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Saturday, 21 October 2017

Trump and a finer focus

(South Napier)
29th Sunday in Ordinary Time (te Rātapu rua tekau mā iwa o he wā noa iho)
(October 22nd) 2017


Exodus 33.12-23
Psalm 99
1 Thessalonians 1.1-10
Matthew 22:15-20

Some months ago there was excruciating media coverage of a meeting between Trump and his inner sanctum. Acting disturbingly like so called “beloved leader” Kim Jong-un, Trump sat basking while the dutiful lackeys around the room praised him for his magnificent leadership, his unparalleled intelligence, his masterful nous. 
To be honest I’ve forgotten what the obedient sycophants dragged up, but it was a sickening sight in a contemporary western democracy. Jacinda Ardern is riding high right now without choreography, but I doubt she would lower herself to demanding that her cabinet, one by one, pour praise and adulation upon her so she could bask in fabricated glory.
In the Roman empire it was almost obligatory to heap praise upon the Emperor Caesar if supplicants were to gain his attention. But to a lesser degree it was a protocol in any formal address. Perhaps Trump is re-inventing an old wheel. We see glimpses of it in the Letter to the Thessalonians, as the author praises his audience for their faithfulness in the gospel.  It was a protocol.
So the Pharisees’ approach  was not completely unusual.  But they were out to trap Jesus. There is going to be no honest engagement when the purpose of a conversation is entrapment. The Pharisees approach Jesus with no intention of engaging with his teachings, with him.  Jesus engages with the questions at a level far greater than their deceitfulness deserves, to our benefit. Jesus drives to the heart of the thorny question of the relationship between believer and state. It was a question that reached back into Judaism, to the times when the Hebrews were first conquered or kidnapped by foreign powers. It was a question to the fore during the time of Roman occupation. It was a question for believers ever since, and is a question for us now.
At surface level it is about taxes, and today the answer is fairly simple: pay the amount the law demands. We may not altogether agree with the way our governments spend our taxes – I for one will be watching eagerly to see if Jacinda keeps her promise to provide the fair access to tertiary education that my generation took away – but I simply have to accept that that is the privilege and risk of democracy. When things go seriously we have options of non-violent resistance, even some sort of taxation resistance, though it tends to be a reasonably ineffective protest.
But the bigger answer, when faced by obsequious liars, is the subtext to Jesus’ response. Who is our God, where is our city, where is our ultimate focus? The arguments that Donald Trump has succeeded in rarking up in the United States, are a little foreign to laid-back New Zealanders. Most of us enjoy the anthem, and are mildly ambivalent about the flag (but not ambivalent enough to change it). Many of us enjoy the haka, that has in thirty years gained a parallel anthem status. But the US obsession with their nationalistic actions, and Trump’s focus on the issue, helps bring the response of Jesus into focus. Should we stand, kneel, salute, or chew gum?
The question points to a deeper truth. Who is our highest point of reference? The State? The leader of the State? Our pet issue of concern? These issues are more difficult to sort than it might seem, because we have the added question: who leads us to decide? I certainly have no definitive answer, though I know many answers that are tragically wrong. In the lead up to two World Wars, for example, the national churches of European nations acted as if God were a slave, a token God of their nation alone. Often we have recreated God in the image of our prejudices: as English god or White god, as god recreated to look like me.
Let's be very careful: the God we serve is the God who chooses to meet us not in places of power, but outside the city wall, on the edge of a dump, on a cross, with only love to persuade us of divine integrity. No flag, no anthem, no jingoistic clichés, no magic tricks., Love.
The biblical writers again and again try to point us to God by reminding us that earth-bound perspectives are flawed. Flag, anthem, clichés, tricks, all are imposters. This is why Jesus out-manoeuvres the con-artists who trying to trap him, points them instead to a set of values and beliefs and standards far higher than that of Caesar. Let Caesar, or Ardern or anyone have their dues, but the God of the Cross demands a greater due. God demands infinite love – and we all fall short of that.
I’m a great fan of Paul, and not of the Pharisees – though I think they get a rough time at the hands of the gospel writers. But in both cases the real gospel work begins after the obsequious openings. Which makes for a strange kauwhau. Because I leave you only with the question: where is our heart set? For there our treasure will be also. Jesus and his prickly Paul alike move their very different audiences on, challenging us to live in the shadow of God’s judgement, which is also God’s grace, which is also God’s love. Jesus drives past the Pharisees’ hypocrisy to tell us to live as a people of Christ’s love. And we can do that only with and in the love and grace and help of God.

