Sunday 28 January 2024 ~ Rev Hugh Perry

One beautiful morning recently I looked up at the clear blue sky.  The only hint of cloud was a jet stream heading from South to North.  Perhaps a flight from Queenstown to Auckland I speculated.  Then I remembered the long diatribe I struggled to politely get away from as someone tried to explain that jet streams where in fact chemicals spread over us to make us comply with the wishes of a secret group plotting world domination.

That reminded me that I have recently attended a number of street corner meetings where people made similar wild accusations about government action.  Apart from simple untruths and perceived rampant crime there was the belief that Covid wasn’t real and vaccines were a means of injecting microchips into an unsuspecting population.

A lot of the fear and accusation sounded very like something from our reading from Mark’s Gospel.  

‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?’ (Mark 1: 24)

There were certainly times when I wished I had Jesus’ authority to say, ‘Be quiet and come out of him!’ (Mark 1:25)

But the passage from Mark’s Gospel is not written as a formular for preforming an exorcism or even for politely ending an unhelpful conversation.

The understanding alluded to in our Deuteronomy reading is that God calls prophets and rabbis who have the divine authority to reinterpret scripture.  Mark has obviously included the man with the unclean spirit to inform his readers that Jesus has such authority. 

The word exorcism conjures up all sorts of images of things that go bump in the night.  However, in terms of understanding scripture for our time and place, we should consider a whole variety of mental stress, addictions, ideologies and conspiracy theories as unclean spirits.

We must also be aware that different people’s brains function differently and rather than be a hindrance such difference can be an advantage to both the person and their community. 

A few years back I heard a story from a woman who graduated as a psychologist and went to work for the education department.  She was soon sent to assess a schoolboy who was so disruptive that teachers simply locked him in a room by himself with a whole lot of maths problems to solve. 

The new graduate quickly diagnosed the boy as autistic, he hated being in crowded rooms and loved maths. Not being able to fully express himself he disrupted the class until he was locked away with problems to solve.  A plan was devised, and his schooling continued.

A whole host of great discoveries are made by people whose brains function slightly differently. The line between genius and demon possessed often depends on circumstances and community acceptance.

After taking fright as a new schoolteacher Janet Frame was institutionalised and prescribed a lobotomy.  Fortunately, a friend rescued her and allowed her to become ‘An Angel at My Table.’  A literary genius, always reclusive but always insightful,

The Covid epidemic has certainly opened our minds to the challenge of people who hold, as absolute truth, the wildest of conspiracy theories and unhelpful beliefs. 

But our assertion as Christians and the claim of Mark’s text is that a commitment to Christ can exorcise such demons and restore people to new beginnings. 

The downside of such an assertion is we have to carefully consider our own beliefs and not judge too harshly the opinions of others.

Our calling is not to make judgements, not to try and fit everybody into conforming boxes but to be the liberating and restoring Christ. 

We also need to be aware that miracles are achieved by quite rational means when the process is understood.  One of the suspicions of the Covid vaccine was that it was arrived at in a very short time compared with such discoveries in the past.  But it was research based on previous research and information was shared through modern communications rather than the isolated discoveries by past geniuses.

But some miraculous healings do happen by quite natural means.  The fact that Dr Siouxsie Wiles has pink hair didn’t stop her giving wise advice about the Covid epidemic.  It also won’t stop her discovering new antibiotics from New Zealand plants and sponges.

Some years ago I watched a program about curating a British Library exhibition called ‘Harry Potter: A History of Magic.’ The exhibition included rare books, manuscripts and magical objects from the British Library’s collection that captured the traditions of folklore and magic from across the world.  Much of this was material that J.K. Rowling had accessed when she was researching the Harry Potter novels. 

It was this research that gave Rowling’s fiction an air of authenticity.  At a time when we were worried about the lack of reading in young people, that authenticity sent sales of Harry Potter books into the stratosphere. 

One Librarian carefully handling a hand-written synopsis of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone explained that Rowling wrote it to try and sell the book to a publisher. 

She then looked at the camera in a mixture of disbelief and adulation and said: ‘Who could believe that she had to sell Harry Potter?’

Interestingly when Rowling wanted to write a detective novel she did so under the pseudonym of Robert Galbraith.  But it seems that her business minded publisher outed her on the back cover. 

