Our OT reading is the most extraordinary ending of the most extraordinary story. To appreciate that I think we just have to put ourselves in Joseph’s head for a moment. Imagine we were making a movie of the Joseph story… imagine the flashbacks as Joseph recognises his brothers arriving in Egypt to beg for food.
Flashback to the sunny day in his childhood when he arrives in the fields where his brothers are working… sent by his Father to see how the older brothers are. Instead of a friendly greeting from his older brothers, his role models, he is violently attacked and tied up. He has no idea what is happening for they have seen him coming and sprung it on him. And now he is tied up in their midst while they argue over whether to kill him. One of his brothers defends him and argues that he should be left to die in a pit rather than killed. So they strip him naked and put him in a pit to die. Then another of these delightful brothers comes up with the bright idea of selling him as a slave to some passing Egyptians. This they do and off he goes into slavery. I don’t know how many of you have seen 12 years a slave. In the story a free man is sold into slavery by some con artists he doesn’t really know. Imagine what is must feel like to be sold into slavery by your brothers.
Imagine the years of imprisonment… the moments of good fortune which mean that Joseph is finally given freedom and becomes a powerful person. All of this flashes through his mind as he sees his brothers arriving in Egypt now hungry and seeking food.
The urge for justice (for retribution) must have been almost irresistible. And yet in that moment… and isn’t it funny how the most important things seem to happen in a moment… something snapped inside him and he reached out and embraced his persecuting brothers. This is his amazing speech. “Come closer to me. Do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you have sold me here. For God sent you before me to preserve life.”
Ka-ching… the dots are joined for Joseph. He has this vision of God’s purposes. God’s purposes are the restoration of life rather than retributive justice. The crops have been preserved in the barns in the good years. They are now available for life in the tough times. But its more than just having enough food isn’t it. It’s having a life together that’s sustainable, built on forgiveness.
Joseph has an epiphany – a moment of understanding which is a turning point in his life. Have you had moments like that?
I often wonder if Jesus has a moment like that in our NT reading….
He has just been preaching about purity… what it means to be a righteous Jew… I was fascinated this week to attend Richard Bauckham’s lecture series on Galilee at the time of Jesus. Did you know apart from the Gospel there are almost no extant writings from Galilee at the time of Jesus. The nearest we have is a guy call Nittai the Arbelite. And only one of his ‘wise sayings’ remains. Here is what he says:
Keep your distance from an evil neighbour;
do not associate with a wicked person;
and do not despair of retribution.
As Richard Bauckham suggested the last line probably means that we shouldn’t give up believing that God will punish the wicked.
This is the context into which Jesus spoke. Jesus challenges the Pharisee version of purity. For the Pharisees it is about separation from certain kinds of unclean things – like pigs, or …. or gentiles. For the Pharisees its all about maintaining a ritual purity – its about things you might put in your mouth or touch. Jesus says no. The calling of God… is not to purity (in that sense) it’s to love… and these two ways of reading the call end up clashing. It’s not about keeping yourself untainted, its about giving yourself to the needy.
And so, having offered this wisdom about the true nature of righteousness, it tells us (v21) that he goes across a kind of symbolic border to a Gentile district – Tyre and Sidon … and a Canaanite woman… an unclean Gentile comes to him seeking healing for her daughter. And as I read this story, it’s like Jesus has worked out this purity thing in his head… but only to a point. He is living out of the righteousness of God within the bounds of his calling to Israel and its not until a woman from outside his world challenges him that he sees the full implication of what it means. The woman is persistent. Jesus and she engage in some quite edgy verbal jousting. “How can I feed the people’s bread to the little dogs (the pets)?” he asked. She retorts… that even the dogs get fed at dinner time. And then it’s like the penny drops… Jesus connects the dots. “Woman, great is your faith!” The Spirit of God has used a persistent woman, a woman in great need and therefore great faith, but a woman from outside the purity of Israel to show Jesus that the call of Abba redefines even the identity of Israel, of the people of God itself… from a people of boundary-purity to a people crossing boundaries in love.
I wonder if it was this experience that inspired in Jesus that classic parable of enemy-love that we call the Good Samaritan?
