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Friday, 29 September 2023

all-embracing christ




26th ORDINARY SUNDAY (October 1st) 2023




Exodus 17: 1-7

Psalm 78: 1-4, 12-16

Philippians 2:1-13

Matthew 21: 23-32



If we were working systematically through a study of Matthew’s gospel account we would be at this point turning towards the finish line – if we were piloting an Airbus we might term this “on final.” I recall as a cross-country runner at boarding school this would be the moment I would dare to hope I might survive the experience, but as if to remind me that the pointy end of life is death it was also the point at which most of my friends would overtake me. I’m sure there’s a metaphor there somewhere? Certainly as a passenger on an aircraft I am reasonably convinced this is the moment I am going to die.

For the Jesus journey it was the moment death became inevitable. Unflinching in the face of growing opposition, Jesus from this moment on puts his metaphorical knife deeper and deeper into the hypocrisies of his society – a society simultaneously deeply religious and deeply corrupt.

Yet, for once it is another passage that profoundly unpacks the significance of this moment in the Jesus story. Perhaps a couple of decades after the events Matthew describes (and Matthew was writing at a still later stage) the passionate apostle Paul was describing Jesus’ life in terms of what the Greeks call “kenosis,” or self-emptying. Philippians was one of Paul’s last letters, written from prison, as Paul himself faced a likely execution. “Kenosis,” self-emptying to the point of death, is no trivial matter – far worse than a few tired metres on a cross-country course, or a few  moments of fear on approach to Wellington’s notorious airport.

And that in part is Paul’s point. Jesus, the inexplicably divine being, has so emptied himself, emptied himself of all but love, that it can only lead to tears and to death. And as he points his finger, especially with his parables in this chapter of Matthew, at religious hypocrisy, he is making any chance of escaping execution less and less likely. 

Paul sees this, given a couple of decades hindsight, with blinding clarity. The caveat “of all but love” made so powerfully by Charles Wesley (in a hymn we won’t sing today because we sang it recently), that caveat is an important one. No cosy room in safe places for the self-sacrificing God-man Jesus: only death. But that execution is the result of love. Love that proclaims justice, because love always will. Love and justice made the Jesus path dangerous because it poked the bear of religious hypocrites and their self-interest.

You may recall a passage that is to come up soon in our readings; as Jesus stands over the city of Jerusalem, he wishes that his beloved compatriots the Jewish people would turn back to the love and justice that the Law and Prophets demand. Like a mother – or as Jesus put it, like a mother hen – he longs for his people to return to the human decencies that are the standards and demands of dwelling in his home, paradise. But the recalcitrant child, Israel, or indeed humanity, will not come home, and the mother Jesus has only one choice left.

That choice, of course takes him to Good Friday, and more of that next Eastertide. For now though we must just recognize the extent to which this self-surrender of Jesus is reaching. Jesus, the self-emptying divine being enfleshed in our experience, this Jesus enters into our own waywardness and fallibility, our own tendency to do wrong things. There he breathes forgiveness and life and love and light and hope.

Forget for now, perhaps for ever, the language of pouring out blood for us as if Jesus’ primary task were to appease a grumpy and rather unjust god. Jesus enters into our failure to be the son-that-gets-it-right (eventually) in the parable he tells. Jesus, a bit like the brave souls who paved the way across the hillsides to Skippers or Macetown, like that but so much more, Jesus paves a way for us to pass the finish line (even if a few friends overtake us) or to land safely on the runway. 

The Lordship, as Paul describes it, of Jesus reaches into the deepest human grot and gets us over the finish line in his care.


St Paul's, Arrowtown



for the 150th Anniversary of First Service in the Church



“Spirit of Place”


It was years ago that I flew to make a new life in Australia, having received most of my growing up in New Zealand. I tell you that only because at around that time I became aware of the Australian rock band Goanna, and their album The Spirit of Place. Years later, when I knew more of Celtic spirituality, I learned too of the notion of “thin places.” The Spirit of Place. Thin Places. Working with Aboriginal people particularly but not exclusively in the Northern Territory I leaned more of both these concepts. They have informed my Christians faith – but paradoxically my respect for other faiths, ever since.

