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Friday, 20 July 2018

Mad Mary


SERMON PREACHED AT St PAUL’S, ARROWTOWN,
and St PETER’S, QUEENSTOWN
FEAST of St. MARY MAGDALENE (July 22nd) 2018



READINGS:

Song of Solomon 3.1-4
Psalm 42.1-10
2 Corinthians 5.14-17
John 20.1-2, 11-18


There has been much written and spoken about a predominantly Christian, perhaps Jewish too, reticence if not terror of the energies of sexuality. On a scale of reading interest Christian books on sexuality, certainly back in the days when I worked in a Christian bookshop, rated alongside books about flossing.
They were the better ones: others merely reinforced the subjection of women to the will of their male partners, reminding them that it was only in practising something called “submission” that they could find true worthiness as women. Police and social workers three, four decades later have a different way to describe the experience of many married women of that era. The scar tissue of many women is such that belief in a loving God became impossible because the brutality of oppressive partners shouted down all dreams of nurture and of enrichment.
That I should raise the issue at all on the Feast of Saint Mary Magdalene highlights a twisted history of Christian interpretation, or “hermeneutics” as it becomes named in academic circles. The fact that a woman from whom demons were driven comes to be, by the Mediaeval era at the latest, associated with prostitution says more about the interpreters and controllers of Christian thought than it does about the woman Mary of Magdala, or indeed women in general.
Mary of Magdala gets sucked into a vortex that declares women must be either virgins or whores, and historical role models for women tended to nestle uneasily at one or the other of those extremes. In fact we know nothing much about Mary of Magdala beyond two immeasurable facts: one that Jesus clearly loved her deeply, and two, that this faceless woman becomes the first in human history to proclaim the rumour that is at the heart of Christian faith: “I have seen the Lord.”
My suspicion – or perhaps I project too much of my own damaged psyche? – is that the Judaeo-Christian fear of womanhood, embodied in part in our treatment of Mary Magdalene, reveals far more about ourselves, or at least our hetero-sexual male-selves, than we care to admit. Lovers of film, literature, or French culture will know that the French use the phrase “la petite mort” to describe a serious aspect of human experience. You will know too that my cautious circumlocution (or beating round the bush) at this moment is living proof that I like many of us feel uneasy in talking about human sexuality in the context of liturgy and faith and worship.
I suggest in fact that “la petite mort” and liturgy are both wonderful foretastes of the eternities that dwell ahead of us. Literary philosopher Roland Barthes argues that la petite mort is what we should experience when we read fine literature. To me it is certainly no stretch to apply that notion to liturgy too. Billy Joel’s more mundane phrase “to forget about life for a while” possibly alludes to something similar (less eschatological, perhaps). But for me all these experiences hint at the inexpressible joy of an eternal existence in the presence of the Risen Christ, where the light of the eternal city is the Glory of God. That experience begins with Mary Magdalene’s famous pronouncement: “I have seen the Lord.”
What history has done to this remarkable woman, this first proclaimer of the unique event of The Resurrection, is to turn her into some sort of sanitised sinner. When Jesus Christ Superstar came out in the 1970s it was panned in some circles for suggesting there was some degree of hanky-panky between Jesus and this woman – or this conflation of women – but my response has long been “meh.”
That Jesus and Mary alike were sexual human beings is obvious. What they or anyone else did with that great divine gift of being human is strictly their business not ours. But the brutal application of a lens of saint or sinner, Madonna-virgin or street-wise whore to this woman probably does as much as anything to explain why two generations of human beings are absent from our pews, and why we are so woefully out of touch as an institution, with the mainstream of our society.
Whoever Mary was, and whatever her relationship with Jesus was, she GETS the Resurrection. I don’t think at this point, as some theologies suggest, that in her mourning she held a committee meeting and passed a motion saying that we’d better get on with doing whatever it was that Jesus was doing, bible-bashing or cleaning up waterways, to choose two extremes popular in different wings of Anglican Christianity.
No. Mary was seized, transfixed, and then empowered beyond social paradigms and beyond human sociology, empowered to be the first witness to the impossible.
That the Risen Jesus chose her may partly reflect his highly charged love for her, but more importantly it affirms what Paul was trying to express in his letter to the Corinthians as we read a couple of weeks ago: God chose the foolish in the world to shame the wise (1 Cor 1.27).
Mary had no credibility as a witness in first century Palestine. Regardless of any details of her sexual history, she was a woman, alone, her word uncorroborated by any passing bearer of Y chromosomes. Yet Jesus chose her. “God chose the weak in the world to shame the strong. God chose what is low and despised in the world, that which is not, to reduce to nothing things that are so that no one might boast in the presence of God” (1 Cor 1.27-28). God chose irrationality. God chose Mary.
Resurrection is not rational. Our response for two thousand years has generally been to impose rationality and logic and lifelessness and power paradigms on the texts of our faith, silencing Mary. Our response has been to rely on hierarchical power structures that exclude the vulnerable and the broken, that exclude mainly, but not only women, that exclude the confused and the misused and the abused and, as Dylan put it, “the mistitled prostitute.”
Weeping Mary Magdalene stands as a powerful symbol, a potent reminder that human integrity and authenticity, not hierarchical power (or dare I say it a purple shirt and silly pointy hat) stand at the heart of the Good News of Resurrection. For Mary Magdalene was the first, and she went and proclaimed “I have seen the Lord,” and while we are still sceptical and cling to our power structures, her rumour is still reverberating against all odds around the universe.

