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Friday, 14 January 2022

overkill, overflow

 SERMON PREACHED AT St MARY’S, Nth OAMARU

SECOND SUNDAY of the EPIPHANY (January 16th) 2022




READINGS:

Isaiah 62: 1-5

Psalm 36:5-10

1 Corinthians 12: 1-11

John 2: 1-11


Although in my priestly career I have never had the mixed blessing of oversight of one of those churches that brides choose for their photogenic attraction, I have nevertheless taken quite a lot of weddings in my day. Some were memorable for all the wrong reasons – the disinterest particularly of the groom and party being a recurrent theme – and some (especially that some years ago of my niece) because they were full of love and joy and the fullness of life’s possibilities, or the amazing moment when a determined paraplegic bride shocked all present by walking, unassisted, some of the steps up the aisle to be married to her loved one. 

I could keep you for far too long by telling the tales, but a recurrent element amongst most of these events was my turning to the Fourth Gospel and John’s telling of a miracle at Cana, in Galilee. And about once every three years it comes up in a context where we gather with various shades of enthusiasm because we actually want to encounter and to worship the risen Lord of wine and water. 

It’s such a vivid story. Most of us have been to a wedding or two, most of us have known a bit of grog to flow. At the risk of one more wedding tale I recall almost my first wedding, when the groom and his support crew turned up half cut already. It is possibly the only time in my career I have given anyone a bollocking. They had fifteen minutes until the bride arrived, and I assured them that if they couldn’t convince me in that time that they were sober enough to sign a legal document then the wedding was off. The transformation was impressive.

The story John tells is rich at so many levels.  A Middle Eastern wedding was no abstemious affair, and the shame of a host running out of wine was no trivial matter. Possibly that is a point John wants us to notice: Mary the Mother of Jesus is deeply concerned because deep shame has come upon the household of someone she seemingly knows well enough to be invited to co-celebrate a mountaintop event. Admittedly vast networks of guests would be invited to such an event, but belonging to such a network was no trivial element: kinship, even friendship are deep entanglements in a traditional society. Mary was troubled. Jesus’ response to his mother is less harsh than it seems when we encounter it, but it was nevertheless quite formal, dispassionate. Like storms on a lake, this was within his grasp. What do they say in sports circles? Trust your plan.  Hye had a plan, God has a plan, nervousness in the face of potential chaos was not a part of that plan. We might hold to that as we count down to the arrival of the Omicron Variant, as we await with bated breath the chaos that may soon be upon us. 

It’s worth noting. too, the vast overkill of the event. This may be a whole-of-village party, but there has been no shortage of the good things of God’s earth flowing already. The guests were, as the New Jerusalem gloriously puts it, well wined. Let’s not think about contemporary concerns about drink driving or other deleterious outcomes of a too generous uptake of alcohol. This is about celebration, overkill of joy, and these guests have already celebrated and overkilled, but the overflow of joy in the lives of those who are visited by Christlight is not going to be restricted: flow, overflow, and overflow some more with the good things of God.

I often tell the story of the priest who was my vicar when first I moved to Australia in the early ’80s. At baptisms Fr Alan would fill the font with water, fill it some more, overflow it, overflow it some more: this, he would say, is the overflowing of God’s goodness and grace. I’ll admit that that wild, manic, God-filled priest never over-poured the wine – so much waste would be wrong – but his complex life never ceased to overflow with divine goodness and joy.

The guests are well-wined, and, John tells us, Jesus ensures they are wined immeasurably more. The steward looks for rational explanations to this over-pouring abundance, but the limitations of rationality will not ever serve the gospel. The resurrection will flow out of the restrictions of a tomb. John wants us to know this over and again: love will conquer both hate and nonchalance, light will overcome greyness and darkness, God will break through the limitations of our science. 

Sometimes even this side of the grave we get glances of this. The glories of a sunset, the magnificent terror of waves driven by a far-off cyclone (as they are off that Other Island’s east coast as we speak), the tenderness of a loved one’s touch: these are the overkill of divine goodness that can from time to time invade our lives.  On this day of a dried up wedding feast the overflow of the goodness of God’s joy will permit no limitation, and the goodness of 180 gallons of the finest wine flows and flows and flows.

