Recently I read the section of Luke’s gospel where Jesus gives his disciples their missionary training regime. He sends them out to the villages to find ‘people of peace’. He tells them to stay with the ‘person of peace’ (Luke 10:1-12). My purpose in this series is to update you with stories about people of peace that I encounter in my wanderings in the vicinity of Berhampore and Island Bay. The names I use are fictional.
Encounter 1: Ahmed
When I told the barber why I was in Wellington and that I needed a new computer he immediately recommended Ahmed. So I went down the street to Ahmed’s store. Ahmed was away at prayer. He goes to the mosque in the early afternoon so I couldn’t buy anything off him that day. I needed to time my visits around his prayer routine. But the next time I was down the street I visited and he offered me a great deal on a new laptop which I could carry around in my bag. He was very thorough and seemed to offer wise advice and extensive backup support. We got on well. Shortly afterward he friended me on facebook. When I was next in the shop looking for a new keyboard and mouse for the office at work he didn’t try to sell me a keyboard but gave me a free second hand one and a great discount on a mouse. He commented that since I was using it for my church work he was happy to help. He mentioned in passing that he was very interested in something I had posted on facebook on ‘spirituality’. I couldn’t recall what he was referring to. What struck me was that he, a Muslim, didn’t see me as the opposition. He at least imagined that there might be some overlap between his concerns as a Muslim and my work as a Christian ‘Community Minister’. I wondered to myself whether I would have done the same to him if I were in his shoes. It made me think of the story Jesus told about who my neighbour was. He didn’t just tell us that we should be kind to our enemies, he told a story about how one of the enemies demonstrated the kindness of the reign of God… Tomorrow I am going to the ‘open day’ at the Mosque.
Read “Song to the Lord God” by James K. Baxter
Lord God, you are above and beyond all things,
Your nature is to love.
You put us in the furnace of the world
To learn to love you and love one another.
Father, we sing to you in the furnace
Like the three Jewish children.
The hope and the doom of the love of friends
Is eating up the marrow of our bones.
Lord Christ, you are the house in whom we live,
The house in which we share the cup of peace,
The house of your body that was broken on the cross,
The house you have built for us beyond the stars.
Lord, Holy Spirit, beyond, within, above,
Beneath all things you give us life.
Blaze in our hearts, you who are Love himself,
Till we shine like the noonday sun.
Lord God, we are the little children,
the feeble ones of the world.
Carry us for ever in your breast, Lord God,
Give us the power by love to be your holy ones.
It’s a hopeful poem. An enormously hopeful poem. But it sits that great hope alongside powerful lines about weakness and fragility. “The hope and the doom of the love of friends, is eating up the marrow of our bones”…. “we are the little children the feeble ones of the world”
It’s a good poem to read after Trinity Sunday. “Lord God, you are above and beyond all things. Your nature is to love”
It’s a good poem to read when you wonder what you are doing with your life… as an individual and as a church. “You put us in the furnace of the world to learn to love you and love one another”. Powerful stuff!
It’s a good poem to read when it looks like the mission of Jesus to the world is struggling and it seems like we have nothing to contribute. “Lord Holy Spirit, beyond, within, above/ Beneath all things you give us life/ Blaze in our hearts, you who are love himself/ Till we shine like the noonday sun.
Today’s sermon is entitled “How to build a fire”.
Elijah the prophet comes near to the people of Israel. And he calls them to decision. He says “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.”
Diversity is great in the people of God… but when it comes to the identity of God, and therefore the shape of our life, maybe not so great. Such diversity leaves a community limping. We don’t have Baal these days. Perhaps the contemporary version is ‘If Jesus is Lord, follow him! If Mammon, follow it.
The people did not answer him a word, it says. Pregnant pause…
Choose your God. Choose the God of pagan sacrifice or choose the giver of all things!
The background of this story and others like it is really hard to get our heads around because it is so ancient. But it marks for our history and for Jewish history the change from the pagan religious world (which was Israel’s background as well as the surrounding context of the ancient near east) to the kind of monotheism (faith in ‘creator God’) we have inherited. The transition from a kind of world in which you do deals with the gods, you make sacrifices to the gods, and the gods provide protection and fertility and whatever else – to a world in which God gives all things unconditioned by what we do, the rain to rain on the just and the unjust, and ultimately the grace to be set free from the kind of angst that produced paganisms of all kinds (ancient and modern) from Baal worship to Neoliberal Capitalism.
In that context what is this story all about? How do you sacrifice to the God who provides rather than demands. How do you do the sacrificial ritual for a God who is outside the whole pagan sacrificial system, who cannot be bought off. How do you light a fire for God? For us it is all past history. We don’t do sacrifice… at least not the ritual kind.