TLBWY

Friday, 13 July 2018

which dance?


SERMON PREACHED AT St PETER’S, QUEENSTOWN
ORDINARY SUNDAY 15 (July 15th) 2018



READINGS:

2 Samuel 6.1-5, 12b-19
Psalm 24
Ephesians 1.3-14
Mark 6: 14-29


I’m not sure that a person walking into our church today, armed with no prior knowledge of the scriptures of our faith, would feel enticed by the gospel we attempt to proclaim. Two readings depict cynical and destructive human nature with such eloquence that we might feel nothing more than reinforcement of the despair, or near-despair, that emanates from almost every daily news-cast.
For when the great Jewish peasant-king David dances in ecstasy before the Ark of God, Princess Micah, who once loved David deeply, now responds only with cynicism and loathing. Strangely she had good reason.
Let’s not make this a gender-based scene. It is so easy to loathe, so easy and tragic to allow love to turn to hate. It should be said, in fairness to this all but unknown Hebrew woman, that she has good reason to hate the man she once loved, for his treatment of her is at best ordinary, at worst abhorrent. But hatred kills the human soul.
We learn in the passage that follows ours that the dance of David in our strange scene was so ecstatic and manic that he forgot the limited power of robes to conceal the graphic details of the human form (he says, discretely!). Princess Michal had good reason to look on and scorn the man whose life she once saved, the man she once loved (1 Sam 18.20). He treated her badly. Love is a risk.  
But for the purposes of our story we might just recognize that in this moment David was so ecstatic, so manic in his love for God, that all propriety is lost. Perhaps we should dwell somewhere in the balance between propriety and ecstasy, but for a moment let us just be reminded that it is possible to be so awed, so overwhelmed by the experience of God that we lose sight of proportionality. Perhaps, if only for a moment, let us forget the back-story of Princess Michal’s wounded heart, and see only that she has seen something she does not understand, and shut down her heart contemptuously.
For the risk is that we too can do that too easily, seeing and scorning and “dissing” the views and enthusiasms and ecstasies of others. Too easily we make our own experience the criterion, the normative, by which all else is judged. When we do this we shut ourselves off from the learning experiences we might gain from seeing the art and love of God at work in people and cultures and even faiths that we do not understand.
But we have a second dancer. The obscene dance of Herodias’ daughter Salome has been powerfully depicted in the arts, especially, as some of you will know, by Richard Strauss, by Gustave Flaubert, and especially by Oscar Wilde. It is a brutal twist on the theme of honey trap, a cruel reminder that sexuality and seduction are among the Achilles heels of humanity. It is a deeply disturbing New Testament scene.
Yet sometimes we need to be disturbed – as we reminded ourselves at Pentecost when we sang in praise of the disturbing Spirit of God, the “enemy of apathy” who hovers over the waters of creation. As we watch the extent to which some forms of Christianity have been seduced by power and privilege, dancing with programmes of hatred and exclusion, we might pause to realize how easy it is to become Herod. He wrings his hands pathetically as he is seduced to immeasurable evil by the machinations of his enraged and vengeful wife (and let’s remember to rise above gender stereotypes, here, too.)
Trump’s supporters remind us that it is far too easy to distort the gospel to a dance of self-interested privilege. Too easily we create a white pseudo-Jesus, false-Jesus. To easily we condemn those we don’t like to live in poverty, exposing them to receive brutal racist attacks, or turning a blind eye, as Europe’s Christians did in the 1930s, as the vulnerable are taken away by brown-shirts or their modern equivalents in the night.
It can all seem so far away. Yet though we live on the other side of the world we need to make sure our attitudes or even our complacencies don’t subscribe to an evil dance. To make sure we don’t, we need to look again and again at the attitudes and teachings and actions of the real Jesus. The real Jesus constantly reaches across divisions of hatred and exclusion, walks with and talks with and heals the underprivileged and the powerless and the broken and the outsider.
It’s not too much of a distortion of our texts to remind ourselves that the author of Ephesians gives us a strong hint, a clue as to how we can be bearers of real Jesus. For the relationship with Jesus begins with grace, an undeserved gift, not privilege.
It begins, continues, and ends with our not being good enough. It begins and continues and ends with the knowledge that we too can be callous Davids. That great king of the Jews is to say the least an ambivalent servant of God. We can be hurting Michals, scheming Herodiases. We can be seducing Salomes, dancing a honey trap (or, in the interests of equality, let’s remember too, the predators who have used power imbalance as their trap). We can be hand-wringing Herod Antipas, who leaves the prophet that he admires hung out to dry and die.  
Our challenge is to reach, as Jesus did, and always with the help of the Spirit of Jesus, to reach across the abyss, with actions and with words, to those who are hurting, broken, excluded.  Who are they? Even in Queenstown they are all around us. We might even risk asking God to show us.
If we do enough as individuals, as church, as servants (as we will shortly sing in Richard Gillard’s “Servant Song”), if by the Spirit of God we reach out with Christ-light in the night-time of human fear, then we will be dancing the dance of God. There is no guarantee that there will not be the cynical glares of those we have hurt in the past, as Princess Michal was hurt, but our dance of faith may rumour resurrection hope in empty lives. 
That’s the dance that we are called to perform. Can we even envisage being so ecstatic, so manic in love for God, that all propriety is lost? Yet this our God is the God whose promise, far beyond our small ken, is eternity. Perhaps we can learn to dance God’s “yes” to all that God made, all that God pronounced good, all that is. Perhaps we can learn to dance with God.

