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Standing on the Brink and not Clinging

December 1, 2014

Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19; Matthew 13:33-37

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If we were to sum up our readings for this first Sunday in Advent, I would say they are about living with the end of the world and living on the brink of something new.

I wonder what you think of when you hear the phrase ‘on the brink’? Do you think of disaster? Do you think of base-jumping? Do you think of going through a door way to an unknown situation.

 

Our Psalm comes from the Exile…

Jerusalem, the past, the nation, all their ideas about God and their place in God’s purposes for the world… are in tatters. A world has ended. Its the end of the world.

It’s a bit like the crucifixion of Jesus. The future is lost… but the past too looks like nonsense… All that stuff they used to say and think about God. It looks like stupidity at the end of the world.

 

The Psalm is desperate:

Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine that we may be saved.

 

This is the true meaning of Advent… Desperation. Waiting… but not like those sitting at a bus stop filling in time … like those at the end of the world. Living in exile from our past… trying to work out what to think about our future… singing our mournful ‘o come, o come, emmanuel’.

 

Lawrence Moore has, I think, described our exile and our advent situation most clearly. He writes:

“The Christian Church – at least in the hi-tech, consumerist west – has had its day. Its best years are in the past. The old answers no longer work. The gospel appears to have little or nothing to say that sounds as Good News to the increasing millions who have either had nothing to do with Christian faith or who have quite deliberately voted with their feet and left. A look at trends and statistics shows that Christian faith is something for old people, so that ministry appears increasingly to be about hospice care. People are turning not to Christianity, but to other faiths and spiritualities for answers. And those churches that buck the trends are increasingly simply the exceptions that prove the rule. Church has had its day. It is more and more a museum piece, showcasing a past that is bathed in the golden light of nostalgia. That is why people who come back to Church at significant times in their lives (births, marriages, deaths, national events) want Church to be church as they remember it.”

 

Moore says,

“We need to be realistic and work to kill off residual optimism. Unless we do, we will not take seriously enough the crisis we are in and will be unable to respond appropriately. I am not saying that there aren’t signs of hope. I am not saying that this is the story of every church. Yet, if we look beyond the immediate borders of our own localities, we cannot avoid the fact that there is a clear, alarming pattern. … However good our immediate situation may be, we do not and cannot live in glorious isolation from what is happening to the Christian Church more widely. Church as we know it – and spend huge amounts of money, time, commitment and energy on it – is dying. Whether it is right in the forefront of our consciousness or not, most of church life in the west is about survival. And that is not what we’re here for!”

 

Those are strong words… and yet I think he is right … even if no one wants to hear it. We are not here to survive. We are here to give ourselves away in mission and to pray with the Psalmist: Restore us Lord God of Hosts; let your face shine that we may be saved.

 

Jesus too is preaching at the end of the world. This is what we struggle grasp. And the main reason we struggle to grasp it is because we think he is referring to the end of the physical world … and of course 2000 years later we know that the physical world hasn’t ended. Jesus says this generation will not pass away before these things happened. That generation did pass away. So if he was talking about the physical world he must have been wrong… And that’s not a good look for the church.

But New Testament scholar N T Wright argues, rightly… I think, that although Jesus uses metaphors from what we call ‘apocalyptic literature’ about a physical end of the world and a judge who comes down from the sky… they are precisely that ‘metaphors’ for something else.

 

One thing I really hate is the idea that some people (fundamentalists for example) read the Bible literally while others don’t. No one reads the whole Bible literally. And no one reads the whole Bible non-literally (or metaphorically) either. It’s nonsense. Each part needs to be judged on its own merits depending on what the writer mean. So when Paul calls his the Christians at Corinth to love one another he is talking quite literally and we should understand it literally. When he asks them to bear one another’s burdens he is using a metaphor and it should be understood metaphorically.

 

Tom Wright says, when Jesus talks of cosmic disasters in the heavens he is using the metaphors of a particular tradition to dramatise the significance of the situation his disciples were facing… a situation which is for him and for them like the end of the world.

