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Friday, 14 April 2017

cruciform God in blazing light

(April 16th) 2017

Luke 24: 13-49 … etc!

Firstly I am somewhat overawed by the invitation from Marie and the whanau a te Karaiti ko te pou herenga waka o te whakapono for the privilege of what I have referred to on Facebook as whakahaeretia – presidency or leadership – of this glorious celebration of Easter, and for the equal privilege of kauwhau, breaking open the word of resurrection hope amongst and with you this day. A year ago or so, as some of you will know, I was in a very strange twilight zone of having my position in Tikanga Pākeha dismantled on the basis of what I knew were lies and distortions. A year ago it felt very Good Friday, a death of all I had stood for, however fallibly, for thirty years.
Today, and indeed for the twelve months since, I have felt the glorious rays of resuscitation – not resurrection, as I shall explain in a moment – rejuvenating my soul, as Anne and I have found warmth and manaakitanga (and good kai!) amongst the people here. I know I’ve said that a few times, but I remain overawed by it. Anne, incidentally, is currently in Ahitereria with friends and family - and mahi!
In actual fact I rarely preached a sermon on Easter day. I felt that music could often express what words could not. I would play “O Happy Day” or “How Can I Keep From Singing?” or something that warned us that we were heading beyond words, beyond te Reo Māori or te Reo Ingarihi or te Reo Kariki to a place where truth and light and love and eternal life really are unlimited.
On the other hand I think Marie wanted me to use a few kupu, so I am. And as the Bee Gees once sang, that’s all I have. That’s all any of us have, and indeed all the gospel writers had to express something beyond expression, something that is utter, utter mystery. Words restrict mystery, inhibit mystery. The Quakers teach us to have worship without words. I think there’s something in that … except that we are mortal, and need words, for now, this side of the grave. Sometimes it’s a nuisance.
But let’s not get caught up in the intellectual nonsense that says that a thing that can be expressed in words or formulae is not real. Words or formulae are fine – to a point. But try and express the gentle touch of a lover or the beauty of a sunset or the fury of a storm or the crushing ache of loneliness in words and we founder. These days I call myself a writer. But I can do none of those things, and though the great writers can hint at the gentle touch of a lover or the beauty of a sunset or the fury of a storm or the crushing ache of loneliness in words they still fall short. So how could words, kupu, express the beyond words mystery of resurrection, aranga ake? Even pictures and music will fall short. And today we stand in the blinding light of that mystery.
The response of one wing of Christianity has been to chuck out resurrection altogether. “I don’t understand it, can’t measure or explain it, so I get rid of it.” Excuse me? Do I understand love or sorrow or joy? But I don’t get rid of them. The wing of Christianity that took that option is dying, shrivelling under the glare of God’s justice. The forms of Christianity that reduce the Resurrection to little more than a daffodil in spring fare little better. I spoke of the resuscitation my life has received here at Te Pou Herenga these past twelve months, and I cannot express enough how sacred that has been to me. But, though, like a daffodil in spring or a sunset, it is has been enabled by the vibrant love of God, it is not quite the Resurrection (even if it is a foretaste of our own one day resurrection!). We water down the Resurrection of Jesus Christ at great peril.
In the end though it is not a phenomenon to be explained, but a mystery to be adored. We dance and sing and leap for joy, at last in our hearts if not in our aching bodies, because this is the mystery of God’s victory over injustice and suffering and loneliness and darkness and despair and mortality and … this is God’s dance, God’s kanikani, to which you and I are invited no matter how little we understand it. This is when God’s light shines so bright – though our eyes are not damaged – that every Cross, and every injustice and suffering and loneliness and darkness and despair becomes nothing – even to the hellishness of Sudan and Syria and bereavement and cancer and all horrors we can imagine, and God says, yes, my friends, eternity is yours.
So welcome to Easter!

