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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.”

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

A Sermon for Parihaka (All Saints Day at Wadestown Presbyterian)

November 4, 2017


1 Peter 2: 19-25

For what renown is there if, when you sin and are thrashed, you endure it? But, if you instead endure when doing good and suffering, this is a grace before God. For to this you were called, because on your behalf the Anointed suffered also, leaving behind a model so that you should follow his steps: “Who committed no sin; neither was guile found in his mouth”; who, when reviled, did not revile in return; who, in suffering, did not issue threats;  who delivered himself to him who judges justly; who himself, in his body, bore our sins upon the tree, so that, having died to sin, we might live for justice – “by whose scarring you were healed.” For you were like sheep going astray, but now you have turned back to the shepherd and overseer of your souls. [David Bentley Hart’s Translation]

 

I have chosen today these text of non-retaliation (texts of non-violent resistance) because of Parihaka. I think of Parihaka as New Zealand’s great Jesus moment. I don’t think, as a church in Aotearoa we can let this day pass without stopping for a moment and reflecting.

For the first 300 or so years of Christianity, the church believed that following Jesus involved rejecting the sword, refusing military service, committing themselves to communities of peace which were really unsettling to the sensibilities and the order of the empire around them. They honoured people who in the ancient world were not considered to be people. Slaves become brothers of Roman citizens and the poor and insignificant, those with no rights whatsoever were treated with a dignity never before seen in the ancient world. But the key point is that they rejected the sword.

And they did so not merely because the Roman Empire and its military were bound up with idolatry and Emperor worship. If you look at their reasoning it has everything to do with simply a determination to take the explicit teaching of Jesus seriously, to love their enemies and not return evil for evil and so on. It had everything to do with following his example even to die and the hands of the violent powers. They didn’t feel like they needed to take control of history (like Jesus at his temptation). They trusted that their small witness would be vindicated by God. For them, Jesus was Lord of the World and not Caesar. So they lived accordingly.

And then an Emperor become a Christian. . . Before that happened you risked your life being a Christian. After that you risked your life if you didn’t become a Christian. After that Christians started serving in the military. They were invested in the empire – invested in securing this new Empire that they thought God must be using. They looked at history… they thought they knew where it was going. So they decided that this must be God’s purpose and they had better get with it. History equals progress . . . they thought.

For fifteen hundred years the heritage of this decision profoundly shaped the Christian church. There were remarkable exceptions like the Anabaptist part of the reformation. But for the most part over these 1500 years, Christians had formed a kind of alliance with the violence of the powers that ruled the world.

What moves me about Parihaka is that 1500 years after Constantine became Christian, when the representatives of British Empire (the most recent Empire to have been adopted by Christianity) marched up to the gates of Parihaka,… it was a Maori chief who was the one quoting Jesus to his people. It was Te Whiti of Rongomai who said (in 1879):

Go put your hands to the plow. Look not back. If any come with guns, be not afraid. If they smite you, smite not in return. If they rend you, be not discouraged. Another will take up the good work. Te Whiti o Rongomai, Parihaka, 1879

Te Whiti of Rongomai got it! When the Christians of Europe had long forgotten it.

Te Whiti had seen a lot of killing in his life. As a child, his father and many of his people were slaughtered in Ngāmotu by raiding warriors from Waikato. He grew up with his people drinking deeply from his Maori tikanga destined to be a leader and a wise man in Te Ao Maori. As a 10-year-old he went to live in a mission house in Waimea and learnt the Bible and became a Christian. The Rev Riemenschneider (a Lutheran minister) taught him the gospel of peace. And yet when push came to shove the representative of the church was unwilling to stay and stand in solidarity with the vulnerable Maori. The Colonial land-grab was in full swing. And in opposition a new Maori spiritual way (mixing Maori and Christian ideas) called Pai Marire was popular. They talked the language of peace but unfortunately, in practice, Pai Marire and the Hauhau movement were known for their violence. Te Whiti heard the talk and joined the movement for a while. But in contrast to them, he took the commitment to peace much more seriously.

