SERMON PREACHED AT THE CATHEDRAL OF St JOHN THE EVANGELIST, WAIAPU
NAPIER, NEW ZEALAND: First Cathedral to See the Sun)ORDINARY SUNDAY 29 (20th October) 2013
(First Sermon as Twelfth Dean of Waiapu, Vicar of the Cathedral Parish of St John the Evangelist)
Readings: Genesis 32.22-31Psalm 121
2 Timothy 3.14 – 4.5
Ah, the joys of a new ministry! I look down on a sea of faces whose kaupapa (story) is almost universally unknown to me. It is my belief, and although I have never “deaned” before I suspect this is as true for a dean as for any priest or proclaimer of the word – that the sermon or kauwhau must be born out of knowledge and experience of the life-journeys of those who hear it. That today is impossible, and will be for a long time yet. Bear with me then: I will try to engage – and though I make no guarantee that I can quite subscribe to choristers’ instructions for brevity (after all there is mahi [work] to be done here!) – I will do my best not to bore you out of all potential for belief!
And what a feast of riches! So often I fear we hear the scriptures of our faith read or expounded in church and hear no more than blah-blah-blah-godstuff-godstuff- blah-blah-blah. For those on the fringes or outside faith there seems so little to excite or entice, for those within the fluffy perimeters (not, incidentally “parameters”!) of faith little to encourage or inspire. In other contexts there is some sort of inspiration but it is more to do with manipulation and artificial atmosphere and hype than the Spirit of the hard-working God of the founding fathers and mothers of our faith.
Blah-blah-blah-godstuff-godstuff- blah-blah-blah: it’s not what our forebears in faith heard when the author of 2 Timothy, for example, (who may or may not have been Paul) implored his listeners to anchor their faith in scripture. He meant, of course the Hebrew Scriptures, for the New Testament scriptures were not yet written or collected. The scriptures were as it was a “living word”, “inspired by God and … useful for teaching, … reproof … correction, and …training…”. This was to him the equivalent of a Dan Carter physio workout – with all the emotional and physical pain and commitment and blood and sweat and toil, because this holding fast to Jesus was no walk in the park or bunch of fluffy ducks. And it is our task, somehow, to remember that costliness and energy of those who first (and sometimes still) risked their lives to hang on with this bizarre message of justice, righteousness and resurrection hope to which we at least try to adhere today. If nothing else we might recall the author’s plea to anchor any message of hope in scripture, in the narratives of faith, not in the whims and fashions of the fleeting social world that surrounded the Christians of his time and ours.
Indeed our lives of faith are called to be far closer to the wrestling with God that forms the storyline of the iconic renaming of Jacob-Israel. I fear sometimes that our god of the twenty-first century has become so plastic that she or he would quietly melt away were we to wrestle her, and we would be left merely wrestling and worshipping our own image, full of satisfaction when we win without realizing that we have also lost, and that we have merely recreated God, as no less than Nietzsche once tried, in our own image. Nietzsche taught us how to kill god, yet we have found nothing to replace God, and struggle I fear in the morass of our own self-importance now god is supposed to be dead. To say this, though, is not to claim that we did not make terrible mistakes in the alleged service of our God, too, as Nietzsche, for all his faults, prophetically warned us. We did, and we must not make them again.
How though do we avoid those mistakes of our forebears while hanging on to the pearl of great price for which they were prepared to live and die? Christianity is much on the nose in post-modernity, and when I see some of what passes for Christianity I tend to agree. God the nasty firebrand who stands on street corners proclaiming hatred for example of gays or Muslims or Jews or all of the above, god the exploiter, god the oppressor or the god who disregards a warming earth: these are not the God of the early Christians or of the once very unpleasant Jacob who becomes Israel or above all of Jesus Christ. These are phantasms, sacred cows, and not the God of the Cross.
As Luke tells the story of Jesus he provides again and again a litmus test of the authenticity of Christian witness: does our witness point to the upside-down topsy-turvy God who tears down the mighty from their thrones, as we hear in the Magnificat of Mary? Does our witness proclaim justice for the most broken and oppressed – human and other species – of the earth, or proclaim only our warm and fuzzy comfort? Is our witness anchored deep in prayer, wrestling with God in prayer, seeking and imploring that we may be the answers to prayer, seeking also that God’s answers to prayer may sometimes rise above the smallness of our expectations and become miracle?
I did not choose the readings for this day, but I believe they issue a manifesto, a challenge to us all as we begin a new chapter in your journey and mine. May God leave footsteps for us to tread in, still warm footsteps, and may we walk together as we proclaim in word and action the somewhat difficult, challenging, demanding and therefore unpopular God of Jesus Christ, the God of the Cross.