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Acts 2: A snapshot of salvation

October 18, 2020

The passage that we chose to share for reflection today (Acts 2: 40-47) is a kind of iconic passage of scripture… it is famous as a snapshot of the life of the first Christian community.

We’ll read it in a minute

Discussion: Share a favourite memory of church – Highlights?What do you look back to?

Some say the passage we are about to read is idealised or romanticised (rose-tinted) version of the past. But that’s just a way to distance ourselves from the challenge… regardless of its ‘rose-tintedness’… it is a model (for those who believe that Spirit is at work in community)

With the “Nourish” journey we have been forced to ask ourself the question ‘what is church?’ What does it mean to do church in Berhampore? What is it all about? This is one of the key passages for thinking about that question. And even if we have a familiar pattern of doing things… It’s still important to ask that question again and again. Not just in Nourish but also in IBPC

To go back to Ange’s journey of listening to God and being changed. The traditional way of talking about that is to talk about “having your soul saved”. And as it turns out those very words are the frame around our bible reading. So for our first reading I’ll read the ‘frame’ and we will read through the whole passage, one phrase at at a time.

So here we go: first reading (pause between… each phrase. Each phrase captures a world… imagine the practices)

And with many more words he [Peter] testified to them and exhorted them saying: “Be saved from this perverse generation”.

So those who accepted his word were baptised, and that day about three thousand souls were added,

and they devoted themselves steadfastly to the Apostles’ teachings and communal life,

in the breaking of bread

and in prayers.

And reverence came to every soul;

and through the Apostles came many wonders and signs.

And all those who had faith were at the same place

and owned all things communally,

and they sold their properties and possessions and distributed to everyone according as anyone had need.

And from day to day they steadfastly remained in the Temple

in concord of spirit and,

breaking bread in one house after another,

they shared their food

in gladness and simplicity of heart,

praising God

and enjoying the favour of all the people.

And day by day the Lord added those who were being saved to their company.

        Acts 2: 40-47 (The New Testament: A Translation by David Bentley Hart)

Did you hear the frame around the description: ‘be saved from this perverse generation’ [says Peter] and in conclusion ‘the Lord added those who were being saved’

      

“Be saved from this perverse generation”. What is Peter saying? Is he telling them not to have anything to do with a particular group of people… Like as if I were to say to you ‘Isolate yourself from millenials… very bad generation those guys’ That’s not what he’s saying. Firstly, in the story they didn’t isolate themselves from anyone, they hung out in the central public space during the day, in the Temple where everything happened. Secondly, the word generation (geneas in greek) has a similar overtone to ‘generation’ in English. It can refer to a group of people at a particular time. But it also has this idea of something being generated at a particular time (like in energy generation) – in this case a perverse process of generation that is distorting the life they could have. Peter is saying there is something perverse being generated around you. You need to be liberated from this ‘perverse generation’ – not so much the people as the process.

He’s also not saying ‘save yourself … from this perverse generation’. That’s simply poor translation – the word in greek is passive – ‘be saved’. God is doing the saving… and in a secondary sense the community itself is doing the saving it seems to me… (because God is working through them). So something new is being generated among them. A new generation is arising we might even say.

Let’s listen again to what that looks like. Let’s look inside the frame. As we listen, how is the Spirit working between you and this text? What phrase speaks directly to you as you listen? (hold onto that)

Second Reading:

And with many more words he [Peter] testified to them and exhorted them saying: “Be saved from this perverse generation”. So those who accepted his word were baptised, and that day about three thousand souls were added, and they devoted themselves steadfastly to the Apostles’ teachings and communal life, in the breaking of bread and in prayers. And reverence came to every soul; and through the Apostles came many wonders and signs. All those who had faith were at the same place and owned all things communally, and they sold their properties and possessions and distributed to everyone according as anyone had need. And from day to day they steadfastly remained in the Temple in concord of spirit [harmony] and, breaking bread in one house after another, they shared their food in gladness and simplicity of heart, praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people. And day by day the Lord added those who were being saved to their company.

Discussion: Sharing phrases that stand out… (whiteboard)

How does this challenge us as a community who need each other to be saved from a ‘perverse generation’? Are there some principles of life together we could rethink? Some practices we could reinvent?

Jesus vision of life in Community

September 20, 2020

Matthew 18: 15-20

When Cain murdered Abel, he avoided God with the famous words: Am I my brother’s keeper? Why should I know what my brother is up to? The brother has become ‘other’.

I like to think of today’s reading as Jesus response to Cain’s question. Jesus tells us what it might look like to actually be our ‘brother’s (or sister’s) keeper’.

This is such an interesting text! Because I don’t think we usually think of Jesus as a community kind of guy. Paul, sure, we think of as the one who invented the church, who talks about church, the idea of ‘the body of Christ’, members of one another and so on. And often we think of Jesus as dealing with the individual, calling individual disciples. And its true, in the gospels Jesus doesn’t usually use the word for church or congregation (ekklesia’). Jesus is more interested in what God is doing than what the disciples are doing. So he tends to talk about the basileia (the kingdom of God) coming – something surprising, something hidden like a mustard seed, something more like a revolution than an institution.

When human activity, human action becomes patterned and organised and we give it a name as a thing – like a school or a church or a government – we call this an institution. Unlike human action, God’s action is not like that, the kingdom of God is not an institution, we can’t organise it.

The important thing about today’s passage (Matt 18:15-20) is that this is one of the two times Jesus is recorded as using the word ‘ekklesia’ (church). In this passage he turns towards the patterned ‘thingness’ of the life-together he has called his disciples to. This is Jesus’ sibling community. The only two times in all of the gospels that he uses the word for church (ekklesia) are both in Matthew and both when he talks of ‘binding and loosing’. So there’s the conclusion that I hope to expand on today. Let me just put it out there:

Binding and loosing” is the pattern that defines the community of Jesus – this passage functions practically as a definition of church.

That’s a really big claim! So, in case you don’t believe me, let’s dive into the text. It can be divided into two parts.

  1. Firstly the process – instructions on what to do about sin. It begins “if your brother (or sister) sins…’
  2. Secondly the summary of the outcome of the process, and what’s at stake. ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven… and so on.

I’m going to start with the second part about “binding and loosing” cause it seems kind of mysterious and then go back to the beginning and look at the process and Jesus instructions.

‘Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.’ (v.18)

What’s a bit tricky here is that Jesus is playing with two different meanings of ‘binding and loosing’. There’s the obvious meaning in the context – forgiveness. Jesus is instructing them on how to go about forgiving their brothers and sisters in the faith. It’s clear in context, because Peter immediately takes him up on the matter… but if my brother sins, how many times should I forgive (and we know Jesus answer). So binding and loosing is a metaphor for forgiving (or not as the case may be).

But let’s not rush too quickly here. Many Christians believe that only God can forgive sin. That’s certainly what the religious leaders of Jesus’ time believed. Jesus didn’t. He didn’t believe any sacrifice needed to be made to forgive sins. He bypassed the temple and just forgave sins himself. More than that he commanded his disciples to forgive sin. Remember in John’s gospel the risen Jesus says to his disciples ‘if you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven, if you retain the sins of any they are retained’ (Jn 20:23). It’s very similar to today’s reading. Jesus gives his disciples the responsibility of forgiving sins. What’s more, he say, kingdom of heaven will be established on this practice of forgiveness – those sins will be forgiven (or not) in heaven (as on earth). It’s a remarkable mandate to have – loosing people from sin. I’ll say more about it in a minute.