So in the 1870s he and his fellow chief Tohu Kākahi called their people to abandon their weapons and build a village of peace.

Ka kuhuna te patu, e kore, e kore rawa e kitea. Put away your weapons, they will never be seen. People came all around the North Island to listen to Te Whiti’s oratory. Often there were several thousand at the experimental village of Parihaka to hear Te Whiti speak.

He said things like….

“What I said and wished to convey was that the two races should live side by side in peace, the Maori to learn the white man’s wisdom, yet be the dominant ruler. Even as our fathers thought and expected, the white man to live among us—not we to be subservient to his immoderate greed.”

And the government got increasingly uncomfortable this Maori upstart who criticised the greed of the Pākeha and their thirst for more land. He taught his people peace, not merely as a strategy but as the way of God. He taught them to resist, but to resist without violence.

And so as we all know, on Nov 5th 1981 the police force of the British Empire responded by marching in, ignoring the hospitality offered them, reading the riot act to Te Whiti and Tohu, arresting them and their men, taking them away to build the streets of Dunedin or to be imprisoned in Christchurch. They burnt down most of the village. They raped the women. They occupied Parihaka and spend several weeks slaughtering the livestock.

November 5th, 1881. The celebration of Guy Fawkes the terrorist was also the day of Te Whiti the prophet of peace.

What does St Paul mean when he writes to the Corinthians: “For though we walk about in flesh, we do not go into battle according to the flesh – for the weapons of our campaign are not fleshly…”?

Last weekend I went for a Marae stay for two nights with my Maori class. On the Saturday we went out to Titahi Bay and were taught how to use a Maori club (a patu). We started with karakia, as we always do, and then we mimed the hand to hand warfare of a Maori warrior. Our teacher reminded us that these were not cutting weapons. His motto was bash, break, bruise. It was a kind of macabre liturgy which required us to imagine beating the skull of an opponent to a pulp.

Te Whiti was a radical not just in relation to the so-called Christianity of the British Empire. He was a radical in his own world.

According to Paul the battle of our life is not fleshly… and you expect him to continue to say that it’s a spiritual… and otherworldly… but he doesn’t he says that our unorthodox weapons are ‘powerful’ – powerful to overthrow fortresses – we who are overthrowing argumentations, and every high rampart reared against the knowledge of God.

It changes this world. Paul thinks that the love of Jesus undermines the mental infrastructure of every empire and of every philosophy and of every lifestyle designed to hide us from the knowledge of God.

Love your enemies… pray for those who persecute you… in doing so you set them free.

The Letter of Peter says: Follow the model… Jesus who bore the blows of our sin on his body, who did not retaliate and revile those who reviled him. Leave the old weapons (flesh). Die to sin, live to Justice.

The Christian believes that there is a much more patient and powerful response to all that the world can throw at us… more powerful than every fleshly weapon, from the visceral patu through to the nuclear bomb or the smart bomb dropped from a drone.

That’s a pretty hard belief to commit yourself to, isn’t it? It’s not merely a judgment of practical effectiveness, though. If we commit ourselves to it, we do it in faith and hope that God is at work also, that God will redeem.

A few weeks ago I joined a group of people to protest a Weapons Conference for arms industry companies to show their wares and do business. Companies like Lockheed Martin who make nuclear weapons and others who make killer drones

I thought quite a bit before I joined the protest. It’s one thing to follow Jesus in his vulnerable path and quite another thing to call the rulers and corporations of the world to follow suit. In the end, I decided to do it (and to wear my minister’s collar – dress-up season for me) not because I expected the corporations to suddenly bow before the authority of Jesus, but because it presented an opportunity to bear witness. That was all… witness to another world. A world that God would bring about even if we couldn’t.