With seven novels a number of which are televised, she is undoubtedly a multi-level storyteller.   I just wish her two detectives could simultaneously admit they are madly in love with each other and stop being so politically correct about their business partnership.

But to return to the documentary of the British Library’s exhibition there was an ancient book of herbal remedies using common British plants.  We know about various indigenous people that use forest and jungle plants as medicine.  M?ori have a whole list of native plants with medicinal properties. 

My dad always put flax jelly on an open wound because he had learned about that from the M?ori who worked on his family’s sheep station.  The antibiotic prosperities of manuka honey are now scientifically proved and the subject of patent disputes. 

What intrigued me about the British book of herbal remedies was that it was originally only published in Latin.  When it was translated into English the Royal College of Surgeons tried to block its publication because that was where they got their medical recipes from.  They didn’t want their fee-paying patients wandering out to the hedgerows and mixing up their own medicine.  They probably wouldn’t want my dad nipping down to the creek to cut a bit of flax to put the jelly on my frequent wounds either.

There is certainly tension in our world about multi-national drug companies, and indeed honey producers, locking up their recipes in international intellectual property treaties.

What the documentary also showed was that people have always looked for easy answers to the unknown forces that seem to control our world and people seek power by seeming to control such forces. 

But although some of the supposed magic rightly belongs in works of fiction there are real compounds in the natural world that can cure sickness and disease.  There is also an evil streak in human nature that wants to monopolise healing knowledge for individual or corporate gain. 

It is easy to classify mental illness as demon possession and addictions of various sorts can be seen as possession by an unclean spirit.   Even a simple non-malignant habit can grip us in ways that make it difficult for us to change and grow.  I think there are probably times in most of our lives when we would like to wave Harry Potter’s wand and make everything better.

‘Be silent, and come out of him’ (Mark 1:25) sounds a very convenient magic charm, like something that Harry Potter might use.  But the reality is that Mark’s Gospel is not an ancient book of spells.  

All the gospel narratives were written to encourage people to live in the way that Jesus modelled.  The gospels are stories that encourage people to form communities of caring.  Jesus’ call to be part of the kingdom of God was a call for each person to behave in a godly way to other people. 

The key message in today’s reading is, that when we are interrupted by someone with an unclean spirit, we react to them with empathy, love and compassion. 

That sounds great but it is actually hard.  

People with unclean spirits tend to interrupt life at the most inappropriate times.  They can disrupt a class of children when a harassed teacher it simply trying to do the best for all the children.  Or a teacher can appear insane when they simply don’t have the mindset to stand in front of a class of noisy children. 

Jesus was teaching at the Synagogue and the people were appreciating what he was telling them.

They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. (Mark 1:22)

Then suddenly the service is interrupted by this nutter who cries out ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?  I know who you are , the Holy One of God.’

Mark simply tells us that Jesus addressed the unclean spirit and it came out of the man.  That power at a street meeting in the pouring rain would be great but it simply does not work that way.

In fact, if we consider all the demons that possess people in our society the cures require even more loving care and patience.  Furthermore, the chemical cures available often cause new problems.

When encouraging people to give up an addiction or even just an unhelpful habit we must expect to fail time and time again. 

I still remember telling someone trying to rebuild their life that they had got rid of all their addictions except their addiction to useless men.  Now as a lawyer in her own practice that person seeks the court’s help to alleviate that issue for other couples.  Furthermore, I am on a promise to conduct her wedding when she sorts out her partner’s divorce.

Our task in the ministry of caring is certainly to encourage people to change. But we must not be discouraged when people fail.  Our task as Christ filled carers is to stay with them and encourage them along the way

Our task as Christ filled carers is also to remember that people do not need to conform.  The fact that they think and behave differently might seem like a curse. 

But it may be a blessing to the world we are all moving into.

Christ calls us all to walk beside the unloved and unlovable, and the result of such caring is what demonstrates Christ’s authority and the true magic of the Gospel.

Sunday 31 December 2023 ~ Rev Hugh Perry

The Christian festival, when we focus on the Holy Family, has become through the commercialisation of Christmas a time when both Christians and the secular world focuses on their families.  We spend time together, we feast and give gifts to each other and the success of the festival is measured in efpos totals.

