KAUWHAU at TE POU HERENGA WAKA O TE WHAKAPONO
TRANSFIGURATION (11 February) 2018
2 Kings 2:1-12
2 Corinthians 4:3-6
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.
** manaakitanga: tradition of hospitality
*** kaitiaki pūtea moni: custodian of finance (treasurer)