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Go Wellington Anglicans!

November 17, 2018

This is the second time I have been to the annual Ordination Celebration of the local Anglican Diocese. I am a Presbyterian so I go as a visitor.

I think those outside Wellington need to know about the revolution that is going on in the Anglican tribe in our city. It is astonishing the outpouring of energy and discipline in mission that is happening here. It is definitely a thing! And we all know that it is largely thanks to the vision and prophetic leadership of one man – Justin Duckworth. He would hate to hear this because he knows he is surrounded by a wonderful tribe of people who journey with him. But today’s celebration reminded me of Justin’s leadership.

I can’t even remember the first part of his sermon. All I know is that it was short and simple, and he preached barefoot as he always does. But the last part of it epitomised his mastery of the succinct nutshell. Basically he commented that the problem of climate change is a spiritual problem. Everyone is passing the buck for others to act. Jesus died to pay the cost of sin and we the followers of Jesus are not willing to do likewise – that’s our spiritual problem. He died to pay the cost of our sin, not so that we don’t have to, but so that we can! [nb: this is my summary not his precise words] To be forgiven is to be set free to act, not merely to be pardoned.

This is a beautiful way to insert the radical anabaptist DNA into the Anglican and vaguely protestant institution he is part of. Jesus sacrificed so we too might sacrifice. Jesus bore our sin so we too might bear the sin of the world. To be ‘in Jesus’ is to be like him, to be crucified with him and raised with him. This is the depth of the Christian response to the climate crisis. While large tracts of protestant Christianity are still obsessed with cheap grace because they are getting desperate about their declining situation Justin is preaching the cost of discipleship and is gathering up a storm – or perhaps, in response to climate change, laying down the roots of a sustainable response to a perfect storm.

It was really encouraging to me to see friends like Mark Henderwood, Sonya Lewthwaite join the team today alongside people like Māmari Stephens and the Urban Vision members and others I didn’t know. Kia kaha! Mauria ki te whakapono!

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The Politics of Jesus 2: A (very) crash course in political discipleship

November 17, 2018

Luke 4: 1-13, Colossians 1: 15-17; 2:8-10, 13-15

 

Last week I talked about witness… in the face of a world, a system that hates us (Jn 5:18)… I talked about  protests among other things. About standing up against the way of the world in witness… because there is a kind of fallenness, distortedness, distorting going on in the world which is messing with our lives and our heads.

Today I want to take that a bit further… politics, living with the structures of the world… which in the language of the NT means living with the powers of the world.

But first point is going back to basics. To be a Christian is to be a follower of Jesus. I don’t know if you agree with me on that definition of Christianity. I don’t know how much you have thought about this issue, the core matter of Christian faith. It’s so everywhere in our Bible that we almost don’t notice it. Being holy as God is holy, becomes in the NT being holy as Jesus is holy. Being like him in his mode of being in the world. Being like him in his character. Forgiving like he forgave. Loving enemies like he loved them. Being ‘in Christ’. Sharing in his death, being crucified with him, taking up our cross as he did, serving as he served. Suffering as he suffered. Having the same mind … and so on and so on.

Today I want to talk about being political like Jesus. I want to talk about Jesus relation to power.

Jesus began his ministry by announcing his political agenda. Jesus lived before democracy (at least modern democracy), he lived before voting, before political parties in the modern sense. But he clearly had an agenda for the political and social life of his time. He announces the arrival of Israel’s most deeply cherished hope – the year of jubilee – a time when debts are forgiven, when prisoners are set free, when the earth itself is left fallow to be restored in his fertility. Like pressing a reset button on your computer… to restore the original settings. It was profoundly political.

Like Mary’s (magnificat – the overthrow of the rich) and Zechariah (nunc dimitis  – the deliverance of the people from their enemies) and John’s the Baptist (purging of the people), but differently, Jesus is political. He announced what we can only call socio-political and economic restructuring… and he began to teach his disciples how to do it. Not restructuring from above (so to speak – by Rome or by religious leaders)… God’s restructuring from below. My favourite way of translating ‘The Kingdom of God’ is ‘God’s New Order’. Jesus’ good news was ‘God’s new order’ arriving in their midst’ to set them free. Why from below? The short answer I think is because he trusted God and the power of God’s suffering love and rejected the sword.

One way to look at this is to consider the temptations he faced. With such a major transformational socio-political agenda he was never really tempted to escape from public life like the Essenes in the desert, or the Pharisees to a degree. He was never really tempted to accept the status quo like the Sadducees or the Herodians. But he was tempted to lead a rebellion, a crusade. It was a temptation he resisted to the very end.

The story of the temptations in the desert capture it beautifully. He was tempted to go to the top. To take over the kingdoms of the world. To worship the Satan even. This is another way of summarising the same temptation… It’s not a temptation to some kind of private Satan cult. Satan represented the power behind the powers. The spiritual realities behind the political dominions. In our time we could say, Satan is the symbol of the spiritual dynamic behind the powers that be – the power behind the powers – a kind of parallel to Nathan’s phrase the word behind the word. Just as we need to discern the word within the word when we listen to scripture, so we also need to discern the power within or behind the powers that control our world. In refusing to bow to the Satan (the accuser) Jesus refuses to take the world by force. He refused the grand appearance at the top of the temple. This is his temptation at the beginning. It is also his temptation in the garden of Gethsemane at the end – he refuses the way of the sword. His political moment with the powers is the cross

I want to ‘do a Susan Blaikie’ and quote one of the theologians who changed my life (slide)

“There is in the NT no Franciscan glorification of barefoot itinerancy. Even when Paul argues the case for celibacy it does not occur to him to appeal to the example of Jesus…Only at one  point, only on one subject – but then consistently, universally – is Jesus our example: in his cross.’ (John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, p. 95)

If you think about it, the focus all the calls to imitate/follow is the cross…  And those of us who believe in the resurrection know the cross as his victory Jesus great victory over the powers that control our world. Were it not for the resurrection it would be a completely invisible moment indistinguishable from defeat. For us who see God on the cross…  God confronting the powers… it is the beginning of the end for the powers that oppose Jesus.