Due to the need to produce an order of service before people went on holiday and immersed themselves in those activities I needed to write this sermon before Christmas.  So I felt no guilt at looking back to the last time I preached on these readings for inspiration.  That was 15 years ago and I began by reflecting on our Christmas Day which obviously I can’t do now.  So, I have anticipate what might happen.

Like we did then, we are most likely to spend time at our son’s place on Huntsbury Hill.  The majority of Pakuranga Perrys are visiting us in relays in the new year. We won’t be seeing our eldest granddaughter becase she has just had a holiday in Japan and, as a diligent local body bureaucrat, she will need to support her colleagues in containing Auckland’s Mayor.

Sharing a meal with the Huntsbury Family will be different to 2008 when our Grandson Nico was 23 months old.  He will now be starting his last year of secondary schooling next term.  Furthermore, my son has separated and married Tina George and they are now referred to as the PGees. 

Fifteen years ago was the time of the popular commercial that had kids recruiting help to build a retaining wall because DIY was in their DNA.  In Nico’s presents was a toy electric drill and he raced around the lounge boring imaginary holes in all the furniture.  I truly believed that, like his father, he had DIY in his DNA.

Now if he is home when we visit he will most likely be playing games on his computer. He does this incessantly while his father and step mum race across the southern Alps or plunge to the depths of the T?kaka limestone caves like a couple of midlife energiser bunnies.   

However, in recent times Nico has confessed to quite liking skiing and has been rock climbing with his father. So, there are traces of his father’s DNA.

Jesus’ DNA is mapped out in chapter three of Luke’s Gospel after the voice from heaven declared ‘Jesus beloved and divine son of God’.

The genealogy goes back through David to Adam who, as the first created human, was of course son of God. 

That is not particularly unique because we are all children of the first humans and children of the Creator of the Universe.  Indeed, Luke’s genealogy and incarnational theology backs that up. 

We all have a divine nature within us but that needs to be nurtured by open and caring lovingkindness and empathy.  The divine spark can also be stunted and corrupted by neglect, self-centred indulgence, greed and fear.

Watching Nico in full carpenter mode fifteen years ago we wondered what his career path might be.  However, with his father a geography teacher, mother a maths teacher and a stepmother an ex-chef and sports scientist we worry if computer games could distract him from the influence of his DNA and his over active household.  

One of my mother’s often repeated whinges was that she was made to leave school and go to secretarial college so the family could finance my uncle going to university to become a lawyer.

But the reality is that the future is not ours to see.  My uncle was interred and lost his practicing certificate for objecting to World War Two. That meant he struggled financially with a large family.  Nevertheless, his professional status was restored, and he spent the rest of his life getting compensation that gave hope to injured workers before ACC.  He also helped change the world by passing his DNA to a linguist, a scientist, a school principal, a lawyer, woman’s rights activist, and a gay postie.  

My reading also leads me to suspect that his passion for peace and justice, along with a sharp wit, nurtured similar attributes in a large law clerk who became the prime minister who banned nuclear weapons from Aotearoa.

In my own household my mother was a passionate supporter of my father’s ability as a photographer but did not want me to inherit that affliction. 

She continually encouraged me to live out her unfulfilled academic ambitions and was always suggesting I become a schoolteacher.  An ambition fulfilled by the grandchildren she never lived to know. 

My photography career choice was probably based on the conservatism of following what I knew.  However my mother’s Liverpool left-wing, humanist convictions, family DNA and the Holy Spirit eventually led in an entirely different direction.

Joseph, we are told, was a carpenter in a time when opportunities to deviate from the household enterprise were extremely limited.  Therefore, expectations would have been that Jesus would follow his father’s occupation.

However, we are told that Jesus’ conception and his birth, filled his mother with interesting visions of his future.  Furthermore, the Bible, history and reading Inge Woolf’s book Resilience shows that Jewish mothers can be a determined lot.  Even stronger willed than mothers from Liverpool.

So, the reaction of Simeon and Anna to the infant Jesus might well have been encouragement to Mary’s ambitions for her son. 

But the despite the ambitions we hold for our children the passion for righteousness we install within them can divert the in other directions.