Need I say more? This experience will not grip us every day. Yet as we open ourselves, sometimes through great struggle, as we surrender to God’s invasion, the overflow of grace can pour into and through and even out of us. May God flow thus in our lives as chaos builds around us, as uncertainties pulse, even when the storm clouds build. The wine of God’s love, against all odds, will not dry up.




 


Friday, 7 January 2022

entering authenticity

 

SERMON PREACHED AT St MARY’S, Nth OAMARU

and at St ALBAN’S, KUROW

BAPTISM OF OUR LORD (January 9th) 2022

 


 

READINGS:

 

Isaiah 43: 1-7

Psalm 29

Acts 8:14-17

Luke 3: 15-17, 21-22

 

When Luke told the Jesus story he set about anchoring the events of Jesus’ life within the framework of known history. Or so we were often told. He is writing, he said, to Theophilus, though we may well question if there ever was a Theophilus. Luke may have been deliberately obfuscating, playing a Dr Who-esque game with lines of time and space in order to demonstrate truths far greater than mere timelines and geographical particularities.

Like many great writers in the story of literature Luke sets up expectations, then dismantles and, we might even say, “remantles” them. For those of you who are lovers of literature or film or visual arts there will be some resonances here:  some of the greatest creators of human artistic depth have done that. Such creators – and let’s not forget that’s a title that echoes the heart of God – do so not to be clever, but to expand our horizons, expand our understanding of the world around us. For Luke this is not an academic exercise but an inspired means to take us, his audience (though we are not the audience he intended) deep into the heart of God’s truth, light, hope.

Theophilus, therefore, may never have existed despite having been addressed at Luke 1:3 (he will be again in Acts 1:1). We may be Theophilus – you and me – and we are being asked to see something beyond words here in Luke’s story. We are being asked to see Truth. John uses a similar technique, referencing what we might call the Truthness of Jesus, the Truthness of Good News, over and again. Theophilus is told that the Jesus story contains – we might say “is” – Truth. It is truth deeper than mere facts and figures of history.

So Luke, having created word-pictures around the birth and early life of Jesus – later we will return to his preparation for public ministry as he wrestles with Satans in the wilderness – introduces us to a listless, directionless people. They are a people filled with expectation, but expectation of what?

They live in a corrupt and already crumbling Roman Empire. They live in a time when soothsayers and idiot fringe charlatans are eagerly leading them this way and that. John the Baptist is no charlatan, but for many people he is just one more entertaining distraction from a decadent, disintegrating society. So they flock to the desert, and rather than stroke their egos he rebukes them.

Yet they encounter in him not some latest fad, not an empty-headed, self-aggrandizing false prophet feathering his own ego with meaningless titles and his pocket with their hard-earned cash. They do not find a self-proclaimed “bishop” climbing down from a fleet of expensive cars and motorbikes long enough to seduce more dollars from their pockets. They do not find a rock star peddling his own importance and destructive lies, (believing, as one prophet critiqued it, that his nose has led him straight to God[1]). They do not find an over-inflated, over-paid tennis player believing that he or she has the right to spread disease in the name of personal freedoms (and a pay cheque).

They find John the Baptist in the desert, and while some choose to follow him he makes it quite clear that there is a different path to follow: “one more powerful than I is coming.” later of course the same people will murder both the prophet and the messiah. But for now we have a humble, God-saturated man pointing to another humble God-saturatec man, directing lost, directionless human hearts to the demanding way of Jesus: “he will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”

For Luke the message is both timeless and urgent. For too many of Christianity’s centuries we have turned the prophets of God into rather dull figures propping up self-indulgent societies. Every now and again, though, times of complacency become times of urgency. We live in one such – Covid is only one particularly noisy ingredient of a crumbling security. Charlatans, predators, will inevitably arise in such times, but so too do genuine servants of God.  In recent days of course we have seen one such servant, Desmond Tutu, pass from human sight. Not all are as spectacular as Tutu. But we live again in apocalyptic times, and Luke, John and above all Jesus dare us to look in right places for the footprints of God. We are dared to look not to those who write their own names in neon lights, but to those who proclaim justice, hope and love.

