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Saturday, 9 January 2021

beginnings: when empires wane and tyrants fall

 


SERMON PREACHED

AT

St JOHN’S WAIKOUAITI

FIRST SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY  (10th January) 2021

 

 

 

Readings

Genesis 1:1-5

Psalm 29

Acts 19:1-7

Mark 1:4-11

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



 (Whangarei basin loop walk)

Friday, 4 December 2020

Go. Tell. Maybe with words.

 

SERMON PREACHED AT St BARNABAS’, WARRINGTON

SECOND SUNDAY OF ADVENT

6th December, 2020

 


Readings:       

Isaiah 40:1-11

Psalm 85: 1-2, 8-13                             

2 Peter 3:8-15a

Mark 1:1-8

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

TLBWY

 

Saturday, 28 November 2020

indiscernible breaths of new beginning

 


SERMON PREACHED AT St JOHN’S, WAIKOUAITI

FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT

29th November, 2020

 


Readings:       

Isaiah 64:1-9

Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19                                         

1 Corinthians 1:3-9

Mark 12:34-37

 

 It is both deeply peculiar and deeply profound that the Church year begins with endings. As we leap into Year B (and perhaps begin to hope that the calendar year 2020 might be put to bed), we turn to readings about doctrines of the second coming, the end of chronological time, what the visionary of Revelation calls the New Heavens and the New Earth. Speech of new beginnings after utter, complete terminations must needs be strange, surreal speech. We have nothing bit strange and surreal available to us. This is beyond our understanding, and, despite the screeds written on it, is beyond all human understanding.

And that’s okay, because while understanding is useful, it isn’t everything. I don’t understand the intricacies of my body. Fortunately, doctors and medical specialists understand much that I don’t. There remains much that they don’t understand, mind you, and I suspect the confidence we experienced in the 1970s that there would one day be no gaps in our understanding have somewhat dwindled in the years since. Still: medical understanding is impressive, and most of us have benefitted far more from it than our ancestors did, or indeed many people in poorer nations still do, today.

There remains much, even in simple human experience, that is unknown. Why does the human heart, as Hopkins put it, stir for a bird? Why do we care for music, why are we moved, not all of us, but many, by certain forms of music, certain types of food, activities, books or flowers or sunsets or sunrises?

Human understanding: so many limitations. As western society, we have tended to reject faith in matters spiritual, or religious, except in small sub-cultures. The sway held by churches through the Middle Ages and on through the Reformation has fragmented and crumbled, often deservedly so, and believers in the messages of the Christian and Hebrew Scriptures are fewer and further between;  markedly so in the Europeanized nations. If our scriptural readings today speak of a hope beyond the collapse of our own lives, beyond the death that awaits us all, but beyond, too, the death of our planet, by and large we are considered fools for believing. What a fool believes! And, given the terrible ways in which we have in the past proclaimed Christ with brutality I suspect our diminishment is well-deserved. Isaiah saw that, too: “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.” Our churches empty, our stipends dried up, our families long gone from the places where we have prayed or the hopes that once sustained us or our forebears.

How then do we have faith? The desertion of faith did not begin yesterday: at the very least I believe its seeds were sown in the fragmentation and persecutions of the Reformation, yet of course the seeds were sown long before that. Before that we imposed faith far too often by the sword: I tend to think our credibility – our ­collective credibility as bearers of Christ – crumbled at around the time Pope and Emperor climbed into a political bed together, church and state entwined, and Constantine proclaimed those dreadful words “in this sign (we) conquer” as he at least allegedly held a cross on high.

We got it badly wrong. If it’s any comfort out Jewish forebears did, long before us: at least 26 kings of the Hebrew kingdoms, according to my head count, got things badly wrong, and no doubt were supported in their wrong-doing by at least many of their people. Yet God loved and stood by the Hebrews (and still does it seems). For what it’s worth Manasseh, probably the worst of the Hebrew kings, stands firmly in Matthew’s version of the genealogy of Jesus (Mt. 1:10). Hebrews and Christians alike have often got it badly wrong, and as the Royal Commission will be starkly reminding us, far too little has changed in our own lifetimes. Yet there have also been profound sparks of integrity, diamonds of faith amidst the coal dust of religious mediocrity or worse.

