The kingdom of God is like a sower planting seed, or like the seed, or like a king dealing with his servants or today like a surprising example of employment relations.
Jesus is full of metaphors to describe the ‘realm of God’s rule’. That fact alone is interesting. It’s interesting that he needed to use strange images. Images that took time to understand. Images that stretch the world as we know it. He was someone with an imagination which is far from tamed by reality. Someone who is being constantly misunderstood and yet whose parables and teaching lured people on, puzzled them, surprised them. If you’ve got the parables all sorted then you probably haven’t thought about them for very long. Jesus uses parables because his God is a strange God and his kingdom is a strange kingdom.
So just when you thought you were free from politics… Jesus tell us a story about employment relations… sorry folks but this is the gospel for today!
As I read it, it occured to me that you could read this parable from the left or from the right.
You could say that according to the parable the kingdom of God is best expressed by an employer who gives everyone an equal standard pay – what the parable calls ‘the usual daily wage’ regardless of how much work they have done. A living wage perhaps? The kind of socialist utopia that might encourage everyone to turn up late for work perhaps? No incentive. From the right this scenario seems deeply problematic. Those who have worked all their lives to make ends meet and get ahead and put bread on the table, end up in the same situation as those dole bludgers who haven’t worked hardly at all and arrive at the end of the day.
Or you might, on the other hand, look at this parable in terms of rates of pay. If you think of it that way the employer in fact gives everyone a completely different hourly rate. Blatant inequality. In terms of the labour they do some end up being paid very highly – like the bank CEO $1000 an hour or so for looking after money – and the disability care worker on the minimum wage for looking after people all day. From the left this scenario could look equally problematic. The one who starts work in the morning on effectively a low hourly wage can see only blatant inequality.
Either way it’s unfair. The kingdom of God is unfair.
The left talks a lot about inequality. The right talks a lot about incentives. Important issues though these are… Jesus has a different perspective altogether.
For Jesus the landowner is a model of generosity – since the story is about the kingdom of God we might say that the landowner is God. And there is nothing in the story about the landowner needing labourers… we take that for granted… but in the story the landowner goes back to the market place and finds people ‘standing idle all day’. The landowner is not so much addressing his own needs here… especially as the day gets nearer evening… as he is concerned about the people with nothing to do. In Jesus take on the story its all about the generosity of the landowner. The key phrase comes at the end. “Are you envious because I am generous?” In the Greek it is “Do you have an evil eye because I am generous.”
For Jesus underneath the issue of unfairness there is a deeper issue… the issue of envy, the issue of the evil eye and its relation to the generosity of God.
In the story the generosity of God creates havoc. But Jesus places the problem clearly on the side of the disgruntled workers not the employer. The problem is not the unfair employer, the problem lies in the perspective of the employees
What does it mean, asks Jesus, to live with a generous God?
What about the God who makes the rain to fall equally on the just and the unjust? Unfair, sure, but generous!
Let’s think about the heart of God’s generosity… The place where we see it most clearly. Here’s a clue… it’s not the rain.
What about the God who does the work of redeeming the world, suffers the consequences and brutality of human violence, lives among us for our sake, in order to reconcile us to God and gives us the generosity of forgiveness? Jesus…, if you think about it, (if we were to put Jesus in this parable) Jesus is the worker who was up at the break of day, doing all the work, so that we might, late in the piece, share in God’s work in the world. If we are in this story of the generous God, it is as those who turn up afterwards and get to share in the benefits.
The sheer generosity (the bible calls it grace) of God unsettles the world. In this case the workers develop what the story calls the evil eye. Rather than see the generosity of God for what it is, they see instead what their neighbour receives and somehow they see someone less deserving of generosity than they are. We may have arrived late on the scene… but it turns out there’s always someone who catches our attention who has arrived later than us and is less deserving of generosity than we are.
Rather than responding to generosity with a generous attitude to those we are tempted to consider less worth of generosity than ourselves… we start to worry that they are getting more than they deserve.
