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Advent 3: a sermon on Joy, Hope, Jesus and John the Baptist

December 11, 2022
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Matthew 11:2-12


Every Advent we light a series of four candles. The candles are named after four ideas: Hope, Peace, Joy and Love. We can think of them as four dimensions of Christian faith, each with a kind of emotional aspect. I like to call them theological emotions (What the heck are ‘theological emotions’ you say!)

Hope – about the future and its impact on now… for Christians not just any possible future, but God’s future shaping how we live and see things now

Peace – about the healing of conflict and broken relations, about how God heals relations and life (in the broadest sense it’s God’s shalom)

I’ll talk more about today’s candle, Joy, in a moment

Love – is about the directedness of the self towards the other, giving oneself to an other. Of course for Christians it is about God’s directedness other-wards, God’s self-giving (which of course is why Jesus is so central to the thought of God’s love).

All all of those dimensions of life are also associated with certain feelings of hope, of peace, of love and of joy… and not just universal emotions, but emotions in a context, in a story, in a way of making sense of the world, they are theological emotions – of course other people who aren’t Christians have these emotions, but Christians have them differently – Christians have a particular emotional landscape, I think

With that introduction we turn to today’s dimension – Joy

Joy – Joy is not as time-liney as hope, it’s not so focussed on the relation between the future and the present, Joy is simply responding to goodness, the presence of God and god’s goodness now, in the moment.

Is joy the same as fun? Pretty close I think. Religion tends to give fun too much bad press… puritanism and all that. Joy and fun give you energy, they are the times you feel alive, right now. They make the work lighter. Joy lifts you up.

What I want to do for the rest of the sermon time is focus on comparing Joy and Hope. Cause the reading for today is a reading about John the Baptist. And John is your archetypal ‘hope guy’. And not because he is looking on the bright side of life. Quite the opposite he thinks the world is going to hell in a hand-basket. He’s out there saying “repent, the end is nigh”. And it’s not like street preachers telling you to feel bad about the naughty things you have done in your life and tell God about it and he will pardon you and you might go to heaven. Not that kind of repent. Repent means turn around, change the way you’re living. And not so much the private naughty things. He really is concerned with the whole shape of the common life. He is out there dramatising a counter-culture. He is dressed up like a prophet. He is playing the wild-man wearing camels hair and eating locusts and wild honey. He is uncivilised, or better he is anti-civilisation. In the years when Emperor Augustus brought a so-called peace to the world on the backs of enormous slaughter across the known world, in the years of togas and lavish parties and the ‘games’, John the Baptist says: NO!

I think I’m more a hope person. If the candles of Advent were personality types (which there not!) I’d be a hope person. Hope people are the people who can see how bad things are… and don’t give up. Why? Because they are optimistic?… not really… I think it’s because they have captured a vision of God’s future.

To hope is to have captured a vision of God’s future and to refuse to give up

So when I think about the world. I think about the way our society is structured to encourage us to maximise our own self-interest for the sake of economic growth. It’s built into the way we live our lives. We are being trained (almost without being aware of it) to be selfish. This means we want more and more. Our lives have big front and big back doors. And this has joined forces with the fossil fuel technology and the internal combustion engine and the invention of plastics to drive the planet to the point of destruction in a few generations. This fascination with maximising our own individual self-interest has in turn joined forces with the internet and social media to isolate us from one another, especially those who are different from us. And these technologies have trained us to hate those who are different from us and this in turn has fueled more wars.

Sound like hope to you?

Sure it doesn’t sound like happiness. But the thing is once you have caught a glimpse of God’s future and decide to hold onto it, you can look the present in the eye. You can take a hard look at it … because it is being invaded by God’s future. The thing about the biblical writers is they have this social vision of God’s future

The biblical writers have a social vision of God’s future

Jesus: talks about the ‘basilea’ (reign) of God (at a time when everyone was seeing the basileia of Caesar). He invites people to be liberated from slavery to money, indeed to give money to the poor. To trust God like the lilies of the field, to forgive debts. He tell of a kingdom in which the most vulnerable have pride of place

Luke: told stories of a community who sold their properties and shared their resources for the good of all, giving as they could, receiving as they needed

Paul: talks about a community where each person contributes what they are able, what they have been given, and their life is so reciprocal that they are member of one another, intimately bound up with each others joys and each other sorrows. It is a community that dignifies the weakest members. He calls it the ‘body of the Messiah’.

And once you take this socialist vision of intimacy and shared life, of common good it really sets up a contrast. Things begin to look pretty bad. We might say, the more you hope for, the less happy you are with how things are.

The more you hope for, the less happy you are with how things are.

But it also means we don’t give up. In our time maybe hope means that hold onto the possibility of resisting the economics of maximising self-interest.

That’s hope. But today Joy challenges Hope. Jesus challenges John the Baptist in the name of joy.

If you recall, John is in prison and he is curious about Jesus. Is he the one who is to come? Is he the representative of the future? He sends messengers with a question. Rather than directly claiming any status, Jesus sends back a reply to John inviting him to simply look at what is happening “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

Jesus tells Mr Revolution to pause and look at what is happening in the now – in the goodness of God’s kingdom present tense. “Go tell John what you hear and see…”

Jesus has great admiration for John. He reminds the people why they went out in the desert to listen to John. John wasn’t one of those fancy dressed city-suits, the softly clothed salesmen of the empire, selling the greatness of Rome. John was a prophet, an agent of hope.

Jesus knows that, but he wants John to be more than a prophet. He wants John to have joy. Hope without joy is angry and sterile.

As a hope kinda person, I don’t want to be angry and sterile… So last week or so I started to do a Joy Diary to pay attention to the little things – the present that keeps getting crowded out by the past and the future.

Hope without joy is angry and sterile.

I’ll read some extracts from last week’s diary of Joy to finish… but this is my challenge to you this week… this busy week. Why not write a diary of Joy?

Day 1

  • the last day of our marriage therapy… we laughed at small steps made and new understandings shared
  • Coffee with a colleague, doing similar work. I could see in his smile how much he loved people, and we shared this joy. He asked ‘Do you have any little old ladies who just want a cup of tea and a chinwag’

Day 2

  • A tenant comes into the Community room. She has so much energy and enthusiasm for simple joys and blunt honesty I feel better about humanity
  • I meet a I woman I know down the street she recently shifted in with her daughter. She now tells me she is in woman’s refuge to escape from her daughter. She bears the bruises around her eyes as witness. I feel honoured by the fact she trusts me and shares her struggle. We hug before she continues her fragile way. I feel the pain and also the joy in sharing life in the midst of pain.
  • An older man sits intoxicated near our house in his wheelchair. He doesn’t know where he is and says he has been waiting for a taxi for an hour to get to the hospital. Turns out he lives in hospital care a mere 100 metres from where we found him. We walk him home and Ash and Iris get to experience a different side of life with me.
  • A friend has shifted to a new flat. I worry about his loneliness. He reports with satisfaction that there are less druggies where he now lives, less temptation. He is also keen to come back to Berhampore for Nourish Church.
  • I catch up with another friend who has been avoiding people for a while. It is a joyful meeting. His teenage daughter who was not talking to him is with him. They are reconciled. My friend is back doing art
  • Two tenants rescue a neighbour who has been yelling and screaming at her vulnerable child all night. Early in the morning they find her naked in the doorway of her flat in fetal position. They call police and paramedics. In the calm light of the next day we share a compassionate conversation with the mother of the woman. I sense the compassion of neighbours for neighbour – even for difficult neighbours
  • At the conclusion of our small celebration of Communion in the Community Room a tenant declares ‘It’s so good to be here in the presence of God.’

