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Liberation from Debt

June 9, 2019

Nehemiah 5:3-7, Luke 4: 16-19; Matt 18:23-34

After I wrote last weeks sermon on Daily Bread I went and reread David Bentley Hart’s famous essay on the Lord’s Prayer. He wrote it after translating the New Testament. In that essay he argues that the Lord’s Prayer was a prayer intended for those Jesus lived with (and prioritised). It was a prayer to be prayed by the poor. That’s the context.

If he’s right (and I think he is) then there was a major problem with last week’s sermon…  cause last week I jumped out of that original context… among the poor and went straight on to apply it to us today  – to us who are not poor, who have disposable income. I jumped from physical survival to the wider question of consumption – how we consume.

By way of repentance, today I want us to spend time in the original context. Let’s listen to this quite literal translation of Matthew’s version of the prayer.

Give us our bread today, in a quantity sufficient for the whole of the day. And grant us relief from our debts, to the very degree that we grant relief to those who are indebted to us. And do not bring us to court for trial, but rather rescue us from the wicked man.

What strikes you about this translation? (financial)

Today I want to focus on the problem of debt… the poor of Jesus day desperately needed debt relief. And just so you know that I have been doing my homework for this sermon you should know that I have been reading this tome “Debt: The First 5000 Years” for the last few weeks. It’s quite an astonishing book for the vast scale of research that the anthropologist David Graeber draws on.

What I think this book did for me is it put the biblical situation in context. Ever since human beings began to calculate and measure their obligations to each other (which is what debt is)… long before money was invented but when we started measure our obligations there were enormous social problems and violence associated with debt.

The obvious thing that becomes possible when you start to calculate what is owed… is that the wealthy can start to charge interest… with the advent of money you can start to make money off money. In effect, as economists know well, the difference between the rich and the poor pretty much the same as the difference from the difference between creditors and debtors. It’s interest that allows the rich to keep the poor poor.

And at the time the Bible was written… in what is sometimes called the Axial Age… this is perhaps the big issue …  how do deal with the dangers of money and debt – how to deal with debt slavery. We know this was a problem because every so often the great emperors of Sumeria and Babylonia instituted a ‘blank slate’ cancellation of debt. The classicist Moses Finley often liked to say, ‘in the ancient world, all revolutionary movements had a single program: “Cancel the debts and redistribute the land”.

The Hebrews took up this cause most famously of all.  The Law of Moses prohibited charging interest on loans. Usury was illegal. More than that the Jewish Law set up a system where every seventh year was a Sabbath year (a shmita) a fallow year (the earth rested) and debts between Israelites were to be cancelled. And then on the seventh seventh year, the Sabbath of Sabbath-Years, the Year of Jubilee, in which all debts were excused and all slaves granted their liberty, so that everyone might begin again.” (rebooting the world). So the gap between creditors and debtors (rich and poor) could be (at least, for a time) taken away, and a kind of “equitable balance” restored.” In our reading from Nehemiah that Jeanne read we learn of the problems of debt slavery in Israel and in the passage that follows Nehemiah instituted one of these ‘blank slate’ (Sabbath) moments.

And then a few hundred years later Jesus turned up in Nazareth about the time that people were expecting a year of Jubilee (7×7)… In the era of Roman occupation their expectation was focussed on the arrival of a new liberating king commonly referred to as a Messiah. But tensions were high and Jesus dropped his bombshell from the book of Isaiah “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me (messiahed me) to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, the recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’

It is a declaration of revolution. Jubilee talk.

Hart says

 “…it was a world of exorbitant debt. The Galilean peasantry to whom Christ first brought his good tidings had suffered for years under the taxes exacted by Herod the Great; many whose taxes had fallen into arrears had been reduced from freeholders to bound tenants by expropriations of their already meager estates, or by securing loans they could not repay with their lands and goods. The tax collectors, the creditors, and the courts had long conspired to make rural peoples and the disenfranchised of the towns and cities into captives of their debts. And at times, of course, the only way those debts could be resolved was by the sale of debtor families into slavery.”

