Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Thoughts on Mt Cargill

It has been a wonderful Monday with the (possibly misleading) signs of Spring all about us - warm, still and with clear skies. It was the sort of day that the question 'where shall I walk the dogs?' seemed absolutely right. I had not been there before, but the track from the North Road up Mt Cargill to the Organ Pipes seemed to beckon - it seemed a day to try something new.

This sort of exercise gives the lie to the 'all humans are created equal' theory: the steps up the steep track are clearly designed for those with long legs. So, with much patience I plodded wearily behind the dogs - felt the organ pipes were a bit of a disappointment and continued to march on up past Mt Butters and then on to Mt Cargill. On the way Dunstan discovered a detour which took him into mud that I unwisely followed him through. It was thick and dense stuff that oozed up over the boots - and the track led nowhere except to a gravel heap for track maintenance. Mac was wiser - and took time to contemplate things - as the photo shows.

Below the organ pipe rock-fall it was interesting to see the natural 'rockery' being formed. I studied it with some real pleasure. Not least because it was an excuse to stop and catch my breath.

At the top of Cargill we greeted a young couple who had come up the easy way, driving up Cowan Road. I greeted them with the smugness of the virtuous who had walked - mixed with the envy of one who had to get down again (oh my knees!).

Monday's solitary walk is a great way to process the events of Sunday. The reception to changes in the apse had been very positive but useful suggestions for refinement had been forthcoming.

All the way snippets of other Sunday conversations ran through my mind.

  • Can one be a Christian and practise Buddhist meditation? Why not? Plenty of examples of Christians who have gone along that path - not the least being Thomas Merton. I remember from my own time in Hong Kong the fruitful conversations held with Buddhist practitioners of meditation; also that cross I own from that environment - it shows the cross with the lotus at its base.
  • Then there was that intriguing question about whether the Genesis stories of the Creation and Fall can be read literally. I floundered a bit in that conversation because I cannot read them literally and they are not meant to be read as science - and a strict literalism creates more problems than it answers. However the question was a very intelligent one and it was related to the necessity of the atonement. Not by any means a framework for a casual conversation - so I suspect we will need to revisit that chat. However it does remind me that how we read scripture and how our faith grows is never static but always a dynamic process - wherever one stands in the theological/spiritual spectrum that holds true.
Some hours later and back in the city, a pub lunch of cod and chips with an icy pint of Tui - not a bad way to celebrate the sense of Spring.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Letting the Cathedral Speak

To St Francis is attributed the sentiment 'Proclaim the gospel constantly and everywhere and, when necessary, use words.' That could well apply to the cathedral: what its architecture says about God and what its inner space proclaims. The design is the primary statement the building makes. As visitors idly wander in our hope is that something of the building speaks to them.

Ever since I arrived here there has been incessant rumblings and general discontent about the apse. There has been a Chapter Committee to examine and propose alterations and a great deal of people's time and energy - not to mention cathedral money - devoted to this matter.

What we have not been able to see is the visual strength of what we already have. So this past week I had the improvised nave altar removed along with the heavy and immovable plinths that blocked the crossing. Then choir stalls were set back and the ambulatory cleared of all the things that had been stored there.

With the crossing cleared I felt an overwhelming sense of space in which to pause and wonder at the beauty of the place. The main altar was now unmistakeably allowed to be the central point of focus and at the same time it was dwarfed by the sheer height of the apse and one's eyes were drawn upwards.

Well, it is an experiment. Bishop and Chapter seem happy but there are questions. I am anxious about the choir in this arrangement - they are almost behind the organ and separated from the congregation. For music - this is not ideal. Yet the appearance is greatly enhanced. The discussions will continue but for the moment I am pleased to let this glorious building sing its own song even when we are not present!

Monday, August 22, 2011

Sir Paul Reeves

I was privileged to be at the state funeral for Sir Paul. It was an extraordinary gathering and, of course, it honored an extraordinary man. The service was impressive - not just in it's dignity but in the extraordinary way the liturgy gave space for, and coherence to, a great diversity: state and church; Maori and Pakeha; local and international; the formal and the informal.. As we processed in, the music being played in the forecourt was a waltz and one Dean murmured to me 'shall we dance?' - and that suggests something of the spiritedness of the occasion.

Contrast that to, say, the Stanford Nunc Dimittis sung after the Commendation, during which Tiki Raumati softly recited a poroporoake (farewell) while the casket was sprinkled with holy water and censed - the nice touch (for me at least) was that he gave the censer to one of the daughters and guided her round the casket as she censed it. It was holy and personal and numinous.

I came back feeling moved and humbled by all I had seen and heard - not at all a bad way to feel after a funeral.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Waterfront poem - Wellington

You would so easily pass it by, as I did on my walk along the waterfront on the way to the cathedral early this morning. But ... Coming back the same way, I saw it. A plain cement block set against the wall of the wharf, below the path and by some steps. Modest, unassuming but surprising. No attribution given, but carved in the cement were these words:

My quiet morning hill
Stands like an altar drawn
Whereon hushed hands shall lay
The shining pyx of dawn.