But even in this story you can see change coming. The answer seems to be that you don’t light the fire at all. You don’t do it for God in the first instance at all, you do it for the crowd. Elijah sets up the competition, not as a sacrifice to God (or gods) but a sound and light show for the people. The challenge for God or Baal (if he’s listening) is to provide the sacrificial fires himself. If God is the one who provides the sacrifice, then the whole logic and point of sacrifice is being undermined. And to add insult to injury, not only does Elijah change the nature of the day’s entertainment, he sets out to prove that he has complete confidence in the God who provides. He tries to make it hard for God to light the fire. He floods the altar with water. He pours cold water over the sacrificial system. It’s hard not to laugh at this story.
Not only that… he messes with the symbolism. The 12 stones of the altar symbolise the 12 tribes. The people are not so much providing the sacrifice for God. God does that. The people will be in the midst of the flames. Blazing with the life of God, purified as by fire. Living embodiments of the grace of God. Is that too much to read into this ancient story? Living stones… not sacrifices of exchange, sacrifices of praise. God will set us alight – ablaze!
Today’s story is about a sound and light show for Israel… for people who can’t make up their mind about the shape of their lives and who they will serve.
God will provide! Do we believe it.
A roman military leader, a Centurion, a man whose job involved overseeing the crucifixion of all who dared to even look like they challenged Rome… a trained killer for the military who was also a philanthropist. Life is never simply black and white is it! The agent of the empire is also respected for his personal acts kindness and generosity. Some today often, isn’t it. He is also the keeper of slaves, something taken for granted in the first century… and yet he is very fond of one particular slave… and he comes to Jesus for help, for healing for his slave.
But before Jesus even arrives at his home the Centurion sends a message. Don’t both coming just say the word and my slave will be healed. Do you see the parallel? Like Elijah pouring water on the wood… he is confident that God will provide… even if he makes the task harder. This ambiguous character, if ever there was one, becomes an example of faith.
How do you build a fire? You don’t build a fire… God builds the fire. You even take risks knowing that God will build the fire. People of faith take risks because knowing how to get there is not nearly as important as knowing that God is going there. Discernment comes before pragmatism. Knowing how to get there is not nearly as important as deciding to follow Jesus regardless. If there is a last word from me to Coastal Unity it is simply: God will provide.
read Song to the Lord God again to conclude
Romans 5: 1-5
It’s Trinity Sunday… the Sunday we talk about God…
Last Sunday was Pentecost. To recap: Last Sunday I reflected on the God who refused to be imaged. I picked up Rabbi Jonathan Sachs’s contention that the deep thread of the Hebrew Bible is about the conflict and violence which threatens the human community (Cain and Abel, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah and Hagar, Jacob and his brothers and so on). To image God is to take control of God. God is here and not there, God is black and not white, God is male and not female and so on. Basically to image God tends to produce the sense that God is like us and on our side and not like them.
This refusal to image God is captured in God’s response to Moses. When Moses asks for God’s name God replies “I will be who I will be”.
And yet the great paradox of Jewish faith is that the God of ‘no images’ create’s God’s image in human life – this has the same practical implication in the Hebrew bible – do not kill the other, the one who is not in my image is nevertheless in God’s image.
So the Hebrew Bible’s response to conflict and violence in the human community is two-fold. (1) to refuse to image God and (2) to claim that God creates God’s own image in every person – even in the stranger who is not in my image.
And now we come today on the Christian festival of Trinity – Trinity Sunday – to talk about the particularly Christian way of naming God, to talk of God’s identity… God’s character… not just about what God requires of us but of who the God is who requires something of us, who claims us, who is still creating us.
Deep within the Christian experience of God is the conviction that law (or the Torah) is not enough to prevent us from othering the stranger, from violating the other. The law does not deal with the deep roots of conflict and violence. That’s certainly what Paul discovered.
For Christians to identify God is to tell the story of God’s love in action not just to tell of God’s law commanding or prohibiting humanity… but of God’s total immersion in human life to heal it. God became human (the Church Fathers said) so that we might become divine.
In other words the short version of what it means to say God is Trinity is that: God. Is. Love… God is not merely the creator who calls for peace. In God’s identity as love God makes peace.
On Thursday I had a conversation with my Dad. We usually avoid talking about religion. But when we do it is usually a ‘robust’ conversation. And by that I mean more ‘bust’ than ‘ro’. Dad was concerned to find out whether the folk I would be working with in Wellington knew what ‘the gospel’ was. It segwayed into whether I knew what ‘the gospel’ was.