Day 3

  • We panic about not getting the funding application in for the Granville Christmas party. But our friend in the Council works hard to find another source of funds so all is not lost. I rejoice in her willingness to go above and beyond the call of duty
  • A tenant who has very little English and is hard to understand used to seem very sullen and isolated, now loves to join in the community life. She is now notable for her wholehearted belly laughter.
  • A coop member comes in as she does most weeks and vents to us about how frustrating her work is. She does so in such a humorous way we all laugh with her

Day 4

  • The growth in the Community Orchard after all the warmth and rain is extraordinary. It is a jungle. The earth is overflowing with riches.
  • A tenant I have known for a long time, through thick and thin at Granville, sits and reflects on the last 6 years. We count blessings. It is a quiet joy in uncertainty
  • Our Māori conversation in the Newtown café is challenging but we get caught up in the flow and solidarity of it and it is hard to stop. The language itself is a source of joy

What were you times of joy this week?

              Silence.

Sing: In the Lord I’ll be ever thankful

The Resurrection and Parihaka Today

November 7, 2022

Luke 20:27-38

Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him and asked him a question,
“Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first married and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally, the woman also died.
In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.”
Jesus said to them,
“Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed, they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”

It’s nice to have this reference back to Moses and the burning bush after we’ve just finished our series of sermons on Exodus. But what this text brings into focus for us today is the idea of resurrection. I want to go a bit deeper into that idea this morning.

The resurrection was a relatively new idea in the history of Jewish thinking. So it’s not a surprise that there seems to have been a group of Jews who DIDN’T believe in it – the traditionalists (Sadducees). In our time resurrection seems like a very traditional belief. But in Jesus time it was more of a novelty even though it had become the majority view. Jesus too accepts what was the ‘modern’ view. For once he is on the side of the Pharisees. He defends the idea of resurrection against its Sadducee critics.

Today’s reading is a foray into theological and philosophical ideas. Jesus may have been a peasant from Galilee but that doesn’t mean he isn’t interested in philosophical ideas. So bear with me as we dive into some philosophical theology and unpack the idea of resurrection a little. After all that’s the nature of today’s reading.

It comes in two parts. Firstly, there’s the older Jewish idea about future justice (the kingdom of God, the day of the Lord and how things end). And the second part is the less traditional idea (not exactly reincarnation) but the idea of higher or spiritual bodies, angelic bodies perhaps – not subject to biological decay – it’s an idea about the mode of resurrection. It’s also an idea about what kinds of things there are in the world.

This latter idea (re spiritual bodies) is probably imported from Persia. It sees the world has existing on multiple levels. There is the visible material world and there is the invisible world with principalities and powers and angels, usually linked with things that are visible – cities and rulers have their corresponding angels and powers.

You can see both ideas in our reading today. Jesus talks about ‘this age’ (aion) and ‘that age’ – the age to come, the day of the Lord, the age of future justice. Then he talks about those worthy of resurrection being ‘like angels’. Future justice and spiritual beings both feature

You can see how these two ideas fit together. If the old Jewish idea of a final judgement is going to be more than just the salvation of the people from their current enemies, if it’s not just the victory of a local tribal god but is the salvation that comes from the creator of all things. If it’s about hope for not just them, the righteous Israelites, but for the whole creation, if it is to be a gathering together not just of survivors at some future date, but also a gathering up of the past and all who have died, the past with all its wounds and evils and if it’s going to be the healing of that past, if it’s going to be restorative justice in that greater sense, then there has to be some ‘resurrection embodiment’ – as hard as it is to understand there has to be some way of talking about that hope. People and their worlds need to be ‘raised up’ to a new level. Not merely resuscitated. They need to be beyond decay and the fragility of biology.

By Jesus’ time these two things have come together and today’s reading amounts to a ‘trick question’. The clever plan of the Sadducees is to prove that it makes no sense to believe in the resurrection. Nowadays philosophers would call it a thought experiment (technically – reductio ad absurdum). Like the thought experiment about time travel, going back in time and changing things that will change the future so that the person who travelled back in time wouldn’t end up being born. So they challenge the very idea of resurrection by imagining the situation of a woman who remarries several time. Whose husband will she be in the resurrection?

Jesus (surprise, surprise) turns out to be the deeper thinker. He replies, actually, you haven’t really understood the idea of resurrection that you’re attacking. It’s not about people coming alive again to continue on with marriage and other such things related to their biological embodiment. They might as well have asked what age people will be in the resurrection. Will they have wrinkles? Will they be recognisable? and so on. It’s all the same mistake.

Whatever the raising of Christ’s body and our body might mean, it doesn’t mean a continued biological life as we know it – like someone walking out of a cryogenic freezer. It is going ‘up a level’, up a dimension, to ‘angelic’ modes of being – v 36 ‘they are the equals of angels. In Acts 16 Paul defends himself by making sure they know he is not a Sadducee, who, he says ‘say there is no resurrection – neither as angel nor as spirit’. Paul like Jesus holds to the mode of final hope, or resurrection as a lifting up, a raising up into spiritual embodiment. We will have ‘spiritual bodies’, he says in 1 Corinthians 15.

And so Jesus final statement in his response to the Saduccee thought experiment is to announce

“[God] is the God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all are alive”

When I read it I think, hmm that sounds deep and meaningful, but I’m not entirely sure what he’s getting at. It’s kind of ambiguous… He’s not saying that people don’t die. Not that God doesn’t know that people die. But perhaps that God’s purpose is that people be alive, all of us. And not just biologically alive, but alive in a fuller and more powerful sense. Maybe now, but certainly in the age to come, in God’s future. God is the God of this strange future of aliveness we call ‘resurrection.’

So, I wonder, can our philosophy handle that kind of hopefulness? Can our sense of science handle it? Are there limits to science? Most scientists I know understand that science is limited… but also known that it doesn’t mean that it’s okay to believe in any old thing that goes bang in the night.

I don’t think it’s unscientific to believe that there’s more going on in cities and societies and leaders than the sum of their parts. Maybe that’s what the ancients were getting at when they talked of the angels and spirits of empires and rulers? Maybe we have an inkling of a social science which can imagine the spirit of Wellington, or the spirit of Trumpian populism, or the Spirit of rugby or gender politics or what have you.

But clearly, we don’t have any science (at least not yet) for this language of hope, of spiritual bodies beyond all biology and decay? It’s clearly beyond the domains of current science. But even if we don’t understand the ‘how’ of this hope, the ‘how’ of this ancient worldview… I wonder what difference might it make to believe it, or to live as if it or something like it were true? So what!

I want to put it to you that it made a difference to Te Whiti o Rongomai as he called his people to non-violent resistance….

“The lions rage . . . I will go into captivity, and the lions will dwell upon the land; then there will be no more war . . . I cannot contend with such. Christ did not, but [was] crucified for the sins of the world. He is God. I will be a god. I sacrifice myself that peace may be . . . I am here to be taken! Take me for the sins of the island. Why hesitate? . . . Though I be killed I yet shall live; though dead I shall live in the peace which will be the accomplishment of my aims. The future is mine, and little children when asked hereafter as to the author of peace, shall say—‘Te Whiti’—and I will bless them.” NZH. 3/11/1881 and Rusden 1895:292.

What does this somewhat strange speech from Te Whiti of Rongomai tell us about the practical implications of resurrection.

[bullet 1 “Radical political action is rooted in hope”] It says to me that radical political action, the kind of radical political action associated with Jesus and his crucifixion and Paul and his martyr communities, the kind of action of those who feel called to do more than fiddle with the settings. who think there is something profoundly broken and problematic about the empire, the system they live in… from the economic system with its climate destruction to the mental health system with his human destruction, the action which calls out for something profoundly new is rooted in hope.

