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Saturday, 30 March 2019

grace and yearning

FOURTH SUNDAY OF LENT (31st March) 2019

1 Samuel 1: 20-28
Psalm 127: 1-4
Colossians 3:12-17
John 19: 25-27

Mothering Sunday has never been a part of my own tradition. This is not because I don’t think mothers are a good idea. Most of us have had one, after all! Rather it is but because I am not sure what it is doing in the middle of Lent. Professor Google is always a useful friend, and reports that the origins of this strange incursion into the middle of the Lenten journey was an English invention, based on the premise that the peasants' daughters were likely, by mid-adolescence, to have been forced away from home in the search for an income, and that on this mid-point of Lent they might be allowed home, in an act of grace by their employers, to visit their mothers.

Tradition has it that the daughters gathered flowers on their journey back to their home, usually just a few miles away. At this juncture we can recognize some marriage between the British break in lent and a later American celebration, Mother’s Day (the apostrophe belongs before the s, in recognition that most of us have only one mother).  Mother’s Day was originally invented by a Methodist woman named Anna Jarvis. She would soon regret the commercial event that grew like a cuckoo chick in the nest of her mourning for a much-loved and inspirational mother. Asher expression of love and admiration for her mother was seized on my Hallmark Cards and other profiteering ventures she sought to rescind the day she had invented, but the capitalist genie was out of the bottle, and the expression of love by a grieving daughter.

There are two ingredients we should hold over from these two stories; the first is grace, the permission granted to the young women to return to their village for one Sunday. The second is yearning, the yearning grief that Anna Jarvis was seeking to redress in honouring her mother. Grace and yearning.

For the young women of the sixteenth century the return to the home village was a break in privations. They returned for this one day to mother (if she was still alive), and to the mother church in the which the young woman’s faith had been nurtured as a child.

So our readings hang very loose to the great themes of Lent and of God’s willing redemption of humankind. Yet there are hints; we find the dying Jesus recognising a mother’s incalculable grief as she observes her son’s agony. No parent wishes to outlive their beloved children, and I know as I speak these words that some of you will have borne that anguish. There are no words. Jesus, in his own agony, recognises, connects with, redeems the emotional suffering of his mother: “woman, here is your son.” Of course an adopted son will not wholly replace the real son, yet Jesus reveals the compassion, the “suffering with” which is what compassion means, the compassionate being of God. 

Here is revealed the truth that Timothy Rees would express in one of his finest hymns, “when human hearts are breaking under sorrow's iron rod, then they find that selfsame aching deep within the heart of God.” The heart of God aches … and there the lights of resurrection hope begin to form, if not yet to flicker.

But Jesus has always revealed the ability of the divine heart – which it is, as it were, his “job” to reveal – to ache, to yearn. He has stood over his beloved city Jerusalem and cried out “How I would gather you together as a mother hen gathers her chickens, but you would not.” He has been moved again and again to the depths of his being by the plight of the poor and the outcast. He could not but feel his mother’s anguish, even though his own: “woman” (a word or greater endearment than it sounds to us) “behold your son.”

Jesus has always yearned. This should be no surprise. The Creator God who Jesus calls “Abba” has also always yearned. The story of the Hebrew people and their God has been one long tale of unbalanced yearning. Again and again the prophets tell of God, yearning that the Hebrews will return to right relationship with their Creator. Over and again God weeps for the chosen people. God weeps for all humanity, for whom the chosen people are called to be a sign. And while the human yearning for God is dulled from the moment of our expulsion from Eden, it remains: we seek as a race to find meaning, seek hope, seek authentication of our existence in so many ways. Generally though we are loathe to turn to the God who beckons us, and seek meaning or sometimes just anaesthesia elsewhere, instead.

The founder of the American commercial Mother’s Day never wanted it to be commercial. She wanted it to express her yearning for an inspirational mother who was no longer with her. This deepest, most visceral human emotion was at the heart of the day that became obliterated by commerce. In a strange coincidence the origins of the English quasi-liturgical event of Mothering Sunday expressed that other great truth, of grace. Unmerited access to hope, to love, to God, to God’s resurrection promise for us and for those we love. And so, despite my bigotry, in tis strange mishmash festival there is a twofold message of God. The God who yearns for us, and who creates in us the ability to yearn for God, and for all who we love, also provides this unmerited hope: God is here, God waits for us again and again to open ourselves up to divine love. God embraces those who we have loved and see no longer. God invites us to relationship, and God invites us to be a sign to others in this world that such hope, such relationship with the Source of All Meaning, the Creator, is possible.