But to get back to the business of following. It is not just his victory. For those who follow, it is the model for our political life. To understand this we have to think more about the powers.

What do we mean by the powers?

  1. The NT is full of this language… Interestingly when it does so it links the structures of the world with spiritual realities (lumps them together). Cities had their angels and usually fallen angels. The chief among these spiritual powers went by various name including Satan the Devil and Lucifer. Although it’s probably never stated I strongly suspect (particularly in Revelation) that the Satan (the Accuser) is understood as the Spirit of Rome. But in the language there is this link between what we might think of as the Spiritual and the Structural. Powers are structural, systematic, patterned realities. So the powers are both visible and invisible. Where we tend to separate social structures and forces from spiritual realities, the ancient world lumped them together.
  2. According to Colossians the powers are created and necessary for our life. God created them

“In him (Jesus) all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers – all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things and in him all things hold together” (subsist = are systematised)” 1 Colossians 1:16-17

We can’t live without the powers that structure the world, in all their mystery. So the writer to the Colossians sees them as being created, like all the world, in Christ – systematised within the mystery of Christ and God.

  1. In spite of this, mostly the NT talks of them as fallen powers (Rom 8:38) they are among the things that want to separate us from the love of God: ‘angels, rulers, things present, things to come, powers’. Ephesians 2:2 mentions (probably Satan) as the ‘ruler of the power of the air, the Spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient’. [Remember Satan, in the story of temptation, claiming to have authority over the kingdoms of the earth]. Colossians and Galatians talks about us being in bondage to the ‘elemental spirits of the universe’.

As we said before… it is these powers that Christ confronts and defeats on the cross.

“Erasing the record that stood against us, he removed it out of the way, nailing it to the cross; stripping the rulers (archons) and powers, he exposed them in the open, leading them prisoner along with him in a triumphal procession.” (Colossians 2: 14-15)

As fallen powers they are evil… but never entirely… they are necessary evils (‘distorted’ might be better) in need of redemption. They tend to control us. To bind us, to claim our allegiance. We get lost in the structures. The powers… we can’t live without them, we can’t live with them (at least not well).

But before we move too quickly into our modern world, what are we to make of this ancient cosmology. Let me offer a suggestion. The ancients lumped the spiritual realities and the social powers together. They tended not to distinguish the way we do. They were all mysterious. In the modern world we tend to ignore the spiritual mysteries and think that political life is a simple matter of voting and laws… kind of simple and transparent and analysable.

One of the things I think we might acknowledge in our time is that there is always more going on in the world than the sociologist can see. There is an invisible dimension to every political and social structure. We see the buildings of the university and the teachers, but the university itself is a dynamic process, more than the sum of its parts. We see the architecture of Wall St and the screens of stockbrokers and so on, but there is a process in which the financial markets shape our lives which is invisible, but no less real. Even in our work places we see our colleagues and our offices and our church buildings but there is a spirit which is more than the individual people and all of these. Perhaps we can become aware that no amount of sociological analysis will tell us the whole story. Mystery remains.

So if we can’t live, with or without them… The Christian political life is going to be critical engagement with the structures… with these powers. They make up the very cultural air we breathe. And yet we need to have critical perspective. We need to ask about what is the dominant power in our world… perhaps so dominant that we take it for granted as if there were no alternative?

And finally we need to live in the alternative! We need to live into the alternative. Only then can we, like Jesus, expose the powers that hate the way of Jesus.  One final passage from the NT about the powers. In Ephesians Paul writes that his job is:

‘to declare to all what is the plan of the mystery hidden since the ages in God who created all things; so that the multi-faceted wisdom of God should from now on be made known by means of the church to the principalities and powers in heavenly places

 

To be different is not to withdraw. It is to testify politically

Conclusion: Three Dimensions of Christian Political Discipleship

  • Like Jesus we need to discern the spirits
  • Like Jesus we seek to restructure the world from below… non-violently.
  • Like Jesus we need to expose the powers, this demonstrating the difference … i.e. being church

As I said last week… To testify is our first job

For God so loves the world… that he enters into our world to set us free from the powers that enslave us, so we who trust in him might not perish, but live in God’s new order.

Thanks be to God for the gospel!

 

 

 

Politics of Jesus 1: The Friend who commands and the cosmos that hates

November 17, 2018

John 15: 12-27

Jesus has one main command… for him it is God’s command. Love one another.

We think that love is the last thing you can command of anyone. Not only does Jesus command them to love one another, as difficult as that may seem, he also says that their status as his friends depends on it. You are my friends if you do what I command you. Imagine if your friend said that to you… I would run a mile. I kind of hope you would too.

Sometimes it seems we want a friendly Jesus, a mate. Is that what we mean by a relationship with Jesus? This Jesus seems at best passive-agressive, manipulative. He chose us, he says, not the other way around. He has appointed us… appointed us to bear fruit. He’s looking for outcomes. He looking for changes in us. Imagine if you started a relationship with a boyfriend or girlfriend like that. [discuss]

It’s all quite onesided, this so-called relationship. In the very sentence where Jesus says we are his friends and NOT his slaves, he tells us that ‘you are my friends if you do what I command you’. A friendship that’s not equal… what’s that about?

The “Jesus is my boyfriend” thing doesn’t fit. The words of Jesus in John’s gospel come to us with the authority of God. Jesus says, everything he commands (basically ‘that you love one another’) is the command that he has heard from his Father, from God.