The evil eye, sees the neighbour rather than the generosity of God. It seems to me that we live in a world governed by the evil eye. What would happen to marketing if our world was not driven by envy? What would happen to our constant need to upgrade our cellphone and thus to grow the economy? According to the evil eye, we need a car appropriate to our social group and our suburb. We need the right kind of clothing and housing for the same reason. A thinker called William Cavanaugh likes to point out that we are not materialists… we are not attached to material things. We let go of one new thing the moment the next new thing that our neighbour has or our television reminds us we need. What we want is constantly on the move. And this evil eye keeps the economy running and growing. Envy at the heart of the marketisation of all of life.
It’s human nature you might say.
But the point about parables of the kingdom… is that Jesus seems to believe that human nature can change, that the kingdom of the evil eye might be surprised by the generosity of God. Jesus believes that human nature can change. That’s unusual! St Paul agreed with Jesus on this. “If anyone is in Christ… there is (present tense) a new creation”.
Jesus finishes with the comment that ‘The first will be last and the last will be first’. He could be interpreted as saying simply that the current inequality will be reversed. That those who have the world’s wealth now will be poor and vice versa. Same situation, different people in power. Or he could be saying something much deeper with this revolutionary statement. It could be that the generosity of God will so transform human nature that both the rich and the poor will become generous as God is generous.
Greetings cyber friends, it’s beautiful sunny day for an election, here in Dunedin New Zealand. I have just been out to cast my vote against the principalities and powers (and by that I don’t mean a political party). A few days ago I wrote an ‘editorial’ for our church newsletter… here’s a foretaste for you who are not a part of Coastal Unity Presbyterian, Dunedin:
Last night I watched ‘The Moment of Truth’ starring Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Glenn Greenwald and whistle-blower Edward Snowden. It was both entertaining and disturbing. I’m not sure that it persuaded me to vote for Kim Dotcom, but it did make me wonder about the world we live in. They say truth is the first victim of war. But what happens when people believe they are living in a constant state of warfare? I fear that some of us end up sinking into a kind of cynicism in which public accountability is regarded as a lost cause and we end up being unshockable and feeling powerless.
Recently our gospel readings have been parables. It seems that Jesus was constantly wandering around casting out stories – strange stories about the everyday world, yet stories that surprise us, stories that suggest a world very different from the everyday world we know, stories about the kingdom of a God who is strange. On Sunday we had a story about a king who forgave an absurdly large debt. That was surprising. But the real surprise was when the forgiven servant was completely unaffected and walked out the door and refused to forgive his fellow servant. This coming Sunday the kingdom of God is compared to an employer whose idea of fair payment catches us by surprise. He gives those who do only one hour’s work the same wage as those who work all day. In this kingdom there’s no proportionality between the payment and the work. The employer treats the wage as a kind of gift and reserves the right to be as generous as he wishes with his gift. For those who worked all day this is offensive. For those who began in the evening this is a gift that they know they don’t deserve. In this kingdom, if you feel you deserve a place you’ll never be happy and if you know you don’t you’ll be free to enjoy it and share what you have.
Every so often when I read the gospels I get excited and hopeful about the world and think maybe something different is possible. In particular I hope that God might actually be at work to create a small piece of this strange kingdom of gift and forgiveness. I start to imagine that there might be something called ‘church’ hidden in the world, in spite of all my cynicism about the world. One of the verses in scripture that stirs this hope in me is 2 Corinthians 5:21 in which Paul tells the folk at Corinth that the community of Jesus might become ‘the justice of God’. Paul writes ‘For our sake he [God] made him who knew no sin [i.e. Jesus, the one who lived in complete love for God and neighbour] to be ‘sin’ [the scare quotes are important after all he was different from this screwed up world to the point that he was treated as sin by that world], so that in him we might become the justice of God.
