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Archive for September, 2010|Monthly archive page

Homily for Evensong – Ordinary Sunday 26C

In Uncategorized on September 27, 2010 at 11:59 pm

Our first reading continues the saga of Ezra-Nehemiah,
which tells the story of the “historical miracle”
of return from Babylonian Exile,
and the rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple, and of the city itself.

Incidentally, I have intriguing memories of Nehemiah the Musical
performed by the Peninsula Parish in Dunedin when I was six or seven.

Key components were a big wall made of polystyrene blocks
and, more unlikely than the miraculous story itself,
my Mum playing the drums.

There are 3 “historical miracles” which Jewish thinkers sometimes refer to:
The Exodus, this return from Exile and rebuilding,
and the foundation of the modern State of Israel.

All three coming out of great tragedy and torment,
all three seen as great signs of hope and blessing,
all three falling short of creating a society
where the demands and justice and holiness of the God of Israel
were enshrined and enacted.

Our second reading, though, from the Gospel of John,
turns this sense of home-coming, of an end to Exile,
on its head.

Throughout John we can read the tension permeating the narrative
of that Christian community’s sense of exclusion and rejection.

John’s community live in Judea, but his picture of Jesus
has him constantly opposed by – in his shorthand – “the Jews”.
In other words, John’s community feels under siege, outcaste,
even in their own land.

With ears open to this, you get a sense from the very outset
of the great grief and pain of this:
from the Prologue:   He was in the world,
and the world came into being through him;  yet the world did not know him.
He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.

At a couple of points in the telling, the narrator
moves from Jesus speaking as “I”, to his community’s speaking as “we”.
From the Nicodemus encounter:
Jesus answered … “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
“Very truly, I tell you, we
speak of what we know
and testify to what we
have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony.”

This takes nothing away from the telling.
Rather it helps us understand the real context in which John’s Gospel
was being shaped and forged and written down.

I’ve got two books in my little library.
One’s called The Metaphor of God Incarnate.
The other – I assume written in response –
is called The Truth of God Incarnate.

I’m a good Anglican, and want to have a bet each way.
The way we view Scripture and articulate theology
doesn’t need to sit in only one of several opposing camps.
Precisely what has been recorded in biblical texts
can help us understand absolutely
the struggles of those who framed the language and set the scenes.

We have a classic encounter in tonight’s passage,
between Jesus and “the Jews”.
And I want to say clearly that,
even as criticism of the modern nation of Israel is not,
as is often lazily thrown up, “anti-Semitism”,
so the portrayal of Jesus’ opponents as a party called “the Jews”
– or perhaps equally accurately, “the Judeans” –
is taken out of all context and defiled
when used to bolster any sort of past or present anti-Semitic agenda.

All the protagonists are Jewish, let’s not forget.
And it’s the Jewish community of John’s Gospel
who feel the pain of exclusion and discrimination.
The Church in our part of the world
would do well to remember that feeling.

Tonight’s reading is about Jesus’ identity,
Jesus as the one who speaks truth, the truth that liberates;
Jesus as the Son, who can set slaves free;
the Messiah, whom Abraham longed to see,
indeed the one who before Abraham was, is.

Jesus uses – as six times elsewhere throughout John’s Gospel
– making the perfect biblical number, seven –
an “I am” statement.  But this one is emphatic.

Imagine the characters here
as again representative of the Johannine community
and those who exclude and even persecute them:
Jesus is called a Samaritan, one who has a demon.
In other words, the early insults we know existed
concerning Jesus’ parentage,
both in human terms and in the realm of the supernatural.
Jesus’ followers are having thrown at them
the insults that Jesus was the son of a foreigner,
and in the service of the devil.

In the face of this, Jesus utters the simplest of statements,
but with universal echoes.
ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν, πρὶν Ἀβραὰμ γενέσθαι ἐγὼ εἰμί.
amēn amēn legō umin, prin abraam genesthai egō eimi

“Ego eimi” – “I am” – in Latin, “ego sum”.
“I am”.
Not “I was”, but “I am”  –  “… before Abraham was, I am.”

Clearly we have there on Jesus’ lips,
and in the understanding of John’s community,
an echo of the divine Name,
the revelation that Moses encounters in the burning bush,
the truth and identity that is forever in the present tense.