The author of Colossians sets out a blueprint as to how we might be a sign to ourselves and to those around us of the possibilities inherent in relationship with Jesus. Enabled, empowered by the Spirit we can be a sign, that the yearning and the grace can collide, leading us into the heart of God:

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.  Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.  Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.  And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

Saturday, 23 March 2019

stumbling in a place of judgement

THIRD SUNDAY OF LENT (24th March) 2019

Exodus 3:1-15
Psalm 63:1-8
1 Corinthians 10:1-13
Luke 13:-1-9

Coming to you as a stranger – which I know is frequently the option here – makes it difficult to break open the word with authenticity amongst you. The art of proclamation, preaching, is a transaction between parties immersed and conjoined in the Spirit of God. Biblical authors, collators, society and its changes, your story, my story, all engage. The points in common are common enough, but the disconnections can be brutal. Forgive me if in my foreignness (relatively so, of course: I haven’t arrived from Mars, though some have often thought so when I’ve preached!) our lines in the stave do not harmonize. At the very least may our souls sing from the same source and the same destiny, sing in the same embrace of God.
I say this particularly because the readings all take us to stern places today, journeying as we are through Lent. But I say it too because here in our nation we have been taken to stern places, places from which we can only stutter in deep lament. We will never forget, though we may repress, the moment when we heard of the shootings in Christchurch ten days ago. For most of us the pain will pass, because it’s reasonably abstract. Less abstract perhaps than shootings in the USA, cyclones in southern Africa and Arnhemland and Arizona, but abstract nevertheless. For us personally new days have dawned without palpable grief. But they have dawned with a niggling sense that something has changed. Watersheds do that. Our 9/11 has changed us, just as the world’s 9/11 changed us.
Our readings – from long ago yet from today, too – take us to the heart of God of judgement. While often in the church we have trivialised this stern, what I in my writings call (after C. S. Lewis) “Aslam is not a tame lion” aspect of God, we do so at peril. Christchurch was not in a simple obscene sense God’s judgement, any more than Good Friday was the bitter and bloody act of a vitriolic God. But Christchurch was the outcome of our silent self-satisfaction and our acquiescence with evil, the joint evils of xenophobia and complacency. A brutal reminder that we are as tolerant a society as we are a clean green society, and that the veneer is very thin.
Good Friday, towards which we are journeying through Lent, was likewise a brutal reminder, the brutal reminder, that humanity will always crucify love and justice and compassion (and if we doubt that, we might recall news statements today that there are serious death threats directed at our prime minister right now).
That the Christchurch killings took place is an event from which we are brought to crisis, to judgement (the words are the same), and are a call to ameliorative, restorative action. Christchurch was our moment to cry out in a dry and weary land where there is no water (metaphorically speaking), our striking down in the wilderness, and our cutting down in the orchard.
We the Church are not in a position to wave big sticks. In the Church (in all its forms) we have often done so, or finger-pointed at the community around us. Our permission to do that, if it ever existed, has long been exposed as a fraud. Our sorry histories of exploitation and abuse are something we are called deeply to repent. While that is partially a story for a different time it is not entirely so.
