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Saturday, 5 September 2020

Exodus 2020

SERMON PREACHED at St LUKE’S, TAIERI (MOSGIEL)

23rd ORDINARY SUNDAY (September 6th) 2020

 

 


READINGS

 

Exodus 12: 1-14

Psalm 149

Romans 13: 8-14

Matthew 18: 15-20

 

 

There is an ancient rule of preaching that suggests as the preacher stands trembling at the threshold that she or he should seek to glean two key ingredients: what’s happening here, and what is the good news for us. I would add a third: “so what” – not as a contemptuous adolescent sneer this last, but what do we do now?

I wouldn’t say that in this Sunday of the Year of Matthew – obviously an occurrence somewhat recurrent in a liturgical preacher’s life ! – the answer immediately slapped me across the face as I prepared myself for this day. I never reproach a sermon after it’s one day of airing – I change, you change, the world changes – but I sometimes allow myself a glance back.  Three years ago I was on a complex sabbatical from preaching duties, so that was no help. Three years before that I seemed to have vastly different readings – so that was no help. What was God telling me? I decided to go no further back, and turn once more to the to the present (there’s no time like it, they tell me).

And what a time: 2020, the year we will never forget. The year in which some have descended into conspiracy theories, while others have acknowledged that for a whole swathe of historical and political and even theological reasons we were always going to have to face brutal crises of economic and ecological collapse, even if we didn’t expect a return of pandemic. Can readings from what some of my liberal friends call “an old book” speak to us meaningfully of God’s purposes when pandemic and economic implosion are sweeping across the globe? Come to think about, could the biblical texts speak to us even before that, when our greatest concerns were and can continue to be one day – ecological implosion, the looming death of planet earth? Can God speak to us through, for example, the Exodus, three thousand years after the events and on a different quadrant of the globe?

Let’s set aside historical specifics. The writers of Exodus were not writing post-Enlightenment attempts at “reportage” history, were not pretending to generate something akin to absolute truth the way some people want a writer to do. Philosophers (and I think on this they are right), will tell us that absolute truth reportage is impossible. Perhaps the nearest we get to that is police statements, and we know only too well that they are open to a whole heap of variables. Don’t get me wrong: there is an Absolute Truth – but it is far beyond our comprehension, and dwells only within the heart of the God we see only through a darkened glass.

Exodus is to some small degree “reportage.” Ancient societies were oral communities, and the fireside tellings that went on and on – in the aboriginal communities with which I used to rub shoulders on and on for perhaps 60,000 years – accruing meaning and symbolism. There are details in the Exodus narratives that ran deep in the memories of the Hebrew people. They had been slaves, they had escaped, they had come home to a land promised, they believed, to their ancestors. More important for us, they had faced a cataclysm, and by the hand of God they found themselves in a -place of hope.  Can that happen for us, or has God given up on humanity and Creation?

The Hebrews continued to tell these stories through cataclysm after cataclysm, so we can safely assume they believed that God did – and we might suggest still does – take humanity through times of darkness and terror. This doesn’t mean that we won’t live and die in times of turmoil, nor that bad, even fatally bad things won’t happen to us. It means that God, who holds us in the palm of those divine hands, carries us beyond Egyptian pharaohs and Roman conquerors and Black Deaths and World Wars and cancers and car crashes and COVID-19.

The authors of Exodus knew that chaos existed. Their forebears had escaped the chaos of slavery. In their own experience of #BlackLivesMatter they had eventually overthrown tyranny and exploitation and corrupt and despotic leaders. They found their own equivalent of a black president – though the pendulum swung innumerable times in the centuries that followed. They found an ambiguous liberator, in Moses. They found a Promised Land. They grew into rituals that told them of a God who hears the cries of the oppressed, whether it be in the brickyards of Egypt or the plantations of the American Continent or the refugee camps of Kenya and Jordan and Ethiopia and Tanzania and Manus Island to name just some. They found empowerment so they no longer had to cry #MeToo to be heard. While it wasn’t perfect, and again the pendulum has never ceased to swing, they found signs of hope,  signs of justice, since of equality, and even signs of reconciliation and mutual respect that are a foretaste of the Reign of God that is yet to come.

Can we?