 

At the beginning of today’s chapter of Mark, Jesus is in the temple and the disciples are impressed by the grandeur of the temple building. Herod’s temple… built as a kind of Roman way of pleasing the Jews and a sign of their faith under Roman rule … a sign of their world … a world that Jesus finds so deeply frustrating… a people who have lost their way. …

 

And so Jesus replies to the oohs and aahs about the buildings with the comment. ‘Not one stone will be left upon another’. This is the context for understanding these metaphors. In other words, this world will end… ‘there will be wars and rumours of wars… we are entering a time of crisis… you will be persecuted. Jesus is being quite literal here. Jesus has a very specific end of the world in mind and its not the physical universe. But in verse 24 (at the beginning of todays reading) he changes gear into ‘apocalyptic poetry’ about the sun darkening signs in the heavens and a ‘Son of Man coming in clouds’ is a dramatic way of saying that the powers of the social world are unravelling… and God will act. Talk of “gathering his elect from the four winds” is the language of hope… but, again not literally referring to four winds. We know that… and Tom Wright argues… so did Jesus.

 

So what is Jesus saying that might be relevant to us today … when a certain kind of world is also ending for us.

 

(1) “The end is nigh”… In some ways I think it would be easier for us all if there were some kind of catastrophe to mark the end of Christendom for us… but I suspect not… church in 20 year’s time will continue to be tolerated as a curious habit for certain groups of consenting adults… whether it be little groups of people singing the same old hymns and doing the same old things. Like what Moore describes as a sort of ‘Christian train spotters” society … or on the other hand whether it be large commercial mega-churches who have perfected their advertising techniques and designed the perfect ‘buzz experience’ for each new generation of young people. In other words church will fade away with no one noticing that the groups that still call themselves church no longer have much to do with what Jesus was on about, no longer look much like Jesus. They will be, if they are not already, just another product on the entertainment market. There is a way of being church, which is our equivalent of the Jerusalem Temple with its large stones. And I think Jesus would invite us to see the writing on the wall. Many of us have known this in our bones for some time now.

(2) don’t cling to the current situation … Jesus is saying to his disciples, there will be a regathering ‘from the four winds’, so don’t look back… the whole world you now know will crumble… ‘heaven and earth will pass away’ so to speak…. but God’s work in the world is bigger than all of that… bigger than the familiar old church that you know, the familiar old way of worship, the familiar old minister you listen to on Sunday morning. For us I think that means… God’s work is bigger than the powerful old church of Christendom at the centre of society with public authority. It’s time to let go of that world. v20 Jesus says, ‘And if anyone says to you at the time, ‘Look! Here is the Messiah! or Look! There he is!’ – do not believe it.’ Prophet’s will come claiming to be the Messiah with the solution to restore this world to you… to bring all the young people back to church (perhaps). The Temple had became a sign of the failure of the people of God in Jesus time – a religious industry – Jesus staged a protest throwing out the money changers. In the same way the powerful church, in our time must like Jesus abandon itself to live in solidarity with the poor and needy and marginal of our world. When the church becomes a powerful institution focussed on its own growth and self-preservation – a religious industry – it has begun to lose its way. The end is nigh.

 

(3) And here’s the third thing Jesus is saying. Watch! v28 “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves you know that summer is near”. That’s the point… in spite of all the loss and devastation… ‘Summer is near!’

 

Three things: (1) The world of Christendom is ending. (2) Stop clinging to the past. (3) Watch and be alert. Temples and church’s will pass away, but God has not, and will not abandon the way of Jesus Christ. The future of Jesus Christ will come and catch us by surprise if we are not alert to it.

 

 

Improvements on the Serenity Prayer

November 27, 2014

I recently wrote a paper on the theology of marriage and concluded with my own variation on the Serenity Prayer. Somewhere in the back of my mind I recall reading such things but don’t know where, so it may be that this is not original and I am channeling a distant memory. But I reckon this is a definite improvement.

 

God, grant us the serenity

To accept the things we cannot change

The courage to change the things we can

and the wisdom to know that we probably don’t know the difference

And that you are, nevertheless, not limited by our incapacity.

