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Friday, 30 August 2019

a small girl and an infinite gift


SERMON PREACHED AT St PAUL’S CATHEDRAL, DUNEDIN
22nd SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
ORDINARY SUNDAY 21 (September 1st) 2019


READINGS:
Sirach 44:1-15
Psalm 126
1 Corinthians 3:11-14
Matthew 5:1-12


May I begin to say I am slightly embarrassed to find myself preaching on this Sunday on which we observe the “Builders of the Anglican Church of Aotearoa.” When Ondine rang me to ask which readings I wanted I was caught on the hop: I have made it my practice for thirty years to emphasize the more “global” routines of shared readings, rather than more localised observations. I have promised however to be a good boy and stick with what I suspect was the , preferred option of your Acting Dean, who happens also to be our bishop and my “boss.”
Forgive me though if I focus on just one conglomerate of builders. Forgive me, too, if I speak of something of which you probably know far more than I do. For I suspect most if not all of you will know the story of Tārore.
Twelve-year-old Tārore was murdered in the Kaimai Ranges on October 18th – St Luke’s Day, coincidentally – in 1836. She was killed in an iwi’s revenge raid, killed by Paora te Uita, her body ritually mutilated before it was reurned to her pacifist and grief-stricken father, Wiremu Ngākuku. She was carrying in a kete, strung around her neck, a rare te Reo edition of the Gospel According to St Luke.
The story is long, and I don’t want to go into all the details, but as many of you know this small book transformed the life of Tārore’s killer. Te Uita asked a missionary, Ripahau, to explain the small book’s strange narrative. Shocked by the message that we som comfortably digest Sunday by Sunday, Paora Te Uita came to faith, sought forgiveness and reconciliation from God and from Tārore’s father, and providentially the book made its way to Otaki, to Ripahau again. The small te Reo volume went on to accompany Ripahau on his mission to evangelise the iwi of te Wai Pounamu, the mainland.
The bible, and portions of it, are not as sometimes is suggested, some sort of talisman by which to ward off evil. Miraculous tales do exist of men and women saved from bullet or blade by a bible in their pocket, and I have no cause to doubt them. That though is not the significance of the bible in human history or in Tārore’s tale. Tārore’s life, after all, was cruelly ended in mid-childhood, a tragedy in any century.
The impact of the small book in her kete was through engagement with the text: Paora te Uita beseeched Ripahau to unlock the narrative for him. We could do worse ourselves: two thousand years of Christendom and a couple of hundred years of post-Enlightenment arrogance have often all but closed western, global north hearts to the remarkable witness of the New Testament writers.
That was true in Tārore’s time. I am strongly committed to the use of te Reo in liturgy, as strongly committed as a Johnny Come-Lately can be to respect for and empowerment of tikanga Māori in equal partnership in the mission and resources of contemporary Anglican Christianity. I am committed because slowly I have learned it is that it was Māori like Ripahau and Wiremu Ngākuku who saw the difference between Europeanization, paternalistic imposition of a foreign culture, and the embrace of radical Christ-centred good news transcending hatred and death.
As it happens, as I came to know the tragic history of colonial contact across the Tasman I saw the same pattern there. As Europeanised Christians we need constantly to ascertain whether we are celebrating a false gospel, even in the twenty-first century, of European superiority, or the radical, manaakitanga of the God of the Cross. We are called to proclaim that broken God who came to be so well understood by Māori and Australian Indigenous alike.
I only partly digress. Convinced by the urgency of the message of the Cross – albeit sometimes badly warped by layers of European additions – Māori seized the message of Christ, fanned the fires, and spread Good News across the Islands of Aotearoa. From Otaki, te Rauparaha the younger used the terrifying mana of his father to spread with Ripahau an urgent new message of hope amongst the southern Iwi. The engagement with the scriptures that had converted Paora te Uita, led the murderer to seek the forgiveness of his victim’s father, breaking cycles of negative utu that threatened to tear a race apart. The scriptures fell into te Uita’s hands not through any merit of his, indeed through the opposite, but because a vulnerable child so loved the message they contain, the message that St Paul calls the message of the Cross, that she carried it with her in her futile flight to longed-for safety. The scriptures were not a magic talisman, but then and potentially now are the key to liberation of an oppressed people, reconciliation between bitterly opposed forces, hope beyond sight for all who suffer loss, grief, and even the universal curse of mortality.
As we celebrate, despite my “worser” judgement, the “Builders of the Anglican Church of Aotearoa,” we could do worse that reflect on the love a small girl had for the Lord who she met in the Gospel according to St Luke, a love so strong that it transcended her brutal murder, and slowly transformed cultures of hatred into cultures of reconciliation and hope. We might ask that we too find such love for the risen Christ that our lives and deaths point only to him.
May God help us so to do.


