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Monday, 26 September 2016

on being the tenth leper

 (14th OCTOBER) 2007


Jeremiah 29.1-7
Psalm 66
2 Timothy 2.8-15
Luke 17.11-19

 I frequently float my belief that we, the worshipping people of God, are called to be the tenth leper. There are many in our community, in which we are called to live and for which we called to pray, who believe, more or less in some abstract way, in a God. There are of course many who don’t, and that’s fine, but they remain a minority in New Zealand society. Yet there is an enormous disparity between those that believe, to whatever extent, and those who gather as Body of Christ in communal worship.
So here we are, the tenth leper, the people who have turned back to say ‘thank you’. This in no way makes us better than those who have received the gifts of God and carried on their journey.
When I worked as a religious broadcaster on Australian National Radio I struck up a relationship with a well known rabbi. I asked him about the responsibility of evangelism within the Jewish community. He laughed, and told me that most Jewish people had no desire to inflict their faith on others. The relationship with God was a prickly and onerous one, he explained, and he could see no reason why he should burden anyone else with it. His people were God’s chosen people, a sign in the world to remind the world of the need for the values of the Spirit. He expected no converts, yet they came nevertheless, for the integrity of his faith and the faith of his community spoke volumes.
To some extent we are the same. We too are called to be a sign. We do, it’s true, have a commission to proclaim the love of Jesus by our lives and occasionally by our words. Before that, during that, and beyond that, though, we like the Jewish community are called to be a people signposting the way to faith, the way to God. We are called to be what the author of the Book of Revelation calls ‘a kingdom, priests serving God’ (see Rev. 1.6). We are called to pray for and on behalf of God’s world; we are called to sing praises on behalf of creation, as our New Zealand prayer book often acknowledges, praising God on behalf of ‘dolphins and kahawai, sea lion and crab, coral anemone, pipi and shrimp …’. We are called too to intercede, as the priests of the Old Testament interceded, praying for the peoples of Afghanistan and Iraq, of Sri Lanka and Darfur and Botswana and the peoples of the earth too broken or even too busy to pray for themselves: we are called to be the tenth leper who turns back and speaks to Jesus.
We, like the Jewish people the rabbi spoke of, are called to be a signpost, irritating the world around us not by being obnoxious but by keeping alive the thoughts in society’s mind of a God who loves, aches, beckons and judges God’s creation. We are called and commissioned to keep alive the rumour of resurrection: he is not here, he is risen!
We can do this only if we as individuals and as a body have integrity, authenticity. And there the circle is complete, for we can only have integrity and authenticity as individuals and as a body when we are a people who constantly encounter our Lord in prayer, in worship, raising our hearts and sometimes even our self-conscious Anglican hands to the God we meet but who first met us. We can only have authenticity as a people of God when we are conspicuous by the quality of our care  for those whose lives are in turmoil.
In these ways and so many more we are called to be the tenth leper, whispering our thank you to the Christ who meets us on the road.