As the story goes on (as our year goes on), we will find that Luke challenges us to look to Jesus amongst the lines of prophets not just as a pointer, but as the heart of God, as all that we need to know of God. The words of the Spirit will reverberate through the year, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” These reverberating words of course mean far more than a surface level reading will disclose. Interestingly, as sermon-blogger Mike Marsh puts it, they are spoken to Jesus before he has …

… done a darn thing. He hasn’t preached or taught. He hasn’t healed anyone. He hasn’t walked on water, turned water into wine, or fed 5000 with a few fish and loaves of bread. He hasn’t raised anyone from the dead. He hasn’t died on the cross, been resurrected, or ascended to heaven. He hasn’t performed or proved himself worthy or deserving. He doesn’t even say, “Thank you. I’ll work hard to be a good son. I’ll prove myself to be worthy of what you have said.” He simply receives the gift. He lets the words wash over and drench him.[2]

 

We’ll leave that thought there. Except insofar as it reminds us that Luke is challenging us to enter a journey that is not about us or our ego, but a journey of surrender, a journey of trust in times of difficulty, uncertainty, bewilderment, even exhaustion. The voice from heaven authenticates the person and the task of Jesus. The voice invites us to enter, too, into that authentic existence, that place of faith against all doubt, hope against all despair, light against all darkness. You are, says the voice of God, my beloved child: enter and re-enter the journey of Jesus.



[1] Lou Reed, “Strawman.”

[2] Michael K. Marsh, Interrupting the Silence, January 13th, 2019. Online at https://tinyurl.com/4yu724zd.

Saturday, 18 December 2021

cousins in faith-loneliness

 

SERMON PREACHED at St MARY’S, NORTH OAMARU

FOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT (19th December) 2021

 

Readings:

 

Micah 5:2-5a

For the psalm: Luke 1:47-55

Hebrews 10:5-10

Luke 1: 39-45

 

One of the privileges of hosting the Gospel conversations is the access it gives me to a vast range of insights and perspectives. As I entered – several days back now as it happens – into the process of breaking open this scene of Elizabeth and Mary I was amused that we were a panel of three blokes and our own Karen, left to hold her own in a passage that is deeply “gynocentric,” so deeply imbursed with feminine understanding that, if we accept that Dr Luke the author was a bloke, then nevertheless we can surmise that Mrs Dr Luke was standing very close by his shoulder as he composed the Jesus story. As I looked at my randomly chosen confreres, academic Drs John Franklin from Mosgiel, and Gerry Morris from Wisconsin, I breathed a sigh of relief that we had conscripted our own Karen from Kurow, doctor from the school of womanhood and life. For this listener at least it was from Karen that the gems of memorable insight flowed. Praise God for giving us in Luke a champion of women’s perspectives. Praise God for the women in our churches, pews and pulpits, who bring insight into the experiences of Christ-bearer Mary and her cousin – Christ-Aunty if you like – Elizabeth. And if that sounds paternalistic, God forgive our patriarchal church for suppressing those perspectives for so much of its history. For it has.

So it is through a woman’s eyes and ears that the understanding of the kindred spirit relationship between Mary and Elizabeth is brought to us – it’s unsurprising, too, that it was Anne who reminded me of this perspective as I thought about the passage. Neither Mary nor Elizabeth would be heard, I suspect, in their ambivalence about the child within them, the complexity of the shall we say unusual conceptions, about the pregnancy still stretching out ahead of them, about the birth and the and the months and years and decades that lay ahead of their unborn children. Mary sought out her cousin because the older woman would understand – in ways that even Joseph could not – the ambiguities of motherhood. They need each other, and as they turn to each other they matter remind us of the importance of community, of mutual trust and understanding.  “No man is an island,” John Donne reminded us some centuries before inclusive language. No man, no woman, no child is an island, and I don’t think it’s too long a bow for us to draw that we are reminded in this passage of the need for community and mutual outreach that should and can be one of the most powerful essentials of belonging to the body of Christ. Are you okay? Luke shorthands the scene, but we can be certain that the question was at the very heart of the conversation between these two expectant cousin-mothers, the one so young, the other not.

