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Saturday, 15 July 2017

that's not fair!

13th July 2008


Gen 25.19-34
Psalm 119.105-112
Romans 8.1-11
Matthew 13.1-9, 18-23

I foreshadowed last week that the story of the good and feisty Rebecca becomes the story of the chicanery of twins, (fraternal twins, obviously). The story of Esau (who you will recall was an hairy man!) and Jacob (preferred by his mother) is one of dubious morality: many of the great biblical stories are! Every parent and every teacher is likely to know the childhood cry ‘that’s not fair’. As adults we often dress the cry up in more complex language: ‘why do bad things happen to good people?’ I can offer no profound theological answer: perhaps all we can say as Christ-followers, for all it can sound terribly facile, is that ours is not the perspective of God.
I should note too that the Christian document we call the Letter to the Hebrews chooses to see Esau in an unfavourable light, a dullard who opportunistically sold his birthright and responsibilities when offered a chance by his smarter younger twin. Possibly so: but even so we have to recognize that God works through remarkable dark twists and turns in human lives, and Jacob was no angel, behaving equally opportunistically and with greater, slimier intelligence than that of his brother. Until we introduce a theology of grace into the story of Jacob we have only a very nasty individual indeed. But God has a habit of introducing theologies of grace into human lives, cutting through cycles of human fallibility and even cycles of human evil.
Ours is not the perspective of God when human lives marked by sin and degradation turn into lives invaded and transformed by grace. Grace of course is not a cheap way out: a life that has duped and cheated must face the carnage it has left behind: the tax collector who encountered Jesus offered to pay back four-fold all that he had dishonestly gained. Where we come to Christ we can repay God nothing: we can however repay our debts to our neighbours and society.
Paul saw this so clearly. A life invaded by the risen Christ is a life transformed, a slate wiped clean in the eyes of God. Once more it needs to be emphasized that the encounter with grace in Christ is not an easy option. Jesus is not a magic trick to get us a shorter sentence in the courts or an easy way out of civil law. People who play games with faith are not witnessing to the God of the Cross. But the life transformed in the encounter with the Risen Lord is a life made new with God – and therefore with itself. Such a life slowly experiences the healing touch of God’s Spirit, chipping away at the dross and the ugly and helping the life’s possessor experience transformation into what Paul calls the likeness of Christ. Sometimes that transformation process runs dry, as we refuse to let God’s Spirit deeper into our darkest recesses. But occasionally we are privileged to glimpse a life whose whole journey has been one of Christward transformation: I was privileged in such a way this past week as I sat at the feet of Robert Jewett, on of the great Pauline scholars and author of what will be for many years the watershed commentary on Romans. But it’s not only – perhaps not even often – the great and the famous who are so transformed into christlikeness: perhaps we’ve each known a life so transformed, in either the public eye or our own private experience.
These then, surely, are the lives transformed by God’s spirit? Jesus himself uses many images of the life invaded by God – fruit features highly as he urges his followers to be or to bear good fruit. Too often the christian community can be small minded and judgmental, expecting lives to be recreated in the image that we demand rather that watching God’s Spirit in lives way ahead of our arrival. Jacob the deceitful eventually wrestled with God, and became Israel our father in faith. Sadly Esau did stay trapped in his own self pity – until at last he and Jacob are reconciled and the potential cycles of evil are broken. The implications for us as individuals, as a  faith community, as a race, and as a culture are unmistakeable: will we stay embittered and small, trapped in our own history, or will we allow the Spirit of God to break through?
Perhaps we can only look at our own lives: am I so opening my life and its every recess up to the light of Christ so that I may bear good fruit? I hope so and pray so.


selling my soul to the devil?