Wednesday, 14 September 2016

giggling with god

 (23rd SEPTEMBER) 2007


Jeremiah 8.18 – 9.1
Psalm 79.1-9
1 Timothy 2.1-7
Luke 16.1-13

 It is not surprising that only Luke that recalls this teaching of Jesus. Matthew is concerned to demonstrate that the community of Jesus is beyond reproach, and this story is slightly embarrassing: excuse me? The followers of Jesus are supposed to emulate a corrupt and self-serving petty middle manager? To Matthew it seems awkward.
Luke sees the potential of the story: Luke’s telling of the Jesus story often focuses on priorities, and in particular the need for followers of Jesus to place their possessions in the service of the gospel. So Luke can take the words of Jesus and use them to emphasize the complete claims that Jesus makes on us, claiming not just our religious practices, but our financial, moral, environmental practices. The list of whole of life claims made by Jesus is inexhaustible, for it is a whole of life surrender to him that he demands.
It is okay to see the humour of Jesus in the Parable of the Disingenuous Steward.  The humour of Jesus should not escape us here. So often we portray him as some kind of sombre and joyless teacher-figure. Matthew was perhaps troubled, or concerned at the vulnerability to criticism, entailed in retelling this story. But it is funny. A worthless and corrupt person as a sign of the values of the Reign of God? The parable acknowledges that we are all, followers and non-followers of Jesus alike, a crazy mix of honour and dishonour. Commentators who have attempted to clean up this parable by suggesting that the steward was simply sacrificing his own commission from the debtor’ bills have missed the point: this man was desperate, and desperation is the mother of ingenuity. We too are called, as Luke tells the story, to be this desperate in both in our longing for and our service of the gospel.
Luke’s presentation of this Jesus story offers some other angles, too. The desperation of the steward is the desperation of a person whose life has reached crisis point. It is the desperation of a life that has reached rock-bottom and can see no way out but for the course of action he takes. We have probably all heard conversion stories from those who have reached a similar crisis point, and we know well that many who have battled with the various isms of alcohol, gambling and other forms of addiction have reached that point before allowing their lives to be invaded by the presence of a higher power and sobriety or its equivalents. But there are also many who have never reached that point: as a society, we, like every society in history, find ways to numb ourselves from the deeper questions of existence. Perhaps we need to, psychologically, but nevertheless this makes proclamation of the gospel a difficult task. Why would we need Jesus – whoever he might be – when we have sport, sex, television, the accrual of wealth and power? The list is endless, but we who would live and proclaim Christ in the twenty-first century West are swimming against a tide of anaesthesia and disinterest.
So if we are to proclaim Christ into our culture and our era we must do so with credibility. There has been much that has no more than masqueraded as Christianity in our culture, and our culture is highly critical of religious hypocrisy. We tolerate hypocrisy in other fields, such as industry and politics, but not in religion. Perhaps this is because as a society we find the last vestiges of religion irritating and embarrassing, and want to be rid of them, though with what we are replacing the narratives of hope I am not sure. Perhaps as a society we want to be rid of religion because, for all its faults, it speaks, at least in its Christian form, of a God who judges us, and we prefer to be unanswerable for our actions.
Ours is a society that will see through any form of phoneyism in the sphere of faith. To avoid phoneyism we must surrender, daily, the whole to Jesus and to the reforming work of his Spirit. We can do that by recovering the passion of the disingenuous steward: some who have been converts to the way of Jesus will remember the first flushes of faith in early months and years. Others who grew up in the faith will remember days of great closeness to Jesus, of the high points along the journey. They can’t be sustained day after day, decade after decade.
But there can be moments, thin moments as the Celts call them, when the Spirit of God breaks through, enfolding and renewing us, and we rediscover the passion of the unjust and devious but desperate steward. As a church and as individuals we can but pray for those moments of touch once more. Moments of touch that are never manufactured, but are the result of God’s response to our prayer: Lord, touch, transform, renew us in the service of your gospel, that we may again know the urgency of faith and the potency of your love.

Saturday, 10 September 2016

fairy floss free faith

 (19th AUGUST) 2007


Isaiah 5.1-7
Hebrews 11.29 – 12.2
Luke 12.49-56

Often in our Christian communities we become a people of the Good Times. An awful lot of contemporary Christian worship is about the good time God, and the wonderful times we have in relationship with that God. And, to be fair, the word gospel does mean – at surface level, good news.
In fact the word “gospel” has more complex overtones than that, and it was never intended to mean something about warm fuzzies and glowing good times. The Christians stole the word from the Roman Empire, where it was mainly used for the routine of announcing the birth of a new heir to the Empire. It was a solemn announcement, and nothing in it suggested that everything would be rosy for the citizens of the empire from that moment. It was about celebration, but not about fairy floss. The Christian community chose wisely: the gospel of Jesus that we share is not about fairy floss but about a challenging commitment whose benefits reach far beyond our sight.
So when we turn to Isaiah, in the Hebrew tradition, we find far from warm fuzzies. The prickly prophet, like all the Hebrew prophets, approaches his people with discomforting and unsettling challenges, blasting those who are willing to hear out of cosy comfort zones. Just as they were very happy being the people of God, keeping their God cosily in their back pockets, Isaiah tears their complacency apart: I will ruin my field. It will not be trimmed or hoed, and weeds and thorns will grow there. This is far from the stuff of fairy floss, though it may be that it is precisely what God has been saying to the cosy and complacent Christian community in the last decade. I will ruin my field. It will not be trimmed or hoed, and weeds and thorns will grow there. And this is gospel how?
It is gospel, as we read first through the Hebrew Scriptures, because the same God who punishes is also the God who heals. God punishes but does not desert The People of God. When Isaiah proclaimed the words of God he took his audience out of their comfort zone: God … looked for justice, but there was only killing. God hoped for right living, but there were only cries of pain. As we of the post-Christian West look at our history of exploitation we might just sense that these are words on target for us, too. The nations from which the West gained its wealth have not been hugely recompensed over the years. Even the fertile soils of God’s earth, of Papatuanuku, if you like, have not been greatly rewarded for their offerings.
Which is not to lay a guilt trip on you that I don’t lay on myself. But perhaps as we watch the patterns of global warming and weather extremes we are hearing again Isaiah’s word to God’s people: I will ruin my field. It will not be trimmed or hoed, and weeds and thorns will grow there. The Spirit, the great Enemy of Apathy of John Bells wonderful hymn, is whispering stern warnings to us.
Yet in this we are called still to be a people of faith – faith, as we said last week, which is the knee-jerk or automatic response to the encounter with Jesus in scriptures, prayer, fellowship and worship. Faith is the fourth dimension (or is it fifth?) that looks beyond the here and now. ‘Faith, said Paul, ‘is the assurance of things hoped for.’ Following in Paul’s tradition the author of Hebrews put it another way: by faith they conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.  Faith is the dimension that lifted the perspective of our Jewish and Christian ancestors beyond the here and now, beyond present difficulties, to another realm.
For the Christian believer that realm, though just beyond our sight, beckons back to us. In the eucharistic feast of our faith, as Jesus gave it to us, the future dimension is always present together with the past. The past saving acts of God are present in the communion – Creation, salvation in the Passovers of Exodus and Cross – but so too are the future dimensions: the future coming of Jesus, the parousia, and the new heavens and the new earth of the Book of Revelation.
These future dimensions become an entelechy, an energy from God’s future that draws us on and in: ‘God gives us a future’, writes Liz Smith in the hymn many of us sang at Onerahi last Thursday, ‘daring us to go, into dreams and dangers on a path unknown.’ Liz is right, but we remember that God is just ahead of us as we are led into that future, keeping our footfalls warm even when it seems otherwise, as sometimes it will. 

 Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses … let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us,  looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross.


Tuesday, 6 September 2016

love on the slagheap

 (19th AUGUST) 2007


Jeremiah 1.4-10
Psalm 71.1-6
Hebrews 12.18-29
Luke 13.10-17

I cannot imagine the pain of the woman of our story. I have had moments of my life that have been dark and filled with relative pain, but hers is a story of degenerative and crippling pain. There are many such in our society, and some will be known to you. For some there seems to be no healing touch of God. For some the healing touch of God is to be seen not in miraculous healing, but in the equally miraculous ability and God given ability to live on through pain, suffering yet still finding a place in their lives for the miracle of faith and prayer.
 There is, incidentally, no miracle in conceited and doubtless faith. For some that is the journey of life: some never find room for darkness or doubt in their life-journey. Yet despite the attempts of some callous atheistic barrow pushers to turn it into a proof of the absence of God, the news that so great a Christian as Theresa of Calcutta experienced dark nights of the soul, pain-filled periods of doubt, is not a diminution but an increase in the testimony of their faith. To believe as Theresa did, surrounded by the deepest degradation of humanity, is to testify to sainthood. To cry out, as Jesus himself did, ‘My God my God why have you forsaken me’ is to enter in to the deepest darknesses of existence, and yet to testify eventually, perhaps even retrospectively, that even there God was to be found. To continue to believe when every horizon is black is the greatest testimony and miracle of faith imaginable. I am no fan of the Roman Catholic processes of canonization, but I have no doubt that in all we know and even more in what we now newly know of Theresa we have seen the life of a saint.
But the story of our lady of the gospel is also a story of an outcast. Her doubts may well have been myriad. The gospel vignettes tell us little of the interior journeyings of the characters we encounter. But here is no doubt that in first century Palestine a widow was cast upon the slag heaps of society. One of the reasons for the rapid impact of Christianity on the Roman Empire was the love and Theresa-like, Christ-like compassion the Christians showed to those on the slag-heap of the Empire. A widow was an encumbrance.
But this woman was worse. She was crippled by the collapse of her body. In her society she would be seen as a dreadful sinner, receiving justly the wrath of God for her or her relations’ sinfulness. Jesus cut through the religious holier than thou pomposity: this woman was no sinner but a hurting human being made in the image of God. Those who stand and pass judgement on the ‘can’t be helped’ aspects of human life, on those whose life circumstances or lifestyles don’t fit a presupposed moral correctness, need to be very careful that they aren’t recreating judgementalism in the image of the Pharisees.
Jesus, though, reaches out. If we are to be a centre for urban mission* we need to see who it is that we are called to reach out to likewise. Who are the vulnerable in urban Whangarei? Some will be at the low end of the socio-economic spectrum. The street people who may make our church dirty if we let them in. Many of these are the rejects, the flotsam and jetsam of callous government Mental Health policies. Others will be the overworked and overstressed executives working longer and longer weeks for less and less return, frustrated by policies of successive governments which seem to do nothing to keep them and their circumstances afloat. Some will be assets rich, some will be broken poor. But they will be the people to whom we are called, Sabbath or not, to speak words of hope and healing.
May it be our prayer this week that each of us may touch such a life with Christ love in the week to come.


* The Parish centred on Christ Church Whangarei was for a period badged ‘centre for urban mission.’