Its the end of that verse that excites me. Is it possible that we here in Coastal Unity might become the [odd] justice of God. Is it possible that the ‘gift-economy’ of Jesus’ parables might find its way into our lives?
Our OT reading is the most extraordinary ending of the most extraordinary story. To appreciate that I think we just have to put ourselves in Joseph’s head for a moment. Imagine we were making a movie of the Joseph story… imagine the flashbacks as Joseph recognises his brothers arriving in Egypt to beg for food.
Flashback to the sunny day in his childhood when he arrives in the fields where his brothers are working… sent by his Father to see how the older brothers are. Instead of a friendly greeting from his older brothers, his role models, he is violently attacked and tied up. He has no idea what is happening for they have seen him coming and sprung it on him. And now he is tied up in their midst while they argue over whether to kill him. One of his brothers defends him and argues that he should be left to die in a pit rather than killed. So they strip him naked and put him in a pit to die. Then another of these delightful brothers comes up with the bright idea of selling him as a slave to some passing Egyptians. This they do and off he goes into slavery. I don’t know how many of you have seen 12 years a slave. In the story a free man is sold into slavery by some con artists he doesn’t really know. Imagine what is must feel like to be sold into slavery by your brothers.
Imagine the years of imprisonment… the moments of good fortune which mean that Joseph is finally given freedom and becomes a powerful person. All of this flashes through his mind as he sees his brothers arriving in Egypt now hungry and seeking food.
The urge for justice (for retribution) must have been almost irresistible. And yet in that moment… and isn’t it funny how the most important things seem to happen in a moment… something snapped inside him and he reached out and embraced his persecuting brothers. This is his amazing speech. “Come closer to me. Do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you have sold me here. For God sent you before me to preserve life.”
Ka-ching… the dots are joined for Joseph. He has this vision of God’s purposes. God’s purposes are the restoration of life rather than retributive justice. The crops have been preserved in the barns in the good years. They are now available for life in the tough times. But its more than just having enough food isn’t it. It’s having a life together that’s sustainable, built on forgiveness.
Joseph has an epiphany – a moment of understanding which is a turning point in his life. Have you had moments like that?
I often wonder if Jesus has a moment like that in our NT reading….
He has just been preaching about purity… what it means to be a righteous Jew… I was fascinated this week to attend Richard Bauckham’s lecture series on Galilee at the time of Jesus. Did you know apart from the Gospel there are almost no extant writings from Galilee at the time of Jesus. The nearest we have is a guy call Nittai the Arbelite. And only one of his ‘wise sayings’ remains. Here is what he says:
Keep your distance from an evil neighbour;
do not associate with a wicked person;
and do not despair of retribution.
As Richard Bauckham suggested the last line probably means that we shouldn’t give up believing that God will punish the wicked.
This is the context into which Jesus spoke. Jesus challenges the Pharisee version of purity. For the Pharisees it is about separation from certain kinds of unclean things – like pigs, or …. or gentiles. For the Pharisees its all about maintaining a ritual purity – its about things you might put in your mouth or touch. Jesus says no. The calling of God… is not to purity (in that sense) it’s to love… and these two ways of reading the call end up clashing. It’s not about keeping yourself untainted, its about giving yourself to the needy.
And so, having offered this wisdom about the true nature of righteousness, it tells us (v21) that he goes across a kind of symbolic border to a Gentile district – Tyre and Sidon … and a Canaanite woman… an unclean Gentile comes to him seeking healing for her daughter. And as I read this story, it’s like Jesus has worked out this purity thing in his head… but only to a point. He is living out of the righteousness of God within the bounds of his calling to Israel and its not until a woman from outside his world challenges him that he sees the full implication of what it means. The woman is persistent. Jesus and she engage in some quite edgy verbal jousting. “How can I feed the people’s bread to the little dogs (the pets)?” he asked. She retorts… that even the dogs get fed at dinner time. And then it’s like the penny drops… Jesus connects the dots. “Woman, great is your faith!” The Spirit of God has used a persistent woman, a woman in great need and therefore great faith, but a woman from outside the purity of Israel to show Jesus that the call of Abba redefines even the identity of Israel, of the people of God itself… from a people of boundary-purity to a people crossing boundaries in love.