How then do we believe, do we have faith in the light of so much wrongdoing, and when our society has so much scepticism towards the key claims of our faith? Much of the doubt and scepticism is not unwarranted, too: how then do we believe? Can we really believe in the Coming Christ of Advent, as one book title put it? Is it shocking if I acknowledge that there is much that I find hard to believe in our faith? As I often say, and will probably have said before now in this place, there is much that I gather together amongst the famous six impossible things to believe before breakfast, like those things  to which the Red Queen of Alice in Wonderland holds daily.

At the very least the benefits outweigh the cost of ridicule. The breath of hope in our lives that seems at times to envelope us, the breath of hope in times of personal darkness, is an immeasurable benefit of faith. There are times when, like all breath, it seems impossible to cling to the passing air, and yet it can, as we let it, envelope us in its mystery. There have been times of darkness in my own life when the breath has become undiscernible, and yet the support and love of others has sustained the dying shadows of belief. Perhaps, writ large, that is precisely the situation for the western, global north church: our self-assured complacency has been stripped from us in recent years and decades, and we are thrown back on the bedrock of faith as our infrastructures crumble. Sometimes even the bedrock seems to have turned to sand – as perhaps it must when it is poorly formed – yet in other parts of the world the followers of Christ are growing in number and tenacity, and praying for us as they do.

For us, the task is one of perseverance. What are the errors of our past that must be jettisoned if we are to have credible faith in the decades ahead? Our presuppositions and bigotries, as an institution, though probably as individuals too, are being stripped from us. We are being taught by the inclusive Spirit of God to be an inclusive People of God. Our reliance on prestige and on false sources of security are being stripped from us by the Christ who was stripped of all protection on the Cross. Our obfuscation, our muddling of gospel love in high-sounding words (like obfuscation!) and wordy rites need at the very least a deep, searching edit so we speak with attractive magnetism of the welcoming embrace of the Saviour who enters deepest human darkness and there breathes light (though at the same time we must by the help of God avoid cheap and meaningless clichés and trite faith).

All this, we are reminded as Advent descends on us again, dwells in the realms of grace. “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you,” we mumble in many of our prayers. It does, no matter what some psychologists may tell us, no harm to remind ourselves of that. We do the things, Paul said (and Cranmer after him), that we do not wish to do, and leave undone the things we should do. Advent is a time when we recall again that we are far removed from the person we could be, or the people we could be, and we turn again to invite the transforming love of God into our lives.  Advent is a time when we turn again to the God-in-Christ who reaches to us from the end of all time and from the end of our own times. Advent is the time when we implore God that we might not be barren fig trees, but conduits of life and hope. Advent is when the Coming Christ beckons us be made whole, beckons us to turn from dark to light, from despair to hope, and be filled once more with the life giving love of God, the God of the Cross.

 

 

TLBWY       


Friday, 6 November 2020

gospel hope renewed

 

SERMON PREACHED at St MARY’S, OAMARU
and at St ALBAN’S, KUROW
30th ORDINARY SUNDAY (October 25th) 2020



READINGS

Deuteronomy 34: 1-12
Psalm 90: 1-6, 13-17
1 Thessalonians 2: 1-18
Matthew 22:24-36

 

As you probably know well, Jesus is in our gospel-scene (Matthew 22:24-3) engaged in a series of conflicts with the religious elite of his day. While acknowledging the complexity of his time, our first task may well be to determine who might be the equivalent in our own time and space? Who today might be the “religious elite,” who seek to destabilise and dismantle the signs of God’s action in the world? The answer, I suggest will change from generation to generation, but, amongst the litmus tests we might apply, is the question, “who dismantles hope, who dismantles justice, who dismantles compassion in the world in which God has called us to live?”

Taking a leaf from Jesus’ own book I might not altogether provide an answer, but I will suggest, contrary to those who see governments and secular authorities as the enemy of the, that God is far more concerned in the twenty-first century with those who play games with faith, who profess a faith that exploits and burdens its adherents.