The woman’s great faith became a vehicle of the Spirit in Jesus journey of faithfulness to his loving Abba. We talk of Mary being the Mother of God. What about the role of this Canaanite woman?
I am struck today by ‘turning points’, by moments when we can suddenly, in the mystery of God’s Spirit, join the dots. Where are those moments in your life?
This week I spoke on a Panel on the Marriage Amendment Act and the Church’s response. And I had a bunch of ideas about marriage but I’m not sure I had really been forced to sit down and prayerfully hold all these things together. This request challenged me to do that, and to do it in a rather scary public way.
I think for many people, the dots only join up when someone actually confronts them. When they discover that one of their children or a friend or someone in their family is gay and this person comes to them and asks them ‘let me be a Christian too’. And we are not sure what that might mean. Sometimes we need our Canaanite woman to work out whether we are really people of purity or people of love.
I must say though, that when I did that, it was like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle coming together. Jesus was the great reformer of institutions. Jesus didn’t simple reaffirm the traditional definitions. He didn’t say, oh sorry I can’t help on the Sabbath, the correct definition of Sabbath is no work. He said ‘the Sabbath is made for man, not man for the Sabbath. He didn’t say, look you will have go to the temple to find God, they have the correct means of forgiveness. No he said, Your sins are forgiven. My body is the true temple. He didn’t say sorry the only way to be righteous is within the nation of Israel, that’s just the correct definition of righteousness. He almost did say that to the Canaanite women, didn’t he. But then, perhaps he remembered the sermon he had just given about true purity. And he embraces this women and her daughter. When the theological pennies start to drop… it ends up meaning reform for all these institutions, these ways of living our life.
And Paul I think opens this up for marriage too.
He says in Galatians,
‘In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek (the issue we’ve just had raised by the Canaanite woman), slave nor free (you can see the beginning of the church’s grappling with this in the book of Philemon), and there isn’t male AND female.
The Greek in Galatians 3:28 changes from ‘or’ to ‘and’ and some translations ignore it. But I think (and I’m not the only one) that Paul is making a point. This is a famous phrase from Genesis. ‘In the image of God he created them, male AND female he created them’. In other words this pattern in God’s creating, this complementarity of male and female, as important as it might be for reproduction and other matters, does not define life for the Christian. And so Christian marriage, just like the Christian community, and the Christian Sabbath and Christian purity and so on… might not be defined so much by its biological context as by the call of Jesus on our lives…
For me, joining the dots, this week meant seeing with a clarity that I hadn’t previously appreciated, the call to re-think the meaning of marriage rather than simply re-affirm traditional definitions.
I don’t expect you to necessarily connect the dots with me, or in the same way I have, this morning. For some I expect it will be quite challenging. But if you are interested in exploring further, my presentation is available online at Jason Goroncy’s website (www.jasongoroncy.com) – Have a read and I would be only to glad to talk further about it at some stage.
I recently attended a helpful workshop on Liturgical matters led by the Rev Dr Phillip Tovey from Oxford. He got me thinking about a few things including the ‘kickoff’ (liturgical greeting) and the use of creeds. So this week I tried to merge these issues with a call to worship which is suggestive of a confession of faith. Hopefully the congregation will take on the challenge of putting a bit of expression in.
Call to Worship: a dialogue with questions
One: Let us worship God
One: The giver of life
All: Don’t you mean “taker” too?
One: Not at all!
All: Our God keeps on giving new life?
One: Thanks be to God
All: who raised Jesus from his death at our hands
One: rebooting the universe
All: beginning with his forgiven people
One: renovated in his Spirit
All: and poured out in his name.
Romans 9: 1-5
Paul has great grief for his people – his divided people Israel. He stands on one side of a widening division in Israel. A division between Jews who believe that Jesus is the Messiah who also ended up being called Christians, and, on the other side of the great divide, those Jews who did not believe that Jesus was the Messiah (scholars sometimes call this Rabbinic Judaism).
Paul’s grief is great because the Messiah came to Israel at the end of a long history of divine engagement… of prophets, of promise. He can’t leave that behind. Nor can he, in good faith, leave it to those who do not accept Jesus as the Messiah. It is his history too. He must interpret it in the light of the Messiah. For Paul the Messiah (v 5) is ‘over all’. Jesus is the game-breaker. Jesus changes the world to a new world.