But the words translated ‘binding and loosing’ had another meaning as well in the Jewish practice of Jesus day. When the Rabbis got their heads together to make a judgement about a practical matter they might reach a binding agreement or judgement – such and such a behaviour, they might say is forbidden or it is permitted, it is bound or loosed. It’s not entirely clear how this worked, but it is clear that words ‘binding and loosing’ are not just about forgiving sin, they are also about how the community works out what is right and wrong when complex issues arise (discernment).

And this second sense of binding and loosing is also present in our reading today. Jesus goes on to say, ‘Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.’ The suggestion here is that the moment of forgiveness comes with a moment of agreement about what is right – a moment of discernment. Not, we note, by Rabbis or ministers or priests, but by any two or three members of the community who come together when a problem arises.

So how does this work in practice?… Let’s go back to section one of our passage (Jesus instructions).

“If your brother or sister sins”. The most ancient manuscripts don’t have ‘against you’. You don’t have to even be the victim here. If your brother of sister sins… go and point it out, go and challenge him or her. Jesus assumes that his community will already have done some discernment. They will already have some beliefs about what is right and wrong. Their job is to try and forgive.

The first rule is to talk to them not about them. It’s not a public scapegoating exercise. The goal is to regain the person (“if the brother or sister listens to you you have regained that one”), regain the relationship, strengthen the community. And Jesus says, the way to do that is to begin with the personal face-to-face engagement. You might fail. The other person may walk away. Forgiveness may fail. But it remains the goal of the exercise.

And if you are going to forgive your brother or sister, according to today’s text, you need to also accuse them. You can’t just say, ‘I’ve forgiven that person in my heart’. Forgiveness aims at restoration. The faith that this community shares is a way of life, not just a set of beliefs in the privacy of their hearts. No they are living out ‘the way’ together as a community. And it is a different way of living from those around them. Sin threatens both the relationships between the members of the community AND the witness that the community offers the rest of the world to a different way of life. Sin matters to the whole community. Forgiveness matters to the whole community.

This is a challenging idea… it also raises all sorts of issues, right? It might be dangerous to accuse and confront someone. There might be a power differential here. That is a really important issue, right? Jesus doesn’t go into all of that. You might need support to do the first approach. What I think is the key thing about this process, is that it begins as personally and as privately as possible. And if need be draws on the whole community.

What does this quest to forgive mean for discernment? When you have these conversations, Jesus is suggesting, you can move towards agreement… you can learn together what it means to live the Christian life. It may be that you are the one who’s wrong. Jesus doesn’t spell out that possibility here, but I think it is implied by the concept of binding and loosing. It may be that you do not really understand the nature or context of the action that you thought was a sin. It may be that your brother or sister has something to teach you. So in going and talking to your brother or sister you reach a different kind of agreement than you expected.

Am I my brother of sister’s keeper?

I find this whole model incredibly difficult to imagine. I don’t like conflict. I like my privacy too much. I don’t want to be accountable to my brother or sister, or vice versa.

A couple of weeks ago we were invited to a birthday party, but it clashed with the last 15 minutes of a Nourish service where I was supposed to lead the devotional time. So I messaged Dave about leaving a little early – Dave got back to me with a challenge. He thought that would be the wrong thing to from a leadership perspective. He was willing to hold me accountable and to challenge me. He was right. We will go late to the party.

This simple example highlighted for me the difficulty of Jesus strange vision of an intimate life where we share decisions when it matters, where we bear one another’s burdens, including the burdens of moral decision-making, where we also learn together how to live.

Am I my brother’s keeper? Not in the sense that I take over responsibility for my brother or sister’s life from them. Jesus gives us a vision of community where the proper boundaries between us are drawn differently. They are drawn within the trust of a conversation. In a sense both me and my brother or sister (and whoever else needs to be present) are together responsible for each of our lives and for the common life together of the community. And so we learn together. The alternative to each of us being responsible for our own lives in isolation is being ‘responsible with‘.

Is this realistic? I’m not even sure that’s the right question when we are talking about the work of the Spirit.

This vision, this pattern challenges us to think hard about how we do organise our life. What size are our gatherings? Do we avoid those we disagree with? Do we avoid topics of disagreement? Do we simply go back to the rule book? or leave it up to the minister to make the judgements? Do we prioritise this core business that Jesus describes or do we prioritise instead the ‘spectacle’ that allows us to sit back and observe?

Because if this pattern is Jesus’ vision of community, then this pattern is what it looks like when basileia (kingdom of God) finds form as ekklesia (community). This is what it looks like when two or three are gathered together and Jesus is present.

Te Reo me te Ao: a short reflection for te wiki o te reo māori

September 14, 2020

I tuhituhia te Kawanata Hou i te horopaki o tētahi takaoraora ki te mōrehu i roto i tētahi tātāwhainga ki ngā kaha rangatira …

The New Testament was written in the context of a struggle to survive in a contest with the powers that be, not so much a purely physical struggle to stay alive – although it was that for the slave, ex-slaves, and non-persons who made us the vast majority of the Jesus-loyalists of the first century – as it was a struggle to survive differently. It was a struggle to embody a revaluation of the values of the world ruled by the roman imperial powers.

We struggle to read the New Testament well because our context is so enormously different in several ways. We live in the wake of a long history of alliance with and accomodation to the imperial powers. Our institutions, habits and emotions are soaked in the blood of these empires. Our sin is ‘scarlet’ with the blood of colonial and imperial victims. Mena ehara i te mea, he mama noa iho ake māku ki te whakamāori i ōku whakaaro. Repentance and justice are profoundly complicated and, for the most part, too painful to consider. So we usually lack the courage to even read the New Testament in context, let alone allow it to shape our lives.

I begin to appreciate the profundity of our situation when I learn te reo māori o Aotearoa. Anyone who has taken this journey knows that you cannot learn a language without learning a world. Te Ao Māori saturates the language itself. Similarly our English (and other European) language is saturated with a colonial-imperial world. Moreover also within this world (and usually hidden from our sight) is the language and world of the New Testament and the first Jesus-loyalists. The hidden power of this language – as well as the extent it has been distorted – is largely underestimated. To uncover the New Testament and the Hebrew Scriptures is to drill down into a hidden world within us

We live after a long history of misreading the New Testament driven by our need to make it more comforting (‘pastoral’) for those/us who although we have our own struggles and problems, nevertheless benefit from imperial power.

We also live in a socio-economic situation which means that the risks and discomfort, the anger and desperation of the first Christians lies largely outside our experience.

Today’s brief reflections in the Wiki o Te Reo Māori are a response to a couple of courageous people who have offered me some useful drilling tools. The first is David Bentley Hart’s attempt at a brutally literal translation of the New Testament which seeks to drill beneath the history of ideological and imperial translation practices. The second is Dan Oudshoorn’s trilogy on Paul (Pauline Politics, Pauline Eschatology, Pauline Solidarity) which interprets Paul and the ‘pauline faction’ from a perspective shaped by Dan’s life among the marginalised on the streets of Vancouver.