Godself, the liberating truth that Christ makes known in our flesh and blood.
Whatever dishonour we may feel is heaped upon us
by a world that generally shrugs us off,
whatever sense of being in exile from our own culture
we might sometimes be aware of,
the truth of God Incarnate is attested by the earliest Believers.

It’s a truth that is also beautiful, poetic, metaphorical,
not a sterile clinical fact, but a rainbow of illumination and depth.

The only true reality, is God.  “Ego eimi” The only, ultimate, “I am”.
That truth sets us free if we allow it to resonate within us,
liberates that which is in exile,
and would have us speak that truth to a cynical world.

Homily for Ordinary Sunday 25C

In Uncategorized on September 20, 2010 at 10:15 am

It’s been quite a couple of weeks.
Three ‘s’es have struck me.

Synod met yesterday, and it continues to amaze me
how that gathering seems to mean snow falls,
be it May or be it September.
We might next year offer our services to the skifields
for a small consideration.

South Canterbury Finance,
so long seemingly a breed apart,
joined the long list of finance companies
to enter receivership in the last two years.

And it can scarcely have escaped your notice,
the parable played out in national politics,
as David Garrett fell from any sort of grace.
Scandal.
He and those he’s hurt need our prayers, both.

But questions of morality
have loomed large upon the national stage.
Questions of accountability.
And from the most vociferous of voices calling for judgement
– hardline in our treatment of criminals –
a veneer has been stripped away
and we are left with what?
Perhaps a desire for justice.

I should probably here be up-front,
and say that the economics, the underpinnings
and the implications of Mr Garrett’s party
I’ve never felt resonated with my hearing of the gospel.

And indeed, in our first reading comes a voice
– an ancient voice thousands of years removed in time
from ACT or any of us–
calling on the powerful and the rich,
the landowners and the traders, to deal justly.
To, quite literally, not use double standards.
Maybe a theme that resonates this week.

Our first reading reminds us, business – as everything else –
has a moral dimension and a potential social cost.
We forget that at our peril.
Our gospel, though, is hard to fathom.
It’s usually called the parable of the dishonest steward.
It’s central character is highly conflicted
and comes across as – at best –
morally ambiguous in his behaviour.
There are plenty of questions around the parable.
Where does the servant’s supposed “dishonesty” begin?
Is there any substance to the charges brought against him?
Is he “dishonest” for writing off the debts owed to his master?
Is he, as some have suggested,
in fact writing off his own extortionate commission?
Why on earth does his master commend him?

There are many commentators who suggest
that in this morning’s gospel we have the criticism
of an oppressive quest for profit –
in the ancient world as in modern money lending –
high risk leads to high rates of interest.
We should, you’d hope, have learnt something about
that particular financial minefield in the last couple of years.

It’s suggested that in writing off significant parts of these debts,
the steward is making sure his master gets his capital back,
but the interest – the huge interest that was probably largely his own income – is annulled.

The point might be taken,
that here is a man who is part of an unjust system,
whose own cut of the cake
means that others are trapped in debt.
When faced with his own vulnerability within this system,
in order to simply save his own skin,
he behaves in a way that is fundamentally just.

For all the wrong reasons, he chooses to do right.
He decides to cash in his short-term financial benefit
and instead to ride the wave of goodwill and obligation
he unleashes in the world around him.

In short, while still being totally selfish,
he looks at the bigger picture
and decides that the time has come to liberate some others,
people he was part of oppressing.
In the Western world, as an affluent people,
we can’t dismiss that reading.
The steward turns a bad situation – for him and for others,
into something much better, for them and for him.
And we’re surely challenged by that.

Jesus says it baldly this morning:
“You cannot serve God and wealth”.
I am not going to sugar the pill.

The pursuit, above all else,
of money – or power – or fame
puts us in the sphere of idolatry.
False identity and false worship.

The subservience of people to economic systems & forces,
be they capitalist or socialist or whatever,
is similarly heretical
if we believe humankind to bear God’s image.

We, you and I,
cannot, surely, as people of faith,
place our ethics apart from our employment,
or our salvation apart from our shopping list.
Whether here or in the mythical Market,
justice – economic justice –
cannot be separated from proclaiming good news,
preaching peace, and our stewardship of creation.

