Some epiphanous thoughts
Monday, 20 January 2020
Thursday, 16 January 2020
Link to my first broadcast on OAR-FM, Dunedin Community Radio. My first pre-recorded, scripted broadcast since ABC days, and my first air-waves tickle since COW-FM days in Casino.
Good fun ... another one goes to air this Sunday (19th January), and I shall link to it on this blog as soon as it's available after broadcast..
Friday, 10 January 2020
SERMON PREACHED AT St PAUL’S CATHEDRAL, DUNEDIN
BAPTISM of CHRIST (January 12th) 2020
Isaiah 42: 1-9
Acts 10: 34-43
Matthew 3: 13-17
You may have heard Philip Yancey’s story of a prostitute who sought help from a community worker. I was once accused of “swearing in church” because I mentioned a prostitute in a sermon. As well as noting that the scriptures frequently refer to the world’s oldest profession, it is worth noting that the alleged murder of a sex worker in Christchurch less than a fortnight reminds us that women – and some men – of the streets are amongst the most vulnerable citizens in our society. The vulnerable are precisely the people amongst whom Jesus called us to proclaim God’s redeeming love.
Which is why Yancey told the story. The woman approached a community worker, seeking help to feed her drug habit. She did so despite the atrocities she was perpetrating not only on herself but on her two-year-old daughter. Details need not detain us: the issue is that, when asked if she had considered seeking help from a church the woman was horrified: “Church? Why would I go there? I was already feeling terrible about myself. They’d make me feel worse.” Yancey contrasts the woman’s fear of the judgement she would receive with the story of the Christ who hangs out with prostitutes, and (from another hated wing of first century society), tax collectors.
Paradoxically the reprimand I received from the parishioner – a reprimand formally sent in a complaint to my then bishop (long ago and far away!) – served to reinforce the sad message that the fears of the dejected woman of the streets was spot on the mark. We, the Body of Christ, are far from conspicuous for our manaakitanga, our welcome, our hospitality. Not that we are utterly devoid of compassion. But it is not the hallmark of the Christian community in the view of our wider community.
When Jesus came to his kinsman John, he joined the apparent swathes who were seeking, as John put it, “forgiveness of sins.” Craig Keener notes, “Jesus relinquishes his rightful honor [in order to] to embrace others’ shame.” In the verse before our passage Matthew has made clear that John’s baptism was secondary to that which the younger man would bring. Jesus himself baptised no-one, and the church interpreted its own baptismal mission as fulfilling John’s expectations that Jesus would bring a greater baptism of fire and Spirit. But what was a nice, and traditionally seen-to-be sinless bloke like Jesus doing in a place like a baptismal scene?
In short, he was hanging out with sinners. There was nothing “ersatz,” nothing substitute about the incarnation. Jesus dived into the whole experience of being human. Jesus – and I will make no secret of my very conservative and traditional view of the incarnation and subsequent events – dived into the very deepest troughs of human experience. Jesus dived into the life experience of a woman working the streets or a general ordering missile strikes or a nonchalant passer-by ignoring the plight of his or her neighbour. Jesus dived deep into the void of a British poet whose blog I read this week, a young transgender poet and scholar who stumbled into faith despite the clergy he encountered at a local church, clergy who publicly announced their opposition to moves to ensure LBGTQI were welcome in church. Jesus dived deep into the experience of you or me and so much more.
In ancient iconography the waters from which Jesus emerged were full of symbols of the human pain he left behind. In a modern icon I have seen, the Jordan from which Jesus emerges is full of syringes and guns and condoms and dumped cars and other flotsam and jetsam of our being struggling humans.
We the bearers of Christ are called to walk in those still-wet footprints of our Lord. We are called to bear and proclaim the one who will not, in Isaiah’s prophesy, break a bruised reed or quench a dimly burning wick. We are called to be the skipping ones, showing by our lives the possibilities of joy (but of justice, too), possibilities of hope even as oceans warm and forests burn. We are called to be bearers of the one who God called “The One in whom I am well pleased.” We are called to be his hands and feet and ears and he emerges from waters of grot into green pastures of hope.