Although Ruth was my cousin that followed her father’s path into law she was steep in the \woman’s liberation movement so wouldn’t accept a job in what had been her father’s firm.  Then after a brush with a chauvinist judge she became complaints officer for the Consumers Institute.  She ended her short life in the office of the minister of woman’s affairs redrafting the laws she opposed.

Then because of her early death her brother went on to do a PhD in cancer research which, like all research, adds to the worldwide knowledge that gives life to humanity in a dangerous world.

Change happens through both triumph and disaster as learning and inspiration is passed from person to person in our own families and in the greater family of humanity. 

Both the science of genetics and our faith tell us that we are all children of the first humans.  All linked by our common DNA, our family stories, and the leading of the Divine Spirit..  

That Spirit is nurtured or stunted by our parents and the people we interact with, and the first three chapters of Luke draw attention to that reality in Jesus’ beginnings. 

John the Baptist’s mother was a relative of Mary.  Jesus subsequently accepted John’s baptism and carried on John’s mission after John was arrested.  Jesus’ parents were devout and followed the religious practices of their time.  Practise that the adult Jesus would criticise because it exploited the most vulnerable by demanding payments they couldn’t afford.  

We are told in verse 40 of our reading that Jesus ‘grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favour of God was upon him’. 

Isn’t that what we wish for our children?  But isn’t it also true that in wishing that, we cannot wrap them in cotton wool and control their futures?

I used to fret about the marks my oldest boy coasted through university with, while his major focus seemed to be gaining the right to wear a black track suit, rather than an academic gown.

Nico’s dad was even more frightening with a passion for white water kayaking, tramping through Nepal and India and disappearing in Southeast Asia. 

I always had difficulty in understanding why he needed an honours degree in coastal geography to work as a painter in Christchurch and London, as a chair lift operator in Banff, or even as mail order manager for Kathmandu. 

Then one day he came into my study and said, ‘Can you can sign my Teacher’s College application, I’ve decided I need to get a life’.

Recently he added a Master of Education to his qualifications, ran the one-day Coast to Coast and, as a extra job teaches would-be geography teachers at Canterbury University. 

We grandparents can speculate about Nico’s future, but he has enough stubborn and self-determining DNA in him to find his own way.

Luke tells us that the infant Jesus had the DNA of kings, was conceived through the power of God’s spirit, and, like all of us, was a child of Adam and therefore a child of God.

Jesus’ birth, death and resurrection, his destiny, would bring the falling and rising of many, the opposition that would reveal the inner thoughts of many, and the sword that would pierce his mother’s soul.  But that destiny also reveals to us that we each carry the divine spark and we are each linked to the loving creator of all that is. 

We each have the potential to walk our own journey with the Risen Christ and demonstrate to our world that indeed, the kingdom of God is at hand. 

We each have the Risen Christ within us that can guide us to be the church in this place.  Be part of reforming the church in a new way for the unknown future.  Like all those who came before us we are called to that task despite the fear we feel, the division we find amongst us, and the grip the past holds on us.

We can, like all those who have gone before us, be part of Jesus’ Kingdom of God project. 

We can in small insignificant ways, or in history making acts, be part of the future the Risen Christ calls us all to.

All of us can, at the right time and place, speak a telling truth or write an inspiring story.  For some it may be dangerous and deadly opposition to oppression.  Others it may simply be the DNA and nurture which forms our children into who they are becoming.

We can all play our part in building a world of justice and love! 

She’s a pretty big job! 

But it’s a D-I-Y project—Divine In Yourself. 

It’s in our culture and it’s in our DNA. 

Sunday 10th December 2023 ~ Rev Dugald Wilson

Isaiah chapters 1-39 in a nutshell….

The book of Isaiah is often read in church during the Advent season.  I think it is because there are references to a messiah, and new leader sent by God who will bring about the great hope and dream of an earth that is a place of peace and harmony for all life.  Indeed the early Christians often turned to Isaiah as they reflected on the life of Jesus.  Jesus was this messiah, the prince of Peace, the Holy Light of God shining in the darkness to lead us to shape a better society and a better earth.

I want to dig a little deeper this morning.  Isaiah was a prophet.  That means he had a hot line into the heart and mind of God.  He clearly believed God had a hand in shaping human history and in the events that we would call world news.  He also believed that God’s chosen people, the descendants of Abraham, had a unique role in being representatives of God, people who would exemplify God’s truth.  They would show other nations what true and good  life looked like.