I’m not sure whether my answer was up to scratch. But the gist of what I tried to say is that the good news that motivates me is this story of God’s identity as love and our need as human beings.
In some ways just to say ‘God is love’ is too short a version these days … love is overused. When we say God is love we are not talking about sentiment. God is not a feeling. Nor are we talking about love as an idea… As if “God” was simply a code-word for the idea of love. As if God is love simply amounted to saying ‘Love is God’ (which is pretty much what the Beetles said).
We are talking about God’s action towards us and what it might say to us about God’s life. In other words there’s a story of God which leads us to say that God is love. We are saying that we experience God acting in love towards us and so the true character of God is love from all eternity.
Going back to the image of God in us…. those who are Christians say that not only is God at work in all persons creating a divine image, such that no person should be killed because all persons are products of divine creativity. Christians are saying that God has taken the effort to immerse God’s self in our human life so that it can be turned inside-out, so that the roots of our violence can be addressed and healed.
And when we name that immersion of God, that peace-making love of God, we name it ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit’. Because that marks the story of our experience of God’s love. The relationship between Jesus and the Father he believed in and lived in, and the Spirit he gave to his followers, the Spirit that his Father gave him, the Spirit that he gave back to his Father at his moment of death and received in resurrection, and gave again to his followers. This is the story of God’s movement of love into the world and into the human community. Paul, in today’s reading puts it like this
“So, since we are justified by faith (since faith makes us right – Paul has been talking about Abraham’s trusting God – since our trust and reliance on God is basic to God sorting out our fundamental human problem, conflict etc), we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast of our hope of sharing the glory of God…. (and Paul continues…) hope does not disappoint because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”
Did you hear the Trinity in Paul’s statement of the Gospel. Because we rely on God to sort us out, to put us right, to sort out the deep roots of human violence… we reach this place of peace with God (not just with others) through the work of Jesus and through his Spirit who pours the same love that Jesus demonstrated into our hearts also.
When I read my sermon to Jan last night [just be thankful you are not married to a minister] she said… I need a picture, I’m a visual person… I rolled my eyes and said something about not imaging God. She said… but what about this…
[Diagram with drawn in figures – you’ll just have to imagine a cloud with the words “I will be who I will be on it” and then a cross superimposed on it and finally some flames superimposed on that and to conclude some arrows to stick figures of humans being drawn into the mix]
It’s not really a picture of God is it… it’s a diagram… diagrams don’t so much picture things as they symbolise relationships, movements.
Father, Son and Spirit – make peace – and so we name God in God’s own self as an eternal movement of love and peace. Trinity.
In a world where 62 people have half the wealth of the world and thousands starve to death each day. In a world where consumerist economics means that 1/3 for our food is wasted. In a world whose ecosystem is being steadily raped by our economic system and our dependence on carbon, in a world where tit-for-tat violence produces more refugees than ever before and politicians do not hesitate to exacerbate tensions and hatred along racial and religious lines to serve their own ends.
In this world God goes forth. In this world Jesus the self-giving one (free of all anxiety about death) gives the Spirit of self-giving to create people of peace and communities of peace and resistance and hope.
So in retrospect… looking back to my conversation with Dad… for all the robustness of our discussion… I am grateful to Dad for pushing me on this issue. Trinity Sunday is essentially Gospel Sunday. It names God and so tells the story of God’s movement towards us, so that we no longer need to kill one another and the created world around us.
It invites us to name the love of God as a story of how God not only creates in humanity the image of God, but takes up that human project, and enters it, and heals all that is violent, all that is destructive, re-creating us in the image of Jesus and thus in the image of God’s own peace.
Thanks be to God.
Jesus says to the Jewish leaders (John 10:26)
You do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish.
Did you catch that? You do not believe because you do not belong. People believe because they belong to the community. A highly strange claim to modern ears. We pride ourselves in believing for ourselves independently of others. Jesus knows that we are not really rational people in this sense. Not only are we influence by those around us from birth but we must trust others for most of the things we believe. Not everything… just most things… the background assumptions we take for granted. We just have to. Whether we like it or not, we think in community. We might say, certain kinds of communities make certain beliefs plausible.
Jesus says, the community (that makes believing possible) is one that hears the voice of Jesus and follows and receives eternal life. What does that mean ‘receives eternal life’? I know I have said this before, but at risk of harping on about something… Jesus is not talking about going to heaven here. For him ‘eternal life’ is literally the life of the age to come, which starts here and now. Those who receive eternal life are those who are given to participate in the life of the age to come. That’s the community in which we can believe. Jesus’ sheep are those given to participate in the life of God. The point is this: Before people will believe they need a community that hears and follows. Notice not simply a community that believes (recites the creed or whatever)… but one that lives (the Jesus life).
