Author Archives: Dugald Wilson

Matariki: A Season Worth Celebrating

Something strange is happening in our community. There’s a new festival being celebrated that isn’t imported from the northern hemisphere but is a reawakening of life in our own part of the world. Something special happens in the wonder of creation in our night sky around this time of year. There’s a cluster of stars called Matariki or the Pleiades which disappears for a month or so and then reappears in the early morning just before daybreak. These stars have just disappeared, and in early July they will reappear.

The Matariki cluster is sometimes called the Seven Sisters because usually seven are visable to the naked eye. Actually the cluster is about 400 stars and the closest is about 440 light years away. Known in many cultures because it disappears and rises again in both north and south hemisphere. The starts are known by another name in Japan– Subaru. In Greek world of Jesus the rising of the Pleiades was considered to mark the time of safe sailing in the Mediterranean. The Pleiades are among the first stars mentioned in literature, appearing in Chinese annals of about 2350 BC, and they are also mentioned in the Bible in the books of Amos and Job as part of God’s creation.

For Maori the new rising or sighting of Matariki signals the Maori New Year. Matariki translates to “Eyes of God” (mata – ariki) or ‘Little Eyes’ (mata – riki). This star cluster rises usually sometime in June (it’s late this year being early July), and usually the actual celebration is held at the first new moon after the sighting.

Matariki celebrations usually last about a month and are starting to catch on again in NZ as we look to develop our own celebrations. There is quite a push on to replace queen Birthday weekend with a Matariki New Year celebration sometime in June.

Traditionally for Maori it’s a time for whanau to gather to commemorate loved ones passed, and to celebrate the arrival of newer additions to the family. It is a time to celebrate unity, faith and hope through aroha. Because traditionally the food stores were full after harvest celebratory feasts were held as whanau and guests shared food together.

One of our Maori ministers in the PCANZ, Rev Hone Te Rire, explains the importance of Matariki…. “As youngsters my kuia, koroua, and parents remembered family reunions and re-strengthening of family ties with extended whanau. It is a time of aroha, giving of gifts, and sharing of food. In my Tuhoe whanau we use the term matemateaone, which means to strengthen our connections to our whenua, our marae and our families – close and extended – the people and places that have nurtured us.

Nowadays there are often other festivities – flying of kites and fireworks seem to be popular. Traditionally giving of food to others and helping whanau with restorative work around their homes or working bees on the marae were other ways to celebrate Matariki. Karaoke and disco nights and gathering together in the wharekai (dining room) for a succulent kaihakari hangi.

Hone says, “The emphasis on families and whanau living together in peace and unity is reflected in Pauls letter to the Corinthians (1:10) Let there be no divisions among you. That you are perfectly united in mind and thought. The values of Jesus are reinforced in the kaupapa Maori values of whanau (family), manaaki (caring), tumanako (hope), kaitiaki (stewardship), rangatira (leadership) and aroha (love).
My parents and grandparents taught me these values through action not word alone, every time during the season of Matariki. I am now teaching my children and mokopuna the same values.” He challenges us as a body of Christ, to celebrate Matariki not only in showing support from a bicultural perspective, but also for the important values that Matariki encompasses.”

So what do we take from Matariki. I warm to the reality that it arises from the gift of creation and of human experience in our patch. It’s not imported but it’s about our night sky and the traditions of this place we all call home. Good religion honours local experience and local tradition.
I like the reality that Mataiki is not about a single star rising but a cluster… a family of stars …. Its about community and Hone gives us two wise sayings from Matariki
“Matariki ahunga nui”
(Matariki brings us together)

“Matariki – whiria te tangata”
(Matariki – weave the people together)

The heritage of Matariki being a time to remember people of our past, to reach out to one another, to celebrate family and community. In this it is a clebtration of the kingdom of God. Whanau, Manaaki (caring), and Aroha are values of God.

The season of harvest is over it is time to give thanks to God for sustenance. As God has been generous to us so we too should be generous to each other and caring of creation….. It’s a time to celebrate our calling to stewardship – Kaitiaki.

In the midst of the darkness of winter the stars appear… like the star of Bethlehem saying the darkness will not win. The rising of the Makariki cluster brings hope that the darkness will never win. We celebrate Tumanako.