Luke wants us to see the human, but wants us, too, to register the spiritual hand in this scene. Those women who have borne children will know, as men can only by proxy, the mysteries of a human life within, the kicks and wriggles and even hiccups, and the signs of recognition as a growing baby identifies her or his mother’s or sibling’s or father’s voice. In a post-enlightenment world we would do well to recall, too, that there are forms of knowledge that are beyond science: the communication, sometimes, between twins, the second sight that is the experience of many non-Europeanized peoples, the awareness of ancestors that once I would have dismissed as unsophisticated lunacy until I learned to listen to the stories of Australian Indigenous and New Zealand Māori.  (Perhaps I should have learned to recognize the e
tymological relationship between the words “sophistry” and “sophistication.” All that glitters is not gold). And so Elizabeth feels the child leap in her womb, as a recognition beyond mere science triggers a response of love and admiration between the unborn agents of God

Somewhere out on the unimportant edges of the powerful Roman Empire, surely one of the most powerful in history, two unborn infants recognize the presence of God. Two human beings who will be born and grow up radiating God from the depths of their being, two unborn infants recognize the presence of the Divine in one another. Two mothers notice, ponder and wonder, and remain deeply obedient to the voices of God and God’s messengers. Despite their utter powerlessness these two children on the unimportant outer edge of the Empire will go on to challenge the corruption of exploitative and compassionless leadership, religious and secular alike (for there was no distinction). Both will die in the process. For both – but especially the younger cousin, born in Bethlehem, the story will not end, and death-transforming new life will emerge from a borrowed tomb.

But for now we will leave the latter dimensions of the Christ story, and stay with the mystery of two women birthing the plans of God. Let us stay with the mystery that, as Kendrick didn’t quite put it, hands that once flung stars and quarks and solar systems and black holes into space paused in time and in the womb of the most blessed of women. Let us give thanks that we in all our individual and collective frailty and vulnerability still experience the presence of that Christ child, and through him draw near to God.


Friday, 10 December 2021

loving care and judgement

 

SERMON PREACHED at St MARY’S, NORTH OAMARU

and St Alban’s, Kurow

THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT (12th December) 2021

 

Readings:

 

Zephaniah 3:14-20

For the psalm: Isaiah 12:2-6

Philippians 4: 4-7

Luke 3: 7-18

 

It always seems to me one of the less helpful ingredients of our faith-routines when, at a time at which we are called to speak of the expectation of coming joy, we turn to a reading in which John the Baptist is firstly forecasting the first coming, the Incarnation of Jesus, and thens spitting chips of hellfire and damnation.

“You brood of vipers,” John cheerfully addresses his audience: “who warned you to flee from the wrath that is to come?” He seems to dispense with the social niceties of “Hello, how are you, welcome to my desert.” I’m not sure that he’s read the book on making visitors feel welcome in church.

For good measure he reminds his berated audience that the winnowing fork of the judge is at this very moment poised to strike them – us – down and we are presumably to be cast into unquenchable fire. Luke does remind us that the Baptist specialised in bringing Good News to the people – it’s just that good news seems well disguised in this reading.

Most of us, I suspect, sat down with less than cheerful memories of the passage that we’d just heard. Most of us are aware that we haven’t done an awful lot of sharing of our coats. Some of us may have heard academic David Tombs reminding us in the Gospel Conversations of the story of the South American Socialist leader addressing adoring, applauding crowds … if you have two houses (or seven for that matter, or however many the leader of the opposition has) surrender them to the poor. The crowd cheers wildly. If you have two cars (or can afford a black Mercedes to drive you around the block as the Leader of the opposition did) – give one up. The crowd cheers wildly, as crowds do when they hear popular demands that really don’t apply to them. If you have two coats … give one up. The crowd stood in sulky silence. The rich young man walked away, remember.

Socialism is easy when I am the one who gains, but less so when I am the one called to make sacrifice. I have often if not always been guilty of a socialism of jealousy, keen to see the wealthy surrender their assets, but less keen to make sacrifices of my own. Yeah, get rid of your houses, Mr Luxton [newly elected Leader of the Opposition in New Zealand], I am inclined to say, or your cars, or whatever, but I am less keen to get rid of the surpluses in my life. I secretly would prefer it if he slipped a house or two or a car or two my way. Maybe I too should be fleeing the wrath that the Baptiser announced?

Few of us in the so-called First World / Global North escape the wrath that John the Baptist spoke of, when we compare our wealth and opulence with the horrors of existence in Syria or Sudan. That doesn’t altogether sound to me like good news, news to elicit great joy. But … but …

But we might just leave John there, for a moment, ranting in his desert. The other readings do seem to speak of joy. Great joy. Rejoicing. Much nicer. “Rejoice in the Lord always and again I say rejoice.” I used to sing that happily in the Christian Fellowship of my first flushes of faith. “Rejoice, rejoice, and again I say rejoice.”