Many of us, if not all of us, are on the privileged side of history – so far. Perhaps economic and ecological collapse will change that. But for now most of us know where our next meal will come from, will have a roof over our head, and will not die of cold or starvation tonight. The Hebrew people reached that blessed state too, after they fled Egypt. They promised then never to forget the God who had delivered them. They often forgot that promise – as we do. God again and again used the rigours of nature and politics to remind them and us that we are not gods, not immortal, not beyond the brute force of judgement. The word “wrath,” in various languages, is associated with God from time to time. Not the wrath of an impulsive and evil deity, but the wrath of a God that has little choice but to bring humanity back to some semblance of justice and fair play – compassion and justice for neighbours, human and otherwise, with whom we share this planet. Ours is a time a wrath. Our churches, nations and eco-systems are collapsing. As Paul says in the opening of his great letter to the Romans, we are “handed over” to the ramifications of our own decisions and behaviour.

The wrath of God, though, is not a final word. At the heart of the story of Exodus, and at the heart of what we believe is the story of the Cross of Jesus, the new Exodus, is the knowledge that God goes ahead of us. Even when all turns to custard and we experience closure in our lives God’s footsteps are still warm, and we are led on to futures as unimaginable as our world would be to those stumbling Hebrews. Indeed more unimaginable still. For behold, says the author of Revelation, I see new heavens and a new earth, and the Lamb will be the light of the City of God.

But we have many rivers to cross yet.

Nevertheless, as we remember past deliverances of the People of God, and probably repeat their recurrent mistakes and descents into chaos, we can do worse in preparation for our encounter with the God of Judgement, God even of Covid-19, than to practice peace, peace that is the presence of justice, reconciliation between fractious opponents that is the presence of love, and practice worship together that is the foretaste of the eternities of God.

Saturday, 29 August 2020

I am with you

 

SERMON PREACHED at St JOHN’S, WAIKOUAITI

22nd ORDINARY SUNDAY (August 30th) 2020

 

READINGS

 
Exodus 3: 1-15

Psalm 105: 1-6, 23-26, 45c

Romans 12 : 21-28

Matthew 16: 21-28

 

Given the phenomenal amount of ink (including toner!) that has been applied to the commissioning of Moses, the beginning of the great Exodus event, you could well prepare yourself for an extraordinarily long sermon! I’ll do my best to thwart that expectation, but there are few more influential moments in at least the Hebrew scriptures; perhaps only the resurrection narratives of the Christian scriptures surpass this momentous passage in God’s relationship to humankind. In these moments of encounter, God dares to implant a new dream in the mind of the shepherd Moses. We’ll find another shepherd somewhat central to the stories of Jewish and Christian people alike, in David – and the virgin’s son Jesus will go on to name himself as “the great shepherd.” There is much going on here.

But let’s start with the dangerous threshold on which Moses stands. He is beyond the wilderness. Whatever is meant by this, it is no easy place to be, and not the sort of place you want to suddenly experience appearances of God. There, on the slopes of Horeb – or Sinai – Moses encounters more than he had expected. It is worth pausing momentarily, just as in his inevitable puzzlement and shock Moses pauses. His life has been up to now more reprobate than a life of spiritual leadership, yet he quickly adjusts: he recognizes his own unworthiness to experience the encounter. We can fairly assume that he does what he is told, removing his sandals on the holy ground. We are told he goes further: recognizing his human shortfall of the expectations of God he hides his face.  The God he has encountered is no mate.

But nor is Moses totally acquiescent. If we know our Moses story, we will know he is an impetuous soul, which is how he came to be tending Jethro’s flock in the first place. God is not choosing a pussy cat to lead the People of God to freedom. Moses will argue with God – perhaps we will be reminded of Jacob and his wrestling match with God. But Moses will also surrender to God. We can learn much from both these actions. It does not harm to wrestle with God, in prayer; it does greater good to surrender to God as God nudges our lives in the way God chooses for us. Moses is not deaf or blind to the signs around him: “Here I am, Lord,” he responds. Our moments of encounter with God tend to be a little less dramatic, we hope, but the same response if asked of us. “Here I am, Lord.”

There are ways in which Moses is only a bit-player in this scene. God’s heart is moved not by anything Moses has said or done, but by the desperate cries of the People Israel. Moses will spend much time in coming chapters explaining why God has got things wrong. God will not be swayed by the man’s pleas: “I am with you” is God’s unambiguous response. Moses again and again will look to his or his people’s past. God will time and time again point to a new future.