I’m also grateful to Turei Ormsby, Mikaere Paaka and Whaea Carms for their attempts to baptise me in the waters of Te Ao Maori.

Āku mihi e rere atu ki a koutou mō to koutou mahi. Tīhei mauriora.

Sermon at IBPC: The Redemption of Joseph’s Brothers

August 16, 2020

Genesis 45:1-15

 

Don’t you love these stories from the book of Genesis? I am increasingly of the opinion that the book of Genesis is one of the most profound pieces of literature in the ancient world, if not all time. We’ve had a great series of sermons eh!

 

Rabbi Jonathan Sachs says that the reason Judaism, Christianity and Islam fight so much is that they are sibling faiths – we all have the same ancestry in Abraham. Sachs say that what we need to do is look more closely at Genesis because Genesis is all about sibling rivalry

– an incredibly complex exploration of the challenges of living together as whānau, as brothers and sisters. Exodus is about the beginning of a Nation. Genesis is all about family. And the unspoken message when you put the two together is that it’s only when we learn to live together as families that we will be able to live together as a nation.

There’s a whole series of stories about siblings in rivalry. Cain and Abel set the scene. Abel is dead. But even as a murderer God has a place for Cain and puts a mark on him, not to stigmatize him but as a sign of divine protection so he gets no further punishment. The earth we are told fills with violence. But in each of the stories of sibling rivalry there is reconciliation. Isaac and Ishmael are together again at their father Abraham’s funeral. Each has a place in the world. Jacob and Esau are reconciled in that amazing story Nathan told us last week. In each story God holds a place for the other one the one who feels rejected or has been tricked of his inheritance or whatever. And then there’s the story of Jacob’s sibling wives, Leah and Rachel.

 

It’s kind of hilarious. We’ve just read of all the problems that arose because of his sibling rivalry with Esau (his Father’s preferred son) and suddenly we read Jacob loved Rachel and not Leah. He had a favourite wife. You would have thought he would have learnt a lesson.

 

But the truth is we don’t love people equally do we. Perhaps as human beings we aren’t able to have that abstract sort of love. In the real world we fall in love, we don’t choose our love (even if our marriage partners are chosen for us by others). In the real world we love particular things about particular people. People are not the same and our affections are not equal. Polygamy is a minefield. There will always be issues. Loving our children is risky. And so Jacob ends up loving Rachel’s children more than Leah’s children.

 

The writers of the Hebrew bible understood this problem… and they very cleverly draw our attention to Leah’s plight. The story powerfully describes her pain as the one less loved. I don’t know about you, but I grew up learning to read these stories as if they were about an inscrutable God selecting some and rejecting others, the saved and the lost. But that’s not what the stories are about. They’re not an exercise is reporting on some kind of cosmic selective determinism. All the characters have a place. Some have a particular role. But the stories teach us to care for them all. Because God does. God has a place for Leah and Ishmael and Esau and Cain.

So when Leah’s sons are out tending their flocks and the favourite son of Rachel (his favourite wife) turns up we immediately sympathise with the other sons’ feelings. We know why they are angry about him telling tales, his fancy clothes, and his dreams of superiority. And it looks (at this point) as if we are in for another Cain and Abel story. The more Jacob loves Joseph, the more they hate him. Tension builds.

 

And when he is “at a distance” … far enough away that they don’t have to face up to him, far enough that they can treat him like a stranger they plan his death.

 

Once the murder is planned, Judah, one of the brothers says, “hey, why don’t we just sell him into slavery” – which they do. Then they go home and invent a lie for their father, Jacob.

 

Meanwhile Joseph a slave in Egypt starts to have some happy turns of fortune. The dreamer becomes the interpreter of dreams and upon gaining the ear of the Pharaoh he is promoted to govern the whole Egyptian economy in a time of drought. And when drought hits the land of Israel… the family of Jacob are forced go to Egypt, to the powerful for help. To bow down before the ruler of Egypt to get food.

 

At this point the story looks set to conclude. The dreams are coming true. Comeuppance is achieved. But it doesn’t happen. Instead the story gets more interesting.

 

The Bible is not primarily interested in prophecies coming true… like the fatalism of Greek oracles. The Hebrew Bible is interested in people becoming people, in God’s people-making project, in what it takes to live together… rather than winners and losers.

 

So when the brothers arrive. Joseph pretends not to know them. He is the perfectly disguised already as a ruler in Egypt. He sets an elaborate plot to test his brothers. He accuses them of being spies. He frightens them. He demands proof of identity. He sends them back home telling them to bring their youngest brother as proof and holds onto another brother as surety. It’s a bit weird, they are confused. But they do as he says.

 

On the way back to get their brother they discover that he has returned their silver, their payment, in the sacks with the grain they had purchased. They are freaking out – what the freaking camel stools is happening?

 

They go back to poor old Jacob – two sons down now and another wanted. He only agrees to let little Benjamin go when Judah (the one who came up with the slavery idea years ago) promises to personally stand as guarantee of Benjamin’s safe return.

 

So they all traipse back to Egypt. But when they get there, suddenly things have changed again. A feast is set for them, the brother they left as insurance is set free. They eat and leave with grain in some relief.

 

Only to get down the road a bit when an Egyptian soldier rides up behind them and accuses them of stealing a royal goblet. They deny it but discover that the strange Egyptian ruler has secretly put the goblet in Benjamin’s sack. They return in extreme embarrassment and surrender declaring themselves slaves. But the strange ruler has another idea. Only the one who supposedly stole the goblet, Benjamin, the one with it in his sack must stay as slave.

 

Enter Judah, who originally, suggested enslaving Joseph, who swore on his own life to his Father that he would bring Joseph back, Judah, in an impassioned speech concludes, let me ‘be your slave and let the child go free’ (44:33)

Now the story is complete. Now Joseph unveils himself and his true identity.

 

But why all this long drawn out process? Is it a kind of revenge on Joseph’s part? No. Each time the brother’s come to Egypt we read that Joseph weeps. He has already forgiven them; he has a deep reason for his action. What is it?

 

Jonathan Sachs says it’s all about role reversal. I quote:

 

“They suspected him of ambition. Now they learn what it is to be under suspicion [themselves]. They planned to sell him as a slave. Now they know what it feels like to face enslavement. They made Jacob go through the grief of losing a son. Now they must witness that grief again, this time through no fault of their own. Above all, they treated their brother as a stranger. Now they must learn that the stranger… [the] ruler of Egypt is actually their brother.”

 

It’s like a reverse re-enactment of what happened so many years ago. Joseph is seeking true repentance. In Hebrew tradition repentance is not just feeling sorry, not just resolving to act differently, it is the internal transformation that means when you are put in the same situation again you act differently.

 

The detail of Joseph’s planning is amazing! They must purchase their freedom by leaving one of the brothers as a slave. It can’t be any brother; it has to be a favourite of their father’s – the other son of the favourite wife. Originally the brothers were provoked by physical signs of favouritism (the coat of many colours). Now at the feast Joseph makes sure that Benjamin’s portion is five times as large as the others (re-enacting favouritism). And the final detail… it is Judah, the one who proposed selling Joseph into slavery, who proves the repentance. He is willing to be enslaved himself rather than leave his brother.