The King of the Sheep and the Goats

November 22, 2014

Preached at Coastal Unity Parish on the Feast of Christ the King, 2014

Matthew 25: 31-46

 

Jesus paints fascinating pictures. Pictures of a world about to be interupted, about to be shown up and caught by surprise. In this section of Matthew he talks about bridesmaids who are caught unprepared. He then talks about those who hide their resources in the ground rather than using them for the kingdom. And today he paints this grand image of the King’s judgment. We call it ‘The Sheep and the Goats’ – and I don’t know about you but that phrase still sends a shiver up my spine.

 

If there is a common background to all of these stories I think it is Jesus’ profound sense that we are called to action and to constantly expect the arrival of God’s kingdom at any moment. However long it might be till all is revealed and judged and healed. And we never know how long it will be! But however long it might be we are told not to settle … for the long haul but to live in a less than settled manner, anticipating the surprise of God’s arrival.

 

And so the nations of the world are gathered before the King, as Jesus tells the story. For his Jewish audience of the time, I suspect many of them felt pretty good about that idea. The word for ‘nations’ (ethne) is the same word we sometimes translate as Gentiles. This is the judgment of the Gentiles. Jews breathe a sigh of relief… perhaps… at least until they learn how the king goes about making his judgement and populating his kingdom

 

In the forefront of the grand scene is the Son of Man – some translators choose the simpler translation, the true human, or even just ‘the human being’… the Human Being, who is also the King of the whole world with ultimate authority, separates out the nations one from another… Sheep, goat, sheep, goat… like a farmer in the yards drafting.

 

Some are fit for the kingdom of God and others are not… Literally, and I stress this is the simplest literal translation, some are destined for a ‘period of life’ and others for a ‘period of correction’. There are two important words here that have often been translated overdramatically. Firstly the word ‘aionios’ is sometimes translated ‘eternal’ but basically means ‘a period of time’ – it can be a long period of time – but a period of time is the simple translation. Secondly the word often translated ‘punishment’ is better translated ‘correction’. The Greeks had another word ‘timoria’ which Matthew could have used and which specifically meant punishment – but he didn’t. The word used here ‘kolasis’ means correction or even rehabilitation – it’s a gardening term originally used for pruning trees.

 

So lets be clear about his great picture of judgment… the gentiles are gathered so that the truth might be known… who has been made fit for the reign of God (for a period of life) and who needs a period of rehabilitation.

 

So now that we have that out of the way… let’s ask the big question… Where is God in this story? The last few Sundays we have been asking this question. We found God sending people out into risky situations in vulnerability. We found God at work in villages opening doors and setting tables. We found God throwing feasts… and calling us to throw feasts. And now we find God in two places. Where?

 

Two places: God is judging. God is the judge – telling the truth to those who can’t tell it to themselves.

Listen to the surprise of both the sheep and the goats. We didn’t see you Lord? When were you in prison and we visited you? When were you sick and we cared for you? Both the sheep and the goats are ignorant of God’s place in the world. They cannot imagine the King of all the world in such a place. They need this moment of revelation. God’s judgment tells us something surprising. It tells us the criteria by which we are judged and it tells us where God is in the world .

God is not simply the judge in this story. We also see God in all sorts of places (similar places perhaps)… God is the stranger, God is starving, God is thirsty, God is in prison, God is naked. If you are looking for God… look no further than the most vulnerable member of your community. The nations of the world have God’s of all kinds… but their God’s have this in common. They are not to be found among the destitute and the naked, among the trash of humanity, among the enemies of the state in their prisons.

 

In this vision the judge of all the earth is himself the victim of all the earth. The nations are judged by their victims.

 

In this vision the True Human… who judges us all… is not just a God who is theoretically in favour of the hard done by… not just a distant philanthropist. He is one who in his flesh and blood, gets naked with the naked, is imprisoned with the prisoners, is thirsty with the thirsty, and a stranger in his own country hanging out with its outsiders, with its immigrant community.

This is a God not holding onto property rights on Godness… who moves out of his rights and towards the least… who gives himself with complete abandon to those in need… and whose ripped open body on a Roman cross sends up a cry of protest against the world.

 

And those who enter his kingdom, whether they know it or not… are his followers. They too move out from their upward mobility and visit the prisoners, feed the hungry, clothe the naked and provide hospitality for the strangers and refugees.