We in the Christian community would do well to learn from this relationship. The past, the whakapapa of our faith is critical, a gift from God, just as the call and naming of Abraham’s descendants has been a gift from God.  But God would not leave them either in their past or in the precariousness of the present: it is time to dream a new dream. God will indicate this  over and again. Moses never altogether quite gets it, but God does. The people, though not Moses, will eventually reach their Promised Land, albeit with many trials along the way.

The difficulty for twenty first century followers of Jesus is that we are in a context not altogether unlike that of Moses. As we look back on the history of Christianity, certainly since it became a force of power across the footprints of the old Roman Empire, there is much for us to be ashamed of. One of the few things we know of the younger Moses is that he had killed. Not without some justice or righteous anger, but killed, nevertheless. “‘Vengeance is Mine’ says the Lord” is a lesson Moses will take the rest of his life to internalise.  Or, as Paul goes on to say, “bless those who persecute you.”

Moses takes a lifetime to learn it, but he will make “vengeance is God’s” a centrepiece of his final speech. Christians have too often decided that vengeance and retaliation, oppression and victimization is ours to impose. The current parlous state of Christianity in the Europeanized world is precisely God’s brutal reminder that vengeance is God’s alone: our task as so many certainties crumble around us may well be, like Moses, to surrender the old certainties, the false gods that have left us comfortable and complacent.

Our task is to hear instead the voices of those who cry for compassion and justice across the screens of our television news and other media feeds each day. We may well lose all the Linus blankets – of, for a stronger metaphor, the false gods of power, privilege and prestige that the western church has clung to for too long. Our buildings, our tax breaks, our stipended clergy: all are being stripped from us and we are called to find the God who speaks from a burning bush, called to turn aside to new realities and listen to their message.

Which is not to say that every voice that whispers is the voice of truth. Do the messages that we see in media and read in our own hopes and dreams, do they point to the God of the Cross, the God who will always prioritise the plight of the vulnerable and disenfranchised?  Who are the beneficiaries of our priorities? Of our survival, or the survival of the most wretched of the earth (species and peoples)? As Mr Trump in a far-off land slams the activists who are calling for justice for the disadvantaged, we must ask whether the God of Moses called for the protection of the powerful Egyptian Empire or the liberation of a suffering people. Black Lives Matter, because black lives are made in the image of God. #MeToo because God, too, has been victimised and raped.

The story of Moses will point to the need to ask questions that take us out of our comfort zones. The tendency of the church for hundreds of years has been to draw boundary lines that clearly define the ins and the outs of belonging, lines which define the alleged wrongs and rights of practising our faith. The encounter of Moses with the sight of burning bush and speechless angel, and the sound of the voice of God, redefines expectations, rejigs calibrations of faith. Moses is not a particularly deserving servant of God – he has blood on his hands, after all – but he is a chosen servant of God. Because God has chosen him – as God will choose the great prophets throughout Jewish and Christian and perhaps other histories. We are not particularly deserving servants of God – and because we are not, we need to get rid of any sense of entitlement. 

We begin not with God needing us, but God choosing us. We continue not with expectations of comfort or reward, or even the expectation, Moses reminds us, that we will see the fruits of any labours we fulfil. Jesus, in our gospel passage, makes it clearer still: where we wish to protect our interests, to save our lives, we will not succeed. Those who want to save their life, will lose it. We continue by reminding ourselves that our experience of God in worship, in fellowship, in all aspects of divine touch, is a privilege not a right. We continue by reminding ourselves that we are called to serve not our own interests but the needs and interests of others.

For us as Christians in the world today this may mean much more to come that is unsettling. We are far removed now from the world in which Johnny Jones generously if ambivalently boosted the presence and resources of Christian faith in our region. The very things that for 160 years enhanced our gospel-mission may well be the things that, at least to some degree, now hold us back. The Spirit who startled Moses in lands beyond the wilderness is the same Spirit who is stretching us, challenging us to speak with integrity of love, of justice, of peace and reconciliation, and above all of the mysteries of resurrection faith in a world beyond the wilderness that was Christendom, state-sanctioned Christianity.

For our purposes here we should give the final say to Paul, that prickly saint whose known world collapsed around him and experienced new birth when it did. As he wrote to attempt to establish his credentials to the Roman Christians, perhaps already lapsing into a Christian arrogance and complacency, he pulled no punches:


Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.  Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’  No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.