 

Joseph is giving his brothers a moral education in otherness. They need to know what evil feels like from the other side. They get to experience what he experienced years ago, not because Joseph wants revenge, but in order for them to be redeemed, saved, born again. Joseph may be saving the physical lives of his family. But the point of the story is how he is saving their spiritual lives. At the beginning of the sibling stories Cain asks: Am I my brother’s keeper? He could not feel Abel’s pain, so he was able to kill him. At the end of the stories Judah’s repentance demonstrates the opposite. He is his brother Benjamin’s keeper?

 

Sachs says:

“Eventually Joseph forced them to recognise that just as a brother can be a stranger (when kept ‘at a distance’), so a stranger can turn out to be a brother.”

 

The beauty of this final story is that we learn that the whānau of God is built not merely on a declaration of forgiveness (if that were so the story would have ended earlier). Not even on a declaration of repentance. It is built on the creation of character. God’s redemption, like the redemption of Joseph and his brothers, is never about “happily ever after when you die.” It’s about a people born again in moral character. We see it when victims (like Joseph was) refuse to harbour resentment, refuse to build an identity of victim-hood. In Joseph’s words: “You may have intended to harm me, but God intended it for good…” [what an amazing statement of letting go]. It’s about the victimisers (like Joseph’s brothers) being born again by entering deeply into the other’s situation, walking in their shoes as their brother or sister’s keeper.

 

As I reflected on this story… it struck me that this drama of role reversal repentance helps us understand something of a key aspect of Christian faith. Why does God prioritise the poor in this world? Why does the gospel tell us that the kingdom of God belongs to the poor? Why does the church belong with the poor, in solidarity with victims and those who are oppressed? It belongs there because we need to learn repentance. It’s about those who benefit from the way the world is set up learning to walk in the shoes of those who suffer most from it. To be my brother or sister’s keeper is not about doing something for them … it’s about being with them, walking in their shoes…  in a way that always sees them face-to-face, not from a distance, but as members of my own whānau.

That’s the first thing I learnt from this story. Our mission is part of our repentance.

Then it occurred to me (it’s the great thing about reading scripture, it keeps surprising) Jesus is not just Joseph the forgiver – praying from his cross ‘Father forgive them for they know not what they do’, and in his resurrection embracing us with the Father’s answer. Jesus is also Joseph’s brothers… Baptised in the waters of repentance he lived his life with the last the least and lost, learning repentance, not necessarily for his own sins but for the sins of the world that creates these victims.

 

Jesus the forgiver, is also Jesus the repenter… and he draws us into this journey of repentance and redemption (the journey of Joseph’s brothers). Sometimes it might feel like we’re drawn kicking and screaming, but God has a journey for each of us to walk in the shoes of those we most want to distance ourselves from. So that in the end we can stand face to face with them. If God has God’s way (and God will) we will be born again. If God has God’s way we will become the whānau of God.

 

In the words of Psalm 133 “How good and pleasant it is when siblings live together in unity.”

Public Prayer

April 28, 2020

“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. The your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will will reward you.

And when you pray do not keep on babbling like pagans for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”

Matthew 6:5-9

 

Lectio365 reads this as advice to keep it simple and be yourself. But there is not a simple self free from others. The self is always a product of others. The problem with public prayer is not it’s complexity. Not even just its performance-as-untruth, although this a result. Rather than ‘being yourself’, it is better to think of being the person you are being redeemed to be in the present. In prayer the future matters more than the past and the present. Your present identity is a product of your past human community and of God’s action in and through this. But it is particularly problematised in the context of a public performance. Public performance is a place of vulnerability which causes us to defend ourselves and in this way join in the struggle of those who live under the dominion of death. In public our prayer becomes competitive and rivalrous for we are weaker then the present social forces. To pray well we need to be sheltered by the peace of God and by the peace of our future – God’s redemptive future. In prayer we are sheltered to become what God is creating us to be. We find shelter there from both our past and our present struggles. Pagans are described as those who need to babble for God to hear them. Jesus is thus characterising paganism as a kind of rivalry in an exchange-relation with God. God needs to be persuaded by our offering of babble. For Jesus there is no utilitarian calculus in our relation to God. Prayer is communion in the context of love.

Perhaps this is the deeper meaning of ‘being yourself’ – not finding some simple inner identity, but finding some shelter from sin and death to be more Christlike with and in the midst of all the brokenness and beauty that is your past and your present reality.

Ten Words waiting for an Apocalypse

March 31, 2020

This morning a friend rang to ask me to take him to the Emergency Department in my car. He had an infection in his foot. Everything in me wanted to say yes, but I refused… because corona. Also I knew he could catch a bus or ring an ambulance. He was upset. He hung up on me. I am still spinning.

Following that conversation the passage on my morning prayer app was from the book of Joshua. “Be strong and very courageous. Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you.” I didn’t feel strong and courageous. I wasn’t sure whether my response had been the strong one or the weak one. I had been busy obeying the laws that God’s servant Jacinda had given me but feeling quite conflicted and very conscious of the problem of law-keeping. The text caused me to pause and remember the ten ancient words used to summarise what for them was a divine social experiment.

“Thou shalt not kill” sprang immediately to mind. It’s astonishing that even though thousands of unborn children are killed regularly, we still find ourselves in an uprising against killing. Even though billions are spent on military technology and training in killing we now find ourselves in solidarity across the world in an uprising against killing. It’s surprising what we will do to avoid killing others at the moment.

“Honour your Father and your Mother.” It’s astonishing that in spite of a cult of youth we now find ourselves in an uprising on behalf of the elderly and the fragile.

“Thou shalt not covet”. It’s astonishing that at a time when covetousness has become the official virtue we now find ourselves deliberately crashing our international economic system (our liturgies of desire-construction) to save lives.

“Thou shalt not bear false witness” It’s astonishing that in a world of climate denial and fake news we are rediscovering our faith in scientific method and information sharing.

“Thou shalt not commit adultery”. I am fascinated by the revival of the language of faithfulness in New Zealand. “Stay faithful to your bubble” says sister Jacinda.

“Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy.” Yeah, I know. It’s hard not to see the current crisis as a kind of sabbath of sabbaths – a Jubilee. We have all been thrown into a compulsory rest from our constant frenzied destruction of the earth. The land is beginning to breathe again and the sky is clearing.

Who knows, with the introduction of UBI we may see a downturn in stealing? The name of God may regain some credibility once the idols are thrown down. Who knows?

Does this sound like some kind of utopian rambling?

It’s really just a series of observations and speculations. I’m not holding my breath.

In fact my plan is to breathe… a little more slowly. And wait for the apocalypse. The word ‘apocalypse’ is Greek for ‘unveiling’.

By the way, do you think I should have taken my friend to the hospital?

The Gospel of God’s Social Experiment

March 22, 2020

Psalm 23, 1 Sam 16: 1-13

A week ago I wrote a nice sermon in response to our two readings for today. What a difference a week can make eh!

A week ago I thought about the second part of Psalm 23. When the lone shepherd and sheep are forgotten and suddenly we find ourselves at a table ‘in the presence of our enemies’

I imagined what it might mean for us not to imagine that our enemies are on the sidelines looking on enviously while we are feasting. I tried to imagine that my enemies are present at the feast sitting around the table. And that rather than leaning away, avoiding eye-contact, I am sharing the table and the food… with the people I would probably not be talking to if it were one of those wandering pot-luck teas. It’s difficult to think about leaning in when we are trying to keep 2m distance. Perhaps we need to imagine leaning in imaginatively, emotionally, creatively.