So I don’t want to delay you with a long sermon breaking open a gaggle of scriptural passages – especially as I am not the person you espected to har as you gathered to remember 150 years. The readings touch on “spirit” at a stretch: the sense of longing for sacred space that the Hebrews had as they journeyed through wilderness years, the joy the psalmist had as he remembered his forebears journeying to freedom … Paul? Well … for him the encounter with Christ in scripture and worship became place in itself. Jesus? The link is tenuous, but perhaps the sacredness of opening ourselves up to the grace of the God who is all around us … but the links are tenuous. Perhaps I just stuck with the readings because I’m lazy! Though in the chaos of recent days I’m glad I did: the chaos of cryptosporidium (yeah, I practised that!), of burst water mains at St Peter’s, of declarsions of emergency and the discovery that the Queenstown church was then wasn’t an emergency centre for the town, the discovery that I was going to have to step up in place of our bishop at short notice.

I wonder what our forebears would have made of it. Mr Coffey, the truculent vicar, the generous benefactors Holmden and De la Perrelle, the first worshippers? Would they see progress or chaos in our days? What would they make of the liturgies that are a far cry from the solemn rites of Book of Common Prayer around which they would have gathered.

The good, the bad, the ugly: I chose traditional hymns today, hymns Mr. Coffey and his parishioners probably knew, and felt comfortable with (alongside those “comfortable words” that were a part of the old liturgies, and “comfortable” in more ways than one). But what would they have made of the one unfamiliar hymn, of Kendrick’s references to social justice: to killing fields, plunder and poison?

So maybe it was or maybe it wasn’t providential that I took the easy path in choosing to use the readings for the day so the bishop could wrestle with them. That came back to bite me! And yet, while we use a different cycle of readings to those Coffey and De La Perrelle and Holmden would have known, the bible is the same, the translation perhaps a little different, but the essence the same. And strangely the readings and the liturgy themselves can become a thin place, a sacred place whee heaven meets earth despite chaos, all the chaos that we see in our community and world.

Enough. The thin place, the spirit of place for us this day is this space of St. Paul’s, dreamed and laboured into being by its founders, kept alive by countless since, some you will have known, some you will not. Yet we meet with the same “bounden duty,” as Mr Coffey’s prayer book would have put it, to encounter, absorb and proclaim the Christ and his God met in our readings. We meet with two generations largely missing now, of course.  That’s a cha;;leneg Mr Coffeey would have been bewildered by. Generations missing would have been sternly rebuked. But that’s not our task.

Our task is to keep this thin place thin – regardless of the ups and downs of our own belief. Our task is to keep prayers whispered, readings read, songs sung despite all odds, because the generosity of those first donors – some of your ancestors – and even the truculence of stern old Mt Coffey the fierce Irish Protestant first clergyman, they were all like you and me tarnished building blacks in the mysteries of God.

Thanks for being here, and let's keep this thin place thin.

Saturday, 2 September 2023

stumbling in valleys




22nd ORDINARY SUNDAY (September 3rd) 2023




Exodus 3: 1-15

Psalm 105: 1-7

Rom 12: 9-16

Matthew 16: 21-26



I have a couple of web pages that I run, and they provide me, kindly or otherwise, with performance charts. I like the charts not because I am particularly interested in the performance of my brain explosions, but because I love the aesthetic that the charts provide.

For a similar reason, when I was studying conflict resolution a few years back, I loved a book by an Australian academic, who described conflict resolution as being like crossing Australia from Sydney to Perth. That’s an endurance effort by any means chosen, but hills and valleys, plains and descents provide, when represented pictorially, a pleasing aesthetic.

Having crossed that big island east and west, south and north a few times over I would have to add that the reality is every bit as wonderful, no a million times more so, than the pictographs or charts I’m alluding to (especially once you move away from the coastal conurbations).

A quick coast to coast across te Waipounamu provides a similar image, incidentally, and we can do anything by playing with mapping scales! It can look like 3961 km, if we want it to. 

