Sunday 26th July

Boundaries – Sermon by Martin Stewart

Over the summer I had the pleasure of reading a book called Boundaries by the Central Otago-based poet, Brian Turner.  He plays around with the idea of boundaries, asking his readers to think about the shifting nature of boundaries as well as the ones that don’t budge. 

In that Maniototo landscape, with the harsh summer sun and tough winters, the boundaries appear clear. 

If you don’t respect them then they can trouble you greatly; for the hills and the rivers will outlast any human, and they are no respecters of the boundaries of our existences. 

Turner notes how the application of boundary-frameworks produces contradictions: for instance, many locals thought that the rail trail proposal wouldn’t work, and they closed their minds to the vision of it,

but it has worked, and arguably saved the life of many of the small towns along its way; some farmers have stretched outside traditional practices and introduced irrigation and dairying in order for them to make their land economical, but others are counting the cost of the pollution of the waterways, and they feel that the boundary-lines of respect for the land have been violated. 

What are the boundaries that ought to be respected in agriculture?  I heard that Lake Ruataniwha had had a health warning for several days this year because of high levels of faecal bacteria in the water. How on earth does a lake in that area, at the top of a catchment come to be polluted?  Something is very wrong! 

How come some boundaries are sacred (like the economic notions of growth and progress) but other boundaries can be desecrated?  Is progress something that can be critiqued and stepped back from in respect of the boundaries?  Here’s a poem by Brian Turner:

Progress

1

There’s a need for a duet,
us and nature.  But as yet
we don’t know the music
nor the words to the song.

2

Nature doesn’t negotiate.

Deludeds, we only think
we draw the lines.

3

The way forward’s
back a bit
and sideways.

That would be

progress.

All of this has got me thinking about the boundaries we set, maintain, or dismiss. Are there edges that we just shouldn’t go to?  What would stepping back from them look like?  Conversely, are we so sure of some of our moral boundaries, that the suffering caused by our rigidity is justified?  Would we have been better to have taken a deep breath and given people different from us some breathing space?  But are there other areas where we should have stepped up?  Or intervened?  Or taken a stand?  How do we choose?

There are plenty of stories from our pasts about couples falling in love from across the religious divides of catholic and protestant – and families were split because of the intransigence of some of those parents. 

How long did this moral-high-ground banishment go on for?  For some it was a lifetime! What are the boundaries?  What does loosening them do?  Are our moral boundaries meant to be enshrined and rigid? 

Can’t we all identify that we have all changed our positions on quite a few moral issues over the years?

I believe that many of the walls we put up to protect the boundaries and resist change tend to look rather silly after a while.  Back in the day, the 6pm closing of pubs was designed to help support the idea of a healthy family unit, but for many it led to the disgusting cultural form called the six-o’clock swill, you know, that might still be among us in the form of the binge drinking culture prevalent in some parts of our society. 

Russians were once made to burn Beatles albums because of a perceived low moral standard.

Well-meaning people of faith once protested outside cinemas when Monty Python’s Life of Brian movie was released. 

Hundreds of marchers to Parliament once wore tee-shirts proclaiming ‘Enough is enough’

in an act of intimidation, while the majority of New Zealanders who were quietly asking for the state to back away from criminalising some people’s choice about who they loved.  I can name a number of people who were strident in their moral position about the sexual preferences of others but who changed their tune when it was one of their loved ones who admitted their struggles. 

Can you identify positions you have taken strongly that you now think about differently?  Of course you can! 

We have a couple of juicy moral dilemmas on the near horizon in the referenda on the End of Life and Legalisation of Cannabis Bills.  Once you might have assumed that Christians would have had a uniform response to both issues, but the ground has shifted and we don’t all think the same.

I’ve been thinking about some of the damage I might have been part of causing when I was younger and I took a strong position on a moral issue.  Who did I hurt?  Why was I like that?  Who coached me to think that it either has to be this or that?   Well… when you have a text saying ‘Let your word be “Yes, Yes” or “No, No”’ I can understand that some people would want to shape their world into a black-and-white-Jesus-said framework.

I have come to recognise that the Presbyterian form of government – the Westminster thing, has its origins in a right old fight about who has the truth of God and who doesn’t. And the adversarial system in our church courts tends to define us by what we are against – and who we are against, more than what we hold in common.  And I think we need to talk about whether it still serves us.  In the parish I was last in we worked hard to minimise ways of working that set people against each other.  We do the same in the Presbytery now.

Our long history of adversarial behaviour manifested over time into decisions about who is in with God and who is not,who is the elect and who is not, who can be baptised, and who can’t, who can receive communion, and who can’t, who can lead or minister, and who can’t?  And I’m a little tired of it. 

I think we can do better. And in many ways, I notice, we are already behaving in ways that suggest we want to relate more constructively.

But, in today’s text, Jesus appears to be very rigid about boundaries with regards to anger, adultery, lust, divorce and oaths.  So rigid does he appear to be, in relation to lust, that this is what Matthew records him saying: ‘If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.  And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.’

We would expect, wouldn’t we, that there would be a whole lot of honest people wandering around with only one eye, and one hand – this is a tough standard, and we are not perfect, and where our thoughts sometimes traverse can be problematic!  Do you know what I mean?

And I am sad to confess, that under a strict interpretation of this particular text, I would have no eyes and no hands.  But here I am, with two hands and two eyes, and a mouth at work preaching from your pulpit! 