Then I tried to imagine a table where “My cup runneth over”. Could be messy. Where rather than being in competition for scarce resources, we sharing what’s on the table. A table where there is enough for all – abundance. Where the toilet paper and the basic supplies at the supermarket don’t run out, because in our imagination the competition are not really competition but at table with us.

I called this imagination God’s social experiment.

Psalms are interesting, tricky even. In some places the psalmist imagines revenge and the babies of his enemies being bashed against rocks… and in other places he imagines the enemies at table … a place where goodness and mercy will follow.

I noticed at the end that the Psalmist makes a vow. I shall dwell in the house of the Lord (the table is located in a household) my whole life long. When Nathan welcomes us to church with “Nau mai, haere mai. Welcome to the house of God” I usually think of this building. But what if he is imagining a way of gathering together, a mode of sharing, rather than the physical building we are in? God’s social experiment – the house of God.

Not a house that we have built for God (like this building) but instead a house that God is building in our living.?

The old translations had ‘I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever’ but in Hebrew it’s literally ‘length of days’. The house of the Lord starts now, says David, and defines the rest of his life.

David make this vow: I will live in this social experiment of God my whole life long! That’s some vow!

Then I turned to our other OT reading which is deeply connected to another social experiment. Perhaps the most controversial social experiment in the history of Israel – the monarchy. Not God’s social experiment, but Israel’s social experiment.

It started at a time (1 Kings 8) when the leaders of Israel’s tribes come to Samuel the Seer and ask him to give them a king. They want a king like the other nations around them. God says. No way! Bad. Idea. First God says to Samuel… Don’t take it personally! The people are not rejecting you and your leadership. What they are actually doing with this monarchy idea is rejecting me.

He tells Samuel to warn them. If you have a king you will will also have an army. The king will take your sons and make them his charioteers and horsemen and then he will enslave your people to his service. Monarchy says God will mean violence and heirarchy. Don’t go there! The people look at Samuel and say ‘Cool!… But we still want a king. So God gives in. God gives them a King (Saul). Saul turns out to be a bad king.

And the thing about today’s story – the selection of a new king – is that it gives cute hints at how God is going to make the best of a bad situation?

Samuel the Seer (the Hebrew word literally means one who sees) goes to visit Jesse, a man with many sons, to select a new king. He starts with the oldest son, tall, powerful. He looks at this guy. And it is his sight that lets him down. He immediately thinks this is tall powerful one is God’s choice. God says no. Don’t look at his appearance and his physical impressiveness! God looks at the heart. It’s deeply ironical. The one who sees, sees wrongly.

So Samuel the Seer who no longer knows how to see inspects each of the sons. And as he does so God who knows the heart speaks in Samuels ear and finally they get to the last son, the forgotten one, doing the dirty work out in the fields looking after the sheep. And he comes in and, interestingly his outward appearance is good. He is not tall like his oldest brother. Not a symbol of power and strength like Saul was. But he is described as ruddy and good-looking with beautiful eyes. And God chooses the pretty boy over the powerful one. Beauty over brawn. Wierd?

It’s like in this story, although the system (in this case the monarchy) may be perverted, God is working within it to make a subversive selection. To choose a king who doesn’t really fit the system.

That was a week ago… since then I have been asking myself what is God saying to us through these passages in the time of Covid-19?

The gospel says God is acting in history, doing something good in the midst of all our disasters. God’s kingdom is coming among us on earth as in heaven. First of all to the poor. It’s a kingdom without an army, without a strong and imposing leader. It looks nothing like the nations of the earth. And yet subverting the nations of the earth.

The gospel tells us that God has a household. It’s a household which has no scarcity because it is a best imagined as what happens around a table of reconciliation in the presence of enemies. The house of God is a household of shared resources. For each according to their need, from each according to their ability – according to the different gifts and resources of each member.

The gospel is that God has a mission to the world. And because God has a mission to the world, so do we. That is why church exists. Because we, like David, vow to live in the household of God and to subvert the violence of the nations of the earth.

What is God saying to us about this in Covid-19. Two things.

There are two words that have been in my head this week. The first one is in danger of creating more heat than light… but I’ll put it out there anyway. The word is socialism. What do I mean by that. Building a common life around care rather than competition. Abandoning our adoration of mammon and economic growth in favour of protecting the weakest members and organising ourselves for the good of all members. We start to act like a body, think like a body, hope like a body. We give up things for the sake of others, we circle the wagons around those who are most vulnerable. We are not our own. We belong to a God who gives, and so we learn new habits. And surprise, surprise the air above us begins to clear and be less polluted. Maybe there is enough creation for all.

The second word is time-out, we have been given the gift of time, time-out. We may have to relearn how to use that time to connect with people, but we have been given the gift of prayer. A time-poor people have the gift of time with God. If they grasp this time maybe they will renew their time with one another.

Is this our time to reset our lives around God’s social experiment?

Judgement and the People of God  

January 19, 2020

Isaiah 49:1-7    1 Corinthians 5

Welcome to my hellfire and brimstone sermon. Who saw the blood-orange moon in the sky on the first day of 2020? … it turned out to be the Sun. I think I was quite shocked to see this visible sign of Australia burning.

A picture circulated the internet of an Aboriginal flag with a large red sun that looks exactly like one of the pictures of the fire. Thanks to the intercessory power of Facebook we offered our prayers for those whose houses were burnt down and those who died. We tried not to think any more than that about it. Sometimes it just feels like too much… to reflect on the bigger picture

On the third day of the year Facebook announced to us that World War III had been declared…

It may or may not be WWIII. But when you think about it the same powers of colonisation and capital… the same powers of white supremacy that ripped life from the Aboriginal people of Australia, the same powers that mine the coal out of Australia and release it into the atmosphere, are rattling their sabres again and more. They want another war.

As I was preparing this sermon my morning liturgy from the Anglican Prayer Book began with these extracts from the New Testament in English and Maori

Save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil.

              Aua hoki mātou e kawea kia whakawaia

              engari whakaorangia mātou i te kino

The time has come for the judgment to begin;

It is beginning with God’s own household

 

The blood-orange sun felt to me like a sign… not a sign that God was making war on us or Australia… but a sign that the powers that drive the culture of our world have reached a tipping point and are beginning to destroy us. Perhaps the only way to be saved “from the time of trial” is to come out the other side a changed people. Perhaps we only see the truth about ourselves as we are taken to the edge of extremity and disaster.

 

The cry for deliverance from the time of trial is followed, in the Prayer Book, by the response (a quote from 1st Peter): The time has come for the judgement to begin; it is beginning (where?) with the household of God.

 

[What do you think that means? – discuss]

 

We often think that the evil we need to be delivered from is something outside of us … perhaps we think of the powers that be… the powers that commit genocide on indigenous people, the powers that rape the planet, that generate what amounts to an epidemic of mental health disorders… external evils… And yet as this last example reminds us the powers that are outside and run amok in our society are also powers within us. These same demons, these external powers, possess us and live within us, in our hopes and fears and habits. The devil without (the speck in our neighbours eye) has its parallel in the devil within (the log in our own eyes)

 

Our New Testament reading from 1st Corinthians has Paul addressing what he regards as whorishness in the church in Corinth. The focus of their attention is on a man who has (quote) “taken his father’s wife”. That word ‘taken’ politely captures the mixture of incest and sexual violence at stake here. When I thought about it though, I was reminded of the old HBO TV series “The Wire” set in the rough streets of Baltimore where there is a much more brutal word for this kind of thing, it begins with ‘mother…’ and it makes up about every second word of everyday talk. And it makes sense that this word is so all pervasive… after all, for poor African American communities the mother’s body is about as sacred as you can get. You swear on your mother’s body.