I wonder if it was this experience that inspired in Jesus that classic parable of enemy-love that we call the Good Samaritan?
The woman’s great faith became a vehicle of the Spirit in Jesus journey of faithfulness to his loving Abba. We talk of Mary being the Mother of God. What about the role of this Canaanite woman?
I am struck today by ‘turning points’, by moments when we can suddenly, in the mystery of God’s Spirit, join the dots. Where are those moments in your life?
This week I spoke on a Panel on the Marriage Amendment Act and the Church’s response. And I had a bunch of ideas about marriage but I’m not sure I had really been forced to sit down and prayerfully hold all these things together. This request challenged me to do that, and to do it in a rather scary public way.
I think for many people, the dots only join up when someone actually confronts them. When they discover that one of their children or a friend or someone in their family is gay and this person comes to them and asks them ‘let me be a Christian too’. And we are not sure what that might mean. Sometimes we need our Canaanite woman to work out whether we are really people of purity or people of love.
I must say though, that when I did that, it was like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle coming together. Jesus was the great reformer of institutions. Jesus didn’t simple reaffirm the traditional definitions. He didn’t say, oh sorry I can’t help on the Sabbath, the correct definition of Sabbath is no work. He said ‘the Sabbath is made for man, not man for the Sabbath. He didn’t say, look you will have go to the temple to find God, they have the correct means of forgiveness. No he said, Your sins are forgiven. My body is the true temple. He didn’t say sorry the only way to be righteous is within the nation of Israel, that’s just the correct definition of righteousness. He almost did say that to the Canaanite women, didn’t he. But then, perhaps he remembered the sermon he had just given about true purity. And he embraces this women and her daughter. When the theological pennies start to drop… it ends up meaning reform for all these institutions, these ways of living our life.
And Paul I think opens this up for marriage too.
He says in Galatians,
‘In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek (the issue we’ve just had raised by the Canaanite woman), slave nor free (you can see the beginning of the church’s grappling with this in the book of Philemon), and there isn’t male AND female.
The Greek in Galatians 3:28 changes from ‘or’ to ‘and’ and some translations ignore it. But I think (and I’m not the only one) that Paul is making a point. This is a famous phrase from Genesis. ‘In the image of God he created them, male AND female he created them’. In other words this pattern in God’s creating, this complementarity of male and female, as important as it might be for reproduction and other matters, does not define life for the Christian. And so Christian marriage, just like the Christian community, and the Christian Sabbath and Christian purity and so on… might not be defined so much by its biological context as by the call of Jesus on our lives…
For me, joining the dots, this week meant seeing with a clarity that I hadn’t previously appreciated, the call to re-think the meaning of marriage rather than simply re-affirm traditional definitions.
I don’t expect you to necessarily connect the dots with me, or in the same way I have, this morning. For some I expect it will be quite challenging. But if you are interested in exploring further, my presentation is available online at Jason Goroncy’s website (www.jasongoroncy.com) – Have a read and I would be only to glad to talk further about it at some stage.
I recently attended a helpful workshop on Liturgical matters led by the Rev Dr Phillip Tovey from Oxford. He got me thinking about a few things including the ‘kickoff’ (liturgical greeting) and the use of creeds. So this week I tried to merge these issues with a call to worship which is suggestive of a confession of faith. Hopefully the congregation will take on the challenge of putting a bit of expression in.
Call to Worship: a dialogue with questions
One: Let us worship God
One: The giver of life
All: Don’t you mean “taker” too?
One: Not at all!
All: Our God keeps on giving new life?
One: Thanks be to God
All: who raised Jesus from his death at our hands
One: rebooting the universe
All: beginning with his forgiven people
One: renovated in his Spirit
All: and poured out in his name.