In the end of the day being a Christian is a simple thing. A Christian is a follower of Jesus . . . but in the properly serious sense. Anyone can see Jesus had great attributes and teaching and admire that. A Christian is a person whose life is committed in some absolute sense to the way of Jesus. For a Christian following Jesus and loving or following God the Creator amount to the same thing. It’s a God thing. It’s about following Jesus along the path that he followed his Father. It takes the whole of Jesus life as having its own peculiar logic to the bitter (or glorious) end.

Those who say they live in God should live their lives as Jesus did. (1 John 2:6)

Jesus had a way about him. And Parihaka Day, in particular, shines a light on the way of Jesus. It shows how the way of Jesus might translate itself from one side of the globe to another, to an enormously different cultural world… albeit one with interesting parallels to Jesus own world (empires and vulnerable oppressed people). Parihaka captures in our own near history a glimpse of the logic of God. The logic or (as John’s gospel puts it) the logos of God becoming flesh.

And just as Jesus inspired Te Whiti so both Jesus and Te Whiti were an inspiration for Mahatma Gandhi and these three, in turn, inspired Martin Luther King  Jr.

In this way we too, although we may be Protestants 500 years after Luther, we too need the saints on all saints day. Those who like Paul can say to us: Imitate me as I imitate Christ.

 

Justification: Going Beyond the Protestant Gospel (to something more ancient)

October 15, 2017

 (Text: Romans 5)

This morning (as part of our series marking the 500th anniversary of the Reformation) it falls to me to say something about the word ‘justification.’

To begin with, I want to ask you to turn to your neighbor and share quickly what first springs to mind when you hear or see that word. What does it mean to you? There are no right answers.

[pause]

The word ‘justification’ is a ‘slogan word’ for Martin Luther. It’s the heart of the gospel. It’s kind of a big deal. It’s Luther’s good news – the thing to pass on to your neighbor. Those who are a bit older might remember when Christians used to ask ‘are you saved?’ That curious turn of phrase really comes from ‘justification’ and the story of Martin Luther.

So I want to look at this protestant Gospel. Partly, because some people don’t think there is any other gospel.

A few weeks ago I was at a Sally Army conference about ‘just action’. And I was struck by two very different presentations of the gospel. The first one was by a Salvation Army officer. He took a long rope… maybe 20 metres long and passed it out into the audience. At one end of the rope was a small section of painted rope. And then he said that the painted bit represented this life now, before you die. And the long bit represented eternity. It’s a powerful metaphor. The speaker protested that justice in this short life mattered… (the conference was all about justice) but there was a much more important, greater justice to do with the afterlife – BUT it was an afterlife with two possible options, one good and one … not so good. There was an ominous subtext.

The other presentation was by a well-known Baptist minister and now CEO of World Vision in Australia. And he started off by defining the gospel as ‘a new humanity.’ And the good news is: “God is creating a new humanity.” A humanity in which people love their neighbours and their enemies and share the resources of this world with those neighbours.

I was struck by how different those two gospels were.

The long rope, in particular, reminded me of the story of Martin Luther . . . in a way the rope was like a noose around Luther’s neck. But first some context.

Christianity had changed enormously between the time of the NT and the time of Luther. The very first Christianity was a way, a new way of living. The first followers of Jesus were disciples learning “the way,” people of ‘the Way’ – a way of living together, Paul talked of it as a ‘body’, a community. It was a new kind of community existence.

And it was different. The two most obvious differences for the first three hundred years were that, (1) like Jesus, they refused the sword and so refused to join the military and also (2), like Jesus, they cared for the poor and the most vulnerable… something that was a mystery, but an attractive mystery to the onlooking Greco-Roman world. About 300 years after Christ’s death a Roman emperor became a Christian and the situation changed dramatically. Before that, you risked your life to be a Christian now you risked your life not being one. The church became much more centralized and formed a close relationship with the powers of the state and empire. Christians became soldiers. So by the time Luther came along, the Roman Empire had fallen but the church in Rome was a kind of state itself. The Pope had his own army and fought wars and administered the gates of heaven, selling off quick passes to heaven (indulgences). The institution that called itself the church was quite unlike the church of the New Testament.

