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Friday, 9 February 2018

gate-keepers and gospel

TRANSFIGURATION (11 February) 2018

2 Kings 2:1-12
Psalm 50:1-6
2 Corinthians 4:3-6
Mark 9:2-9

Sometimes we see forms of Christianity that are obsessed with arrogant irrelevancy. I have seen places where order, etiquette and protocol are substitutes for love, for embrace, and for the manaakitanga that dwells at the heart of God. We have perhaps all seen church communities whose gate-keepers hold fiercely to a message that proclaims that their practice, theirs alone is the practice acceptable to God (if God matters at all in their discourse). In such places, if the practices that God – or in reality the gate-keepers – desire is carried out to the letter then all shall be most well, and fellow-journeyers can stay stagnant in a complacent bubble, untroubled by dwindling congregations and a changing world around them.
It is in some ways a metaphor for the outlook of Christianity in much of the post-colonial world. It surfaces in many forms: provided we appear to make the right noises about God it matters not one iota if we are predators, abusers, tax dodgers or worse. As long as we join the right political parties it matters not one iota if we are predators, abusers, tax dodgers or worse. As long as we wear the right clothes or drive the right cars it matters not one iota if we are predators, abusers, tax dodgers or worse.
These are demonic distortions of Christianity, present in many forms of the Church of God, high and low, left and right. Although I am not aware of it in tikanga outside of my own – and remain a grateful manuhiri* in tikanga Māori – we need to avoid any impression that we believe any part of the Christian community is immune from such attitudes.
Paul finds it in almost all the churches that he writes to; arrogance raising its head in different forms in different contexts. Aren’t we good, say the Corinthians: we can do anything we like because we have perfect freedom in Jesus, freedom greater than anything those mere mortals out there can understand. Aren’t we good, say the Galatians, because we adhere more strictly to the rules and regulations of faith than those sad people out there. The Romans and some Thessalonians had their versions, too, and there are hints that the communities particularly of gospel writers Matthew and John, of the Hebrews, and of the epistle writer James had similar traits. Aren’t we good says one church group, because we wear stylish clothes, speak out about pollution in the rivers, and though we do often travel in oxygen-sucking jets to attend our important conferences we do so with our fingers crossed and always serve our coffee from jars marked “ecologically sustainable” or “trade aid.” Aren’t we good, says another, because we never get caught having illicit sex, never publicly condone abortion, never swear or drink when anyone is watching and always vote for the party that wants prayer in schools and parliament.
Aren’t we good?
Confronted by such attitudes I often turn to Paul, but he was only one in a long sequence of irritating, challenging, prickly prophets castigated for speaking out against hypocrisy. The prophets were awkward customers. We may glibly read of Elijah and forget that while he was a thorn in the side of the elitist, corrupt government of his day, bitterly criticising King Ahab for his duplicity. He was also a flawed servant of God who, like Job never really grasped the breadth and depth of divine love, and was not above having a sulk when things didn’t go his way. We may read, too, of Elisha, with his “double share of … spirit," and forget that he was a thoroughly flawed human being, petulantly punishing children who called him names, and possibly being less pious than we sometimes think in grimly accompanying his mentor Elijah to the apparent closure of his early existence.
I highlight these flaws in the chosen people of God because we spend far too much time expecting God to be in the nice and right places. We expect God’s people to be right and nice people according to our own cultural preconceptions.
But God does not dance to our tune. Jesus, in parables such as the famous Parable of the Good Samaritan, constantly pointed to the God outside our boundaries. To the God in today’s contexts who might be found in whichever wing of politics we don’t belong to. To the God who is at work in the hands of an atheist or a Muslim or wherever else our prejudices tell us God should not be. God may equally well be radically absent in the hands of those we believe should be servants of God: bishops who forget to sift truth from untruth, youth leaders and pastors who forget to protect the sanctity of those in their care, kaitiaki pūtea moni** who forget that the money in their care is not to be buried in the ground (or their pockets!) but to be used expansively and generously to serve God in the lives of the poor or even to proclaim recklessly God’s love, generosity, or sheer bewildering beauty.
I speak of course as one who has never pretended to be un-tainted. Yet there is and must be a difference though between those who play games with the gospel of God and those who are genuinely unabashedly hypocritical. The corridors of God’s eternal love will be filled with those, like sullen Elijah or petulant Elisha, grumpy Job or impulsive Peter, doubting Thomas or irritable Paul, those have stumbled along with all their flaws sincerely seeking to serve God. There have been a myriad Christ-bearers through history, those who genuinely stumble, genuinely seek to find God in that very stumbling, genuinely seek again and again to turn their face to the searing light, transfiguring light and redeeming love that is found in the welcoming arms, the manaakitanga*** of the divine Trinity.
There will also sadly be those who lie or conveniently replicate the lies of others, who deliberately deceive, cover the traces of their errors or deception, and do their best to maintain public profile as squeaky-clean executive servants of Christ. Anything to achieve their intentions! Faced with these people we must sometimes just fall back on a doctrine of judgement: the God who, as Jesus puts it, sees in private will in the eternities to come expose, then lance, and only then heal their hypocrisies. Somehow – though we are called to allow God alone to be the judge, we must still find ways to scan the human heart, to look for the best, to look to restore and redeem rather than to condemn
Above all we must look to ourselves. Do we play games with God, attempt to shield ourselves from the gaze of God, re-create God in the image that suits us? I hope and pray not. As the world of fundamentalist US nationalistic Christianity, which has placed the flag of America into the rightful place of the Cross of Jesus, as that form of Christianity collapses under the weight of its own hypocrisy – as colonial mainstream Christianity has also had to do in decades past – we must look to our own mission. We must, as some of us will say on Ash Wednesday, turn to Christ and be faithful to him. In doing so we must allow the Spirit to strip away our falsehoods and our game-playing. We must ensure even these words are not empty, finding ways to seek out and serve Jesus in the lives of those who are hurting. We must, as the Spirit tells the flummoxed disciples at the mount of Transfiguration, “listen to Jesus.” And in our daily lives we must accidentally demonstrate that this is what we are doing.