How we do that, of course, is a complex question. Can I sing? Then sing in the spirit-enflamed hope that a life might be touched. Can I feed the hungry? Then serve food in the spirit-enflamed hope that a life might be touched. Can administer? I certainly can’t, but if I could then administer in the spirit-enflamed hope that a life might be touched. Can I cook and sew, make flowers grow, read and teach and listen and help a person across the street, can I build houses like Jimmy Carter or fight fires or talk to strangers from different socio-economic and racial cultures?
Can I find ways to say “glory” in today’s world? Can I say that, as Hopkins put it, “the whole world is charged with the glory of God,” when it seems instead that the whole world is deadened by terminal idiocies and selfishnesses and futurelessness? Can I be a walking advertisement for the one whose voice splits the terebinth trees (and makes last Monday’s winds become as if no more than a gentle zephyr or summer breeze), yet who cares for the sparrow that falls? Can I be the hands and feet of the one who dares tread the waters of baptism even when his holiness does not belong there?
The answer is “no.” Or it is unless I open myself up to the nudging of the God who in Christ enters into the waters of human grot. The answer is no, too, unless I set aside my intellectual doubts and let myself be exposed to the possibilities of faith.
Can God be baptised? Intellect mocks, of course, but intellect does not have the final word. Do I dare have faith that this same Christ of the gospel-stories, of baptisms and parables and healings and so much more, is one who “camest from above”? Do I dare trust that as such he, and we with him, enter into the inexplicable and inextinguishable light of the first Easter?
If we do we might already be bearers of light, not darkness, of invitation not rejection. Our prayer must be that we can be hope, be light, be glory-bringers when the woman of Yancey’s recollection, who had been taught to fear the judgement of Christians, crosses our path too. For we too have in Christ crossed the Jordan and left the grot behind.
 See Philip Yancey, What’s So Amazing About Grace? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997) 11.
 Craig S. Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999) 121.
Friday, 3 January 2020
SERMON PREACHED AT St LUKE'S, OAMARU
EPIPHANY (January 5th) 2020
Isaiah 60: 1-6
Psalm 72: 1-7, 10-14
Ephesians 3: 1-12
Matthew 2: 1-12
It may be hard for us to imagine the circumstances faced by the Hebrew people when Isaiah – possibly the third prophet to use the name – spoke of radiance and glory and light descending on his people. He spoke of his people experiencing a fate different to the surrounding peoples. He spoke of his peoples becoming a beacon to surrounding, stumbling peoples. “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.”
The early Christians soon saw this to have been fulfilled in the coming of the Christ, the whole kit and caboodle of the birth, life, teachings, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. They came, subversively, to call Jesus “Lord,” in a land where only Caesar should be called Lord. This was dangerous.
It’s hard for us to understand how dangerous this was. By the time the New Testament texts were being written it was increasingly perilous to name Jesus as Lord. Caesar was Lord. The Christians dared to speak of a Lord when only Caesar was Lord; they dared to speak of his birth and subsequent miraculous life-events as moments thwarting the machinations of Herod. And Herod was the chosen extension of Caesar’s might, doing Caesar’s divine will.
In the same way it had been dangerous, in the time of our last of the Isaiahs, to speak of hope, at least as a faith-based option. Years ago Tina Turner sang, lustily, “What’s love got to do with it?” It was a dark if up-tempo song that some of us will remember. She didn’t write it, but it was so fitted to the bitter darkness of her abused life that it became the title of a biographical film about her. She dared to sing of love when she had known abuse (the abuse she sang about in that other song of hers, “Private Dancer.” It’s worth googling. It’s chilling. It’s a study in daring).
The Isaiahs dared to speak of hope – what’s hope got to do with it? – when hope for various reasons seemed to be irrelevant. They were not popular.
Part of the reason the Isaiahs call to hope was unpopular was because of their specific, challenging, active understanding of hope. While our passages today tend at first sight to reflect a “passive,” “stand and receive” image of hope, the overall flavour of the prophets’ vision was active.