John – he was such a party pooper. Though his cousin, our babe of Bethlehem, wasn’t always a bundle of joy, either: if your hand causes you to sin, chop it off. Your eye? Pluck it out. Go sell all you have, give to the poor, then come follow me. Gosh - those cousins. Though at least Jesus turned some water into wine.

When I give the last rites – far less common these days than in the early days of my ministry – I say something that’s not in the book. I commend the person I’m sitting with, anointing, praying for, into “the loving care and judgement of God.” I don’t have time then or now into the whole theological kit and caboodle of explaining that all we need to see and know of that loving care and judgement is revealed in the life and teachings of Jesus. I leave it unsaid.

But time and again I find Jesus offering not an airy-fairy wave of the hand to those he encounters – the “usses” he encounters – who have shall we say fallen short of the glory of God. He doesn’t conspiratorially say to the sinner, “never mind, buddy, it doesn’t matter.” No. It’s something more like, “Mate, you got it wrong. But let’s see if we can set things right, okay, and find a way forward.”

The gospel writers leave us the hint that this is what we need to do, too. We are a brood of vipers, but yeah, the footprints of Jesus are still warm, and he will pick us up, help us to love, make us a tad better person, if we let him. The wrath of Jesus is ameliorative, not punitive – restorative, not destructive. Though it sometimes hurts a little. In fact I think the current throes of nature, in all their destructiveness, might be a kind of restoration writ large, though the equations seem wrong, and so far it seems only to have made the plight of the poor peoples more wretched and the rest of us just a little inconvenienced. I don’t understand that. I know my innter viper, deserving wrath.

But I think we may be beginning to see ourselves for who we are. This too may be a judgement of God, as our complacencies fall apart. Who warned you to flee from the wrath that is to come? Those nations who are hoarding vaccines at the expense of the poor nations may yet feel the terrible wrath of nature which is of God: is that what the Omicron variant is warning us? Those who have dived down rabbit holes of self-indulgence may yet hear John the Baptist’s wrath writ large. Have they protected the vulnerable? History suggests we won’t listen. One day we might just have to. We’re past the eleventh hour, now, well past.

Perhaps I digress. And perhaps I don’t. When I give the last rites, I pray for the loving judgement of God. The joy of our readings is no superficial party time. Jesus beckons us through the darkness of our world and our own lives, summons us with perhaps tear-filled love, but summons us, nevertheless. Yes, we as individuals and we as the human race have got it badly wrong. Yet Jesus beckons us still. Come my friend … you may need a touch of reconciliation, may need to look into the eyes of those whose forgiveness you need, but I will stand with you. I will guide you through the sorrows and the dark, and together we will stand on the side where we can at last rejoice in the Lord always.

 

Saturday, 13 November 2021

dawn ... happens

 

SERMON PREACHED at St MARY’S, NORTH OAMARU

and St Alban’s, Kurow


ORDINARY SUNDAY 33 (14th November) 2021


 


Readings:

 

1 Samuel 1:4-20

For the psalm: 1 Samuel 2: 1-10

Hebrews 10: 11-25

mark 13: 1-8

 

There’s not many things – well there’s a few! – that I can say I never do, but I do not revisit old sermons. Without checking I can’t see whether I preached on this opening of Mark’s little apocalypse three years ago, when I presume it last appeared, or even three or nine or twelve et cetera years ago, though I keep all my sermons and have even blogged them for years.

In fact this passage from Mark, as we break it open in 2021, serves as a powerful example as to precisely why I don’t revisit old writings. Assuming I did preach on it three years ago or six years ago, or … I was a very different person then and the world I lived in was even more different. In the three decades or so I have been preaching I would have, for most of the time, referred to and prised open Jesus’ teachings on the tearing down of the temple, and the subsequent apocalyptic sayings, in the light of a potential nuclear annihilation, and nuclear winter. Perhaps three years ago I would have been shifting my focus very much to climate change and global warming – and ecological and economic implosion. Today those threats remain – as if, we might say, apocalyptic was accumulative. But how can we speak of apocalypse in 2021 without speaking of Covid, of lockdown, of bitter divides growing (reminiscent of the Springbok Tour)  even in our sleepy part of the world?