19 June 2018

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The Parable of the Mustard Seed – Mark 4 :30-34

Jesus was always talking about the Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of Heaven. Clearly it was absolutely central in his message. But he never succinctly defines what it is, but it’s clear it’s about a new way of living. A way of finding life. The Kingdom of God is like mustard seed we hear today. It doesn’t help us much does it…. Jesus loves to talk in pictures and stories!

The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. The mustard seed parable like so many of the parables has all sorts of meanings. It makes you want to say to Jesus, ‘just tell us straight’. But the point of parables is that you have to wrestle and question and work things out in your own context.

We need to get some sort of picture of mustards seeds and how they grow. The sort of mustard plant Jesus was talking about is obscure because he doesn’t use botanical names but I suspect it was the black mustard seed brassica nigra. That’s right it’s a brassica! In fact brassicas are known commonly as mustard plants. Your cabbage, cauilis, and broccoli are all mustard plants. A reason some people don’t like these plants is that they all contain a compound phenylthiocarbamide or PTC which is either bitter or tasteless to people depending on your taste buds. The good news is that brassicas and mustard plants are good for us. They have health providing properties, but I don’t think Jesus was thinking of that when he shared this parable.

The Roman author Pliny the Elder who was born in 23CE was a curious fellow. He was actually a little too curious because he died when he went to explore the erupting Mt Vesuvius in 79CE. But before this tragic end he wrote an encyclopaedic Natural History in which he tells us about the mustard plant. He tells us that with its pungent taste and fiery effect it was actually extremely good for your health. But he goes on, “It grows entirely wild, though it grows better when transplanted. But on the other hand when it has been sown it is scarcely possible to get the place free of it as the seed when it falls germinates at once”.
It other words it grows like a whole host of weeds in my garden. It keeps popping up all over the place. The seeds s[rout in a few days and it grows easily, it grows all over the place, and it grows without our input. It happens! God is a power at work in our communities, in all sorts of places, inside and outside the fences, quietly nurturing life. God is at work as a power called life in all sorts of places including your life and mine, in our community, everywhere. Open your eyes. Like weeds popping up there are little bits of the kingdom of God happening all over the place if we have eyes to see them.
We aren’t sprouting the seeds, it’s just happening. There’s something else at work in our world and in our lives. But like mustard bushes they will grow better if we nurture and water the plants.

Jesus goes on to talk about the birds resting or nesting in the shade. The mustard plant was a shrub growing maybe just over a metre high, or maybe a couple of metres with nurturing. It’s not a great tree. But in Israel large trees are rare, any sort of significant vegetation is rare. The mustard shrub growing to over a metre was just a bushy shrub that would grow just about anywhere. In Israel it’s hot for much of the year and shade wherever you can find it is vital for life. I’ve walked out in the sun and unless you find shade life can be precarious. The common mustard shrub growing everywhere and anywhere offered life. There is I might say just a little bit of pesky humour in the parable because farmers not only didn’t want the mustard plants mixing with their crops, they didn’t want the birds either because they would raid their harvest. So not everyone welcomed the mustard plants like the birds who found in it shade and rest. They were a weed for some and a place of shade and life for others. Such is the Kingdom of God.

And for us – well we don’t literally have black mustard plants all over our gardens and community. I’m thinking cabbage trees. Attractive to birds, they seem to pop up everywhere in our garden, and everyone just loves the leaves when they fall. Cut them off at their base and they just pop right on up again because they have a long tap root. They are a tree that just happens.

The Kingdom of God is like a cabbage tree… and yes there are plenty of people who don’t like cabbage trees because they are messy. But the point…the kingdom of God is happening all around us. There are places where life is flourishing, where people find shade and food… places where God is alive. Many of these places are surprising, beyond the fences of church.

The Kingdom of God is alive in our midst. Surprising seeds of love, or life in which the power of God is present. Seeds we can nurture and water and help grow into bigger plants. Seeds that bring shade and refreshment, and life.

So I wonder where you might find a mustard plant in your journey this week? God is at work in your life, in our midst, and in the life of our wider community and world. Like a weed the kingdom is taking root and growing. Keep your eyes open, have your word of encouragement and watering can ready.