Romans 9: 1-5
Paul has great grief for his people – his divided people Israel. He stands on one side of a widening division in Israel. A division between Jews who believe that Jesus is the Messiah who also ended up being called Christians, and, on the other side of the great divide, those Jews who did not believe that Jesus was the Messiah (scholars sometimes call this Rabbinic Judaism).
Paul’s grief is great because the Messiah came to Israel at the end of a long history of divine engagement… of prophets, of promise. He can’t leave that behind. Nor can he, in good faith, leave it to those who do not accept Jesus as the Messiah. It is his history too. He must interpret it in the light of the Messiah. For Paul the Messiah (v 5) is ‘over all’. Jesus is the game-breaker. Jesus changes the world to a new world.
So he finds himself in the middle of a divided people, divided Judaism… Paul, like all Christians, is a Jew… he accepts the heritage of Jewish faith. We too, like Paul, are Jews! Jews for whom Jesus is the Messiah.
What a time to be reading this! With a tragic war between the modern Nation State of Israel and Palestinians in Gaza, we too cannot avoid the terrible messiness of this inheritance. There are Christian-Jews (just like us) in Gaza. There are Christian-Jews (just like us) in Israel… there are Rabbinic Jews as well… I could go on. But I simply want to highlight the grief that comes from taking seriously the way of God’s Messiah whose mission was to break down the walls of division.
It’s also an interesting time for us in Coastal Unity to read of Paul’s grief. We too are a divided community. We are divided on how we should use our money and what our priorities as a community are. These are not trivial questions. We are divided in our thinking and our voting. But we are still together in worship. We are not divided bodily. Maybe the only reason we are still together for worship is that we believe that Jesus the Messiah is the one who has the authority to sort out our divisions and bind us together into a common life and common cause. I hope so.
In Matthew’s gospel Jesus withdrew… he went to a deserted place. Prayer requires from us a certain kind of space… of freedom from the push and pull of human interaction. Jesus needed to be in the presence of the loving Father and to screen out some of the other presences.
When the crowd finally arrives at this ‘deserted place’ he is renewed in his compassion for the needs of the people. He is full of the Spirit. He heals.
But it is still a deserted place of vulnerability. There are no local stores or infrastructure. The disciples suggest sending the people away to the villages for food. Jesus chooses another way. He challenges the disciples: ‘You give them something to eat’. He challenges the disciples to give when they have next to nothing. ‘But we have nothing here but five loaves and two fish’. It’s a bit of a joke really. 5-10,000 people and just 5 loaves and two fish.
Jesus runs with the joke… again he calls for their willingness to give. “Bring them here to me”. Even though your resources are ludicrously inadequate are you prepared to bring them anyway. “Bring them here to me”.
The joke of course is on their fears. Because when they bring the bread…, and Jesus turns in prayer to his Father and blesses it, giving it, in turn, to his Father…, when the bread is broken and given away… it turns out there is enough after all.
It’s hard not to read gospel stories like this with an eye for the symbolism they use. They were written with that in mind. Twice Matthew uses the word ‘broken’. The loaves are ‘broken’ in the giving and the pieces that remain (12 baskets full – a symbolic number if ever there was one) are also described as broken.
There is a pattern here that needs to be noticed. The broken Messiah provides enough for all. The broken pieces that result from the broken body fill 12 baskets (12 like the tribes of Israel, like the people of God). The new people of God are broken like their Messiah… and given for the need of the world.
