SERMON PREACHED AT THE WAIAPU
CATHEDRAL OF ST JOHN THE EVANGELIST
SECOND SUNDAY OF EPIPHANY (January 15th) 2017
1 Corinthians 1:1-9
This week Donald Trump picks up the reins of the free world, enshrining the politics of lies and hate like no western leader has done since the Weimar Republic. Forget red herrings of sexual deviation, golden showers and crotch grabbing: Trump enshrines an evil greater still.
A few days ago a saintly and revered leader of the Anglican Church died. The media yawned.
The pews of our cathedral sit empty.
Is there a connection between these observations and a prickly letter sent by Paul to the people of Corinth?
Unlike Nixon or McCarthy, years ago, or Bush and Blair more recently, Trump has not bothered to provide plausibility or consistency in his embodiment of The Lie. The Lie is currency.
Trump rejects all pretence of truth, because he can. He can because we have not only, as Neil Postman prophesied, amused ourselves to death, built media on infotainment and abandoned all pretence of analysis, but because we have decided that fake news and clichés of hatred are the currency of conversation.
In the fourth gospel John contrasts Jesus and Satan. Jesus embodies grace and truth. Satan embodies lies and self-interest. Jesus divides liars from truth-tellers, the complacent from the struggling, exclusion from embrace. Brueggemann says ‘There is nothing innocuous or safe about the gospel. Jesus did not get crucified because he was a nice man.’ Jesus divides niceness from integrity. Above all he calls Satan the Father of lies.
In scripture, the Holy Spirit creates order out of chaos (and I don’t mean disorganization). We reverse that when we turn lies into truth and truth into lies. That’s why in Gulliver’s Travels Swift’s honest, gentle Houhynyms call lies ‘that which is not’. To call lies truth and vice versa is to return to the chaos of pre-Creation, the realm of the absence of God. Life-denying chaos is all that is left when we make lies, hatreds, exclusions our truth. We as a God-people must contrast with that.
Proclaiming a chaos of lies is Trump’s tactic, but we embrace it too when we allow Chinese whispers, half-truths, and innuendos to become our compass. We ignore at peril the furious warnings written in the epistle of James. To James the tongue is humanity’s most destructive weapon: ‘restless, evil, full of poison.’ Trump’s lies are far more dangerous than his sexual deviations. Twisted truths of lying tongues masquerading as decency breed chaos, slanderous and destructive. First Isaiah cries out against chaos: ‘Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.’ Woe to those who enshrine lies as truth and act upon them.
A year ago I suggested that we need to look deep and honestly into cathedral narratives if we are to be kaitiaki of the truth of Jesus. Embrace, inclusion, aroha: these are currency of God. If a misguided parishioner attempts to turn away a Māori visitor, questioning whether they are in the right place, then we are not a people of embrace. If new-comers bring new ideas, and we remonstrate ‘that’s not what we do here’, then we adopt Trump’s lies We claim to make our narrative great again, but instead fossilize ourselves in a dubious past. Take Easter: did what we do speak of the risen Lord to new generations, embrace those rarely here, the key to our future? Will ‘the way we’ve always done it’ convey resurrection-joy, or will joyous children fanning bubbles from the mezzanine, heart-felt waiata of loving whanau, tears of a newly baptized adult surrounded by the symbols and the presence and outpoured arohanui of the risen Christ? Both-and of course, but the God of Resurrection-dance does not always march in ordered Anglican niceness, ‘the way we’ve always done it.’
Liturgically, in response to the pronouncement ‘We are the body of Christ,’ we respond ‘God’s Spirit is with us’. Is she? Have we desiccated that Spirit, dried her out, and left only dusty bones of former-faith? Is that why our pews are empty? We come to the altar flawed; I have never denied that in my stumbling journey. If we point fingers at others, dance on the graves of stumblers, ignore often well-attested planks in our own eyes, blots in our private lives, if we are ruled by sclerotic hearts, desiccated spirits, then we consume the Feast to our own condemnation. The Book of Common Prayer emphasized that, but that was disused here before I came.
We deserve marginalization, if we live in such a way that we lie when we claim to be the Body of Christ. We become the Body of un-Christ. We are sucked into Trump’s world no matter how different we think our politics might be to his. That is why we have now arrived at a place so far from public consciousness that the death this past week of a much-loved archbishop is barely noted in the media (Māori TV excepted). In Paul’s phrase we are ‘handed over,’ sent by God to the margins. Church leaders must recognize this: the world does not even notice ecclesiastical media pronouncements. In a post-Empire, post-institution world our grand buildings, like those of railways and banks and post offices, are empty. We must adapt, for this is God’s judgement, and humility, brokenness and repentance are the only cure. God’s Spirit is birthing new life outside our forbidding walls. Soon it may be there alone we find resurrection, faith, and life.
When I last voiced thoughts like these a colleague wrote, ‘The Dean's Report … was, amidst a number of inaccuracies and half-truths … a litany of criticisms involving myself, other clergy and significant laypeople. The Dean himself was always the innocent and injured martyr.’