So he finds himself in the middle of a divided people, divided Judaism… Paul, like all Christians, is a Jew… he accepts the heritage of Jewish faith. We too, like Paul, are Jews! Jews for whom Jesus is the Messiah.
What a time to be reading this! With a tragic war between the modern Nation State of Israel and Palestinians in Gaza, we too cannot avoid the terrible messiness of this inheritance. There are Christian-Jews (just like us) in Gaza. There are Christian-Jews (just like us) in Israel… there are Rabbinic Jews as well… I could go on. But I simply want to highlight the grief that comes from taking seriously the way of God’s Messiah whose mission was to break down the walls of division.
It’s also an interesting time for us in Coastal Unity to read of Paul’s grief. We too are a divided community. We are divided on how we should use our money and what our priorities as a community are. These are not trivial questions. We are divided in our thinking and our voting. But we are still together in worship. We are not divided bodily. Maybe the only reason we are still together for worship is that we believe that Jesus the Messiah is the one who has the authority to sort out our divisions and bind us together into a common life and common cause. I hope so.
In Matthew’s gospel Jesus withdrew… he went to a deserted place. Prayer requires from us a certain kind of space… of freedom from the push and pull of human interaction. Jesus needed to be in the presence of the loving Father and to screen out some of the other presences.
When the crowd finally arrives at this ‘deserted place’ he is renewed in his compassion for the needs of the people. He is full of the Spirit. He heals.
But it is still a deserted place of vulnerability. There are no local stores or infrastructure. The disciples suggest sending the people away to the villages for food. Jesus chooses another way. He challenges the disciples: ‘You give them something to eat’. He challenges the disciples to give when they have next to nothing. ‘But we have nothing here but five loaves and two fish’. It’s a bit of a joke really. 5-10,000 people and just 5 loaves and two fish.
Jesus runs with the joke… again he calls for their willingness to give. “Bring them here to me”. Even though your resources are ludicrously inadequate are you prepared to bring them anyway. “Bring them here to me”.
The joke of course is on their fears. Because when they bring the bread…, and Jesus turns in prayer to his Father and blesses it, giving it, in turn, to his Father…, when the bread is broken and given away… it turns out there is enough after all.
It’s hard not to read gospel stories like this with an eye for the symbolism they use. They were written with that in mind. Twice Matthew uses the word ‘broken’. The loaves are ‘broken’ in the giving and the pieces that remain (12 baskets full – a symbolic number if ever there was one) are also described as broken.
There is a pattern here that needs to be noticed. The broken Messiah provides enough for all. The broken pieces that result from the broken body fill 12 baskets (12 like the tribes of Israel, like the people of God). The new people of God are broken like their Messiah… and given for the need of the world.
Genesis 32: 22-31
Jacob is on a journey back to be reconciled with his brother Esau. He is scared witless. He sends ahead all sorts of gifts… a kind of buffer between him and Esau, signs of his guilt. But before he meets his brother again, he has a bad night on the banks of the river. He gets into a fight with a man… or is it God? At first it just says it’s a man. And then we are told he has struggled with God. Jacob is winning the fight it seems or maybe its just that Jacob won’t give up. In the course of the fight the man (or God?) strikes him on the hip-socket and does him damage. But Jacob it seems pins the man (or is it God?) down and says “I will not let you go unless you bless me”. At which point the man gives him a new name; Israel – the struggler. And Jacob concludes ‘I have seen God face to face and yet my life is preserved”. It seems it was God after all… but there is something comical then about the whole scenario. God, in the form of a man, has been ‘play fighting’ (presumably) with Jacob. God is willing to allow Jacob to persevere in his battle without annihilating Jacob. God loves this struggler and struggles with him. It is as if God knows that Jacob will learn from this struggle. Some people only learn by struggling. But it ends with a reminder. God breaks Jacob’s hip… and he limps off into the sunrise (v31 The Sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip).
He is a broken man. And in his brokenness he has a future. He goes off to meet his long lost and alien brother Esau.