In Isaiah 6 we read of Isaiah’s call to speak for God, which is clearly dated in the reigns of King Uzziah.  We can date this to 738 BCE.  We sing of Isaiah’s call in the song “Here I am Lord” in which we are challenged to follow in Isaiah’s footsteps and be the voice and presence of God. 

Isaiah though had some hard messages from God.  He spoke of judgment.  The people of God had turned from God and lost their way.  “Oxen and donkeys know who owns them and feeds them, but my people have forgotten their God”, he laments.   Isaiah is a master of using poetic images to tell the truth.  In another painful image paints a shocking picture of the society he was part of……”From the sole of the foot and even to the head there is no soundness of body,  but there are bruises and sores and bleeding wounds that have not been washed or bound up or treated with healing oil.”  Isaiah saw a nation in ruins for even the natural environment was being laid waste with fire destroying cities, no doubt referring to the presence of foreign powers invading the land, but in our time might refer to the effects of climate change. 

It seems God’s chosen people continued to offer worship, but Isaiah proclaims their sacrifices and worship are meaningless.  And why?  Because there is no moral integrity.  ‘Jerusalem’, says Isaiah, ‘you are like an unfaithful wife.  Once your judges were honest, and your people lived right;  now you are a city full of people who show no respect for others.  You deal in dishonesty, your rules are only interested in money, and widows and orphans never get a fair trial.’  It seems there was a rich elite who lived in multi million dollar homes and paraded around in their fine clothes, full of themselves and the latest crazes, but caring little for the greater good of all. …  Again Isaiah observes…“The women of Jerusalem are proud and strut around winking shamelessly.  They wear fancy jewellery that jingles and says look at me!“   And there lies the nub of the problem…. Look at ‘me’.  The sense of being a collective with responsibilities to care for others had gone, sunk in a mess of liberal individualism, and what’s in it for ‘me’ culture.

And the consequences… Isaiah prophesied.  Unless there was change there would be ….Doom…  Destruction… Desolation.    I cant help drawing parallels with our own time.  Chief executives of city councils and their henchmen need to have their salaries sliced massively because the job isn’t about money but public service.  Likewise the salaries of executives in the business world. For the sake of the planet economies needed to be focused not on growth and more consumption, but on sustainability for all.  People need to understand they are accountable to something bigger than themselves, and for good communities to be nurtured personal and community morality and responsibility matters.  Personal freedom needs to be balanced with consideration for the wellbeing of all.

Of course no-one really listened to Isaiah  the inevitable happened.  Doom….Destruction…. Desolation….The  Assyrian Empire overran the northern kingdom of Israel with the capital Samaria falling in 722 BCE and the southern kingdom of Judah became a client state. Worse was to follow when the Babylonian Empire laid siege to Jerusalem about 120 years later and in 597 BCE large numbers of Jews were taken in captivity to Babylon in what is known as the Exile.  The core of the Jewish faith, The Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, and the people were left bereft.  All that they believed in and stood for seemed to have been reduced to ashes.  Their homes reduced to rubble, loved ones killed, their sense of nationhood gone as many were taken as slaves.  A bleak future dawned for the Hebrew people. Even God had seemed to have deserted them as their lives lay in ruins. We know something of this as we look at our own Christian presence in a post religion world.  Churches are now a powerless remnant in a society that worships other gods.  The plight of the Hebrew people was recorded in Psalm 137…and made popular by BoneyM…and it rings true for us.

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down
Yeah, we wept, when we remembered Zion
By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down
Yeah, we wept, when we remembered Zion

There the wicked
Carried us away in captivity
Required from us a song
Now how shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

Isaiah though always made it clear that God’s door was always open if the people truly desired to find life, were prepared to let go of what was, and seek a new future with God.