TLBWY


Friday, 15 June 2018

Rachel weeps again



SERMON PREACHED AT St PAUL’S, ARROWTOWN 
and St PETER’S, QUEENSTOWN

ORDINARY SUNDAY 10 
THIRD SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST (June 10th) 2018



READINGS:

1 Samuel 15: 34 – 16: 13
Psalm 20
2 Corinthians 5: 6-17
Mark 4: 26-34


In passing last week, slightly cryptically, I alluded to the bitter media images that were emerging of the children stolen from mothers’ arms by the law enforcement agencies of the United States of America. I alluded too, to the razor wire policies of the Australian Government.

I suggested that it is possibly only the remote position that we enjoy on God’s globe that is so far protecting New Zealand from the brutal decisions that other nations are facing, and many making badly, around the plight of the wretched of the earth.

Since last week, my news feeds have been peppered by reports of US attorney-general Jeff Sessions and White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders demonically abusing the writings of Paul. They used texts wildly disassociated from their context either in history or even within the letters from which the texts, like migrant children, have been torn. They used texts, as it happened, that Southern US slave-owners used to support slavery, that some biblical teachers used to support Hitler, and that were used to bolster the apartheid regime in South Africa.

I have mentioned before that I believe, at least at one level, that we need a licence to read the bible. Sessions and Sanders alike have failed their licence test.

As it happens, and as I understand it, immigration violations are a misdemeanour, and not a breach of criminal law. They therefore do not warrant the inhumane tactics the US and Australian governments in particular are using. Refugees are protected under international law, granted rights to seek asylum. The processes by which their claims are ratified or rejected must, like the justice system, err on the presumption of innocence, not guilt.

You may well ask what this has to do with our gaggle of readings. Text wars, of the demonic sort used by Jeff Sessions and Sarah Huckabee Sanders, are evil, demonic. Nevertheless, scattered amongst our texts from different centuries and settings there are clear indicators of the response the biblical texts and the God of Jesus Christ demand of those who claim divine go-ahead. “The Lord does not look at the things humans look at. Human beings look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

A text such as this – in essence repeated so many times through our scriptures – makes it clear that we would treat with manifest suspicion any use of the texts of our faith to justify violence and hatred. Whether we are looking at Mexican, Guatemalan, Bangladeshi or Iraqi refugees, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh or atheist refugees, our scriptures challenge us to look at the human heart, not the head dress or clothing or rituals of those who desperately seek a better world for their children.