Saturday, 24 August 2019

embarrassingly close and wondrously warm


SERMON PREACHED AT St ANDREW’S, OBAN
(Rakiura/Stewart Island)
ORDINARY SUNDAY 21 (August 25th) 2019


READINGS:
Jeremiah 1:4-10
Psalm 71: 1-6
Hebrews 12:18-29
Luke 13:10-17


If I have a concern about the place and the focus of much contemporary Anglican Christianity, and I do, then it is about the habit of Anglican Christian leadership and so-called “influencers” to sandpaper away the inconvenient wedges of our faith. I see this in various forms, and have for years, decades even. I see in in my travels around this diocese, but I have seen it elsewhere since the time of my own theological formation three and a half decades ago. Let me emphasise that I do not see it in the leadership offered by our bishop, nor the tutelage of Richard, who has ostensibly been your vicar and overseer for many years now. I just want to put that out there!
Nevertheless there is a common cultural cringe around Anglican and some other Christian circles at the thought of a God who dwells closer to us than breath, who clings closer to us than out own epidermis. Perhaps the cringe is a sort of icky-factor, a paradoxical fear that the God who dreamed into being our bodies and their functions, is somehow a bit embarrassing to have around when we do our human stuff.
It is a paradox of course, and one we should learn to live with once we have made the faith-leap of believing in an invisible Creator God. Do we believe in a God who lovingly etched the vast palette of our lives, as Jeremiah and the psalmist he echoes allude? Is it just possible that, if we do, that God might know our being and its functions, physical and emotional and psychological and spiritual alike, better than we do? Where then should I run to be hide from such a god? But why should I hide anyway?
I suggest – though this conversation belongs in a different place and time once I’ve flagged it – that this may well mean that God has far fewer hang-ups about our sexuality and other highly personal ingredients of our loves and lives than we or some of the scriptural writers (for they are flawed humans too) seem to allow. We get hung up on the peripheries – we major in the minors, as one academic friend of mine put it years ago. Do we really want to limit so drastically those who love and are loved by the God of the Cross?
Yet at the same this God, closer than our breath or epidermis, is the God of the Cross. This has nothing to do with what those outside the corridors of faith may believe, where they might find God. There’s plenty of nature, God’s artistry, around Rakiura /Stewart Island to wow the hardest hearts with the possibilities of God. But having made the leap to believe in the God of Jesus Christ, the God who drove by the divine Spirit the earliest disciples into the jaws of martyrdom in their dedication to the gospel, then perhaps we could have the decency to continue to hold to the powerful love-event that seals us within God’s heart. In the Cross of Jesus we find the incomprehensible extent to which divine love will reach to reconnect with us: reaching even to and beyond utter desolation, utter despair, utter god-forsakenness, and even there breathing resurrection hope for those we love and pray for.
We have an “ick-factor” about the closeness of God for many reasons. The most ignoble of those reasons, though, is because we want to generate for ourselves spaces where God is not permitted. Sexuality is one obvious example, but there are many far more serious examples that we tend to ignore. Perhaps sexuality is only paraded so readily because for many people it is easy to feel self-righteous: I wouldn’t do that so those who do should receive God’s wrath. Except Jesus suggests that it’s not like that: that we all have dark propensities, all are enmeshed in sinfulness (as Paul would later put it).
But what if God knows my greed, my sloth, my avarice, my – need I name all the deadly sins that were a useful encapsulation of human fallenness? I can harden my heart against God – dare I admit I often do? – but in the end will that as it were grow me godwards? Are not the great lives that have inspired us godwardly lives that have, often kicking and screaming, opened up to the God who is in any case already there? God’s “consuming fire” is a painful place: sometimes it is easier to open our lives instead to God’s consuming compassion and love, and there let the work of regeneration and “sanctification” continue.
Jesus is confronted by a woman trapped in her brokenness. There are for her no power games, only suffering. Jesus confronts those who entrap the woman in her brokenness, most likely doing so in their own self-righteousness. There is little doubt to whom Jesus directs his sternest words. There is little doubt that stern words from the heart of God are always addressed to those whose lives oppress others. There is little doubt that the God who is closer than breath or epidermis longs to chisel away the sclerotic tissues in our being and make us, even us more Christlike. But first we must open to God the awkwardest entrails of our being.
May God’s closer than life Spirit help us so to do.