And so he could prophesy, “When the Spirit is given to us from heaven, deserts will become orchards thick as fertile forests.  Honesty and justice will flourish there, and justice will produce lasting peace and security”   I wish the current leaders of Israel could understand this…. Bombs may win the battle but the war will not be won, and peace will not be found, without justice for the oppressed Palestinian people.  But I digress…

In Exile the people of God did turn to God again.  In the strange land they discovered God was not confined to a Temple or even a particular land, but out of their sense of hopelessness they found new hope and meaning.  Just how that happened we don’t know, although I suspect there were many many discussions, much searching and questioning, and very open honest conversations.  In desolation they turned to one another.   They were humbled and brought low and from the ashes of defeat new life as a community emerged and they understood afresh that God had a role for them in the ongoing history of humanity.   The haughty women of Jerusalem who were concerned only for themselves found new hope in actually shaping a new community of people who genuinely cared for each other.

Isaiah Chapter 40

At the 40th chapter of Isaiah the tone changes.  Instead of Doom and Destruction Isaiah is told to speak of comfort.  Addressing the people who are now in Exlie he speaks of hope.   Scholars think it is now disciples of the original Isaiah that speak.  Let’s listen to these words…

Isaiah 40:1-11
40:1 Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.
40:2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.
40:3 A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
40:4 Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.
40:5 Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”
40:6 A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field.
40:7 The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people are grass.
40:8 The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.
40:9 Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!”
40:10 See, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him.
40:11 He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.

The voice of Isaiah is telling the people in Exile they are going home.  They have rediscovered each other, rediscovered God, and the promise of the voice of Isaiah is that God will lead as a shepherd leads his sheep back across the desert to begin again.  The people have regained their senses and a truer picture of how they need to treat each other, and their place before God.  Isaiah reminds them they are like grass, created, not gods.   God was announcing that a new chapter of life was about to begin.  And we know this is actually what happened.  Cyrus a new ruler in Babylon adopted a new policy of respect for other religions and set the Hebrew people free to return to Jerusalem to continue to rebuild their faith.  New leaders like Ezra and Nehemiah were raised up to bring the people back into communion with God and each other and indeed Jerusalem was rebuilt.  The Hebrew nation was again to shine with the light of God, a beacon of hope for all people.

Mark 1:1-8

When Mark began writing his gospel about Jesus, Isaiah was in his brain.  The time was now when a repeat of Isaiah 40 was about to happen.   There were no birth stories for Mark, just a launching straight into the guts of things.  ‘See’, he said ‘God is doing a new thing, making a new path across the desert to lead people into the way of true life’. Wake up, take note, God is about to act. Let go of life as it is, take a new direction, make a new path through the desert away from destruction and doom, God is leading us home again.

Mark 1:1-8

John the Baptizer

1-3 The good news of Jesus Christ—the Message!—begins here, following to the letter the scroll of the prophet Isaiah.

Watch closely: I’m sending my preacher ahead of you;
He’ll make the road smooth for you.
Thunder in the desert!
Prepare for God’s arrival!
Make the road smooth and straight!

4-6 John the Baptizer appeared in the wild, preaching a baptism of life-change that leads to forgiveness of sins. People thronged to him from Judea and Jerusalem and, as they confessed their sins, were baptized by him in the Jordan River into a changed life. John wore a camel-hair habit, tied at the waist with a leather belt. He ate locusts and wild field honey.

7-8 As he preached he said, “The real action comes next: The star in this drama, to whom I’m a mere stagehand, will change your life. I’m baptizing you here in the river, turning your old life in for a kingdom life. His baptism—a holy baptism by the Holy Spirit—will change you from the inside out.”

I guess most of you have heard the passage many times before, but this Advent I think it’s particularly poignant.   The Middle East is poised to explode over the Israeli brutality in Gaza and the West Bank.  Climate Change is happening with increasing severity and we continue to shrug it off.  Growth economics with demands for increased consumerism is leading the world into destruction.  Locally we see the politics of individualism being played out as demands for the freedom of the individual take precedence.  Restrictive laws about smoking are repealed because the individual must be free to make their own choices and I guess because the government needs quick money. 

The words from Mark that I have been wrestling with over this last week are the words about making straight the path through the desert.  What does that look like for us?  How do we move along the road towards the home that God seeks to establish on this earth?

The simple religious answer is of course Jesus.  We need to elevate Jesus in our lives and in our life together as a Christian community.  We need more conversation about Jesus and the abundant life he promises.  I believe this.  As Christians we do not utter the word Jesus often enough, we do not discuss and what Jesus means for us, we do not seek to discern the way of Jesus in 2023… other than we should be nice to each other.  We may be a ‘do good’ community, but we should be a Jesus community. 