Its not a bad manifesto.

 



 

 

 

Saturday, 15 August 2020

pesky powerless ones

 

SERMON PREACHED at St BARNABAS', WARRINGTON
20th ORDINARY SUNDAY (August 16th) 2020

 

 

READINGS

Genesis 45: 1-15
Psalm 133
Romans 11: 1-2a, 29-32
Matthew 15: 21-28

 

Bishop Steve, Rev’d Anne and I were in the Diocesan Office yesterday, amused that we all had to preach on this gospel reading, one of the most vexatious in the three year cycle. Will no one rid me of this troublesome woman – a variation on King Henry II’s alleged response to Thomas a’Beckett, seems to be the most common response of preachers to the task of preaching on this passage. In many preachers' Henry's  words seem to edge their way towards the lips of Jesus, at least in thought if not speech.

What do we do with her, and with this scene? Is she a stroppy, obstreperous woman, not unlike the importunate widow of one of the famous parables of Jesus? Is, as some suggest, Jesus just playing some sort of a mind game with her to “test her faith” (that obscene phrase that is a direct contradiction of all that is faith is in the New Testament). Does she by her superior intellect outwit the Messiah and open his eyes to the wider ramifications of his vocation, broaden his understanding of the gospel? Perhaps she's an angel! The bad interpretations are myriad, and they are based in an inappropriate approach to the passage.

This is not a piece of reportage. The first writers and audiences of the scriptures – Hebrew and Greek, recognized the genres of communication they were encountering and altered their expectations accordingly. They did not have our (misguided!) expectation that a factual, blow by blow account of events was being heard. In any case lawyers, literary scholars and philosophers may well point out today that there can be no such thing as absolute accurate reportage, at least without a recording device, and possibly not even with that (can a microphone record a wink or a smile?). 

Matthew, not least because he was writing thirty years after the events, is giving a nuanced and theologized account of an encounter that was no doubt widely known to have occurred. He is making a point as he sets about proclaiming the coming reign of God. Our job is to ferret as best we can, after two thousand years, his meaning. And we do so, of course, aided by that mysterious unseen presence of God’s Spirit who guided Matthew and who guides you and me.

But if not reportage, which does just seem to give us a stroppy, desperate woman, a rather offensive Jesus, and Jesus changing his mind, what then do we have?

We have what the French would call a Symboliste story, in which powerful symbols work their way through the narrative and from which we can extrapolate meaning no less than Matthew’s original audience could. The woman shows remarkable determination and remarkable faith. Do we, by comparison? In the rapidly changing, fluxing, unsettling world that 2020 is throwing at us, can we find desperate faith, born of the determination to experience God breaking in to our moments and our days, or fears and our joys? When we are confronted by what the famous hymnist called “change and decay in all around” are we willing and able to cry out “Lord, have mercy”? Do we dare to believe against all appearances that God is present in the ravages of pandemic – far more difficult of course to believe in Beirut or Brazil than in Warrington or Wakatipu (chosen for alliteration, of course, rather than any theological point: Warkworth, perhaps? Or Wellington.).

As is the case in most of the Jesus encounters, this woman is an outsider, to be feared, mocked, abhorred. She should know her place. Yet in her desperation she is dogged, determined, lacking the finesse of social conventions. Too often – despite countless Jesus-encounters like this – Christians pull down the shutters on the desperation and integrity of those outside our cozy boundaries. This is a woman who shows great faith. It is Peter, the ultimate insider, who shows little faith. If we are to be honest, how often must we admit seeing greater faith, love, compassion and justice in our atheistic or couldn't care less or Buddhist or Muslim neighbour than we find in ourselves or, sometimes it seems, anywhere in the Anglican or wider Christian community? But the stories of the gospel-tellers will always challenge us to look at ourselves, not others: we are not called to judge, or at least not to condemn, our neighbours, but to condemn that in our own lives – my  own life – which is not able to withstand the steady gaze of Christ.

God’s action will never be dependent on our theology or other interpretation. Theology is a valuable tool of the gospel, but it is not the gospel. Jesus responds because the woman has great faith, not because she has correct faith, or enough faith, or polite faith. For the “greatness” of her faith is not its ideology, but its desperation. And while not all our desperate prayers are answered as we would sometimes like, I believe they are answered, and our lives and hopes and dreams are caught up in the eternities of God, even when all seems lost to us.