Friday, 16 August 2019

Blessed art thou amongst women


In recent decades we have discovered that Luke, as author of the third gospel-account, introduced some important lenses to his text that history had too easily ignored. Luke is the writer above all who favours the cause of women in the stores, finding in many of the women around Jesus examples par excellence of how we are to follow in the Messiah’s footsteps. Above all in his telling of the story looms Mary, the Mother of Jesus. And, close to the beginning of his Jesus-story, Luke gives us a song, placed on the lips of Mary, that provides something of a lens through which the whole story of Jesus must be seen, And, by and large history has ignored it.
I recall as a child at One Of Those Schools that the Magnificat came up in readings from time to time – as did the great Magnificat hymn-interpretation “Tell Out My Soul.” I was underwhelmed. The mighty may be plucked down from their thrones, but as one struggling to survive near the bottom of the Lord of the Flies pecking order, it was clear to me that the mighty seemed firmly entrenched on their thrones. It was just one more of the reasons that I chucked Christianity soon after my confirmation at the age of just-13 (and refused to sing the hymns). Yet in the years that were to come, as the seeds of faith that had been sown gnawed at my atheistic soul, the words kept on percolating. 
For a while after coming to faith they just seemed pretty. But I wasn’t a third world woman. It would be when I began to read feminist and third world feminist theology that I began to hear the texts enflamed with divine power.
For Luke’s Mary sees the world upside-down. The haves have not, the mighty are weak, the fat starve. And still I look around me and it is not true. Trump is not svelte, nor dis-empowered. The poor starve on the scrap heap of history. Women continue in most cultures to be deprived of control over their lives and their bodies. Was Mary – or Luke’s version of her – wrong?
Luke’s Mary should be a driving force compelling us to change the face of society. Perhaps in the Global North that we once called the First World or “West,” yes, the power structures are changing a little, though the fate of women in contexts of domestic violence remind us that a little is very little. We are challenged to keep striving for justice. it only takes words and actions like those of reprehensible Australian shock jock Alan Jones, suggesting that our prime minister should have socks stuffed in her mouth, and the impotent frat-boy silence silence that was Scott Morrison’s response, to remind us that women are never far removed from the threat or reality  of violence. It wasn't so long ago that Jones suggested Prime Minister Julia Gillard should be put through a chaff-cutter. 
There is another aspect of the challenge that some contemporary Christianity fails to acknowledge. For there is also the scathing doctrine of God’s judgement. It is easy to blithely ignore it as the opposite of pie in the sky when you die – a sort of ogre in the sky instead – but we are challenged not to cherry pick our doctrines. We can’t have a warm cuddly God of love without the God who chastises God’s people through all the books of our scriptures. We cannot merrily wave away a God of judgement; we should address the faults in our own lives as much as we address the faults in society’s life. The fact is we by and large – and I speak for myself – address neither.
The Church was ever thus. After the closing of the New Testament era womankind, originally liberated by the early Christian community, was silenced, and the mother of Jesus was pushed aside.  Slowly though the longing of many praying women generated a place for her. The feminine nature of the Spirit was re-gendered to a third bloke of the Godhead, and women devotees slowly found a friend in Mary. But the “masculised,” for want of a better word, church would have none of it. The men in power could not be rid altogether of Mary, but they could, inadvertently or not, push her to the outer regions of the universe, out beyond Sagittarius A*, the black hole cheerfully swallowing the Milky Way, out beyond Andromeda and who knows where, out to the fringes of the heavens. She was made queen of the heavens, given a sceptre, and told firmly to remain there, waving a blue wand and looking beatific.
Beware a disenfranchised woman! In the last century Mary has begun to wriggle free of bonds of male supremacy. In the Americas - the southern and central Americas, that is, not the complacent cosy nations of the northern continent - and in parts of Asia, Mary has begun to roar. The mighty if not yet torn down are trembling on their thrones. She is beginning to reassert herself, to remind us that where men have oppressed and repressed and ignored and mocked womanspirit rising they have done so at risk. The timespans of eternity are long, beyond our sight, but glass ceilings are cracking, and women in society and church are beginning to feel empowered. 
Luke is clear: Mary is not to be messed with. She does not replace or overrule the Holy One of God, but she stands close to the divine heart, and the divine heart hears, always, the cry of those who hurt most. A “marified” church or world will not be the eternal reign of God, for, in biblical terms, womankind too is marred by a propensity for evil. The rise of sexual abuse by women in schools is an alarming reminder of that. But however tragic it always is, it is a tiny glitch compared to the abuse suffered by women around the world. And, as a people called to proclaim and enact the justice of God, and as a people who will be judged by God, God the God who chose to dwell in the womb of a Palestinian peasant girl, we need to take seriously the demands that Luke sets before us. Are we prepared to envisage and act to encourage a world in which the hungry are fed and the mighty cast down?
The patron saint of this church is no blue statue, sterile and mild, but a feisty dwelling place of the God of all creation. That of course is incomprehensible, and should be, but at the very least we are challenged to fight for justice wherever we see that it is not present. May God, the God of Mary empower us so to do.