So friendship with Jesus is one sided for a good reason. It has to be one sided. To obey Jesus is to obey the source of goodness itself. God. And God, thank goodness, doesn’t change. God changes us… or we die. God does not simply present us with options, any of which might be ok. What God wants for us means spiritual life… or death. For God it matters that we bear fruit. Jesus wants to instil habits in us, not simply inspire us on an occasional basis. Jesus wants to change us. And in human terms that it not a good basis to start a relationship. But this is not human terms, this is not normal relationship. We need to get over that. If we think of our relationship with God like any other relationship we are in trouble.

A friend of mine recently picked up a person living on the street who stayed at their place for a few weeks. This person had from time to time been involved with churches and had a curious way of being honest. One thing he would say was that he was a Christian but that he couldn’t be so bold as to claim to be a follower of Jesus… it’s a curious form of humility. I kind of get it. He seems to realize, in a way that many in the church fail to realise, that following Jesus is enormously challenging. And yet somehow this guy seems to be avoiding the issue.

When Jesus says that his friends are those who do what he commands he is saying that there can be no separation between being a Christian and being a follower of Jesus. They are the same thing. He’s not saying that anything less than perfection is failure. But he is saying that there is a long obedience in a certain direction. His followers are on that way and not another way. He not saying you can’t fail. But he is clearly saying, I think, that it’s a false humility that pretends that ‘obedience’ is too hard or even doesn’t matter to being a Christian. Obedience is Christianity.

Whatever this strange thing called a relationship with Jesus is, it is the kind of thing that means that if you have it you can’t imagine any other possibility than complete and total loyalty and obedience. Jesus knows that in his own relationship to his Father and he knows it needs to be true for us to. There’s no such thing as a Christian in name only – nominal Christians don’t exist.

Jesus continues… the cosmos hates you. Verse 18 ‘If the cosmos hates you, you know that it has hated me before you.’ So there are two difficult ideas in today’s reading. The first is that – friendship with Jesus means obedience because the creator of the universe (believe it or not) is our friend… and the second is that the cosmos hates you. What does that mean?

[discuss]

When I was thinking about this verse I asked myself the question ‘Why am I drawn to protest movements?’ Tuesday was Parihaka Day. Perhaps the most Christian of protests in our history. When two Taranaki chiefs and followers from around NZ rejected war in order to follow Jesus and the voice of God and to stand up to the British Empire.

A few weeks ago… just prior to the visit of Harry and Meghan to the tomb of the unknown warrior… a friend of mine organised a protest event which he called ‘A vigil for the victims of the British Empire’. It was him and his friends up against Harry and Meghan, representatives of the British Empire. Not good odds you might think. A kind of hiding-to-nothing protest perhaps. It puzzled me why he might do it. Everyone will will hate him and his friends. The entire cultural machine backs Meghan and Harry. They are after all, such lovely people right. And yet, he’s right. They are representatives of an Empire which has done enormous damage in this country and elsewhere. Harry and Meghan don’t hate him. Thy might even support him. But nevertheless, he would be hated (or ridiculed) for embarrassing the representatives of the Empire with a reminder of history.

I was listening to the radio the other day and the commentator was talking about the debate in the states getting rid of memorials to confederate soldiers. Some were saying you shouldn’t pull down such statues because that racist past is part of history. And you shouldn’t hide away our history. To which someone else replied to the effect that the erection of those statues in honour of confederate soldiers was itself an act of hiding the torturous evil of slavery and racism and lynchings.

Which led me back to thinking about my friend wanting to honour the victims of the British Empire. How do we best tell the truth about the past? Should we put a memorial to the victims of the British Empire alongside those who died in the First World War?

About the same time New Zealand hosted the annual conference of international arms dealers, this time in Palmerston North. Some of my friends and family went off to protest. But why? you might ask. What difference will they make? What sense does it make to speak up? Can’t you just chill. Change the things you can, Accept the things you can’t and have the wisdom to know the difference.

In many ways both these protests might appear to have no significant chance of making an immediate difference (although I think we should not be too quick to jump to conclusions on that front). But people do them anyway because deep down they are driven and motivated to communicate a different vision of the world. They choose to bear witness… no matter how ineffectively, in a context where, you could say ‘the cosmos hates them’.

I think I am drawn to protests… when I think the cause is good …, at least in part, because I believe that witness has priority over effectiveness – that’s why the protest must be non-violent protest. Protest is witness not war. I know its a false alternative – witness vs effectiveness. You can have both! But I think if you put effectiveness first, at least in a certain sense, you will probably end up with war (something to think about anyway).

The disciples of Jesus couldn’t imagine what effectiveness might mean in the context of the Roman empire. They saw a world driven by principles and spiritual forces quite different from those they knew in Jesus of Nazareth and the command he received from his Father. In his day you could say it was a cosmos whose principles focussed around military force and power – the power of Rome. Against this background they said even if we can’t change the world we will still bear witness.

In our day the cosmos that hates us is one driven by profit and money in a way that we as consumers are separated from those who produce and from the world being destroyed by our production – the power of capitalism. We too know principles and spiritual forces which hate the way of Jesus and make it very hard to ‘love one another’.

At this point (before I finish) I think I need to ward off potential misunderstanding of this idea of ‘the cosmos hating us’. With out getting too deep into cosmology – the question of what the cosmos actually is, I want to say I think its complicated. But in spite of the enormous differences between the cosmology of the time of the bible and today, there are nevertheless parallels that are worth reflecting on. And one of them is this sense of the interconnectedness of social and spiritual realities – in biblical terms there are principalities AND powers. In spite of the difference we can still appreciate how the cosmos that hates us is complex and multi-dimensional.