 

If you want to get political… you just need to remember that this is the judgment of the nations (not just individuals). Nations are being divided one from another on the basis of how they have responded to their most vulnerable. Nations will be judged not on how they have encouraged their citizens to be upwardly mobile out of poverty, but on how they have created solidarity among citizens (even downward mobility) that reflects Jesus self-abandonment for the sake of his weaker neighbours.

Its not just that the rich are being encouraged to look after the poor… but even the poor are called to follow Jesus towards the poor, the sick to care for the sick, prisoners to visit other prisoners. It’s not just a redistribution of resources its a way of being human. All of us need it if we are to be part of God’s reign.

Our downwardly mobile God, stands in judgement on us both as upwardly mobile individuals and nations. This truly human judge who has abandoned himself for our sake… comes says Jesus to surprise the world… both those who know and those outsiders, those gentiles who don’t know … and to surprise us all with the truth that God has been ahead of us all along… living amongst the victims of our society and that’s where we will continue to find God.

That’s the problem with reading this story and taking it seriously as God’s word to us today. We can no longer plead ignorance. We are being given eyes to see God and we have been given a way to walk to eternal life.

 

Thanks be to God.

 

 

 

 

 

 

General Assembly: A Memoir

October 8, 2014

imageHi everyone… I’m just back from five days in a strange country. It goes by the title of the General Assembly of the PCANZ. Now I need to write about it in order to move on. Otherwise it will possess me.

Some of the nicest people I know are New Zealand Presbyterians. And spending five days with them is always a delight. There was probably more celebration than anything else. It was richly multicultural with a deep bicultural vein running through it all. Our leader (moderator) for this particular jaunt was the passionate and poetic Andrew Norton. Music was a delight – lifting the roof on several occasions. One particularly spine tingling performance by a Auckland Chinese choir of a piece called Lord Have Mercy will stay with me for a long time.

imageThe Keynote Speaker was Steve Taylor. He was the other highlight of the gathering for me. Both his insights and his means of communicating were equally memorable. His theme was “Hospitality: Your Place or Mine?” He reflected on receiving hospitality at “their place” based in the sending of the 72 In Luke 10 and then on hospitality at “our place” based on Luke 14 and “throwing feasts” and finally on Luke 19, Jesus constant cross-cultural engagement, drawing on the short movie “The lost thing”

And yet the contrast between the celebration/keynote addresses and the debate couldn’t have been more extreme – from the sublime to the ridiculous at times. The subjects up for debate varied widely from internal ecclesiastical matters to broader socio-political matters. If you were there and I miss out something you feel was important, please don’t be offended. These are just the things that stick in my memory.

I will summarise some of the more internal decisions that I can recall:

  • We agreed to allow congregations (north of the Waitaki) to upgrade their buildings to 34% rather than 67% of NBS
  • We agreed to a system which will to free up some of the significant wealth of the PCANZ tied up in buildings for mission projects (Who could disagree with this?)
  • We declared ourselves a “cross-cultural church” (What else could we be with a gospel of “reconciliation”?)
  • We agreed to change the model for representation at the General Assembly to one based more on the individual members within a Presbytery rather than on congregations. (This seems to be inconsistent with the idea that the congregation is the fundamental unit of our mission and that membership is first of all in a congregation and only secondly in the PCANZ, therefore not transferable. There may well be an issue for further theological reflection here.

Turning to some of the broader issues we addressed:

  • Mr Paul Barber moved that “the GA call on political leaders to commit to active initiatives to promote peace through non-violent conflict resolution and to oppose armed conflict.” The motion was lost.
  • Dr Glen Pettigrove gave an inspiring presentation in support of including the Belhar Confession (a significant reformed confessional statement arising out of the struggle against Apartheid and prophetically addressing issues of racism) in the list of authoritative statements of our reformed heritage. The motion was lost. (I heard two arguments in opposition i. this statement could potentially used to support the cause of homosexuals ii. this statement comes from a different context … (i.e. Like all such statements on our list)). For me this was truly the low point of Assembly. The thought that we could reject Belhar for these reasons makes me want to walk away from the PCANZ.
  • Rev Dr Bruce Hamill and Rev Anne Thompson presented a proposal to (among other things) request Presbyterian investors and members to divest from the fossil fuel industry (from i. Coal, Oil or Gas Companies listed on the NZ Stock Exchange who’s main business is the extraction and/or production of fossil fuels and ii. the 100 largest global coal companies and the 100 largest oil and gas companies.) The Assembly agreed. This was the high point of the assembly for me.
  • Rev Hamish Galloway, in one of two moments when he showed significant and impressive leadership, moved that the group of motions on sexuality, leadership and marriage be addressed by a special commission rather than debate at Assembly. The motion was lost and I added my name to the dissenters.
  • A motion in the name of Penelope Stevenson, to uphold a minister’s “freedom of conscience” in relation to officiating at any marriage was withdrawn. I have no idea why this happened and would have liked to know. In anticipation I had prepared the following little speech to offer, but the opportunity never arose:

“Moderator, I support this motion. And in so doing I want to say something about the difference between an evangelical church and a legalistic one (because I believe this debate touches on the heart of what it means to be church). An evangelical church is founded on and defined by the gospel of Jesus Christ. Such a church has rules… But these rules are merely for the purpose of good order. They are not and ought not be absolute. They are not of the substance of the reformed faith. There must always be room for freedom of conscience and the possibility of conscientious objection to these rules and to any statement the church makes which is not a confession of the gospel of Jesus Christ. If these rules and statements, which are not our confession of the gospel become absolute in this sense,then we have become a legalistic church. If you want to remain an evangelical church and not merely a club, I urge you to support this motion”

  • Mr Paul Barber moved a motion to affirm the leadership of “people in gay, lesbian, bisexual, or de facto relationships or in Civil Unions”. Early in this debate Rev Hamish Galloway gave a powerful speech neither supporting nor opposing the motion. He spoke however about the wrongness of this mode of discernment and addressing these issues. He announced that he was putting down his voting cards and leaving the Assembly for the observation gallery. I and 1/3 of commissioners joined him there. Leaving just 200 still debating. There was considerable emotion and the Moderator himself was visibly distressed.
  • Three motions to ensure that Ministers “may only solemnise a marriage for the union of a man and a woman” (via special legislative procedure, adopted ad interim) were then presented by Rev Stuart Lange and Rev Martin Macaulay. The word “solemnise” was introduced as a legal term referring to what a state approved celebrant does. During this debate I decided, with some hesitation to return to the floor. However, the moderator was keeping debate to a minimum and I did not have the opportunity to offer the following short speech:

“In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, there is no male and female” (Gal 3:28). Not even the great complementarity of male and female defines the new world of life in the body of Christ. What there is according to the writer to the Ephesians is a practice called marriage which signifies the mystery of Christ’s relationship to the church. (Eph 5:32)… Both a witness to Gods love and a practice in which we learn to love, in all the intimacy of our bodily existence, our nearest neighbour. I oppose this motion because I do not want to deprive homosexual people of the opportunity to share in this witness, this asceticism, this practice in holiness and hope. Jesus made the reform of a range of institutions into an art form. I believe he is calling us to reform our understanding and practice of marriage, not to set it in ecclesiastical concrete. I urge this assembly to remember the spacious love of Christ.”

And so it all ended on Tuesday afternoon with many of us exhausted and semi-depressed (as usual) in spite of all the celebrations and energy with which it all began

Authority and Obedience (sermon)

September 27, 2014

Matt 12:23-32  Phil 2:1-13

 

By what authority are you doing these things? When challenged like this Jesus doesn’t answer directly… Instead he ends up offering them a parable about authority… about the nature of authority.

 

“A man had two sons” we are told. He gave both of them the same command. As a Jewish father he has authority over his sons. His culture, tradition, society all give him authority to command his sons.

 

The first son acknowledges that authority and says Yes… but does nothing. The second son rejects that authority, rebels, but later does what the father asks.

 

For the first Son, although the authority of the Father is acknowledged, although he says Yes, this authority is not internalised. It may be that he never intends to act, and is deceptive… or it may be that he simply never gets round to it. The command exists somewhere out there on the periphery of who he is and what he is doing with his life… so for all it’s external authority it has no internal authority for him.