And Luther saw that. Luther was horrified by Rome and by the way it treated the poor in his own country. There was also a lot going on personally for Luther. His Gospel, his protestant Gospel, was the combination of these two things: his personal battle with God (the rope around his neck – fears about the afterlife) and his anger about the state of the church.

Luther was a young son of the rising middle classes, at the end of the Middle Ages. His Dad wanted him to be a lawyer. He had a very demanding and critical Father who sent him off to Erfurt to train as a lawyer. Erfurt was both a very religious town and a great drinking town for young men. At the time a large percentage of the population of Europe died of the plague (black death) including three of Luther’s close friends. Life was precarious. Luther was an able student, a lover of wine, women, and song, but he was also a very serious young man. One day out riding a tree nearby was struck by lightning and he had a fearful religious experience. He was desperately afraid of God and of hell, so he made a kind of bargain with God and went into the monastery, a very strict monastery which sought to separate itself from the world and live a rigorously disciplined life of prayer and fasting. He quickly found that his heavenly Father even more impossible to satisfy than his birth-Father. Luther gave it 110% and those around him worried for his mental well-being. It nearly killed him. He ended up hating God and raging against himself.

As he looked back on this struggle he interpreted it as a desperate search to find a merciful God.

Everything changed when he was sent to Heidelberg to study the New Testament. In particular, he was blown away by the notion of gift (or grace) in Paul. So much so that he did a kind of about-turn. Where once he thought to be righteous and go to heaven you needed to do righteous things. Now he thought nothing you could do would make you righteous in God’s eyes. It was no longer about ‘active righteousness’, but instead about (what he called) ‘passive righteousness.’ To receive the gift of grace you had to be totally passive for the gift to be a true gift. The gift was like a legal declaration. God declared you righteous even if you weren’t… provided . . . you had ‘faith’ (passive, receptive faith). To be ‘saved’ (that word) was to be declared righteous . . . ‘simul justus et peccator’ (both righteous and a sinner at the same time). Justification. You hadn’t been saved from sin, from what was wrong with your life. You were still a sinner. But you were saved from God (God’s judgment). For Luther dealing with sin was completely another matter. He insisted on separating the two. That long rope was too heavy a weight. You needed to be saved from God before you could be saved from sin.

To be fair Luther thought that being declared ‘righteous’ (even when you weren’t) would actually make you a new person. It would open you up, from a fearful concern for yourself (turned in upon yourself, incurvatus in se) to a life turned outwards in love. But this opening up to a new way of life was a different matter from your salvation. He made a very clear distinction between the passivity of being ‘saved’ by faith from the activity of the church (the church that so disturbed him in his time). Being saved was fundamentally a private matter – sharply distinct from any church life, political life or action in the world. Protestant religion is born.

So suddenly Luther is going to heaven, church or no church, you might say. The rope around his neck falls off. Perhaps!…

You see, my problem is, I’m not so sure. I can imagine the relief of being saved from God’s punishment. But had he really discovered a God he could love? Was it a God of love, this God who saved him from God?

The reason I am not convinced is because of my own story. As a kid, I grew up in Twizel and we had visiting missionaries in our house. And these missionaries used to bring their charts of world history. As a kid, I thought it was history. The history of the future. They told of the Rapture when all the true Christians would disappear and of a time of great trouble on the earth and it all ended with little stick figures being thrown into a burning fire forever and some people happy in heaven. For a seven or eight-year-old it was terrifying. I vividly remember an elderly couple with friendly smiles on their faces sitting me down by our fireplace and asking me if I knew what would happen if Christ returned and my parents disappeared. Would I go with them or would I be left to fend for myself in wars and trouble? I got saved many a night. Just to make sure that I truly had faith. That I had sincerely given my life to Jesus or done one of the various things that counted towards getting on the good side of that long bit of rope. You see the practical problem… sincerely trusting is never entirely passive… you can never be sure…  the rope is too long. But there’s a deeper reason. It’s hard to really love a God you are afraid of. I never really loved Jesus back then. I needed Jesus to protect me from God. It was good cop, bad cop. And I was in prison. Whether it was Luther’s theology or Calvin’s in the background, I’m still not entirely sure. But it didn’t help.