Second clarification: To say the cosmos hates us is not to say the world is all bad – this idea of created but fallen – allows that there is much good in the world. But when like Jesus you look at bigger picture that we often don’t notice – background radiation (so to speak) we see, at a deep level, conflict. It’s still Jesus against the cosmos. There is something in the “settings” of human life in this world, a dynamic in human society, that goes against the grain of God’s good creation… something that hates disciples of Jesus. And that, I think is the point of this passage.

In conclusion: “Loving one another” is the command. And it’s also a struggle. It’s is a practical matter, not sentimental love, when we become aware of the ways the cosmos hates us in the 21st century. I’m guess you can remember what it was like as children growing up with food on your plate that you didn’t want to eat. So you know, it’s hard to love the third world. The system makes it hard. And when we use the word ‘system’ I think we are recognising what Jesus knew. It’s hard to love those living in our own streets whose poverty and mental illness is really a symptom of a cosmos that hates them and us. If we are Christian, we are with the poor… not just in our personal friendship, but with the poor in solidarity, the solidarity of being hated by the cosmos.

We may be able to improve the system… but it will probably be an uphill battle. Jesus concludes “When the advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify concerning me; And you too must testify…” . The only thing I would add (if I might add to the words of Jesus) is that in the context of a cosmos that hates him and us … testify will often look like protest. It may well bring about change… but first of all it means to testify – testify to a new cosmos, a new world a new way of being together.

 

Location, location, location

July 8, 2018

Acts 11: 1-18    2 Corinthians 4: 1-11

I want to pick up the theme of missional church from where Susan left off two weeks ago. “Missional church” sounds like theologian’s jargon… that’s because it is. So let’s start with some definition groundwork. Missional church isn’t a building… a building you go to. It isn’t the people … the people who go to church.  Missional Church is something God is doing… It’s work. God’s work. Last week we baptised Emily not into a building, not into some people, but into God’s work.

The idea of missional church is the idea that God is gathering a bunch of people together for the sake of the world and for the sake of a new world. To be more specific. Jesus is gathering a bunch of misfits together … for the sake of the new world that God is creating. Missional church is not a particular kind of church. It’s much more important than that. It is what Jesus is doing in the world…

Now that we’ve got that out of the way…

I want to take you all back to two weeks ago when Susan preached. She took us in our imagination into Auschwitz where people were being hung as an ‘example’ and the inmates are standing forced to watch. And one man asked ‘Where is God in this?’ And Susan reminded us that if anyone can respond to this question it should be Christians. After all we have a God is is on the gallows. We have a God who suffers with us. Susan suggested that God is with us on the gallows… hanging… The God we have encountered is suspended by nails.

She also suggested that if we are going to hear this cry of suffering and desperation (where in this hell! is God) without sinking into hopeless cynical despair, if we are not to lose faith, we don’t just need a God who suffers, who empathises, we also need to have a God who can do something about it. What we need is a God who is doing something about all the Auschwitzes and and the lynchings and all the land wars so on. Those who suffer also know that just because someone else (even if that someone is God) is suffering doesn’t necessarily help. We will not be saved by empathy alone.

When we hear that story of the man at Auschwitz asking the question from the crowd, if you’re like me, you can immediately imagine yourself in the shoes of that man in the crowd.

When God suffers (on the cross) God puts us in another set of shoes. He sucks us out of the shoes of the man in the crowd and he puts us in the shoes of the prison guard. Have you ever imagined what it would be like to be the prison guard, or even the officer in that camp?

We can barely imagine it. We like to think we would be the courageous ones who would stand up to the forces of evil that was swirling around among our families and friends and society. We like to think we would be different. But statistically the odds are really against it. Most people just don’t have that kind of courage. Most people are too busy doing their job. Jesus closest friends didn’t have that kind of courage either.

Everybody ultimately colluded in the crucifixion of Jesus. He was alone.

What that means is that we have to put ourselves in the shoes of the prison guards, just a little. For God does not just suffer in our world, God suffers the world. [Slide 2]

Let’s put that in a big context. God has spent millions, even billions of years creating this enormously complex world through evolutionary process.  Establishing creatures with enormous and beautiful brains, creatures hard wired with the infrastructure for love, and community. And yet in its fragility (and I would argue this fragility is an unavoidable cost of the beauty of creation itself) in its fragility God now has a community which rather than delighting in love, it is trapped in patterns of violence and scapegoating. This God does not merely suffer in the world. God suffers the world. And we are part of that world. And by doing that God turns the spotlight on the world. God opens our world up to be seen as if from outside, as if for the first time. The world of violence has been exposed. Ultimately it’s going to die of exposure. God is not merely empathising. God is doing something about this world.

God hangs with the poor… and turns the spotlight on the rich, the powerful and the system itself. Paul says that God has chosen the weak of this world… why? To shame the strong. God wants to do some shaming. Mary sings of a God who ‘has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.

Every world has its victims. The Romans found their conquered peoples to enslave, and then they found Christians to feed to lions. The Christians found their Jews and their Muslims and their witches and their gays. The Americans found their Blacks. The Nazi’s found their Jews. The British found their Maori and their Aboriginal. The Maori had their own slaves. The poor will always be with us … this side of final redemption.

But God has a way of shining a light in darkness that refuses to admit it is darkness. God has a light which breaks open the darkness so its never the same again… the darkness that wants to think it isn’t darkness now has a light shone on it.

Imagine that Auschwitz is the modern world in miniature. Today the people on gallows and crosses live in the third world or social housing complexes. They are the ones being excluded.