17 June 2018

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Global Day of Prayer to End Famine

Reading: Mark 6:30-44

I wonder what you make of this amazing episode. How did Jesus do that? Five fish and two loaves of bread feeds 5000 men along with women and children. 12 basketfuls of food left over. Before you get too far down the track of answering that I want to remind you that Jesus taught with stories. These stories were sometimes word stories. He taught using parables and pictures because I think he knew well that faith doesn’t reduce well easy simple answers… I think like many of contemporary rabbis he often answered a question with a question because he wanted to engage his listeners not with neat logical answers but with metaphors and images. God didn’t direct with neat rational certainties, but worked in the mystery of the images and stories to engage hearts and minds. It is an engaging approach in which we are drawn into to find the answers in our context.

So why would his actions be any different. Our logical un-poetic minds want simple neat answers, so when we read of so many of Jesus’ actions or miracles and we are left pondering, ‘so how did he do that?’ as if he went around performing magic tricks. We miss the point. We should be asking what this action, this pictures teaching us. What is Jesus trying to engage us with? Actions like feeding an army of people with fives loaves and 2 fish may tax our rational minds with how did he do that, but the real question is what Jesus is teaching us. Did it happen exactly like this – I have no idea, and actually that’s not important. It’s the message, the picture that we need to engage with.

I find my eye catching two parts of the story. The first is when the disciples look to Jesus to tell the crowds to disperse and go and get some food. It was well past dinner time and things needed to be closed off so they could eat. It seems a reasonable request. Get the boss to sort them out. But Jesus responds with a startling comment. “You give them something to eat”. The disciples are dumbfounded he doesn’t seem to comprehend there are thousands of hungry people. Imagine you are the disciples and you do the sums – we’ll need at least $10,000. You mean we should go and buy food for this lot. Well that wasn’t exactly what Jesus had in mind, so he asks them what they have. It isn’t much. They are able to rustle up five loaves of bread and a couple of fish. But as they offer what they have it proves to be enough. My eye catches the end of the story with 12 great basketfuls of leftovers. Where did all that food come from? Did Jesus secretly call in the catering ladies? Did he actually create more food out of the 5 loaves and two fish? Did he have a secret source of food he was hiding? ??? What do you think?

I have another question. Why did Jesus even care about their need of food? (He started off the day searching for peace and quiet with his disciples and ended up surrounded by hordes of people who he felt compelled to teach. If I was Jesus I think I would have happily sent them all away!)
So what do you make of this story….What is the picture that sits there for you? For me it is a simple picture of the new earth God is calling into being where there is no hunger. Everyone is fed. There is a plentiful supply of food and it finds its way into everyone’s mouths. Food is a basic need, we pray for food every day in the Lord’s Prayer and as we pray that surely it’s not just us we are praying for. We are praying for an earth where everyone has daily food aren’t we?

Today is a day in which churches around the world are asked to pray for the alleviation of famine. You know as I do that there are millions of people going hungry and needing dinner. Hordes of people. What can I do? The reality is possibly not much… I feel like the disciples felt…but what more do we learn from the gospel?

Do you sense the concern of Jesus? Do you feel the compassion of Jesus in your bones. Do you feel the agony of Jesus when in the western world our problem is obesity while elsewhere it’s famine. Something is very wrong. Listen to that voice from heaven….
I know it’s not as simple as shifting some of the food off my plate onto someone else’s plate, but don’t let the tension of the situation simply go into the too hard basket. There are issues of trade here. Pay more for your bananas with the Fairtrade sticker because you know the producers are getting a fair wage which will enable them to put food on the table of their families. Ask the clothing retailer when you buy clothes to assure you there is no slave labour used in the production of the clothing. Use the Tearfund ethical guide to find out which brands perform well and which have no ethical accountability in their supply chain. Use consumer pressure and ask questions – it does change things.

Keep talking to God about famine. One of the things I know I need constant reminding of is that the life of a black Somali person is of equal value in God’s eyes as mine. I find it too easy to forget that and to say I deserve more of the earth’s resources because …I don’t know really… I’m part of a society that has been more successful at harnessing the goodness of the earth, I have more education, I’m white and white is intrinsically better….I simply hear God saying – really??????

But also acknowledge the good. I am part of a church community where this week two of our members will be off to Tanzania to visit the Your Sisters project. That’s about education, giving young women skills to shape a better life, and they will bring change to others around them. Educating women is a huge thing in alleviating famine. Educate men and they want to buy guns, educate women and the want to feed the children. That’s doing something about famine and its root causes.

I am part of a church family that works through agencies like Tearfund, World Vision, CWS, to help when the typhoon or hurricane comes, when the rain fails or the rain never ceases (often these days caused by climate change of which we contribute). When the crises come and there is literally no food, these agencies provide. But they also work to educate, to build stable community where food production can happen locally.