6th July 2008

Gen 24.34-38, 42-49, 58-67
Psalm 13
Romans 7.15-25a
Matthew 11.16-19, 25-30

If your memory is half decent you may recall that a few weeks back we began history’s fastest ever flirtation with and scurry through one of the great narratives of our faith [2017: the lectionary does that to us!]. We jumped like out of control exocet missiles from the bitter laugh of Sarah to the miraculous faith of Abraham on the mount of sacrifice, and, before we have a chance to absorb the miraculous intervention of God we find the miraculous child Isaac fully grown and getting his own wife. Really to dwell with the story properly we need to begin with the visitation of the three angels and the biter laugh of Sarah, and see her journey through to the joyous laugh in the chapters that we omitted. For Sarah, who laughed bitterly when she learned the impossible news she was to become the mother of a nation, becomes the woman who laughs with the joy of the universe as she sees God’s promise realized I the birth of Isaac: ‘Now Sarah said, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.”’ This is the laughter of grace, the laughter of a human life invade by the breath of God. There was an unfortunate phase in charismatic history when laughing in the Spirit became a world-wide phenomenon: while I think it was a plastic imitation of the laughter of Sarah, perhaps I need to swallow my scepticism and acknowledge that laughter can well be a sign of the invasion of God in human lives.
The conception and birth of Isaac, like that of Jesus centuries later, is a miraculous intervention of God in human history. But the story-teller wants to make it quite clear that God works in ways other than the miraculous – or, rather, that the natural processes of history and nature are themselves miraculous. Isaac grows up, and, after his mother has died, finds himself a love-partner. Rebekah becomes one of the great characters of the bible, feisty, kind, industrious and fallible. It is to be twenty years before she gives birth to the ambivalent twins, Esau and Jacob, another story full of God’s miraculous workings in the ordinary and sub-ordinary workings, even in the chicanery of human lives. But to that some other time! Her fidelity to God is enormous, and she does not shrink from learning even from her own mistakes and sins.
To learn from mistakes and sins: that surely is the challenge of serving God. Not that we will never sin – much less never make mistakes. The old Book of Common Prayer prayed penitentially, in the Litany that we use each Friday, ‘forgive us our all our sins, negligences, and ignorances’. While it was written in a different era to ours, and I’m not sure that ignorance is a state requiring forgiveness, I do think deliberate dumbing down of our lives is, and the deliberate choice to ignore the signs of God in our lives and the lives of those around us, and the signs in the world around us, is needful of God’s forgiveness.
Fortunately Paul agrees with me! In writing to the Romans he exclaims ‘Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse;  for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened’. It is Paul’s belief that we as human beings – all human beings – have the opportunity to see the possibilities of God, the claims of God on morality and ethics, and the claim of God to have first place on human lives.
Arguably Paul sees more than anyone else the extent to which we fail in our calling as human beings. Rom. 7, this famous passage, is not altogether or even much about Paul – who elsewhere describes himself, boldly’ ads ‘as to righteousness under the law, blameless’. It’s a big call, and Paul does not make it lightly.
There is not altogether anything new under the sun. I lament much in our society – the taunting idiocy of the man in Whanganui yesterday who sold his soul to the Hell Pizza chain for $5000 last week may be a piece of minor gamesmanship, but his actions and the very existence of that chain – which I boycott – make it quite clear that ours is a society determined to mock any claims that there is an authority greater than what we can see or measure or scientifically prove. Such a society may arguably have fun, but is probably running risks even at a sociological level, let alone what we might call a ‘spiritual’ level. For to lose touch with that intangible entity that we might call ‘spirit’ is to lose touch with all that separates us from sheer animalism – that sort of animalism that produces a Mugabe or a Pol Phot. That at the very least should warn us that western society is taking huge risks on its current paths of consumerism and decadence.
Sadly it is a popular place to be. Life is more fun if we can sell our soul to the devils of our society. If I can, while my virility serves me well, sleep with whomsoever I want whensoever I want then life could be quite exciting, though I suspect something would slowly die with in me as I passed from partner to partner, experience to experience. If I can use and abuse whatever chemicals I like life can be a buzz, until the chemicals wear off and I need to find more, or to fuel my expensive habits with crime. These are extremes, of course, but the human determination to shut God out of the equations of existence. There are others: suicide rates, depression rates, domestic violence rates all suggest a society out of touch with the spiritual demands of a Creator God – though of course these do in a lesser extent exist even within faith communities when we fail to live up to God’s demands on us. By and large though, society remains, in the west, determined to sell its soul to the devil, whether in the form of the Hell Pizza chain or more dangerous flirtations with the dark side.
Paul’s response is to demand costly, Christ-focussed love of his people. We can only grow into that call by surrendering our lives to Christ. Like a soul we can’t touch Christ, though I believe we reach out and touch him in communion. We can way Christ or measure Christ or Christ’s Spirit in our lives, But we can experience his touch and his transformation as over and again we surrender ourselves to him. Paul calls that being ‘a slave to the law of God’. Jesus calls it joining in the dance: he plays his lute, but will we dance?