Surely it’s not that bad I hear you say. We don’t live in a twilight where all cats are grey. I can’t really be comparing our world to Auschwitz. Sure. It’s not the same. You’re right. Things are more subtle these days. We keep the poor out of sight. We separate ourselves from them in the way the market separates the producers from consumers. We are a much more sophisticated form of Auschwitz nowadays. We crucify more slowly these day. There are real differences.

But those who have seen the light of God in the crucified Jesus, also know that God is shining the same light into the system we live in. The same kind of system needs to be exposed. God is gathering a bunch of misfits. To find their place with other misfits, those being crucified slowly. God is gathering them to shine a light in the darkness. Those who have seen this light… and it has shone right into the depths (and maybe it takes a life time to shine into the depths of our existence) and they are becoming a people who no longer need scapegoats. But instead are prepared to abandon their security to find their life with the poor, with the excluded ones. … following Jesus to a contemporary kind of cross.

Missional church, God’s work, is to recreate the world. But not from the top down… from the bottom up. It’s throughout the gospels and the NT. For our sake he became POOR (nowhere to lay his head). He preached as gospel for the POOR( “good news” for the poor) about a kingdom inhabited by the POOR (“blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom”). He lived with the excluded and marginalised. He trained his disciples to be defined by their relation to the POOR (sheep or goat?)

So… we have located ‘missional church’. God’s work in the world. God’s spanner in the machinery of violence.

Where is God… among the poor and excluded? What is God doing there? Gathering missional church, drawing them towards the fringes, to be misfits among misfits.

What does the light say? The light that shines from the cross through the resurrection says that God is different (that’s what the word holy means, different). God has a different way of being together. A light that begins to shine when people begin to realise that they are as much a part of the problem, not just the innocent victims. It begins to shine when people realise that they fit in too well in the darkness. And need to become misfits for the sake of God’s life, God’s kingdom among those who don’t fit.

“For it is God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”

“Arise, shine for your light has come.”

 

A Prayer for Closet Christians

May 20, 2018

Matthew 6: 5-8, Luke 11:1-4

Ever been in a group prayer situation. You are sitting in a circle in a room and people are praying and you are all listening to each other pray. And you are sitting there thinking. Wow she prayed so well, such sincerity. Shall I pray next or shall I leave it till the end. Can I think of something good to pray? No I shouldn’t do that. That would be false. …Help! the silence has been a bit long. If I leave my prayer till last perhaps I won’t be able to think of anything… better jump in. Oh no too late. He’s praying now. Oh no… this is so cringey… such a cliché. Oops now I’m being judgmental.

Ever been there?

We have been trained to think that group prayer is a good idea. But I really wonder about that. I suspect that for most of us, most of the time, there is a kind of inverse relationship between our ability to attend to God and the number of people attending to our prayer. The more people gathered to pray (out loud that is)… the harder it is to attend to God. Prayer as public performance is problematic. Jesus says:

And when you pray, do not be like those who are playacting; … but when you pray, enter into your private room, and having closed your door, pray to your Father who is in secret.

Jesus warns us about public prayer.

Self-consciousness … really means conscious of our self before others, in the eyes of others. To some extent all of us are self-conscious. This is why group prayer and public prayer can be so difficult… To be asked to lead public prayer is to be called more an act of serving the prayer of others than actually praying yourself (in public). I think this is why those who lead prayers in church services need to prepare themselves to do so. In our congregation most write notes in advance. And don’t even pretend to be spontaneous.

So, if leading public prayer is a dangerous exception, not really praying, how should we pray? You’ve probably heard many answers over the years. What advice would you give to a new Christian who didn’t know how to pray and was asking you how to go about it?

[discuss]

The thing is… Jesus disciples asked him exactly that question. They assumed there was a way to pray correctly. And he answered them by giving them a template

In Luke’s Gospel the disciples have been watching Jesus praying. It’s part of their apprenticeship in the Kingdom of God. They want to learn Jesus way of doing it. So they ask ‘Teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples’.

Jesus didn’t give the modern response… He didn’t say. Actually there’s no right way to pray. Just pray whatever you feel like. Treat God like a friend wanting a chat… a kind of invisible friend. Instead he gives them a template… a map of the territory of prayer, a method even. “When you pray, pray like this…

So my radical suggestion is! Why don’t we do what he says!

This morning I want to teach a model which kinds of makes the Lord’s prayer portable … in a simple diagram… a hexagon (stolen from 3DM – imagine each theme written on different sides of a hexagon.)

 

Side 1 – God’s character

Our Father in Heaven… Holy. Jesus had a unique theology. He lived his life completely enthralled to a vision of God, an understanding of God, a sense and feeling about God which is captured in this prayer.

Prayer begins in silent attention, attention and appreciation of God in God’s presence. We begin prayer with God’s name … not as a kind of routine… but because we remind ourselves of two essential core aspects of God’s character and identity. Firstly, holy. The word holy means ‘different’ or ‘other’. It is a way of saying that God our creator is unimaginably different from all that we know, from everything else in creation. Heaven similarly. God is not a big more powerful version of human beings. God is ‘other’. But its not just ‘otherness’. The one in heaven is called Father/Abba. But the word ‘Abba’, so central to Jesus’ relationship to God captures the sense that God is intimately with us as well. (Not Daddy, bad translation, not childish term, but intimate) As St Augustine put it, ‘closer to us than we are to ourselves’. So when we put Abba with Heaven we a placing that closeness alongside the otherness. Unimagineably different but unimaginably close. Prayer for Jesus begins with a sense that the One who gives all things to all people, is one who binds him or herself intimately to us.