And, to top it off, as I look upon you it appears that you too seem to have two eyes and two hands, and I wonder if any of us are taking this teaching seriously!!!  Is the boundary Jesus is conveying not clear?

Um, actually, it isn’t.  Because this text, like any text, looks a little unusual when interpreted in the wider framework of Jesus’ teachings.  In other places, Jesus seems to tell stories and behave in ways that are quite the opposite of a hard-line-pluck-your-eye-out moral position.

For I see Jesus showing us ‘who he is for ‘when he walked into Jericho and reached up into the sycamore tree and said to the hated Zaccheus, ‘can I come and eat with you today?’ 

And I see Jesus, kneeling on the ground, tracing patterns in the sand, while he patiently waits on the stone-throwers to lay down their weapons of ‘moral-high-ground-destruction’, and face up to their own brokenness. And I know Jesus says to the woman in that story go and sin no more and I wonder what the sin was.  Was it that she was lost and couldn’t find her way, and he was offering some light to straighten the trajectory of her life? 

And I hear Jesus calling his followers to forgive seventy times seven, and even if they met that threshold of generosity, they still won’t be anywhere near the kind of level of grace that God offers to each and every one of us.

And I hear Jesus saying we need to attend to the logs in our eyes before we try to scratch out the speck of imperfection we see in the eye of someone else.

I see Jesus constantly crossing the rigid boundaries. I see Jesus always offering me the light, and that’s what attracts me to him.  Not the moral stance on this issue or that, but how he seems to transcend our need to categorise everything so sparingly and sparsely into ‘right and wrong.’ 

He seems to have a lot more ‘both-and’ in him than we realise.  And that’s what grace is:  Crossing the divides.  Giving people a break.  Loving them to bits. 

The Apostle Paul tells us what it looks like when the Spirit of Jesus is at work, there’s an abundance of kindness, patience, generosity, gentleness, self-control, faithfulness, and there are oodles of love, joy, and peace.  That’s what I look for to know whether God is in the room. There is no law against such things, says Paul. 

I think we are to choose things and participate in things in ways that bring such life to the world.  I think our community deserves to hear the church announce this and practice this, I really do.  Could our morality be better served by the way we practice who we are for rather than who we are against

My observation is that what people seem to hear, more often than not, is the church telling them off,

as if Christians are society’s moral police, and the church is made up of people who have everything together.  Could we love the world as God does rather than judge it?  Could we lift up the weak and heavy laden as Jesus does and release them from the weight of their struggles?  Could we admit our brokenness a little more than we do and practice God’s unconditional forgiving love in our attitudes to others, and each other. So I stand here before you with both of my hands and both of my eyes.  But you know and I know

that if I took today’s very particular words of Jesus seriously, then I would have no eyes and no hands. 

But by his grace I stand, and by his grace you also stand, and for the love of the world, Jesus calls us to follow him. 

Choose love, he says.  Choose love. 

For in loving others you will find my life already at work in them, and in you.

Food for thought

Today we are having a think about boundariesA picture containing fence, grass, building, outdoor

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I have a small number of recent photographs I took of some boundary lines

This one is of a gorgeous gate at the old school in Burkes Pass

Quite a bit of effort went into crafting this beauty – humans tend to put a lot of effort into creating boundaries around property and at times one another

In this dreadful Covid-19 season, unfortunately, the virus has taken the statement of Jesus, wherever two or three are gathered, I am with you, too seriously!

Protecting our border has never been more important, and more challenging.

Anthropology Stge 3
origin of walls

predators both human and animals, cold,

then, each other

when did privacy begin and what form did it take?

Long House partitions of rocks for ‘privacy’

Hutterite sea chests = only part of their lives kept apart from the community

More sophisticated society = higher the fences

Boundaries, law, breaches, privacy act, crossing the boundaries been in the news a lot lately with quarantine breakouts and MP’s misbehaving

Boundaries are shifting, maybe tightening, but I sometimes wonder if the cries of anguish are full of hypocrisy, just hoping that the spotlight not on my secret life!!!

Wedding in Dunedin
mother of groom turned up at the first marriage prep appointment!!  I set up the actual prep with her excluded!

Iturned out home schooled two boys and attended each and every one of their university lectures with them.. yes its true!  Was she going to be going on the honeymoon???  No wonder the oldest boy shifted with his bride to the other side of the world!

A picture containing outdoor, grass, water, standing

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You may try to contain me but I have to break through

In Germany if a prisoner escapes and caught again, no extra charge on them, it is their right to want to be free

A sign in a field

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Holy Spirit like a bag blowing in the wind, blowing free – no respecter of boundaries. James K Baxter Song to the Holy Spirit – ‘you blow inside and outside the fences’

A bird sitting on top of a dry grass field

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The journey of raising children is to start with clear boundaries and it is your job to slowly release the tension and give the child room. 

between us

it started

me as your protector
boundary rider

fearful one
holding you
as you cried your tears

after the fall onto the knee
already skinned
from yesterday’s adventure

but I always had a charge

to set you child free
to release the binding
slowly dismantle the fence
and risk the loss of you
to trust the process

it was my job

to slowly release the tension

and give you room

if I didn’t offer it

you would force me to do it
anyway it was always my job to make room

and it was yours to push out

and all has gone well,

despite my instinct to cling
now it is just a wire

but with a knot as strong
as strong can be

like faith, I guess

martin stewart

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