[bullet 2 “Resurrection hope produces non-violent witness”] What I see in common with Jesus and Paul and Te Whiti o Rongomai is a willingness to bear witness to something, willingness to pay the price, the human cost of bearing witness to something that might well be ineffective (at least apparently ineffective), that might lead to your own demise and even the demise of your people. In all cases that willingness was associated with a kind of resurrection hope. They all believed ‘God will vindicate this work.’ God will provide, even if not in this life. As Te Whiti puts it, “though I be killed I yet shall live, though dead I yet shall live in the peace which will be the accomplishment of my aims.” In all three it’s not clear what exactly the nature of that future life will be. But notice Te Whiti’s way of talking about his own future life. “[Christ] was crucified for the sins of the world. He was God, I will be a god.” Paul’s idea of the resurrected life being ‘spiritual or angelic’ and Jesus comment in our reading today that the dead will be ‘like angels’ in the dimension of future hope is reflected in Te Whiti’s hope too.

“God became human”, the Church fathers used to say, “that we might become divine”. Raised to be more fully alive in the life of God along with all creation more fully alive.

[bullet 3 “Activism requires theology and vice versa”] Theological and philosophical ideas are not alternatives to politics – to action in the world. Theology and Action both need each other. Today’s reading reminds me that for Christians activism will never be enough on its own. Like Jesus we need not hesitate to get involved in the articulation of hope, to engage in theology. Today’s reading highlights Jesus the philosopher. His response is brilliant… not brilliant in the European enlightenment “cult of genius” kind of brilliant reserved for polymaths and savants. Brilliant in the deeper sense of understanding what matters.

[bullet 4 “Institutional survival is not the focus of Christian hope”] Hope for the Sadducees was kind of two-dimensional. They were a group closely tied to the temple cult. Keeping institutions running forever made sense to them. After the destruction of the temple, history tells us nothing about them. It seems like they disappeared. Hope for followers of Jesus, resurrection hope was formed around the blood of the martyrs and the blood of Jesus their risen messiah. His theology took him to his cross

Te Whiti o Rongomai had drunk from this kind of theology. He knew this kind of hope when he spoke to the people of Parihaka. In a sense he knew what our next song celebrates. “Nothing is impossible”. Thanks be to God the source of our hope.

The Name

August 29, 2022

Genesis 3: 1-15

So today we continue reading the book of Exodus… or, as the Hebrews call it, the book of Names. If the book of Names was a musical album, today’s chapter would be the title track

Quick Recap with Weird Bits

Moses the Egyptian prince. Moses the Egyptian killer. Moses the friend of the underdog. Moses the exile, comes across a magic bush that makes him curious. As he draws closer God speaks to Moses out of the bush, and tells him to take his shoes off. The writer assumes the readers will know who or what the word God refers to. It’s not clear that Moses knows which God. God makes a big deal of identifying which God he is. ‘I am the God of your Father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. This makes Moses afraid.

Moses’ ancestral God then announces something that we assume will resonate deeply with Moses. He announces his solidarity with oppressed people, with slaves and their suffering. God commissions Moses to go to Pharaoh, and walk off with all his Israelite slaves. God promises to be with Moses. And says the sign that it’s this God, and not some other God who sent you is that afterwards, once you have all escaped from Egypt, you will worship God (this God) on this Mountain (Horeb).

That seems a bit weird… The sign to prove whose authority lies behind Moses little request is not going to happen till after the rescue mission is over. That’s gonna work! I think the scribes who put these stories together during the Babylonian exile were brilliant, but they relied on a high level of suspension of disbelief

And then in vs 13 Moses (who is clearly struggling with the task) says:

If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name? What shall I say to them?

Exodus 3:13

Let’s imagine I am in a cafe in Wellington and I meet, by chance, the sister of a friend of mine that I have never met before, let’s say it’s his only sister. And she says to me, ‘Say hi from me to my brother when you next see him.’ Imagine I said, ‘Ok, but what if your brother asks me what your name is? What shall I say?’ What do ya mean? Why would the brother ask me about the name of his only sister. Surely he would know the name of his only sister?

So maybe Moses thinks they will test his knowledge of a name that they already know – like its a password? But how does Moses know there is this password. It’s all a bit weird. I think its mainly because we are asking the wrong kind of questions of the text. Like asking whether the world was actually created in seven 24 hour day. There’s a big gap between how the story is told and what might have actually happened.

In the end of the day I think the strangeness is really a symptom of the fact that the point of this section is really as a lead in to to the name section, a lead in to that iconic moment so key to Israel’s understanding of the very nature of God.

Two general observations:

  1.  firstly names mattered to people in Moses’ time. They matter not just as a kind of label but as a window into what it means to talk of a God or of God at all.
  2. We get to THE name by distinguishing this god from other possible gods. There’s something important about what is distinctive about Jewish faith going on here.

The Big Push-back

So whatever the reason, when Moses asks God ‘What’s your handle?’ ‘Tell me your name’?’ God, it seems, simply says ‘Nah… I will be who I will be’. He gives push-back. It’s not a simple No. In spite of the push-back he allows Moses to use the verb ‘to be’ as a kind of name. ‘Tell them ‘I am’ has sent you’.

Odd questions pop into my head when I read the Bible…. How would a language that had no verb ‘to be’ translate this name? Māori language has no verb ‘to be’. So I looked it up. “Ko ahau anō ahau nei.” So the Māori translators of this passage hear the god in the bush saying “Me here, it’s me again.” And what I hear through the Māori imagination is the insight that the god of the bush (who knows Moses’ need for a name and gives one to Moses), nevertheless wants to Moses to know that the name is not as important as the presence of God in the present. His push-back is, why do you want a name when I am right here with you?

God resists being categorised, being used, you might say. Where Moses want to name and claim his ancestral god, God gives push-back… I am beyond these categories. I will be who I will be. As the Māori might say, stop trying to talk about God and recognise first that God is right here in the room (so to speak) If anything talk to God. Maybe first of all listen to God.

To name or not to name? It matters. But of course there were other gods in Moses world. Part of the issue is distinguishing which god. Consider the most famous ‘other god’ in the Hebrew scriptures. His name was Baal. Baal means owner, or possessor – not quite capitalist, but overtones eh?

Then there is the main enemy in Moses immediate future – a guy called Pharaoh. In actual fact pharaoh wasn’t a name at all it was a title (like king) – but the book of Exodus uses it like it was a name and never says which pharaoh. Pharaoh was a title for someone the Egyptians regarded as a kind of a god … somewhere up the ladder, the hierarchy of gods – like the caesars, humans in the ancient world could promoted to be gods. The title pharaoh literally meant ‘big house.’ Not quite ‘real estate’, but overtones eh?

When faced with gods like ‘capitalism’ and ‘real estate’ the Jews face the challenge of naming God? And this issue is so important to them that they respond to the spirit of the pushback with great seriousness. They never use the name Yahweh, even though they have been permitted to. Who knows what Jews say instead of Yahweh when referring to God? Hashem. The name. The name did this. Hashem did that.

I learnt from a Jewish Rabbi (Jonathan Sacks) one of the main reasons behind this is not so much theoretical – how can we capture the mystery of God in one name. The point is practical. Names are associated with images, and as we saw with Baal and Pharaoh, names reflect our tribe and our identity. When we name God we create a mental image of a God like us and not like them, says the Rabbi.

This week my spiritual director asked me, What image do you have of God? and I struggled to answer. It seems to me that the Hebrew God’s push-back against images is even stronger than against names. Thou shalt make no graven image. Jews take that very seriously. It’s not just a prohibition on religious sculpture. It’s a bit like the problem of naming. The God who can’t be categorised is also the God who can’t be imaged, and yet we still have and still need names and images. So we start to imagine God…  but in our own image and not in the image of our enemies, we imagine God to suit own own needs. God becomes a comfort to us and a weapon in our battles against our enemies. Against this exercise of imagining God in our image. The Hebrew tradition reminds us that every human being, including our enemies is a living image of God’s life. God is creating images of God in every life we meet.