We cannot wave a big stick at society, but we can demonstrate the integrity of the gospel we are called to proclaim. We can be speaking and acting out of conspicuous love, justice and compassion, and doing so in the face of the growing narratives of hatred towards our Muslim brothers and sisters.
Speaking up for the persecuted includes not only our Muslim whanau but all our persecuted minority brothers and sisters. We might, as we speak in Lent about conspicuous justice, love and compassion, and about the judgement of God, note that bikies have been more visible in their actions of love and support for our friends than many Christian groups. We might at this time lament those pseudo-Christian leaders (and I will name Brian Tamaki) who have used this time to worsen the pain of our Muslim friends.
We surrender a theology of God’s judgement, running through our readings today, at great peril. But other themes run through these scriptures, and we ignore them, too, at peril. As Paul writes about the history of the people of God, and of the failings of our predecessors in faith (and there is nothing new under the sun), and about God’s judgement, he writes as always with a deep sense of the God who draws near to and enters the human predicament in Christ.
We surrender the doctrine of Incarnation, too, at great peril. I am not here critiquing our Muslim, Jewish and other neighbours, for whom this doctrine is incomprehensible, perhaps silly or even offensive. I critique those who espouse faith in Christ while dismantling the meaning of his existence. For us God is not merely out there at the edge of the universe or universes, but has drawn near to and indeed entered human experience in the Incarnation and in Pentecost’s coming of the Spirit. 
For Paul, God in Christ enters into our own stumbling and failure, as well as our doubts and uncertainties. God in Christ enters and transforms our failures into the Easter hope. We speak, in a time of ecological and sociological and economic crisis (judgement) not with empty platitudes but with individual and collective experience of lives transformed by God. This is the God who in Christ by the Spirit enters us and converts us and our world from darkness to light, from despair to hope. We must speak by our actions and attitudes, and only then perhaps by words, but we speak (or should) nevertheless. We remain silent, frozen in the headlights, at great peril. We ignore the central traditional resurrection faith of our forebears at great peril for without it we have nothing to say.
The readings take` us to a place of judgement, crisis. They take us to a God who in Christ draws near and even within us.
They do not leave us in the shadow of Good Friday. In the apocalyptic language often favoured by biblical characters, yes, the axe is at the foot of the vine or the tree. Yet that, we know, is not the final word. We must not forget, or again do so at great peril, a third great theme of our scriptures, that of grace and its spiritual bed-fellow, resurrection-hope. 
Am I good enough to bear witness to the love and compassion of God? I don’t have to be an extraordinary sinner (though I do quite badly well) to know that the answer is no. I stumble, I fall. As the old confession wisely used to put it, I do the things I ought not to do and leave undone the things I ought to have done. I suspect we are all stumblers on the Way of the Cross: the reminder in the Stations of the Cross that some will observe on Good Friday, that Jesus stumbles, enters our stumbling on the journey to death and resurrection. That is a powerful sign of hope. For in the end, while we cannot, must not be complacent in the face of darknesses, we are nevertheless privileged to know the transforming energies of the eternal one who walks with us, leads us in God's warm footprints to eternal hope and life. We know the God who refuses any name beyond “I am,” but who beckons us always to the hope beyond our understanding and the eternities beyond our sight.