Some may recall the words of singer song-writer Sting: “We share the same biology, regardless of ideology / Believe me when I say to you, I hope the Guatemalans love their children too.” Except he wrote “Russians,” but the song remains the same: Tongans, South Africans, Britons.

Compassion, forgiveness, justice. These should be hallmarks of our faith. These should be the conspicuous advertisements of the credibility of our faith in Jesus Christ our risen Lord.

Sometimes they are. The earliest Christians, I am frequently reminded, were conspicuous in the dog-eat-dog environment of the crumbling Roman Empire. They were conspicuous for the love they displayed to the most vulnerable members of their community. I own an old King James Bible in which a previous owner had scrawled next to the Jesus commands to love neighbour, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, that his words referred only to the neighbour who is Christian, the hungry Christian, the naked Christian, the imprisoned Christian. How sad that this bible had been so manipulated by those of the Jeff Sessions and Sarah Huckabee Sanders school of distortion. How sad that the previous owner of that bible had not noticed Jesus’ tĂȘte a tĂȘte with the Samaritan woman, or with lepers and widows, cast by powerful gate-keepers to the fringes of society.

Compassion, forgiveness, justice. I’ve spoken so far of the big stage environment of world politics. But let’s momentarily change the order around. Forgiveness, compassion, justice. The big international stage dimensions of justice are comfortable to speak of. But what of forgiveness? I speak to myself. Those who know my story will know that I have wrestled long and hard with events in the last five years that have been hard to forgive – and which need never be forgotten, for it’s not the same thing. Perhaps slowly I have got, perhaps only “am getting” there. I have cited and recited often the psalmist’s many cries of fury against those who uttered calumny and lies, if I may borrow biblical words to disguise the depth of my feeling.

“God forgives you. Forgive others. Forgive yourself.” They are easy words to pronounce but we grow into forgiveness only with the help of God. Our task is to implore the transformation of our hearts by the Spirit of God so that the words are not mere doggerel but offering of our heart-space to God, so God can work there, transform and heal us.

Compassion: do I allow my heart to be vulnerable, to reach out to those known and stranger to me, whose lives are heavy? Do I in words and actions ask “are you okay?” Our task is to implore the transformation of our hearts by the Spirit of God.

For to become the mustard seeds of faith, to be signs of resurrection, of death-conquering hope, to be agents of the work of God in God’s world we are not called to build walls and barricades, to distort texts, all to prop up our hatreds. No. We are called to become vulnerable, to look into the eyes of Rachel weeping for her children in Ramah (Jer. 31.15), or the mother in a leaky home, or the person who often shares a pew or a communion cup with us, and to know that what we do to and for them is what we do for and to the heart of God, and will speak immeasurably louder than our words.

TLBWY

Friday, 8 June 2018

hatred in the name of God


SERMON PREACHED AT St PAUL’S, ARROWTOWN and St PETER’S QUEENSTOWN
ORDINARY SUNDAY 10 / THIRD SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST (June 10th) 2018


READINGS:

1 Samuel 8.4-11, 16-20
Psalm 138
2 Corinthians 4.13 – 5.1
Mark 3.20-35


I remember wryly my early days of Christian faith, when I encountered the terrifying concept of “the unforgiveable sin”, the “sin of blaspheming against the Holy Spirit.” For days, or was it hours, minutes even, I fretted. What if I slipped up, and was cast for ever into the depths of a fiery hell?

I didn’t see the world or my faith in those terms for very long, but the memory of the feeling remains. Slowly I grew a sense, through worship and through study, that God wasn’t some draconian ogre. (If you know the meaning of “draco,” much depicted in the Harry Potter books, you’ll know the implausibility of a draconian god). The God revealed in Jesus, and throughout the scriptural witness, was not an ogre waiting for me to trip up, nor longing to slam the door on the unblessed, but a God of embrace, of welcome.

The God revealed in Jesus is the God who is the mother hen of the lament over Jerusalem, holding the chicks to her breast in welcome and protection. God is not a cosy mate (Aslan is not a tame lion), not an “anything goes” sort of God. God is not the false god blasphemously proclaimed by those who have perpetrated great evil in the name of the church in various forms of fiscal, even sexual predation. “By no means,” Paul would exclaim.