Amen.




Friday, 9 August 2019

English Jesus pure and holy



SERMON PREACHED
at the CHURCH of St JOHN, WAIKOUAITI
Ordinary Sunday 19 (11th August) 2019


READINGS:
Isaiah 1.1, 10-20
Psalm 50. 1-8, 22-23
Hebrews 11. 1-3, 8-16
Luke 12. 32-40



In the lead up to the First World War, that tragically “great” war that was to end all wars, Christianity had been largely been reduced to bling. The European gospel was reduced to what many optimistic theologians, with no self-consciousness or sense of irony, had boiled down to a message of “the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man.” Boiled down to a mostly polite gospel of “Europeanness.” And manliness. 
The nineteenth century theologians were of course blind to the complexities of gender inclusive language. There are plenty of sociological ironies implicit even in that blindness, but there were other, deeper ironies, too, hidden in their pronouncements.
Did the historical Jesus really come amongst his people to love and die, causing a ruckus along the way, to proclaim no more than “the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man”? Was such a message really ever going to upset either the Romans – what St Paul would later shorthand as the “Greeks” – or the Jews? Was that worth crucifying someone for? Or, if we adhere to the belief that Jesus was in some complex and unfathomable way the revelation of God’s self, was that such an exciting revelation? “The fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man.”
As an aside, I would add that we jettison belief in the centrality of Jesus at great peril. That too was a preferred tack of nineteenth century liberal Christianity, the Christianity that failed to stop great wars. But “the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man?” That is no gospel. 
In many contexts political leaders will, when expedient, find some way of swinging the word “God” from the rafters to produce a cosy feel-good glow. Trump is a master of the art. Boris Johnson does not need to be, though he manipulates the remnant of the Englishman God’s xenophobic hatred of outsiders. Australia’s Scott Morrison is happy to enlist God to his side. Bob Dylan saw the risks powerfully in his scathing poem “With God on our Side”: “You never ask questions / When God’s on your side.”
God is reduced to a convenient plaything, wheeled out in times of battle or nationalistic fervour. I was at a sesquicentennial liturgy at my old school a few years back. As I emerged from the  marquis in which the liturgy was staged, one of my old confreres emerged near tears. It was, he murmured, so beautiful, to sing the old hymns again. The old hymns we sang included “I Vow to The My Country,” with its soulful placing of nation before god at least poetically, and “And Did Those Feet,” in which Blake emerges from his fog of magic mushrooms to reassure himself that Jesus and his stepdad meandered around the hills of England, presumably during a sabbatical from carpentry.
Or at least it seems that way, and to most who have sung those hymns over the centuries any deeper analysis to find the God of the Cross of Jesus is simply superfluous.
The triumphant nationalistic god who led his troops in war was a brutal imposter. His foot- and finger-prints still cover much of who we try to be and what we try to do as followers of Jesus Christ today. The collapse of the church’s presence and role in society has been the death throes of those triumphant, nationalistic gods who once were marching as to war. The move of our Triune God’s Spirit in recent years has been to throw us back on the bedrock of the God of the Cross, the God who suffers in human suffering, the God who refuses those political machinations or the glorious techno-show liturgies of faux-faith. These  are exposed as the work of the Satan in the Temptation narratives.
The move of God’s Spirit in recent years has been to draw us into intimacy with the one addressed in what Henry Burton called “the fervent breath of prayer”: fervent prayers whispered from breaking, vulnerable human hearts. The move of God’s Spirit in recent years has been to remind us, by dismantling so many of our false expectations, that it is precisely “hands that flung stars into space” that are “to cruel nails surrendered,” as Kendrick puts it. 
In the bitter irony of a crucified God, and there alone, God births the blessings of eternity in human lives. This is not an “out there beyond reach” god, not a traipsing around on national flags god, but God who draws into the deepest experiences of human torment and death – every torment and death – and there begins the work of resurrection.
So the God of the Cross, the God of our readings, turns away from religious arrogances that look for god or play with gods in wrong places. The God of Jesus Christ turns away from us when we rely on our prestige or our past or our investments or any other false god to keep our churches going. The God of Jesus Christ turns away when we offer what Isaiah calls “the multitude of your sacrifices” without first offering our vulnerability and our brokenness and our absolute need for God in our lives, individually and corporately.
None of us quite live up to that. We are, thank God, followers of the merciful and forgiving God, revealed in the life of Jesus, revealed in Jesus’ own attitude to obtuse and recalcitrant and basically rather dumb disciples. The God of, and who is revealed in, Jesus Christ asks us for readiness, alertness, openness to all God’s doings in history and in our lives. The God of Jesus Christ asks us to measure our lives by the yardstick of Jesus’ own compassion-wielding and justice-seeking life and teachings. None of us live up to that. As Mary Magdalene memorably sings in Superstar, we are prompted to call out again and again (as we do in liturgy, at the Confession), “can we start again, please?”
At a time when narratives of hate and exclusion are becoming the war cries of international leaders, often tragically aided and abetted by those who call themselves “Christian,” we are called to assess ourselves. Are we triumphantly proclaiming a god who will fulfil our pet agendas, protect our pet interests and structures, maintain imagined racial and economic and religious purity, come at our beck and call to do our political bidding, trampling on human lives to do so? 
We can fairly safely bet that if this is the case then we are not proclaiming the broken yet risen God of the Cross of Jesus Christ. And if that is the case then we are called to fall back metaphorically or literally on our knees to start again in our relationship with God. The collapse of civilizations and ecosystems and economies around us may be dire warning that this is (though not for the first time, albeit perhaps for the most severe time) our eleventh hour. “Be ready,” says Jesus, though we never are. And for that again and again we implore the healing mercy of the God who never ceases to whisper, “come, follow me,” and holds our hands as we do.