That’s scary! Having to sell your wife, or daughter… or if worse comes to worse yourself into slavery. The usual way to become a slave (apart from through war) was by getting into debt. Slavery meant losing your status as a person in the community. That’s what’s at stake when the poor pray for relief from debt.

What we don’t always realise is that in Jesus time main reason that the courts existed was to settle claims of debt (usually in favour of the creditors). Have you noticed how much of his teaching is about trials, about being dragged to the judge by officers of the court, by unmerciful creditors who want to secure a coat or cloak, by scribes who ‘devour the homes of widows’, and the parable of the unjust steward we read earlier. Jesus deeply engaged with the gap between rich and poor (creditors and debtors) … about the slavery of the poor to the rich. That’s the everyday reality that shapes their prayer.

Jesus is indignant about the situation of economic oppression that enslaves his people. Remember the parable about the unmerciful servant. Remember the dishonest steward. Jesus praises the guy who dishonestly reduces the debts of his master’s debtors…  (even though he may only be acting out of self-interest).

This theme of debt release goes deep in Jesus teaching. He’s practically an economic anarchist right.  “Give to anyone who asks you…”… even if they take it from you… “Lend without any desire for return”. And if they take you to court… give the plaintiff what he wants… settle out of court. Whatever you do don’t get stuck in the court system and the mammon of injustice. Jesus hates the economic oppression of his people. The writer of the Letter of James captures the spirit of Jesus indignation: “Do not the rich oppress you, and haul you into law courts as well? Do they not blaspheme the good name that has been invoked upon you?” (Jas 2:6-7)

So the prayer that we pray every Sunday is a prayer first of all for debt relief. Hart (the translator) writes

“ὀφειλήματα are not “transgressions,” but “debts”; nor are they “debts” in a metaphorical sense—they are not sins that require some penance or recompense on our part—but are in fact quite literally the crushing burden of financial obligations under which the poor labor and suffer and die, to the advantage of the most merciless of their creditors.”

Just as debts are not sins that might need to be ‘paid for’ by penance or something, Hart goes on to argue, the word here is sometimes translated ‘forgive’ is not moral pardon. It’s release from something much more concrete – from financial debt backed up by military force. Jesus followers are praying for Jubilee. Although Jesus refused to bring it in by violent revolution… he prayed for it nevertheless.

Getting that out of the way (the original context) we can now think about what it means for us to use those prayer in our time and situation.  Hart is provocative. He says, effectively, we are not really poor. It’s not really ours to pray. I disagree. But I hear the challenge.

  1. You see if we really are followers of Jesus then following Jesus means going with him to his place with the disenfranchised and most powerless in our society. We might not be exactly poor. But discipleship calls us to some kind of solidarity with the poor. So we will be learning to pray with the poor. Learning to see our society from the perspective of its victims. And this is difficult because in another sense we all are poor. Most of us have mortgages that means we need two incomes … and we are so busy paying the banks we don’t have time to live with the poor who have no capital. Our time poverty prevents us spending time with those whose social poverty and financial and health poverty leaves them on the fringes of the world, disenfranchised and angry. The prayer might not be intended for us in the first place but we need to learn to pray it anyway.
  2. Like Jesus we cannot simply accept the way the world works. We can never adopt a pose of tragic resignation. Like Jesus we believe that God is present . Economics and politics can never be exhausted by some kind of abstract analysis of how self-interested individuals will operate. As bad as things might be the world is not just the domain of human power it is also the domain where the Spirit is being poured out. We should expect not just to see self-interest… we expect also to see love and sharing. Not everyone will be a good capitalist – thank God. So we hope and pray for the undoing of oppressive economic situations and we look out for the signs of the economics of God’s kingdom in our communities.
  3. Following on from this. We cannot just write off this prayer and Jesus teachings about debt as if they are unrealistic. Our prayer for liberation from oppressive systems of debt hinges on us also being people who practice forgiveness of debt in our own lives. In the midst of a society that keeps count of everything… even puts a dollar value on human life. We need to be people who build into our common lives habits of not keeping count. What mother keeps count of the debt her children owe her? What would it mean to pay your mother back? You never can… and that’s how it should be.