If it ain’t broke… perhaps it’ll never be fixed.
Three tales of brokenness. Three tales of hope. Are you struggling with God? Are you broken? Are we as a people struggling with God? Are we broken?
Do we need to be broken if we are to be true to the Messiah for the sake of the world? Do we need to give our meagre resources, our loaves and fishes into the hands of Jesus to bless and give away if there is ever to be enough?
Important Cultural Background: Mustard was a WEED in first century Palestine. So straight after telling us that we should not be trying to separate the weeds from the wheat… Jesus (in Matthew’s gospel in the very next parable) announces that the kingdom of heaven begins with a weed…(important context)
God knows how we can’t be relied on to sort good from evil, to clear out the weeds. Look how we treated God’s own Son as ‘evil’! For us he was a weed. And we did what humans do. Root out weeds. Jesus became a mustard seed. “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed.”
It was in the suffering of God’s Son that the kingdom began … a weed became a tree of hospitality for all the birds of the air. The kingdom begins when God, and all who are caught up in God’s mission, become victims of the world – willing victims (not victims against their will) – those who fall into the ground and die. Jesus didn’t die of pneumonia. Jesus didn’t die of old age. He died because he upset the social order. He was ‘a spanner in the works’. In the garden he was a weed. We tried to eliminate that weed – or rather ‘the works’ tried to… the machinery of Rome and the machinery of religion, the basic machinery of the mob, tried to eliminate the weed. But the mustard seed took root anyway. We call that the resurrection.
Let’s turn our attention now to our epistle reading. Paul in Romans writes (v 18) of ‘the sufferings of this present time not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed’. He talks about the groaning of creation like a mother in childbirth (last week). And he ends with that famous passage we read so often at funerals… about how ‘nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord’ (the mustard seed of the new creation).
I think we need to take a fresh look at that passage we read so often in funerals…
Who is Paul writing to? Christians… Christians in Rome… yes but what is their situation?…
Suffering people… they don’t even know how to pray (v26 we do not know how to pray as we ought – ‘The Source’ translation reminds us that this is not about style. It translates it ‘we don’t know how to pray so that our praying corresponds to the need). Let’s face it, if we don’t know how to separate wheat from weeds, how can we know how to pray? How to pray is often a mystery.
In a more everyday sense, I notice that sometimes I find people nervous about praying out loud… they tell me they don’t know how to pray. Jesus says to us (whether in suffering, or just feeling inadequate) “The Spirit intercedes with sighs to deep for words” (v 26). Prayer is not our burden to carry. Prayer is a space where the Spirit carries us. It is normal not to know what to pray. That’s why prayer begins with silence.
Then Paul says to his fellow sufferers. ‘We know that all things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to his purpose’. Not, notice, that all things are good (if only we understood them better). Rather in the ultimate working out of all things… (‘things working together’) goodness will come.
God has a plan! Again not a detailed blueprint for every detail of your life… forget about that. That’s a recipe for neuroses. Paul is clear, the plan from the beginning is for us to be (v29) ‘conformed to the image of his Son’. The pre-planning, the designing, on God’s part (we used to call it predestination) is that we become like Jesus.
And what will it look like when all things work together? Paul suggests that Jesus will be the ‘firstborn within a large family’. And there will be family resemblance. There will be a family/community that looks like Jesus.
In what way will we look like Jesus? Long hair perhaps? Paul gives us some pretty clear indications what this will look like.
These suffering Christians are not suffering in any old way. They may be dying of old age or dying of pneumonia or whatever… but that’s not the kind of suffering Paul is talking about here. Paul lists the things that threaten the Christians in Rome ‘hardship, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril and the sword’ (v 35). He even quotes a verse to describe the situation of the Christians. ‘For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’…
That’s heavy stuff! And yet its also a familiar phrase reminiscent of this one: “as a sheep before its slaughterer is dumb”. The Christians are suffering because that is their destiny. It’s their destiny and God’s plan that they will become like Jesus… abandoning their safety for the sake of the world’s need, giving themselves into the jaws of the system… becoming like him in his suffering… a spanner in the works of the world.