The circumstances change. As I often mention, since the American military dropped the obscenely named Trinity nuclear bomb in the New Mexico desert in 1945 they have probably changed irreversibly. Humanity has the potential to destroy itself and its host planet. But in the rapidly accumulating paroxysms of the last few years even that threat has faded in our consciousness. Perhaps 9/11 was another watershed. Then slowly the words “global warming” and “climate change” grew in our consciousness. We became aware that the oceans and waterways are turning into a toxic sludge, that the death of species is accelerating, and yes, most recently, that microscopic viruses could sweep the surface of the earth – as they have many times before – and devastate all our expectations of life and death and commerce and recreation. As a parent and grandparent I feel the turmoil deeply.

So the power of apocalyptic is deeply relevant. When Mark was setting down these words of Jesus the world was collapsing around him. When Jesus spoke these words his own personal apocalypse was imminent – he didn’t need a crystal ball to know that his prophetic ministry would soon end in tears, or indeed as we know it, in the cry of dereliction from the cross of execution. We may be in a worse place than we were when last or first I preached on the little apocalypse of Mark, but we are a million miles removed from the cry of dereliction from the cross, or the threat of Roman storm troopers smashing our prayer meetings and our Sunday services. For that I thank God. I’ve never pretended to be brave – nor a martyr, nor even a hero of faith. I will not know how I will behave under duress unless, God forbid, that time of trial that we pray to avoid – save us from the time of trial – comes my way or ours. It probably won’t, though it may come the way of our children or our grandchildren. Apart from anything else, Greta Thunberg is right: COP-26 has achieved, I suspect, a big fat zero, blah blah blah, and that was always going to the case as the rich and the powerful flew in on their future-guzzling jets to talk about saving the future.

So what does the strange passage from Mark’s gospel account whisper to us? It does not give us permission to hang up our brains and do nothing. Christian groups who rejoice at an apocalyptic future and the demise of Papatuanuku have missed the point. Christian groups who are so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good have missed the point. To some extent most of us have missed the point. Yet even in apocalyptic times, Mark tells us, God is, and God is in control.

That divine control may not stop the house of cards or the house of bricks falling on us. Faith is not a prophylactic against Bad Things. It is our however the belief that the bad things, as Eurythmics singer Annie Lennox called them, will not have the final say. And that, Mark’s Jesus tells us, is the hope to which we must cling, even when our personal apocalypses or a global apocalypse seem to have the final say. Our task is to pray – and even if our prayers appear totally on the deaf ears of an empty universe, to pray believing that darkness is not and will never be the final word.

Within a few days of these apocalyptic words of Jesus the greatest darkness covered the hearts of all who knew Jesus, and even of Jesus himself, and yet within three days of that, light was born again. Against all odds the rumour of resurrection hope has whispered down through history ever since, even into a time of Covid and a melting planet.

 



Saturday, 30 October 2021

for all the saints

 

SERMON PREACHED at St MARY’S, NORTH OAMARU

ALL SAINTS’ EVE (31st October) 2021

 

Readings:

 

Wisdom 3:1-9

Psalm 24

Revelation 21:1-6

John 11: 32-44

 

We could be all terribly highbrow about the doctrine of sanctification, or perhaps analytical about the readings, except I think  we are treading deeply inside the language of the heart. If there is an occasion on which I set aside my tendency to hanker after matters Roman Catholic (and I apologize in advance for this can be offensive to my Roman Catholic friends – but hey, let’s offend in love!) it is when it comes to the doctrine of sainthood. I find on the other hand the hard-line Protestant approach to sainthood equally ridiculous: the fierce refusal to name saints, to name churches after saints, to use the world “saint" at all unless it is applied to all the baptised, is at least as offensive as the rather rigorous hoops that candidates for sainthood have to pass through in the Roman Catholic communion before they graduate to such status. Yes, all the baptised are saints. No, not all are outstanding in their Christlikeness – and it’s to the exemplary Christ-bearers I want to turn.

Though I will just divert for a moment to all the souls who may not thank us for calling them saints. The exemplary and the unexemplary, the stumblers and the fallers, the succeeders and the fail-lers: all, I believe, are captured in the outpouring of divine love that is creation and redemption. Some l think may take a little extra time before they encounter the fullness of divine love, but what is time amidst timelessness, time amidst eternity? And no, we can never explain that.