I am struck how cigarette economy works among smokers. If you’ve got smokes and someone asks for one you always give. You know they will probably give you one sometime later, but you don’t keep count. It’s a gift because it’s not immediately cancelled out by payment. The relationship is more important than the dollar value. There are ties that bind. Like a family.

Let’s strengthen our human economies … so that the financial one doesn’t dominate our every moment.

  1. .. and this picks up from last week’s talk about consumption… as we become aware of our our own economy is built on the back of slave labour and poverty in what we used to call the 3rd world this challenges us to be even more attentive to what products we consume… so that we can reduce our reliance on other people’s debt bondage… release us from debt as we release those who are indebted to us.

To conclude I want to go back to what I called human economies (actually I stole the term from David Graeber). I think Paul understood this idea. He has this vision of a community which is like a body. If one part hurts the other parts also hurt. So others reach out to help alleviate the hurt. Its not something we keep count of. Measuring what people owe separates people from the bonds of community. Each has different gifts to offer – unlike money the gifts are as different as the people are different. And they must offer their gift to the human economy. From each according to their ability to contribute. To each according to need. And so God creates spaces where relationships are of more interest than the measureable value of things exchanged. Perhaps this is what relief from debt and debt’s bondage means.

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Bread for the Day Ahead

June 9, 2019

Ezekiel 34: 17-20, Proverbs 24:13, 25:16, 1 Jn 3: 16-17

 

We think we know what prayer is. The disciples of Jesus didn’t. So they asked: Lord teach us to pray. For them there was a big question around how to pray. If they thought of prayer as ‘just another chat about what’s on top’ they wouldn’t have asked. They know that it makes no sense to think about God like a chat with another person, even an invisible person with special powers. They know that if God can be considered a person at all it is very different from any thing we know of as a person. So prayer is very different from anything we might think of as a conversation.

To pray is to be needy and to know it. To pray is to be dependent on God and to know it. And to bring that dependence before God.

In answer to their question Jesus gives them a template for prayer. And this template spans six areas of our life, six domains of our existence. He asks us to bring these six domains of neediness to God

Let’s quickly go through those domains before we turn to today’s section.

We need to know God’s name, God’s character and identity. A distorted God-imagination is a distorted life. Hallowed be your name. We need to know what God is doing in the world. It shapes all we do. Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth…. [skipping over todays lesson]. We need to have our broken and distorted relationships healed. Forgive us. We need to be led into our own way of following Jesus, our own vocation. Lead us… (not into temptation) lead us on the narrow less travelled, hard-to-find way. And finally, we need to be set free from the power of evil in our world and our lives. Deliver us. Deliver us. from one kingdom into another.

So today is “Give us this day our daily bread”. I think it is best translated “Give us today, bread for the day ahead”. So just to get us thinking… let’s turn to our neighbours in two or maybe threes and discuss together what word or phrase (two or three words) or idea would best summarise this domain of need in the model prayer.

Material world… physical needs… food… consumption … trusting

This is the part of the prayer where we consider the material world and material needs. We have a later prayer for our relational needs… later in the prayer we talk about our vocational needs, even our socio-political needs. This section call us begin with what is in one sense basic (we may not live by bread alone, but we can’t live without it). We begin with the need to consume, and to consume well, to live in a good relationship to the material world we are part of, the world we need to live in. Let’s talk and pray about consumption in this world (on earth as it is in heaven). Let’s talk about consumption in a world of ‘consumerism’. Jesus wants us to pray about how we consume.

Let’s talk about it now. At a time when we have nearly consumed this planet to death. Jonathan Cornford summarised the situation perfectly when he wrote.

“At the deepest level we have become a consumer society. No longer is the purpose of the economy to produce things for the good of the people; rather, the purpose of people is to consume things for the good of the economy.” (p. 61)

In biblical terms ‘consumption’ has become an idol. We have come to measure human well-being in terms of GDP. The greater the GDP the greater our social well-being. The more the better. Consumption has become our spirituality.

We need to consume. Jesus doesn’t ask us to stop consuming. He asks us to pray about it. Give us today our basic consumer needs for the day ahead.