Where the book of Genesis is one long exploration of the problem of violence in human life, from the Adam and Eve conflict to Cain and Abel, to the Noah story and an earth full of violence, to a society structured by violence in the tower of Babel, to more sibling rivalry from Jacob and Esaus and then Joseph and his brothers. The name story at the centre of the Torah, address us with the God who remains beyond our categories and whose only image is seen as much in the face of our enemies as in the face of our own family members. That’s powerful!

In summary we might say, where Moses represents (in the story) the temptation to name and claim God, to enlist God for our cause, the Jewish scriptures remind us also that God has named and claimed each person, even if they don’t trace their whakapapa back to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob

The Hebrew scriptures know that there is a connection between ‘peace on earth’ and us taking seriously a god (perhaps we could say the God) who is both uncontrollable and outside all categories and all human struggles to control the world. This is God’s big push-back. The push-back towards peace that lies at the heart of the Hebrew bible – even though a few chapters later we have stories of God slaughtering the first-born Egyptian sons and whole people groups in Canaan. Notwithstanding this… which Nathan, I’m sure will preach magnificently on… the Hebrew bible is setting a framework for peace.

Barefoot at the Bush

Which brings us to that other deeply symbolic part of the story – the burning bush. For as everyone knows, scientists or not, to burn is to be consumed. Burning is the release of the energy that makes a thing the thing it is. The being of the thing is in motion and dissipating into another thing, into ashes as it burns. A flame that does not consume, is not really a thing… not a thing in this world. It is a sign of the mystery of God, the mystery of being itself. The mystery of the reality that underlies everything and is therefore not a thing – God is that on which every thing depends for its thingness.

Here you can see the beginning of movement from the idea of a God who is a powerful resource or threat within the world, to God who is properly creator of all and intimate to all. A God you try and use to a God you can never use.

I want to finish with one final insight that struck me as I read this story. God pushes back against naming. God prohibits images. But there’s one thing God asks of Moses. Do you remember what it was?

Take off your shoes. Why is taking off your shoes important in relation to God? The usual response doesn’t get us very far. It simply says that it is a symbol of respect. But why is taking off shoes an act of respect? It makes sense to keep dirt out of the house but we are talking about a burning bush in the desert. It strikes me that shoes are a part of our protection. To be barefoot is to be vulnerable. And as a subset of vulnerability to be barefoot is to abandon status associated with shoes and to stand like any beggar off the street. When we come to God we do not need to defend ourselves.

The protection that we feel we need in the battles with other human beings and with the natural environment can be abandoned before the holiness of this god in the bush. In contrast to the God who strikes dead those who touch the ark of the covenant, or who blinds the eyes of those who might look on him, this God invites us and permits us to put our defences aside. In fact maybe the only way we will hear the voice of this God is when we stop trying to defend ourselves. When we are still. When we stop trying to capture God within the confines of imagination. When we listen for the God who is present in the present. Ko ahau anō ahau nei. Who speaks in every human life, no matter how violent or traumatized, especially in the indestructible life of Jesus of Nazareth, a life that refused all violence in the cause of God’s redemption. Take off your shoes, listen. Ko ahau anō ahau nei. I’m still here.

Review of “Bleed Out” by The Mountain Goats

August 25, 2022

There’s that moment when you are listening seriously to the new Mountain Goats album, ‘Bleed Out’ and you start to wonder if the songs can get any better. You’ve just felt the driving passion of the purity of revenge that is kept alive with a sadistic search to prompt a No from deep in the belly of your victim. You’ve started to take that to an apocalyptic level that leaves its mark on your psyche. From these heights you’ve descended to a profound cynicism that knows what its like to be an ageing (handsome) mercenary. You know in your heart of hearts that John Rambo never went to Vietnam and that the real purpose of life is to rise to the top like Marlo from the Wire. You have been on a Darnielle-guided tour of the psychology of violence. You have seen the abyss and are still standing. Can the songs get any better? You need to die.

That is the moment when you embark on your seven minute tragi-glorious reflection on the demonic. Now you have hostages like there is no tomorrow. It’s supply-side economics seeing itself in the mirror. And the guitar is taking you to heaven. The good news is that you will reach heaven three songs later. The death-dealer has seen the truth and the truth is finally setting him free to Bleed Out for another seven minutes. The song that never ends takes ending to a new level. You’ll get blood all over your face but you’ll still be smiling.

What does it take to change a life? to change a world? The Gospel to the Hebrews in a nutshell

July 31, 2022

When I went on retreat a week ago… I sat down one wet day and read the book in the bible called Hebrews (the letter to the Hebrews). I’m not sure why I picked it… mystery… intuition. I think we often take the bible as a series of sayings that we kind of link together with our own theories, rather than get a sense that each book has it’s own unique vision.

Choosing Hebrews was a bit random, but as it turned out, it connected with one of the really deep conversations I have with one of the people at Ngatiawa River Monastery. He was a guy who had lost everything in his life… his relationship, his health, his memory, his daughter, his home… he had nowhere else to go. So Ngatiawa took him in. He was clearly a deep thinker with a lot of education but he said with the health problems and memory loss he wasn’t interested in the intellectual truth of Christianity, he just wanted to see what it looked like practically. And doing that saved him – those were his words. What does Christianity look like in practice? I want to come back to that question.

But my challenge today is to capture in one brief sermon that Gospel of the letter to the Hebrews. The story that the letter to the Hebrews has to tell us about what God is doing in the world. Warning – not easy!

Part 1: The Speech of God

God has a way of speaking to us

God, having of old spoken to the fathers by the prophets, in many places and in many ways, at the end of these days spoke to us in a Son

(Hebrews 1:1-2)

The writer knows that God speaks in many ways. That God has spoken through the prophets. That God as spoken through something called ‘the temple’, that God speaks through the whole of nature/creation. But the way that matters for us, for now, is the life, the person, Jesus. Jesus is the speaking of God. God speaks to us through a life

Hillier, Tristram Paul; The Crucifixion; The Ingram Collection of Modern and Contemporary British Art; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/the-crucifixion-230468

Why? In order to make us holy

But we see Jesus, who was made just a little less than angels… so that by God’s grace he might taste of death on behalf of everyone. For both he who makes holy, and they are are made holy all come from one…

Hebrews 2:9-11

When God speaks to us in a life. God does so by living life in just the way a human needs to live a life, to die in just the way we need to die. Jesus takes this human journey through to the very end in just the way God desires it to be. The holy life, the holy death. And the goal of this life through which God speaks… the aim is that we will be ‘made holy’. The aim is not so that we go to heaven, some kind of getting out of life alive, or teleporting to another life. The aim is that we also get to live that kind of life, and become different kind of people

Why is this speech necessary? It’s all about liberation

And with his death he rendered the one holding the power of death (the slanderer) ineffectual, liberating us who have been bound all our lives in slavery by fear of death

Hebrews 2:14-15

Because, the sad backdrop to this story of gospel according to the writer to the Hebrews, is that we are caught up in one long and dreary problem. We are captives in a long history of death anxiety – and the kind of trauma that perpetuates that fear. We need our bubble and our defences burst open. If we are to hear the speaking of God and enter into God’s life, we need liberation, God needs to speak through Jesus. If we are to really hear God we need to be liberated. All the other ways that God speaks wont break us out of our current selves alive. They just won’t achieve the desired result.

What is the aim of all of this? Completing the work of creation – happening all the time.