In our Isaiah passage there is much memorable imagery of standing and receiving; “they come to you …your sons shall come … your daughters shall be carried … the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you …” But the passage, in literary terms is governed by a different type of verb, an active verb. “Arise! Shine!” I have vivid memories from my boarding school days of the bells that rang to awaken us from slumber. I have fonder memories from other contexts when a kinder voice would interrupt my dreams with the very words of Isaiah: “Arise! Shine!” Both the school bell and the half-remembered childhood voices were calls to action. Slumber time is over. Action time is here.
The prophets and the New Testament writers alike were daring to dream a reality different to that which they saw around them. The followers of Jesus were not seeing the corrupt empire of the Caesars crumbling or defeated. Not in political or military terms. But they dared to act as if they were. They could not even see Jesus anymore, and most, perhaps all who heard Matthew’s story, never had. They experienced his presence powerfully, though, and because they experienced his presence in fellowship and in bread and wine, and in the journeying together through the Hebrew Scriptures, they knew their reality was stronger than the realities they saw around them. In believing they were empowered by Jesus’ unseen presence.
They were either mad or inspired, of course. And the word “inspired” means “breathed on” or perhaps more accurately, “breathed into.” “Breathe on me breath of God,” we used to sing; Edwin Hatch’s hymn makes it clear that he, too, meant “breathe into.” Breathe into me by your wind, your “pneuma” or Spirit. Breathe into me the awareness of a reality greater than that which I see around me. Inspire me to live by that reality instead of by the gloom that infiltrates, swamps even, my news feeds every day.
In the 1997 Robert Begnini film Life is Beautiful, an Italian Jewish father saves his son’s life, though not his own. He does so by inventing a game in which the son is challenged to believe in a different reality. It is a reality in which life is indeed beautiful, unlike the harsh reality of their real life in a concentration camp. The details are unimportant. The Jewish heritage of hope though is critical. Dare we believe in a cosmos where there is a God who will make our hearts “thrill and rejoice,” or in which “our sons shall come from far away, our daughters shall be carried” to us? Dare we believe in a cosmos when all who we have loved and sometimes lost are with us once again, and the new heavens and new earth shine with the radiant glory of God, and darkness and corruption is overthrown?
All of this imagery can be no more than an empty fairy tale, though, if we remain, to return to the language of grammar, passive. If we sit cosily in our safe and happy spaces believing God will soon enough beam us up, and therefore care nothing for a corrupt and crumbling world around us, then we are not only, in Paul’s world, “more to be pitied” but more to be despised than all people. The God-child to whom the wise men paid obeisance was no passive but an active word and voice of God, pricking the conscience of a nation-people.
I happen to be reading Nelson Mandela’s potent 1990s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. As he recalls his decades on Robben Island it is very clear that he steered himself and others through the hellish years not by passive acceptance of the evil status quo but by active means. He dared, like the father and child in Life is Beautiful, dared, like the prophets Isaiah, dared like the psalmist, dared like the gospel-writer Matthew, to dream of and strive for a different reality. He dared to dream of and enact a reality in which the light does shine, in which wise leaders do find and proclaim Jesus, in which justice (for all the downtrodden and victimised peoples and species) does roll down like thunder, and in which human beings to learn to love and live, seeing the image of God in one another.
These traditional readings of Epiphany are readings of comfort, readings of mystery, readings of challenge. They dare us not to despair, dare us not to limit the possibilities of God to the mere realities we see around us. They challenge us to lift our vision to a greater God and a greater reality, and to proclaim that God by action (and if necessary by words), to proclaim God in the world God that calls us to live in. The biblical writings are, (unless we tame them to nothingness), daring and subversive. They declare a lordship different to that commonly proclaimed by the Caesars of any age. They challenge us to be active, not passive, to hope not despair, and then like the wise leaders, to go on into the world having been changed a little, having been prepared and on- or in-breathed by God’s Spirit to work to re-engender that same change in those we encounter. By being breathed on bu God's dangerous Spirit we too may bring gold and frankincense, and proclaim the praise of the Lord who is so much greater than Herod or even Caesar.