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Saturday, 4 May 2019

Lord, help me!

finding light


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 unspectacuolar llife, but one that shifted from one faith-view to another. Although I did as a teen ager 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, unspectauclar 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 realising 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 awar,e 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 apocalytic age, even the last when it comes.

Monday, 15 April 2019

wrong place, wrong god

wrong place, wrong god

SIXTH SUNDAY OF LENT (14th April) 2019

Isaiah 50: 4-9a
Psalm 31: 9-16
Philippians 2: 5-11
Luke 19: 28-40

I apologise, firstly that I have not followed the expected routine, and my usual practice, of reading the entire passion on this day. As a visitor I feel a little awkward changing the plans your vicar had made, especially as they match my own normal practice, but in the interests of road safety and the quick bestowal of a few minimalist thoughts from a stranger not immersed in your daily life I felt it would be better to dwell momentarily on one of the central enigmas of our western church year.

I say western, incidentally because, as it was pointed out at a liturgy I attended at your cathedral recently, the Orthodox churches spend less time pretending that we don’t expect the resurrection during our Lenten observances. They permit themselves enough joy to continue pouring out the hallelujahs and rejoicing in resurrection hope throughout the season. I suspect we can, just a little, too. But today I might just put the brakes on anyway, and be thoroughly “western” as we journey through what in my childhood was one of the great feasts of the year, the feast of Palm Sunday, or as I prefer to call it these days, the observance of Getting It Wrong.

Let me explain. There was a scholar a few decades back who theorized that for Luke, as he told the story of Jesus, the whole of history narrowed itself down to an hourglass neck, like a fulcrum on which all history balances, but more emphatically the tiny narrow waist, the centre of time, before which dwelt God’s old dealings with humanity and creation, after which God’s new ways of dealing with humanity and all creation, and in which all cosmic history is given meaning. He (Conzelmann) is probably a bit passe now, but I think he might be right.

The hour glass waist moment in time was the death and resurrection of Jesus. In that moment of surrender all of God’s dealing with humanity and creation is given meaning. Death is conquered, life is as it were “re-blessed,” hope springs eternal. Don’t let us worry about the mechanics, because like the mechanics of a black hole but far more so, they are far, far beyond our comprehension. In the moment of death and resurrection of Jesus all cosmic history is given meaning.

And we celebrate Palm Sunday, but Palm Sunday is before Good Friday and Easter, before meaning is revealed, before creation is redeemed. We celebrate a triumphant entry of a king into God’s holy city. But – though it’s the right bloke, it’s the wrong time and wrong methodology. God in Christ has not yet entered humanity’s and creation’s deepest hellholes. God has not redeemed us, and we’re still awaiting a political, military revolution. We’re looking for a terribly human, politico-historical solution to hellishness and sadness and darkness and death, and that is not God’s solution.

We will not join the Orthodox today. Let’s leave it … though we know that in a week’s time we will be surprised by joy, but let’s leave it with us looking in the wrong place for hope. Jesus will stride on through the wrong place, and head to the right place, the deepest hells of abandonment and death, Syria, post-cyclone Mozambique, or the mosques of our Christchurch neighbours. We will fall away. Yet he will beckon us back even so, and at last and forever the hallelujahs will burst forth. 

Welcome to the journey of Holy Week.