With penitence and stir,
And drowsy flurry by,
The wind, a shamefaced serving-boy,
Comes running up the sky.

It is a from a poem by Eileen Duggan.

My Quiet Morning Hill

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Wellington: Ramsey House

A dull grey morning sky in Wellington and I have just stepped out of the modest serviced apartments. It feels quite odd - the building I have slept in has been refurbished into apartments but originally it was what we might now call 'iconic'. Built in the art deco style, it was a Lambton Quay landmark, the MLC Building, on the corner with Hunter Street. For a time, in my childhood, it must have been the tallest building in the city: speaking for an insurance company, it oozed permanence and prosperity. The letters MLC are still on the lift doors and it's emblem at the top of the tower. The world has moved on.

The photo above is from the chapel at Ramsey House, the Anglican Chaplaincy Centre at Victoria University. I wandered in to see the chapel in its current premises (it has moved since my time years ago) but I was delighted to see the original window of the Transfiguration (I can't recall the artist) and enjoy the spare, austere simplicity of the chapel. I owe much to this chaplaincy - my own vocation and discovery of the Anglican way especially.

On the frontage it now feels like a coffee shop and was filled with students texting and working on their netbooks. It is great!

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Price of Milk & Social Responsibility

There's no doubt that farmers are the backbone of the New Zealand economy; that they work hard and that they deserve the rewards of that work. However there are some questions that I have about the market assumptions that seem to operate these days.
  • Most of the 'competition' in the market for milk products has been managed by the farmers' co-operative Fonterra.
  • Many farms are owned not by the local farmer but by investors or corporations and (mis)managed accordingly (i.e. profit driven without a sense of stewardship).
  • Foodstuffs and Progressives are the great chains that set supermarket prices, but they do so in an environment where Fonterra is steadily trying to get higher prices overseas without regard or consideration for the domestic market.
Yet the dairy industry is built upon the land in which all New Zealanders should have an interest and I want to argue that all parties, Farmers, Fonterra and the Supermarkets should acknowledge that by a social responsibility agreement that reduces the price of dairy product for the home market.

Sunday, August 7, 2011


Sermon Evensong 7 August 2011

In Matthew’s gospel for this Sunday, where Jesus appears to the disciples walking on the water, Peter is shown as getting into trouble and nearly drowning at the moment he loses his focus on Christ. It is as if Peter has doubts about what he is doing – that it is after all impossible – and at that moment of doubt he is lost. Doubt and belief – that is what I found myself thinking about for this evening.

You may recall these lines from Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass.

Alice laughed. "There's no use trying," she said: "one can't believe impossible things."

"I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."
(Through the Looking Glass, Chapter 5)

People expect me to be an expert on God but I think that despite a good deal of study, I am a slow learner – and no expert. So when people ask me to explain the Trinity or the nature of God, or the nature of miracles, I can almost feel my eyes glazing over and my brain going rather numb. Yet, I believe in God – though I can quite understand why some would consider that claim rather quaint.

I suppose, in the manner of the Queen in Through the Looking Glass, it is a matter of practice – work at it for half an hour a day; spend time working at prayer, meditation, reading scripture and so on (all those things clergy promise to do) – and the impossible stuff begins to stop being impossible and becomes somehow, strangely true and sometimes one even has an intuitive sense of understanding it.

Which may mean that St Anselm knew he was on to something when he famously said "This I know to be true: that unless I first believe, I shall not understand."(St Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury 1033-1109).

Now when we say we believe in God folk usually have the idea that one is talking about intellectual certainty and that we are dealing with the traditional so-called proofs for the existence of God. You know the kind of thing – there must be a God because...:

  1. People have intermittently believed in a God from the beginning of history;
  2. It is hard to consider the vast structure of the universe and of the human mind originating merely by chance and not from some vast, complex source;
  3. That built into us seems to be some need for something like truth, goodness, love – or some similar alias for God;
  4. That every age and culture has produced mystics who have experienced a Reality beyond reality and have come to report on that experience with wonder and awe.

But the trouble with so-called proofs is that a moderately intelligent child could come up with arguments to counter them. If you don’t want to be convinced by them, if you have no desire for God, then all the proofs in the world won’t move you an inch. One could take Descartes’ advice and doubt everything – but what does that achieve? Pascal took a different approach: he argued that doubt could only lead to more doubt. Instead he argued that “we arrive at the truth not by the reason only but also by the heart.

Now, I’d argue that to be a valuable insight. So, when we say, as we do in the Creed, ‘I believe’, it does not mean that I am advancing an intellectual conviction. It certain does not mean that I say the Creed without any doubts: far from it. On the contrary I have frequently considered writing a brief book – but made no progress beyond the title – which was ‘The Doubters Dictionary’. Doubt is that helpful presence of the mind that keeps us questioning (Descartes) and balances what Pascal would have called the heart.