John Calvin developed Luther’s ideas into more of a legal system. As Calvin saw it God must punish sin if God was to be just. The way you make God both just and loving is you say that God declares us righteous because he punishes an innocent man instead. The punishment gets transferred to Jesus the God-man. So the flip side of declaring us righteous God declares Jesus un-righteous. He punishes Jesus (who represents us) so he doesn’t have to punish us. If you are struggling to see how this is just, you won’t be the first. But it’s how the Protestant theory is supposed to work.

I have come to question two ideas behind this theory

  1. God’s justice sets the parameters in which God’s love must work.
  2. God’s justice is retributive. To be just God must pay back in kind. Punishment is essential to justice. Forgiveness, a way forward without punishing, is in fact unjust.

My real conversion didn’t happen when I was a kid. Similar to Luther, it happened when I studied the New Testament and had to preach from it. Let me just point to a key piece in the puzzle. It’s this: God’s justice is NOT retributive in the Bible. God doesn’t have to punish. God can heal the world without punishing! That may seem obvious to you. But it wasn’t obvious to the Reformers. But the person who saw this most clearly was, surprise, surprise… Jesus himself

“You have heard that it was said, ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ (retribution). Whereas I tell you not to oppose the wicked man by force… You have heard that it was said ‘You shall love your neighbor and shall hate your enemy.’ Whereas I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you; in doing this you may become sons of your Father in the heavens, for he makes his sun to rise on the wicked and the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust…”

 

Did you hear Jesus theory of justice . . . not punishing, is how you learn to act like your Father in Heaven…

When Jesus hung on the cross and cried out “Father forgive them.” He was not trying to persuade his Father to act out of character. He was praying according to the character of his Father. He was asking his father to give his enemies the kind of love that they did not deserve. . .

My own conversion happened over a long period of time. Because once you have learned to read the New Testament through lenses from Martin Luther and John Calvin it takes a long time to see it differently. I have had to unlearn this kind of Protestantism. But it’s not all wrong.

Luther is right… the good news is all about a gift. But it’s not necessarily the kind of gift that Luther imagined. It’s not the gift that saves us from God. It’s more the gift that saves us from ourselves and from the fears that bind us, from the violent trap the world is caught in. As Luther knew we can be turned outwards towards others… not because Jesus hides us or protects us from God’s justice, but because God is like Jesus. Not the good cop hiding the bad cop. No, God. Is. Like. Jesus! (the image of the invisible God) That’s the gospel. And the result is that we too can be like Jesus and like God. Not just declared to be like God. Justification in Paul’s writings is not about God declaring us just (when we actually aren’t). It’s about God making us just (conforming us to Christ’s life… his death and resurrection). The good news is that God has promised that we will be set free to be part of a new humanity (Rom 5). The good news is that, by God’s Spirit, it is happening even now. We don’t need to be saved from God. We desperately need to be saved from ourselves… from the old humanity so trapped in violence and greed and fear.

So the good news, the thing we get up in the morning for, is two-fold. (1) God is like Jesus, and (2) This same God is creating a new humanity.

So if we are going to move beyond the Protestant gospel (to something more ancient) where does this leave the church? Luther’s other problem. The church is not the sum total of people going to heaven rather than hell. It’s not even the same as the institutions that call themselves ‘church’ (whether Roman Catholic Church or Island Bay Presbyterian). The church that matters, I contend has got something to do with this new humanity. Humanity reshaped in the image of Jesus of Nazareth. The church (ekklesia, gathering) is the space and place where this new humanity is glimpsed, where people are learning to love their neighbors and their enemies . . . refusing violence and warfare (like standing up against the weapons conference this week), where people are living with the most vulnerable (the poor), sharing our lives with those who for all sorts of reasons haven’t done so well in our competitive economy and world.  It’s a sign of what is to come. When we see those signs we can begin to believe the gospel. Without those signs, we really struggle to believe the gospel.