Friday, 7 July 2017

thoughts on wet paint

ORDINARY SUNDAY 14 (July 9th) 2017


Genesis 24:34-48, 42-19, 58-67
Psalm 45.10-17
Romans 7.15-25a
Matthew 11.16-19, 25-30

We’re probably all reasonably familiar with the story of Adam and Even and the temptation in the Garden of Eden. What those of us who attend church probably don’t realize is that this story is  unfamiliar to the generations growing up after us. We, and our stories are far removed from public awareness these days.
That is a mixed blessing. But in any case, the story of the temptation in the Garden could have been told another way. God put Adam and even in the middle of Clive Square, and said, dudes, do anything you like, but don’t touch that bench over there. The paint’s still wet, okay?
Paul got that. Being Paul he used complex language. ‘I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.  Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.’ Whatever, Paul. Just don’t touch the paint.
We’ve all been there, some more spectacularly than others. But the message of Jesus is very clear: the moment we  claim that we are above fallibility, we have fallen. ‘Don’t throw stones in glass houses.’
Paul often referred to what he called ‘the flesh’, sarx, or in te reo, kikokiko.[1] It is the place where we reach for the apple in the garden or touch the wet paint – though the latter may be stupidity as much as sin, and is there a difference?  I do it, you do it, even bishops do it, though some forget that they do.
Speaking of bishops, which I do with great caution, an Australian journalist wrote yesterday of the anger being currently directed at Cardinal Pell. Elizabeth Farrelly wrote ‘Is this really an argument about religion? Or is it something else entirely?’ The anger directed at Pell is righteous to a point, and if he as an individual has knowingly perpetrated or covered up evil then so let it be. But much of the anger is the same as that that threw Britain out of Brexit, and Donald Trump helter skelter scary into the White House. It is anger at institutions, and the churches are a particularly meaningless institution, to those outside, at which to direct anger, for it seems to many that we do nothing but spoil human potential for pleasure. 

I saw the same in my own situation over a year ago. When news of my dismissal hit the media my incoming mail went ballistic. I have on file more than 20,000 words of support sent to or about me at the time, and copies of many emails sent to Bishop Hedge (though for whatever reason no complaint sent to him ever received a reply). 

I took much strength from that outpouring of support, but it left me uneasy. Was this just another opportunity for friends and strangers to excoriate a church leader for the sake of dissing (disparaging) an unpopular institution that is seen as an oppressive killer of joy? It probably was. Hedge had taken a stand on events from 25 years ago, events that were not predatory or criminal, and the public saw a distinction. The public are more grace-filled than some in the church hierarchy, and would have none of the attitude. The comments make for good reading. 

This is about sin. We do the things we do not wish to do. Anger directed at Pell is because of the perception that he has led an institution that is pointing fingers at sinners while sinning itself. Interestingly in New Zealand, where most sexual abuse took place in government run homes, we are less sure where to point fingers. 

By and large, where the church and its leaders perpetrate evil, I believe we should point fingers – if our own noses are clean. They never are.

But the issue in government-run and church institutions was the abuse of power. Perhaps that’s what some people saw in my situation too, though it pales into insignificance alongside sexual abuse. Abuse of power is evil, and rather than the yoke of freedom that Jesus promises in the gospels, perpetrators of power-imbalance impose crushing weight on their victims. As Lord Acton saw in the nineteenth century, power corrupts. The more we have, the more likely we are to use it abusively. I am very suspicious of the use of power in the church: service, love, hope, comfort, joy, these are the tools that the Spirit gives us. Power is not.

We are called to a dance. We are called to dance a dance of the joy of divine aroha,[2] arohanui.[3] We are called to a dace of tūmanako[4] (tūmanakonui, if there is such a word!).  We are called to a dance of rangimarie[5] and of te rangatiratanga o te Atua,[6] not to corrupt imitations.

Our churches are often empty. The terrible miscalculations in the public statements and behaviour of church leaders like Cardinal Pell and others serve only to reinforce society’s scepticism about our institution. Perhaps our institutions have to die – certainly the vastly expensive empires like those of Tikanga Pākehā face the stern judgement of God. The dance of God’s children, that I have mentioned before in this place, will go on. We must learn to dance, not judge, to invite others to the dance, not tell them not to touch wet paint.