Let’s turn now to the other two readings for the day. Firstly from the book of Revelation. John offers some dramatic images to encourage communities living under the pressure of the Roman empire. He looks into the heavenly realms as it were, into the future, and he sees a vision of a community gathered ‘who have washed their robes white in the blood of the lamb’. These are the white robes of witnesses/martyrs who too have shared in their own way in the sufferings of Jesus. They have, he says, been through the ‘great ordeal’ (older translations called it the great tribulation). I wonder what that means?
Does your life feel like a ‘great ordeal’ sometimes. In the 23rd Psalm the sheep go ‘through the valley of the shadow of death’ – a great ordeal.
So in the 23rd Psalm, we have this great contrast between this deathly valley, this great ordeal (that the shepherd takes us through) and the life that the Shepherd provides. There is the ‘shadow of death’ and there are those amazing images of peace – lying ‘down in green pastures’, being lead ‘beside still waters’, and ‘in right paths’.
There’s a word that comes to mind as I am preparing for the shift to Wellington. The word is ‘mortgage’. It basically means ‘death pledge’ (mort gage from the French) pledge overshadowed by death, a contract that holds us in death’s grip. It began with young French noblemen whose fathers didn’t give them enough money took out loans on the basis that they could repay with their inheritance on the death of their father. In the end ordinary French folk took out loans which dominated their lives in the ‘hope of owning a house’… In the end French peasants died hoping. What’s changed?
Modern world: we get the money (at a cost) and pledge our home as guarantee. Asset poverty is exchanged for time poverty. We get the house, but we have no time. Would you rather be asset rich or time rich? Interesting question! The elite 1% might have both, but for most of us its one or the other. In a world dominated by money, we don’t often think about it. So we even say things like ‘time is money’. But time-poverty is life-poverty. If you don’t have time to do what matters (rather than what earns money) what do you have?
So much for lying down in green pastures. So much for living beside still waters. We pledge our life/time for the asset (money, house). What we lose is often the freedom to live. Mortgages demand families with double incomes and long hours. Mortgages create treadmills of time-poverty. Parents struggle to find time for children, let along spending time with the ones Jesus spent time with, the last, the least and the lost.
As I shift to a half-time job in Wellington I ask myself questions like: How important is a home? Are you prepared to exchange your time for it?
What is a home? Does it have to be my own home, or could I share with others? These questions get to the heart of our western values… Privacy… control of our environment … separation from others, insurance for old age.
Who has time for Neighbour’s Day? Who has time to spend time at the table with their neighbours let alone their enemies (thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies), the ones Jesus calls us to love, the ones who look out from their gated houses at our gated houses and worry about whether we are making too much noise or blocking their view.
‘The great ordeal’ and the life of the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd ‘makes us lie down in green pasture’… slows us down, stops us, gives us rest, gives us time to enjoy the basics of life, meaningful existence) security of the age to come…. a voice we know and can follow… goodness and mercy, abundance and feasting and celebration, a table to share.
I think this contrast captures the struggle of the Christian life in the 21st century NZ. It’s a struggle that is structured into the system we live in – it just goes with capitalism. The life of the good shepherd clashes with life in the shadow of death on the treadmill of mortgage.
For those of us who are retired or who grew up in an earlier time, it might sound like a little over the top to use the language of the book of Revelation and call it ‘a great ordeal’ (v 14). Past generations have had their own kinds of ordeals.
If it is a ‘great ordeal’ its not a great ordeal because we groan at the trouble we need to go through till we own our own house and live in the final paradise called retirement… No, for the book of Revelation, its an ordeal because of a very different hope from ‘retirement with their own home’. This is the great ordeal faced by the community that listens to the voice of the shepherd above the noise of the traffic and the advertising and together seeks to find a different life… according to the way of Jesus. It’s an ordeal in that context.
John talks of those who ‘wash their robes and make them white in the blood of the lamb’. Cleanness in the grime of the 21st century calls for a community effort, a community venture in eternal life. Making the space to be, and to follow, together.
Let’s go back to the beginning.
Jesus says to the Jewish leaders (John 10:26)
You do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish.
Jesus sheep get this new life (eternal life) from him but they get it together and they practice it together and they learn to believe together, together they go through the valley of the shadow of death and together they become the witnesses John describes in the book of revelation.
Peter’s story begins and ends with the words of Jesus “Follow me”. It all started when Peter abandoned the fishing industry to learn the kingdom of God from Jesus. As it turned out Peter, often regarded as the founding leader of the early church, was not good at following Jesus. Peter was good at fishing, but a failure at following Jesus.