Side 2 – God’s kingdom

The very next phrase comes directly from Jesus’ Gospel (his preaching). The kingdom of God is among you, at hand. God who is intimately close, is also active in life and history. God has a purpose. God has a will to be done. God has a social order to be established in our lives. We are caught up in something bigger than ourselves… and it is the work and will of God. And our prayer is all about our yearning for that and our desire to be part of that. Jesus prayer is still a big picture prayer. We need to pray in that context before we move on to our individual situation.

Side 3 – God’s provision

Give us today, our basic food and need for today. Jesus believed that God would provide enough. Do we believe that God will provide? Or are we anxious to store up for ourselves treasures. It’s the basic and profound challenge of life. Jesus’ prayer reminds us to trust God for enough. We live in a society which is ideologically programmed against ‘enough’. This is the prayer for our time – give us enough for today.

Side 4 – God’s forgiveness

Forgive us our debts/our trespasses, as we forgive others… It’s always a key dimension of prayer, because all of us have forgiveness issues. We pray to forgive. We pray to be forgiven. Jesus wants us to bring our difficult relationship issues into all our prayers. So he includes it in the template. Otherwise we will quickly move on. We don’t want to go there. Jesus wants us to keep going there.

Side 5 – God’s guidance

Lead us not into temptation… or more correctly. Lead us not to the time of trial. It’s easy to get sidetracked into the confusing discussion about whether God would actually lead us into a bad place… and forget the real point… It’s in the word ‘lead’. As disciples of Jesus we need to be led. The way of the cross is not an obvious one. Lots of people find another way. Jesus calls it the broad way. We need to be led away from this ‘temptation’ towards a road less travelled, a narrow way. Every prayer for disciples of Jesus needs to remember our need for guidance, guidance which is often counter-intuitive.

Side 6 – God’s deliverance

Deliver us from evil. I think this might be even more relevant to our time than trusting God for enough. We are in bondage. Not only is God’s kingdom bigger than us, the bondage of evil is bigger than us. Think about addiction, think about consumerism, think about distractionism and social media. Think about capitalism. Think about The Satan. The one the New Testament calls The Accuser. Think about how accusation makes the world go round. Just when we think we understand these forms of bondage we discover they are more complex, more spiritual than we previously realised. We cannot deliver ourselves from evil. Again and again we find we need to pray to be delivered. Jesus makes this an essential element of the rubric of prayer.

That’s it. The Hexagon (modified from 3DM opposite). It’s a portable, easy to remember, summary of Jesus lesson in prayer.

To pray is to be needy. To stand before God in our need. Not first of all our wants. Jesus outlines four domains of need that we have as disciples. When we pray we stand before God in our need… but we also stand before God with others. We pray for others in our lives. We bring their needs before God.

We don’t come with a shopping list. We come in contemplation. We come in silence. We begin with God’s character and always we qualify our prayer with the mystery of God’s will. Your will be done. Jesus offers us words to pray. But the words are open-ended. All our cries of need are surrounded by an openness, an attentiveness to God, who may show us what we don’t know about where the kingdom lies hidden, about what really is enough, about the relationships that need forgiveness, about the narrow path and about the evil from which we need deliverance.

Intercession and Contemplation come together in Jesus prayer. Listening and Asking cannot be separated.

It’s a powerful way to stand before God in need. I also find it a powerful way to pray for the people I care about in my life… especially when I am out walking. I go around the ‘hexagon’ contemplating each dimension of Jesus prayer in the life of the person I care about. Their sense of God’s character, their place in God’s work in the world, their reliance on God’s provision, their need to forgive and be forgiven, their need for guidance and their deliverance from evil.

This week I want to offer you this prayer anew, this template. I want to invite you to receive this gift of prayer afresh. Take time out to be needy before God. Go for a walk and go around the hexagon in prayer for yourself. And then take another walk and pray around the hexagon for someone you care for.

 

Remember the Poor: Berhampore Community Ministry

April 15, 2018

Galatians 2:1-10 Matthew 25:31-40

Last time I was in Eastbourne I mentioned my work in Berhampore as Community Minister for Island Bay Presbyterian, but I didn’t really go into it. The request was made that I come back again and say a bit more. So here I am. Thanks for your interest. It’s good to be back.

There’s an important verse in Galatians that we just read. It comes in the middle of Paul’s struggle with the Jerusalem Christians. It’s a fascinating story, because in the background is the first big issue for the church – the catholicity of Israel (small c, universal). What does that mean?

There was a strong strand of thought, at least within the prophetic movement within Israel that believed that Israel was a ‘universal’ nation, a nation for the healing of the world by God. They were a nation of priests, through whom God would heal the world.

The big question was: How? By the time of Jesus, as my friend Sameer Yadav puts it, “it was more blueprint than building.” Paul represents the way the call of Israel moves from blueprint to action by the establishment of a community of the kingdom which is a community of all nations. Paul is challenged by the Christians back in Judea, Peter and James, and they meet to discuss. In the end they accept Paul’s vision and vocation but they have one key proviso, “that he remember the poor”. This is not just an incidental postscript. Oh by the way, while you’re at it, don’t forget the poor. It’s more like, Whatever you do, remember the poor! This is their common ground. At the heart of their sense of God’s mission for both Paul and the church of Jerusalem was the priority of the poor.

What you have done, said Jesus, to the least of these in my family, you have done to me. They knew that. It was the common consensus, taken for granted by the church of the first 300 years. That was their revolution in the Greco-Roman world. It was not just compassion. It was a witness, a declaration in the habits and practices of the nature of God and of the world. They worshipped a God who remembered the poor. And they did so as a community of people who were predominantly themselves poor – their own material survival was also touch and go.

And the Roman world saw that different way. They didn’t understand it. They couldn’t go to church and learn about it… because non-Christians were not admitted to Christian worship. But they saw people living together differently and reaching out to others differently. They saw not through words but through the lives of the Christians a vision of a different God and a different world. What Jesus did was he radicalised that Jewish sense of the priority of the poor and he lived out the risky cost of it. And to be a Christian… to be the church… meant learning to share life with the poor. That’s what God does. That’s what Jesus did. That’s the Christian life.