Friday, 5 April 2019

hoping against appearances

FIFTH SUNDAY OF LENT (7th April) 2019

Isaiah 43: 16-21
Psalm 126
Philippians 3:4b-14
John 12:1-8

These are strange times in which to have the role of interpreting, breaking open and making meaning of ancient words of scripture. Thirty-plus years ago when I set out on this journey it was, perhaps, all a little theoretical.
We were aware, yes, that since July 16, 1945 humanity had, for the first time, the ability to destroy itself and its planet, but on the whole things looked fairly hunky dory. The Berlin Wall would soon crumble, though perhaps we weren’t expecting it yet. We had more or less survived a Reagan presidency and its obsession with Star Wars. There were concerns about apocalyptic issues, and Tiananmen Square was a brutal obscenity on our consciousness, but apocalyptic’s complex messages and convoluted assurances seemed on the whole rather abstract.
So if in 1989 I was preaching from these poignant words of Isaiah I suspect the message was reasonably theoretical. Isaiah’s original audience had been through brutal exile, and he whispered surprisingly unpopular words of comfort and promised return to prosperity and peace. Like collective Stockholm Syndrome subjects the Israelites weren’t particularly interested. Israel and its old fashioned god was so 150 years ago, why wouldn’t Isaiah just shut up and go away?
And that was about it, really. All a bit abstract. “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.” I mean why would you? Babylonian exile was a bit of a doddle, collective amnesia a fine state to enjoy. Pass another piña colada, please, and slip Milli Vanilli or the B-52s on the stereo.  
Yet since then, if I can borrow TS Eliot’s phrase again, so many certainties have crumbled. As a person called to preach I have to self-assess: am I merely slipping into the potential apocalyptic idiocies of old age? Am I merely succumbing to the over-abundance of information of the ether-highway in an age of Trumpianism and a growing white supremacist profile? Timothy McVeigh aside, was white supremacy even a Thing in 1989. His act of evil was still six years into the future then anyway. To speak of the God of Israel and of the Cross was so comfortable then.
There were tiny hints of darkness even then as we strode into a brave new world, hints that all was not well in the Garden of Eden. Rachel Carson of course had issued her prophetic howl years earlier, but there were one or two other more recent troublesome signs. The Middle East would not go away, Terry Waite was a captive, and yes, Tiananmen Square. But they weren’t even a glitch in the matrix – just temporary if tragic parentheses in the human and cosmic progress we were experiencing. God was in God’s heaven and all was well, and it was comfortable enough to believe. Just like it was fairly cruisy in exile in the sixth century before the Common Era, too. If we were inclined to believe in God and stuff, it was neither too costly nor too totally weird.
But “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” Since then it is as if the former western world, the Global North, has been driven into exile. Slowly the accumulated symptoms of ecological, economic and cultural collapse have gained exponentially in accumulated weight. Eden is burning, and few of us have the ability to navigate the resultant blanket of smog. Is there hope for our mokopuna, not to mention countless of our neighbouring species, on a planet whose death appears far more imminent than we could have dreamed in our wildest nightmares thirty years ago? “It was so easy then,” sang Carly Simon, but it’s the older lyric of John Lennon that seems more apropos today: “Christ you know it ain’t easy,” and if Lennon meant it as a curse, I mean it as a stuttered prayer.  Yet the gospels suggest Christ does know how hard it can be, because Christ is the face of the unseen God who walked the harshest road of all.
Yet this is when faith’s traction bites the road. This is exactly when we stand on the shoulders of the Isaiahs who tried to speak of God over two hundred years of catastrophic upheaval. [For those being confirmed today this is indeed a time in which the faith in which you are confirmed and in which we are challenged to stand with you becomes most pertinent. The assurance of things hoped for against all odds]. It is in these circumstances that the call to hold to the promises of an unseen god become most difficult to hold to and yet – and yet that is the challenge to which we are called, to which we make claim in our worship. This is when we are called to live out that choristers’ prayer, that “what we sing with our lips we may believe in our hearts, and what we believe in our hearts we may show forth in our lives.” 
Those who heard the words of the original Isaiahs may never have seen the outcome and fulfilment of their daring promises, their words spoken of hope against all odds. We may not either: the cataclysms of mother earth and of decaying civilizations may outlast our brief existences. The time scale of scripture, and even more so the timescale of divinity, is beyond our comprehension. Nevertheless, as the apostle Paul bravely affirmed against all odds, we are called to “strain … forward to what lies ahead.” What lies ahead, the doctrines of Christianity tell us, are the futures of God: “O let me see thy footprints and in them plant my own.” It is not easy to believe this stuff – not as easy as it was thirty years ago, straining forward to what lies ahead, though probably easier than it will be thirty years hence. It is not easy, but like the grieving, sensual, aching Mary we are called to pour out our love in costly, priceless hope. It is to against-all-odds hope that we are called, and it is in against-all-odds hope that our risen Christ will lead us, stumbling, on, murmuring the psalmist’s prayer:

May those who sow in tears
    reap with shouts of joy.
Those who go out weeping,
    bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
    carrying their sheaves.