God is patient, loving, kind, all the things depicted as hallmarks of love in Paul’s great Hymn to Love in First Corinthians. God is love, says John. God waits, and God has eternity to wait.

Those who have perpetrated evil, using positions of power and influence that the Church once had, now rightly being stripped from us, come as close to the unforgivable sin as is humanly possible. Sexual and financial predators, yes, but also those currently in the Unites States equating Donald Trump with divine rights, applauding as children are torn from their parents at border security sites. Like – if in equal and opposite terms – those who named Jesus as Beelzebub, those who name Trump as a chosen one of God are blaspheming the Holy Spirit. The inchoate, shady, undefined sin against the Holy Spirit is not something we will stumble into by accident. It is evil we may chose.

In the perspectives of eternity (for God is patient, God is kind), even the perpetrators of this current evil and historic evils like it may eventually bow their knees to the judging God and finally and eternally find grace. We leave that to God.

The Spirit of God will dwell not on the shoulders of Trump and his brown-shirt goons, but in the bodies and souls of those who are trying to comfort howling children and grieving families torn apart by xenophobia and nationalistic exceptionalism. The Holy Spirit will be – is – at work in the many, not necessarily of the flock named “Christian,” the many who are offering solace and speaking out for justice and compassion.

But we, we here, are, as Paul put it, a people not particularly wise or powerful or of noble birth in social terms (1 Cor. 1.26). We are not on a grand stage. We are a more or less ordinary bunch of people, albeit crippled a little by white privilege, and for some of us male privilege too. For us there is not yet much likelihood of stumbling into catastrophic evil action.

Except ...

… Was it Bonhoeffer, or more probably the recently late and great James Cone, who said “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act”?

It doesn’t matter who said it: the scriptures constantly imply it. And was it Martin Luther King or Albert Einstein who said that “True peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice”? It is probably an amalgam of sayings by both great men, but it matters not who said it, for the scriptures constantly imply it.

For as long as we remain immobile in the face of injustice, justice is not flowing down like the mighty fountains of the prophets’ dreams, and the Reign of God is held in abeyance, and we are the “blocking people of God” who are not the real whanau of Jesus.

The liturgical peace that we will share soon, its meaning totally badly taught in most liturgical churches that use it, is meant to be a solemn pronouncement of the possibility of and longing for that peace of the prophets’ many visions; swords into ploughshares, a lion dwelling with the lamb, a child playing safely by the lair of a deadly snake, justice rolling like a mighty river. We enact that peace, hopefully sincerely.

Jesus stood in his own home town and pronounced that demons were being bound in his name. Let’s not be infantile about the demonic. In the desecration of immigrant families in the USA and behind razor wire in and around Australia, in the death of fleeing children in the Mediterranean, we are seeing the demonic. And while it’s less dramatic, we too, within our shores, are seeing too many like Chris and Cru Kahui or Nia Glassie, who would be in their teens by now, or those dying from criminal neglect, material or medical, or those dying by suicide after various forms of bullying and ostracism. Demonic.

And wringing hands, as I and many of you no doubt are perhaps prone to do, is not enough, and I preach to myself, as well.

Those – even family – who were blocking Jesus from his kingdom-proclaiming, kingdom-producing mission, were approaching ultimate blasphemy.

We are all human. Our energies dwindle. But we too block the work of God when we fail to speak out about both social and the less clearly definable spiritual injustice.

I will define the latter more fully another time, though I have hinted enough in recent months that those who denude the gospel of its eternal dimensions, those who rob the resurrection of its everlasting meaning,  those who turn the God of the Cross into a convenient feel-good plaything, are all guilty of spiritual injustice. Social injustice is more tangible. We must find ways and energies to exorcise it where we see it. But both-and. Spiritual injustice is evil, too, and I have seen it actively perpetrated or passively condoned by church leaders.

“Do not lose heart,” (2 Cor. 4.16) writes Paul. To maintain gospel-energies we need to implore again and again – and respond to again and again – the prompting of that Enemy of Apathy, the Holy Spirit whose coming we invoked at Pentecost.

As it happens we implore the coming of that same Spirit several times in each Eucharistic liturgy: “Send your Holy Spirit that we who receive … may indeed be ...” It is a dangerous prayer, yet we pray it, or words like it, week by week. Then week by week we ask God to “Send us out in the power of God’s Spirit.”

Dangerous prayers, dangerous praying.