And locally I am part of a church community that works through projects like Waltham Cottage, providing support, providing food to vulnerable people. Waltham Cottage helps build community in all sorts of ways and in that building of community people are fed. But they are fed literally in the support we offer through a food bank. It’s not dramatic – maybe 3-4 households helped every week. People on the edge faced with an unexpected bill and the first thing that is hit is the food budget. Our donations of food are put to good use.

So we pray today for the alleviation of famine because we know God cares. E pray because we know there is enough food to go round but we need to reshape trading patterns to be just. We pray for changes of heart that really do see all people as God’s children. We pray for educational initiatives especially for the women of the world. We pray for the local initiatives like Waltham cottage.

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Steel cross bracing is being installed in the south walls of the church June 2nd 2018

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Practicing the Sabbath

[Readings: Exodus 20:8-11, Mark 2:23-28]

In 1874 there was a huge debate in Dunedin. Ten per cent of Otago’s adult population signed a petition about it. There were fourteen leading articles in the Otago Daily Times. The major tension centered on whether the trains and public transport should run on Sunday. The province’s first railway, from Dunedin to Port Chalmers, had been opened with a seven day a week service, and some saw this as evil, along with the opening of recreational facilities, such as the library at the Dunedin Athenaeum on the Sabbath. The issue was ‘what activities could be allowed on Sunday’. On one side were fervent sabbatarians or Sabbath keepers, mostly evangelical Presbyterians while others who were also Christians were more liberal and free thinking argued that running trains and opening public reading rooms for the purpose of education and enlightenment were not evil and were to be permitted on the Sabbath. The debate continued for many years with the more conservative voice of Christianity finding itself to be in a minority unable to dictate to society at large what it should do. But there were some startling exceptions. The sabbatarians in 1885 held enough sway on the Dunedin City Council to prevent the Navy Band playing in the botanic gardens on Sunday afternoons with one councilor declaring that nothing could be more effective in destroying the morals of the children of Dunedin than a band playing at the public gardens on Sundays. I’m glad the Sabbatarian’s didn’t hold sway forever because as a youngster I rather enjoyed band concerts in the gardens in Dunedin, and I don’t think it destroyed my morals.

Many of you will recall similar debates about movie theatres opening on Sundays, or sport being played on Sundays. You may also recall family traditions that revolved around the Sabbath and may reflect on how these have watered down or been lost completely. I can’t help thinking however that the Sabbatarian’s actually had a point. I think of the importance of going to church every Sunday and how we prepared by dressing in our Sunday best, cleaning shoes on Saturday, and then gathering for a family meal after church with possibly a lengthy family walk on the Sabbath afternoon. These were activities that caused me to notice God, to reflect on life, and to bond as family. Of course such activities as family walks would have been frowned upon by the Sabbath keepers of the nineteenth century when the expectation would be that one should spend the time studying scripture and going to the Sunday afternoon or evening service as well as the morning. But I do wonder whether keeping the Sabbath isn’t good for us. Stepping back from the busy-ness, reflecting, reconnecting with soul, nurturing family and faith relationships – I can’t help thinking we need more of that in our world. I can’t help thinking we might be healthier with more of that sort of practice in our lives….
Central to the Sabbath and something on which all Christians were agreed was that the Sabbath was a day to focus activity on God and attend worship. Worship at its heart is about connecting with God, getting in touch with our soul. In the nineteenth century you might go to church twice a day, in the morning and in the afternoon or evening. Regular weekly attendance was simply how it was but recently a Baptist minister was telling me recently that he now considers regular attendance as seeing his parishioners once a month. Things have changed.