But let me introduce you to a few of the saints that have crossed my path. They won’t have committees of cardinals meeting to decide whether their bodies have decomposed or not, or whether statues of them weep or not, and they won’t be in the Books of Saints, but saints they are.

I think of Saint Molly of Orange who I mention every All Saints’ Day. Saint Molly was a parishioner of mine in Orange, New South Wales. Every time I encountered Molly she was doing something for someone else, caring more for them than she would ever dream of doing for herself. Year after year at this time I remember the day the town was hit by a massive storm, parks were trashed, houses un-roofed, trees scattered. I knew Molly lived alone and tried to track her down after the storm passed, I was worried for her – until I learned that mid-80s year old Molly had beaten me to it and was out and about in the town making sure the old people were alright.

Then there was Saint Leopold – I’ll call him Leopold of Parkville, because that’s where I met him and I barely knew him. He was a priest so I’m able to track down a few details but they tell us very little – he trained at the same theological college that I did, sixty years earlier – that’s sort of why I half met him. He served in two or three rural Victorian parishes, a couple of military chaplaincy posts, some administrative posts, a tutorship in the Caribbean. I barely met him, but I know that those details meant nothing to him. I think I only had one conversation with him. But in that conversation he made it clear that all the details of his years of ministry mattered little to him. In the last years of his life though he had found what he described as the pearl of great price. He was slipping I think into a touch of dementia, so he forgot to make clear what the pearl was, but it was clear that it was some total renewal of his faith. It was either an encounter with the charismatic movement or with a community justice movement that existed in Melbourne at the time – perhaps it was neither, perhaps it was both. A moment or two of research suggests it was both, for in the late 1970s St Leopold bought a terrace house in Melbourne’s Clifton Hill, which he donated to an Intentional Christian Community experiment called the House of the Gentle Bunyip. He had experience of intentional Christian communities in both New Zealand and Australia, though beyond that I know little. But as he spoke of his pearl of great price his eyes lit up, and this frail old priest became energised with holy energy. I never saw him again – funnily enough I may have met him once before when I had dinner at the House of the Gentle Bunyip, but that matters not at all. What matters is that I saw that afternoon, at a gathering at my theological college, the fires of holiness enflaming a frail old man, and the love of God shining through him. The Gentle Bunyip folded some years later, but Saint Leopold had gone on into the mysteries of God by then. The assets of the Gentle Bunyip, incidentally, were given over to an agency working with schizophrenics, amongst those most outcast of western humanity.

Perhaps one more. I’ll disguise a name and place here, for fear of upsetting anyone. St Ursula of Somewhere remains one of the godliest people I’ve known. Shy, quiet, utterly devoted to her God, her family, her church. I was a bit of a waif and stray when I knew her, but her house was always open to me – and to other waifs and strays. She immersed herself in prayer, in the scriptures, yet never paraded any sense of holiness, never paraded anything that would attract attention to herself. She had an impish demeanour, was no meepy saint because, well, saints aren’t meepy. She brought up six children – I reckon she carried about 100% of that load because, well, busy husband and all that. She survived cancer, miraculously and lived for decades after it – living it seemed to me always for others. In her I saw God, and I know I was far from alone in that. Hers too is a life that passed through mine, and for that I will never cease to be thankful.

I could name others – the fine monastic priest, St Alan of Flemington, who was one of the finest liturgists and preachers I have ever known, but whose tortured life was cut short by AIDS. St Brian of Casino, another priest, a bloke’s bloke, who retired from priesthood to brew beer and drive a milk tanker – keeping the activities separate I hasten to add – and who was simply there if anyone ever needed him. Or saints Greta and Faye – their names too are changed – who’d lived on the land all their lives before retiring to a small country town, and their – both of them like Ursula somewhat impish – living a life of prayer and cheekiness and care for others, Faye always in the background (they were not an item by the way but it wouldn’t matter if they were) … Greta who once when I turned up around half past five in the evening to get a signature told me with a conspiratorial twinkle “they say you should never drink alone, but if I didn’t drink alone I’d never get to have a drink” before offering me a glass of wine.

For all the saints indeed. We’ve probably all known one or two. For their passage though our lives we give our heartfelt thanks to their God and ours.

Friday, 8 October 2021

are we there yet?