 

Authority is not merely something someone has by virtue of the way society works, by virtue of being the boss, by virtue, or, in this case, being a Jewish Father – external authority. Deepest authority is given from below by those who follow… its internal.

 

Interestingly, the one who ends up demonstrating that the Father’s command is truly and internally authoritative… the one who ends up doing the will of the Father, is the one who initially says No (the Rebel), but does get round to it. … he is the obedient one.

 

Here is where the challenge of the religious leaders gets thrown back in their teeth. Jesus compares them to the first son… for whom doing the will of the Father is a duty… but not a passion, something they say yes to… but ultimately don’t get around to actually doing.

 

Crooks and Whores,… says Jesus will get into the kingdom of heaven before the religious leaders. They may say No at first. They may appear to be the nay sayers… but there will be crooks and whores who will do the will of the Father because its their passion, because it has internal authority for them.

 

Let’s turn our attention now to the other readings. This little bit of Philippians, scholars think, is a very ancient Christian hymn, older than any of the writings of the NT, any of the gospels or any of Paul’s letter. It is a little hymn which tells us more than anything else what lay at the heart of Paul’s new faith in Jesus and how the very first Christians understood it.

Let me read just the hymn part:

[Jesus] was in the form of God. He didn’t think it was robbery to be equal with God, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave servant, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself, listening to God to the point of death — even the death of the cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee would bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every language would fully agree that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

In a nutshell it tells us that Jesus was a man under the authority of his Father. He was in the form of God his Father. Not in any way seeking a higher status, but equal with God, completely lacking any sense of rivalry with God and yet… at the same time under the authority of God his Father. How does that work if someone is equal, yet under authority? It works if the authority is not some external system. It works if the authority is totally freely given by the one under authority. It is about internal authority.

 

The hymn envisions Jesus as obedient to God… And the word itself is worth noting. Obedience comes from two old english words meaning ‘listening towards’. The Greek is the same. It says Jesus ‘listened to God all the way to his death’. Jesus and the Father were on the same wavelength… all the way down.

 

And how did he express this equality with God… Philippians says, because he was in the form of God, he expressed that divine form, by pouring himself out as a servant of others… listening to God in a way that led directly to his crucifixion. For this according to Christians is what God is like. This is the form of God in our world.

 

This is the Christian revolution… humility, self-giving, servanthood, the cross … is the very form of God. This is the life of God that the resurrection of Jesus celebrates and announces. This is the form of God that, according to the hymn, will be acknowledged by every language group. Not Caesar, nor his army, not his athletes, nor his array of heroic deities, but Jesus… is the Lord… the Lord Servant of all.

 

Which all sounds very grand and orthodox, doesn’t it… but for Paul it is intensely practical.

If then there is any encouragement in Christ [Paul writes] If his love provides any relief, any partnership with the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete by thinking along these same lines, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Have the same frame of mind that was in Jesus, the Anointed One.

For Paul, to be a Christian is to be caught up into the obedience of Jesus… we can he says “work out our own salvation”. We too can share in this amazing life of servanthood in relation to one another and obedience to God.

 

How? Paul says, because ‘it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both in what you intend to do and in what you actually do’.

 

To my mind this brings us back to the two sons… This business of getting intentions and actions together… like the Son who said No but in the end acted… this business is God’s work. Internal authority.

 

I wonder which son you tend to identify with. Are you more like the ‘good’ son, whose first instinct is to say Yes? Or are you the rebel, whose first instinct it to say No?

 

Either way the good news is that God changes human nature… changes people and communities … so that they they pour themselves out for others, rather than contain themselves safely under their own control. God changes people and communities so that they no longer aspire to be like Caesar … on top of the world… but to be like Jesus, under the world, bearing the world in love. God changes people into the form of God.

 

This is the Gospel of Christ.

The Generous God and the Evil Eye (sermon)

September 20, 2014

Matthew 20: 1-16Evil_Eye

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Combating Cynicism at Election Time

September 20, 2014

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:Edward_Snowden

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?

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