Genesis 32: 22-31
Jacob is on a journey back to be reconciled with his brother Esau. He is scared witless. He sends ahead all sorts of gifts… a kind of buffer between him and Esau, signs of his guilt. But before he meets his brother again, he has a bad night on the banks of the river. He gets into a fight with a man… or is it God? At first it just says it’s a man. And then we are told he has struggled with God. Jacob is winning the fight it seems or maybe its just that Jacob won’t give up. In the course of the fight the man (or God?) strikes him on the hip-socket and does him damage. But Jacob it seems pins the man (or is it God?) down and says “I will not let you go unless you bless me”. At which point the man gives him a new name; Israel – the struggler. And Jacob concludes ‘I have seen God face to face and yet my life is preserved”. It seems it was God after all… but there is something comical then about the whole scenario. God, in the form of a man, has been ‘play fighting’ (presumably) with Jacob. God is willing to allow Jacob to persevere in his battle without annihilating Jacob. God loves this struggler and struggles with him. It is as if God knows that Jacob will learn from this struggle. Some people only learn by struggling. But it ends with a reminder. God breaks Jacob’s hip… and he limps off into the sunrise (v31 The Sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip).
He is a broken man. And in his brokenness he has a future. He goes off to meet his long lost and alien brother Esau.
If it ain’t broke… perhaps it’ll never be fixed.
Three tales of brokenness. Three tales of hope. Are you struggling with God? Are you broken? Are we as a people struggling with God? Are we broken?
Do we need to be broken if we are to be true to the Messiah for the sake of the world? Do we need to give our meagre resources, our loaves and fishes into the hands of Jesus to bless and give away if there is ever to be enough?
Important Cultural Background: Mustard was a WEED in first century Palestine. So straight after telling us that we should not be trying to separate the weeds from the wheat… Jesus (in Matthew’s gospel in the very next parable) announces that the kingdom of heaven begins with a weed…(important context)
God knows how we can’t be relied on to sort good from evil, to clear out the weeds. Look how we treated God’s own Son as ‘evil’! For us he was a weed. And we did what humans do. Root out weeds. Jesus became a mustard seed. “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed.”
It was in the suffering of God’s Son that the kingdom began … a weed became a tree of hospitality for all the birds of the air. The kingdom begins when God, and all who are caught up in God’s mission, become victims of the world – willing victims (not victims against their will) – those who fall into the ground and die. Jesus didn’t die of pneumonia. Jesus didn’t die of old age. He died because he upset the social order. He was ‘a spanner in the works’. In the garden he was a weed. We tried to eliminate that weed – or rather ‘the works’ tried to… the machinery of Rome and the machinery of religion, the basic machinery of the mob, tried to eliminate the weed. But the mustard seed took root anyway. We call that the resurrection.
Let’s turn our attention now to our epistle reading. Paul in Romans writes (v 18) of ‘the sufferings of this present time not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed’. He talks about the groaning of creation like a mother in childbirth (last week). And he ends with that famous passage we read so often at funerals… about how ‘nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord’ (the mustard seed of the new creation).
I think we need to take a fresh look at that passage we read so often in funerals…
Who is Paul writing to? Christians… Christians in Rome… yes but what is their situation?…
Suffering people… they don’t even know how to pray (v26 we do not know how to pray as we ought – ‘The Source’ translation reminds us that this is not about style. It translates it ‘we don’t know how to pray so that our praying corresponds to the need). Let’s face it, if we don’t know how to separate wheat from weeds, how can we know how to pray? How to pray is often a mystery.
In a more everyday sense, I notice that sometimes I find people nervous about praying out loud… they tell me they don’t know how to pray. Jesus says to us (whether in suffering, or just feeling inadequate) “The Spirit intercedes with sighs to deep for words” (v 26). Prayer is not our burden to carry. Prayer is a space where the Spirit carries us. It is normal not to know what to pray. That’s why prayer begins with silence.
Then Paul says to his fellow sufferers. ‘We know that all things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to his purpose’. Not, notice, that all things are good (if only we understood them better). Rather in the ultimate working out of all things… (‘things working together’) goodness will come.
God has a plan! Again not a detailed blueprint for every detail of your life… forget about that. That’s a recipe for neuroses. Paul is clear, the plan from the beginning is for us to be (v29) ‘conformed to the image of his Son’. The pre-planning, the designing, on God’s part (we used to call it predestination) is that we become like Jesus.