Saturday, 30 March 2019

grace and yearning

FOURTH SUNDAY OF LENT (31st March) 2019

1 Samuel 1: 20-28
Psalm 127: 1-4
Colossians 3:12-17
John 19: 25-27

Mothering Sunday has never been a part of my own tradition. This is not because I don’t think mothers are a good idea. Most of us have had one, after all! Rather it is but because I am not sure what it is doing in the middle of Lent. Professor Google is always a useful friend, and reports that the origins of this strange incursion into the middle of the Lenten journey was an English invention, based on the premise that the peasants daughters were likely, by mid-adolescence, to have been forced away from home in the search for an income, and that on this mid-point of Lent they might be allowed home, in an act of grace by their employers, to visit their mothers.

Tradition has it that the daughters gathered flowers on their journey back to their home, usually just a few miles away. At this juncture we can recognize some marriage between the British break in lent and a later American celebration, Mother’s Day (the apostrophe belongs before the s, in recognition that most of us have only one mother).  Mother’s Day was originally invented by a Methodist woman named Anna Jarvis. She would soon regret the commercial event that grew like a cuckoo chick in the nest of her mourning for a much-loved and inspirational mother. Asher expression of love and admiration for her mother was seized on my Hallmark Cards and other profiteering ventures she sought to rescind the day she had invented, but the capitalist genie was out of the bottle, and the expression of love by a grieving daughter.

There are two ingredients we should hold over from these two stories; the first is grace, the permission granted to the young women to return to their village for one Sunday. The second is yearning, the yearning grief that Anna Jarvis was seeking to redress in honouring her mother. Grace and yearning.

For the young women of the sixteenth century the return to the home village was a break in privations. They returned for this one day to mother (if she was still alive), and to the mother church in the which the young woman’s faith had been nurtured as a child.

So our readings hang very loose to the great themes of Lent and of God’s willing redemption of humankind. Yet there are hints; we find the dying Jesus recognising a mother’s incalculable grief as she observes her son’s agony. No parent wishes to outlive their beloved children, and I know as I speak these words that some of you will have borne that anguish. There are no words. Jesus, in his own agony, recognises, connects with, redeems the emotional suffering of his mother: “woman, here is your son.” Of course an adopted son will not wholly replace the real son, yet Jesus reveals the compassion, the “suffering with” which is what compassion means, the compassionate being of God. 

Here is revealed the truth that Timothy Rees would express in one of his finest hymns, “when human hearts are breaking under sorrow's iron rod, then they find that selfsame aching deep within the heart of God.” The heart of God aches … and there the lights of resurrection hope begin to form, if not yet to flicker.

But Jesus has always revealed the ability of the divine heart – which it is, as it were, his “job” to reveal – to ache, to yearn. He has stood over his beloved city Jerusalem and cried out “How I would gather you together as a mother hen gathers her chickens, but you would not.” He has been moved again and again to the depths of his being by the plight of the poor and the outcast. He could not but feel his mother’s anguish, even though his own: “woman” (a word or greater endearment than it sounds to us) “behold your son.”

Jesus has always yearned. This should be no surprise. The Creator God who Jesus calls “Abba” has also always yearned. The story of the Hebrew people and their God has been one long tale of unbalanced yearning. Again and again the prophets tell of God, yearning that the Hebrews will return to right relationship with their Creator. Over and again God weeps for the chosen people. God weeps for all humanity, for whom the chosen people are called to be a sign. And while the human yearning for God is dulled from the moment of our expulsion from Eden, it remains: we seek as a race to find meaning, seek hope, seek authentication of our existence in so many ways. Generally though we are loathe to turn to the God who beckons us, and seek meaning or sometimes just anaesthesia elsewhere, instead.