Now, I speak personally here: what I think happens when we say the Creed is not so much a declaration of intellectual conviction as an assertion of commitment. Although the Latin ‘credo’ has traditionally been translated as 'I believe', the Latin word for 'believe' is opinio and it means to have an opinion or to make an intellectual assertion. Instead credo means something much more important. It means 'I set my heart' and it is a pledge of faith and commitment.

So, with Peter and all those other wavering disciples tossed about in that frail craft we call the church, we may indeed be tormented by doubt; we may indeed see ourselves as a motley crew of the wavering and the undecided. Yet at the end, when we clamber to our feet and say the creed, the doubts remain and yet we set our hearts on Christ and follow him.

This evening and in the week ahead, keep practising, keep, day by day, setting your hearts on Christ.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Walking in the abyss

Sermon Proper 14 (year A), August 7, 2011

Sunday's Gospel

Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, "It is a ghost!" And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, "Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid." Peter answered him, "Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water." He said, "Come." So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, "Lord, save me!" Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, "You of little faith, why did you doubt?" When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, "Truly you are the Son of God." -Matthew 14:22-23

He is sitting in my office and he tells me – in a voice shaking with emotion – ‘I am drowning ... drowning. What am I to do?’ He is of course speaking metaphorically and we understand what he means: he is in a situation which is overwhelming him and he seems to have run out of options and resources. He is desperate and panicking. Not a bad description for the literal experience as I remember it from that moment in infancy when a zealous swimming instructor pushed me under and I floundered, spluttering and panicking, out of my depth. Notice: another watery metaphor, ‘out of my depth’.

Do you recognise the feeling, that frightful sense of raw fear? It may have been a family crisis, a broken relationship, a financial disaster, something at work, a threatening health issue; try and remember how you felt. Was this a time when you might have said ‘I am drowning’ or ‘out of my depth’? When we use such phrases we acknowledge our limits, our powerlessness – and whether the predicaments in which we find ourselves are of our own making or something that has happened and has devastated us, does not matter one jot. All that matters is the overwhelming reality of the experience: the sense that the solidity of our world has dissolved and the waters of chaos have taken over.

That is a very ‘biblical’ experience. The Semitic world of the Bible is not a surf-oriented culture! The ocean is an image of threat and terror. So, God creates the world out of the waters of chaos – subdues and orders them; and, running through the Old Testament are the stories of Jonah and, in the Psalms, the images of God walking on the waters and rescuing us from peril. The waters image those experiences and moments which seem about to destroy us: as the psalmist says -

‘Save me, O God! For the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me.’ Psalm 69:1-2

This now starts to help us begin to understand what is at stake for us in this gospel. As always, the task of the ‘gospeller’ is to tell us or show us who Jesus is. What appears on the surface of the text to be a fantastic story becomes, on close reading, a luminous window – or an icon if you like – that breaks beyond the frame of the story. A series of questions seem to follow.

  • Who is the Jesus the gospel shows us?
  • What should we be paying attention to?
  • What is the miracle here? (Is it Jesus walking on the water, or is it Simon Peter’s faith?)

One of the energising aspects of this story is the high christology it presents: Jesus walks upon the waters of chaos – untroubled. All the powers and experiences that threaten us, he is untroubled by. He is the Lord.

The disciples are in the boat, it is battered by the waves and the wind is against them and they are far from the safety of the land. The boat, which figures in the Old Testament stories of the ark and of Jonah, is a powerfully loaded image – it has, you may say, a history and significance. It is one of the early images that came to be used to represent the church. In this gospel context the church is in danger, it is threatened by many forces, but here the Lord of the Church comes to its rescue and the storm ceases. But as you unpack the image and explore it – note that one implication of the image is that the church’s place is out on the frightening waters of chaos and darkness. That is where our business is.

Now let’s think about the disciples in this story. Notice how they are portrayed as very vulnerable and confused. Their first glimpse of Jesus walking across the water is farcical: as in the post resurrection appearances, they initially have trouble recognising him. Is he a ghost? Is it really him? These are the leaders of the church – and they get it wrong. Under the pressure of the storm about them they are disoriented, fearful and (spiritually) blinded. At this point Peter becomes a pivot for the story – the man whom Jesus has named as the leader of the church is the one who responds to Jesus and leaps into the waters of chaos – walks to Jesus through his fears but then loses his focus for a moment and is overwhelmed by his fears, and drowning in them calls to Jesus who reaches out - and holds him fast. Peter’s leadership of the church is never more affirmed than at that moment of apparent failure – faith grows only through our venture toward God.

The image of Peter drowning in his fears and reaching out to the Lord who rescues him is something we may take to heart and work with – in a multitude of ways. It can speak to our church and to church leaders in crisis. It can speak to the individual soul going through a dark time, besieged by doubt. It can speak to anyone of us whose whole world seems under threat. The faith of the church, the experience of the church, is that we reach out to the Lord Jesus whose hold of us will never slacken.