And what will it look like when all things work together? Paul suggests that Jesus will be the ‘firstborn within a large family’. And there will be family resemblance. There will be a family/community that looks like Jesus.
In what way will we look like Jesus? Long hair perhaps? Paul gives us some pretty clear indications what this will look like.
These suffering Christians are not suffering in any old way. They may be dying of old age or dying of pneumonia or whatever… but that’s not the kind of suffering Paul is talking about here. Paul lists the things that threaten the Christians in Rome ‘hardship, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril and the sword’ (v 35). He even quotes a verse to describe the situation of the Christians. ‘For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’…
That’s heavy stuff! And yet its also a familiar phrase reminiscent of this one: “as a sheep before its slaughterer is dumb”. The Christians are suffering because that is their destiny. It’s their destiny and God’s plan that they will become like Jesus… abandoning their safety for the sake of the world’s need, giving themselves into the jaws of the system… becoming like him in his suffering… a spanner in the works of the world.
There’s no doubt that Paul connects the dots… whether we take it literally or metaphorically ‘being killed all day long’ is the shape of a life like Jesus. Suffering is not an accident of following Jesus… it is a consequence. It is our family resemblance to the Son of God.
There is no safe and secure Christian life, this side of the eschaton (final resolution). And here I want to make an important connection. There is no safe and secure church life… no safe and secure Coastal Unity. What there is, is a life that looks like Jesus and his kingdom.
So this passage we read at funerals… its not about survival (none of us gets out of this life alive)… its not about security, or a good comfortable life, as individuals or as a church.
Paul says, ‘in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us’. In hardship, in distress, in persecution, etc … in ‘being killed all day long’ after the pattern of Jesus… we are more than conquerors (conquerors of what?… conquerors over the dominion of death… as it dominates the world).
As Jesus said again and again… its only as we are prepared to die… (for this kingdom) that we will really be living for it.
This applies to us as individuals and to us as a parish.
’For [we are]… convinced that [in all of this] neither death nor life , nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love (what love? the love that conforms us, the love of our mustard seed… the love) of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’
Matthew 13: 24-30 Romans 8: 12-25
When the Bible first came to NZ it became a kind of treasure, a sacred object (as we have just heard). People travelled for miles to get a copy. Stories were also told, not just about the Bible as a kind of taonga but about the effect of this book. With the book came a rumour, a rumour of a new world, a new possibility, a new kind of God. Rather than a world groaning under the constant neverending process of revenge killing, of warfare, and utu (not unlike what we see in the Gaza and Israel right at the moment), there are rumours that God is creating a new world of forgiveness and reconciliation. Things need not be how they are.
The bible is not just a kind of sacred object… it’s the bearer of news of a new future.
Today’s parable tells of the world as a field/as a mixed bag of wheat and weeds, of good and evil. And the servants come in (lets call them the cowboys) and they want to eliminate the weeds. They want to clear the world of ‘bad guys’ (those are the ones who wear ‘black hats’ – so you know which ones to shoot). But Jesus says NO.
Evil is on its way out. Don’t panic. Keep calm and carry on, even if there are weeds in the garden. Even if there are dirty dishes in the kitchen. Don’t panic.
The problem is closeness. The good and the bad are just too close together. It’s a fragile ecosystem – pull up the one and you destroy the other. It’s like their intertwined even at the roots.
Paul takes this closeness even further. What he hopes for in Romans 8 is ‘the redemption of our bodies’. God and evil go right through the middle of each human heart. They are interwoven through the sinews and synapses of our bodies.
Hope for the redemption of our bodies, these complicated bodies, says Paul gives rise to groaning. Not a groan of resignation, or acceptance of a bad situation, or of cynicism or despair… Not merely a groaning of pain. But a groaning also of hope for something new. Hope is dangerous.