For we have become partakers of the Anointed if indeed we cling to the origin of our assurance, firm to the end

Hebrews 3:14

So there yet remains a Sabbath rest for God’s people… Let us strive therefore to enter into that rest, so that no one should fall after the same pattern of disobedience

Hebrews 4:1-11

It’s like, says the writer… we are not fully created, we are not in the seventh day of creation, we have not entered into our (Sabbath) rest yet. We are half-complete people, stunted in terms of God’s purposes for us.

So (to summarise) God speaks, the word God speaks is Jesus, and the reason he speaks this way is that our development is stunted, we are people in captivity and fear. We need to be liberated. We need to be liberated if we are to hear God speaking and be changed.

Part 2: Jesus is like a priest

To explain more fully the writer to the Hebrews has this image. He says, Jesus is like a priest in the temple. Jesus the word… becomes Jesus the priest in the imaginative world of the letter to the Hebrews. But how does that help us … who live in a world without priests, temples or sacrifices?

What is a priest? (someone who plays God in the drama of the temple) Imagine life before the internet, before TV, before movies, before even novels. The temple is the site of drama, the place of symbol and meaning-making. The really interesting thing about the drama of the Hebrew temple is that it flipped the traditional pagan temple on its head… rather than the priest offering a sacrifice to God to appease the god, to get good crops or forgive sin or whatever, it’s God who does the giving. God doesn’t have to be bought at all. The priest comes out from the divine space at the centre of the temple with the holy name of God YHWH on his forehead and sprinkles blood, the symbol of life, on the people as a gift of God.

But the temple is still, says the writer to the Hebrews merely an exercise in symbols and shadows. God is spoken about. Maybe God speaks through it. But in the end of the day it’s like the difference between saying words and doing something about it. Human beings need more than law and philosophy, they need more than movies and temples.

So what kind of a priest is Jesus?

One [Jesus] who has become such [priestly] not according to the law of a fleshly commandment, but according to the power of an indestructible life

Hebrews 7:16

That phrase stuck in my head during my retreat. ‘The power of an indestructible life’. Jesus life was destroyed. And yet, paradoxically, in giving it away to be destroyed, it becomes indestructible. God gives it back. If God gives us Jesus in the first place, we kill Jesus and God gives us Jesus again… his life is indestructible

The power of this indestructible life of God, according to the writer, is that it takes its root in us… not just in our head but in our heart (the centre, the desire that motivates us) … It’s not merely theoretical but it addresses the whole person

It’s powerful because it addresses the whole person.

Because this is the covenant that I shall ordain with the house of Israel… ‘placing my laws in their minds and I will inscribe them upon their hearts, and I will be God for them and they will be a people for me…’

Hebrews 8:10

Here’s where the metaphor of the priest becomes exciting. Jesus is the priest who takes the actions and dramas of the temple outdoor and onto the street and into action in history in politics and economics. In contrast to a priesthood of ‘symbol and shadow’ in the theatre that is the temple Jesus is a priest in history – he doesn’t just want to save souls he wants to save the whole of human life, he wants to break the back of sin – the root problem, not just the individual acts we might feel guilty about

It is powerful because it addresses all of life.

…he has appeared just once, at the consummation of the ages, to abolish sin by the sacrifice of himself

Hebrews 9:26

It’s powerful because it echoes the prophets.

As you know the prophets were the traditional critics of the priest. Jesus is the priest who does what the prophets call for.

“Sacrifices and offerings and burn offerings and sin offerings you neither wish nor delight in… see I have come to do your will”

Hebrews 10:8

It’s powerful because it call us and enables us to act rather than letting us off the hook

Some people give you the impression that this act of divine grace makes it easier for us as Christians – like we don’t have much to do or be. The writer to the Hebrews really challenges that version of grace. We must cling to this life of Jesus and put our life on the line too. Jesus didn’t take up his cross so we don’t have to. Jesus didn’t give his life away to the violence of his enemies so we could avoid doing it. Jesus didn’t forgive so we don’t have to. The writer to the Hebrews knows it is the opposite. His aim was to set us free to enable us to do these things.

But ours is not a shrinking back toward destruction, but faithfulness for preservation of the soul.

Hebrews 10:39

Finally, it’s powerful because it turns us towards the future

Faithfulness is the substance of things hoped for the evidence of unseen realities.

Hebrews 11:1

If we think of Jesus as someone who lived in the past, the writer to the Hebrews wants us to see Jesus as paving our future, ahead of us

Looking ahead to Jesus, the leader and finisher of faithfulness, who, preferring the joy that lay before him, endured a cross, disdaining its shame, and he sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

Hebrews 12:2

I am struck by the fact that most of us have our own stories of the glorious past and why it all went wrong… The Garden of Eden and the fall. For some I think the garden of Eden is the baby booming 1950s with niceness, ¼ acre sections and the fall is the 1960s sexual revolution, for others it might be the pre-European traditional Māori culture and colonisation is the fall, for me it is probably the first 200 year of Christian community among the destitute of the Roman empire and the fall is the transition under Constantine which ultimately meant that the oppressed became oppressors and colonisers.

For the writer to the Hebrews it’s not really about the past. It’s about leaning into the future, being dragged into the future clinging to the coattails of Jesus.

And this future orientation means being prepared to be shaken up. Not tying everything down to a glorious past. Like the ‘indestructible life’ of Jesus, the kingdom we are being given says the writer is an unshakeable kingdom. Not because it won’t be shaken, but because when our world is shaken it will survive the worst

Rather [than Sinai] you have come to Mt Zion… ‘once more I will shake not only the earth, but also heaven’. Not this once more indicates the removal of things that are shaken, as things that have been made, so that the things unshaken might remain. Therefore receiving an unshakeable kingdom let us have grace, by which we may worship God… for indeed our God is a consuming fire.

Hebrews 12:26-29

This whole thing about having a future oriented life means you can be shaken, you can lose a lot along the way, you can go through the fire that purifies (our God is a consuming fire).

And all of this gives a certain shape to the Christian life… to what my friend in Ngatiawa was looking for… to what it looks like in practice.

You hold tightly to mutual love. (Hebrews 13:1).

You hold tightly to ‘hospitality to strangers’ (Hebrews 13:2).

You make sure you ‘remember those in prison’ (Hebrews 13:4).

You hold tightly to your marriage commitments (Hebrews 13:4).

You hold tightly to good deeds & ‘communal ownership’ (Heb 13:16).

You hold loosely to money (Hebrews 13:5).

I think the whole vision of Hebrews is beautifully summarised for us in a passage in the final chapter:

Thus Jesus (the one through whom God speaks) suffered outside the gate so that he might make the people holy by his blood. So let us go forth to him outside the camp bearing the reproach directed at him. For here we have no abiding city but instead seek the one about to come

Hebrews 13: 12-14

Let’s finish be saying a bit more about my friend he has lost most of his memory capacity but found what Christianity looked like in practice by living in community in Ngatiawa. What he does most days is a kind of art practice. He goes down to the river bank and shapes what he finds into beautiful architecture and space among the trees. He knows that the river will sweep it away. It has done so at least once already. But he does it anyway.

It seems to me like a kind of indestructible life, even though it is destroyed.

The past will always be left behind. The future draws us into the faithfulness of Jesus. We can expend our lives as a gift to others in what looks like futility. Because God is faithful. God will give us back the grace of life indestructible, the grace of unshakeable kingdom.

Benediction from Hebrews 13:20

Now may the GOD OF PEACE – who by the blood of a covenant for the Age has led our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the flocks, up from the dead – equip you with everything for doing his will, making within us what is delightful before him through Jesus the Anointed.

Sermon: Boundaries, Role Models, The Kingdom of God, the Health and Safety Culture and the Soteriology of the Letter to the Hebrews

June 13, 2022

Hebrews 2: 6-15, Acts 16:16-34

At our mission team meeting a few weeks ago we were talking about an issue that is often on my mind. How do you keep good boundaries (which often means ‘how do you say NO?… for your own well-being and for those you work with) in the context of mission, in the context of the costliness of life and friendship shared with those who are poor or unwell.