I selected these verses to introduce the Berhampore ministry today, because in a way they are the basis for it. These are the scriptures I had been reading as I reflected on my own calling and ministry … and when I saw that IBPC wanted not just to have a community minister, but to reach out as a whole congregation in a way that called them into relation to ‘the last, the least and the lost’ in their neighbouring suburb, in particular in the tenement flats of Berhampore, it was like a kind of a-ha moment.

I had been working as a normal Presbyterian minister in Dunedin and had increasingly found myself working on the interface between the church and the wider community… but for all sorts of reasons it was becoming a difficult struggle. Powerful members of my congregation simply didn’t share the vision I outlined before. And I was at the point of giving up. So when I saw the job description it was like… too good to be true. My dream job, the thing God had been leading me towards for several years now

And the bonus was that the job was half time. In my journey into becoming a Christian at the time I realised that a key part of it for me is a kind of detoxification from the culture of capitalism, from the love of money. I needed to earn less. As you know ministers are paid too much…. I jumped at an opportunity for half-time work. Why be time-poor when you can work half-time and have a go at managing on less.

“Don’t forget to remember the poor.” At face value that sounds easy. But how? The more seriously you take it the harder it is in practice. It’s certainly not a matter of throwing money at people and problems… it’s very easy for charity to be toxic. How, then? What does good charity look like?

So I came to Berhampore with a lot of questions and a lot of ideas to test out. I came above all else to learn to be a Christian and to learn with the people of IBPC.

I spent the first three or four months in discernment. Looking, praying, walking around, meeting people. The motto, pray before you leap. The parish set me up with a wonderful group of key people to provide a support team and a team for leadership and planning. One of them works at the coal face with the homeless for DCM, one of them is our minister’s wife, my own wife is on the team and fourth has recently returned from several years living in the slums of Manilla in the Philipines as part of Servants. It’s an amazing group of wise woman … and me.

Our key focus early on became the Council Flats nearest to our Congregation, on the south end of Berhampore – Granville Flats, one of the roughest complexes, badly in need of upgrading. So I turned up there for the Council chat session with residents and very quickly got to know folk. The Council was surprisingly welcoming. Quite soon they gave me a key to the Community Room and encouraged me in supporting the Granville Community.

Early on I got to know a guy who was struggling with anxiety issues and he asked if I could help him by driving him to the Supermarket once a week to help overcome particular anxieties. I did this and from this became aware in quite a practical way of the details of poverty. It’s not easy to live on $30, sometimes $20 dollars a week of groceries if you’re medicating your anxiety with $65 worth of smokes a week – zero discretionary income left.

Our team decided that food and relationships would be a focus of what we do – they go together better than love and marriage. So at the beginning of 2017 we started two simultaneous ventures with teams from the congregation. One team of about 5 folk organised and supported a free lunch every Tuesday in the Granville Community Room. Their focus was building friendships with residents. Members of the congregation make soup and quietly stack it in our church freezer (BGI – amazing coincidence)

Another team of five or six are involved with bringing a Fruit and Vege Coop to Berhampore. So Tuesdays are really busy. The folk go over in the morning to St Aidan’s Miramar and pack the Fruit and Veges. I then turn up with a van (borrowed from some parishioners) and pick up the produce for Berhampore. Meanwhile back at Granville flats we set up for lunch. So by about midday there is a bunch of Granville residents and a group of Island Bay Presbyterians having lunch together and other people arriving at the Community Room to pick up their Fruit and Vege orders. Sometimes it is a bit crazy.

The Fruit and Vege Coop provides affordable produce (1/2 price of supermarkets), fresh on the day, which folk can pick up without driving to supermarket. It also provides me with a connection to the other Tenement Flats of Berhampore. I go from Granville Flats to Centennial Flats to Rintoul Flats on the Tuesday, getting to know a wide spectrum of the Community.

That’s Tuesday. On Mondays I use my precious key to open up the Community Room (show poster) put on a cuppa and chat with people in groups or individually. This has opened up enormous pastoral opportunities for me and deepened friendships. Here I hear many stories, often tragic stories. We talk about everything from: why the lift doesn’t work, to robbing banks, to smokes and how to get them, to the book of Revelation.

One of the projects I have started is setting up a fund with donations from the congregation, in order to give out grants so people can buy the e-cigarette/vape apparatus to make a transition away from smoking. Even if they don’t quit, it means less than a quarter of the cost!

If you haven’t realised by now… the key issue for me about charity not becoming toxic is friendship. Not just any friendship. The deeper the friendship, the greater the honesty the more genuine the help can be and the more it is mutual help. Christian charity is first of all an act of witness … witness to the incarnation, God’s love in human flesh. Which is to say it is itself ‘incarnational’. What you must give is yourself. It can’t be done from a comfortable distance.

When we first arrived in Wellington I read an article by Adi Leason (Waihopai 3) who lived with his family in Granville flats in the 1990s. It was fascinating. So we rang him up and went out to visit to ask about Granville. He has since become a good friend. But that evening we talked of our experience. And he listened. And then said. So what you need to do is move in to Granville. My wife said, but what about Beano? (our dog, you can have dogs in council flats) Adi didn’t hesitate. I’ve got a gun. I’ll shoot it.

From that point on Jan and Adi’s relationship has improved (it would have to). But it really highlighted for us the importance of being with people as much as possible… and the problems of the do-gooder white guy coming in from a comfortable life. We don’t qualify to live there and haven’t shifted in. But we have recently brought a small apartment up the road and will shift their early next year.