How often do you seek the way of Jesus each day?   When you map out your day or make a decision about using your resources and gifts, or purchasing something does Jesus influence this?  How strongly does Jesus and the new kingdom he talked about really influence your life/our life together?  Do we have a strong sense of being a disciples and followes of Jesus…the body of Christ in this place? 

The more nuanced answer about the road is to offer a word from the Spirit.  And that word is simply the need,, like the people of Jerusalem in the time of Isaiah, to recapture a sense of ‘We’.  When Covid struck ‘we’ became important.  People looked out for one another especially the vulnerable.  Neighbours actually met neighbours.  There was time to converse with each other.  Suddenly there was a revolution of priority.  For a few months we lived out what William Wordsworth called ‘the best portion of a good mans life, his little nameless unremembered, acts, of kindness and love.’  And we discovered as is always the case that though lifting others we ourselves are lifted.  How quickly this has dissipated and we have returned with vengeance to the blinkered world of ‘what’s in it for me?’  Electronic media with its faceless contact is partly to blame as Donna Miles reminded us in her excellent article in Monday’s Press.  Put simply she was saying we have to seek out people who have differing views to ours and engage in dialogue.  It has to be face to face.  It doesn’t mean we have to agree but we do need to engage and respect.  This will involve sacrifice.  Jesus called this the way of peacemaking.   On a wider scale the sacrifice is understanding that my freedom will be curtailed by the greater collective wisdom.  This wisdom will often be expressed in rules and regulations.  We need rules to play a game of footy, or to drive on the road.  Without them our activity becomes chaos.  But can you imagine we could manage a country wide lock down for the good of all ever again.   The sense of pulling together has been replaced with a chorus of competing interests in the name of individual freedom.   We wither and die like grass in the field?…. I don’t think so…. We like to think we are much more important than that, and we certainly don’t warm to the idea that we are responsible to something beyond ‘me’!

True liberal democratic freedom is collective and depends on self restraint.  A society in which everyone feels free to do what they want is not a free society at all.  It is anarchy.  Watch this space.

We have something very special contained within this community.  A sense of togetherness and a sense of compassion and caring.  We understand the importance of ‘we’.  Our understanding is far from perfect, and we are still poor at handling the inevitable conflicts, or welcoming the stranger who is different, or as I said earlier including the active challenging presence of Jesus.  But we are on that road through the desert.  I encourage you to keep walking on this road together…for your own good, but also for the good of the wider community and all the earth.   The light of Jesus that guides us is a light that moves us from a ‘me’ centred life to a ‘we’ centred life.  It is a light that has grown dim…. So we need to shine like a beacon, a lighthouse, as God’s people to help a lost world find a way home.  WE…. a beacon of hope and peace.

Sunday 26th November – Rev Hugh Perry

In the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel the reader is told: ‘Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the good news of God and saying: ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’(Mark 1:14,15)

What does that mean as we consider the two readings from Ezekiel and Matthew this morning.  Are we as Christians preparing for the return of Christ or should we believe that the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has not just come near but is continually coming into being as we live as Christ to others.

Does the resurrection of Christ mean as the chorus of Bill Wallace’s hymn ‘We are an Easter people’ suggests,

‘Christ is risen, Christ is risen, risen in our lives’.

As a teenager I was lured into the Levin Baptist church through their harrier club by a very well executed bit of friendship evangelism.  What dulled its effectiveness was that every time I attended the obligatory church parade I was warned about the fires of hell and the sudden return of Christ to sort out the sheep from the goats.  By contrast I read in Baden Powells Scouting For Boys, the essential manual for boy scouts, that you should always leave a campsite better than you found it.  Likewise, you should live life the same way.

Nevertheless, both fear and hope of a final judgement has been used as an evangelical tool and the reassurance of the dispossessed throughout the history of the church.

In his novel Their Faces Were Shining Tim Wilson describes a girl’s frantic phone call to her mother to tell her about the kids floating up through the roof during a calculus class. ‘Mom, it’s the Rapture’[1] She cries.

That’s an image you could certainly draw from both our readings.  But I believe it is not the image we should anticipate for the return of Christ.  Nevertheless, having a superhero to sort out the world is very tempting when faced with the realities of pandemics and ram raids.