 GLOSSARY;  in order of appearance and primarily for non-kiwis!
Kauwhau: sermon ... proclamation ... close to the Greek kerygma
Te Pou Herenga Waka o te Whakapono: the dedication of the Tikanga Māori church and congregation in South Napier, but a literal tanslation is "the anchor of the vessel of faith" or "the mooring of the vessel of faith" 
Whanau: family (so "whanau a te Karaiti" = family in Christ)
Whakahaeretia – presidency or leadership
Tikanga Pākeha: non Māori tradition (I sometimes wonder if this could be called "tikanga mihinare" - traditions of the visitors - to remind non Māori of the historical sequences of human history!)
Manaakitanga: exercise of the tradition of hospitality (to mihinare)
Kai: (n.) food or (v.) eat 
Ahitereria: Australia
Mahi: work - as verb or noun 
Te Reo Māori: Māori language
Te Reo Ingarihi: English language, more often designated Te Reo Pākeha
Te Reo Kariki: Greek language
Kupu: word(s)
Aranga ake:  resurrection, rise up
Kanikani: dance

Friday, 7 April 2017

God of the wrong places

(April 9th) 2016

Reading: Matthew 21.1-11

So much of preaching comes out of sharing a journey together, paddling the same waka[1] in the same awa[2] or moana.[3] Worship practices of Anglicans in Aotearoa and Ahitereria[4] are quite different in many ways, mainly in terms of high and low (Sydney is different again!). Since my ordination thirty years ago, I have usually practiced a very intense form of liturgy during Holy Week and Easter. Palm or Passion Sunday forms with Holy Week and Easter one great eight day liturgy, deeply solemn, a tangi in which a long and profound journey is taken through death, grief, reconciliation; often embracing more than one marae, we finally reach the hope of release of a lost one to be with tipuna[5] in a better place and a better state. But what a loved one, what a release, what a better state! On Easter Day the dance of mad joy begins!
Today we begin a descent. This was when I was a kid a day of palm waving and celebration better almost than Easter (except for the Easter eggs!). Today starts a descent down from a sort of wrongly directed expectation, believing that a political liberator has come to set a people free, down deep to the depths of disappointment and darkness on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. The one who was to set us free has died. Where now, what hope now?
Only then the gobsmacking joy of Easter and resurrection hope and a message far greater than merely political revolution, defeat of mere political opponents. That is defeat of suffering and death and sorrow themselves.
Today is the Sunday on which acknowledge how we get it all wrong. On Friday, wherever we are and whatever we do, we will remember the day on which the extent of God’s love for humans and all creation and all time will be revealed – reaching even, as St Paul put it, to death on a cross, for all who suffer (and then even those who don’t).
On Sunday, in places where an Easter or Paschal candle is lit, priests will intone words that remind us that God’s love embraces all history, all time, all universes. The priest will quietly intone two prayers in particular:

Eternal God,
who made this most holy night
to shine with the brightness of your one true light:
set us aflame with the fire of your love,
and bring us to the radiance of your
heavenly glory;


Christ yesterday and today,
the beginning and the end,
Alpha and Omega,
all time belongs to him,
and all ages;