Several events over the time now have reminded me of the deep suspicion (often justified) of someone like me that can often lie just below the surface. However, thank God, the deeper and overarching experience has been one of growing trust, of seeing community life strengthen. Sometimes I’m a bit like Red in Shawshank Redemption, the guy who can get things. Sometimes I’m the “go to guy” for conflict resolution… like when drug deals go wrong or tempers flare up.

The other thing that has been a highlight of our work in Granville has been working with Kaibosh (food waste people). Another team of 4 congregation members are on a roster to deliver free food every Saturday evening. This is when we see the most number of residents out together.  It is deeply appreciated. And the team get to know more of the residents.

At the end of 2017 we felt as a leadership group that it was important to go deeper rather than spread ourselves thinner… to take seriously that this is spiritual calling not just social service provision.  So we started a process of being intentional as a team in Berhampore about our discipleship. So we use a system called 3DM to disciple one another.

Five of us meet as a group over breakfast on Wednesday morning. It’s a bible study, and it’s not a fellowship group for sharing ideas or feelings – it’s more practical. Each week we discern together what God might have been saying to each one of us and hold each other accountable for what we do in response to that. (check out 3DM online). I feel it’s often the missing link between Sunday worship and mission.

I’m really excited about this process. Not only is it exciting learning with others to pay attention to what God is doing and how God is nudging us along. I also see these team members as leaders who with 3DM will have the skills to disciple others and hopefully continuing the mission of our congregation in Berhampore long after my contract comes to an end.

So that’s the Berhampore Project. I love it and find it full of surprises and learning. But it is not a quick thing. It’s something we are in for the long haul. Because it’s mission and not just social service, it’s costly at a personal level, slow and relational – long haul. We are not dealing with clients, we are dealing with friends. So if you remember please pray for us from across the harbour.

Why is the resurrection a thing of joy? (In a nutshell sermon)

April 15, 2018

It’s quite a personal question. Nathan asked for the nutshell version. So I will try and answer it personally and briefly. Why is the resurrection a thing of joy for me?

I think Nathan is exactly right about that word ‘joy’. For me the resurrection is a deeply sustaining thing. Something I keep coming back to. But it wasn’t always so.

When I was young it wasn’t so much a thing of joy. It was more a kind of proof. If you could give good historical reasons to believe in the stories of the New Testament. Then you could prove that Jesus rose from the dead and somehow put the Christian faith on good standing in the modern world (the mid to late 20th century modern world). So in those days it wasn’t so much about joy as it was about intellectual security. Which I think is a sad thing.

Sad because there is no proof. The whole exercise is fatally flawed… a waste of time. Sad because the whole impact that the resurrection had on the world (the joy at its core which motivates my faith) was lost in this desperate exercise driven by fear.

I wasn’t there for those first resurrection experiences. None of us were there. We don’t have direct access. It’s always indirect. And yet it still gives us joy. It somehow resonates deeply with other experiences.

How so? How does that work?

What I have is a rumour … a strange and entrancing rumour which has come down through history through my family, through the community of the church. A rumour of unbelievably good news. A rumour that can be summed up in one short sentence. God is like Jesus.

Now that needs quite a bit of unpacking really. If I had all day … I should probably unpack the word ‘God’ and I should probably unpack the name ‘Jesus’ and I should probably say a whole lot more about ‘is like’

But perhaps there is enough there in this simple sentence for us to catch a glimpse of the joyful thing. That the universe, not a random collection of movements and atoms, but the universe which has its source in God, that universe has a direction. It has a grain to its movement, and the grain of the universe (and of God’s life) goes through the life of Jesus of Nazareth. God’s life is expressed in the life of Jesus. God is like Jesus. I think that phrase is worth a lifetime of meditation – especially considering the various versions of God floating around.

So I invite you to take a moment to reflect on this sentence and what it might mean to believe it with your whole heart. To let your sense of God be defined by the person of Jesus and how he lived his life. Because that’s what the resurrection says to us.

Self-donation… what a beautiful idea! Jesus of Nazareth gave himself to those abandoned by the world. He gave himself into the jaws of politics and religion. And as he hung naked and nailed he prayed to God, to God he knew as the ‘giver’. “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”

The question is: Did God answer that prayer do you think?

The rumour is … that the answer was a decisive Yes. That the raising of Jesus is God’s answer to that prayer from the cross. The resurrection of Jesus is not just an event that doesn’t fit in the ways of the physical universe as we know it. Much more important than that … it is itself an act of forgiveness by God.

In the resurrection God gives Jesus back (not just gives him back his own life in a new way), but gives him back to us. The ‘self-donation’ of Jesus didn’t end with his death. In the resurrection God gives again Jesus to those who abandoned him and those who killed him. God confirms God’s own life lived out in Jesus life. But again he does so by giving it to them. God gives them a new way forward. Forgives them. So they too can pay it forward, this self-donation. Resurrection comes first to the disciples and then through them to all of us who would join a crowd and take lives from others (whether it be unborn children, slave labourers in asia, people in Afghanistan living in the sights of drones, or just people we don’t like at work). However, we take life from others… all of us too can experience forgiveness.

After all, God is like Jesus. God is with us. God is for us. That same wild spirit that animated Jesus, starts to animate his disciples and those who hear this rumour.

God is like Jesus all the way down. The universe is not just a place where there are many possible ways to live – and you get to chose one. The universe is a place where there is a good way to live… a truly good way to live.

And the rumour, which, once you have heard it deeply, just has to be true, the rumour is that the wild Spirit of the living Jesus will empower you and me to come to live this life of God too, in our work, in our homes, in our living and in our dying.

The rumour is, that death itself has been disempowered. Thanks be to God.