That does not mean that we will enjoy the experience: we may feel as if we are drowning – but it is in the abyss that our trust can grow. It is in risking our terrors that we discover we are held more firmly than ever. It is in the abyss that the storm carries us toward God. Yes, I know we live in troubled times: but in our lives, in this cathedral, in this diocese, in our nation – this is time in which we reach out and, with Peter, say ‘Lord, save me’ and find that we are held fast.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Sexual Orientation: a core doctrine?

Since the debate over the ordination and blessing of those in same sex relationships continues to ravage our communion, and the issue has started to be discussed in terms of 'core doctrine', a recent sermon on the subject is now posted as I try and see what legs the core doctrine approach has to it.

Patronal Evensong Sermon for St Paul, Sunday 10 July 2011

Since at least 2003, with the ordination of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire while declared as living in a long-term committed same sex relationship, it is no secret that our Anglican Communion is in trouble. For some time observers have been predicting the end of the Communion. Some provinces and Dioceses have already distanced themselves from the Communion through various statements and associated actions (e.g. Nigeria, Sydney).

The dispute can be compared with controversies which have wracked our Communion before – the remarriage of the divorced and the ordination of women come to mind. The difference is that some now argue the issue of homosexuality is a matter of core doctrine rather than adiaphora – the term used to denote something that can leave room for disagreement. Core doctrines have been understood to mean what the creeds and early church councils agreed with regard to the Trinity and to the person and work of Jesus Christ: disagreement on these statements of faith would present a most serious threat to the unity of the church. By contrast, adiaphora have been defined by one report as matters “upon which disagreement can be tolerated without endangering unity.”

So, is sexual orientation a matter of core doctrine?

I have yet to understand how sexual orientation can relate to statements about the Trinity and the person and work of Christ. While I understand that, for some, Paul’s remarks in Romans (Chapter 1) seem sufficient mandate for the proscription of homosexuality, I am not confident that the scriptures can be used in this way. For instance, on the one hand, the matter is marginal in Paul (his real interest is much deeper); and, on the other hand, other so-called scriptural ‘proscriptions’ such as against usury, women or divorce have been re-interpreted over time as understanding and cultural circumstances have changed.

My own view is that we should be very careful of what we claim to be ‘core doctrine’ and I see no grounds for claiming Paul’s remarks on homosexuality to constitute anything of that kind. Ironically Paul over-turned what was in his time accepted as core doctrine: I refer to the debate in the Council of Jerusalem, the first great council of the church, on the question of circumcision.

In our current circumstances it may be salutary to remember how cultural norms and traditional understandings can assume great force and be regarded as ‘core doctrine’. That was certainly the case in the early church of Jerusalem. The church had begun in Jerusalem – it was Jewish. Its members worshipped in the temple and on the matter of dietary laws and circumcision, those matters that defined Jewishness, they were indistinguishable from other Jews. Any Gentiles attracted either to Judaism or to the faith of the Jewish Christians, ‘The Way’ as it was called, would also have worshipped in the temple but, unless they were circumcised, they would not have dared enter (on pain of death) the inner precinct but kept to the outer Court of the Gentiles. It is easy for us to underestimate how important circumcision was held to be by the Jews and Jewish Christians: for instance, it is said that the old Rabbis used to teach that were it not for Abraham circumcising himself at God’s insistence, the world would not exist. Jews went to war over circumcision: when Hadrian banned it in the 2nd century – the Bar Kokhbar rebellion followed; in the Maccabean period Jewish women faced death rather than not have their sons circumcised. Circumcision was at the heart of Jewish identity – it was a core doctrine.

However outside Jerusalem, away from the temple, especially north in the Syrian coastal city of Antioch, things were different. There Gentile followers of the Way worshipped with Jews in synagogues and circumcision did not seem so important; instead the Way became more defined as a distinctive sect within Judaism – and it was in Antioch, the writer of Acts informs us, that they were first called Christians (Acts 11:26).

Perhaps it was inevitable for two such divergent views to collide and for conflict to ensue. We read in Acts how ‘certain individuals came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, ‘unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved’ (Chap.15:1). We hear of the conflict that followed and that it was so severe that Paul and Barnabas ‘were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to discuss this question with the apostles and the elders’ (Acts 15:2).