 

SERMON PREACHED at St MARY’S, NORTH OAMARU

and at St Alban’s, Kurow

ORDINARY SUNDAY 27 (3rd October) 2021

 

Readings:

 

Job 23:1-9, 16-17

Psalm 22:1-15

Hebrews 4:12-16

Mark 10:17-31

 

There was a period of scholarship – forgettably – when scholars did their best to ensure that the harsh Jesus-saying about camels passing through the eye of a needle wasn’t about camels and needles at all. Fortunately for us all that aberration was in the mediaeval era, probably not the high point of biblical interpretation. The short scholarly parenthesis is best forgotten except as a reminder that  scholarly attempts to wriggle away from the harsh claims of the gospel, or from the harsh demands of Jesus, are utterly misguided. For what it’s worth another scholarly interpretation, based on Greek misspellings, suggested that the original referred to a thick cord passing through the eye of a sewing needle. That too was incorrect – and denudes the Jesus-saying of its humour. Jesus was totally capable of illustrating his points with outrageous humour, and many of his illustrations were what we might call in an internet age OTT. Sewing with camels, anyone?

But beneath the humour was a serious point. Paul would put it a different way a decade and a half after Jesus (though probably about the same period before Mark recorded Jesus’ words). All fall short of the glory of God. We live an existence the very basis of which is short-falling. Ever tried passing a camel through the eye of a needle?

So Jesus is making a point that will recur often in the scriptures. Wealth – not evil in itself – is a noise that all but inevitably drowns out the voice of God. The love of riches is the root of all evil, says Paul. Prosperity gospel preachers who claim that God is telling you to buy them a Lear Jet have somewhat missed the point of needles’ eyes and camels. The saying, as Mark records it, is in the midst of a series of Jesus-sayings that remind us that the way to God is not a picnic, and the way with God is not a stroll in the park. Jesus and his followers called it the way of the cross and even after two millennia of turning an instrument of execution into pretty jewellery and bumper stickers we haven’t quite rid ourselves of the brutality of that symbol.

Jesus spoke these words in a world that operated on what today might be called a zero sum basis. First century economic were based largely on the premise of a limited-goods society: if I have goods then you miss out, and I will attempt to do all I can to accrue goods with the result that you are increasingly beholden to me to receive even the scraps that fall from the table – as it  happens a key to interpreting another Jesus moment, that we shall flag but leave for now. Some of us might recognize that it is ever thus: we may dress it up in a modern economy, but we might note, must note, that the rich do not benefit the poor by their accrual of limited resources. “The rich have got their channels in the bedrooms of the poor” wrote Cohen in a terse exposé of universal exploitation.

Jesus, then, was not mucking around beneath the gentle overtones of humour. But nor of course was he shutting the door on hope. The author of Hebrews describes the word of God – and remember John refers to Jesus as the Word – as sharper than a two edged sword. Jesus himself speaks of the choices he presents as providing no in-between spots – and indeed the witness of his ancestors simply foreshadowed that: chose this day who you will serve. Binaries may be unpopular in post-modern society but in some of the contexts of our faith binaries are a thing. The thing. Though I don’t think here we are talking about choosing heaven or hell, as many would tell us.  But that’s a complex subject for another time. What we are choosing is the difficult path that is Christ-following, as against other paths that are not.

The more important point that the author of Hebrews is making is that we are surrendering ourselves to a Saviour, a priest, a God who has been there done that. Matthew and mark make this point when they tell the visual tale of Jesus Temptation in the Wilderness. Whatever we might be seduced by along our journey, Jesus has had bigger issues to deal with. And yes we will fall short – it’s not even that we will succeed. Paul too constantly talks about the human, even the follower-of-Jesus-humans – volition to failure. Except that this is not the end. The Christ who has been there – even to the point of utter godforsakenness, will pick us up, wind us up, patch us up and send us on into his footsteps one again.

And the strange thing is that this side of the grave we won’t see the outcome of the journey. But it’s the journey Jesus leads us on.  Scholars give it fancy names – divinization, as I prefer to call it, or theosis, the transformation into the likeness of God that we were always designed to attain from the moment of our creation.


The answer to the infamous kids’ question “are we there yet?” I’m afraid, is no. It is awfully hard to get camels through the eyes of needles, and we have an equally awful lot of distractions from that task. But with the help of God and beyond our sight we can and will.