The founder of the American commercial Mother’s Day never wanted it to be commercial. She wanted it to express her yearning for an inspirational mother who was no longer with her. This deepest, most visceral human emotion was at the heart of the day that became obliterated by commerce. In a strange coincidence the origins of the English quasi-liturgical event of Mothering Sunday expressed that other great truth, of grace. Unmerited access to hope, to love, to God, to God’s resurrection promise for us and for those we love. And so, despite my bigotry, in tis strange mishmash festival there is a twofold message of God. The God who yearns for us, and who creates in us the ability to yearn for God, and for all who we love, also provides this unmerited hope: God is here, God waits for us again and again to open ourselves up to divine love. God embraces those who we have loved and see no longer. God invites us to relationship, and God invites us to be a sign to others in this world that such hope, such relationship with the Source of All Meaning, the Creator, is possible.

The author of Colossians sets out a blueprint as to how we might be a sign to ourselves and to those around us of the possibilities inherent in relationship with Jesus. Enabled, empowered by the Spirit we can be a sign, that the yearning and the grace can collide, leading us into the heart of God:

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.  Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.  Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.  And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

Saturday, 23 March 2019

stumbling in a place of judgement

THIRD SUNDAY OF LENT (24th March) 2019

Exodus 3:1-15
Psalm 63:1-8
1 Corinthians 10:1-13
Luke 13:-1-9

Coming to you as a stranger – which I know is frequently the option here – makes it difficult to break open the word with authenticity amongst you. The art of proclamation, preaching, is a transaction between parties immersed and conjoined in the Spirit of God. Biblical authors, collators, society and its changes, your story, my story, all engage. The points in common are common enough, but the disconnections can be brutal. Forgive me if in my foreignness (relatively so, of course: I haven’t arrived from Mars, though some have often thought so when I’ve preached!) our lines in the stave do not harmonize. At the very least may our souls sing from the same source and the same destiny, sing in the same embrace of God.
I say this particularly because the readings all take us to stern places today, journeying as we are through Lent. But I say it too because here in our nation we have been taken to stern places, places from which we can only stutter in deep lament. We will never forget, though we may repress, the moment when we heard of the shootings in Christchurch ten days ago. For most of us the pain will pass, because it’s reasonably abstract. Less abstract perhaps than shootings in the USA, cyclones in southern Africa and Arnhemland and Arizona, but abstract nevertheless. For us personally new days have dawned without palpable grief. But they have dawned with a niggling sense that something has changed. Watersheds do that. Our 9/11 has changed us, just as the world’s 9/11 changed us.
Our readings – from long ago yet from today, too – take us to the heart of God of judgement. While often in the church we have trivialised this stern, what I in my writings call (after C. S. Lewis) “Aslam is not a tame lion” aspect of God, we do so at peril. Christchurch was not in a simple obscene sense God’s judgement, any more than Good Friday was the bitter and bloody act of a vitriolic God. But Christchurch was the outcome of our silent self-satisfaction and our acquiescence with evil, the joint evils of xenophobia and complacency. A brutal reminder that we are as tolerant a society as we are a clean green society, and that the veneer is very thin.
Good Friday, towards which we are journeying through Lent, was likewise a brutal reminder, the brutal reminder, that humanity will always crucify love and justice and compassion (and if we doubt that, we might recall news statements today that there are serious death threats directed at our prime minister right now).
That the Christchurch killings took place is an event from which we are brought to crisis, to judgement (the words are the same), and are a call to ameliorative, restorative action. Christchurch was our moment to cry out in a dry and weary land where there is no water (metaphorically speaking), our striking down in the wilderness, and our cutting down in the orchard.