Friday, 21 June 2019

surrender the shibboleths



SERMON PREACHED
at the CHURCH of St JOHN, WAIKOUAITI
Te POUHERE SUNDAY / OS 12 (23rd June) 2019


READINGS:
Isaiah 42:10-20
Psalm 42
2 Corinthians 5:14-19
John 15: 9-17


For a few minutes we are going to place ourselves into the sandals of the ancient Hebrew people. We should do this more often: there are many ways in which their suffering prefigures and encapsulates every people’s life-experience. For now let’s just accept that they too are sufferers of the human condition, that condition under which we stumble in the 21st Century, nearly three thousand years after them.
Frustrated perhaps, grief-stricken perhaps, the great poet-prophet Isaiah – actually the second of at least two Isaiahs – sought to bring comfort to his troubled people. He did so with a suitcase full of bewildering images, the best known of which is probably that of the suffering servant.
Isaiah himself was probably referring to the Hebrew people themselves as the suffering servant of God. Their task, as he understood it, was to reveal the one Creator God to God’s world. But centuries later it became the turn of the early Christians to make sense of the new realities they in turn were experiencing. They too were seeing the collapse of old certainties and safeties. They suffered the corrupt practices of the deteriorating, oppressive Roman Empire. They saw the certainties of the Hebrews’ faith in YHWH crumbling around them … Roman gods were sexier and easier to follow. They had encountered the rumours of the Resurrection of Jesus, and subsequently experienced the powerful sense of his unseen presence in their fellowship and worship. All this was confusing enough. Yet more even confusingly, some of them who had chosen to follow the new Resurrection faith were hated for their troubles, as they trusted in and followed their crucified Messiah.
So some of the Christians’ new teachers turned for inspiration to the powerful yet enigmatic images coined by Isaiah. They did not have access to the writings we call the New Testament. They had the Hebrew Scriptures, and they had new lenses, new life experiences through which to read them. They turned to the shadowy figure we know as The Suffering Servant. It is, as is so often in the case in our scriptures and tradition, a strange description of a Saviour, a Messiah, or indeed of God, though nearly 2000 years have perhaps hardened our hearts to the strangeness. They have done so at great peril to our witness.
That this Suffering Servant messiah sacrifices himself to bring hope, redemption to the world ceases to surprise us. We’ve heard it all before. Yet to most in the ancient world this was an obscenity. Gods might be a bit odd, even naughty at times, and might kilwas an obscenity. Gods might be a bit ofdd. ril to our witness.
a Messiah, or indeed of Gol each other from time to time, but on the whole they tried to keep from getting themselves killed, and certainly didn’t put themselves deliberately on the scaffold of human vulnerability. This servant does, and so had the Carpenter of Nazareth that the early Christians were now calling divine. Strange.
Isaiah’s strange message to the Hebrews had been that they were called to suffer, to be sacrificed, to be like a mother opening her life to the physical pain of child-birth and the emotional pain of child-rearing. This is no place for a god to belong, no way for salvation to be brought about. Isaiah was almost certainly pilloried for his claims: the Christians were.