So the Jerusalem Council had to face a real challenge over what some were utterly convinced was core doctrine. Jerusalem was the Mother Church and had the key leaders of the Way – Peter, James and John – associated with it. Acts tells us that at the meeting ‘some believers who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees stood up and said “It is necessary for them to be circumcised and ordered to keep the Law of Moses.” (Acts 15:5)

Fortunately the Jerusalem Council conceded the force of Paul’s argument enough not to force either division or compliance. So the church survived to continue its mission. Instead core doctrine was located in the mystery of Christ: as Paul bluntly said “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.” (Galatians 5:6) Thank God for that!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Recognising the Miracle

Sermon18OrdinarySunday July 31 2011

Recognising the Miracle

Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, "This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves." Jesus said to them, "They need not go away; you give them something to eat." They replied, "We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish." And he said, "Bring them here to me." Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children. -Matthew 14:13-21


We have longing hearts – that is one way of describing the religious spirit – and there are moments in the gospels where we encounter what that longing means. We bump into it every time we hear Jesus speak of ‘The kingdom of Heaven’ –a place where God’s will and loving purpose for all creation is at last fulfilled. At the very least it holds a vision of a glory beyond imagining and a state where want, sorrow, suffering are no more. So we have this intriguing, tantalising story of the miraculous feeding of the 5000 (excluding women and children!): who would not wish that such miraculous powers were available to us now, today? If such powers were at our command then surely the misery of the famine and drought in East Africa could then be speedily addressed! So this miracle story teases us: the abundance it celebrates is a stark contrast to the hunger and misery we see on the news; Jesus’ power to act and make a difference contrasts with our sense of powerlessness and despair in the face of so much desperate need.

Now the sceptic inside us may be wondering about this miraculous feeding of the 5000. We can of course simply say yes it was a miracle – out there in the wilderness Jesus really multiplied bread and fish and we claim it as a unique event involving dimensional shifts in reality that we cannot account for. We may admit that it is a miracle on a grand scale and refuse to be fazed by such questions as why then and not now; what are the mechanics of inexhaustible bread and multiplying fish – do they grow in your hands or does the basket never empty?

For those who go down that path there are great risks for faith and theology. For instance, a downside of insisting this is a miracle of multiplying bread and inexhaustible fish is that it subverts what is a far greater mystery and a core doctrine of our faith – that of the incarnation. Why – in Jesus the ‘Word made flesh’ - would God take human form, choose to ‘conceal’ or ‘shed’ divinity, but then dazzle the multitudes by an awesome demonstration of power with inexhaustible bread and fish?

What is the miracle here: that bread and fish were multiplied or that a multitude was fed? Do we recognise the miracle; do we recognise the presence of the Kingdom of Heaven?

The historic facts elude us and all we have to guide us are the gospel accounts. Yet what the gospels reveal is compelling.

1. Despite each gospel being very different in structure and in what it includes or omits in the account given of Jesus, all four gospels include the story of the feeding of the multitude in the wilderness. For each evangelist, for the early church the gospels were written for, this event was crucial to understanding who Jesus is and what the church is about.

This feeding of the multitude is a manifestation of the Kingdom.

The gospel text is more subtle and artful than we might have imagined. F

2. Notice how this Gospel begins: ‘Now when Jesus heard this...’ Jesus goes into the wilderness immediately after hearing of the death of John the Baptist. (You will remember that John had been butchered at Herod’s command during a banquet where conspicuous consumption, pride, arrogance, scheming and finally murder were all on display.) In this gospel text that bestial feast is followed by Jesus having the people all recline on the grass – the position for dining – and he offers quite another sort of feast, one where trust, healing and sharing all take place. Do those gathered about Jesus in the wilderness we catch a glimpse of another Kingdom?

3. Remember the Old Testament story of the miraculous feeding of the people of Israel in the wilderness? In Exodus, at Moses’ intercession, ‘manna’ appeared in the wilderness and later ‘miraculous’ flocks of birds also landed to provide some meat. Does the gospel writer draw on this association when he tells of this feeding? Does he create a frame through which to see Jesus: a second Moses?

4. Jesus’ actions – he took bread, gave thanks, blessed, broke and distributed it. It is the 5 fold action of the Eucharist and the Early Church would have recognised in this Gospel story the meal they celebrated every Sunday. They would have seen it as similar to the Last Supper; they would have recognised in it all those inclusive fellowship meals that infuriated the Pharisees, those instances when Jesus ate so indiscriminately with ‘publicans and sinners’. Does the Gospel writer create a frame through which to understand the Eucharist and the calling of the Church?

Now let’s go back to those 5 loaves and two fish. A little like going out into the middle of a packed Carisbrook with 2 hotdogs and can of coke and announcing ‘Hotdogs and Coke for everyone’!

You can imagine how people looked at what Jesus was doing and I can imagine someone saying to another ‘Jesus has lost it. He’s said grace and is going to feed us all with 5 loaves and 2 fish. Don’t get too excited – it will all be gone long before it gets to us!

Five loaves, 2 fish: is that all there is available? Commonsense might cause us to consider how improbable it is that none of the people there had any food – that they had followed Jesus into the wilderness and not taken the precaution of a packed lunch or some equivalent of that sort? Surely in various backpacks people were carrying something? Children were there: what parent would not ensure that something to eat was on hand?

So Jesus takes the food he has available and gives it out – and somehow the miracle begins. Strangers open their backpacks and share their bread, bagel, sandwich, apple, cheese, Aunt Mary’s sweet mustard pickle, the smoked salmon, and the biltong with other strangers. Barriers are broken down. What people have been hiding for themselves is now brought out and shared with others. Those who have little or nothing share in the abundance of others. My bread, my meal becomes our bread, our meal.

