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Christians in the Political Season: Getting Ready for a Very Different Future

November 5, 2011

Joshua 24: 1-3a, 14-25        Matthew 25: 1-13

“The kingdom of heaven is like this…”  What does Jesus mean when he begins all his stories with something like that? He means if you want to know what it will be like when God really does rule… as opposed to what it’s like at the moment… then listen up.

Jesus was a prophetic voice for a different world. Jesus was not happy with the world as it was. I don’t know if he’d be part of the protest in the Octagon if he were here today… but it strikes me that he’s much more likely to be among the protestors at St Paul’s Cathedral in London than among the church leaders who threw them out.

In the Octagon, they don’t exactly have a clear outline of what the future will look like. I’m not even sure if they have parables to tell about it… but they know in their bones that something is terribly wrong with the way the world is… And so did Jesus. And I wonder whether we do.

For Jesus the kingdom or rule of God is not here… yet! Jesus said, when questioned by Pilate about his political aspirations said, “my kingdom is not from this world”… it comes from elsewhere, but it is coming and it’s coming here. Jesus is talking about a future that is coming by God’s grace whether you’re ready or not.

There are signs of it sneaking in like a little mustard seed. You can see it in a father forgiving his wayward son, you can see it in an eccentric employer who pays the workers nobody wants a full days wage for only working the last hour, you can see it in an enemy citizen who goes out of his way to be kind to a guy beaten up on the roadside. You can see it here, you see it there, but still the predominant, the surrounding background reality is a world in which God’s rule is excluded, and various forms of empire compete to control and compete for our loyalty….

So Jesus stories tell us what to look for, as the future starts to sneak into our world. Today’s parable is a little different. Its main point is not so much the shape the future, but the importance of being ready for it.

There are two groups of bridesmaids, old translations have virgins rather than bridesmaids. There are virgins with olive oil in their lamps and virgins without. And their job is to wait for and escort the bridegroom to the banquet. And suddenly the bridegroom turns up in the night and those without oil plead to those with oil. Give us some of your oil. And they reply we have no extra virgin olive oil.

So the unprepared virgins rush off to the merchants for oil and when they get back the doors are closed and the bridegroom doesn’t recognise them “Truly I tell you, he says, I do not know you.”… they are unrecognisable witnesses.

What do you think it means to have ‘oil in your lamp’? Some of you will remember the old chorus from your youth “Give me oil in my lamp keep me burning”. What do you think it means to be ready for the entry of God’s rule? of a new way of ordering life, a new economy, a new politics.

Let me offer a suggestion. Jesus announces in the Gospels that the kingdom is at hand, in his life good news is coming to the poor, the future is breaking in, the kingdom is near at hand. He brings, if you like, the oil. His life is the oil that lights the lamps and provides the light in darkness which points the way to the wedding banquet. Those who share in his life now…. those who share in his way of being in the world now… because they find themselves set free from the grip of the world as it is now…are ready for the life to come. They have oil in their lamps. They can be recognised as part of the advance guard of this kingdom that Jesus launched in his stories and established in his death and his resurrection.

I have been thinking about this in the light of the build up to the elections. It’s easy in political debates to limit our discussion to the world as it is. To live simply as if we were at the end of history, as if the system we live in now is (well… problematic… but) the best of all possible worlds and all we can do is tinker with it, because basically the future can only ever be more of the same. Like the virgins without our oil, we go to sleep unprepared… We think those who occupy the octagon must be basically crazy. We talk of disaffected youth… as if Jesus were not disaffected with the world. We talk of them as being eccentric and on the fringe, as if Jesus didn’t live on the fringe and call us to do the same. We talk as if criticism of greed and the greedy speculation of the market crash … as if our unquenchable thirst for economic growth is destroying the physical sustainability of this planet… is simply naïve. I hear people saying why don’t they just knuckle down and make a contribution to life… of course it’s not perfect.

My question to those who just knuckle down in the world as it is, is this…. That’s fine… not everything thing is wrong about the world we live in. But is that all you can do? Is there any oil in your lamp for a different future.

What the protest reminds me of is someone who I think did have some oil in his lamp. His name was Te Whiti o Rongomai. Anyone know who he was? In the latter half of the 19th Century he was one of two leaders at Parihaka. In a time when the Colonial Government of NZ was (greedy, like the financial speculators and bankers in our current financial crisis), they were confiscating land, by force, left right and centre, Te Whiti and his fellow chief Tohu Kakahi were not only schooled in their ancient maori traditions, they were Christian pacifists who looked forward to a different world. The called their people to a non-violent response to the government. They had some creative ideas, they pulled out the surveyors pegs. And when their fences were broken down they had teams of fencers who built them again overnight. And so on the 5th November (Guy Fawkes Day) 130 years ago today, the government invaded with an armed constabulary. Over 2000 adults had been sitting in silence since midnight expecting them. They had baked 500 loaves of bread for the constabulary as a gesture of hospitality. The children greeted them with dancing and singing. And the Officers read the Riot Act and arrested Te Whiti and Tohu and took them off to Chch for two years without trial. Many of their men were imprisoned in Dunedin and built the causeway and the road around the Peninsula. Many of them died (about 1 per fortnight) of cold and influenza). After taking away the leaders the soldiers came back the next day and destroyed the town and raped the women.

About this time Mahatma Gandhi was a teenager and was inspired by their commitment to non-violence. According to the faith of Te Whiti and Tohu, in the purposes of God the ends do not justify the means.

This week a friend Kristin and I went down to the Octagon to talk about this… and to speak to the idea that in Aotearoa New Zealand we could celebrate those guys rather a Dutch Catholic who tried to blow up an English Parliament

But what I see in that story is some people who are caught up in the way of Jesus. And they have oil in their lamp. They can be recognised as followers of Jesus. And even if as a nation we don’t honour them, surely the church can remember with pride… people with oil in their lamps. People whose imagination, whose sense of what is a possible future… was shaped by Jesus.

It’s about being ready for the kingdom. Our Jesus imagination means we can be visible (lamps lit up) rather than invisible Christians whose faith is hidden away in our private life.

Is it time to occupy St Clair?

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