I think about that a lot… about how messy christian mission is and how boundaries ‘simplify’ things a little. But that’s not really the subject of this sermon… it’s more of a segway into it… and maybe we’ll circle back to that at the end…. At the team meeting someone mentioned the importance of role-modelling good boundaries… looking at me. Bruce we want you to role-model it. No pressure! Which got me thinking not so much about boundaries as such as about role models. I found myself thinking: Who are my role-models?

This reminded me of someone who was a role model for me from about age 16 to about age 36 (we’re talk the 1980s and 90s). Here’s a picture of him.

His name is Bruce Cockburn. He was a rock star in Canada back in the day. Quite cute don’t you think? Anyone else had that experience… rock stars for role models. My friends know that when it comes to music I am a serial monogamist…

Before there was such a thing as ‘contemporary christian music’ or before it became a massive big industry, Bruce Cockburn was someone who sung and spoke quite openly about God and Christianity. He identified as a Christian even if others saw him as on the fringes. I started thinking about what kind of a role model he was for me. Cause there’s quite a lot about his life that I feel… no so excited about. I don’t think of him as a role model now. Maybe that’s the same for all role models (or should be).

The thing about Bruce Cockburn for me, apart from the music, was the words of the songs. And the thing about the words is the way they connected me in my young and sheltered teenage world with the wider world. Bruce Cockburn was a Christian who wandered the globe. In the 70s and 80s he spent time in Nicaragua, Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Chile, Honduras, Mozambique and later on Tibet. He visited refugee camps. He talked to people who had been tortured. He wrote songs about the helicopters flying along the borders of these countries and bombing villages and shooting the inhabitants. He ended up going on these missions for Oxfam to ‘bear witness’. The power of his songs wasn’t so much that they were overtly political protests calling people to action. It was more that he put you in the scene. You could imagine the villages, the smells and tragedy. He bore witness to the brutality of the world, of corporately funded, US funded, militias as they suppressed all opposition. He bore witness to the destruction of the environment in his songs. He bore witness to the raping of land and people in his songs. There is a kind of naked emotion in his songs that’s very powerful. And I think what his music did, was connect my self-centred teenage religion to the realities of the wider world.

In retrospect I feel grateful for having a role model who didn’t just have Jesus in his heart, but confronted the powers of death in the world (like Jesus). When I think about it, that was what Jesus should have done for me as a young person, but the version of Jesus I grew up with never did do. The Jesus I grew up with was helping me feel good about myself… maybe taking me to heaven, but not really confronting the real world I lived in.

Let’s look at a different version of Jesus from Hebrews 2:14-15 [ppt]

‘Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared their humanity.’

Why? Why did God become human? Why do we tell a story of God’s flesh and blood? God’s history?

Jesus of Nazareth took his life among the peasants of Palestine very seriously. Always he was tempted to vie for political power. Stories are told of his temptations – to seek power in the kingdoms of the world. He rejected that temptation. He refused to take power or to go military. But it didn’t stop him going to Jerusalem, the centre of power. He went to the place in the world where peasants and slaves were crucified by the powers that controlled the world.

Like Bruce Cockburn going to Latin America. Jesus went to Jerusalem to bear witness – to bear witness to the powers of evil, and to bear witness to the love of Abba of God.

Where Bruce Cockburn was emotionally naked before the brutality of our empires, Jesus hung literally naked on a cross, before the powers of the empires of his time.

He hung there, he shared their humanity… (says the reading)

‘that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death – that is the devil – and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death’

I don’t know who you think the devil is, or what kind of a thing you think the devil… I don’t want to go into that today… but whatever you think, the reality in todays text is that we all need to be broken free from a kind of slavery… slavery driven and shaped by a devilish (a dominating, enslaving) fear of death. According to this text Jesus lived and died so that you and me could be liberated from a fear, a fear of death, that controls our life, that enslaves us. Jesus didn’t die on the cross to do some kind of deal with God, to pay God off so he wouldn’t punish us for our sins. He didn’t set up some private scheme to help souls escape from this world one by one. He lived and died to take head on, and break the bondage he saw controlling the world, to break us out of our fear alive.

So how does this work today. How does fear control our lives? How does it end up controlling the shape of our society. It’s one thing to think about the scary stuff like Ukraine, or Guatemala, to think about the fear that drives Putin to send his troups into Ukraine. These dramatic events are like enormous factories of fear, which don’t just create fear, but are also created by fear. Perhaps we can only imagine their situation. But what about us here in Island Bay in 2022? What has Covid and public health taught us about fear? What does the debate in the US about the gun laws tell us about how the fear of death shapes our lives?

A book that I found really helpful in thinking about this is Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear by Scott Bader-Sayer.

In that book he says that Fear is not entirely a bad thing. The more we love something or someone, the more we fear their loss. If we were to avoid fear altogether we we would need to love nothing, we would need to detach ourselves from the world. This is not the Christian life.

Bader-Sayer says one of the signs that suddenly showed him (one day) the way fear is controlling our lives is that things that say on airline safety videos, ‘first secure your own mask’. Now that may be quite practical in a plane crash… but in someways it reminds us of the ways our society has made health and safety into the most important thing. The first thing we do, the common ethic we all share, regardless of religion or philosophy is to ensure our own safety and that of those we love. Whatever we believe in we all agree that we don’t want to die. So that becomes the default first principle. Health and Safety becomes our religion.

Rather than ‘seek ye first the kingdom of God’ we start to believe, first secure your own mask’

Rather than ‘seek ye first the kingdom of God’ we start to believe, first secure your own mask’, first avoid pain, first stay safe, first be careful. Don’t talk to strangers (or at least don’t let your kids do it). Practice safe sex.

Rather than, ‘Do not store up for yourself treasures on earth’, rather than ‘Give us this day our daily bread”, enough for today, we say, ‘First save for your retirement’. This is our culture. Safety first. Protect yourself and those you love. Secure your investments. Gate up your communities.

I need to be clear. Jesus is not against safety or fear. Our bible text is not about getting rid of all fear. But it reminds us that fear, although unavoidable, is also the very thing that can control our life and destroy us as a society and as people. The violence and the habits of greed and self-protection it produces lie at the heart of human sin. Fear grows, fear begets fears.

I want to turn to our scripture reading from Acts as kind of parable for the bondage of fear.

What strikes me when I hear that story is the question of the Jailer. What must I do to be saved? My immediate question is, Saved from what? The story does not say. He’s the jailer. He has not died in the earthquake. He has already be saved from the earthquake? But his job is on the line. His honour is on the line. His whole status in the world is on the line. His very life is on the line. He has failed in every way and was about to take his life by killing himself with his sword.

But at some point it dawned on him that there was another possibility outside the chains of fear that controlled his life. Up till that point he has lived in a system of domination, of hierarchy. He had no idea there was anything else.

I think he wondered when he heard those Christians singing in their cells after having been beaten close to death, and then when he found them alive and not running away. He realised that  he is dealing with people who live in a different world, people whose lives are free from this dominating fear of death. They don’t even run away when their prison is burst open, because they realise that the real prison is in hearts and heads not in chains. And the jailer is really a kind of prisoner and he needs to be set free himself and to be transferred to another kind of community (in sci-fi terms an alternative universe) – one not organised around safety first or a pecking order of domination. Being saved is being saved from a whole world of fearfulness.

What must I do to be saved? he asks. And the answer from Paul is clear: “Believe”. Believe in Jesus. Not believe that Jesus exists or even any particular thing about him first up. The Greek word for ‘believe’ is not about having an idea about someone. It’s more like cling onto, hold onto, trust yourself to Jesus of Nazareth. It’s more like finding a role model, and letting your whole heart respond to the one who fully modelled a life beyond the fear of death… trust in him and you too will be saved… you and your household. Faith doesn’t stop with one person. The whole household is effected… the life set free from this fear can become a way of life-together.

