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Friday, 25 July 2014

Maranatha and the butterly wing once more

SERMON PREACHED AT THE ORMOND CHAPEL
HOSPITAL HILL
(NAPIER, NEW ZEALAND)
ORDINARY SUNDAY 17 (27th July) 2014
       


Readings:       1 Kings 3:5-12
                       Psalm 119:129-136
                       Romans 8:26-39
                       Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52



When Matthew wove together his collection of Jesus sayings, seeking to inspire his little community of perhaps forty or so people, nestling probably at Antioch in south-central Turkey, he did so with an eye to inspiring them to be the most effective witness possible to the Jesus-story. It is fair to say he incorporated (or perhaps accentuated, or even invented!) more Jesus sayings about judgement and end-times urgency than did his spiritual confrere Luke. It is probable that his little Antiochene community was under far more pressure to surrender its faith and its spiritual integrity than Luke’s.  He emphasises Hebrew Law far more than any other writer, perhaps as a corrective to a growing abuse of Paul’s teachings, teachings that already reflect a struggle with the questions of morality and law within Christian circles. These were volatile times. Antioch would go on, under first Peter’s, then Matthew’s, and then many others’ leadership, to become one of the great cradles of Christian thought. Paul, incidentally, never enjoyed a happy relationship with Antioch, though I like to believe the fable that Paul and Peter were martyred together, and like to believe that in the face of the imminent glory of God they got some differences sorted out.

So Matthew emphasized the importance of witness, witness to Christ in the maelstrom world of flux and antagonism around him and his Antiochean community. He used the teachings of Jesus to emphasize the need to cling on to Jesu-focussed integrity, so that this tiny little huddle of often frightened believers might indeed be the mustard seed of faith that transformed the wider city and region. I figure that Matthew, whoever he was (for he wasn’t necessarily the tax-collector of the story he narrates) might have been rather chuffed to see his town become one of the great Christian metropoli for nearly thirteen centuries, though he would have wept to see the bloodshed, not atypical of that region not far from where ISIS rebels are now persecuting, pillaging and slaughtering Shiite and Christian believers alike, would have wept to see the bloodshed that dominated the last four Crusade-pillaged centuries of his beloved hometown.

Mustard seed faith: it is a lovely image of how a small and faithful community can infiltrate the larger “meta-narrative” of the wider community. While I prefer to apply it primarily to the Jesus-story, there is no doubt that at this moment there are Jews and Muslims and Christians praying for peace and demonstrating peace-values, justice values together in the Middle East, swimming against the tides of ethnic hatred that dominate that region. There’s no doubt that a young woman like the feisty Malala Yousafzai, having survived an assassination attempt, is articulating a mustard seed faith in the power of girls’ education to transform the world. There is no doubt that those who continue to speak out against the power of the exploitative multi-nationals and self-interested governments on behalf for example of the people of Bhopal, or the sweat-shop workers of Bangladesh, or the refugees fleeing Sri Lanka do, like a prisoner striking damp matches in a darkened cave, sometimes succeed to change the world.

Like Matthew, Rachel Carson never lived to see her mustard seed of environmental concern at least begin to challenge international greed. Like Matthew, activist Steve Biko (whose icon adorns my cathedral office wall) never lived to see apartheid fall. In all these cases though the story is not and never will be over: bombs still fall on Gaza and Israel, corporate giants still rape the world’s resources, the ANC practices its own forms of exploitation now it controls South Africa, and the skies still pour their hard rain around the globe.

That is why I prefer to apply the image primarily to the Jesus-story of Resurrection and Second Coming: when women receive all the education we need them to have, injustice will still be perpetrated. When the executives of great multi-nationals finally discover compassion and justice new exploiters will rise to take their place. When Bangladesh or Sri Lanka become places of justice, new sweatshops will appear around the world, perhaps even in the nations that currently make up the crumbling empires of the global north. It was only when Europe finished stripping its forests bare to make capital, after all, that global south nations like Brazil or Burma emulated them in order to survive. From the Jesus-parable perspective only the fulfilment of the ancient prayer “maranatha, come Lord, come and wind up cosmic history,” will fulfil the mission of mustard seed faith.

We stand on the shoulders of Matthew and his small community of mustard seed believers. Hopefully, despite overwhelming doubts, we still whisper our prayers for the coming of God’s reign of justice and love. I believe the fulfilment of that reign is thoroughly other-worldly, yet its DNA can and must be implanted in this world, too. With Paul we participate in the groans of God’s Spirit, groaning in prayer as we witness Gaza, Sudan, north-east Iraq and countless more theatres of suffering. Like Matthew or Paul or Rachel Carson or Steve Biko we may never see even the flawed and tainted answers to our prayers, let alone their final fulfilment, but we join in the murmur of beating butterfly wings, participating in the rhythm that will one day initiate God’s eternity. For me when the evidence of human hatred becomes too great I fall back on the ancient (fifth century) Jesus Prayer of Orthodox Spirituality: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us”: the exercise of that mercy would be, in the end, the coming of the Reign of God.

It’s all mystical stuff, and it must be, for it is otherworldly. It is though mere dross if we don’t also strive to change our lives to be the answers to our prayers, striving to live lives more fair, and just, and Christ-centred. It is our commission, not to mention our pearl of great price, as we obey Jesus’ command from the climactic end of Matthew’s story, “Go … baptize … teach.”

TLBWY
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