And one of those key needs is to know the difference between what we need (symbolised in the bible by bread) and what we want. I am reminded of the contrast between Jesus’ prayer and the famous phrase attributed to Marie Antoinette as the poor of the revolution are storming her castle in hunger ‘let them eat cake’. Jesus was in touch with the real material situation of his friends. Ours is not so desperate. And so for us knowing the difference between needs and wants is perhaps the most difficult matter for our prayer life. After all in a world where unlimited consumption is a duty the marketeers have to create new wants and make us think they are needs. It’s not rocket science (or maybe it is at one level)… but we all know how advertising works… images of a better world, an perfect world create dissatisfaction in us, a sense of inadequacy in us… they prod our vulnerabilities and we will quickly run to the shops or online to find healing. A lot of prayer is required to know the difference between needs and wants. Especially if you have some disposable income. If you live in the third world it might be different. Enough for today might be a matter of survival. Living in the Council flats with mental health challenges you might be struggling to get through today with enough drugs to medicate your illness. It might be a matter of survival. But for the rest of us… what will it mean for us to pray for the bread for the day ahead. What will it mean for us who are not desperately poor  to live as consumers on this fragile planet.

This little prayer is enormous… And so often we put it in the too hard basket. I was talking to my friend Dave recently. He told me he had decided to go Vegan. There were lots of reasons, but some were simple enough. The three or four top things , according to the experts, that we can do to reduce our destructive consumer impact on this planet include: 1. Stop eating red meat, 2. stop eating dairy, 3. stop eating food that comes to NZ by plane. Easy… and yet so hard. Much prayer will be required to go vegan. So pray for Dave and others who are taking up this challenge. Pray for yourself and the process of reflecting on how you consume. When you pray for others… don’t just focus on their psychological comfort pray about their consumption. That’s how Jesus wants us to pray.

Pray about reducing your consumption. Give us bread enough for the day ahead. Tomorrow is another day, more bread. Jesus wants us to trust now. These are complex and difficult matters. That’s why we need to have focussed and deep prayer. That’s why we need time before God. Can we leave the future in God’s hands… or will we need to earn more money just to be safe. We might have less time to use for the needy in our lives. But the pressure to pay off the larger mortgage, the pressure to secure things against disaster… that little nervousness that doesn’t really trust God for the future, that worries about more than the day ahead. That’s the hardcore centre of this little prayer.

Jesus thinks we should be more worried about having too much than about having too little. According to Jesus being rich is dangerous… dangerous because it stops us participating in God’s kingdom.

“How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!… It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God (Mk: 10: 23-35)

… woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation (Luke 6:24)

And it’s not just me as an individual that needs ‘bread for the day ahead’. It’s us as a society. Give US, this day, bread for the day ahead. Israel knew that responsibility of thinking about enough for all members of society. Their prophets called them to let the land lie fallow every seven years to ensure its sustainability and future productivity. They called them to leave aside enough for those who were on the margins in poverty. The true Israelite prayed for daily bread for the all the people, not just himself… indeed for the whole ecosystem.

Praying about consumption changes the way we think about things we want and consume. Recently one of our residents at Granville Flats offered his skills to set up a Fixery each week. People come along with things that are broken and take time to fix them and to learn how to fix them. It’s therapeutic we often say, to take the time.

It sends a little challenge to the religion of consumerism. Every time you buy a new thing it sends a message to the market. Make more of these! Extract more resources! If you buy it second-hand or fix it, you don’t send that signal. You reduce the waste pile. You feel ok about the rough and ready second-hand things that you used to feel embarrassed about.

We could think about ethical shopping… credit cards….

We could think about constraining our means… earning less… a sure-fire method of reducing our consumption. Less disposable income… more time.

There are many in this congregation who think a lot more about this than I, including my wife. People who could share their insights about how to consume well. Results of their own prayerful living.

Imagine if we took this dimension of the Lord’s prayer seriously in our time and place!

It’s so easy, isn’t it, to allow the dimensions of the problem, the scale of the task to become an excuse to do nothing. Life is exhausting enough when you are working long hours in the vicious cycle of consumerism… to also have to think about what to cook for tea, what containers it comes in, how your shoes were made, whether you really need a spare pair… and so on .