*manuhiri: guest.
** manaakitanga: tradition of hospitality
*** kaitiaki pūtea moni: custodian of finance (treasurer)

Saturday, 20 January 2018

forgive generously, love extravagantly, live abundantly

Congregational Christian Church in Samoa, Napier
South Napier Parish of the Diocese of Waiapu
Napier Central Baptist Church
Te Pou Herenga Waka o Te Whakapono o te Pīhopatanga o Te Tairāwhiti

Reading: 1 Corinthians 12:27-31

Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. 28 And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. 29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30 Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? 31 But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.

When invited to preach at this service today I wondered how the Spirit might speak to a neighbourly group of Christians. For we see too little of each other yet we all but border one another’s properties. We are a group of Christians  could all but spit in one another’s lawns, were we so inclined. 
I figured honesty is the best policy.
The writings of Paul are probably my speciality, and I believe they are increasingly critical in the world in which we find ourselves today. As we watch the crumbling, spluttering end of another great empire, as we watch seats of power change across the face of the globe, as we watch disturbing signs of ecological and economic stress, that feisty, sometimes annoying saint who declared that he came “preaching Christ and him crucified” takes us closer and closer to the rock on whom we must continuously build our faith. 
Paul wrote for varied Christian groups in troubled times, and wrote always to sandpaper away unnecessary and phoney accretions around Christian faith, wrote always to drive us back to the centre who is Jesus Christ our Lord.
Paul was writing for troubled Christians in troubled times. For too long his words, often taken wildly out of context, have been used by complacent Christians in comfortable times, and sometimes by exploitative, anti-Christ Christians in hate-filled times and contexts. We are watching the God-given, God-allowed reformation, the death-throes of Christendom, the end of Americanised, nationalistic Christianity. Americanised Christianity is a disease in which nationalistic, jingoistic “greatness” is put far ahead of brokenness and compassionate service to the broken. Americanised Christianity is the last successor to the false, Europeanized Christianities that put national gods ahead of the God of the Cross in the lead up to two Great wars. 
Now though, in this time of crumbling US Imperialism, we are seeing the birth of opportunity for new, energized authentic bearers of the Cross of Christ to emerge.
That Christianity will emerge first and foremost amongst the dispossessed: those who face rising oceans, those who face once more the threat of nuclear winter, those for whom health and housing is a constant battle. It is to them that Jesus primarily addressed his words of hope. When we read Corinthians closely it is very clear that Paul was close indeed to the Spirit of his Lord’s teachings. 
At Corinth Paul finds that the Christian community have twisted the good news of Jesus into a programme of self-advancement. Look at me: look at my holiness. Look at the degree to which I can outdo other religious people, Christian or unchristian, in the service of my new-found God. Look at the way I give of my best to God, unlike the poor people who must wait their turn.
Hidden away in Paul’s letters are clear indications that some – not all – Christians had turned the Gospel of Jesus into the Gospel of Self. They dare to boast of their own greatness, their own or their chosen supposed leader’s importance, and fail over and again to turn back and boast only of the Christ who has infiltrated and redeemed their lives. Over an undiscernible period, but maybe two or three years, Paul becomes increasingly frustrated with the mockery they make of the gospel. The passage we have read, that we have today is only the start – or near the start – of that growing relationship of frustration. 