Friday, 15 March 2019

faith amidst hate?

SECOND SUNDAY OF LENT (March 17th) 2019


    • Jeremiah 22: 1-9, 13-17
    • Psalm 135
    • Luke 14: 27-33

In the various apocalyptic writings of Christian and Jewish faith lurid images of destruction occur over and again. In a cynical post-Enlightenment world we tend to dismiss them, relegate them to idiot fringes. Many religious leaders generate destruction by abusing apocalyptic writings, propping up cynical self-interests and power structures. Apocalyptic is a articular genre, designed to bring hope to those who are suffering. Denude it of its coordinates of suffering and it can become one more page of hatred, like the supremacist narratives of hate that turned into the slaughter of fifty people in Christchurch his past week. Destruction. Hate. These are weapons of evil. The actual purpose of biblical apocalyptic was very different, no matter how it has come to be abused.
Biblical (and other) narratives of apocalyptic were designed to critique evil. They critiqued narratives of hate, narratives that demonise otherness, narratives of xenophobia. But they have been distorted by religious leaders in every given time in which Christian and other religious leaders and practitioners have become a full of their own exceptionalism and self-importance. In Christchurch we saw religionless hatred dressed up in a manifesto of supremacy. It is no different.
Hatred is hatred, and it is our task to ensure hatred and its reverberating “no” is not the final word. Our task is to proclaim active, outspoken love, to whisper God’s mysterious “yes.”
Hatred is hatred. Even before the unspeakable atrocities of the Al Noor mosque and Linwood Islamic Centre, hatred and abuse were dominating news cycles. Across the ditch Australian Cardinal Pell is beginning a gaol term from which, however lenient some think it, he may never emerge alive (if probable appeals are unsuccessful). Royal Commissions on both sides of the Tasman have been, are or will be exposing heart-chilling betrayal and predation within religious organizations.
Sure: it is not only religious bodies and narratives that have betrayed the vulnerable. Michael Jackson is a tragic reminder that money blinds even parental eyes. Roman Polanski, Jimmy Savile, Rolf Harris, Bill Cosby, a roll call of abuse, remind us that many corridors have housed and protected evil. Debra Lafave, if we Google her, reminds us that predation is about power not gender.  And now forty-nine people are dead in Christchurch; hatred is hatred, and all acts of sexual abuse and xenophobic terrorism are attempts to eradicate the lights of love and hope about which we too languidly sing and pray.
Lists of perfidy should never have included ostensible bearers of Christ. Yet Christian structures of power and authority, Catholic, Anglican, Protestant and Pentecostal alike, have been for centuries formidable Petrie dishes of predation. We have at best merely mumbled in the face of evil.
Lent is a fine time to repent and change and act in the name of Jesus, the Christ who lived and died to dismantle power and hate.
Jesus stood deliberately in the footsteps of Jeremiah. Jeremiah, the iconoclastic prophet who turned his rage on the politico-religious leadership of his day. Jeremiah, who like Jesus after him put into the mouth of his God and ours fearsome words that we gloss so easily: “I swear that I will make you a desert, an uninhabited city.” Today they are words spoken to the global north, or as we used to call it, “first” or “western” world. We the community of the homeless messiah have aided and abetted narratives of corruption, abuse, and death. We as pray-ers and singers, as Christ-bearers of varied beliefs do not escape the prophet’s brutal gaze.
Jeremiah turned on the self-consciously holier-than-thou practitioners, the elite religious castes of his day and spat his rancid words: “In the prophets I saw a disgusting thing …”.
In the case of Pell and others the same religious leaders who have noisily barred those seeking love and companionship from the experiences of inclusion in the Christ community have themselves perpetrated sexual abuse, and our structures protected the perpetrators. In the case of Al Noor and Linwood we have not spoken out to counter waves of hatred directed at our Muslim sisters and brothers. Our silence chastises us.  Jeremiah’s finger is pointed fearlessly, timelessly and especially at our religious bodies today. We have harboured predators, and have remained silent in the face of hate.
There is no room for complacency, as the Royal Commission will soon remind us in the case of the predation, and Al Noor and Linwood tells us in the face of hatred.
At which point there appears very little attraction to persevere with a faith, let alone an institution, that has nurtured so dark a hypocrisy. Where is God, when evil has been so deep? This Lent perhaps more than any other I find my replies to that question, called in academic circles the “theodicy question,” are stuttered. George Pell … Brenton Tarrant … Where is hope?
And yet … and yet … “Oh love that will not let me go …”
I stumble on.
Jesus’ speaks to us even as our institutions rightly crumble and the shibboleths, the false gods that TS Eliot called “the old certainties” collapse. Unless we heed the bare, raw, frightening yet eventually comfort-filled words of Jeremiah and Jesus we will not eradicate abuse, predation or xenophobia.
The cross: take it up. Raw, bloodied, unimaginably stripped of pretention, romance, power, or prestige. Take it up, says Jesus, and stumble with me. In following his broken, powerless footsteps we find love that conquers: O love that will not let me go. We find hate-conquering resurrection belief though it seems like nonsense to ears that will not hear, hearts that will not feel, eyes that will not see beyond the limits of the rational. In the powerless broken footsteps of Jesus we find the way to hope that whispers that neither George Pell nor Michael Jackson, Brenton Tarrant nor Anders Breivik, Osama bin Laden or Abū Bakr al-Baghdadi have the final word on life and death.
Take up a cross, Jesus said, with the aid of him who has been there, staggered with it, and there breathed judgement and hope into sin and suffering. Take it up, but unlike the predators who have abused it, used it, (in some case literally) as a weapon of victimization, stay with its renunciation of power. Only then and there do we find the healing resurrection touch of the Easter God.