But it’s one of the defining characteristics of Christians, or it should be, that they are happy about being wrong. We fail regularly but it doesn’t phase us. Winston Churchill once said: Success is going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm. Or as Samuel Wells put it: It is better to fail in a cause that will finally succeed, than to succeed in a cause that will finally fail. If you live by grace, you can live with your own failures.
If there was a story that gathered together all of Peter’s failures in one place it has to be today’s story. Peter jumps into the water. Do you remember the last time Peter jumped out of a boat? And I imagine he has flashbacks to the time he tried to walk on water and couldn’t focus on Jesus so started to sink. Peter finds himself in front of a fire with burning coals being fed by Jesus. Do you remember the last time Peter was beside burning coals? I imagine he has flashback to the burning coals just a few days ago when Jesus was on trial and as he was warming his hands by the fire he denied Jesus three times.
And then Jesus gives Peter a grilling. Three times he asks him whether he loved him (echoing the three times Peter denied him). It’s like everything about today’s scene is rubbing it in for Peter. And to make matters worse it gets in the bible… it’s a hundred times worse than it being posted on facebook. Peter, the most famous failure in the world.
In the previous section of John’s gospel from last Sunday Peter was with the disciples in an upper room. With them he received the Spirit. With them he was commissioned to forgive sins.
Todays section begins like the morning after. Everybody wakes up and blinks in the morning light, stumbles out of bed and thinks, ‘Well, Jesus has risen, so what do we do now?’ Like Homer Simpson, Peter has no idea, but that never stopped him opening his mouth and coming up with a suggestion.
“I’m going fishing”. … “We’re coming too” they all chorus. Fishing is what Peter does well. Fishing is the thing Peter did before he became a failure. Fishing is ‘business as usual’ when you are not following Jesus.
If you were to wake up one morning and think, “I can’t believe I believed all that stuff about Jesus raised from death, and the kingdom of God coming to earth and all the rest. I think I’ll stop all the nonsense and just be a good person. Why do I need to follow Jesus to do that? Clearly I don’t. It seems like a bad dream.” Have you ever felt a little like that? Have you ever doubted your faith in Jesus? That’s the easy question. Most of us have.
Here’s the question: What difference would it make to you if you did? If you became an atheist? Or even if you continued to think there is a God but you weren’t a Christian, you didn’t follow Jesus any more? Or to put it another way, if you suddenly decided to only follow Jesus when it suited your values (like he was an admirable character from the distant past, but that’s all)? What would change?
For Peter it was simple… you just go fishing… but what would it be for you.
What difference does Jesus make to your life?
Welcome to Peter’s world – the patron saint of those who fail.
Fishing is going back to the old world. It’s not that fishing is somehow a bad thing. It’s just not the thing that matters above all else. Here fishing represents Peter’s failure to catch on to the resurrection. It is his going back rather than forward. And so Jesus comes and appears to them again.
And they are not just fishing, they are fishing on the left hand side of the boat. Why did they fish on the left hand side? [there’s no right or wrong answer here]
And a stranger tells them to do it differently. They have no idea why. All they know is they are not catching any fish. This is the thing Peter is supposed to be good at. This is his profession. But its not a profession of faith. It’s a profession of competence. And he is failing again. This time not just at following Jesus but at what he is supposed to be good at. So at the behest of a complete stranger he switches to the other side of the boat. And the rest is history. The scarcity of the night is replaced by the abundance of the new morning.
Q: When have you listened to strangers? What does it take to listen to a stranger?
They recognise it is Jesus. He is on the beach and has cooked them breakfast. He doesn’t need their fish. He already has fish and has cooked it on those burning coals.
And so they sit down. Face to Face. Jesus and Peter. A very direct question: Peter do you love me more than these? More than what? For centuries Christians have speculated about what Jesus might be referring to… more than his friends… more than the fish. My guess is Jesus is referring to all the things around him that have to do with fishing… In other words… do you love me more than the thing that’s getting in the road of you truly following me.
Here’s another hard question: Is there something that’s stopping you from following Jesus? Let’s stop and just think about that for a moment…
I don’t know if something came to mind for you when I asked that question… but in the end of the day that thing is not the problem … fishing is not the problem … the thing that you think is the problem is not the problem… the thing that matters is love.