Saturday, 19 August 2017

faith in the storms

This belonged with last week's readings ... this week's later. Life got in the way. But for my stuttered thoughts on Charlottesville see my alternative blog
This was delivered in 2011 - had I pictured the storms of Charlottesville and the rise of hate  six years hence I might have emphasized the stilling of the storm a little more: Because I was not prescient I will inject this link a long six years later: "hate will not win" but  silence is not the answer





Genesis 37.1-4, 12-28
Ps 105.1-6, 16-22
Romans 10.4-15
Matthew 14.22-36

If ever there were events in the stories of the life of Jesus – and in a sense that is what the gospels are not, but more of that perhaps another time – that captures a visual imagination it is the nature miracles, the stilling of storms and walking on water.  Popular images in stained glass and other art, it became popular in and since the nineteenth century to dismiss or disparage (either way to ‘diss’!) these events as elaborate and naïve fabrications.

I don’t particularly want to weigh into the argument. It is important as we read the first century scriptures to remember that the world of the original audiences was not so different to our own, and that then as now language of stilling storms or walking on water would have been heard as metaphorical, or literal, or fabricated. Those who first told the stories were aware of this, and told them still: the risk of conveying the gospel on the back of utter fabrication was too great to undertake.

We can therefore be assured either that the events occurred as described or that there was an understanding between speaker and audience that these stories conveyed truth about a divine yet human figure who could, as one utterly conjoined with the creator of the universe, command creation to obey his will. If this is the case we can also be assured that the early Christians knew the risen Christ as one who, present to them by the Spirit, could calm the tragic storms of their individual and corporate lives.

This did not, then or now, indicate that, as the saying goes, bad things don’t happen to good people. The story of Joseph in any case should warn us that while God may journey ahead of us and with us in times of trial, we are not by any means protected from the vicissitudes of life. Bad things happen to people, full stop! The challenge though is for us as a people of God to be so immersed in the rhythms of a life directed towards God, so immersed in the rhythms of a life that is lived on the premise that it belongs to God, that we can know ourselves to be treading in the footsteps that God has already trodden, treading in the footsteps that God has created for us.

The challenge then, to borrow the words of one great saint, is to ‘practice the presence of God’. The fate of the pre-Easter Peter, characteristically relying on his own bravado to attempt the miraculous task to which Jesus calls him, is highly symbolic in application for our own lives. I emphasize again, it does not matter whether we take a literal approach to the events described, or whether we see them as a metaphor, there is no doubt that the earliest Christians believed, against all odds, that faith in and obedience to Christ was utterly trial-transforming.

They knew from tough experience that a life lived to Christ, lived in such a way that it becomes a constant confession of Christ and witness to Christ, becomes a life that transcends trials of any magnitude, even trials of persecution and death. It was this that was the main evangelistic tool of the first Christians – martyrs by death or simply by lifestyle, they demonstrated a resilience and an authenticity far greater than that of the world around them, and gradually their numbers grew against all odds.

For us in twenty-first century western Christianity cultures there is, thank God, little chance of martyrdom for our faith. I for one am not necessarily sure that I would be so brave in Christ that I could be a Stephen, stoned for his faith, or a Peter, who once he stopped attempting to bravado his way into God’s plan, once he surrendered to the leading of God’s Christ-presenting Spirit, became one of the greatest witnesses of all our history.

But a life lived to Christ is simply a life lived in the shadow of the Cross, the shadow of God’s call to prioritize Christlike, self-sacrificing justice and compassion and love in whatever context God calls us to dwell in. It is to that we are called across the waters – no matter how strong the winds (including the winds of change that blow around us and which may be our gentle form of persecution) – and it is in Christ, not in ourselves, that we are called to put our trust.