We are back to role-models again. A role-model who has good boundaries and knows when to say No and Yes but most of all a role-model who seeks above all else the kingdom of God above and beyond all safety and all fears. If we cling to such a role-model by the power of the Spirit of God, we too will be saved – along with our whole whānau.

God’s F-word

April 28, 2022

Matthew 27:15-24

Now for the festival it was the governor’s custom to release to the crowd one prisoner whomever they wished. And they had at that time a notable prisoner named [Jesus] Bar-Abbas. When therefore they were assembled Pilate said to them, “Whom do you wish I should release to you, Bar-Abbas or Jesus who is called the Anointed?” For he knew that they had handed him over through malice. But as he sat upon the dais his wife sent word to him, saying, “Let there be nothing between you and that just man; for I have suffered many things today in a dream because of him.” But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds that they should ask for Bar-Abbas and should destroy Jesus. And in reply the governor said to them. “Which of the two do you wish that I should release to you?” And they said “Bar-Abbas.” Pilate says to them, “What then should I do with Jesus who is called The Anointed.” They all say, “Let him be crucified!”

John 20:19-23

19When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.

When I was reading this passage of Matthew’s gospel in the weeks leading up to today’s sermon, I noticed for the first time that there is a tradition that Barabbas’s first name was Jesus, Jesus Bar-Abbas. Only a few of the early manuscripts include the name Jesus. So most English translations don’t have it. But it is there. And there is evidence that one of the major Church Fathers of the early church, namely Origen, referred to Barabbas as Jesus Barabbas. So, just this once, I am going to go with the New International Version (Lord help us) on this and imagine Barabbas as Jesus Barabbas.

What is interesting here is that in the story of the trial of Jesus we are presented with a pairing – with twins. We arrive before Pilate at the centre of power and Pilate has a choice between two Jesus’s (Jesus meaning “saviour”), two saviours.

In some ways it doesn’t matter too much whether the tradition about Barabbas’s name is true or not… because the meaning in the story is still there in his other name too. Bar-Abbas literally means Son of the Father. The choice remains the same. Which Son of the Father will Pilate kill?

One represents the kind of threat Pilate could recognise – a military challenge – whether it be with swords or tanks or missiles, the terrorist revolutionary. He represents the kind of battle Pilate had faced before and knew how to deal with. The other represents something even more dangerous, but something that Pilate cannot recognise as a threat… there are rumours about him, his wife is having bad dreams, the he is upsetting the Jewish leaders, something doesn’t feel right about this Jesus of Nazareth … but from a political and Roman point of view Jesus Barabbas is the obvious danger. Jesus Anointed (Messiah) was the wild-card, the unknown quantity. So Pilate kicks for touch. He asks the crowd to choose which Son of the Father they want. The one who lived by the sword, or the one who taught his followers to reject the sword.

And in kicking for touch he asks them to choose their Father. We all know who his Father is. His Roman gods live by the sword. He turns the question to the crowd: Who is your Abba? Who is God?

And they make their choice by choosing Bar-Abbas… they chose the one who lived by the sword, rather than the one who made a bid for their hearts in another way. The story presents us with a choice between two opposite twins.

It sounds awfully binary to our modern ears… perhaps over-simplified. But there is a sharp either-or in this story. It asks us to choose our Father – which in turn sounds very masculine. Not really though… Because within the choice of God is a choice about the ultimate values that guide our existence… it’s a choice about what aspirations are implicit in both masculinity and femininity – it’s above those things.

What will you do in a crisis that looks like it needs swords? What will you do under pressure when all your instincts say fight, or flight (or freeze)? Is there a fourth option? Is Jesus the Son of the Father or is Barabbas?

Second reading: John 20

They made their choice. Now God makes God’s own choice. We call it the resurrection. Of course, God has always made that same choice. God has always been the God of Jesus the Anointed, Jesus the peacemaker. For God it is not something new. But in our resurrection reading, they experience God’s choice. God unveils the truth… God re-engages the world with the true Son of the Father. God opens a way into the life of the true Father.

So in John 20 we find the broken followers are gathered in an upper room… lost… traumatised… but they are huddling together, they only have themselves. Had they been deluded by the wrong Jesus, the wrong Son of Abba? What are their options now? Their fight or flight had become freeze.

Jesus comes into the room and introduces them to the fourth F-word. What’s the fourth F-word?

The fourth F-word is forgive. Jesus greets them with a new possibility, a new possible response to the enemies who might kill them. Don’t fight, don’t flee, don’t freeze, but forgive. If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven. If you don’t they are not forgiven. Forgiveness is your key to freedom and your sacred responsibility. If you don’t do it, no one will.

Why responsibility? It’s not just about consequences, it’s about the defining thing – vocation, calling, mission

Because the defining thing, the impetus for our life is captured in the words of Jesus in the upper room.  “In the same way that the Father sent (missioned) me…”, in the same way he sent me to Jerusalem and to the cross, “…so I am sending (missioning) you” … to be the people of forgiveness. This says Jesus, is the F-word that defines what it means to be sons and daughters of the true Abba … We buy into this challenge with our lives or we are not in any serious sense Christian.

When we hear on the radio about children being sexually abused by Christian institutions, when we hear about bishops preaching in support of Ukrainian genocide, when we learn about this history of various Christian alliances with evil and violence over the last 2000 years we are pushed back to the question about what makes us Christian, why stay Christian?

The question for me is not about the overall balance of good and evil in the tradition we call Christianity, as if I had to somehow defend it on that basis. The question is what defines the tradition what is the defining impetus that still defines me. And the answer for me is remembered in today’s reading. We are part of a movement, a divine mission to turn violence around to transform fight and flight and freeze into reconciliation of people to community with one another by means of that other F-word – forgiveness.

So here we are on Anzac weekend when a grotesque and evil war of genocide and torture is being waged in Ukraine.

And here we are again being called to hear with all our being and our action the truth that the Abba of the universe is the Abba of Jesus the anointed peasant from Nazareth and not of Barabbas the warrior.

Anzac weekend it may be. But, much more importantly, it is the first Sunday after Easter. On this day, as on every Sunday, we remember first of all that ‘defining thing’: God has raised this Jesus, who shared our humanity, to life, this Jesus who was killed by human beings driven along by their fear of death, and, and in doing so has taken away the only weapon that every warrior has – the fear of death.

So fight, or flight, or freeze are becoming for us, a thing of the past. The thing for us, the mission that defines our life… is a journey towards a new community along a confronting path called forgiveness. It’s a hard journey… that’s why I used the word confronting… it is not about accepting or tolerating evil, it is about confronting it, but doing so in deep vulnerability and trust in the God who has taken away the power and fear of death at Easter.

This is our good news. It is also our calling.

Putin, Protests and Plague

March 25, 2022

1 Cor 10: 1-13

I wonder how you feel about praying for your enemies?

A couple of weeks ago I felt called to pray for Vladimir Putin. I don’t exactly know why. I had gathered at the Russian embassy with a group of Ukrainians just that weekend and felt their pain and anger.

Maybe I was thinking about what I would do if I were God… I would deal to the problem at its centre – I must have been imagining myself to be God’s expert adviser

So on my walk from Berhampore to Island Bay I prayed my way through the sections of the Lord’s Prayer for Putin… just in case my expertise might need a bit of tweeking

In a sense I prayed for Putin’s demise. For the collapse of the self he has created, the macho identity surrounded by macho sycophants. Not that I had any idea how this might happen… that’s partly why I was praying. I wasn’t praying that violence would beget more violence. But it was a kind of imprecatory prayer… you know those Psalms sung against oppressors that wish their children were bashed against a rock. I don’t think as a follower of Jesus I could ever pray that prayer. But when I followed the Ukrainians up the hill to the Russian embassy I began to understand where that kind of prayer and those psalms might come from.