The first Christians held tenaciously to their strange belief that Isaiah’s message had something to say about Jesus Christ and about the role of the Church, the body of Christ in the post-resurrection world. The earliest known reference to Christians depicts us as idiotic believers in a crucified donkey. Perhaps in the 21st Century we need to learn how to look idiotic again?
Because we try not to; but when we try not to we forget that the great apostle Paul was adamant that he came like a fool to the people he met. We have cosied up for too long to the institutions of powerful societies, have come too easily to believe that the institutions themselves are the gospel, and that the madness of a suffering servant or a crucified God has nothing to do with us.
As we watch Western society crumbling around us we are frightened, like drowning sailors afraid to reach past the logs that we are clinging to, in order to grasp hands reached out to us, the hands of a suffering servant reaching out to us from the place where despair meets hope.
That place of encounter is the Good Friday Tomb of Jesus It is the place a god should not be, the place that we find it easier to make tame or dismiss altogether. We do so because it doesn’t really fit our view of the universe in a post-Enlightenment, rational world. In rural regions we are powerfully aware of the departure of shops and banks and post offices and police stations and churches. Where we still have them we cling to them tenaciously as if they were the good news of Jesus Christ. They are not, and neither will we be bearers of Good News as we cling to them.
We cannot sing the new song that Isaiah commands us to sing, cannot sing anything meaningful in a world whose societies are crumbling, certainties dissolving, ice caps melting, skies overheating, if we cling to false gods. The God of the Suffering Servant, the God opposed to false securities, is tearing them down. Outsiders like Dennis Glover and Maurice Shadbolt saw the safety nets crumbling a long time ago, but they found no resurrected Jesus to speak into the vacuum that was forming. We must do so, for that is our task.
To do so we are called to surrender the false gods, the shibboleths. That always hurts, but the false securities are deafening all of us to the new song that Isaiah sang and the early Christians sang and Christians are still singing in genuine place of persecution (or places of genuine persecution). These are painful, uncertain times, but we are called to bear Christlight in them. Only then will we really sing the Lord’s song in a strange land, give glory to the Lord, proclaim God’s praise in places of raw vulnerability and pain, or experience the glory of the God who transforms death into life.
We are called to be a resurrection people. We are called to hope against all that is rational, for our loved ones,  for our loved institutions, for our loved but abused planet; our hope will become real when it is focussed on the heart of the gospel, on the death and resurrection of Jesus, and we surrender our attachments to the peripherals. These are difficult times, but the one who passes through suffering and death into resurrection and the mysteries of eternity is the one who wants to lead us on.
May God help us to surrender ourselves, all that we are and all that we shall become, in the service of the Servant who turns suffering into joy, and death into life.
AMEN

Friday, 7 June 2019

cyclonic spirituality


she sings like a cyclone


SERMON PREACHED
at the CATHEDRAL CHURCH of St PAUL, DUNEDIN
PENTECOST (9th June) 2019