Saturday, 5 August 2017

on light inextinguishable

(South Napier)
(Feast of the Transfiguration)
(August 6th) 2017


Daniel 7.9-10, 13-14
Psalm 97
2 Peter 1.16-19
Luke 9: 28b-36

This week on a friend posted a link on Facebook that caught my eye. The link focussed on the German martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who attempted to topple Hitler. Bonhoeffer maintained that when the church stops talking about Jesus, it has nothing to say. 
It is  the Feast of the Transfiguration. In the Orthodox church this is the great feast of the year, for this is the feast on which the light of God shines through the flesh of Jesus and we are enabled to see the face of God in the face of Jesus, something the Hebrews could never do. The divine light shines in and through the flesh of the Incarnation, arreuria!  
The centrality of Jesus is not-negotiable. We take a risk when we speak of Jesus. We will recreate Jesus to some extent, remake him in the image that we want him to have. That’s only natural, and we’re allowed to be human. But we must always ensure that our presentation of Jesus is not contradicted by the scriptures. 
That’s one reason why the mystical language of the Orthodox is so valuable. The scriptures are the first place where we encounter him, divine light pouring from him. We must not remake Jesus in our own image. The experience of the scriptural authors was that his light, divine light will always be shining with us on our journey, even our journey through death. Divine light, light of lights, for us and with us!
If I claim to speak on behalf of the Church, the Body of Christ, but do not refer to Jesus, then I am mocking Christianity. Jesus is  God’s self-revelation, and I blot the Jesus story out at  the expense of white-washing faith itself, making faith meaningless. If I speak about social justice, but do not claim the authority and compassion of Jesus the Just, or if I speak of justice for the earth, for what I will happily call Papatūānuku and her children, but do not cite the compassion of Jesus who has loved creation from its beginning,  then I am no more than a political party and I am only pretending to be at prayer or ‘at faith.’
I don’t always get this right, don’t always practice what I preach. But when we begin to look and sound more like a political party or a service club than the Body of Christ, then we are seriously losing our way, blackening the divine light. And we are, across the Church.
But what of the Transfigured Christ?
The language of Transfiguration is strange: Jesus becomes too powerfully vivid for our eyes to cope, converses with ancestors in faith, and hears, with his companions, the voice of God. This is no normal event. Should we dump it, then?
But why should our language about the Messiah of God be merely normal? When we describe the pinnacle experiences of our lives we break our of the ordinary. We struggle to find words. If I speak of my wedding day (or night!) or the day a group of our completed the Milford Track in atrocious conditions or the day I climbed Table Mountain or my feelings at a Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen concert or when watching a sunset, then I have no words.
Whatever happened in the lives of Peter, John, and James, it was not able to be communicated in common or garden words. In fact they failed to get a grasp of the events at all until much later, and were prepared to admit that (or we wouldn’t have the story). But we should not avoid building it into our story of Jesus. The disciples glanced something beyond words. But later, after the even greater resurrection event, they began to get it. When they saw this moment of light in the light of the even greater light of the resurrection, they began to understand. Make sense of that! Some experience that they could not explain or even convey clearly, filled them with awe, and they told the tale. Still though they had no words, and nor did Luke, or Peter, who told the tale years later. The biblical writers could not always or indeed often convey the awe and strangeness of God. Nor can we. But they and we could live it.
In this scientific world we must never be afraid of that which is mystery. Language of the weird and wonderful, which we often only turn to in books and movies, should be a part of our language of faith, must be a part of our language of faith, unless we’re going to be mere drivellers. We drag God down to merely human drivel at peril. We reduce faith to a political or sociological programme at peril. We trim the unknowable, the eternal, the mystical, the divine out of our language and our discourse at peril. When we do that we become mere bessa blocks, mere concrete blocks instead of the beautiful ornate whakairo, carvings that reveal mystery, that the Creator designed us to be.
The Transfiguration challenges us to lift our eyes above the gutter. The great biblical stories challenge us to move from prose to poetry, from talk to waiata, and then to turn with renewed wairua to the issues that we face from day to day. As we are renewed we know that we are not addressing life merely in our own limited strength. We can face issues of injustice, suffering, despair, loneliness, innumerable things that weigh us down and cripple our family, friends, our wider society. Some of us are called to address these big issues – from homelessness to income disparity to the big questions of global warming and international affairs. Some of us are simply called to share aroha and tūmanako (hope) with those we meet on the smaller stages of life. Either way it’s okay. But we are called to do so with our hearts warmed by the ever present, risen, ascended and in all ways transfigured Christ, who is always with us. Then, when it all gets too much we are called to step back, renew our lives in prayer, fellowship and worship, be refilled with the transfiguring Wairua (Spirit) of Christ who so enflamed the earliest Christians, and who himself went up the maunga to pray and be renewed (with remarkable effect on those he shared the experience with). 
And in all this the centrality of Jesus is not negotiable. The one who is known to us in the bread and the wine, known to us in the warmth of fellowship, known to us in the power of karakia (prayer) and himene (hymns), who will take us on into the impossible eternities of God, glimpsed in the words and visions of the Mount of Transfiguration.