At any rate, although I am a mapoholic, I’m really wanting to engage with the Christ-following life of St Peter here, rather than with treks across the Nullabor or the Canterbury Plains.

And as Dr. Townsley made clear on our Gospel Conversations  this past week, here we glimpse Peter in a valley, perhaps a saddle between two hills. Caught maybe between Ben Lomond and Bowen Peak, or across the Bracken Saddle behind Arrowtown. Peter traverses from the wonderful if ambivalent moment of the declaration that Jesus is both Christ and, remarkably, Son of the Living God, to the dizzy heights of the Transfiguration which, inexplicably, we explore another time in the liturgical year. Spoiler: Peter will enter deep valleys yet, it must be said. And higher mountaintops. But he enters a valley here. 

Yet for now let’s just know that, while dramatic, Peter’s life is simply an echo of our own human journeys and our faith journey. I think for example of my own, because I don’t know many others, and I remember the peaks, the tumultuous scree slopes and valleys, ridgelines and plateaux, open plains and occasional potentially tedious flats – dare I mention here the Canterbury Plains in our country or the Hay Plains in Australia? Some of you will know one or the other or both. I remember times when my faith-walk has been electrifying, times when the universe has seemed terribly empty, times when I’ve stumbled terribly wrong tracks, and then inexplicably found myself in rich rain forest or breath-taking wide-open spaces – dare I mention the Nullabor again, yet also the McKenzie Country, Rakiura, the Tongariro Crossing  or the Milford? 

Peter was so human. To love, to stumble, to fall. To proclaim boldly and against all odds, as he did last week, “you are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” and then only a week later in our time-scheme, to be chastised by Jesus: “Mate, you’ve got it wrong.” I don’t hear voices in my head, but I must confess there’s been times when I’ve felt the inexplicable energies of God redirecting me from the path I’ve chosen. “Mate, you’ve got it wrong.” I’m not going into details!

Even, tragically, the history of Christianity follows those inexplicable contours. When first, after the Resurrection, our ancestors in faith stumbled out across the Roman empire, preaching a subversive God of Justice, dismantling often at great cost the corruption of the Caesars and their minions, high on the ridgelines of success. Then, for more than a thousand years, becoming a part of the deep valleys of corruption and exploitation ourselves – though obviously, always, there were the great saints and small people who swam against the tide. 

And now, as we fall from the corridors of power, as we are pushed to the fringes of society, losing our false gods, our power-games and self interest, the Spirit may well be leading us or our descendants in faith to be once more the people that Peter was to become, humbled, yet enflamed at last by love and justice. 

As individuals and as a vast network of believing journeyers, that will be our path, but always in the hands of the God of Jesus Christ, for whom and in whom even our death is no more than a valley between hills of light.




Friday, 25 August 2023

This is Peter. Be like Peter




21tst ORDINARY SUNDAY (August 27th) 2023




Exodus 1: 8 – 2: 10

Psalm 124

Rom 12: 1-8

Matthew 16: 13-20


Biblical theologians like to bandy around the theological term “Christological question” to describe this interaction between Jesus and Peter. Often in doing so they load the encounter with existential terror.

 If we were writing what I suppose now is called an “X” rather than a “tweet,” we would load the text with strings of OMG emojis. If we were drawing a cartoon we might have a thought-bubble doing the same thing.

­But to see it that way is to overload this moment. This not about saying the right words.

Let’s remember that the words and actions of Jesus and Peter are being recounted by Matthew.  He has his own criteria as he tells the Jesus story.

Peter here becomes the first disciple to use the term “Christ,” though Matthew has used it several times in his story. He adds an equally solemn term, its reference more Roman than Jewish: “son of the living God.” Dictators of the ancient world enjoyed that sort of language.

Peter is laying it on. Given the brash figure he was he was probably rejoicing in his own sudden insight, but the phrase could equally be obsequious, fawning around like an Obadiah Slope or dare I say it a Rudy Giuliani, prostrating himself at his master’s feet. Either way he’s got it badly wrong. John’s Gospel-account recalls Jesus saying, again to Peter, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”

So, yup. Peter’s words are right. Dramatically right. But they approach what in my broadcasting days we used to call “process language.” The right words are there, but they remain devoid of meaning. So Jesus says – as he often does in Mark’s gospel-account, “Shh, don’t tell anyone.” Biblical theologians call that the messianic secret, by the way. 