We the Church are not in a position to wave big sticks. In the Church (in all its forms) we have often done so, or finger-pointed at the community around us. Our permission to do that, if it ever existed, has long been exposed as a fraud. Our sorry histories of exploitation and abuse are something we are called deeply to repent. While that is partially a story for a different time it is not entirely so.
We cannot wave a big stick at society, but we can demonstrate the integrity of the gospel we are called to proclaim. We can be speaking and acting out of conspicuous love, justice and compassion, and doing so in the face of the growing narratives of hatred towards our Muslim brothers and sisters.
Speaking up for the persecuted includes not only our Muslim whanau but all our persecuted minority brothers and sisters. We might, as we speak in Lent about conspicuous justice, love and compassion, and about the judgement of God, note that bikies have been more visible in their actions of love and support for our friends than many Christian groups. We might at this time lament those pseudo-Christian leaders (and I will name Brian Tamaki) who have used this time to worsen the pain of our Muslim friends.
We surrender a theology of God’s judgement, running through our readings today, at great peril. But other themes run through these scriptures, and we ignore them, too, at peril. As Paul writes about the history of the people of God, and of the failings of our predecessors in faith (and there is nothing new under the sun), and about God’s judgement, he writes as always with a deep sense of the God who draws near to and enters the human predicament in Christ.
We surrender the doctrine of Incarnation, too, at great peril. I am not here critiquing our Muslim, Jewish and other neighbours, for whom this doctrine is incomprehensible, perhaps silly or even offensive. I critique those who espouse faith in Christ while dismantling the meaning of his existence. For us God is not merely out there at the edge of the universe or universes, but has drawn near to and indeed entered human experience in the Incarnation and in Pentecost’s coming of the Spirit. 
For Paul, God in Christ enters into our own stumbling and failure, as well as our doubts and uncertainties. God in Christ enters and transforms our failures into the Easter hope. We speak, in a time of ecological and sociological and economic crisis (judgement) not with empty platitudes but with individual and collective experience of lives transformed by God. This is the God who in Christ by the Spirit enters us and converts us and our world from darkness to light, from despair to hope. We must speak by our actions and attitudes, and only then perhaps by words, but we speak (or should) nevertheless. We remain silent, frozen in the headlights, at great peril. We ignore the central traditional resurrection faith of our forebears at great peril for without it we have nothing to say.
The readings take` us to a place of judgement, crisis. They take us to a God who in Christ draws near and even within us.
They do not leave us in the shadow of Good Friday. In the apocalyptic language often favoured by biblical characters, yes, the axe is at the foot of the vine or the tree. Yet that, we know, is not the final word. We must not forget, or again do so at great peril, a third great theme of our scriptures, that of grace and its spiritual bed-fellow, resurrection-hope. 
Am I good enough to bear witness to the love and compassion of God? I don’t have to be an extraordinary sinner (though I do quite badly well) to know that the answer is no. I stumble, I fall. As the old confession wisely used to put it, I do the things I ought not to do and leave undone the things I ought to have done. I suspect we are all stumblers on the Way of the Cross: the reminder in the Stations of the Cross that some will observe on Good Friday, that Jesus stumbles, enters our stumbling on the journey to death and resurrection. That is a powerful sign of hope. For in the end, while we cannot, must not be complacent in the face of darknesses, we are nevertheless privileged to know the transforming energies of the eternal one who walks with us, leads us in God's warm footprints to eternal hope and life. We know the God who refuses any name beyond “I am,” but who beckons us always to the hope beyond our understanding and the eternities beyond our sight.


Friday, 15 March 2019

faith amidst hate?