We live in an interconnected world,
a world of debt and injustice and exploitation,
of the powerful riding roughshod over the weak.

But in a subversive parable
about a servant who sees the writing on the wall,
Jesus calls us to act if not prophetically,
then at least pragmatically,
to discover justice, even by accident,
and to bask in its grace.

There’s actually one other way of viewing this cryptic parable.
Perhaps the servant tears up the debts of his master
to make everyone there recognise –
before he’s dismissed –
the abundant generosity of his boss.
Because, whether true or not, if he can foster that,
he’s got a chance.

Because the people will love the boss, and the boss
will have to recognise that goodwill and honour.

The theology’s not so good,
but there may be truth in it for us.

This still-steward
made the call that debts were to be discounted.
To whom did the good PR attach itself?
Who were the local farmers toasting?
Most probably the master.
So in a culture of honour and shame,
a shrewd servant turns his shame
into sharing in his master’s honour.

For all the wounds that the Church bears,
for all we might fail to live up to our calling
and our stewardship:
what might we do,
if we were to present – shrewdly if you like –
the abundant generosity and grace
of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ
as if to save our own skin?

Homily for Ordinary Sunday 24C

In Uncategorized on September 12, 2010 at 11:37 am

I was watching a TV sketch show the other day,
featuring an mock infomercial
for a patented flank-pat system
for finding books on a bookcase,
finding misplaced keys, or finding scissors in the kitchen.

It wouldn’t have been at all funny,
unless there wasn’t something unnervingly true
about our ridiculous and obsessive behaviour
when something’s not where we want it to be.

In questionable taste, the infomercial ended
with a search and rescue team
using similarly useless methods
in the aftermath of an earthquake.
At which point it felt a little too close to home…
We can give thanks to God
that amidst all the destruction and distress
of the last week in Canterbury
there has been no loss of life,
no searching for survivors in the rubble.
But we can imagine and relate
to the desperation of such a search.

Our gospel this morning,
the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin,
fuses such obsession and need
in seeking out that which is lost.
In fact, there’s a third parable that follows immediately
with which this movement culminates,
that of the lost or prodigal son,
and I’d like you to bear that well-known parable in mind.

Jesus tells these parables
in response to criticism over the company he keeps.
The good religious people
see him welcome and eat
with “sinners” and those on the margins.

And very simply,
Jesus tells stories
that speak of God’s overwhelming desire to find the lost,
and that challenge those
who don’t seem to understand that.

“Seeking the lost”,
when used in a churchy sense,
is a phrase that itself
takes on connotations of judgement.
And perhaps Jesus speaks to challenge us today…

We have, this morning, examples of loss and obsession:
whether in a dim-witted sheep who’s wandered off,
and the shepherd who leaves a flock behind to look for it;

a coin, that can’t be blamed for rolling away,
and the woman who sweeps and searches until it’s found;

or – in the case of the Prodigal Son – an individual
who has made the intentional choice to travel far-off,
and the father who allows him to go,
but longs for his return.

In all three of these stories,
the shepherd, the woman, the father
– all representing God –
is looking for what is lost,
not casually, but single-mindedly.
More than that, the shepherd leaves the 99 “good” sheep
to search for just one that’s gone astray.
… That is stupidly single-minded.
But such, Jesus suggests, is the love of God for each of us.

Everything stops in the household
as the woman searches for one coin out of ten.
Throwing a party when she finds it,
that must have meant a net financial loss.

And the meaning we’re to take from all this
is not hard to fathom:  God, more than we can imagine,
wants those who are or who feel far-off to be brought close.

And that may be those
who wouldn’t dream of darkening these doors,
… or just maybe it might often be you and I.

Jesus tells these stories to the Pharisees and scribes,
who looked with judgement on their contemporaries.
Jesus tells these stories that speak of God rejoicing,
of joy in heaven, of celebration and sharing together
because of the recovery of what is loved and once was lost.
God’s magnificent obsession:  us.
Whether we feel we need finding,
or are already near to God,
while we are called to repentance and to respond
to the One who seeks us out,
we are invited to enter into God’s delight in humankind.
To recognise and celebrate the joy of heaven
over every life transformed.
To let that joy echo within us.