Ironically the unnamed but desperate woman a couple of scenes earlier got it right. No hollow syllables from her, as she cried out for her daughter to be saved. She shouldn’t even have been talking to this foreign healer Jesus. But desperation yelled within her soul. No nice formulae, just desperation.

Ironically Peter did gets there, on another occasion: “Lord Help me” he cried out as he was sinking in the lake. But by now he’s forgotten that desperation. We can be almost certain that the woman whose daughter Jesus healed did not forget. And she was an outsider, one against whom the church would too often lock its doors.

Nor in the end did Peter forget. Not in the end. He did become in some strange way the rock on whom Jesus founded the church. But first he had to see and own his own weakness. He had to realise that he could deny his leader, desert his leader, and even after the resurrection remain sceptical until the integrity of the women’s strange tale of an empty tomb and weird appearances of their beloved Lord began to convince him. No trickery, then, just the sheer authenticity of those women and their witness.

Peter in the end is not a failure.

More … we can even assume that the stories of his earlier failings were narrated with his encouragement. Peter, the Peter we find after the first Easter, allows his story to be told. Peter changes, after his saturation with the Divine Spirit, the One who came making Jesus present to the disciples in the weeks after Easter. That Divine Spirit, who comes to us still, humbled and restored Peter. Then and only then he was prepared to live and die for the one he here too glibly calls “Christ” and “Son” of God.

That Peter was prepared to let the story of his failure be told so that the focus would not be on him but on the Risen Lord. That Peter became the rock that is the meaning of his name.

Matthew’s story is in the end a bit like that meme several years back: “This is Peter … Be like Peter.”

But Matthew’s story has a rider. “Be like Peter, but like the unnamed Syrophoenician woman, wait until you really know the desperation that opens the human heart to the Creator of love and light. Be like that Peter.”

Friday, 18 August 2023





20th ORDINARY SUNDAY (August 13th) 2023




Genesis 45: 1-15

Psalm 133

Rom 11: 1-2a, 29-32

Matthew 15: 10-20, 21-28


One of the more criminal misapplications of the gospel-events made by Christians over centuries is what is called supercessionism, or replacement theology. In short, such a theology basically affirms that the Hebrew People, the original People of God, blew their chance; God confiscated the baton of salvation, and handed it over to the Christians. More specifically, it is incorrectly alleged, the Jews executed the one we know as Son of God, and as such they are to be rejected, even despised.

Such a theology, so-called, is deeply evil.  It reached its nadir in the Holocaust, the Shoah or “catastrophic destruction,” as most Jewish people would prefer it to be called. It is a dreadful misreading of the scriptures, and one that we slip into all too easily when we see the finger of scripture, as it were, pointing at others, and not at us.

Charles Wesley, amongst countless others, saw that the reading of scripture must far more accurately be pointed at ourselves. “Died he for me,” he wrote in the hymn we will soon be singing, “who caused his pain  ̶  for me, who him to death pursued? Amazing love!”

We are not called to beat ourselves up, but we are called to recognize that we, as humans, will too often execute love, however bizarre that seems. We are called to recognize that love, compassion, justice: these are entwined.

I’m not sure where the phrase “zero-sum” came from. Google tells me it originated in game theory in the 1940s. It is a phrase much loved in conflict resolution, and seeks to convey the attitude that in conflict, and indeed in any collision of ideas, the outcome is all or nothing. 

Australia’s Matildas and Sweden’s women experienced the brutal world of zero-sum last week. But football is a game.

The clash of faiths is not. To approach our siblings the Jewish people with a zero-sum mentality has been a deep stain in Christianity’s history.

Sadly it has been an attitude we have repeated in other realms, too, keeping people out or forcing them to change, rather than drawing them into the magnetic love of Christ.