SECOND SUNDAY OF LENT (March 17th) 2019


    • Jeremiah 22: 1-9, 13-17
    • Psalm 135
    • Luke 14: 27-33

In the various apocalyptic writings of Christian and Jewish faith lurid images of destruction occur over and again. In a cynical post-Enlightenment world we tend to dismiss them, relegate them to idiot fringes. Many religious leaders generate destruction by abusing apocalyptic writings, propping up cynical self-interests and power structures. Apocalyptic is a articular genre, designed to bring hope to those who are suffering. Denude it of its coordinates of suffering and it can become one more page of hatred, like the supremacist narratives of hate that turned into the slaughter of fifty people in Christchurch his past week. Destruction. Hate. These are weapons of evil. The actual purpose of biblical apocalyptic was very different, no matter how it has come to be abused.
Biblical (and other) narratives of apocalyptic were designed to critique evil. They critiqued narratives of hate, narratives that demonise otherness, narratives of xenophobia. But they have been distorted by religious leaders in every given time in which Christian and other religious leaders and practitioners have become a full of their own exceptionalism and self-importance. In Christchurch we saw religionless hatred dressed up in a manifesto of supremacy. It is no different.
Hatred is hatred, and it is our task to ensure hatred and its reverberating “no” is not the final word. Our task is to proclaim active, outspoken love, to whisper God’s mysterious “yes.”
Hatred is hatred. Even before the unspeakable atrocities of the Al Noor mosque and Linwood Islamic Centre, hatred and abuse were dominating news cycles. Across the ditch Australian Cardinal Pell is beginning a gaol term from which, however lenient some think it, he may never emerge alive (if probable appeals are unsuccessful). Royal Commissions on both sides of the Tasman have been, are or will be exposing heart-chilling betrayal and predation within religious organizations.
Sure: it is not only religious bodies and narratives that have betrayed the vulnerable. Michael Jackson is a tragic reminder that money blinds even parental eyes. Roman Polanski, Jimmy Savile, Rolf Harris, Bill Cosby, a roll call of abuse, remind us that many corridors have housed and protected evil. Debra Lafave, if we Google her, reminds us that predation is about power not gender.  And now forty-nine people are dead in Christchurch; hatred is hatred, and all acts of sexual abuse and xenophobic terrorism are attempts to eradicate the lights of love and hope about which we too languidly sing and pray.
Lists of perfidy should never have included ostensible bearers of Christ. Yet Christian structures of power and authority, Catholic, Anglican, Protestant and Pentecostal alike, have been for centuries formidable Petrie dishes of predation. We have at best merely mumbled in the face of evil.
Lent is a fine time to repent and change and act in the name of Jesus, the Christ who lived and died to dismantle power and hate.
Jesus stood deliberately in the footsteps of Jeremiah. Jeremiah, the iconoclastic prophet who turned his rage on the politico-religious leadership of his day. Jeremiah, who like Jesus after him put into the mouth of his God and ours fearsome words that we gloss so easily: “I swear that I will make you a desert, an uninhabited city.” Today they are words spoken to the global north, or as we used to call it, “first” or “western” world. We the community of the homeless messiah have aided and abetted narratives of corruption, abuse, and death. We as pray-ers and singers, as Christ-bearers of varied beliefs do not escape the prophet’s brutal gaze.
Jeremiah turned on the self-consciously holier-than-thou practitioners, the elite religious castes of his day and spat his rancid words: “In the prophets I saw a disgusting thing …”.
In the case of Pell and others the same religious leaders who have noisily barred those seeking love and companionship from the experiences of inclusion in the Christ community have themselves perpetrated sexual abuse, and our structures protected the perpetrators. In the case of Al Noor and Linwood we have not spoken out to counter waves of hatred directed at our Muslim sisters and brothers. Our silence chastises us.  Jeremiah’s finger is pointed fearlessly, timelessly and especially at our religious bodies today. We have harboured predators, and have remained silent in the face of hate.
There is no room for complacency, as the Royal Commission will soon remind us in the case of the predation, and Al Noor and Linwood tells us in the face of hatred.
At which point there appears very little attraction to persevere with a faith, let alone an institution, that has nurtured so dark a hypocrisy. Where is God, when evil has been so deep? This Lent perhaps more than any other I find my replies to that question, called in academic circles the “theodicy question,” are stuttered. George Pell … Brenton Tarrant … Where is hope?
And yet … and yet … “Oh love that will not let me go …”
I stumble on.
Jesus’ speaks to us even as our institutions rightly crumble and the shibboleths, the false gods that TS Eliot called “the old certainties” collapse. Unless we heed the bare, raw, frightening yet eventually comfort-filled words of Jeremiah and Jesus we will not eradicate abuse, predation or xenophobia.
The cross: take it up. Raw, bloodied, unimaginably stripped of pretention, romance, power, or prestige. Take it up, says Jesus, and stumble with me. In following his broken, powerless footsteps we find love that conquers: O love that will not let me go. We find hate-conquering resurrection belief though it seems like nonsense to ears that will not hear, hearts that will not feel, eyes that will not see beyond the limits of the rational. In the powerless broken footsteps of Jesus we find the way to hope that whispers that neither George Pell nor Michael Jackson, Brenton Tarrant nor Anders Breivik, Osama bin Laden or Abū Bakr al-Baghdadi have the final word on life and death.
Take up a cross, Jesus said, with the aid of him who has been there, staggered with it, and there breathed judgement and hope into sin and suffering. Take it up, but unlike the predators who have abused it, used it, (in some case literally) as a weapon of victimization, stay with its renunciation of power. Only then and there do we find the healing resurrection touch of the Easter God.