There’s no doubt that Paul connects the dots… whether we take it literally or metaphorically ‘being killed all day long’ is the shape of a life like Jesus. Suffering is not an accident of following Jesus… it is a consequence. It is our family resemblance to the Son of God.
There is no safe and secure Christian life, this side of the eschaton (final resolution). And here I want to make an important connection. There is no safe and secure church life… no safe and secure Coastal Unity. What there is, is a life that looks like Jesus and his kingdom.
So this passage we read at funerals… its not about survival (none of us gets out of this life alive)… its not about security, or a good comfortable life, as individuals or as a church.
Paul says, ‘in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us’. In hardship, in distress, in persecution, etc … in ‘being killed all day long’ after the pattern of Jesus… we are more than conquerors (conquerors of what?… conquerors over the dominion of death… as it dominates the world).
As Jesus said again and again… its only as we are prepared to die… (for this kingdom) that we will really be living for it.
This applies to us as individuals and to us as a parish.
’For [we are]… convinced that [in all of this] neither death nor life , nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love (what love? the love that conforms us, the love of our mustard seed… the love) of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’
Matthew 13: 24-30 Romans 8: 12-25
When the Bible first came to NZ it became a kind of treasure, a sacred object (as we have just heard). People travelled for miles to get a copy. Stories were also told, not just about the Bible as a kind of taonga but about the effect of this book. With the book came a rumour, a rumour of a new world, a new possibility, a new kind of God. Rather than a world groaning under the constant neverending process of revenge killing, of warfare, and utu (not unlike what we see in the Gaza and Israel right at the moment), there are rumours that God is creating a new world of forgiveness and reconciliation. Things need not be how they are.
The bible is not just a kind of sacred object… it’s the bearer of news of a new future.
Today’s parable tells of the world as a field/as a mixed bag of wheat and weeds, of good and evil. And the servants come in (lets call them the cowboys) and they want to eliminate the weeds. They want to clear the world of ‘bad guys’ (those are the ones who wear ‘black hats’ – so you know which ones to shoot). But Jesus says NO.
Evil is on its way out. Don’t panic. Keep calm and carry on, even if there are weeds in the garden. Even if there are dirty dishes in the kitchen. Don’t panic.
The problem is closeness. The good and the bad are just too close together. It’s a fragile ecosystem – pull up the one and you destroy the other. It’s like their intertwined even at the roots.
Paul takes this closeness even further. What he hopes for in Romans 8 is ‘the redemption of our bodies’. God and evil go right through the middle of each human heart. They are interwoven through the sinews and synapses of our bodies.
Hope for the redemption of our bodies, these complicated bodies, says Paul gives rise to groaning. Not a groan of resignation, or acceptance of a bad situation, or of cynicism or despair… Not merely a groaning of pain. But a groaning also of hope for something new. Hope is dangerous.
Paul calls it a groaning of ‘labour pains’ – pains of birth, the screaming of a mother whose body feels like it is being split in two, is nevertheless a scream of hope… and not despair.
For Paul as for the writer of John’s gospel, Jesus is ‘Saviour of the world’ – the world you work in, and raise your children in and watching movies in and find happiness in… that world. If we are waiting for anything it’s the salvation of that world. That’s the big picture of the gospel. The world will be saved. And that world includes our human bodies and life together.
So for Paul it’s not just about good people and bad people, its about a change that happens to the world, in time. Its a mixed world of wheat and weeds, but things are changing. The old world, the world we are born into – Paul calls it “the flesh” is under the dominion of death and all our anxieties bound up with that – this world is passing away. And the new world, the world that interrupts this world is what set’s us free. He calls it the world of the Spirit. It’s breaking in. I am reminded of a line of Malcolm Gordon’s song – “I am waiting …for heaven to break in”
You know what it’s like waiting at a bus stop… a watched pot never boils. The speed of time is variable thing. The quality of waiting depends enormously on what you are doing.
“So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh – for if you live according to the flesh you will die (the life of the old world pays its own wages – death); but if you live by the Spirit and put to death the deeds of the body, you will live”
You can put your body in the old world or in the new world… Our bodies are on the line here for redemption. Our bodies and the world being saved are bound up together. Paul effectively says that you can’t separate the human world from the non-human creation. They’ve been joined at the hip.