Friday, 28 July 2017

threepenny in the pudding

27th July 2008


Gen. 29.15-28
Psalm 128
Rom. 8.26-39
Mt 13.31-33, 44-52

If we were to be serious and literalist about the scriptures of our faith we are faced with a problem in this passage from Matthew. We don’t need to be botanists to know that Jesus appears to have got a few things seriously wrong here.
First, the mustard seed is far from ‘the smallest of all seeds’, even if we disallow pores from the equation. Secondly, the mustard bush usually grows to a metre or two, very occasionally to three or more, and in no circumstances could be considered ‘greatest of plants and a tree’. And thirdly, mustard is an annual herb, growing and dying each year, (90% of it is grown in Saskatchewan, incidentally!), and therefore of far less use to birds than many middle eastern plants.
A literary critic named Frank Kermode once suggested, rightly I believe, that is anything in a text, including the scriptures, strikes us as odd, then we should have a closer look. Consider the mustard seed! What is it doing for us here? Was Jesus simply wrong – and if so, wouldn’t it have been easier for Matthew to have left this error out of his story? Why is it here? Perhaps one clue is that traditionally ‘trees’ were a familiar symbol of empires: The vast, majestic imperial tree of Rome was being threatened by something seemingly flimsy and ephemeral, and it would be, ultimately, the mustard seed beginnings of the Christ-community that would lead history, including us, into the futures of God.
So we probably don’t need to be rocket scientists to see that the contrast Jesus is drawing is between powerless, small beginnings – indeed the powerlessness of a crucified, convicted criminal on a Roman cross – on the one hand and the majestic redeeming love and creative power of God on the other. The tiny mustard seed beginnings are as politically illustrious as a radish in the garden, but the victory of God, both provisionally in the events of Easter and eternally in the coming of God’s Empire, will happen.
Strangely, the next mini-parable, too, is full of hidden surprises. We wouldn’t notice it (without the aid of scholars), but yeast was almost unknown as a symbol of something positive. Again Kermode would warn us: is something strange happening here? And why is the woman kneading ‘three satas’, in the Greek, a massive amount of dough, sufficient to provide bread for 100-150 people? Clearly whatever small thing happened as a result of the presence of the yeast, it was intended to have considerable impact, far more than one lowly woman or indeed one lowly mustard seed would normally expect. Out of the powerlessness of the woman or the powerlessness of the seed normal expectations and structures were to be overthrown: perhaps, as Matthew was writing, his community was fluctuating between 100-150 members, leavened by the yeast of Matthew’s gospel-telling.
It is interesting, too, that the verb used by Matthew to describe the woman’s placement of the yeast in the dough, hidden in our translation, is just that: ‘to hide’. It is not a normal word to describe a baker’s action: mum may once upon a time have hidden threepenny or ten cent pieces in the Christmas pudding, but ‘hide’ is not normally a word we use of adding yeast to flour. Kermode again: is something strange here? Are we indeed hidden as it were, in the world, and is creation, the world around us, as Paul puts it, waiting ‘with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God’? They are strange hints that we are indeed being called to be yeast in a world, and that we are called to be that miracle that can transform, when empowered by God’s Spirit, lives and communities around us. Firs, though, we must be mustard seeds, or yeast.
And the remaining parables give us a hint how that may be. For, although they are very different, the remaining mini-parables are about prioritising. Be it an unexpected pearl, or a pearly deliberately and systematically hidden, the response is the same: make this our single highest priority. Do that, Matthew is suggesting, and Jesus is suggesting, and we will be mustard seed, infectious, influential proclaimers of the Empire of God.
The parable of the net, product of a church under persecution, with the sinister threat of damnation and destruction of the opponents of God is not ultimately a parable for the western world. By that I don’t mean we can ignore it. I mean that it needs to be read through eyes of powerlessness, when all the persecuted community has left is the hope that its enemies will receive the wrath of God. In a western world we would be better employed in intercession, praying that our neighbours receive the mercy of God. The Church is not to proclaim itself as the net: our task is to be the re-prioritised and urgently loving people of God.


burn in hell?