Paul is deeply disturbed by this and believes the man needs an early judgement… so his Spirit may be saved (remember for Paul salvation comes to all people and all creation). The man represents for Paul the danger of being that the community faces, of being seduced into the pagan and Roman way where women don’t even count as people on the same level as men, more like property.

It is very hard to know what Paul is exactly suggesting the Corinthians do with this man prior to his ultimate salvation… But the principle seems clear. Judgement must begin with the people of God. The witness of the community to God’s peaceful kingdom is his first priority.

 

The congregation of followers of Jesus, the church, are not a gathering of people who have safely found the way to escape judgement and go straight to heaven. These people are those who are submitting their lives to the judgement of God. So that their life now might become a little part of God’s heaven now. The kingdom of God on earth. “Purge away the old leaven, so that you might be a new batch, just as though you are unleavened,” says Paul

 

So if incest and rape are the issues at stake for Paul and the Church in Corinth in the 1st Century. What does this mean for us now with Australia burning and governments of the world making war? How can we submit to God’s judgement in our context?

 

This week I watched The Messiah…. Anyone seen The Messiah? It’s a Netflix series… (spoiler alert)

 

Basically the premise of the series is that a remarkable man emerges into the public eye in Syria during the war against ISIS and through a strange series of circumstances ends up being called Messiah (El Masih). He performs the odd miracle… some bigger than others. He ends up in the US, is followed closely by the CIA has a conversation with the President and so on. Miracles draw attention to him and create a bit of a followership, but his character is ultimately what draws people deeper.

 

I was pretty sceptical about the plot line at first… but I think it actually works. For one the viewer is kept on tenterhooks wondering whether he might be sincere or a fraud. But ultimately what won me over to at least take an interest in this Messiah was his character. He is clearly not afraid of anyone or anything, least of all of shame or of loss of his movement. It’s about God before it’s ever about his movement. He believes that God is present and speaking to us all in everything. Every moment is an opportunity to do God’s will so he often acts quite spontaneously and follows that sense of God’s will no matter how crazy. At the same time he is able to be with the people he meets in an intense way which is not distracted. Some of the dialogue is quite engrossing.

 

Along the way he gathers people with faith, both in Syria and in small-town America. But in contrast to his faith their faith is a bit like a security blanket – something they hold in response to the stress and confusion of life – a means of comfort. His faith on the other hand is simply a trust in God that seems at least at first glance to be completely without fear in spite of the stress and security all around him. Theirs is a faith driven by fear. His seems to come from a loss of fear. His sense of God is so much greater than theirs. While they build their empires and churches he seems completely disinterested in their empires and churches.

 

He sees the mess of the world and believes in the coming of a new one. Everyone around him freaks out about this from the CIA and the President to the PLO. They cannot withdraw from their militarism. This Messiah is the unpredictable ‘still centre’ of the drama.

 

What does all this mean, for us in a time of accelerating climate emergency and imminent threat of war? What does it mean with the enormous attraction of burying our heads in the sand and treating faith as a security blanket? What would it mean for us to follow a Messiah like that… to be (as a community) unafraid of anything, least of all our shame or the loss of our own movement and strength.

 

I think judgment for us will mean the powerful challenge to put God’s purposes at the very centre of our life and to live with the deep disorientation that brings, and the cost. It’s not too late for us to be judged. It’s not too late for us to bear that cost without fear.

 

As a concrete expression of this, in this time and place, I believe that one of the ways of counting the cost of judgement is to rigorously consider our carbon impact on the planet as a congregation. And I know that many of you have been thinking about this for some time… more so than I have. But to that end I have given out some information sheets to start us thinking. One of them is a small article from a scientific magazine which is really about a comparison of the carbon impacts of various life changes we can make… to get a sense of how they compare to each other. On the bottom is a link to a NZ website to help us do calculations for here rather than overseas. The other hand out is really a way of suggesting ideas for action in various areas of our lives that we may not have thought about for a while (November edition of UK’s Vegan Life Magazine).

I invite you to talk about our response to this climate crisis and to the headlong rush towards war that seems to be driving world powers right now – over the cuppa after the service and during the week. What is God saying to us right now?

 

 

 

Advent 1: Turn Out to Be Something

December 1, 2019
Isaiah 2:1-5        Matthew 24:36-44

My daughter gave me a book of poems for my birthday written by Ashleigh Young – her MA supervisor from last year at Victoria and now her editor. One that struck me is called “Turn Out to Be Something”.

 

Turn Out to Be Something

I can wait! I can vanish from the fossil record
for twenty-five million years, as long as an amateur fossil hunter
someday finds a large and puzzling chunk of my jaw.
I can wait to become a writer
only to turn out to be a small writer
with stubby wings and a feathery appearance.
I can wait for someone to collect me from the sickbay when I’m five,
wait so long I’ll be fully recovered and grown when they come.
I can wait for a layer of sandstone to form over me
and freeze and thaw and freeze and be shattered
and be piped into the sea     as long
as that turns out to be something.

Each minute moves in a slightly different rhythm
to the others, like tiny flowers rippling at high altitude
or heads gathered around an archeological dig.
I can wait hours for the plane to come in
only for it to land and someone else’s dad to get out.
Definitely another New Zealand dad, but with
different colouration, different call.     I’m still waiting
and that’s something
though it might also be nothing.

When you say kererū I can wait for you to realise you mean kākā
only for you to carry on for the rest of your life
saying kererū when you mean kākā.
I can wait for the unkind person to turn out to be unhappy
wait for them to ask forgiveness and then
punch someone new in the throat and ask forgiveness again.
I can wait, as long as forgiveness is withheld.
I can wait at the table until my hunger turns me
into a barnacle searching for space on an overpopulated hull.
I can wait to behold the great alien snowscape
only for it to be a pile of weevily flour on the floor.
I can wait     as long as it still turns out to be something.

I can wait at the bottom of the crevasse with you
as long as the glacier shrinks back someday and we are found.
I can spend all the livelong day patting a dog that turns out to be a coyote.
I can wait years for news of a bizarre specimen washed up on the beach
only for it to turn out to be a person.
I can wait, as long as they turn out to be known to somebody.
I can wait for as long as I live, only to die
as long as this turns out to be something.

– Ashleigh Young – [from ‘How I get Ready’ (VUP, 2019)] Used with permission

One thing I like about this poem is the poet’s sense of our orientation as human beings towards the future… not just for ourselves but for the whole world we are a part of… we can wait… it somehow matters that it turns out to ‘be something’ and not nothing.

It strikes me that this is a deep Christian intuition. The world is ‘creation’ not simply because God is the reason it exists (and is not nothing). It is creation because God makes the universe to be something in the end. Creation is a moving process. Time is part of what it means. And so deep down we are creatures who can wait.

