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Friday, 7 October 2016

here's to prickly prophets

(24th JUNE) 2007


Isaiah 49.1-6
Psalm 138.1-15
Acts 13.22-26
Luke 1.57-66, 80

Somewhere, a few years before the public ministry of Jesus began, an awkward figure made his presence felt on Palestinian soil. John the Baptist was a James K. Baxter figure: the sand in the shoe, the conscience of a nation. He challenged injustice and could not survive in a world whose conscience he irritated, and so was executed at the end of the demonic dance of Salome.
But that was the end of John’s story, and today we celebrate the beginning. Like Jesus his kinsman, tales of the miraculous intervention of God surround his birth. A barren woman conceives: as people well versed in the Hebrew scriptures we should recall another barren and post-menopausal woman, long before, whose obedience to God led to the birth of a nation. This new birth is used by Luke to serve a different end. Luke wants us to see not a beginning but an end of a nation in this new miraculous birth. This is the end of a period in which a people more or less kept faith with God, but is the beginning, too, of the miraculous Christ-event. Now God enters history in an unprecedented and unrepeatable way. This end of an era is not the replacement of an outdated model, but the handing over of the baton of God’s love for humanity: the era of the prophets is over, and the era of Jesus has begun. There is continuity between the eras: this is not out with the old and in with the new, but a God-breathed change of direction, as the gifts of God to the Chosen People are now extended to all creation.
John the Baptist straddles two worlds. He reminds us that obedience to God’s call is a risky business: to speak of the values of God is to risk loss of limb or life. The invitation to follow in the way of God is an invitation to upset comfort zones, wherever comfort zones are oppressive, or where the comfort of a few is won at the cost of  the discomfort of many. We only have to look at the economic imbalances of our world (to which I contribute every day) to know that nothing is new under the sun. We can at the very least look deep within our society to see who it is who is speaking unsettling good news to the poor, and see the spark of Christ in discomforting and challenging places.
John the Baptist reminds us that wherever justice is spoken in the name of God, there God is. John stands as a bridge connecting two great faiths based on the father­hood of Abraham. He reminds us, starkly, that we must never condone atrocities perpetrated on the Hebrew people of God, for the Jewish People’s prophet John is our prophet John. There is no excuse for Christianity’s dreadful treatment of the Hebrews down through the ages. Yet at the same time we are not to confuse our respect for the Hebrew prophet John, or any other Hebrew prophet, with sycophantic adoration of all things done in the name of and by the hand of the modern State of Israel. Many Christian groups have been seduced into a confusion of the political entity whose seat of power is Tel Aviv with the spiritual entity whose heartbeat is Jerusalem, the city of peace. Sometimes the two will overlap, but not always and perhaps not often. John wore a coat of camel hair and a girdle of leather, not flak jackets and a holster.
Perhaps John can remind us that when our cousins in faith the Hebrew people speak justice, there we serve as one in the purposes of God. Where they have been oppressed and all but annihilated, to our shame we have failed to speak. For that we must always remember our guilt. Where they speak oppression, as they have for many years in their attitudes to the Palestinian peoples, we should speak with the voice of their prophetic tradition. By the same token we must learn to listen at times when we have oppressed the peoples and species of God’s earth. We can work together on the extremities of faith and justice, while recognizing historical differences between us, and together celebrating the mutual relationship we have with God the God of Covenant and Cross.
These are however big picture issues, and John speaks not only to the big picture. For John must stand for at least two more prickly challenges within our faith journey. The purpose of John’s ministry, as his namesake John the Evangelist tells us, was to testify to the light. By word and action, by challenging and setting to right injustices, by compassionate and loving action, by caring and more, we must demonstrate that ours are lives invaded by the light. We are not the light, thank God, but have a com­mission to testify, like John, to the light that invades and transforms our lives and can invade and transform lives around us.
We are not the light, and we often muddy the light, but we are called to tell of the light nevertheless. To that end we must with all our might support initiatives that heal the lives of the broken, transform the lives of the skill-less, and shine light into the lives of the darkened. Through our own lives in the community, and through the work of agencies of compassion, we must testify to the light that is the risen Christ within us. John, in many ways, is us: like him we must allow ourselves to decrease and Christ in us to increase, until with Paul we can eventually say by the grace of God ‘it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.’


