangi Day and its Treaty were quaint excuses for a last gasp of Summer holidays, often accompanied in the Manawatu by disappointing wind and rain. Western society, too, was cock-a-hoop. Ecological and economic collapse were still only faint and largely disregarded rumours.

As it happens Chariots of Fire and the Springbok Tour occurred in the same year in New Zealand. But 1981, surely, was the year cracks appeared in New Zealand’s cosy colonial complacency. Wei began to tear apart and were brought face to face with some of the darknesses of our past. Post-contact New Zealand has had it easy in so many ways, when we think of the Hebrew People, or of the brutal conflict that nations like Myanmar, Belarus or even the United States face today, or the brutal conflict that has often been the story of colonised nations.

Isaiah though was not welcomed by his audience. He spoke of hope – but he spoke too of the cost of following the Creator God. The Hebrew people had been crushed by Babylon, but ironically even “crushed” may seem, sometimes, preferable to the demands of a God. Am I truly free if I permit a Supreme God to infiltrate my life? The Babylonians may be oppressive, but at least they’re the masters we know.

The comparisons with our own era are not direct, but there are connections. Do we really want to believe in a God who makes certain demands of us? Moral demands, ritual demands, “cognitive” demands? Or to put it another way, do we really want to believe in a God when science appears to tell us we’re nincompoops for doing so? Might not the light of God – we would add “revealed in Christ” – penetrate too deeply to our darkest recesses? Do we – can we really believe in God – and do I admit that I struggle?

Yet can we not? Can I not? Isaiah, like Jesus centuries later, answered by turning to the world around him. Who determined the earth’s measurements? It’s not a conclusive argument. But it’s an argument of love. Did both the beauty and the tyranny of our universe just appear? We can argue either way, but as we allow ourselves to be overawed by the infinite beauty and glory of the cosmos around us, something may begin, if we do not drown it out, to whisper to us. Beauty, yes, and terror, yes, but in the stories of our faith even the hint of a goodness, a greatness that may reach beyond the darkest horrors. To me it seems to, and may for for you: beyond the horror of Good Friday is there a glimpse of Light? Beyond the collapse of Empires, from which we are not protected, or the collapse of our lives, from which we are not protected, is there a whisper of something greater. Yes, says Isaiah. And they shall mount up, with wings.

And even in the cycles of history, are there not hints of hope? For four years on the international scene where we have seen the brutality of a nation handed over (in Paul’s sense of the word) to its own darkest urges, are we being invited to see a glimpse of decency reborn? And while Myanmar or Belarus today may seem dark, have there not been hints of hope in the history of nations around the world, of people around the world, of lives around us? Flawed hints, yes, but shadows of dawn’s reddening light.

As bearers of Christlight that is what we are called to live and to proclaim by actions and if necessary by words. Brutal death and destruction, corruption, insurrection and military take-over have their day, but are they the final word? A Gorbachev replaces a Chernenko, yes, and yes is replaced by a Yeltsin and a Putin, yes, but may not a Navalny yet rise despite Putin’s deepest fears? QAnon and KKK offshoots may arise in the USA, but might they not be replaced in God’s time by agents of justice and compassion even for those at the bottom of the socio-economic heap of humans and species? And sometimes it is hard to believe it, but while weeping may last a night time, joy comes in the morning (Ps 30:5).

Against, sometimes, all signs, we are called to be bearers of that joy and clingers to that hope. In a world reeling from Covid and from economic shockwaves and ecological collapse we are called to be messages and signs of hope. We are called to be hope. As our churches close we are called to be hope. As the Jesus story fades from society’s memory we are called to be agents of fresh energy in that story. We are called – and when we struggle are called again – to be “those who wait for the Lord.” We will do that by actions of love, compassion, and justice, most of us on a tiny, micro-scale. We are called, most of us on a tiny, micro-scale; called to be agents of hope, speaking words that drive out demons of hopelessness, loneliness, despair, of abuse and hatred, exploitation and corruption. We won’t be particularly good at it, but by the Spirit of God we will be enabled, as Bruno Bettleheim once put it, to be “good enough” at it. We are called to be a stumbling but Spirit-enflamed contrast society of Jesus, rumouring a world in which they shall and we and all shall “mount up with wings as eagles,” and God shall be all in all.