Going beyond the Protestant gospel . . . The rope can be cut loose because don’t need to be afraid of God. We need to let Jesus define God for us, so we can truly love God and be changed.

Thanks be to God.

 

 

Denial and the Fear of Death

October 15, 2017

Rereading Richard Beck’s book The Slavery of Death (Cascade: 2014) I am reminded of why there is so often confusion around the classic Christian idea (Hebrews 2:14-14) that we are ‘enslaved by fear of death.’ I find that when I express the opinion that the fundamental human problem is the fear of death many people simply disagree, usually by politely telling me that they are not afraid of death (and presumably therefore are not enslaved by such fear and therefore presumably unaffected by the victory of the risen Christ over death and its sting, sin).

For Beck, if I understand him correctly, the account of our situation goes like this. Our fear of death is not the kind of basic fear that an animal shows in the face of physical danger. Rather it is another kind of fear. It is the neurotic fear which shapes our identity and behavior even when we are not conscious of the object of our fear (death). Beck (drawing on Ernst Becker) says that the human animal is in a relatively unique situation of having an awareness of the inevitability of death and having a survival instinct that wants to avoid it. The response to the tension created by a threat we know we can’t avoid are cultural systems (he calls them ‘hero systems’) in which we seek to give ourselves significance beyond our own death. There is an immense array of ways we bestow on ourselves a kind of heroism. Self-esteem is not a private psychic achievement. It is the product of our service of cultural hero-systems in which we ‘make a difference’, ‘distinguish ourselves’, and feel important or significant. Rooted in awareness of the inevitability of our death these systems allow us to sub-consciously deny what we also know to be inevitable.

In my most recent foray into this area I posted a citation from John Chrysostom:

He who fears death is a slave and subjects himself to everything in order to avoid dying . . .[But] he who does not fear death is outside the tyranny of the devil. For indeed ‘man would give skin for skin, and all things for [the sake of] his life.’ [Job 2:4] and if a man should decide to disregard this, whose slave is he then? He fears no one, is in terror of no one, is higher than everyone, and is freer than everyone. For he who disregards his own life disregards more so all other things. And when the devil finds such a soul, he can accomplish in it none of his works. Tell me, though, what can he threaten? The loss of money or honor? Or exile from one’s country? For these are small things to him ‘who counteth not even his life dear,’ says blessed Paul [Acts 20:24]

Do you see that in casting out the tyranny of death, He has dissolved the strength of the devil?

  • John Chrysostom, Homily IV of Homilies on Hebrews

 

A friend responded on fb to the effect that it makes no sense to fear death because it is inevitable. From the perspective of Beck (and Becker and possibly the writer to the Hebrews) this is precisely the point. Our peculiarly human form of death-fear is based precisely on its inevitability. It is culturally mediated denial. It makes no sense, but that is why it exists in the way it does.

This reflection on denial reminded me of a lecture I attended today. It was by historian Richard Evans who was reflecting on the Lipstadt/Irving ‘holocaust denial’ trial (2000) and the movie Denial (2016). The main point that struck me arising out of the lecture was the judgement on Evan’s part that Irving the holocaust denier both sincerely believed that the holocaust did not happen (in the way it had been portrayed by historians) and simultaneous deliberately distorted the facts to fit with his beliefs. He denied the Holocaust, but was he also in denial about his own duplicity? Clearly his manipulation of facts consistently served his political ends. This was at the heart of the legal opposition to his case. But did his ideological devotion to his cause simply blind him to fact so that he only saw what he wanted to see? Or was he duplicitous at all levels? Or was it a bit of both?

 

The questions sink deep. Does our human situation vis a vis death create a blindness in us? Are there any real alternatives to radical nihilism on the one hand and belief in Christ’s victory over death (resurrection) on the other?