Paul calls it a groaning of ‘labour pains’ – pains of birth, the screaming of a mother whose body feels like it is being split in two, is nevertheless a scream of hope… and not despair.
For Paul as for the writer of John’s gospel, Jesus is ‘Saviour of the world’ – the world you work in, and raise your children in and watching movies in and find happiness in… that world. If we are waiting for anything it’s the salvation of that world. That’s the big picture of the gospel. The world will be saved. And that world includes our human bodies and life together.
So for Paul it’s not just about good people and bad people, its about a change that happens to the world, in time. Its a mixed world of wheat and weeds, but things are changing. The old world, the world we are born into – Paul calls it “the flesh” is under the dominion of death and all our anxieties bound up with that – this world is passing away. And the new world, the world that interrupts this world is what set’s us free. He calls it the world of the Spirit. It’s breaking in. I am reminded of a line of Malcolm Gordon’s song – “I am waiting …for heaven to break in”
You know what it’s like waiting at a bus stop… a watched pot never boils. The speed of time is variable thing. The quality of waiting depends enormously on what you are doing.
“So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh – for if you live according to the flesh you will die (the life of the old world pays its own wages – death); but if you live by the Spirit and put to death the deeds of the body, you will live”
You can put your body in the old world or in the new world… Our bodies are on the line here for redemption. Our bodies and the world being saved are bound up together. Paul effectively says that you can’t separate the human world from the non-human creation. They’ve been joined at the hip.
At first it seems tragic. What have we done to this earth? But for Paul it is also hopeful.
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it in hope, that the creation itself will be set free of its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of children of God.
See that… the wellbeing of the non-human creation is connected (in God’s purposes) to the freedom of human beings (and vice versa).
“We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.”
Even if the old world seems to be on the point of collapsing. Perhaps especially if it looks like disaster, Paul has faith in the risen Christ to create something new. He calls this groaning creation ‘birth pains’.
When the Bible came to NZ it didn’t just bring rumours of a new world. It also came with the baggage of an empire – the British Empire, which morphed into the globalised modern neo-liberal hypercapitalist empire we live in today.
My friend Andrew Shepherd did a lecture this week for the Centre for Theology and public issues… and he began with a series of images of the future as it is hitting us even now. Dramatic images of flooding and drought and hurricane damage (products of global warming). Vivid images of creation groaning. In that context he cited: Jacques Atalli from 1991
“By 2050, 8 billion people will populate the earth. More than two-thirds will live in the poorest countries. Seeking to escape their desperate fate, millions will attempt to leave behind their misery to seek a decent life elsewhere. But neither the Pacific nor the European spheres will accept the majority of poor nomads. They will close their borders to immigrants. Quotas will be erected and restrictions imposed. (Renewed) social norms will ostracize foreigners. Like the fortified cities of the Middle Ages, the centres of privilege will construct barriers of all kinds, trying to protect their wealth.”
Jacques Attali, Millennium: Winners and Losers in the Coming World Order (1991)
The truth is Jacques Attali wasn’t far off with his prediction. The high tech future for the 2 billion is also fast becoming the massive mega-slum future for 6 billion. The empire looks on the point of collapse. Perhaps we live in the kind of world St Benedict did, when he established his monasteries at the End of the Roman Empire?
You have to wonder. How we can share in Paul’s confidence when he concludes “For in hope we are saved…” Where did Benedict and Paul got their hope from? Certainly from a very different story about our place in the world. Not a story of limitless expansion and growth and the idea of a world centred around human beings and what they and their market forces want to make of it. They certainly had a very different story about our situation in God’s world (not ours). But perhaps even more importantly…. they saw the “redemption of bodies” in the communities in which they lived. They saw signs of hope. Hope comes when a different life is lived together… a different economy on the ground in our local relationships, local affection, in touch with the earth. Embodied hope. They saw signs of God’s redemption of bodies. So they waited… and in waiting put their bodies on the line.