 

Saturday, 9 January 2021

beginnings: when empires wane and tyrants fall

 


SERMON PREACHED

AT

St JOHN’S WAIKOUAITI

FIRST SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY  (10th January) 2021

 

 

 

Readings

Genesis 1:1-5

Psalm 29

Acts 19:1-7

Mark 1:4-11

 

It is appropriate as I come to you for the first time in a new calendar year  that we find ourselves reading of new beginnings in God. We are told of those who recognize the presence of God, and of those who become themselves to be the messengers of God.

Mark’s energized gospel-telling is of course not given to us for entertainment, but for imitation. Where are we to be in this story – in the first century in which he wrote or the twenty-first in which we read?

Mark constructs his gospel account carefully. He wants us to see – for spoilers are allowed twenty-one centuries later! – that when we encounter Christ, when we are seized by the one who transcends all oppression, even the oppression of execution and death, then we too can become like the once-frightened women who at the end of Mark’s gospel story will whisper that God-in-Christ has gone before us. Mark tells us that God-in-Christ is before us no matter where or when or how we encounter him, that God-in-Christ is the one who overthrows all oppression and despair.

Mark begins his story by telling about John the Baptist, who declares that Jesus is coming, has come, and will overthrow evil. He ends his story by telling of the women who, like John, cannot refrain from speaking of Good News even though they are afraid. In between these moments Mark will tells us all he believes we need to know of Jesus: he will tell us of the one who overthrows doubt and evil and oppression and fear, of the one who brings healing and comfort and hope and justice, of the one who touches and transforms the lives of lepers and Syrophoenician children and demoniacs and your life and mine and the lives of others we might touch with good news about him. Above all he challenges us to ask where we belong in the story.

Mark is careful in his construction: he opens his gospel-account by telling us that it is a beginning – John does the same in his gospel story that we will explore at times this year.  It is the beginning of good news that is personal and corporate: good news that personal darkness in our own lives can be overthrown. It is good news that tells that corporate darkness in our community life can be overthrown: unemployment and bank closures and changing social norms are not the final word. It is good news that tells us that the mayhems of Trumpism and globalism of pandemic can and will be overthrown.

By use of the word “beginning” Mark carefully hints at the association between the story of Jesus and the story of Creation.  The story of Jesus, he is telling us, is one with the story of the beginning of All Things – no matter whether we interpret and express that mythologically or scientifically. The story of Jesus, he is telling us, inseparably links all that Jesus is with all that the God of Creation is. From that he challenges us to extrapolate that this is universal, cosmic good news, that global mayhems of planetary warming and plastic sludge oceans and mass extinction and of all the darkness that bombards our news feeds can and will be and are overthrown.

Mark gives no details of the divine plan, except that it is embodied in the teachings and the life of the man that John the Baptiser recognizes and baptises in the wilderness. In the place of fear Mark tells of hope, and in the closing of the gospel we realize that in our being seized by the Christ story fear cannot silence us.

As we watched in recent days the chaotic fall of the Trumpian Empire, as we watch and read each day of the chaos of pandemic and a myriad other warnings of human fallibility, Mark challenges us to fix our hopes and our lives on a greater perspective. In the man who succumbs to John’s baptism we find a God who immerses the divine self into all human suffering and frailty, and there gives birth to a greater hope.

In the events that fill our news feed we see light and dark, good and evil: the message we will encounter in the person and work of Jesus Christ is that God will and does enter into all and will and does bring all into the glorious hope of resurrection: he is not here, he is risen. Our task is to immerse ourselves in the one who immersed himself in the waters of baptism, to immerse ourselves in the God revealed in Jesus Christ, to immerse ourselves in the knowledge and love of the Christ of compassion and justice who we find in prayer, liturgy, scripture and fellowship. May the Christ of water and Spirit help us so to do.



 (Whangarei basin loop walk)

Friday, 4 December 2020

Go. Tell. Maybe with words.

 

SERMON PREACHED AT St BARNABAS’, WARRINGTON

SECOND SUNDAY OF ADVENT

6th December, 2020

 


Readings:       

Isaiah 40:1-11

Psalm 85: 1-2, 8-13                             

2 Peter 3:8-15a

Mark 1:1-8

 

 The author of the second gospel, who we call Mark though he deliberately avoids identifying himself for reasons we will explore in a moment, throws a gauntlet at the feet of corrupt authorities from the very outset of his work: Ἀρχὴ τοῦ εὐαγγελίου Ἰησοῦ χριστοῦ. The very first word in Greek is “beginning,” but it carries all the weight of bedrock and foundation, the absolute basis, as well as subject, of all that follows. The third word in Greek, nonchalantly thrown around in the centuries since, we translate as “gospel,” εὐαγγελίοv. Really the only person entitled to fling that word across the Roman Empire was the Caesar: announcing the birth of new heir. Mark was already trading dangerous ground – and all the more so as he was probably writing for the church in Rome.