Jesus talks to the Pharisees and scribes,
and in the parable of the Prodigal Son
has an older brother appear,
who is unable to rejoice with his father,
and – for all his faithfulness –
seems to be distant from the character representing God.

So often the Church has been guilty of pouring water
on what God might be doing.
A narrowness of vision,
or a meanness of spirit
has perhaps turned people away.

We are called to live with the joy
of the God who has sought us out,
to celebrate and share this with others,
not grumbling in judgement, but living in love.

Sharing in love and in fellowship,
so that –
even as we might at times image the obsession of God
in needing to find what is lost –
we might certainly share
in the delight of the Divine,
that we and others are so gracefully
welcomed to God’s table.

Found.
Forgiven.
Fed.

That we in turn might seek out the lost,
forgive others,
and share our bread,
rejoicing with heaven in the grace and love of God.

Homily for Ordinary Sunday 23C

In Uncategorized on September 6, 2010 at 3:02 am

I had a colleague when I was at theological college
who went through a phase,
determined to believe that Jesus was a Buddhist missionary.

Now while this might be largely at odds
with everything else we read and know about Jesus of Nazareth,
and with common sense,
in this morning’s gospel account,
you can almost see what he might have been getting at.
Here we have detachment as a major theme:
Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother,
wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself,
cannot be my disciple.

Detachment from all the relationships
we cling to as social creatures, as human beings.

There are other elements in the gospel, too:
a builder unable to finish a tower; a king evaluating his military resources.
Finally, perhaps a little confused, we are brought to the conclusion
we are supposed to take as self-evident from these parables –
So therefore, none of you can become my disciple
if you do not give up all your possessions.

Do all of these threads really weave together to give that final end product?
Is that a result that any of us in our affluence really want to hear?

And the context of all these sayings is important, too.
Large crowds are following Jesus, looking for who knows what.
Jesus’ comments are designed to make them think seriously
about what they think they’re in for,
about whether they can really run this race to the end.

With the benefit of hindsight, you and I know where this journey leads:
Jerusalem and the Cross.
Jesus is laying before these would-be-followers
that which we heard in Deuteronomy:   Life and prosperity, death and adversity.
Life and death, blessings and curses.
Faithfulness and idolatry. Discipleship of God or something else.

And they may not be as face value suggests.
There is a crucial line in this morning’s gospel passage that needs highlighting:
Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.
We know that there is a fundamental paradox at the heart of our faith,
in the Cross.
It is death, and yet through it we know life. It is a curse, as Deuteronomy itself tells us,
and yet we recognise that in the Christ who was executed under that curse,
we have become heirs to blessing beyond comprehension.

The message of this morning is not complex,
it is that following Christ, being true to the call of God,
has cost we may not imagine.
Are we prepared to give it all up,
comfort and consumerism, happy families and herbaceous borders,
liberty and life itself?
Can we for a second sanction that possibility?
We can, perhaps, say “well yes, if I had to I would”,
safe in the knowledge that God would never require you and me
to give up the life we are busy leading.
Can we give God free reign, with everything up for grabs?
Can we allow God to speak to us and to help us discern
which in our lives are the ties that bind and the ties that strengthen?

This is really the same question Jesus asks Simon Peter on the lakeside,
after the Cross and the empty tomb: “Do you love me more than these?”
Do we trust God enough to let go of the things that we cling to in this life,
that we look to to help fill out a sense of meaning?
Can we surrender and entrust to God when we have to, not only our possessions,
but also our own lives, and those we love?

Where any premise of Jesus the Buddhist really falls flat is this.
The reality to which he points is not the extinction of desire, of self,
a reality in that which is not.
We are beckoned to follow Christ towards the God who is.
The God who is Love.
We are called to set our hearts and our holdings on the one
who liberates us from all ties that bind us,
and in that love are held more fully and firmly than we can know.

Do we love the God Jesus revealed to us, the God who is love,
enough to place our identity and our prosperity and our very self
in those hands which were stretched out in love towards us on the Cross?

Are we prepared to detach ourselves when that is of God,
and to firmly plant our hopes and our hearts
with the vulnerability of a God who promises nothing
but faithful and undying love?

Who promises everything
in faithful and undying love?