At first it seems tragic. What have we done to this earth? But for Paul it is also hopeful.
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it in hope, that the creation itself will be set free of its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of children of God.
See that… the wellbeing of the non-human creation is connected (in God’s purposes) to the freedom of human beings (and vice versa).
“We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.”
Even if the old world seems to be on the point of collapsing. Perhaps especially if it looks like disaster, Paul has faith in the risen Christ to create something new. He calls this groaning creation ‘birth pains’.
When the Bible came to NZ it didn’t just bring rumours of a new world. It also came with the baggage of an empire – the British Empire, which morphed into the globalised modern neo-liberal hypercapitalist empire we live in today.
My friend Andrew Shepherd did a lecture this week for the Centre for Theology and public issues… and he began with a series of images of the future as it is hitting us even now. Dramatic images of flooding and drought and hurricane damage (products of global warming). Vivid images of creation groaning. In that context he cited: Jacques Atalli from 1991
“By 2050, 8 billion people will populate the earth. More than two-thirds will live in the poorest countries. Seeking to escape their desperate fate, millions will attempt to leave behind their misery to seek a decent life elsewhere. But neither the Pacific nor the European spheres will accept the majority of poor nomads. They will close their borders to immigrants. Quotas will be erected and restrictions imposed. (Renewed) social norms will ostracize foreigners. Like the fortified cities of the Middle Ages, the centres of privilege will construct barriers of all kinds, trying to protect their wealth.”
Jacques Attali, Millennium: Winners and Losers in the Coming World Order (1991)
The truth is Jacques Attali wasn’t far off with his prediction. The high tech future for the 2 billion is also fast becoming the massive mega-slum future for 6 billion. The empire looks on the point of collapse. Perhaps we live in the kind of world St Benedict did, when he established his monasteries at the End of the Roman Empire?
You have to wonder. How we can share in Paul’s confidence when he concludes “For in hope we are saved…” Where did Benedict and Paul got their hope from? Certainly from a very different story about our place in the world. Not a story of limitless expansion and growth and the idea of a world centred around human beings and what they and their market forces want to make of it. They certainly had a very different story about our situation in God’s world (not ours). But perhaps even more importantly…. they saw the “redemption of bodies” in the communities in which they lived. They saw signs of hope. Hope comes when a different life is lived together… a different economy on the ground in our local relationships, local affection, in touch with the earth. Embodied hope. They saw signs of God’s redemption of bodies. So they waited… and in waiting put their bodies on the line.
16“But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’
I love this metaphor for Jesus interaction with his society, or, as he puts it with ‘this generation’. They don’t want any surprises! They want the apocalypse now and they want it according to plan. The kingdom of God will be a matter of the messiah playing according to their rules. They play the flute and Jesus dances to their tune.
Jesus then does a rant – a rant against cities that failed to repent – Chorazin and Bethsaida. My first reaction is one of astonishment. Jesus expected cities to repent!? We expect individuals to repent but not cities. Jesus seems to expect both. It reminds me of the parable of the Sheep and the Goats when ‘all the nations of the earth are gathered’. It is about the judgment on nations not individuals. It is about how nations treated the weakest among them (the hungry, those in prison).
Have you ever wondered how Jesus expected Chorazin and Bethsaida to repent? … Do you imagine Jesus as some kind of Billy Graham with altar calls? Or perhaps you imagine him doing submissions to the city council on behalf of the kingdom of God, to make sure it’s in the ‘long term plan’.
Actually both of these ideas are very modern ways of thinking. Jesus preached a kingdom not an individualised gospel… but he also didn’t preach a bureaucratic kingdom. It’s very hard with modern minds to rethink some of these things.
The reality is cities and nations are not just buildings, for all their distortion, they are forms of human community. We don’t just live in cities. Cities live in us. To coin a cliche: You might be able to take the person out of Dunedin, but its another matter to take Dunedin out of the person.
At this point I want to segway into the text from Romans. I think this is what Paul is hinting at when he tells of his struggles. He was part of the ‘generation’ that Jesus is complaining about. The generation who plays the flute, but finds that Jesus does not dance to their tune.