The woman of our story is prepared to be brutally honest, and even argue with Jesus. While she is an outsider she is not the first in a long chain of those willing to wrestle with God. Abraham seeking to defend the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, though he doesn’t get his way, is honoured by God. Jacob wrestles with God and is honoured by God. Jesus will later plead for a way other than death to complete his mission, but surrenders to God’s will, nevertheless. Honesty and integrity go a long way in our relating to God.

This powerless outsider woman receives the answer she seeks to her desperate plea. We won’t always, but we are called to imitate her nevertheless, to throw our desires for our loved ones, for our neighbours, for our world into the heart of God. We will not always, perhaps not even often see the answers we want to our prayers, and sometimes the silence of God seems to crush us. Yet we are called to wrestle on, as individuals and as church, to throw our longings and our lives into the heart and hands of God. Integrity in faith, like that of the Syrophoenician woman, is born that way, and the Reign of God is proclaimed in integrity.






 

Saturday, 25 July 2020

the DNA of mustard


SERMON PREACHED AT ALL SAINTS’, DUNEDIN NORTH
ORDINARY SUNDAY 17 (July 25th) 2020


READINGS
Genesis 29: 15-28
Psalm 105: 1-117
Romans 8: 26-39
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
 He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.’
He told them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with[a] three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.’

At the heart of the tiny parable of the mustard seed is Jesus’ belief in a fundamental unity between that which we already see, know, experience, and that which is beyond comprehension. It is no accident that in his careful construction Matthew emphasizes the absolute finality of the death of Jesus: “so they went and made the sepulchre secure by sealing the stone and setting a guard” (Mt 27:62). Sentence after sentence makes it clear that the sort of analysis beloved of figures like D. H. Lawrence and others who hypothesize that Jesus took a decent dose of Rohypnol and popped back to consciousness after a couple of days’ black out simply do not wash with Matthew. The same is true of all the gospel writers, but Matthew adds his narration of a sealed tomb to emphasize that there can be no mistake.
The writers also emphasize that there was – I would add can be – no witness to the resurrection. To be fair the term “witness to the resurrection” tends to be applied to the whole Christian community in which resurrection good news is proclaimed, but I refer here to the event itself, breaking out of the limitation of human understanding, human intellect. In my own churches I have found easter day to be the perfect time for holy riot – for a somewhat un-Anglican joy surreptitiously to infiltrate the mysterious rites of liturgy. The resurrection is both holy mystery and holy madness. The soldier had to fall asleep, to be protected from the in-breaking in full of God’s absolute, immeasurable majesty.
Which may seem to have little to do with a grain of mustard. So many sermons focus on the tiny size of the seed, and the enormity of the subsequent tree – they draw a contrast. As it happens neither the claim that the mustard seed is the smallest of seeds, nor that the adult bush is the greatest of shrubs, is anywhere near accurate. That minor detail we can easily assign to the nature of the Incarnation: the glorious “carmen Christi” or “hymn to Christ” of Philippians makes clear that the Incarnation involves a renunciation, as it were, of superhuman, certainly infinite divine knowledge. But let’s park that for a moment – accept that the black mustard seed is fairly small and that the adult bush is a reasonable size – and that the teacher Jesus was satisfied with that as an illustration of his point. As one conservative Christian commentator delightfully puts it, “the context of Matthew 13 makes it quite clear that Jesus was addressing a local lay audience, not an international conference of botanists.”[1] But was his primary point one of contrast?
Well maybe. But there is here, too, a point about continuity. Organically, if you like, the mustard seed and the mustard shrub are one and the same: the DNA is one and the same. This is not rocket science. But the theological implications are not passé.  The parable suggests a total continuity, however improbable, between our experiences of love, joy, hope, light and life, to name just some benefits of human existence invaded by Christ, and some future, unimaginable state of blessedness, an eschatological state in which the down-payments of our relationship with God, experienced this side of death, blossom into the fulness of God’s presence.
Which can, like much of Christianity, sound very pie in the sky. It is. But it is not a pie to be ignored. As we see planet earth turning into a plastics soup, as we watch the implosion of the American Empire, as we witness surge after surge of Covid-19 simultaneously both ignoring and enhancing human boundaries (ignoring our politics but certainly disproportionately attacking the poorest and most vulnerable in sociological scales) we surely want to know, to cling to the hope, to the belief that darkness and confusion are not the final word in human or cosmic existence. We can choose to treat the parable as rampant nonsense or as a naïve fairy tale, but Jesus, I suspect, was wanting a better response.
And pie in the sky this could be if we were to pull up our ladders of self-righteousness, to ignore the plight of vulnerable humans and species, to reach no further than our own self-interest. Sadly the discourse of much Christianity sounds as if that is its sole focus: my place in some sort of eternity is assured, and beyond that who cares? A doctrine of judgement might well remind us that we are not cosy, complacent chums of the Author of Eternity. We mind be reminded too, by the next mini-parable of Jesus, that our integrity as Christ-bearers is an essential aspect of our hope, our light, our life: leaven without integrity simply destroys the loaf.
Where are we left with this? Matthew alone of the gospel writers wanted to affirm continuity between the disciples’ pre-resurrection and post-resurrection understanding of Jesus. They didn’t always get him, and neither do we, but they were caught up into the unending journey of knowing him. Part of the DNA-continuance implication of the mustard seed is the knowledge of the continuity in Christ and Christ’s resurrection for those we love and pray for: that in itself is good news. I could not have stood at the graveside of the many infants and young people I have buried without a fundamental belief that that resurrection (that no human could witness) is absolutely God’s promise.
But of course, the other side of the parable is true, too: of course there is massive contrast between seed and bush, and a silent mysterious interaction between yeast and dough. Of course we are called to be, in word and more importantly in action, bearers of the eschatological hope that we proclaim each time we celebrate Mass together (1 Cor. 11:26). And of course we simply cannot do this without the daily intervention, the daily invasion, of the Spirit of God – the Spirit who is the guarantor of continuity between present life seen and future life unimaginable. As one commentary puts it, “Our parable is an invitation to contemplate these two things – the present and the expected future, reality and hope – in the light of the mustard seed’s story.”[2]
It is to the infiltration of that Spirit of the Resurrected Lord that we must surrender daily, to become the seed that falls and dies and rises, to be the leaven that infiltrates, and to be now and always a people that rumour resurrection hope despite and perhaps precisely because of the chaos and darkness that we experience each day.