Links with our own world are endless. Christians and others of right- and left-wing politics alike make a mockery of the centrality of Jesus the Christ of the Cross. In the USA he is made to be a standard bearer of make America Great Again politics. The current president’s deep flaws are ignored, the Jesus observation “by their fruits shall you know them” are found not to apply to US politicians. Rising oceans, international aid, and human compassion are set aside as leaders attempt to proclaim white American isolationist purity. In Corinthian terms they seize the best seats at the table, they claim to be the exemplary followers of Jesus, and they leave those around them to sink or swim, sometimes literally. They harass sexual minorities, while often turning a blind eye to wanton and repeated sexual exploitation perpetrated by the men they champion as moral heroes. Interestingly they establish abortion in particular as the central issue on which political decisions are based, while ignoring the sexual exploits of leaders and the power imbalances that are often precisely the social agar jar, the unhappy environment in which desperate cries for abortion are sounded. 
I have seen the hypocrisy of left-wing Christians too, and doubt that kind of sacred cow is any more pleasing to the prickly servant of Jesus who wrote to Corinth. I have seen those who proclaim justice for the poor but who turn the needy from the doors of their churches because they are not middle class or erudite or educated enough. I have seen the intellectual Christians who mock those who hold tenaciously to the simple truths of Jesus’ death and resurrection. There are no wings in the love of God. 
In addressing the issues Paul asks the Corinthians to look deep within themselves. Who and what are they without the Lordship of Christ, of Jesus invading their lives. Did the Jesus who bestowed gifts on them do so in order that they would appear important, powerful, strong, or holier than thou? Paul is adamant: the Spirit of God bestows gifts to each believer, and by extension to each family of believers – like the four gathered here today – so that we can better point to the Cross of Jesus Christ, better proclaim the resurrection, better bring hope and justice and compassion into the world God calls us to live in. 
And so he turns after a long passage (Chapter 12) reminding the Corinthians that their only status, their only meaning to life is what they have in Christ, and moves on in our passage asks them to consider the gifts they have. Had we time we might well workshop these very questions: what might we learn from one another? What are our strengths, and what are our weaknesses? More even than that, how might we utilise our gifts, our strengths and strangely even our weakness in order to proclaim the Christ of Easter in this community?
For Paul the litmus test and indeed the prism through which all action by Christ-bearers is evaluated is that of love. Though Paul had no access to the writings of John he would have whispered his “amen” to the belief that God is love and love is God … or is, we should say, when the love is proper love. Is it exploitative, abusive, self-seeking? Then it is not love. Does it seek to advance the giver at the expense of the receiver, and therefore become narcissistic? Then it is not love. Do we build up or tear down? Do we create a better world for others, living simply so that others may simply live, or do we build walls and barriers and barricades so that others may simply die? Do we try to build a better world for our tamariki and our mokopuna, or grasp its riches and opportunities to ourselves? Do we advance health, education, economic opportunity and environmental well-being, or exploit Papatuanuku and her children for us and our immediate surrounds only? 
So Paul proclaims what scholars now call the Hymn to Love. Let me show you a more excellent way: 