This gospel-εὐαγγελίοv had nothing to do with Caesar: it was about a crucified criminal who, we will go on to discover, transcends the authority even of Caesar and his henchmen. The opening of this remarkable new form of writing trumpets the beginning of good news. As it does so it simultaneously trumpets the end of “ungood” or ersatz­- or fake-good news, the end of corruption. And as if that were not enough it unambiguously and contentiously anchors the source and subject of that good news in the words and actions and life and death and hinted resurrection of the Executed Jew, Jesus.  This is something akin to but immeasurably greater than US Democrats declaring a new president, only to meet the denial of the current president and his supporters. This is greater even than the king is dead, long live the king. But it is of the ilk of these comparisons.

As if to underscore this Mark says nothing of himself. Was it Mark? Was this the John Mark who accompanied but fell out with Paul, the cousin as it happens of your patron saint Barnabas? I’m old fashioned in my interpretation – I suspect we do get a glimpse of the author, but only as he flees naked at the arrest of Jesus, using a rare word to depict the frightened figure. But he uses that word, neaniskos, again, for there is a neaniskos sitting at the tomb of Jesus as the two women named Mary and a third named Salome prepare to anoint the body of their dead friend Jesus. The one who was frightened and fled becomes the one who proclaims good news to the women, and the women become the ones who proclaim good news to the world, and we become the ones who hear it and try to live it long after Caesar or any other corrupt leader has been torn down from his throne. But he has no name, because not Mark but Jesus is the good news, and the good news is never gospel of Mark but always Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Indeed, as if to underscore that, this brilliant but instinctive writer goes on to use another literary quirk. For he begins to tell us not about Jesus but about someone else, probably better known in many circles at the time: he begins to tell us about John the Baptist. Yet then he delivers a body blow: even this greatest of holy men, greatest of divine prophets, must dwindle in comparison to the man-god whose tale this really is, who will baptize not merely with water but with the Holy Spirit.

This, then is to be the story that is the greatest of stories, Mark and we believe. It will be a story of one who is fully and utterly human as humans could be if we were saturated with God’s intention for us, God’s image in us. Yet it will be the story of one whose humanness is so perfected on obedient holiness that it becomes translucent, allowing the light of God to pass through him so that we who, in Hebrew tradition, cannot see the face or the light of God can look instead on the man Jesus and see all that we need to know of God.

Mark is here showing himself to be well-versed in the profound theology of Paul and his school of Christ-followers, proclaiming the deep mystery that the man Jesus is in fact the “image of the invisible, “unsee-able,” the “un-knowable” God, making God visible, making God knowable, making God as comprehensible as God can be to human minds. Jesus embodies, Mark is flagging, and as we read in Colossians, that all the kindness, all the justice, all the compassion, all the goodness, the “Godness” of God is visible in the Christ we meet in Mark’s story. Mark might well sit down with the great hymn-writer Walter Chalmers Smith (but following the author of 1 Timothy 1:17) and write of the one who is “immortal, invisible, God only wise.” Mark though would emphasize that he is made mortal and visible, dwells no longer “in light inaccessible hid from our eyes,” but made visible in in the events that Mark is about to narrate.

And what does Mark go on to narrate? Sparsely, selecting and weaving together only skeletal yet critical moments in the life of the one whose arrest he fled in the garden, Mark tells of one who immeasurably embodies hope, justice, compassion, love (though it is John who will go on to stress that last facet most completely). Mark will tell of one who will by his absolute integrity challenge corruption, self-interest, selfishness, and greed (especially on the part of those who claim God on their side but oppress in the name of their God). He will even, and most provocatively of all, tell of one who transcends execution and death, but he will do so sparsely with few words, because that event above all surpasses words: “He has been raised: he is not here.” And he will add a command, his only command: “Go, tell.”

And against all odds, and even as the odds of continuous proclamation appear to crumble around us as our institution crumbles and our knees creek and our civilizations looks shaky and few of our off-spring or neigbours seem interested, we are still commanded to go and tell. And, empowered by the Holy Spirit that John the Baptist flags, we will do so with our lives and, if necessary, our words, by our worship and pray God by at least hints of integrity as we continue to permit our lives to be invaded by the risen Christ.  And if we do that then we like Mark-the-Young-Neaniskos-Who-Fled will continue to throw gauntlets at the feet of Caesars of corruption in church and society alike.

 

TLBWY