[1] Daryl E. Witmer, “Is the mustard seed the smallest of seeds?”, online at https://christiananswers.net/q-aiia/mustardseed.html.
[2] Davies and Allison, Matthew (Volume 2, Edinburgh: T. & T Clark, 1991) 416.

Sunday, 12 July 2020

handed over ... to what?


SERMON PREACHED at St ANDREW’S, MAHENO
and St LUKE’S, OAMARU
ORDINARY SUNDAY 15 (JULY 12th) 2020


READINGS:
Isaiah 55: 10-13
Psalm 65: 1-13
Romans 8: 1-11
Matthew 13: 1-9, 18-23


I was caught up in a wonderful conversation a couple of days ago, up the road in Omarama, as a group of church members discussed their earliest ventures into faith. Particularly they reflected on their ventures into the scriptures of our faith. Too often I fear we leave the scriptures as a sort of oratorical performance experienced on a Sunday, to be returned to the cupboard after use, stored for the next encounter a week or month or decade ahead. This was not their story. The joy I experienced was powerfully enhanced as two of those present spoke of their journeys in the writings we call Isaiah – though they are probably two or three Isaiahs.
So as I turned to the passages set for this day I heard echoes of their joy of Isaiah-encounter, the joy of the encounters around the table with these and other scriptures that had beamed radiance into lives that were open to the transforming power of sacred writings. Radiance is not always comfortable. I thought more of Isaiah: how challenging it can be to know the crippling weight of judgment that he announced to God’s people:
Ah, sinful nation,
    people laden with iniquity,
offspring who do evil,
    children who deal corruptly,
who have forsaken the Lord,
    who have despised the Holy One of Israel,
    who are utterly estranged!
The first Isaiah was relentless. The people who claimed to be a godly nation were playing games with God. Their prattling on about a god on their side, a god in their sanctuaries, a god to whom they stretched out enthusiastic hands and uttered empty phrases, this prattling was no more than empty verbiage. Yet they prattled on, all the while neglecting justice, compassion, worshipping prosperity, devouring the poor, building mighty towers of self-aggrandizement. They prattled on in self-adoration, while despising the broken and vulnerable of the earth. If we read the Book of Kings we find from another source that they received from God what they deserved: incompetent leadership that sucked them dry, left them to die. First Isaiah was more poetic:
You shall be ashamed of the oaks
    in which you delighted;
and you shall blush for the gardens
    that you have chosen.
30 For you shall be like an oak
    whose leaf withers,
    and like a garden without water.
31 The strong shall become like tinder,
    and their work[a] like a spark;
they and their work shall burn together,
    with no one to quench them.
It went on for maybe a century and a half, that outpouring of God’s wrath. The “daughter of Zion,” shorthand for God’s people, watch as their land becomes a wasteland, that eerily desolate collapsed civilization so brilliantly directed by T. S. Eliot: “A heap of broken images, where the sun beats, And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief, And the dry stone no sound of water.” Prophets like Isaiah and Eliot offer little relief. Nor does history.
 Isaiah the First even dares to refer to his nation as “rulers of Sodom, people of Gomorrah.” There could be few more shocking likenesses to a people who proclaimed themselves God’s people, God’s nation. Sanctimonious sorts son’t like to be thought of as sinners.