It as if when we have travelled that mysterious journey through this Holy Week we can finally grasp the breadth and width and depth of God’s love for us and all creation.
But today we remember how wrong we get it. Today we look for a saviour in the White House, firing 59 missiles at Syria, or on a white charger leading us to military victory, or a saviour in Ivory Towers leading us to intellectual insight, or a saviour at the back of the All Black scrum making us proud of our nation, and in doing so we get it wrong.
We will in just four days’ time stand with all humanity and cry for our Saviour’s blood. “Why, what has my Lord done,” says the hymnist, “what makes this rage and spite?” Today we acknowledge that we look for God in wrong places, in polished places: in cathedrals and cohorts and palaces and parliaments, not an ugly cross.
The God revealed in Jesus is not in those polished places.
God is found instead in aching human hearts, breathing resurrection hope. God is found in honest human hearts breathing resurrection hope. God is found in loving human hearts breathing resurrection hope. In each case God is there even when the owner of the heart can’t identify the Christ-light dawning there.
I tend to see far more of the face of Jesus in the broken and uncertain than in the sure and complacent gate-keepers of our religious institutions. I often find far more of the face of Jesus in the uncertain and sometimes downtrodden hitchhiker trying to find a way to live after a stint in prison than I do in the wearers of designer labels who stand sentinel at the door of some of our most conspicuous churches.
In saying that I am over-simplifying. Dig deep and all of us know that we have unpleasant sides, that we have grot and darkness into which we need the light of Christ to shine and the healing love of the risen Christ to work God’s redeeming love. It is so whether we are paupers of kings, prisoners or princesses. But I suspect that the hungover hitch-hiker more easily knows her or his need than the Pierre Cardin-suited gate-keeper, more than custodians of religious purity.
Today we acknowledge our humanness. We acknowledge that we have often looked for the triumph of God in the wrong places. It is a great thing to wave and dance and sing, to create beauty and awe and mystery, but, as every alcoholic and other addict will tell us, to begin to think we are the triumphant crowd, to begin to think that God admires our greatness, to begin to think, as the prophets warned, that our glamorous programmes and smooth administrations and loudest of hosannas are what God really needs, is to forget to find God in the broken figure of a criminal on a cross.
When we lose sight of a criminal on a cross we lose ability to be shocked and awed and wowed by the good news that will break in on us next Sunday. Then we are seized by the awe of an open, empty tomb, and by the news not only that he is not here, he is risen, but that he goes before us into our every stumble, and lifts us slowly, gently, lovingly up to the eternal glories of God. There Christ, the same yesterday and today, is the King of glorious eternity share with us and those broken, stumbling people he has loved.

Lord God, who sits upon the cherubim, who has reaffirmed your power and sent your only-begotten Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, to save the world through his Cross, Burial and Resurrection: when he drew near to Jerusalem for His voluntary Passion, the people that sat in darkness and the shadow of death took, as tokens of victory, boughs of trees and branches of palms, foretelling his Resurrection. Lord, keep and preserve us also, who, following their example, carry in our hands palms and branches, and who like the crowds and the children cry out, Hosanna! May we who offer you hymns and spiritual songs be accounted worthy to attain the life-giving Resurrection on the third day: in Jesus Christ our Lord, with whom Thou art blessed, together with your all-holy, good and life-giving Spirit, world without end. Amen.

[1] waka: vessel, vehicle
[2] awa: waterway (river, stream etc)
[3] moana: sea or lake
[4] Ahitereria: te reo Māori designation for Australia
[5] tipuna: ancestors

Note: as a mark of respect for te Reo Māori as an official language of Aotearoa New Zealand I do not italicize words in either English or Māori except for emphasis.