But if we pray these prayers believing them, and then consciously act on them in our daily lives and networks, we can be the people of God that Paul was imploring the Corinthian Christians to be, rising above their petty squabbles and myopia, looking not to the immediate but to the challenging eternal. We too are dared to be that Spirit-filled people, not the energy sapping people mocking Jesus with their cynicism, negativity, complacency. May we be the resurrection-justice proclaiming people of God that Jesus calls us to be.

TLBWY

Saturday, 2 June 2018

plucking grain on Saturday


SERMON PREACHED AT St PAUL’S, ARROWTOWN and St PETER’S QUEENSTOWN
ORDINARY SUNDAY 9 / SECOND SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST (June 3rd) 2018


READINGS:

1 Samuel 3.1-10
Psalm 139.1-6
2 Corinthians 4.5-12
Mark 2.23 – 3.6

When Jesus generated permission for his disciples to pluck corn he knew exactly the wrath he was provoking. When Jesus reached out his arm to heal on the Sabbath he knew exactly what – and who – he was provoking. It’s a complex business attempting to explain what the verb “to know” means when dealing with the one we call Son and Lord, but it’s best to err on the side of humanity for now. Jesus knew, as any dismantler of complex and corrupt institutions knows, that he was risking his life.
I have said from time to time in preaching and writing that we need to be licenced to read the bible. I realise that’s cruelly provocative and sends my more Protestant friends into fits of apoplexy. Indignant, they will they reach for the works of Luther and Calvin and others. Of course it’s not the whole story. Casual, personal reading of scripture can inspire us, can warm our hearts with the living flame of God.
But we need to be careful, need to learn skills to dig deeper into these writings that we, somewhat confusingly, call the “word of God.” Who wrote them, who first heard them, what shoes were they standing in? Who and where are we as we hear them, read them? What sand is in our shoes? What is the whakapapa we bring? Are we rich, poor, male, female, from a loving or an abusive family, from an arts or a more rationalist background?
Indeed we should read the scriptures not by listening passively as X, Y or Z reads them, or even placidly in our armchair, but as our Jewish friends teach us, actively, wrestling lovingly with the text, then wrestling lovingly with one another as we share the text. Then we will find, as our Jewish friends teach us, the truth in the white space between the black lines of print in the page and in our understanding.
For example, most of us were exposed to teaching that tells what a nasty bunch of sods the Pharisees were; oppressing innocent people, picking on Jesus, plotting for him to be executed. A little digging around tells us that at the time of Jesus that was not the case. The Sadducees were an unpleasant mob, dismantling believers’ faith by denying the possibility of hope beyond the grave, ensuring they remained oppressed, hopeless, downtrodden. There are many that do that in our churches today, too. But the Pharisees not so much.
By the time Mark was setting quill to papyrus times had changed. Christians and Jews had fallen out of love, Pharisees had come to see Christians as troublemakers, the gloves were off. It just might help us to understand our Jewish and indeed Muslim friends if we remember that we – our forebears – were at least equally responsible for much of the scar tissue of our history.
But if we dig a little deeper we find some powerful truths. Does our faith liberate – as the ancient Hebrew faith originally liberated – peoples groaning under a yoke of spiritual oppression? These days of course most people ignore spiritual institutionalism, opting for no spirituality or for a “spiritual not religious” traipse through life. I believe there are problems with those options, though I concur that we have badly polluted our message with the very forms of oppression that Jesus was opposing. If we are to hear the voice of Jesus in this passage and respond to his call then we must acknowledge and confess the ways in which we as church have kept outsiders outside, and preserved our comfort zones inside.
The key to interpretation will be that of grace. It must be the key to all our reading and interpretation of scriptures – and therefore to all preaching. Where is grace in this scene, and where is grace – or even graciousness – in our response? Jesus dismantles corruption of the Torah, the Law, because it has been used to oppress believers. Jesus invites disobedience to the oppressors because the truth of the gospel – and the truth of the encounter with God, will set, will always set, the captive free. Jesus invites the hungry to eat (it appears he wasn’t hungry) and actively heals the disadvantaged man because gospel-light will always address the disadvantaged and needlessly denied. Jesus subverted oppression because gospel light will always embrace rather than exclude the hurting. Jesus and his gospel light will not encourage oppression, Jesus and his gospel will not discourage paths into fullness of love, Jesus will always encourage routes that cast out fear and disappointment.
How we apply that will bring us back to the white spaces between the jots that make up language, in speech or in printed word. We will negotiate truth – and when truth doesn’t suit us we will opt prayerfully to grow into it rather than to reject it. When we wrestle with questions of exclusion we will look to err on the side of inclusion, not exclusion: do we exclude because of gender, sexuality, class, economic and academic privilege? If so we must seek to see where language of embrace, grace and inclusion might redress that sinfulness on our part, so the broken can find a way to Easter light. We may lose many of our security blankets, the shibboleths and golden calves that have infiltrated and institutionalised our faith. That though is what the radical, grain-plucking action of Jesus challenges us to do, and he will lead us on the path.