A century and a half later another Isaiah or two began to proclaim words of hope. Their people weren’t particularly interested, of course. They had become contented in their wasteland, not particularly concerned about a troublesome God who demanded a little sliver of love and a few acts of worship. But prophets are never silenced, even when they are executed: “You shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace.” “Whatever,” the ostensible people of God replied. “And we should care why?”
We might well disagree where we stand in this sorry and eternal tale of the people of God. Are we yet to be expelled from our complacency, from our Eden of self-satisfaction? As we devour the resources God provides through Mother Earth, devouring the portions of the less fortunate, as we watch Covid-19 disproportionately but not exclusively affecting the world’s most vulnerable, and as we watch the leaders of the world desperately propping up their crumbling towers, as we watch day by day on our media, it probably doesn’t matter which cycle of Isaiah’s scenes of horror we are emulating. It was ever thus; the God of Isaiah has for ever handed human beings over to the implications of our selfishness.
The words “handed over” are no empty throwaway. Paul, in particular, uses them with the full weight of their meaning: we are surrendered to our impulses, left to our own devices. He uses the idea when referring to Jesus, too. Jesus though when he is handed over to his own devices is handed over to the devices of love and redemption. Jesus, the perfect unpacking of the impulses and the heart of God cannot – or does not – do anything but surrender himself, allow himself to be given over to (Rom. 8:23, 4:25) to the full potential of love. He lives, loves, teaches, suffers and dies, but not for himself. He rises, too: for all humanity. And we are called to respond with likewise-love, likewise-compassion, likewise-justice.
And likewise-joy. For while our encounter with the Risen Christ is clearly not a get out of gaol card, as the lives of many of the great followers of Christ remind us, it is a focussing of our attention. It is for that reason that Paul, in the passage following ours, will declare, despite his considerable sufferings, that “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.” It is why, indeed, our prayer book, echoing the book we call Hebrews, will declare that we are “called to suffer.” But not end the story there.
As Jesus earlier declared to his followers, we are not left on our own. We are infiltrated by the Comforter, the joy- and hope- bringer who, as we see in the lives of the greatest Christ-followers, will transform even suffering into hope. And while, speaking strictly for me, I may not embody that hope, and whinge at every ingrown toenail or unfair judgement or greater disaster that comes my way, nevertheless we are called to be a people who radiate hope in the midst of suffering. In the midst of the sufferings to which we as individuals, we as church, we as nation, we a humanity, may well be handed over ewe seek to rumour resurrection hope. Then indeed “The strong shall become like tinder, their work like a spark; they and their work shall burn together,   with no one to quench them.”
Our prayer as a people of God, even as much seems to fall apart around us and the old certainties crumble, must be that we are indeed Christ-bearers, resurrection-hope proclaimers, for all our faults, individually and corporately. May God so fill us with divine spirit that we are indeed bearers of the living, risen Christ.


Saturday, 27 June 2020

come as you are


SERMON PREACHED AT St JOHN’S, WAIKOUAITI
ORDINARY SUNDAY 13 (JUNE 28th) 2020


READINGS:
Genesis 22: 1-14
Psalm 13
Romans 6: 12-23
Matthew 10: 40-42


‘Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. 41 Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; 42 and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.’