That’s why it’s a matter for prayer – rather than worry. By prayer we mean not just using words, not just asking, but really taking the need before God, taking time before God on this. Taking it before God in a way that opens our eyes to God’s serendipitous grace… to new possibilities we would never see if we did not pray.

Abba God, May your generous name be known… may your sustainable kingdom come… may we consume responsibly and generously… so that your healing would spread through our relationship and lives to the healing of our often oppressive and at times evil society.

Beware gratitude!

March 8, 2019
tags:

Give us a prophet

 

The cosmos is a battlefield

a prophet will be king

The dark hills harbour villages

where none but the downs boy sings

 

The southerly it comes and goes

shivering the mountain spine

we hold our hats and turn away

to catch the five past nine

 

the wind embraces trees in sway,

the wandering wounded wait

a Dick Smith pamphlet passes by

takes flight to heaven’s gate.

 

If we can’t find the bugger soon

the rumours might attack

and pierce our burdened barricades

when no one has our back

 

Defend us now from kindness

let the trumpet pierce the grey

for the angels have been sleeping

at the heating of the day

 

If the prophet is not willing

give us hoods and let us brood

lest the smell of bread unleash for us

a flood of gratitude

Who are you? (sermon at IBPC)

February 17, 2019

Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Tegel prison

1 Corinthians 1:12-30      1 Peter 3:8-18

You know when you go to a party and you meet new people. There’s this kind of strange process you go through. Each trying to find out who the other person is. To portray a certain image of ourselves… for those good at it who are also extroverts … a real buzz. But for those not so good at it, or socially anxious, its something to be avoided (This is where beer comes in handy). For the introverts fun for a time but exhausting.. For those a little younger and driven by hormones, maybe not so exhausting.

Once upon a time it might have been easy to go quickly to questions like ‘what do you do? But nowadays it’s a tricky to define yourself by your job. You gotta start with small talk but you can’t stay there forever.

I think Millenials know better than earlier generations that there are more important questions than your job and even your status in society…. These things don’t really answer the question ‘who are you?’

This year started interestingly in the flats… There was this meeting in Rintoul St Flats (up the hill a bit further away from Island Bay than Granville Flats). It didn’t quite go as planned. The agenda went out the door. Underlying conflicts surfaced quickly as they do in the flats. One woman had clearly been thinking about what she wanted to say and she looked straight at me. “The thing that has been bothering me,” she declared, “is that we don’t know who YOU are…. You haven’t been properly introduced. We think of this place like a marae and among maori we have a proper powhiri process.”

I took a deep breath. I was a bit taken aback at first… we’d chatted and I’d been introduced informally… but she was right…  We hadn’t been properly introduced. The powhiri is a powerful way of binding people together, hearing who people are, breathing in their breath, sharing the air and the life of another person.

I realised in that moment that this was a gift … a God-moment even … The outcome of the meeting was that we all agreed to set up an event for proper introductions.

Granville Flats is like a second home to me now – whānau. But Rintoul Street Flat’s have been different. Some people I know really well. For others I’m still an outsider. There are a lot more underlying tensions and strains in Rintoul Street. The peace of Rintoul Street is a fragile one at best.

We had our introductions event on Monday. Alongside myself (and Sara and Ange from youth group and Nathan and Nanu), the Urban Vision Team led by Dave and Maria introduced themselves. They are even more newcomers than I am. The new leader of the Wellington City Council Housing Team introduced herself.

We tried to answer the deeper questions. Not just what are your names and jobs? But why are you here? What are you on about?

It’s a tricky question when you put it like that… almost a challenge. What right do you have to be here? What significance to you have? What authority do you act with? What is your agenda?

Jesus was asked this question all the time. … Everyone wanted to know which of the existing boxes he fitted in. And of course, the beautiful thing was, he didn’t.

In Rintoul Street it’s like… Are you some kind of a spy? Are you a police mole? a council agent? Are you a priest or a minister or vicar (or somesuch)? I get the feeling that Ministers are a kind of known category… but Community Minister? What kind of a beast is that? … Are you a social worker? A chaplain? Are you a white middle-class do-gooder?