[system breaking down a little - I don't think I've posted this before: from warmer climes and relatively long ago]

SUNDAY, JULY 17th 2011


Genesis 28.10-19a
Ps 139 1-11, 23-24
Romans 8.12-25
Matthew 13.24-43

There was in the university days of my first exposure to Christianity, and perhaps there still is, an evangelistic line that goes something like: ‘if you died tonight where would you spend eternity?’ Although it is loosely based on some of the Jesus sayings, such as the parable of the barn in Luke 12, it not only misses the point of that parable in particular, but more importantly misses the point that Jesus never, except in the face of religious hypocrisy and greed, threatened hell to or for his audience. Of the eleven times the New Testament records Jesus referring to hell – always a translation of  γε΄εννα, a reference to the city dump – all are in the context not of the failure to believe but of the double standards of those whose hypocrisy prohibits the tentative and vulnerable beliefs of others.

Such a form of evangelism contrasts darkly with the openness and compassion of Jesus, who, despite referring to himself occasionally (and only in John’s gospel-account) as judge, spends his life not threatening hell but proclaiming God’s inviting love. Indeed one wonderful commentator, Marcus Barth (son of the great twentieth century theologian) once proclaimed, provocatively, that ‘hell is for Christians only’.

I have no adequate or even trite answer to misguided would-be evangelists who ask me where I would go if I died on any given day, but I suspect that by and large Jesus doesn’t either. I would rather approach the misguided question in terms of the compassionate and inviting love of the Creator God than with petulant threats of some form of eternal punishment, a doctrine that, although predominant in the history of Christianity, is by and large irrelevant to and absent in the biblical texts that should shape our faith. The language of judgment and of hell in the New Testament is directed at those who burden others around them with weights of fear and oppression, not at those who for whatever reason choose to believe something different to what you or I believe. Hell is for Christians only.

I refer to the New Testament. In the Hebrew Scriptures language of afterlife at all is at best shadowy and unformed, and, as a late development, is often utterly absent. It’s fairly safe to say the Hebrews only developed a refined sense of judgement and of heaven and hell after their exposure to Persian religion, Zoroastrianism in particular, during the Babylonian exile five or six hundred years before Christ. But the language of blessing, central to our Genesis reading, was and remains critical not only to the Hebrew people but to us, their cousins-in-faith: we serve the same God. The Hebrew people were, in the actions of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, called into special relationship with the one creator God. They were in this relationship called to be a distinctive people – the Covenant, and certain operations experienced by their men-folk, were one way to express or signify that relationship. 

It was not however, as so much Christian preaching implies, a relationship that was designed to leave non-Jews, non-Hebrews, burning in an eternal hell. And, despite occasional outbursts to the contrary, outbursts made always in times of persecution, nor was or is the New Covenant relationship with the Creator God, the new relationship made possible in Christ, supposed to leave those outside the Christ-community burning in some eternal hell, eternally weeping and gnashing teeth while a saved elite sip their celestial nectar and watch on in blesséd joy .

The people of God, old and new, are called to be blessing. This is the meaning of the words spoken to Jacob: all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. By this relationship to the Creator, the people of God, Old and New, are called to be a sign, and by being that sign are blessing to the communities around them. It is with this relationship to God in mind that Jesus calls us to be seed amongst wheat, or elsewhere calls us to be ‘in the world but not of the world’. It is this that is at the basis of Jesus’ response to the ten lepers, healing ten but rejoicing in the thanks of the one who returns to say thank you. We are called, if you like, not to ‘save’ the world, despite what our Dean and Administrator said the other night (not to contradict him, either), but to stand in the world as a reminder that it is saved, as a reminder that Good Friday in all its injustice and sorrow is not the final word on human existence.

Paul, as he sets about the most dispassionate and reasoned of his letters, Romans, is acknowledging this as he writes of ‘creation longing for the revealing of the children of God’. Despite the tragic mishandling of this passage in some hands, this is not about some part of creation finding itself to be eternally separated from divine love, watching as the children of God are in some way whisked away to a blessed eternity while non-believers are left behind, but rather the Good News that all creation, all people, even the nine lepers, are caught up into the unthwartable and eternal purposes of God. To this end we are called to be a people of praise, turning again and again, despite our inadequacy, to the God who invades our lives and makes us whole. We are called by our familiarity with the God we worship and love in Christ, the God who we can approach as ‘Abba’ (beloved parent), to proclaim glory. We are called by our practice of the presence of God, our liturgy especially, but our lives too, to proclaim God’s glory, the news that God’s is the final word to creation, and that that word is not the ‘no’ of mortality and injustice but the ‘yes’ of eternity.

It is this that is your task and mine, the task to which we are called together and in which we are all commissioned by our baptism.