Jesus is asking us about love. Do you love me more than these. Jesus is asking about where our heart is…You become what you love. Not what you think you should be or do but for various reasons never get a round to it. The main question for our life concerns our love. Jesus asks us ‘do you love me?’ Not ‘do you think you should love me?’ but ‘Do you love me?’ There’s no ‘should’ in it. Just a fact… true or false. What is the value by which you evaluate all values? What is at the centre of your heart? Who defines its direction?
Peter, biggest failure in a community of failures, do you love me?
Isaiah 43: 16-21 Luke 19:28-40
“Do not”, says Isaiah, “remember the former things, or consider the things of old”.
That’s quite a strong call. It’s a bit like telling someone who’s hungry not to think about food.
Isaiah continues the divine voice
“I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not see it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert… to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.”
‘Declare my praise’. We often think of praise as if it were a private conversation between us and God. We praise God. God sits in heaven and says ‘praise me… that’s nice, now praise me more’. It makes God seem a pretty sad figure. But notice ‘declare’. This is a public declaration. There is a third party. Not just us and God.
We are the people who have caught a glimpse of the beauty of God. And we declare it. We are the bearers of that glimpse… for the sake of the world… not to boost God’s ego.
Jesus is riding a donkey for the first time in his career. It’s not clear he knows how. They put him on the donkey. They surround him. They do what they do for people who matter. They celebrate him… they line the road… they take their coats and lay them in the dirt of the road for him and his donkey to ride over. They declare his praise. The have caught a glimpse of the beauty of God in his life. They are not silent about it.
The religious establishment (the third party in this case) are not happy. ‘Tell your disciples to stop’.
Jesus replies. ‘I tell you if these were silent, the stones would shout out.’
That’s a fascinating phrase… ‘If they were silent, even the stones would shout out.’ There is something inevitable here. There is the momentum of God behind this revolution. The beauty of God has been seen and is alive. And if these people don’t bear witness to what they have seen God will ensure that there is still witness. ‘Even the rocks will shout’ [‘keep the story alive’]. God will ensure it. God will not be limited by the religious inhibitions of a few anally retentive pharisees.
It is God’s mission, long before it is ours.
Last Sunday I read out an announcement from Session about Mary’s resignation. For those who weren’t here last week and for whom this is news I will read it again.
Session has received with regret the resignation of Mary Somerville from the position of Child, Youth and Family Coordinator. Mary will finish work at the end of April. At this time, with her husband John and daughter Jill, she will be resigning her membership in Coastal Unity Parish. We will be acknowledging all the work she has done and saying goodbye at a farewell. You will all have the opportunity to talk with Mary if you wish over the next month and a bit [when she returns from holiday].
We have had a week to reflect on this. We will pray for Mary and John and Jill (and Dan who will be leaving the parish with them) soon. I want to hold that thought for a moment now, and take some time in today’s sermon to reflect about my own journey over the last 13 years at Coastal Unity Parish.
I came here at the end of eight years in my first parish in the country. There I think I learnt the ropes… but still wasn’t completely comfortable in my own shoes and in the role. At that point the beliefs and hopes that had shaped my call to ministry were changing shape. I had always had the sense that Jesus was incredible and that he mattered more than anything else… To put it another way, I went into ministry with the thought that it wasn’t so important that we believed in God and that that belief might help us in some way… but that it was much more important that God believed in us (cliche maybe but worth reflection).
As I shifted from Darfield to Dunedin that inkling of truth was beginning to come alive for me in new ways that I hadn’t thought of before. When you spend your life reading the bible and preaching and talking to people its sometimes hard to know when these deep convictions begin and end. But somewhere along the way that sense of the enormous impact of Jesus began to become richer and take on new flesh in my thinking and preaching.
In Jesus we see God believing in us. Because of him, the human race… need not be a race… but can be a community of mutual giving. Because of him, the violence which structures our societies, in terms of whom we exclude (our common enemies) and whom we scapegoat, can be subverted and broken down… that our deepest fears can be unravelled and a new way of being human is possible.
And as I began to reflect on environmental issues it became clearer to me that creation itself might flourish if the human community can be set free from the struggle for scarce resources to share [key word] the abundant resources of the grace of our creator
This impossible possibility… that is associated with the Jesus revolution… an earthquake in the very nature of what it is to be human… began to take shape for me. My thinking became more political, it became more about the church (those are not opposite things, after all the christian community is a kind of body politic).
This change in being human is something that happens when the Spirit of Jesus comes to a group of people and then people enter into the Spirit of Jesus and start to practice together a different way of being human, embodying the kingdom of God, and so in their life they learn to ‘declare’ to the world the praise of God… before the rocks start to shout out.
I started to believe in the possibility of a people so captured by the beauty of God (in Jesus Christ) that they looked like that beauty and others also caught glimpses.