In a passage peculiar to Matthew, Jesus draws a long bow. In theological terms John’s gospel-account makes it clear that the absolute correlation between the words and the actions of Jesus – to the extent that John calls him “Word” – was the hallmark of his public ministry. The same can be said of few of the rest of us. I wrestle almost daily with the credibility gap between the ideals I espouse and the realities I practise, and quietly thank God for the rites of confession that are a part of our routines of worship. We have sinned in thought, word, and action, we solemnly intone, sometimes adding the observation “in what we have done and in what we have left undone.” Amen, alas.
The integrity of Jesus, even reaching to his execution and beyond, was such that his earliest followers could accept Matthew’s recounting of the words we just heard: “whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me,” welcomes God. The hope Jesus expresses is that to receive his followers, too, was to receive him and therefore to receive God and the grace which is God’s primary word of welcome: “come, receive.” Few of us, and probably few even of the first followers of Jesus in the New Testament era, would claim to be perfect renditions of Jesus or his gospel. In John’s gospel-account though we see the clear belief of Jesus that the primary work of the Spirit was to make all that we need of Jesus to be available to his followers throughout space and time. We may not be very good bearers of the gospel or its Christ, the New Testament writers seem to indicate, but we are the ones God has called to the task.
Which, I emphasize each time I refer to it, does not mean that those who don’t share our faith or our gospel are in some way irretrievably lost, as so many Christians seem to emphasize. Whatever “lost” means in the context of Christianity, it is not the final word emanating from the mouth of the creating, redeeming loving God. But more of that another time.
So, according to Matthew’s account, to welcome Jesus is to welcome the gospel – and to welcome the gospel is to welcome Jesus. To welcome gospel is to hear and receive God’s word of grace. God’s welcome: “come as you are” as Loretto sister Deidre Brown wrote in her hymn popular in the 1980s:
Come as you are, that’s how I love you
Come as you are, trust me again
Nothing can change, the love that I bear you
All will be well, just come as you are.
But Matthew wants to push the point further in his recording of Jesus’ words. We come, but there’s also a sense in which we become. As I often note though I have long since lost the source, it has been James K. Baxter who made this powerfully clear: he speaks of us becoming the body and blood of Christ in the world into which we are called. Matthew might want to put it in a different way: we become a (but not, I think “the”) vehicle, a channel of grace through which God exercises grace, love, hospitality. I often fail abysmally, yet even so … even so we are those God has touched and commanded to share Christlove with the world around us, however abysmally.
Yet how? I fear not only as individuals but as Church we do it poorly. We are called to exercise the almost unlimited embrace, the almost unlimited hospitality of God.  I say “almost” because in the New Testament there are one or two hints of a bridge too far. But they are not the bridge too far so often drawn by the church. The lines in the sand are not the skin-colour or clothing or theological correctnesses or sexual choices or impetuses of the people we are called to embrace and welcome. The one or two lines in the sand are drawn for those within the church whose behaviour reaches beyond the pale. Few in the New Testament are marked down in such a way: the boundaries of love and compassion are broad and wide indeed.
But we live in a very different age to that of Matthew. In some ways the centuries that dwell between us and the New Testament, are more unfamiliar still. For centuries we expected the world to tremble and obey. We’ve lost, and never should have had that expectation. Our Christian history, though sometimes not as bad as some critics will make out, is brutally scarred with misbehaviour, complacency, even predation (as the Royal Commission rightly but tragically reminds us). As a result, and rightly so, we are being forced back to the bedrock of our faith: our empty hands and words of welcome. 
Our task is to find out what we can offer and to offer it with such openness that we do become, as Jesus sought, one with him. Our task is to implore the Spirit to renew us in credibility, authenticity, simplicity. Our task is to learn again the languages of love: to learn graciousness and hospitality. To learn to the awe and the reverence for God, the sense of joy and delight in our encounters with God that have not altogether been the hallmark of Christian living through the centuries. To do this is to begin to “give a cup of cold water” to a society whose chemical addictions, cycles of suicide rates, of race- and gender- and sexuality-based intolerances suggest the thirst is great indeed. The task though begins and ends in prayer, and our turning again and again to the one who offers us the hospitalities of eternity in the first place.