READINGS:
Acts 2: 1-21
Psalm 104: 24-35b
Romans 8: 14-17
John 14: 8: 1-27


As we engage in one of the three great feasts of the liturgical year, the Christian calendar, we are confronted with one of the great conundrums of Christian conversation. How do we speak of this “third Person of the Trinity,” this shadowy figure that one parishioner of mine years ago insisted on calling “Spook.” We’ve been mainly tongue-tied for 2000 years, so why bother? Next week I hope someone in this sermon-spot might apply the same question to the beyond words (or numbers) conversation about the Trinity. But for now: who is this Third Person?
Why bother? Aren’t there better ways to get bums on seats in our crumbling buildings? For that matter, aren’t we better off simply repeating the mantra “spiritual, not religious,” beloved in some circles? Some say so. I believe they’re wrong. I believe they dance on the graves of those prepared to live and die, sometimes prematurely, for these teachings.
So let us pause, for a few minutes, acknowledge that we dwell in a mystery. A few minutes, while inadequate, are necessary to open hardened, sclerotic hearts to mysteries greater than mere human being. Who is this Third Person of Pentecost?
One problem is that in the scriptures of our faith alone there are two main strands of conversation about this strange elusive Person of the Godhead. She (and we’ll touch on gender soon) is the one who inhabits the second verse of our scriptures: the earth was a formless void, and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind (ruarch) from God swept over the face of the waters. Trinitarian theologians affirm that she inhabits even the first verse, albeit gently: in the beginning, when God created. God: triune, community God. She, Pentecostal Spirit, inhabits, too, the bewildering twenty-sixth verse of that first chapter of Genesis; Let us make humankind in our own image.  There God in the plural is at one level a mere grammatical construct, what scholars in their precision call “a plural of deliberation in the cohortative”!  Good with words, those academics are! But the words in the playful truths of interpretation are more than mere grammar. They open doors to admire the mysteries of a community of God, God who is Three-in-One and one-in-three, eternal paradox.
This glimpse of the Spirit is no plaything. Call me a wuss but as a poor air-traveller I was painfully aware of the winds of God as our airbus bobbed like a cork-in-a-maelstrom in the skies from around Palmerston until we touched own at our airport two nights ago. I remember only too well as a home-alone seven-year-old cowering from the winds and falling trees at my Kapiti family home, as the Wahine storm thrashed its fatal way through the lower North and upper South Islands. I remember a storm cell in northern New South Wales flinging heavy doors at head-height through my back garden, flinging cricket-sized hail stones through the windows of our rectory as my daughter and I sought protection in the centre of the house.
The wind of God is not a gentle zephyr, not a plaything, but potentially a life-shattering cyclone. Yet, if our hearts are not too hardened, she is also the force that draws winds from our own souls as we witness Aoraki Mt. Cook for the first time, or the MacKenzie country, or watch a desert moonrise or one of the startling dawns that Anne and I are privileged to watch from our Careys Bay home, splitting the horizon into reds and yellows and purples and blues above the Otago Harbourmouth.
But the first Christians? They found a new identity of the Spirit. John told of the moment in which Jesus breathed New Creation into the nostrils of the frightened, puzzled disciples after the Resurrection. We might call that moment the first hongi of faith, re-creating God’s hongi of the man built from clay in the second creation story of Genesis. Luke tells a different story. He tells of disciples cowering in fear in an upper room, cowering as I once was as those windows shattered around my daughter and me. But the disciples were suddenly empowered as the risen Lord appeared, fiercely tangible, and breathed New Life, New Creation into their troubled souls, transforming them from chickens to eagles, willing to soar (not to mention die) in their new found strength. Languages shattered at the Tower of Babel are unified once more, discord made into harmony, and the language of resurrection life remains a single language despite our petty divisions and hatreds within the body of Christ.
So who was this, who is this Spirit who transformed those frightened few? She is the ruarch of creation, terrifying in potential. But she is also the only means by which Christ and all that he made known of the heart of God is released from an upper room in Palestine and made present to you and me and all who have opened our hearts to Jesus. Her job-description, if I can put it that way, incorporates both the wind that blows through a thousand paddocks of James K. Baxter’s memorable phrase, capable of smashing creation and its lives. She is also the one who can empower us to participate in, be transformed by, be agents of all that Jesus was and is. All aroha-love, aroha-compassion, all prophetic justice-seeking speech and action (for in the Spirit speech and action are one) on behalf of the poor and the broken people and species of earth, all resurrection hope as we hold in our hands the hands of the dying or hold in our silences the grief and despair of the bereaved, all these are the gifts of the Spirit who makes the risen Jesus present and known throughout space and time.
There is so much more I could say in this love-song to the Third Person. She is the Spirit of wild-empowerment, who moves in many ancient religions. She is hinted at in the Māori mythology of Tāne, Tāne-mahuta, Tāne-nui-a-Rangi, who created First Person from the blood and breath of his own being. She is present in myriad versions of the Rainbow Dreaming of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island mythologies, and even in the brutal mythology of Gilgamesh. She is often female, and that need not stop her from making known to us the risen Christ.
She is no plaything. Yet she is the gift of the Risen Christ, making him known and present to us as we stumble in his Way. She is not to be trivialised as “Spook,” though centuries of our disinterested, confused language about her enhanced that caricature. She is not the entertainment of the charismatic movement, though in the corridors of our stuffy churches we perhaps needed that manifestation, for a season, of her healing power.
She is the “enemy of apathy” of John Bell and Graham Maule’s hymn, who mothers creation, hovers on the chaos of the world’s first day, opens to us the scriptures and reveals Jesus to us in them, and empowers us to be his hands and feet and body and blood in the world. She is God with us and in us, for as long as we permit her to be so, and sometimes, thank God, when we do not.
Let us continue to sing her praise in word and silence and music, and pray that we may through all our lives and beyond be transformed by her gentle but irresistible presence.