Paul has been formed from childhood by a flute tune that clashes with Jesus one. And Jesus has interrupted this pattern, this city within him. And now he sees Jesus as the fulfilment of the Law of God. He delights in this law, he says. He wants to be a follower of Jesus who loved God with all this being and his neighbour (including his enemies) as himself. But this is not automatic. If there is anything that is automatic it is the city that still lives in him, in his habits and his pattern and his behaviour.
Do you relate to this?…
For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. …For 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. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.
Sometimes I get the impression that people think that doing the right thing is just a matter of knowing what it is and wanting to do it. And that those who struggle like Paul did, as somehow mentally unbalanced. But what if this is normal life for a Christian… someone who has a city inside them and yet whose life has been interrupted by Jesus.
How many of our actions are not what we really want to do?
I don’t want to eat that much?
I don’t want to watch so much television?
I don’t want to buy products that are traded unjustly to the detriment of people in poverty in china or cambodia.
I don’t want to use so much carbon or drive my car so often
I don’t want to drink too much alcohol
I don’t want to be prejudiced against certain types of people
After this amazingly modern description of psychological struggle he is caught up in, Paul concludes with these words. “Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Let’s just sit with that phrase for a moment. Is it just a familiar phrase that has drained of meaning for our lives? Or is it a truth that resonates deep within us?
Just when you think it’s a lost cause, Paul gives us these words to reflect on. It is God, through Jesus Christ who will rescue us from ‘this body of death’, from all the habits of mind that bind us, the addictions, all the social situations of injustice that seem to give us no other options for our life… in short: The city that possesses us will not win the victory! There is a much greater reality for Paul… which, for a while he loses sight of as he describes his struggle.
It’s easy to lose sight of this fact isn’t it? God, through Jesus, is rescuing us from this ‘body of death’.
Let’s go back to Jesus, ranting against the cities of Chorazin and Bethsaida. For Jesus things take a positive turn at the end of the reading. He says:
“I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants;
Infants… the little and powerless of the world. In contrast to the establishment, the city planners of Chorazin and Bethsaida, the truth about God has come to earth among the little ones who gather around Jesus. To them he says:
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
To the workers on the borderlands of the establishment: I will give you rest. Not rest in contrast to work, but rest in the midst of work. Restful work.
Notice what Jesus doesn’t say. He doesn’t say Come to me all you that are weary and I will take your burden off you and release you from your yokes. He doesn’t say, you tired people who have worked all your life can now take a break from the kingdom of God and do something for yourself. He says, the kingdom of God is work that is restful. It is Sabbath work. It’s an incredible lightness of being. Take my yoke upon you.
Thanks be to God, who, in Jesus Christ, brings us to let go of the city that controls our hearts and replaces that city with the joy and vision and work of the kingdom of God.
Welcome to another difficult passage of scripture: the story of the binding of Isaac.
Let’s begin by asking: How did Jesus think about this passage? There’s section in John’s gospel which sheds some light on this. It comes at a time when Jesus’ life is increasingly in danger. At one point in Chapter 8 he replies to the Judean crowd “I know that you are descendants of Abraham; yet you look for an opportunity to kill me, because there is no place in you for my word.” And then in verse 39 and 40 we read:
“They answered him ‘Abraham is our Father.’ Jesus said to them ‘If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing what Abraham did, but now you are trying to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God.”
So what did Abraham do? Lots of things… took his family to a strange land, had children in his old age… sure… but what did he do in relation to killing? Brian Zahnd (the book I referred to last Sunday) says the answer is plain and simple. Abraham put down the knife.
What Jesus sees in the story of the binding of Isaac, was not so much a man who was prepared to kill his son, what Jesus sees, above all else, is a man who didn’t sacrifice his son, the man who put down the knife.