My prayer for the end of Putin’s empire and violent life-project is, in effect to pray for his redemption. If Putin is redeemed, then the evil crimes of his army in the Ukraine will cease.

So far my prayer has not been answered. So far it doesn’t look like the burning coals of purification have been heaped on his head. But I still think that somewhere deep underneath Putin’s hardened nationalistic bravado is a little boy in need of redemption.

Around about this same time the protest was in full swing outside Parliament in NZ. One of my FB friends who I think comes more from the political right wing than I do wrote this (Glenn Peoples on facebook):

Obviously the acts of violence of the Nazis, the Communists, or any totalitarian regime are/were horrendous. But perhaps more sinister and less easy to detect in ourselves is the language and thought that made such grotesque violence possible: They aren’t people, they are: * Scum * Vermin * Animals * A river of filth * Feral etc

My Fb friend was talking about the kind of language being used to describe the protestors at Parliament. Of course, the same point could be made about the language used by these protestors about Jacinda and her team and the media. All of it a kind of precursor to war.

The little boy or little girl in need of redemption gets forgotten and the political other is being thought of as non-human. And so anything becomes possible.

In my experience over the last month, more common than the language of ‘vermin’ and ‘filth’ (disgust language) was the language of intellectual ridicule. All our covid frustration got rolled up and spat out in the term ‘idiots’.

But then working among the more marginalised of our city I have become sensitised to the elitism in that language. For those of us privileged enough to have had a university education it is obvious that we are deeply reliant on a fragile network of knowledge and research called science. Not everyone gets that. For many on the margin, scientists can seem like just another weapon of the powerful to control their life – as reliable as their favourite internet guru. On top of that most of those on the margin of our society have survived traumatic abuse in their childhood. The brain then is constantly on the alert for danger, anxious, suspicious. It is a soil in which conspiracy theories grow well.

Many of those who struggle to survive both mentally and economically in our society found their tribe amongst others down on Parliament lawn.

So, although many disguise their hatred of the protest by ridiculing their intelligence. I don’t really think intelligence is the main issue here. Especially in a world when our brains are being taken over by Google and Facebook.

Did you know that scientists (yes that fragile network of knowledge and research) have found that emotions of anger and rage attract our attention for longer than other emotions. So written into the algorithm of fb, the program that decides what you see at the top of your fb page is a code that prioritises angry things. Same with Youtube videos. Keep watching and it will progressively show you more angry or outrageous videos. Alongside that they have a detailed profile of all your interests and likes and purchases and so on so they can target exactly what will attract your attention. And the business model of Fb, Google and Youtube is at base very simply. Screentime is money for them. The longer they can hold your attention the better their business does… and remember they know that psychologically the easiest way to do that is to stimulate your anger.

The polarisation and the anger doesn’t happen overnight the impact of google and fb design take time. Like climate change it happens slowly. It builds up in the way we communicate and in our distracted inability to focus, in our suspicion of experts, and our decreased empathy for those we disagree with.

Looked at that way the protest was just waiting to happen.

Once upon a time we read books. Between 2004 and 2017, according to a large study the proportion of American men who read for pleasure dropped by 40% and women by nearly 30%. You might think of reading fiction as a kind of ‘empathy gym’ – where people practice exercising empathy, taking the time to deliberately enter into the world of the characters and imagine what it might be like to be someone else, like a scientist or a protester on the parliament lawn, or President Putin. But now we just scroll through funny pictures and pithy sayings.

Some people think you go to church to cheer up. To be encouraged and comforted.

The truth is we are in a difficult time. We have been through difficult times. Our future is uncertain.

Paul reminds the Corinthians in today’s reading. Your ancestors went through difficult times together, united. They went though the sea together, they ate the same spiritual food together. They made mistakes together and some suffered the consequences of those mistakes. In effect they suffered together. And the stories Paul says are ‘typological’. They are symbolic stories to teach us how to live now. We have these morality tales of the ancestors to remind of us the dangers we too will face if we are to be refined to be the people we were created to be. Life for us will not be a bed of roses. But the dangers we face are simply the part of the ancient path to be human.  So Paul’s finally comment to the Corinthian Christians is something we can here again today too.

No temptation has seized you other than what is human (temptations are the human journey – especially the temptation to be swept up in hatred for our enemies); but God is faithful He who will not let you be tempted beyond your capacity, but along with the temptation will furnish the way out, so that you may be able to endure. (I Cor 10:13)

Thanks be to God.

Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention (book review)

March 1, 2022

by Johann Hari

Johann Hari is a masterful writer, delightfully easy to read, crystal clear, strongly researched. You will not be bored. I picked up this book because of his interview with Jesse Mulligan on Radio New Zealand. I normally wouldn’t have read it, suspecting to hear a variety of familiar anxieties with a moral overtone and some concluding self-help. Beneath my suspicions was another sneaking deeper suspicion that I needed to read this book. That I was in fact struggling with distraction and that there was more to consider than the usual sources of self-flagellation. As it turns out there is, and Johann Hari shows us how this is much bigger than a moral panic and much bigger than an individual self-discipline issue.

He explores the nature of attention, the nature of creativity and reflection, the effect of rage on reason, and, most importantly, the way we find ourselves not merely in the middle of a epidemic of attention deficit, but of stolen attention. As Hari shows, this great robbery is a deliberate design feature of surveillance capitalism.

For me this book is one of a series of light bulb reading moments on my political journey. It started with a book that demonstrated the intrinsic conflict between Christianity and

contemporary capitalist culture (Daniel M. Bell Jr’s ‘The Economy of Desire). It progressed to a book which demonstrated the way our climate change disaster is rooted in contemporary capitalist culture (Naomi Klein’s ‘This Changes Everything’) and Hari offers us an account of how our ability to reason and empathise is being stolen by the contemporary capitalist culture and how this loss will undermine our ability to respond to the climate crisis.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough if you are looking for something that makes detailed  connections between issues and demonstrates an awareness of the big picture we must face while at the same time suggesting some (necessarily) radical solutions.

Theology Proper

February 21, 2022

You are the fountain of life. The light by which we see.

Psalm 36:9

It seems as if these two metaphors capture the heart of Christian theology proper. By ‘theology proper’ I mean the main things Christians say in response to the question, What is God?

The first metaphor seems more familiar. It is the metaphor of a source from which energy and life itself comes forth. God is that from which all things emanate. This is not to say that all things are God. In fact it clearly differentiates life from God. There is a direction to this relation that determines the being of beings. God and the universe of life is not to be identified as one ‘thing’ but rather as a duality and at the same time a dynamic in which one is grounded in God and thus has an intrinsic relation to God without which it would not be. This is a metaphor elaborated in the doctrine of creation.

The second is a metaphor from the world of visual sensory life. God is likened to light, but God is clearly not photons. This metaphor reminds us that there is more to seeing than negotiating our relation to the world by indwelling the wave-particles of the sun’s energy. As beings who make sense of the world and make sense in the world we judge significance all the time. We cannot but do so. We are bound in the very act of conscious existence to a higher reality, to a truth that allows us to see. To see is always to know God, albeit through a glass darkly. We are a people on a journey to God surrounded by a God on a journey to us. Sight is a gift in which we participate. This is a metaphor elaborated in the doctrine of salvation.

To see is not to sit, cartesian-style, in ones head and look out. To see is to act in the world, to move consciously through time and space guided by a God who has elected to share this time and space and socio-political history. To see is to be saved. It is salvation in motion.