Saturday, 4 May 2019

Lord, help me!


finding light


SERMON PREACHED AT HOLY TRINITY WINTON
THIRD SUNDAY OF EASTER (5th May) 2019


READINGS:
Acts 9:1-6
Psalm 30
Revelation 5:11-14
John 21:1-19


Let me begin again, as I often do even amongst near-strangers, by acknowledging that I have the privileged insight of life as a convert Christian. I’m not a particularly spectacular convert, nor was I a particularly spectacular pre-Conversion degenerate. I have however,  despite a few wobbles either side of coming to faith, more or less soldiered on with an unspectacular life, but one that shifted from one faith-view to another. Although I did as a teenager I humbly considered it my duty to eradicate religion in the world (single-handedly, I presume!), I did not perform citizens arrests and drag Christians off to Jerusalem. 
Nevertheless, unspectacular though my life may be, I have the privilege of living a life invaded by the Christ I once did not know. In many Anglican circles we are  a wee bit too embarrassed to speak of such experiences.
So I was not, am not St Paul by any means, so let’s talk about him instead of me.  While there are four different accounts of Paul’s conversion, there can be little doubt that his was a life that was invaded by a new light, by new purpose. His life was invaded by a divine presence that he almost immediately began to name in terms of lordship, divinity, to name the light as God and to surrender to him. There can be few more powerful experiences. Suddenly the sense of being exposed yet loved, of stumbling yet being lifted up (these metaphors that struggle to explain the joy of conversion are so inadequate), suddenly this experience was his.
To some extent it is a once-only experience, like realizing we are in love and loved in return. Yet it is not to be considered the be all and end all. For some, for many in western culture, even today, there is no such experience but rather an on-going awareness of the Christ who walks alongside. The Lukan story of the Emmaus Road, rather than his story of the Damascus Road, attempts to convey that. But as it happens our liturgies, if we take them seriously, present the experience back to us again and again. “Merciful God, we have sinned against you …” “God have (God has) mercy on you.” And our response should be to stand and song in praise … “Glory to God.” We are transformed, redeemed, all those words that attempt to express the experience of the risen Christ who invades our lives, daily, weekly, for ever, even beyond our grave.
Conversion is re-programming. In films like The Matrix it is near instantaneous, but for most of us it is a lifetime process or more. Slowly, inexorably, we should but too often don’t allow ourselves to be transformed into the likeness of Christ. The not altogether wonderful impression the Christian community has given the world around it suggests we have flawed, inhibited, even thwarted the process, yet we are called over and over again to open ourselves to what many biblical writers refer in terms of light, the radiating scrutiny of God. We are called to be as it were reconstituted by God. Our eucharistic liturgies reenact the transition from sinner to redeemed missioner, Christbearer, but it is up to us to reposition that re-enactment so it becomes true for us, so that our lives are invaded again and again by the joy and the transformative love of the risen Christ. “Re-clothe us,” says the hymnist, “in our rightful mind.”
The conversion the biblical writers tell of is no superficial moment, but a lifelong process of cleansing and reconstituting, It is also, as the author of Revelation makes clear in that apocalyptic vision, a lifelong and often difficult process of trusting against all odds. Luther’s hymn, “a safe strong-hold is our God,” (look it up if you don’t know it!) and the much-derided “To Be a Pilgrim” with its hobgoblins and foul fiends, strive to express the presence of the risen Christ with us in times of duress. The former in particular was written in apocalyptic times not unlike our own, yet the authors can speak of the need to cling to the risen, transforming, doubt-conquering Christ in such times of trial.
These are the same times of trial from which we implore deliverance each time we pray the Lord’s Prayer: Lord, save us. These are the same words, the same implication of the words that a convert cries out: “Lord, help me!” They are the same words we heard in the  psalm. They are not an excuse by which to do nothing about the world around us in all its trials, perhaps even death-throes, but a heartfelt request that we can be invaded by the risen, death conquering, hope breathing Easter Christ who transforms us and helps us transform the world, the communities in which we live, the globe on which we dwell.
Lord, help us. The on-going conversion process is one of trusting God not only in the complacent times – the decades, for example that followed World War Two – but in times of great uncertainty, of Trumpianism, of racial and religious hatreds, of economic and ecological collapse. Christ is with us, and these are times to be increasingly aware, however strange, surreal, unreal that affirmation seems to be. Let us together rejoice and be renewed in and by the risen Easter Christ who will lead us beyond the hobgoblins and foul fiends of every apocalyptic age, even the last when it comes.