What is the miracle here? It is not in any expansion of those five loaves and two fish but in the feeding of the multitude. In that meal people are changed and they (and we) catch a glimpse of the Kingdom of Heaven and what it is like; how there is always more than enough. When I hear of people earning millions while others can barely survive or are starving and dying – I ask what miracle is needed? Simply that our hearts and minds are changed: that we may understand that bread (or its equivalent) is never really mine or yours but always ours: as we have been taught so we pray ‘give us this day our daily bread’. To live in the light of that understanding is to inhabit the Kingdom.

So every Sunday we come here with longing hearts to share what we have and to once again catch a glimpse of the Kingdom.

Social Services Sunday

A Sermon for Social Services Sunday 2011

Sunday's Gospel

He put before them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches." He told them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened. The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Have you understood all this?" They answered, "Yes." And he said to them, "Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old." -Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

One of the things I really want to begin with today is to say a special 'thank you' to all of you who are here to represent social service agencies: thank you for being here today and thank you for all you do in our community. In a very practical sense, by the work you do, you are the heart and soul of our community; were it not for you, something in our society would die; something in us would die: I do not exaggerate when I say that. What you do is vital for our existence as a humane and civilized society. But I also want to say something more than that, something you may not think or dream of: you show us the seeds of what Jesus called ‘The Kingdom of Heaven’.

Are there ever moments when you wonder why you do the work you do and how you can carry on? It could be so easy to become overwhelmed by the problems, the intractable issues, and the people who appear stuck. Never enough money, never enough resources: confronted by massive needs, heart-breaking situations – how do you manage? We speak of compassion fatigue; of burn-out; something that can happen not because people don't care, but because they do care and yet have to survive themselves and be able to function in difficult circumstances. And yet what you do strangely resembles what Jesus called the seeds of The Kingdom of Heaven.

When I read this gospel I am struck by what a defiant and subversive text it is. There is Jesus wandering Galilee with a few followers, preaching an extraordinary message of hope and transformation about the Kingdom of Heaven - and it's not really sinking in; it's not being taken up. It may be that it is even being mocked by his opponents and critics. What does Jesus do? He tells this parable of the Kingdom of Heaven - and which seems against all the odds and the least likely thing to happen, and yet, he says, happen it does.

He fires out a volley of quick comparisons. The Kingdom is like mustard seed, like yeast, like hidden treasure, like a fine pearl, like a net cast out in the sea. The kingdom is like this, and this, and this – a strange confusing medley of images that we are given no time to make much sense of.

· The first pair of comparisons – the seed and the yeast – is not too hard to make some sense of. We know that if you place a seed into the ground, or mix yeast into some flour – things happen; there are results; and they can be surprising: a tree large enough for birds to roost in; enough bread for a family for a week or two. So if the kingdom of heaven is like that – then it is surprising, and potent and much more than meets the eye.

· The other comparisons (treasure in a field, a marvellous pearl) are more difficult: a poor man becomes rich through luck; a rich man becomes richer by selling everything to get this superb pearl. Each man, whether poor or rich, lucky or skilful, gives up everything he has to attain the marvellous thing he has discovered. Now, if the kingdom is like that, then when you stumble across it – everything else seems trivial and no price is too great.

· The net cast into the sea is different again – it grabs everything, and all that will one day be sorted out – but if the kingdom of heaven is like that, then it is not in the end something we find, but something that finds us and draws us up into the light.

In all of these images for the kingdom the one constant factor is the hiddenness of the kingdom: the seed hidden in the ground; the yeast hidden in the dough; the treasure hidden in the field; the pearl hidden among many other pearls; the net hidden in the depths of the sea.

If the kingdom is like these – then it is never immediately apparent to the eye but must be looked for, it is always below the surface of things waiting to be discovered, claimed, and celebrated.

In a way this sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Our imagination feeds off legends of such hidden treasures: we sometimes hear of the winning lottery ticket claimed by a poor family; of the rare painting found in a car boot sale; or maybe of the map found in an old book – pointing the way to the riches of the lost pyramid or King Solomon’s mines.

But where is the Kingdom of Heaven concealed for us? Where is our mustard seed, our pearl or treasure? Is it perhaps that God has concealed the kingdom in plain sight – in the last place we would think to look? Like the rare stamp in an envelope stuffed with used stamps for the Board of Missions fundraiser? Like the silver spoon rattling in the cutlery drawer amidst the stainless? Is the kingdom of heaven mixed in with the humdrum of our ordinary working days: buried amidst the tasks, the routines, the phone-calls, the incessant meetings, the demands and the weariness?