Turning to the Bible now… It’s Advent. Advent means coming. Jesus is coming (look busy!). The Bible knows that the future informs our every move. And both our bible readings have their own takes what looking to the future might mean… really different takes if you think about it.

Isaiah has this enormously positive vision of all the nations of the earth, of their own volition turning their swords into ploughshares and gathering together in peace, cancelling all military training, refusing to learn war any more. In the light of this vision Isaiah calls out ‘Of course this won’t work in practice, people’ – nah just kidding, he says, ‘O house of Jacob let us walk in the light of the Lord.’

Jesus, in Matthew’s gospel offers us quite a dark vision of the future. He imagines a time like that told about in the story of Noah’s ark, when (as Genesis says) the earth was “filled with violence.” But violence that no one really notices… in this world they are still eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage – it’s an image of business as usual, everyday life continuing on. The violence is largely hidden from sight perhaps. In this vision the coming of a Messianic figure (whether it be Noah in Genesis or The Son of Man in Matthew) is associated not with peace and joy, but with many (the large majority) being swept away like those who we caught unaware by the flood and some (a small minority) holding firm to the way of God and not being swept away, instead being ‘left behind’ (like people floating in an ark). And then he has another dark vision of a house owner drying to keep God at bay, trying to stay in control of his house and the Son of Man (the representative of God in the end – Jesus we might say) is like a thief trying to break into the house that refuses a place for God.

Two dramatically different visions of the future (positive and negative). 1. In one God is not merely welcomed. God is the joy of all people. Peace is established. 2. In the other God is a threat, a thief outside the door, or a dangerous storm, possibly symbolising the storm of violence like water behind a cracked dam (hidden from sight by business as usual). And when the dam breaks it swirls around God’s peacemakers and threatens to sweep them away also.

Which begs us to ask the question. Which is true? What is the future that should inform our actions? What is our advent? Can both of these images be true in some way? What does it mean for us to be people who like the poet… hope that our lives ‘turn out to be something’.

But first let’s go back for a moment to two dark versions of the future: the surprise-that-sweeps-you-away-like-a-flood version and the household-controlled-by-the-householder-keeping-God-outside-in-the-night version. They reminded me of the old debate between readers of George Orwell’s ‘1984’ and readers of Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’. In one vision the world is controlled by Big Brother like the housekeeper (state, corporations). The control is external. And in the other vision the citizens are unaware of the violence that defines their life because they are drugging themselves into happiness – the control is internal. If their world collapses it will come as a total surprise – not because they don’t know where to look for the threat but because they think they live in the best of all possible worlds. They think they are fine. The control is internal (like with social media, consumerism, addictions etc). Two dark visions which look like they have found their perfect fusion in our late capitalist world.

Which leads me to another question: If that is the world we live in… What would make for Isaiah’s vision to come true? What has to happen to the world we live in for the nations of the world to be so transformed that they beat their proverbial swords into ploughshares? (talk to your neighbour)

What would make Big Brother let go of his fears and control? What would pop the bubble of self-delusion, distracting ourselves to death with various addictions and escape routes – what would open our minds to the possibility that the brave new world (American dream? nightmare) is a violent delusion?

And once you realise that something has to happen you start to realise that there is no kingdom without judgement. No heaven without temporary hells along the way. The world needs to be invaded by a thief, the world needs to be swept away as if by a flood and revealed for the unstable lie it is… before ultimately it can enter into the kingdom of peace. I think Jesus knew that. The world will need a truth that sets it free. And it may be a painful truth.

I am rather fond of an internet meme which shows a couple of wealthy shoppers carrying bags with expensive fashion labels on them who are caught in a flood and rising waters – possibly reminiscent of the threat of climate destruction. And the caption is:

It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism…

We can imagine physical disasters but something which emerges as a judgement on our way of life… that we cannot imagine. We cannot imagine the end of this cultural world – like God breaking in like a thief into an expensive house…

So what does St Paul think about all this. Of the arrival of Jesus in the world – ‘second coming’ we sometimes say.

1 Corinthians 15 Paul very clearly is with Isaiah on this. God will bring the whole world into the peace of God’s life, that all will be saved… but in a complex manner.

See vs 21

“For, since death comes through a man, resurrection of the dead also comes through a man. For just as in Adam ALL die, so also in the Anointed ALL will be given life.”

Everyone, all of humanity, not certain races, all of humanity is caught up in this destructive way of living that is ruining our world – Paul thinks of it as the dominion of death, or spiritual death. Paul has a kind of parallelism in his rhetoric. The problem effects us all, the solution will be given to us all. All who were drawn into the life represented by Adam will also be drawn into the life of Jesus the peace-King. (Like Isaiah)

But not through some magic button… judgement (the way in which our self-understanding, our ways of being are interrupted by God and reoriented) means that Paul is does not think of salvation as a simple matter like walking through a pearly gate … our bubbles need to be popped, illusions need to be shed, death needs to be tamed … So Paul describes a staged process of judgement and redemption.

“… all will be given life, each in the proper order; the Anointed [Jesus] as the first-fruits, thereafter those who are in the Anointed at his arrival [those who have been drawn into the life of Jesus as disciples], then the full completion, when he delivers the Kingdom to him who is God and Father, when he renders every Principality and every Authority and Power ineffectual. For he must reign till he puts all enemies under his feet. The last enemy rendered ineffectual is death…

…vs 28 And when all things have been subordinated to him, then will the Son himself also be subordinated to the one who has subordinated all things to him, so that God may be ALL IN ALL.”

[for further discussion of the question of universal salvation check out Robin Parry’s lecture series https://reforminghell.com/robin-parrys-hope-hell-videos/%5D

The age of peace is coming… don’t arm yourself for business as usual the violent system we live in will be disarmed… the swords we use to keep the third world in captivity will be disarmed…. etc The system will go down. Prepare yourself for the age of peace.

Judgement will not be easy… but a painful truth and a difficult transition. The bible often imagines it like burning (but purifying) flames.

Peace comes in the end. God redeems in the end. But in a kind of deep connection with that new dawn… there is a breakdown of an old system of violence controlled by death

Judgement then peace… they are two dimensions of eschatological vision. Both are true.

For in the end says St Paul, God will be all in all.

It really will turn out to be something.

Two Kinds of Scary

August 25, 2019

Hebrews 12:18-28

You know that phrase. “I decided to get my life in order.” People who get to a certain age in life (with a religious childhood) … and at some point they realise their life is going to end soon so they decide, as they often say, to get their life in order, and it sometimes means to convert to Christianity.

I often wonder about that moment of anxiety when your life suddenly seems finite? Some kind of scary hits you.

When I read today’s lectionary reading I read it as talking of ‘two kinds of scary’.

Let’s read it again. Very rich in metaphors… listen for the old kind of scary and the new kind of scary.

Other points of explanation before we read:

Hebrews – a book/letter written for Jewish Christians… all about the old temple religion, priests and sacrifices and so on… also about what is deeper than all of that… the thing called ‘faith’ or ‘faithfulness’ the trusting centre that so empowered the characters of the OT to act in heroic ways. This book Hebrews is about an old way and a new way and about courageous faith.

Today’s text talks about this old/new thing in various ways and it mentions the blood of Abel. Do you remember the story of Abel?