Saturday, 1 April 2017

on religious correctness and the loss of faith

9th March 2008

Ezekiel 37.1-14
Ps. 130
Romans 8.6-11
John 11.1-45

From the valley of dry bones to the calling forth of Lazarus there is much in today’s cluster of readings that should speak to us of new life. The famous and vivid scene from Ezekiel has spoken to Jewish and Christian societies for two thousand years and more, speaking of the God who breathes new life into dead humanity and dead human institutions. Similarly, if less poetically, Paul has spoken, even if he did not mean to, for two thousand years, contrasting the fleshliness of lives turned away from God and his Christ with the spirit-filled existence of lives open to God.
We don’t need to be Einsteins to see the contrast between lives invaded by love and lives closed to all that is positive and life-giving. Sadly we see the contrast around us all the time and every time we turn on our news. My sympathies, for example, may well be with the Palestinian people in the never-ending Middle Eastern conflict, but no-one in their wildest dreams could see the gunning down of eight students at a Jewish seminary in Jerusalem as a life-giving or peace-breathing act.
But of our readings the raising of Lazarus is the most complex and demanding. It too speaks of new life, or of life called forth out of death. However it makes many demands on us. The event may or may not have been good news for Lazarus (it certainly was for his sisters) but in what way is it good news or edifying for us?  Our loved ones do not return from their tombs, and neither, we can assume will we. Or we cannot at least until God’s end of time. In what way is the peculiar event of Lazarus, whether we understand it literally or not, good news for us?
This moment in John’s gospel story is the seventh and last of the “signs” Jesus performs to elicit or provoke belief in his people. But, as if to prove that the spectacular will never convince the sceptical, this last miracle of bringing life out of death also initiates the beginning of the end for Jesus. Jesus himself announces to the bewildered onlookers, ‘this sickness will not end in death,’ but, ironically it will: in the verse that follow we find a new tone of darkness in the Fourth Gospel, as we make the transition from the story of the Signs of Jesus to the story of the Passion: Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what he had done. So the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, ‘What are we to do? This man is performing many signs.
Faced with the grief of the family of Lazarus Jesus asks hard questions. Jesus has just that moment identified himself with one of the great ‘I am’ statements of his ministry: ‘I am the resurrection and the life.’ He confronts the grieving Martha with what might well be considered the key question of faith: ‘do you believe.’ It is not altogether an approach that would win the admiration of pastoral care courses, but it is a question that drives to the heart of this scene. Do you believe? And Martha says ‘yes.’ But there is no encounter with the heart of Martha, and it is instead the broken, belligerent, angry grief-stricken Mary who makes heart connection with Jesus. There is no need to ask the question when confronted by Mary’s pain: she is too broken to believe anything, except that her world has collapsed and her brother is dead.
At that moment of brokenness that the encounter with Jesus begins. Jesus, in the Greek, is both saddened and angered as Mary weeps at his feet, now joined by throngs of mourners. The anger may be at a society that leaves a woman’s life meaningless without her brother to own her and protect her. Or it may be because Jesus must now confront that deepest of all scars, untimely death, the very death he too is soon to face. He may even be angry because, no matter what he does in the minutes that follow, the crowd will not believe, and will be, symbolically, the same crowd that is soon to chant for his execution. It is the story we will sing on Good Friday:
Why, what hath my Lord done?
What makes this rage and spite?
He made the lame to run,
He gave the blind their sight,
Sweet injuries! Yet they at these
Themselves displease, and ’gainst Him rise.
The Lazarus story is not about resurrection, although some aspects of the way it is told may well give us a sense of looking ahead to the resurrection once we know the two stories. To this point in the Jesus story there is a temporary abeyance of death. It is a little like the healing ministries in our own experience. But as yet there is no resurrection and conquest of death as such. There is though an indication that both the tellers of the story and the Christian community since have felt this encounter was a sign of the divinity of Jesus, the one whose command is action. Come out, says Jesus, and Lazarus does, albeit still bound in the bindings of death. Later, when Jesus conquers death, the robes of death are cast aside.
We can’t tell what happened on that day long ago in Bethany. The story was set down some fifty years later, when all but one of the eye-witnesses of Jesus had gone to their reward. We can assume, since John was so emphatic that he was a reliable witness to the truth, that at the very least a miracle happened that day. The fact that early Christians were prepared to live and die by these claims they made about Jesus indicate that they felt there was more than an elaborate hoax going on here.
In the middle of our long passage though we get at least one very clear indication of how we should read the story. Jesus said to Martha , ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ Martha replies, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ,  the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’ Yet for all her words she fails to grasp the potential that the Messiah represents. It is Martha, the one who professes, rather than Mary, the one who weeps, who tries to stop Jesus from rolling away the tomb. Perhaps Martha is the sign of the modern Church, limiting the risen Christ with professions of belief that are not really transformed into a living faith. Perhaps it is only when, like Mary, we throw ourselves in tears into the arms of Christ, that we will have leaned the meaning of prayer, and dry bones will walk.