TLBWY.




Saturday, 26 May 2018

dancing beyond the capabilities of mind


SERMON PREACHED AT St PAUL’S, ARROWTOWN
and St PETER’S QUEENSTOWN
TRINITY SUNDAY (27h May) 2018


READINGS:

Isaiah 6.1-8
Ps 29
Romans 8.12-17
John 3.1-17


When we speak of the Trinity we enter the language of love. Not the language of dissection, or of structural analysis, nor even of explanation, but of love. That said, even love language falls short, rings hollow, if it is nor grounded in experience. The difficulty for those who design the lectionary is that of choosing which language to use to showcase the love that is demanded of us by and for our creator, our redeeming, life-giving Triune God.

The readings give us hints as to how we might praise God by serving God, or even serve God by praising God. The Westminster Confession (more beloved of Presbyterians admittedly, than Anglicans) proclaims boldly that the “chief end” or “primary purpose” of human beings is to praise our God, to pour out the language of love. We might get put in a loony bin if that were our sole activity, but the powerful imagery remains: are there times when we pour our souls out in crazy praise to our invisible Creator?

There is a very real sense that we are invited to find our place in the stories that we read, inserting ourselves into the text. Not least we might in passing note the seraphim in Isaiah’s vision of calling. Their sole, or at worst primary role is to sing the praises of God. We might notice, too, Isaiah’s deep sense of fallibility, of not being good enough to serve God. Who is he to speak with the authority of God?

Who is anyone to do so, you or I included? Despite feel good pop-psychologies, it doesn’t do any harm to be reminded of our inadequacy. This is at least in part the reason why the Anglican version of Christianity incorporates so many checks and balances; our service of God must not become a monument to our own egos, wills and preferences, but is tested against the waters of wider traditions and opinions, a partnership between us and the wider Body of Christ.

The basic language of Trinitarian love is simple. For the Hebrews the Ruarch/Spirit was a sort of creative word, creative command of the Creator God, by which God’s actions became reality in the world. The Christians finessed this understanding. Their experience of God in the life and teachings – and the absolute identification of the two – in Jesus was so powerful, and so inexpressibly ratified in the Resurrection, that they began to speak of him, too, as Lord and God.

So far so good. Yet physically as we know from the ascension story, he had, after being physically present to them for a while, disappeared, dissipated perhaps, from the followers’ sight. Disappeared, yet he remained powerfully, tangibly present in their experience of worship, fellowship, and exploration of the scriptures. And the language of Trinitarian faith was slowly, and I would argue irreversibly born.

The believers’ response was love language.

Well … Paul’s language is not only the language of love, but sometimes the language of correction, for he was a prophet and a pastor. A people that claim to love and serve God but whose lives do not emanate Christlike love are skating on thin ice. Paul highlights a few failings of what we might call ersatz or faux Christ-followers.

One or two are of a sexual nature, though his emphasis is more on exploitation and predation. Most are references to behaviours that tear at and tear down the body of Christ: factionalism, back-stabbing, a catena of behaviours that he calls the works of the flesh (and that his contemporary James attributes to undisciplined tongues).

The temptation of course is always to point the finger at others: the responsibility is to note the three fingers pointing back at ourselves. Paul will always contrast flesh and spirit: the latter is the result of, the state of, the joy and love of immersion in the Triune God. Words to describe that God of Jesus Christ so far evade human description that in Paul’s time words had not even been invented to express the love God emanates, imparts, exudes. But where that love is, the Spirit of the Triune God is at work indeed.

So we are left with the (at this stage) rather obtuse Nicodemus, who John depicts stumbling his way through the gospel story, through three appearances. Nicodemus staggers awkwardly from incomprehension to adoration, to the moment when he eventually has no words but only ointment to pour on the body of the friend he first visited secretly by night.

While occasionally we might and do need Paul’s strong words of correction we could do worse than Nicodemus, whose love for Jesus overcomes intellectual confusion, and who eventually sacrifices so much to anoint the body. But Nicodemus was pouring out his love for Jesus between Good Friday and Easter, weighed down not only by his fifty kilo or so load of spices, but by grief and perhaps a sense of failure.