Sunday, 24 February 2019

all welcome here? yeah, right.

ORDINARY SUNDAY 7 (24th February) 2019

            Genesis 45: 3-11, 15
Psalm 37: 1-11, 39-40
1 Corinthians 15:35-38, 42-50
Luke 6:27-38

In letters written to the Corinthian Christians, Paul drew one line more prominent than any other in the sand. No resurrection: no gospel. As some will have heard, some years ago, when I was Dean of Waiapu, I sat aghast as a clerical colleague drew, fortunately for a tiny mid-week congregation, an eloquent case for dismissing any belief in resurrection in the narrative of the Christian community.
He began with a satirical attack on the doctrines of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, mocked their (now somewhat modified) teachings regarding the salvation of 144,000 faithful, then moved on to maintain that any idea that those we love or we ourselves could believe in any doctrine of afterlife is nonsense. Sadly, I was so deeply winded, spiritually speaking, that I sat in flabbergasted silence. Thoughts of Paul’s fierce defence of the doctrine of resurrection reverberating in my speechless mind.
I am reminded of that moment today, not only because our Corinthians passage is one in which Paul turns to the centrality of the death and resurrection of Jesus, but because Jesus himself is dwelling on images of largesse, of the responsibility of his followers to offer more than mere equivalence to the actions and thoughts of those amongst whom God calls us to dwell. Jesus calls us, as bearers of his name, as disciples, to surpass the expected, to go beyond the merely normal.
In these sayings Jesus is focussing on the pragmatisms of succour (coats) and of restorative (as against retributive) justice (slaps). Elsewhere Jesus demands extra miles, and reminds us to give fish, not stones, bread, not scorpions, to the hungry.
In a confused world where truth is called fake news and old certainties have crumbled it is not the task of Christian preachers to dismantle the central tenets of our faith. Perhaps as he wrote to the recalcitrant and faith-corrupted Corinthians Paul had in mind the Jesus-sayings about generosity and largesse, applying them to the hope at the heart of Christian doctrine. Fish, or stone? Hope, or despair? Paul warned those who deny the resurrection that they are more to be pitied than all people. Deny the central doctrine of faith and we betray the very core of Christ-following, and offer the world only hopelessness and darkness for hope and light, exclusion for embrace. Do we offer bread, or a scorpion to God’s world?
So I want us for a moment to be outside the church we (mainly) love, outside the institution in which we live looking in. What entices, what impels, what forbids?
Perhaps let’s look at it a different way. It is a bitterly cold Otago night. We have been cast for whatever reason from the warmth of our home and fireplace – perhaps our car is broken down as we drive from Invercargill to Picton. We glance through glass doors at a lively group gathered in an unfamiliar room, laughing, talking around a table, sharing a drink and fine food. Between us and the door – a notice on which assures us we are welcome – there is vast impenetrable chasm. It could be anything. A salivating rottweiler, a racial divide, a dress code. All are welcome, except those who do not fit. With heavy hearts we turn away and trudge into the night.
As we watched momentarily from outside we could hear what was being said inside. A figure, well-dressed, was speaking, enthusing vigorously about the love that is shared between those gathered in the room. Aren’t we good? “They will know we are Christians by our love,” he sang for a moment or two. Aren’t we a welcoming people? See how we love each other! The rottweiler growled, menacingly, as we turned and sadly walked into the winter’s night.