[1] Gal 5.24: Ko te hunga ia o te Karaiti, kua ripekatia e ratou te kikokiko, me ona hihiritanga, me ona hiahia /  Those who belong to Christ have nailed their natural evil desires to the cross and crucified them there.
[2] Love.
[3] Great/immeasurable love.
[4] Hope.
[5] Peace.
[6] The righteous justice of God.

Saturday, 1 July 2017

an inoffensive small-c Christ

29th June 2008


Jeremiah 28.5-9
Psalm 13
Romans 6.12-23
Matthew 10.40-42

 At the end of a brief but challenging teaching about priorities (I came not to bring peace but a sword) Jesus drops a handful of more conciliatory lines into his conversation: lines about welcoming, about hospitality, about prophets, but about welcoming and hospitality more than about anything.
Jesus’ words are at first difficult to apply to ourselves. They are spoken to the disciples, and we are normally associating ourselves with the disciples and their ministry. We can do little about those who are challenged whether to welcome or reject us and the message we bear as Christians – assuming we bear a message at all. The slow demise of Christian witness in the western world suggests that we are not altogether welcome. Are we then supposed to do no more than to say to those around us ‘tough luck guys … you didn’t welcome us so God is not going to have a bar of you’?
The disciples, of course, have the task of making Jesus known to their world. They did a good job – the very fact that we encounter Jesus in our lives is a sign that they got it right. Perhaps we do a little less well: in the cynical twenty-first century I don’t see a lot of converts to faith through my witness – and I would not dare to speak for you. But even if we are doing the job of proclamation well, we can’t exactly force others to receive our efforts with joy and enthusiasm.
What, in any case would we proclaim? Christians who trot old tired and sometimes inaccurate clichés about four spiritual laws or knowing Jesus as personal lord and saviour can – not always, but sometimes – end up doing more harm than good. Perhaps Jeremiah, grumpy prophet that he could be, provides a hint? As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes true, then it will be known that the Lord has truly sent the prophet. But Jeremiah was speaking in a different culture, place and time. Certainly I tire of so-called Christian prophets who predict earthquakes in Wellington, hardly a form of rocket science – or flooding in Northland. Jeremiah was speaking of prophets who dared to speak out against a cosy dominant ethos, who would dare to dream a dream different to the dominant paradigm of his culture.
To proclaim peace, for example, in the heyday of George Bush’s war-mongering may have been a sign of God’s empowerment. To proclaim costly forms of love, and responsible sexuality, in a society of insipid so-called ‘rights’ me now and ask questions later may be a brave counter-cultural stand. As one who has far too slowly learned to speak out at the dark holocausts of abortion and euthanasia and the more insidious darkness of instant gratification I should take a hard look at myself: have I really learned the hard call of prophetic risk?
I speak often of being a counterculture. If we are to be a prophetic culture pointing to a peace that passes all understanding then we do need to be seen for values very different to those of the world we live in – different, that is, where society’s values are wrong. That is not always the case: the slow turning of gung ho public opinion against Bush’s war in Iraq has been a work of the Spirit inside and outside the community of faith. But we are not necessarily conspicuous for the quality of our proclamation. At a time when Anglican Christianity is threatened with schism, as we fight over attitudes towards sexuality, we should at the very least be speaking out against so-called Christian leaders in Nigeria who have called for the death penalty for homosexuals. Regardless of our views on sexuality, we are hardly witnessing to the God of compassion when we let such things be said in the name of Jesus, any more than were the Christians who failed to speak out as Jewish neighbours started disappearing in the dark days of the Third Reich.
In the end, then, I suspect our loose hotch-potch of readings this Sunday point towards credibility. Do we proclaim Christ at all? Do we proclaim an inoffensive small-c Christ or the scandalous, unsettling Christ of the Cross. Do we recreate God in the image of englishness, as so often Anglicans in particular have done, or do we dare to be seized by the unsettling, disturbing, but always compassionate and justice seeking God of the Cross? I speak as much to myself as to you, if not more so: do I really dare to proclaim, as Paul put it, nothing but Christ, and him crucified? I suspect not: and so again, like the psalmist, I cry out ‘I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me’ – a very formal way of saying ‘sorry Lord: I don’t think I’ve done as well as I should in the service of the gospel, but it seems you are putting up with me anyway.’ And thank God for that!