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. 
4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 
8 Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. 9 For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 10 but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. 11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. 12 
For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. 13 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

Paul knows only too well that we can abuse the Spirit of Christ, deadening her voice, suppressing her urges. We can mute the voice of conscience, turn our backs on the needs of others, we can gossip, as James warns us, tear others down, take advantage of our roles and positions, exploit, create and nurture factions, and generate an endless list of sin in our lives. We can even abuse the central Christian gift of forgiveness. 

The Corinthians did it all. In the end though we are warned that we live and we die in the searing light of Jesus. He asks but never forces us to have integrity, authenticity, honesty, and all the hallmarks or love. With Jesus his Lord he reminds us that we must live for others, as Samaritans who cross the road, with tax collectors who know their own sin, with humble servants who take not the glamour seats at the table or the positions of power in society but the seats amongst the rough and the hurting. He challenges us to welcome and include the stranger, never to push them away.  

I believe the Spirit is calling Christians at this time to give up power plays in the plush corridors of society, to give up manipulating and brow-beating the world around us. We are being called to exemplify love, to accept the push to the margins of society and there to love and care for the broken neighbours that we meet, that God gives us. The Spirit is calling us to learn to love again, to learn to welcome the sojourner, bind up the broken and the broken hearted, and only as we learn to do that again will we bear witness to the resurrection hope, bearing witness from that powerless place of love, that place of miraculous faith on the fringes of society. 

He calls us to love and live for others, loving recklessly, extravagantly, selflessly. As the people of God in different churches, with different gifts, that is what we are called to exemplify, however great the cost.

God who has called you is faithful …
Go into the world with joy,
forgive generously,
love extravagantly, live abundantly,
and the blessing of God, Earth-Maker, Pain-bearer, Giver of life
be with you and those you love, always.

Thursday, 11 January 2018

Stumbling along with Sammo and Nate

(South Napier)
2nd Sunday after Epiphany
(January 14th) 2018

1 Samuel 3:1-20
Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
1 Corinthians 6:12-20
John 1:43-51

It seems to me there are many ways to prepare a kauwhau (sermon) and no one way is right. Those of us who preach probably use a variety. I might for example spend time trawling through the resources I have learned to use during my academic journeys, then spend time making something meaningful out of them for the people – you – whose lives I am speaking to. What do the profound insights of great biblical scholars bring to us as we do our best to live our faith with integrity in down town Ahuriri Pounamu ( guess that’s a bit of a made-up name but it will do)? What do they say to us in this strange century of climate change, manic US presidents, renewed threat of nuclear winter and dismantled certainties?

But I’m ignoring that option!

For while scholars will dig out deep intellectual insights, the obvious links that our readings make between the call of Samuel and the call of Nathanael seem to demand more personal a tale. What is a call? How does God tap us on the shoulder? Are some calls better, more godly than others? Are back-to-front-collar-wearers closer to God the God of Creation and Cross than the rest of humanity?

Hah! Hardly! But we used to speak that way, as if the only call of any significance was to priesthood, ministry, or in the rohe (parish) where I first explored a life vocation, missionary service?

In fact, I suspect God never stops calling us. Sometimes, rarely, the calls are dramatic, like that of Samuel in the night. Sometimes they are less so, and in a way Nathanael’s is that. Modernize the telling of his encounter with invitation and it becomes more like a chat in a pub. 