Is the Kingdom closer than we think? The seeds, the signs, the moments – are more diverse than we may imagine. Think about it! A family is suddenly transformed. Someone bowed down by despair at last begins to hope. A child in a heart-breaking situation is finally wrapped in loving arms and begins to smile. Someone realizes they no longer need the props of violence, alcohol or drugs. There is that flicker of response in the grandmother lost in Alzheimer’s. The unemployed man is employed and regains his self-respect. A weary worker at the supermarket checkout responds to a friendly word or smile. Someone picks up the neighbours mail or offers a cup of tea? Are these signs of the kingdom?

Why else would Jesus speak of the Kingdom and use such ordinary things as seeds, yeast, field, pearl and the sea if not to direct our attention to this world and to what we do in it and where we should look for the will and rule and presence of God?

Here, in this earth, is where the seeds of the kingdom are sown and the treasure they yield is the only one worth having.

In the work you do – you help us catch glimpses of the Kingdom.

Celebrating St Paul

Patronal Festival for the Conversion of St Paul 2011

On a patronal festival it is fitting that we celebrate St Paul. The truth is that in the church today – and in the popular imagination - Paul has a very mixed reputation. Whereas our Lord Jesus is popularly understood as preaching a simple gospel of love – Paul is usually represented as complicating everything with difficult theology. The often forceful tone of Paul’s letters, the energy and the complex arguments through which he engages with the contradictions he finds in himself, his Jewish tradition, the cultures about him and his experience of Christ – these are amazing documents, but they are not easy to grasp and when we read them in church they are among the most challenging readings to read aloud. The popular picture that we have of Paul tends to include some of these aspects; that he was:

  • A bigoted Jew who became a bigoted Christian.
  • A misogynist and a source of views that represented women as inferior to men; and a biblical source for the arguments used against the ordination of women.
  • Someone who affirmed slavery rather than condemned it.
  • Notorious for his condemnation of homosexuality.

Most of these issues can be explained (and usually are) by paying attention to the cultural norms of Paul’s time and his identity as a Jew but I don’t accept that the picture is as clear as we popularly have understood it. For instance when we associate Paul with the line about women being silent in church[1] – we forget the numerous women Paul mentions in his letters – in some instances women who lead and host the church in their houses and who, with him, are evangelists to the Gentiles (the non-Jewish) world. The picture is not straightforward and Paul is certainly not a misogynist.

So, this morning I want to encourage you to think about Paul ina much more appreciative way.

I’ll begin with a bold statement: Christianity can be understood as the invention of one man – St Paul! Paul’s letters are our earliest Christian writings and without Paul it is unlikely that the Gentile world would ever have adopted Christianity. Without Paul, it is highly unlikely that Christianity would ever have broken away from Judaism – and the world we know would have been entirely different. [2] Christianity would not have reached Europe – let alone the rest of the world. Think of what that would have meant.

  • For instance the whole Jewish inheritance, inseparably woven into our Christian tradition, would never have been available to the western imagination – stories which used to be told to every child would have remained the exclusive preserve of Jews: Adam and Eve, the Fall, the Ark, Daniel in the Lion’s Den.
  • Our understanding of God in the West is the God of Israel: a God who made everything that is and is utterly tied up with his creation.

This entire intellectual and cultural legacy is so easily forgotten and we take it for granted; we assume it and it was the result of Paul’s influence

Luke’s account and Paul’s

Luke tells us the famous story of Saul, the persecutor of the Way, having a vision on the road to Damascus – he gives us a memorable story with wonderful details – but Paul’s own account of what happened is quite different. What occurred to Paul may well have happened on the road to Damascus but even that detail is omitted in his account in Galatians 1. All Paul tells us is that he had a direct revelation of Jesus Christ – a revelation that sent him to the Gentiles – to the non-Jewish world. There was no human intermediary; there was only Jesus Christ. There was no time of instruction, no reception by the apostles, only the revelation of Jesus Christ. Only 3 years later did Paul meet with the leaders of the Church in Jerusalem – with Peter, James and John.

Left to Peter and James and John the Christians in Jerusalem would have remained a Jewish sect, associated with the temple and the synagogue; following Christ certainly but otherwise faithful to Jewish practices; exclusive and shunning the gentiles.Paul changed that.

Paul was the church’s first and most creative theologian. His letters predate the gospels. They are our earliest NT texts. In his letters Paul ‘creates’ Christianity and the faith that was to sweep through the world. (At Evensong this evening I will talk about how Paul can help us find a way through the current debate in our church over same gender relationships and ordination.)

The Transforming Christ

In his letters we see that Paul has a vision of Christ as the One who has transformed everything. Through him the human condition, and all the religious rules of Judaism, have been utterly changed. In the personal encounter with Christ – everything is changed: ‘If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away.’ (2 Cor. 5:17) For that reason Paul has a sweeping vision of humanity and the future: ‘there is no longer Jew of Greek, no longer slave or free, no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus’ (Gal.3:28). There are lines in Paul’s letters that we should carry in us – carved on our hearts!

Conclusion – Christ in Us and the Eucharist

At the heart of it all for Paul is the encounter with Christ – this is the transforming thing for the Paul who says ‘I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.’ (Gal.2: 20).