This is not to say God is disinterested in the organizations that perpetrate corruption outside the mantle of faith: governments that exploit, persecute, corrupt those in the care are not nonchalantly ignored by the God of Hebrew and Christian Testaments. But time in such matters tends to move more slowly than we mere humans might wish, but it has been the pattern of history that tyrants overreach, that empires crumble; the Ozymandiases and other tyrants of history have always eventually seen their hopes dashed and their golden cows melted. perhaps one remarkable example in our lifetime has been the dissolution of the corruptions of apartheid South Africa. Perhaps for other reasons we are currently witnessing the frightening spectacle of God’s wrath turned on the exploitative capitalist greed of the United States Empire, seeing the American experiment turned over to the ramifications of its own lust for power.

Which is not, incidentally, to say that there has not been great goodness in the history of the United States – and of course of many individuals with its realms – but rather to say that, having attained untrammelled power, it, like the Sadducees and the Pharisees, has not turned its might to the compassion and justice that are the hallmark of the God in whom it claims to trust.

All of which is far from removed from life in in provincial or rural Kiwiland! So let’s come back to us in a moment. We are a small country; exploitation of the sort maintained by the Sadducees and, at least in the biblical telling, the Pharisees, is not a huge characteristic of our country. Governments come and go, peacefully, with decency and grace by and large, and we like some and not others. Forms of exploitation and corruption exist of course: those who entrap others in cycles of sexual or chemical abuse, those who victimise children, those who exploit the vulnerable.

Many, sadly, dress their evil up in the finery of religion – and I don’t just mean the robes and titles of the formal liturgical churches, but the heavy burdens that are laid on believers’ shoulders by so-called “free” or “free-form” churches and those who emulate them. There are many forms of oppression and exploitation, from sexual and financial exploitation, victimisation, belittlement, and countless other forms of spiritual hypocrisy.

None of this is good news, none of this is Gospel. Yet Jesus spoke into a similar culture. The Roman Empire – another that waxed and waned in the timespans of God – was corrupt. Jesus’ own religious milieu was corrupted by those – not all – who had become lackeys of Rome. There was much at which Jesus could and did point the finger, and pay for it with his life (though we would add, redeem by his resurrection).

So Jesus turns and addresses those who place impossibly heavy burdens on the shoulders of the vulnerable. Jesus challenges those who steal from the hearts of simple women and men what we might call the hope of heaven, the hope of reunion with lost loved ones, the hope that death is merely a parenthesis on the journey to God. Religious leaders who refuse to offer relief because they see themselves as too sophisticated for simple beliefs, religious leaders who demand impossible time and financial commitments from their faithful – the list is endless.

There are many forms of “Pharisaism” and “Saduceeism” in the world and church today. Indeed, at its worst, the Church has been known for its Pharisaic rejection of the not brave enough, not good enough, not articulate enough, not middle class enough, and many other “enoughs,” known for these rejections far more than we have been known for our inclusive, all-embracing love and manaakitanga (hospitality).

But we are in a remarkable time of reformation. Jesus – we might say “in the form of the Spirit” which is by whom and through whom we encounter him – is challenging the Church today, stripping away its false securities and leaving us, like the Pharisees and Sadducees, silent in his gaze.

But that is not the end of the story. As I move around this diocese and elsewhere I am seeing exciting hints of renewal, no longer led by infrastructure, by paid clergy, social capital, some sort of social standing in society. I happen to be one that hopes we can hold on to our buildings so that they can become sanctuaries of peace in the midst of a chaotic world, but I may lose that battle.

More important though is you … you and me. More important is that we continue to break open scriptures together, using new spiritual gifts of Zoom and Skype if we want to, that we share the open table of bread and wine and other less liturgical forms of fellowship. That when there are times of loss and grief in our communities we can be just visible enough and never judgemental at all so that our hurting neighbours can find a shoulder to cry on and those without hope behind the obscenely high suicide statistics may find words of comfort and resurrection hope.

I am seeing pockets of this rebirth as I move around the traps. I hope in coming months to – with others – help little faith communities find other little faith communities, rural, urban, even “virtual.” To tell stories, share experiences and ideas and resources, to renew one another’s hope and strength in the Christ from whom the Pharisees and Sadducees turned silently away.