Friday, 30 September 2016

Amusing Ourselves to Death




(October  2nd) 2016


Lamentations 1:1-6
Psalm 137
2 Timothy 1:1-14
Luke 17:5-10

When I was at seminary and Ronald Reagan was leader of the free world, I read Neil Postman’s wonder book Amusing Ourselves to Death. His premise was that we get the leadership we deserve, because we have allowed ourselves to surrender information and analysis for entertainment. On the front cover was a picture of Reagan with a big red clown nose – these being years before the clown nose became a fundraising symbol for SIDS.
It has long been a ploy of the fundamentalist wings of Christianity to interpret natural calamities as a sign of God’s displeasure at something they, the fundamentalists, don’t like. Normally it’s something to do with human sexuality. Google ‘earthquake,’ ‘Christchurch’ and ‘God’s judgement’ and some chilling scenarios emerge. Google ‘Hurricane Katrina,’ and ‘God’s judgement’ and you’ll find worse. The words you’ll find under those searches are often bitter distortions of Christianity. The same writers don’t seem to equate Donald Trump with God’s judgement, and many US fundamentalist leaders have come out with powerful statements of support for this philandering, oft-bankrupted, misogynistic and xenophobic narcissist as one of God’s chosen prophets.
Jesus of course may have meant something like this when he said ‘there will be many who call Lord, Lord.’ I see few fruits of the Christianity or Christ Spirit Trump claims to embrace, an allegiance he appears to claim only when convenient. As I turn to the scriptures of our faith, and especially the prophets, I find some very dire warnings about those who play games with God or who, as Torah puts it, those use the name of t we find some of the most heartbroken cries of judgement for a people who will not serve God: How lonely sits the city that once was full of people! How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations!
The world, with the United States at its forefront, is receiving the deep chastisement of God. As it happens I was no fan of Ronald Reagan, and see his presidency with no great rose coloured spectacles even in retrospect. But if he was a clown, the 1980s endgame of amusing ourselves to death, the sight of Donald Trump and others waiting on the wings to be like him is a much more dire warning to the western world, the global north. This is no clown, but Frankenstein’s monster tapping at the door of civilization, and we should be very sure indeed, as Marie reminded us a week ago, that we ‘place our hand in the hand of the one who stilled the waters.’ It is worth remembering, the extent to which we need Jesus, as we watch the attitudes and antics of a prospective leader of the free world (not that we have a vote!). It is worth noting, too, that despite climate change deniers like Trump, last month Mother Earth passed what is considered to be the watershed of the 400 ppm mark of airborne carbon dioxide measurement; sometimes God chooses to hand creation over to humanity’s folly.
The Hebrew people failed to hear the words of the prophets, and the nation was eventually torn asunder by the invader Cyrus, an invader Isaiah dared to call the servant of God. I make no predictions about the future of America, except that America and the so-called free world it leads will not be ultimately or eternally lost to God. The Hebrews were cast into exile. There they found it hard to sing the Lord’s song, and grew so embittered that they threated to dash their enemies’ children to death on the rocks. It is the cry of hatred that responds across the streets of Aleppo in Syria at this very moment. Many of my former colleagues in the Diocese of Waiapu did their best to remove the bitter verses of the psalms from worship, yet we must not: but until we learn that we too are capable of bitterness, anger, greed, and despair we will not bring ourselves, our whole selves to God, and will not have the honesty to be God’s repentant, broken people.
God allowed the Israelites to face the consequences of their own actions. God’s judgement was harsh: ‘By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and wept.’ America and the global north’s judgement (and that may include our judgement, though we are a tiny nation) may also be harsh. God will not send earthquakes – they happen anyway – but may lead the world’s greedy nations to face their own fall at the hands of narcissists, be it a Trump or his successors in hatred.
For us the task is to pray for God’s world, to pray for ourselves, that we may be conspicuous as channels of love and largesse when we are surrounded by hate and greed. Our task is to ask God’s Spirit to keep alive in us the glorious good news of reconciliation and forgiveness made possible in Jesus, and in that way to be the mustard seeds of the reign of God.


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.