A defining experience – a vision of Christ that it takes a lifetime to embrace – a. the encounter (a conversion experience); but (b) a lifetime conversion as it unfolds in all its implications.

This is what we come to in the Eucharist – Christ in us.

[1] 1 Corinthians 14: 33b-35.

[2] See A.N. Wilson, Paul: The Mind of the Apostle (New York: Norton, 1997) p.14.

When people become commodities

Sermon for Mattins Sunday, July 3 2011

When people become commodities

It was about 15 years ago and I remember this incident from the meeting very well. It was a university Senate meeting to discuss restructuring plans and there was a moving and decisive moment when one professor rose in protest and said ‘We do not have human resources; we have staff.’ Implicitly a theological issue: am I my brother’s keeper?

What was the outcome? Did people lose jobs? Were careers shipwrecked? The university community was changed.

This week we have heard of the government forcing redundancies in the army and various ministries. We continue to hear of factories closing and jobs being cut – it happens so frequently that we come to regard it as normal: a fact of life. One has the sense of being caught in a machine which we are powerless to control: people are reduced to ‘resources’.

A theological question which is also an economic question: what happens when you treat people as commodities?

  • A question underlying the capitalist system has been how to balance individual self-interest with the good of society as a whole. For instance, one of the most dubious and troubling aspects of capitalism in its various world-wide forms has been the treatment of people as commodities or resources.
  • Huge harm is done. Adam Smith wrote dispassionately of the adjustments of supply and demand – but, dress it how we like, the human cost can be incredible and utterly disruptive with people out of work, companies closing, families forced to uproot and move in search of gainful employment. Self-esteem plunges among the unemployed, communities and their established way of life may be torn apart, families can be broken up and people suffer from grief, loss, anger and anxiety.
  • Even if some people are fortunate enough not to experience any of this directly but simply watch it happening to others, their confidence in this world and their capacity for compassion can be damaged.
  • Even if economic progress is supposedly achieved at the end of it all (which might be a long time coming) one might ask whether the social and cultural disruption, the psychic and moral stresses, make that progress worthwhile. I would express that theologically by saying that something is changed in us. We become less human.

Now – a different example.

I recall a scene from a news item on TV recently: it showed the mayor of a small Greek village walking along the beach and struggling to grasp the awful reality that a government department was proposing to sell the area that his village had used for hundreds of years (no one knew who ‘owned’ the land – the question was never clear). Nonetheless, someone in an office in Athens, as a result of demands by international banks, would take this land and his village would be changed forever. It was unacceptable, he said.

What might the outcome be? Well, we can’t foresee that; but we can say that the relationship of those people with the land will be changed and what has been theirs will be someone else’s – with no attachment – no ‘connection’ and a tourist development will be likely to happen; yes, it will presumably create some jobs locally.

As a reminder that this is not entirely an academic question, I want remind you of a headline in the ODT last week which reported on the rising number of NZ farms that have been purchased by European Investors.

So I want to ask another question – theological and economic – what happens when you treat the land as a commodity? If we were still tribal people the question would be readily answered – the answer would be that you cannot treat the land like that – it is a given, a sacred nurturing reality. However we have become detached from the land over time – and increasingly under the forces of capitalist markets and our own greed we have abused it, exploited it and traded it, having ceased to see it as a trust and the subject of our stewardship. I have a hunch that the way we as a nation work the property market, a market that produces nothing but merely inflates value, may be symptomatic of a deeper malaise.

The OT lesson this morning – let us set aside the thousands of years and differences in circumstances and culture – provides a very different understanding of what matters in the economy. It provides a lens through which we might question what is happening in our nation and the economic system that we tend to accept as normative. Here are some points that I note and am thinking about.

First, Moses calls the people to remember who they are and their dependence upon God for all the privileges they enjoy. ‘Remember who you are, that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord redeemed you.’ To remember in this way is an inner discipline that puts things in perspective: sets a restraint upon the narrow impulses of self-interest and imposes social obligations for the common good. If one expands this – you get a sense of a broad vision (theologically grounded) which creates social cohesion.

Is there a vision for our nation?

Second, the land is worked carefully in such a way that there is provision for others to share in what it provides. There has to be enough left from all that the farmers take that those who have nothing – the alien, the orphan, and the widow - may be able to help themselves and live.

Reflections: 1. while dairy farmers reap high returns from commodity prices, some families in our nation struggle to pay for dairy products; 2. as the ownership of farms passes to international investors, the capacity for the land to serve the common good is diminished.

Third, people are to be treated with respect and not exploited. You may notice that where money has been lent, the creditor must not forcefully extract the pledge but wait for it to be brought to him – and if that pledge happens to be the borrowers only cloak – then it must be given back by night time so he has it to sleep in.

Reflection: What does this say to us about, for example, mortgagee sales?

What happens to us as human beings when we treat people and the land as commodities?