The bible does funny things to your mind!
I started to see how a community that is caught up in the beauty of the humanity of God is a community that lives, like Jesus, with the least, the last and the lost of this world. And in this way the praise of God is declared.
Selwyn and Ken and Mary and I (with Session) spent a lot of time talking about this vision of a community as an ‘embodiment of the kingdom of God’. Tom and Cat who were with us for a while really understood this vision. And then as some of these ideas were coming to fruition Tom and Cat and then Ken and Selwyn moved on in close succession. I found myself with Mary and others carrying on this vision, sharing regular meals with local people in Sidey Hall…. building gardens and connecting with the community in ways I hadn’t done so before. In many ways this period has been a highlight of my ministry so far.
You might have noticed that recently I have been wearing this around my neck [show plain black wooden cross]. For those at the back, with poor eyesight… it’s a symbol of an intersection, a meeting of two roads. In fact its a crash site. The site of a collision between human culture and God’s life. The cross. And it sums up everything I am learning. That those who seek to follow Jesus towards this intersection… and there is no other way to follow him… must also seek to share their lives in some way with the last, the least and the lost, as he did. And in doing so they risk the same collision as he experienced.
I’m not someone who usually feels comfortable in minister’s costume… but over the last year this little bit of ‘bling’ has started to feel right, somehow, as we have started to move outward together in the way of Jesus. Not always easy. There has been considerable resistance from some quarters. And Mary has born the brunt of it more than I have. I understand her decision to leave and I support her in it even though it will be a great loss to us and to the youth.
I had been praying about my own future for some months when Mary resigned a few weeks ago. Both Jan and I started to wonder whether our time had come also, whether we had made our contribution and it was time for someone else to take up the task. So when Mary resigned. I had a look on the great interweb in the sky and the first thing I saw was a congregation who wanted a half-time Community Minister (not necessarily ordained – someone to connect a congregation in mission with the last, the least and the lost in their area. When I saw the job description my heart leapt. It felt like the kind of work I had been prepared for over the last few years at Coastal Unity. So I expressed an interest and was interviewed along with a few others. To cut the long story short. We were offered the position and both Jan and I clearly felt the call of God in it. We have accepted and we will be leaving Coastal Unity at the beginning of June.
At this point in time there is a process involving Presbytery which has to be completed before I can tell you the exact location of our destination. But I am sure that will be public in a very short time.
There is a lot of excitement… There is also a lot of grief in this. Many of you have been enormously kind to us, opening your hearts to us. And you will always be in our hearts.
And I am going to ask you in a minute to pray for us, to pray for Mary and the family, and to pray for Session, who will be left with an enormous challenge over the months ahead. They will need all the support you can give.
Today’s text is challenging. It calls us to live and declare the praise of God. If these are silent, the stone will shout out. We are the people called to declare God’s praise to the community here. To live the Jesus life here beginning with those in greatest need. To be with them, not just providing help from our own comfortable distance.
And yet there is not just challenge, there is also consolation. None of us is indispensable. God will raise witness from others, from the rocks if need be. Our mission, in fact our continued existence as a parish, as a community of faith is simply a product of God’s mission. God, who is able to do much more than we can think or imagine will provide.
2 Corinthians 5:16-21 Luke 15: 1-3, 11-31
From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, look! a new creation! Everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him who knew no sin to be sin (from a human point of view), so that in him we might become the justice of God.
From now on, therefore, [because the love of Christ for all urges us on] we regard no one from a human point of view
Let’s talk about this phrase ‘from a human point of view’. Your point of view is not just about what you see because of who you are… but what you see because of how you are… It makes all the difference in the world how we pay attention to things. How we pay attention to things is decisive for what comes come into being for us… If you are my friend I pay attention to you in a very different way from if you were my employer, or my patient, or the suspect in a crime drama. You might be the same person… but the world I see will be very different. Imagine a mountain… to a prospector that mountain can be a source of wealth, to a navigator that same mountain is a landmark, to a painter it is a many textured form, to someone else it may be the dwelling place of the Gods. [examples courtesy of ‘The Master and his Emmisary by Iain McGilchrist] Different ways of paying attention… It all depends on your point of view.
Paul says: we once knew Christ from a human point of view.
Simple question: When did Paul’s friends stop seeing Jesus from a human point of view? Answer: Resurrection. When God raised him from death and he met with them to forgive them for killing him.
Everything changed. Not just their view of Jesus but their view of God. Now Jesus has come to define their whole life. They live their lives ‘in Christ’ says Paul. He has become the air they breathe. And so they have a new point of view, a new way of paying attention to things.