In his best-known book What’s So Amazing About Grace, the Christ-bearing writer Philip Yancey tells a tale about a prostitute. Asked why she has not sought help in her predicament by attending a Christian gathering, a church, she responds exclaiming that she feels bad enough about herself without entering a place where she will be made to feel worse. All are welcome here, so many Christian churches proclaim, except those not clean enough, literate enough, white enough, heterosexual enough, sober enough to enter. “Do not judge, and you will not be judged,” says Jesus. “Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned.” And we don’t. Not in so many words.
And yet I wonder. I once knew a fine and dignified church in a place far from here. A young Māori woman walked in – she lived nearby and had often wondered what went on there. “Have you come to the right place?” a gentleman asked. Was it that she was Māori? Tattooed? Unfamiliar, other in some other way? What if she had come with a wife? In the same place during the week a man came looking for shelter from the weather. He’d had a drink or two, sure, but all he wanted was a place to rest awhile. He was moved along, unwelcome. “Give, and it will be given to you.” An eccentric woman with a bird on a shoulder was barred from communion. So too was a woman with a dog. You’re welcome, but only if you clone those of us cosily here already.
We tend to forget how foreign and even hostile a place we have become in a post Christendom society. As we approach Lent, we might ask some deep questions of ourselves. If there has been a work of the Holy Spirit – and I believe there has in recent years – it is that many of our false beliefs about ourselves have been exploded. Those who dress like us, believe like us, read what we read, all those are welcome here. But most of society doesn’t. Many of our behaviours have either been exposed as mere façades, or have been drowned out by our messages of intolerance: why would I go to church, says the prostitute at the opening scene of What’s So Amazing About Grace?
As a corporate body we have forgotten our brokenness. We have often rejoiced in our salvation, but forgotten our need for it at the beginnng. “I’ve been redeemed,” we sing and chant happily, emphasizing our singularity and our satisfaction. But our need for God’s touch? We’ve forgotten or never known it, parceled God into our lives as a habit or a convenience or a panacea or an insurance policy in case there’s a judgement and a hell. We have forgotten that the one who reaches across the abyss of the universe to edify our lives was the broken one, the hated one, the one who despite belonging in the place of the man of heaven, despite being the man of heaven, becomes for us the man of dust, real dust, real brokenness, and there touches our lives. Paul is saying something like that when he reminds the recalcitrant, self-satisfied Corinthians, “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.” God in Christ gets pretty dusty to meet and penetrate our dusty lives, and we forget that at great peril.
The Church community is by God’s Spirit being forced to reassess itself. Are we a place of welcome, a whare oranga in which all may feel the love-touch of resurrection hope? Let us in the week to come ask ourselves how we look from outside, ask the Spirit of God to remind us where we have created barriers, ask the Spirit of God to dismantle those barriers that assure the seekers and the broken and the not good enough neighbours that they are not welcome. For this table fellowship we share is not the Feast of Hope for the Good Enough, but the feast of those who know they are not good enough, yet even so are touched by the warmth and the love of the risen Lord