“What are you doin’ this weekend?”

I’m putting up a retaining wall.”    

No wait … different story.   

“Hey Nathan?”


“Waddyadoin’ for the rest of your life, you Nazarene? Thougta trekkin’ along with Jesus?”

“Yeah, right.”

“You’re dreamin’ mate. He’s from Nazareth!”

“Yeah, but you know. Whatever.” 

Not all touches of God are nudges in a spectacular direction. Hey Nath … would you mind being a teacher, bus driver, gardener. Vocation might be an obviously missional life, or might mean doing, as the song put it, what you do do well … doing what you do but knowing that as you do so you bear the light of Christ in a chosen field. Engineer, meter monitor, electrician.

So, as Paul put it in a passage which is not down to read today, and taken a little out of context “… do all for the glory of God.” It’s a guideline that no doubt we’ll all fall short of, but a good one nevertheless. Do I drive a bus? Do it for the glory of God. Do I plant trees? Do it for the glory of God. Do I preach sermons? Do it for the glory of God (and make sure you listen to your own messages!).

How though, might God call us? I remember when I was first exploring the journey towards ordination many years ago, many spoke of the “call” as if it had involved some dramatic light in the night, voices from heaven, a mystical moment like that outlined in the Samuel narrative and elsewhere in the call of many of the great prophets, of both Hebrew and Christian covenant. 

Neither my original conversion nor my stumbling towards ordination were anything like that. Perhaps some are, but I suspect most are not.  In my conversion experience I spent many months ascertaining whether I was convinced that I was living in a universe without a God. I slowly concluded that I was not, and then set out to find the God of whom I had heard rumours in the lives and actions and words of one or two people I had met. In my later “call” to ordination I simply tried to ascertain where best my skills might lead me, and slowly discerned, alone and then with others, that they might well lend themselves to theological school and on to what I would call manatū pirihi, priesthood. The authorities eventually agreed, and I have stumbled along that path more or less ever since. I can think of at least one bishop – possibly more than one – who is convinced the authorities got it badly wrong

In the end though it is a matter of listening, as Nathanael and Samuel both demonstrate. At theological college I encountered some for whom theological formation was some sort of recognition of talent, some sort of authentication. “Mate, you’re dreamin’” I might have said. Immersion in Jesus is our authentication, and anything after that is merely fine tuning by the leading of God’s Spirit. Wairua Tapu over and again equips us for one task or another in the service of God’s reign. “Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all drive taxis? Do all grow vegetables? Do all write books?” My set of skills happened to be reasonably useful in the career I’ve followed (and, I sometimes muse, not much use for anything else), but in all we do we must seek in our own fallible ways to take our faith and our Christlight with us.

Sometimes the journeys are hard to understand. I look in awe at Hone’s pounamu carving, or listen to Uma or Stewart on the guitar (I know three chords) or gain hints of the incredible wāhine (I’m not going to say “kuia” in case you thump me) who surround me here, and I see real evidence of the way in which God gives gifts, and the way in which receivers of those gifts have quietly, and no doubt fallibly, used those gifts in many different ways.

I’d like to take the mystique out of the words “calling” and “vocation.” They are the same word, with equivalence to “umanga” or the rather nice “karangatanga” in te reo. I’d like to know more of all your callings and vocations, but also your joys and sometimes stumblings in following your vocations. But they are your stories, that God has given you. Mine will be different. 

Above all, whether we are Samuel or Nathanael, Algy or Hone or Maree or (even) Lem, male or female, Māori or Pākehā, South Napier or te Pou Herenga Waka o te Whakapono, we are called, nudged, led by God’s Spirit simply to be what and who and where God has chosen us to be. We are called from before we were conceived, called By the God who has searched us and knows us, who has called us into life and who will one day call us into the life beyond our sight. Let us serve God with the gifts God gives us, to the best of our ability, offering ourselves soul and body in the service of God’s Reign. 
TLBWY / kia noho a Ihowa ki a koutou