I think Jesus is telling us more. Whatever happened in the witty exchange between Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman, any attitude of zero-sum or win-lose is dismantled. The Jews traditionally hated the Syrophoenician gentiles, but hate is not the path of God.

Not quite uniquely, it is Jesus who is corrected. But let’s not be too literal about this. Jesus here exemplifies an attitude that in reality he was dismantling. He – and at this point we meet him as a character in a morality tale – represents an attitude of exclusion, uses zero-sum language to exemplify harsh boundaries and the hoisting up of drawbridges.

The desperation of the woman – the desperation of any parent about to lose their child – outweighs imagined scruples, and Jesus turns his own apparent response around to open a path of love and reconciliation. The woman – who remains like so many women in the scriptures, nameless – the woman’s daughter is healed.

The greater healing is up to us. Matthew wants us to see that we must exercise the compassion that Jesus, after the feisty exchange, exemplifies. The unnamed woman, like Jacob centuries earlier, has wrestled with God and prevailed. More to the point, the desperate woman has wrestled with injustice, even bigotry, that has come to be embedded in religious systems.

Our job is to ascertain where we embody zero sum, win-lose bigotry: where I am in, you must stay out. It works in a soccer game, where teams strive for ultimate glory. It does not work in a world crying out for compassion.

So I can only ask “who do I shut out of the encounter with Love that is embodied in our faith, our worship, our fellowship?” I will not dare to answer for you. But I do find God has a habit of whispering to me.


Saturday, 12 August 2023

beyond the tempest




19th ORDINARY SUNDAY (August 13th) 2023




Genesis 37: 1-4, 12-28

Psalm 105: 1-6, 16-22

Rom 10: 5-15

Matthew 14: 22-33


Back in the convoluted days of my adolescence, I was given a book to read. I must add so I don’t appear to be completely a drama queen, that my coming of age was not particularly more or less complex than the journey of any youth of probably any era, but certainly of the 1970s. Nevertheless I was given the book Forgive Me, Natasha, (also known as The Persecutor) and I read it, and there is no doubt that it played some part in my quiet and personal journey form adolescent atheism to Christian faith some months – or was it years? – later. The book was also almost certainly the reason I called my second daughter Natasha, still more years later but approaching forty years ago.

Sadly much of Forgive Me, Natasha has been discredited by researchers in the years since. The author, Sergei Kourdakov, was not all that he claimed to be, and much of the narrative has been exposed as demonstrably false. Even at the time I wondered at some of his claims. Yet two aspects of his fabrication transcend even the fabrications.

One is the power of forgiveness – though myriad investigations into the behaviour of predators in church and similar bodies have warned us that there are, despite powerful value in forgiveness, many grey areas: forgiveness is not the airy waving of amnesia when someone demands that they receive it, and survivors of predation and abuse must not be coerced into believing they have to nonchalantly forgive their perpetrators.

But the other aspect of the book was almost a parenthesis in the conversion story that it told. Sergei tells of his defection from the USSR, jumping overboard from a Soviet warship into bitterly cold west coast Canadian waters. Perhaps he did, though his claims of surviving in those waters, even with a deep and new found faith has always struck me as stretching credulity too far. His suggestion that a computer programme, when faith was factored into his narrative, revised an assessment that the survival was untenable, stretched my imagination even further. What, in the 1970s or the 2020s, does Artificial Intelligence know of the quantifiability of faith?

Yet even with those questions in my mind I do have a deep sense of the strength – perhaps not 11 kilometres over six to nine hours’ worth of strength but never mind  – that faith can provide in dark times.

Perhaps we can all recall dark times in our lives that faith has steered us through. Perhaps we might recall the story of Terry Waite’s 1,763 days in captivity: less dramatic than the story told by Sergei Kourdakov, unembellished, and utterly credible.

Any dark chapters in my own life have been far less important but the emergence into light after a tunnel has never failed to remind me of the story of Peter reaching out on the waves in desperation: save me Jesus.

For some of course the light does not shine until after the final human closure: surely there are countless crying out to God in the Kupiansk district of the Kharkiv region in Ukraine at this very time, those for whom the lights will go out. We must hold stretched belief in that further aspect of light beyond our sight, for ourselves, for those we love, for those we pray for but see no apparent answer.