Perhaps, but doubtfully so. But if lies, like those that deposed this dean, are subscribed to as truth, then we are a people of chaos, and lies win. That priest later expressed the hope that the knife would slip when the barber was here to shave my head in support of “Shave for a Cure.” Love and hate language, like truth, are a measure of the presence of God’s Spirit. When a member of vestry wrote, following my dismissal, ‘You should know that I actively pushed for this, and have been working on it for a long time,’ he dangerously forgot the New Testament. While authority can be abused, we must discern whether words like ‘I actively pushed for this’ are statements of Christ-light and life, or words of Trump-world, of hatred, of subterfuge. I leave you to decide, and those with greater authority than mine to address these issues, or preside over a sclerotic institution.
I left you longer than a pregnancy ago. The journey for me since then has been one in which the arohanui of the people of Te Pou Herenga Waka o te Whakapono has exemplified the inclusive love and embrace that the prophets spoke of and Jesus embodied. Te Pou Herenga Waka o te Whakapono has reminded me that there is love and integrity when a faith community remains a humble people of God. Strengthened by their prayers and others’, I am left to speak a word from the Word in a world in which Trump is leader. I finish with Paul, my biblical muse.
When Paul left Corinth he left a community riddled with faith-arrogance. Aren’t we good, its leaders declared. Look at the fine performances we stage, the fine sexual experimentation we advertise, the fine meat we serve at table, the fine surrounds in which we say our perfectly enunciated prayers. Paul, with his imperfections, was scorned. ‘I follow Apollos,’ declared some. ‘I follow Cephas’ declared others. Some claimed to follow Christ, but there are indications in context that they were fooling themselves: ‘Look at the perfect way in which I follow Christ.’.
Broken followers of Jesus were silenced. ‘I have tatoos.’ ‘I committed adultery.’ ‘I carried a bird on my shoulder.’ ‘I did not shower before I fell asleep on a welcoming couch in a friendly foyer.’ Paul slams hardest of all those who deny the Resurrection. They were ‘more to be pitied than all.’ They had removed from their self-interested narrative all fear of God the judge. They had nothing but a dead cockroach in a dusty chalice, no word of hope in their decaying world of Empire. Yet they were nonchalant, complacent, expecting the world to walk across the street to enter the doors of faith.
The epistles address a world of complacent faith. Do we, kaitiaki o te whakapono, caretake cockroaches in dusty chalices? Or do we become a counterculture of Resurrection-faith and hope, our herenga-anchor deep in the flesh of the risen Christ, deep in the embracing, dancing, community-facing triune God Jesus reveals?
As kaitiaki o te whakapono do we establish committees and mission statements, rejoicing in the self-satisfaction this can bring? As younger generations, conspicuously absent here, search for spirit-integrity, do we provide it? We pride ourselves on our dignified silences as we close a liturgy, but perhaps instead we should learn to dance and clap because: God. If we applaud a tirade by a retired priest criticising his colleague in absentia, we must make sure we are not the same people who silence spontaneous applause at the close of a voluntary. The latter has expressed the awe and truth of God-beyond-words: to clap may be our heartfelt amen for we have stroked the heavens. If we applaud vindictive speeches but silence spontaneous awe we may be wearing phylacteries in the market-place.
We must learn to dance and sing with the God of wild crazy sunsets and manic-intricate butterfly wings. We must heart-feel the God of Bach fugue, but also the Beatles and Bon Jovi and Adele and Ed Sheeran and every ‘mad mystic hammering of wild rippling hail.’ We must both-and, but which will most bring others to joy-filled embrace of the risen Christ?
We must not fearfully collude with the culture of The Lie that has swept Trump into reality on narratives of fear. We must stand with the all but drowned-out voices of compassion and love, with the ‘aching ones whose wounds cannot be nursed, [with] the countless confused, accused, misused strung out ones and worse,’ with broken lives who feel unable to enter a forbidding building to stutter prayers. We must not clutch tenaciously to shibboleths like the false claim that there is one way to be cathedral, to do music, to do order and liturgy. Washington’s National Cathedral’s appalling decision this week to dance with the Trump-devil stands as a warning as to where ‘we do it best’ can lead.
Let’s dance with the Saviour who brought tax collectors down from the tree and invited prostitutes to dinner. Let’s dance anew with the generations who are not here, never shutting the door, never believing our old way of doing things is the golden calf, never believing, dear God, that tattoos and hip hop and mad manic God-love are not welcome here in our echo chamber.
The choice is ours.
Or yours, really. I won’t be back. But, just as Paul prayed for the people of Corinth, I will pray that you find and help others find and dance with the risen, joy-filled Christ, the Christ of inclusion not exclusion, of embrace not repulse, of generous truth not fear-filled lies, the Christ of exhilarating dance and beating heart and mad, mystic resurrection-hope, the Christ who, in the words of his apostle, ‘will strengthen you to the end, so that you may not be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.’