As 2020’s paroxysms continue to rock us I believe it is in this new movement of God’s spirit in ti­­ny churches and church communities that we will find the gospel hope renewed.



Saturday, 24 October 2020

a gig for a son

 


SERMON PREACHED at ALL SAINTS’, GLADSTONE

28th ORDINARY SUNDAY (September 6th) 2020

 

 

READINGS


Exodus 32:1-14

Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23                    

Philippians 4:1-9

Matthew 22:1-14

 

 

It is frustratingly critical that we take a constructive engagement with difficult passages like our Gospel passage today, however much I’d like to wriggle out of it. We need to break them open to find the context in which they were written, and to see if we can extrapolate from their first century world anything for our twenty first century world. Can we? Whatever context Jesus was originally addressing when  he uttered this quite dark parable, that context is lost to us now, and probably was almost lost even when Matthew pick up his quill and turned to a blank papyrus. But when Matthew was writing, not when Jesus was speaking, cataclysms had taken place: the Second Temple had been destroyed by angry Roman overlords, and Jewish confidence was shattered. Things weren’t altogether easy for the Christians, either, for Romans and Jews alike were turning their wrath on us.

Whatever disconnects exist between Jesus’ teaching and Matthew’s re-telling of the parable, the finger is firmly pointed at hypocrisy. Again and again Matthew records Jesus attacks on religious hypocrisy. There is an Empire (a “kingdom”). There is a king. But let’s not too readily think these are portrayals of God and God’s “Empire.” Jesus plays fast and loose with some of his symbols, and Matthew does too. This king is not very godlike (though even the ungodly become signs of God in other Jesus parables!). This king seems a whole lot tyrannical in a way that the God of the Cross (despite dangerous “penal substitutionary atonement” theories) is not. This king throws a gig for his son, but can we equate this with Father God and Son Jesus?

At any rate the invitees reject the invite, in the end doing so with grotesque, picaresque violence. Christians have tragically often found here a form of what we call “supersessionism”: the Jews blew their chance so aren’t we Christians blessed? (Well yes, we are … but not at the expense of their blessedness).

Certainly a city is burned, reminiscent of the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 c.e. Slaves are sent out to replace the first invitees. But one new guest fails to wear the correct clobber, and God punishes him mercilessly, with stylized brutality. Is this the God we find revealed in the actions of Jesus Christ? Does God brutally punish failures? Much Christian teaching revels in this thought – and to some extent, when the first and second century equivalent of brownshirts or Gestapo come marching for our families in the dead of night that is not surprising. But ion the parable this last dramatic moment emphasizes the punishment of an “insider,” not an “outsider.” This man is part of the new in-crowd, and it is to in-crowd – to us – that these stern scenes are addressed.

In other words, however God may or may not treat those outside the faith community – and God does that by handing them over to the ramifications of their own volition (as Paul tells us in the opening of his letter to the Romans) – God also hands those who are sloppy in faith over to the ramifications of their sloppiness.

So what of us of the Comfortable Western Church? While the Gospel, even Matthew’s starkest Gospel-account with its much wailing and gnashing of teeth – is always Good News of grace, it is clear that we are challenged to look long and hard at ourselves. In a Covid-19 post-Christendom world we are called to do just that: look at ourselves.

The parable is an illustration, not an instruction manual.  God does not “send” Covid-a9 to punish innocent and guilty haphazardly. God does, I feel, “hand us over” to the ramifications of our greed, to our denuding of Planet Earth, to our exploitations of earth’s resources (and even this raises the question of why the poor suffer disproportionately).

In response we are called to show, to shine Christlight by the quality of our compassion and care. We can sidestep the very Matthean gnashing and wailing by turning our shabby wedding garb into love and compassion for the most vulnerable of the earth, the “wretched of the earth.” In the chapters to come Matthew will, with Jesus, turn his gaze on myriad forms of religious hypocrisy.

He calls us to be a servant people, to live in readiness for divine judgement. He calls us to live in readiness and to make goodness and faithfulness to the God of the Cross, the vulnerable compassionate God, the hallmark of our lives. He calls us to be custodians and dispensers – as we will see in Matthew 24: 46 – of God’s goodness. It is by this rather than by empty gestures that we become the bearers of Good News.

 

 

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.