Sabbath or Shabbat as it is known in Hebrew means to cease. It is a day to cease work, to rest, and to refocus. As Jesus pointed out in our gospel reading there is always a danger that any spiritual discipline can become not a life giving discipline but a legalistic rule. I recall visiting a strict Jewish family in Jerusalem on the Sabbath and being shocked to learn they had turned to oven on before the Sabbath and left it running so they could cook a meal. To turn the oven on constituted starting a fire and that was not allowed on the Sabbath. For very strict Jews even flicking a light switch is considered work….We may smile, but I think it could be said of us often that we have thrown the baby out with the bathwater. We reject the legalism but fail to see the importance of the practice.
In Jesus’ time the Sabbath was kept strictly. There was to be no work on the Sabbath, and work was defined by the authorities under 39 key headings. These included reaping, winnowing, threshing, and preparing a meal. So the disciples in picking the wheat, rubbing it between their hands to free the individual grains, eating the wheat and spitting out the husks had broken at least four key rules about working. The Pharisees expected Jesus to rebuke them, but instead he launches into a scriptural precedent from King David’s time in which human need took precedence over the divine law as they interpreted it. David it seems took his men when they were hungry into the temple and ate the holy bread kept there. It’s a little like someone who was starving coming and eating the bread we will shortly share together in communion. Jesus I believe is saying to us, ‘it’s easy to forget the laws of God actually are for our benefit, and keeping the laws is for our own good, not to earn points and merit with God.’

The meaning of the Sabbath is found in the fourth commandment which says “remember that the seventh day belongs to God. No-one is to work on that day, not even your children, your slaves, your animals, or foreigners who live in your towns.” There was to be a communal focusing on God on the Sabbath, it was a day to cease work and reconnect lives with God. Just how that plays out is something we have to work out, but I suspect our Sabbath keepers of the nineteenth century have a few valid points to make to us. It’s not the rules I’m thinking of but the valuing of practices and rituals that help us reconnect with God. In our secularized society it is so easy to forget God…to forget there is something bigger than us at work in our world, in our community, in our very lives.

For me the Sabbath has three important functions.
Taking time to refocus in God
Working to nurture my church family connections
Enjoying the grace and goodness of God

Ceasing work, drawing aside, and taking time to reflect will always be an important part of the Sabbath, and in our busy world this is so important. The Sabbath is a time to listen to your soul and follow the example of regularly taking time out to listen for the voice of God in your life. It’s a time to know again that we are held in something bigger than us. We often carry big loads – the Sabbath is a day to remember we do not carry alone. But it’s more than this. In the original Hebrew there is also a sense of refocusing. Early Christians in a radical move changed the day of the Sabbath to a Sunday and said this was the first day of the week. This was the day of the resurrection, the day when they celebrated that God was alive in the world through the living presence of the Spirit. The Sabbath then isn’t just about remembering God but has a stronger ‘looking forward’ element. It was a day in which we are recreated in God to go out and be the presence of Jesus in the world. It is a time when we should re-focus our lives in God, and prayer and singing, reflection and learning will be part of this. But we should also be asking how is my relationship with God going to shape the forthcoming week. Sunday is a time to remember that our lives are lived in partnership with God, but we should also plan how we might take the light of God into the week ahead.

I’m interested that an enduring feature of the Sabbath is corporate worship. It’s a day to gather with other faith journeyers. Jesus didn’t leave a set of doctrines, or even a written guidebook. What he did leave was a human bunch of misfits who formed a community of faith committed to changing the world.. But it only works when we get it together as a team, which is why I think one of the important tasks of the Sabbath in our time is team building – developing a strong sense of church family. We commit to coming together, to catching up, to sorting out our differences, maybe sharing a simple meal together. Coffee and tea are a vital part of our worship. Team building remains a very important Sabbath activity.

Sadly the heritage of Sabbath keepers is one of long unhappy judgmental faces as they witness someone else breaking their beloved Sabbath. I think Sabbath keepers should be joyful, and part of our keeping of the Sabbath should be enjoying the gifts and the grace of God. If you enjoy a good glass of wine this is the day to enjoy it and give thanks to God. If you enjoy the gift of God’s creation this is the day to get out and revel in it. What is it that brings joy into your life? This is the day to nurture that. I believe God has been wonderfully gracious to us in so many ways and this is the day to honour the gift of life and the life affirming gracious God who called all life into being.
For me the Sabbath is not about rules but it is about developing practices and rituals in our lives that refocus us in God, that build the team of faith, that put a smile on our faces as we celebrate the gift of life with a deep thankfulness.
It’s not a day of long faces, and judgmental pronouncements.
Sabbath keeping is according to our Christian tradition important. Moses when he was interpreting the fourth commandment went on to say as it is recorded in Exodus 30:15 “if you work on the Sabbath you will no longer be part of my people, and you will be put to death.” These could be interpreted as harsh words indeed, but I would interpret them as words telling us how important this commandment is. If we do not keep the Sabbath something in us dies, but if we do keep it, if we relax and enjoy the company of God, we should indeed find life.

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