Context is so important for our Genesis reading. In the world out of which the story of Abraham arose, sacrifice of children was normal. We can hardly imagine such a world. And (more than any other reason) that’s because we live after Jesus. For us after Jesus, the story of Abraham and Isaac is simply horrible… child abuse, perhaps even divine child abuse. And yet in the economy of the Ancient Near East god’s and humans did business in human life and human blood. Children were currency in the business of propitiating (or pacifying) the gods. It was just part of the necessity of staying alive. In that context there is nothing at all strange about this mysterious God calling for a child sacrifice. That’s what gods did. In that context, sacrificing your child is not strange. What is strange is not sacrificing your child. What is strange, new, and decisive for the world after Abraham is this story of the end of sacrifice. The slogan from this story is not ‘God demands sacrifice’ it is ‘God provides’ – that’s the name they give the place on Mt Moriah – God provides an alternative to human sacrifice.
And as a result what you see in Israel is a radical break with the whole tradition of sacrifice in the Ancient Near East. Not an instant end to religion and the rituals of sacrifice. Israel developed a different kind, a unique kind of religion from anything else in the Ancient Near East. They still had a temple, at least until Jesus time when he challenged it and then the Romans knocked it down, and they still had sacrifices of sorts, albeit not human sacrifice. But the important difference that is not always noticed is this: the sacrifices of Israel are no longer directed towards God. In the sacrifices in Israel’s temple the priest represents God and the sacrifices represent what God provides for the cleansing and healing of the world. God doesn’t have to be appeased, or propitiated in order not to punish. There is no exchange going on whereby sacrifice is a kind of payment proportionate to how bad you had behaved. (for those interested Darrin Belousek’s book has an excellent chapter with full detail on this issue).
In Israel it begins to be all about ‘God provides’. It moves from exchange with the gods… to a celebration of God’s giving (grace). God provides what is necessary for the restoration of life. Restorative justice… rather than retributive.
And in continuity with that Jesus reads the story of Abraham and Isaac with its key moment in the point God provided and the potential sacrifice of Isaac was halted. At that point God was defined for Israel, not as the God to be propitiated, not as the God who demanded blood, but as the God who provides.
What that means for us, I think, is that that one of the first things we need to learn as Christians is to be people who can receive gifts…. who can receive the gift of life. God provides.
Jesus sends his disciples out to be prophets of the kingdom. To declare the news that God’s government of the world is arriving. And to go from house to house. The provider is coming ready or not. And one of the things Jesus focuses and spends some time emphasising is that the ambassadors of this provider need to be people who can receive hospitality – not merely those who give it. Imagine for a moment if our task after leaving this service were to go around the local community knocking on doors asking for hospitality?… It would be bad enough if it was just our fellow parishioners wouldn’t it?
Is Jesus naive… sending them out like this with such optimism. Well, hardly, he tells them at the beginning of his speech that they will be hated. He tells them they are going into conflict. And yet knowing that he invites them to prepare also for hospitality. To be ready also to receive from others.
It’s kind of a nice flip-side to last Sunday’s sermon. In spite of the fact that what Jesus teaches is so deeply challenging to the way the world works that it will bring division even within families (“not peace but a sword”), nevertheless Jesus is still confident that some will open their doors. They are being sent out in the power of the spirit… and they will discover that the Spirit is not their possession, the Spirit will also go ahead of them.
So they are going up nervously to doorsteps knowing from Jesus that they could face anything from a ‘sword’ on the other side of the door, to a warm meal and a bed for the night. That’s the kind of vulnerability he called them to.
Let me share for a moment about Lunch at Sidey. (for those of you from other parishes… this is a project in our parish that is giving me a lot of joy at the moment – free lunch on Thursdays at 11.30am every week).
When you start up something like a free lunch… it’s very easy to think in terms of providers and clients (to use the current terminology)… its almost automatic, people ask whether you have done your ‘market research’. But very quickly you discover that everyone who comes along to lunch is a provider. There are no customers. Each person provides hospitality for everyone else… I find myself learning from people’s life experience, accepting their welcome, discovering friendship.
When Brenda, and Jan and Trina, and Mary and I got started on this we didn’t do our market research. We simply saw an opportunity to express the kingdom of God. As it turned out God provided and continues to provide. But one of the things God is providing is hospitality for all of us. We are the beneficiaries.
In learning what it means to be “missional church”, we are learning to be receivers. And as people trained from childhood in self-sufficiency. It is not always an easy lesson.
Thanks be to God.