Second question before I read our text again: Who remembers what the two mountains are in this story? One named and one referred to indirectly?  What are the two mountains?

Close your eyes and imagine this very visual image…

[read words on screen from David Bentley Hart’s NT translation]

For you have not come to something tangible and set ablaze with fire, and to deep gloom, and to a storm, and to a trumpet’s echo, and to a voice uttering words whose hearers begged that no further word be imposed upon them, for they could not bear what was commanded: “Should even a beast touch the mountain, it must be stoned.” What appeared was so dreadful that Moses said, “I am terrified and trembling.”

Rather you have come to Mount  Zion and to the city of a living God, a heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels, and to [a full gathering and] an assembly of the firstborn, enrolled in the heavens, and to God the judge of all, and to spirits of the righteous who have been perfected, and to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to a blood for sprinking that bespeaks something better than that of Abel.

See to it that you do not refuse the one who speaks; for if they who refused the one who warned them on earth did not escape, how much less we if we turn away from the one doing so from the heavens: whose voice back then shook the earth, but now has given a promise, saying, “Once more I will shake not only the earth but also heaven.”

Now this “once more” indicates the removal of things that are shaken, as things that have been made so that the things unshaken might remain. Therefore, receiving an unshakeable Kingdom, let us have grace, by which we may worship God as delights him, with reverence and awe, for indeed our God is a consuming fire.

Two mountains… two kinds of scary…. Say something about the first kind of scary. (violent punishment – revenge). That’s the kind of scary associated with the first mountain – Sinai

What’s the second mountain? What does it represent?

A city… (a very social thing) more than that ‘the city of a living God’. The life of God in the form of a city. Not the physical city of Jerusalem, of bricks and mortar in Palestine… but a living community of those who are beginning to live the life of heaven, of God’s politics, they are “an assembly of first-born enrolled in heaven”, they are at the beginning of God’s new life… its a place where the spirits of those who have been perfected already are alive. And in the centre of this gathering is Jesus the one who brings a ‘new covenant’ – in NZ we might say a new treaty, a new constitution. And the Christians reading this letter, the Jewish Christians of the late first century are being told that what they have arrived at is the birth of a new civilisation, a new city with a new constitution. And what is this ‘treaty’, this defining constitution?

Jesus death (blood) defines this new civilisation. Jesus death speaks a word that defines the character of this city. What can we deduce about the word that Jesus death (or blood) speaks?

The blood of Abel calls out for violence (remember God put a mark on Cain so people wouldn’t take up the call to revenge and attack him). Hebrews tell us of a city established on the non-violent word of forgiveness spoken by Jesus death. Jesus death is political here. Jesus death creates a new form of civilisation. It is its constitution, it’s treaty.

What the Hebrew Christians are being welcomed into is a new kind of politics… the politics of Jesus. This, says the writer, is the city of Jesus, the place of peace.

Speaking of Christians and politics. This week I watched a new Netflix series called ‘The Family’.  Anyone seen it? It’s fascinating. I recommend checking it out.

It’s about an organisation in the US that has a distinctive take on Christian political engagement. They call themselves ‘The Family’ (used to be the Fellowship) and they are pretty secretive. They believe in going under the radar. The thing they are most famous for, at least since the book and the movie has come out, is that they are the ones who organise the National Prayer Breakfast. It’s an annual event. Goes for several days now. The Leader who died not long ago is a man called Doug Coe – has been described as “Billy Graham by stealth, the most powerful man you’ve never heard of”. They have cells all over the world centred in Washington.  The extent of their connectedness to presidents (including Trump) right back to Eisenhower and to Senators and heads of state around the world is remarkable. They trade on their influence in the US but they gain their influence by things like the prayer breakfast which draws people from both sides of the US political system and by claiming to be non-political, or at least non-partisan. Their motto is “Jesus plus nothing”. They are not interested in political parties or in church structures. Just a brotherhood of men – mainly men – they believe in the authority of men over women – whose common focus is Jesus and … wait for it … leadership. And it’s this leadership thing that defines their distinctive philosophy and theology. God’s mission begins with the leaders of the nations and they want to bring Jesus to the leaders. It’s the idea of a top down mission. God changes the world from the top down, so they go to the top. And they train men to lead. They are very fond of king David (that point in Israel’s history when they had a monarchy). They are also quite happy to admire people like Hitler and Chairman Mao for their strong leadership (this is what they say when asked about Trump). God works even through bad leaders. So their aim is to befriend the powerful of all stripes, and sell them Jesus.

And the more I watched this show the more I wondered ‘What Jesus?’

It’s a strange kind of simplicity this “Jesus plus nothing”.

The thing that struck me about this kind of politics of Jesus is that in spite of the fact that they talk about Jesus all the time – almost like a kind of shibboleth, a magic word – their politic imagination is almost the opposite of that of Jesus of Nazareth.  Jesus of Nazareth spent his time mostly among the poor and powerless. The defining place where Jesus was to be found, summarised in the story of the sheep and the goats, is among ‘the least’ rather than the leaders. The powerful, like the rich man, are challenged to relinquish that power by giving their wealth to the poor. The rich are the least likely to enter the kingdom of God’s politics – like a camel going through the eye of a needle. Remember the temptations of Jesus – the principle temptation that Jesus faced throughout his life, the one he resisted by choosing to be crucified, was the temptation to seek power, to seek the kingdoms of this world. That was Jesus big temptation. He abandoned it.

The Family (according to the Netflix show) makes it a virtue.

It’s disturbing isn’t it. That people who talk so much about Jesus can act with such a different politics. As if there is no Mount Zion. No new city. Just alliances to be made with the powerful of the old cities, with those who command military power according to the blood of Abel. With The Family we have business as usual on Mt Sinai. The difference is they do it in the name of Jesus.

Where in you life do you see the city? The politics of Jesus? I sat down this week and started writing about the places I had seen evidence of Mount Zion. I got to the bottom of the page and I was still going. It’s not something that hit’s you in the face like a fireworks show on Mt Sinai… but if you open yourself to it… if you take time to notice you see God at work in the lives of those around you – you can see the politics of Jesus.

In the delight of mothers in their children, and children in their mothers. In those who take time to include others in the group at a party, in friendship and respect that listens thoughtfully and humbly. In generosity that gives without anxiety. In the growth of friends as they start to follow Jesus in new ways. In people who come out from their fears and share their lives with others, who make time for others when they might be making money instead. All of these things were on my list.

But notice… although this new city is such a delight for the writer to the Hebrews. It is not without it’s own kind of scary! How would you describe this new kind of scary?

It’s the scaryness of God’s shaking. According to the writer to the Hebrews, it matters that we embrace this new city, cause in the end its the only lasting, the only sustainable city. The people with the most to fear are those who don’t want to change, those who resist the shaking of God. God will shake both heaven and earth – that’s interesting. Even the members of the new city need shaking. All of us need the crap shaken out of us by God. This is not destruction… this is transformation. Even heaven gets a shake up according to this letter. The writer concludes: Our God is a consuming fire. Not a destroying or at least not a totally destroying fire but a purifying fire… a fire that burns away all that is not sustainable. If you want to stay the same, be afraid.

Two mountains… two kinds of scary. One is pure fear. The other is all about hope. In the end God will shake the crap out of us. We shall all be healed. Thanks be to God.