Surely this week in Hawaii’s Lahaina some who cried out to God saw light only after the tragic closure of their lives. There are no words except to know that the very same Christians who first rumoured resurrection-hope were themselves able to hold to light even after the dying of their light, and so the Easter rumour spread through space and time.

It spread, of course, because those first and countless subsequent witnesses were so inspired by love and anger, as the Iona hymn puts it, that the light in their lives transcended mortality.

Perhaps that was what Peter glimpsed as he reached out for Jesus’ hand on the lake. I have no idea what happened that day, but I do believe that Matthew’s telling of the story was utterly consistent with the Christian experiences of divine hope that transcended even death.

I am not altogether convinced by Sergei Kourdakov’s narrative now. I’ve seen and heard too many false testimonies to believe that all are as it were gospel truth.

But I remain convinced of a God who continues uncannily to reach out across stormy waters and transform, darkness into light – as Joseph’s story reminds us – and even death into life as Paul and Matthew alike were so convinced. I think that’s what Peter’s desperate clutching reach for Jesus can remind us, and perhaps, for all its faults that’s what Sergei Kourdakov’s embellished tale told me.

Yes, for all its faults. The God revealed in Jesus still reaches out over stormy waters.

Saturday, 5 August 2023









Exodus 24: 12-18

Psalm 97

2 Peter 1: 16-21

Luke 9: 28-36



I want to talk about poetry.

Of course I speak as one who wandered around a university campus in undergraduate days, knowing only too well that as a literature student and a male I was hopelessly outnumbered by women. That of course may have been an incentive for undertaking humanities, but that is another story. I was nevertheless surrounded by men, including one of my flatmates, who rolled their eyes at the thought of poetry.

When I went on to theological college several years later it was men who struggled with the abstract moments in the biblical record. They had, it seems, three choices. They could analyse every surreal moment in the biblical text as if absolutely historically provable, concrete, rational. They could walk away from faith altogether because of its movements into the emotions and the imagination.

Or, and of course I’m biased, they could wrestle with the text on its own terms.

Perhaps it was ever thus, but as Christianity reached out with its gospel through space and time these dilemmas never diminished. Despite that, the leaders and thinkers of the church clung to and continued to celebrate the moments that reach beyond the merely rational. So readers of the Bible, too, held on to and (thank God) celebrated the poetic moments. Moments like the transfiguration, or the high end holy moments of Jewish mythology, and above all for Christians the moments of Resurrection, Pentecost, Parousia (future coming), and Judgement, despite the fact that they are way beyond our understanding.

Yesterday I read in the paper that astronomers have found a remarkable item in a distant constellation. It resembles a giant cosmic question mark. Scientists are of course not particularly interested in this celestial coincidence as if it were some sort of profound message from the cosmos: it is a quirk of form with no hidden text. Extraterrestrials billions of miles away don’t necessarily use European punctuation.

But it reminds us that the human imagination likes to play. As the great author of Ecclesiastes didn’t say, there’s a time for play and a time for work, there’s a time for meh and a time for awe, a time for science and a time for poetry.

Poets and playwrights and novelists spend lifetimes taking moments that we all recognize as beyond words and trying to find words for them. Peak human experience like a sunset or a surging wave or sexual or emotional, or grief: these do not adequately translate into words, despite the event being utterly, utterly real. Somewhere in the universe there’s an exploding ball of matter that we can only describe as looking like a fiery question mark. Somewhere in your life and mine there have been experiences beyond words. 

Somewhere in the lives of those attuned to the limitless possibilities of a God, and those who dared to journey with the beyond-words magnificence of the life and death and something else of Jesus of Nazareth, there were and are experiences that utterly out-pass the power of human telling, as fourteenth century mystic Bianco da Siena put it in a hymn we sometimes sing, “Come Down O Love Divine.”

Today we just touch one of those moments, and I have no idea what its about, but I know that peak moments of human experience are beyond words, and I suspect the moments in which we experience the utter mystery and magnificence of God are all the more so.