They see Christ from the point of view that God gives them. They see God from the point of view that Christ gives them.
They are still human… but they no longer see things from a human point of view. This is possible… we all know from everyday experience that it is possible to see something from someone else’s point of view. That’s the point of every conversation you ever have. To playfully enter into another person’s world and see things from their point of view for a while. That’s how we learn.
Paul is stretching that whole experience. Not only is it possible to see something from another person’s point of view but it is possible to see something from God’s point of view.
So if anyone is in Christ, look, a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!
What is the distinguishing thing about God’s point of view? … not like being up in the sky in a super computer able to see everything that happens in all time and space… No!
In a word, it is HOPE … creation is new, not just because it looks different from a new point of view, but because God, who reconciled us to himself, is reconciling the world to himself.
What is God reconciling to himself? … Not some people who believe and might go to heaven, no God is reconciling THE WORLD, not even just the human world.
The alternative… seeing things from a human point of view is a world which ultimately is without hope. It’s a deep underlying, often inarticulate despair… que sera, sera, whatever will be will be, there is a time for living and a time for dying, a time for killing and a time for healing, a time for everything, all is vanity, there may be a time for everything but none of it really makes any difference. The most succinct expression of this is on the wall in our office… Sometimes you’re the pigeon and sometimes you’re the statue. It’s worth thinking about. It’s the vision of a world without redemption… resignation that has lost the energy to ‘rage against the dying of the light’
Paul says, we no longer see from a human point of view. And what comes into view is that “God is reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them…”
Reconciling the world: The world is being brought back into alignment, into friendship, into sync with God. And for those who see that, those caught up in this man Jesus, suddenly everything looks different. Every person, every tree, every mountain.
The life in which Paul is surrounded, the life that God lived in the world, Christ’s life, is a life already reconciled to God. He is the first non-sinner (‘knew no sin’). And yet Paul says he became sin. What does that mean?
Here’s a suggestion. God became sin, from a human point of view. God, in the life of Jesus deliberately submitted to the human point of view. He became ‘the bad guy’. He became the scapegoat. He became the shamed one. He became the cursed one.
So it all depends on the resurrection of Jesus. If… and only if… God raised Jesus from death, the human point of view is sprung open. It’s more than just an idea, this human point of view, that we can take or leave, it’s a power, it’s like a rabbit trap that has held us captive, it loses it’s domination over our lives. Hope. Springs. Historical.
In him, says Paul, we can become ‘the justice of God’. Think about that for a minute. What is justice?
Some of you will remember Tom Noakes Duncan – he has just passed his PhD with highest honours and has a new job as a lecturer in ‘Restorative Justice’ in Wellington. A paper he has recently published has the title ‘The emergence of restorative justice as an ecclesial practice’. What that means in ordinary language is that God’s justice (not punishment but justice that restores relationships) has emerged as a practice in the church (not just in the courts)
Paul says, we the community of Jesus might become the justice of God… because God has taken the journey into our world… we as a people/community can take the journey into God’s world and God’s justice.
Let’s finish today by jumping into the story of the Prodigal Son (our other reading). And let’s think about the story in terms of this question: When did the prodigal son change from seeing his world from a human point of view, to seeing it from God’s point of view (i.e. from his Father’s point of view)
Imagine the Son on his way home. What are the words which describe his mind-set here? Regret, failure, shame… he is on his way home to reconcile his Father to himself. He has a plan. I will offer my father my labour in exchange for a place to live. I will do a deal.
He may not be entirely hopeless. He has some hope that a deal can be done. But this is not that hopeful either. This is hope from a human point of view, not hope that God is reconciling the world to himself, but hope that God does deals and if he gets his act together, he may be able to appease the wrath of God and so save his skin. In short he hopes the opposite of Paul’s gospel. He hopes that he can reconcile God to the world.
So he is plodding up the road deep in thought. And his Father is looking out from a long way off… like he’s been on the look out ever since the Son gave him the one-finger salute and headed off to the far country. And the father does the unspeakable thing for a first century Jewish father, he lifts his garments and he runs. He runs down the road to his Son. And the Son begins his speech. “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; and I am no longer worthy to be called your son” and before he can make his deal, before he can ask to be treated like a hired hand the Father who has embraced him and kissed him, now interrupts him. There is no deal. The Father never needed to be reconciled to the Son. The Son has been reconciled to the Father.
“Quick” [he interrupts], ‘bring out a robe, the best one, put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again, he was lost and is found.’
These are God’s words to you…
Can you hear old St Paul dancing in the background here, ‘Look!…, “the justice of God”
Look! a new creation! Everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!
Hope springs… into life.