We live in a different time. Blessed says John are those who believe but have not seen.

We are called to something else: we are called to join the post-resurrection witnesses of Jesus, pouring out our hearts to the sometimes stern, never wussy or chummy Creator. We are called to experience not the dead Jesus, but the risen Jesus, made known to us by the eternal Spirit. Jesus, made known to us despite being beyond our sight or understanding. Jesus, made known to us in scripture and in fellowship and in the elements of bread and wine. Jesus made known to us in love and hope and justice, peace and reconciliation (“Peace to those who are far off, peace to those who are near”). Jesus, made known to us in the one another that we are called to love within the Body of Christ.

We are called to be a trinitarian, resurrection people, dancing beyond the capabilities of the mind, dancing where the God who flings universes across the heavens meets us in a Palestinian peasant, meets us in suffering, leads us through death to life, and embraces us and those we love, eternally.

Alleluia, Amen.



Saturday, 12 May 2018

dancing in the footsteps


SERMON PREACHED AT St PAUL’S, ARROWTOWN
and St PETER’S QUEENSTOWN
SUNDAY AFTER ASCENSION (13th April) 2018


READINGS:

Acts 1:15-17, 21-26
Ps 1
1 John 5:9-13
John 17:6-19


The wonderfully poetic author John, perhaps the most lyrical of the New Testament authors, struggles valiantly to convey the experience of the first post-Easter followers of Jesus. Like falling in love it was beyond words. Like the pinnacles of human experience, it was beyond words.
What is there when we reach beyond words? Some biblical interpreters argue that the rot set in for Christianity the moment the first New Testament story teller, Mark, set the experiences to papyrus. I have had friends challenge me to conduct an entire liturgy with no words, only the silence and the gestures and the love that are the deepest entrails of God.
Yet after all, as John made clear, the One we call the Christ and Lord and Son is Word, is Wisdom and Word and words must be a big part of all we’ve got, to tell of him, to keep the Jesus-rumour alive.
So: words, I’m afraid. And while John the evangelist is using his words to tell a story, we might also see it as a love-story, a love poem perhaps. His demand of us as listeners to the story is that we participate in that love, in divine love. His prayer is that we participate in ways that only the Spirit, the “Comforter” whose empowerment we celebrate next week, makes possible. God is love, is John’s equation, and love is God, and where one is the other is. We can glimpse that divine love humanised only in the life of Jesus, John indicates, and the life of Jesus is made known to us only in the inadequacies of words. Those words, though, are enflamed by the Spirit, so we can feel their impact, timelessly. And – I think I am being true to John here – as we feel that impact and allow our lives to be saturated by it, so we become a people of love, and through us others may know the love that is Divine, death-conquering, life resurrecting eternal love.
As we move into the great liturgical stanza of Ascension, Pentecost and Trinity words fail. Explanations fall short. You are now entering, as Janet Frame put it in another context, the human heart. But this is the human heart enflamed by divine love. This is far beyond the mere rational, as love language often is. Sometimes we can find at least partially rational explanations for it, but the God who dances beyond the universes will not be limited to our small imaginations, and John knows it. “They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.” These words are designed to have us dance in the footsteps of the Creating, Redeeming, Holy-making God. Those who reduce biblical witness to a “how to” manual miss the point. Love, in John’s view of the world, is the result of saturation in the presence of God.
There are measurements of our lovingness. Are we as a faith community hospitable to the stranger? I think this faith community is exemplary in this regard. Are we hospitable to God’s future, ushering in new ways of experiencing and expressing the experience of God? We may have to make changes in the months ahead. Are we hospitable to one another, seeing the presence and the signs, the artistry and the God-gifts in those we meet in and through our interactions in the church community? Do we look for the giftings in one another, affirm them, rejoice in them?
In Gethsemane Jesus prays not for uniformity, where we all clone each other, but unity, whereby we rejoice in our differences, allow ourselves to be edified by the gifts of those we rub shoulders with, allow ourselves some giving of our own gifts knowing they will be enhanced by God’s spirit, utilised by God’s people as we seek together to proclaim the Risen Christ. Our job, as Thomas Merton put it, is to love others without stopping to enquire whether they are worthy. John would argue we are enabled in this task only by the presence of the Spirit-Comforter, of whom more next week.

TLBWY