That last one really catches me. Because there is too much truth in it for comfort. Maybe I am, in some ways

How was I to give an honest non-evasive non-defensive answer?  Rather than call on a title, or fall back on ‘institutional legitimacy’, I found myself turning the question back on myself. “Who are you?” becomes “Who am I?”

Our second reading today has the Epistle of Peter telling us to “be prepared to make your defence to anyone who asks you for an account of the hope that is in you.” That’s interesting in moments of challenge, often what people see is ‘hope’, not just theories but hope that is deep within someone, hope that motivates. They want to know about that.  Hope shines in dark places. Hope is not just talk. People will see hope in you when they see perseverance.

When Dietrich Bonhoeffer was in prison and about to be killed he wrote a poem entitled Who am I? In spite of his upper-middle class cultured confidence he discovered he needed to ask himself this question. And when he did he discovered two people, the person before others and the person alone. And both were not a pretty sight. Let me read it.

“Who am I?  They often tell me
I stepped from my cell’s confinement
Calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
Like a Squire from his country house.

Who am I? They often tell me
I used to speak to my warders
freely and friendly and clearly,
as through it were mine to command.

Who am I? They also tell me
I bore the days of misfortune
equably, smilingly, proudly,
like one accustomed to win.

Am I then really that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I myself know of myself?
Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
Struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing
My throat, yearning for colors, for flowers, for the voices of birds,
thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness,
tossing in expectation of great events,
powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,
faint, and ready to say farewell to it all.

Who am I? This or the Other?
Am I one person to-day and to-morrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
And before myself a contemptible woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me like a beaten army
Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?

Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine,
Whoever I am, O God, you know I am yours.”

For Bonhoeffer, the secret in not being paralysed when challenged –in spite of the mess he discovered in his soul – the secret is to know that you are not your own person. When other people saw Bonhoeffer they saw confidence. When he saw himself he knew fear in his bones. But fear is not the opposite of hope.

This week I’ve been listening to a song by Lana Del Ray which has the line ‘Hope is a dangerous thing… for a woman like me’. You get a sense of why that might be from the rest of the song… so its a bit depressing. But then it ends with a kind of twist… ‘But I have it’.

In the end of the day… it’s not that I’ve got it together. It’s that God has got a grip on me somehow.

It’s so counter intuitive. We are taught to spend all our life learning to be our own person. And then with our faith we discover that we are not our own person.

To be a Christian means that you have been captured in your heart and imagination, in your sense of purpose, in your sense of moral calling by the wisdom and power and beauty of God that fills and shines out in the life of Jesus from Nazareth. As Paul writes in today’s lesson, it means that you belong to Christ. You belong to the strange Christ, the crucified Christ. The embarassment in the world. The foolishness which is God’s wisdom.

It’s easy to say it, to say we belong to Christ. What if rather than merely saying it, out of duty… what if I take the time to discover it in myself .

If you do, then I believe you are on a journey of learning to trust God deeply. It doesn’t happen instantly

And in fact you only really go on that journey if you face challenges, challenges to your identity, your place in the world. It’s when you go through dark times, when you ask yourself ‘what’s the worst that can happen to me here’… and in asking that question you might just discover that you know in your heart that God is the God of Jesus… that even in that worst thing, God will bring good out of it and bring you and others you love to something good, in this life and in the next.

In the end of the day you can serve others without paralysis if you don’t need to fit, if you belong elsewhere. You don’t belong to any of the tribes that want your loyalty. You don’t have to decide whose side your are on. Like Jesus you are on the side of those who suffer the most.

What you have seen is that the most powerful thing in the world, the thing that is saving the world from itself, is suffering love, the love that goes to its death rather than indulge in violence and warfare. This wisdom of God which is foolishness to nations and philosophies is now your calling, your place in the world. You rest, you find your sabbath, on the power of God which is the power of the cross.

Go Wellington Anglicans!

November 17, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 17, 2018

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do we mean by the powers?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Conclusion: Three Dimensions of Christian Political Discipleship

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

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

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

Thanks be to God for the gospel!

 

 

 

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

November 17, 2018

John 15: 12-27

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[discuss]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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