During the recent election campaign, I met a number of people who were not just frustrated with the government but totally disillusioned with democracy.

Most of them were not obviously religious so they were not expecting the Rapture or Christ’s return.  I did however meet a couple of people who enthusiastically told me they didn’t vote because choosing the government was up to God. 

That yearning for a divine ruler is expressed in this Sunday being designated as Christ the King Sunday or, the more politically correct term, Reign of Christ.

We now have a king, but he is a constitutional monarch.  The king in the term ‘Christ the King’ comes from an era where a king was an absolute ruler, chief justice and supreme commander of the armed forces.  Nevertheless, if we accept that Christ is king then we do not except anybody else as ultimate ruler. That indeed would be enough to move Pilate to crucify Jesus.  

But many people see a returned Christ fulfilling that sort the would out, all powerful and judgemental role.  The opening verse of today’s reading backs up that hope.

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory, (Matthew 25:31)    

To a certain extent this echoes verse twenty in our Ezekiel reading.  ‘Therefore, thus says the Lord GOD to them: ‘I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep’ (Ezekiel 34: 20). 

This is not an advertisement for Weightwatchers and as we read on, we find that the fat sheep ‘pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide’.   (Ezekiel 34: 21)

The recipients of the metaphorical judgement are the wealthy powerful kings, corporate executives, the independent wealthy, and even pastors who increase their wealth by exploiting the vulnerable poor.  

It is a seemingly ageless issue and, the desire that unscrupulous despots get what they deserve, is timeless.  Unfortunately, that very seldom happens and even when a despot is deposed it is usually by another despot.  Even when a seemingly well motivated revolutionary deposes a despot, they quickly become a despot to protect their new position.  

So, throughout time humanity has a vision of an end time or after death judgment where despots get their comeuppance.

Unfortunately, religions have also used that vision to exploit vulnerable people and the church is no exception.  The issue of indulgences that divided the church into Catholic and Reformed is a classic example, with the prosperity gospel running a close second. 

Furthermore, absolute rulers from Constantine onward have kept order by suggesting that they rule on God’s behalf.   Verse twenty-three of our Ezekiel reading tends to support that notion.  ‘I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them and be their shepherd. ((Ezekiel 34: 23)  

That is David the warrior king who had one of his soldiers murdered to cover up the fact that David had raped the solder’s wife.   

Yet despite the tarnished Davidic image many Christians see Jesus as the descendant of David who will return in his glory, and all the angels with him. Return to sort out the world. 

We can perhaps hope he will sort out the horizontal infrastructure in our major cities and even get the Christchurch sports complex finished.

However, it’s not just the divine we hope will sort out the world and Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence have written a very informative book called Captain America and the Crusade against Evil.

Jewett and Lawrence suggest that the comic hero Captain America appeared during the frustration many Americans felt at their nations refusal to enter the second world war. 

Reading that book was my first introduction to Captain America but in the superman comics I kept under the bed as a boy I had learned that Superman stood for ‘truth, justice and the American way’. 

But as a teenager I read all Ian Flemming’s James Bond novels.  On reflection I can imagine Bond as a very British way of having a superhero that sorts out the world, without questions in the house or disturbing the royal corgis.  However, the Queen did send James Bond to open the London Olympics. 

With those memories in my mind, I was intrigued to read recently a comment from spy novelist John le Carré suggesting that everybody wanted to be like Ian Flemming’s hero. But his readers hoped they weren’t like Le Carré’s heroes.  Those heroes lived in the complicated world where it is very hard to separate the good guys from the bad guys, and bureaucracy seeks a multiplicity of goals through procrastination.

But I did read an autobiographical book that was life changing for me.  In amongst the tangles and scandals of The Spy Who Came In From the Cold and the cartoonists comment on the first industrial espionage in New Zealand which occurred at a cheese factory.  ‘The Spy Who Came In For The Mould,’  

In amongst all that imaginative high drama I read Ernest Gordon’s book Miracle on The River Kwai.  

The superhero in that book is a Scottish Sargent, a confessed Christian and probably a Presbyterian, who transforms the community of a prison camp.  In amongst the sick and dying officers he simply cared for those prisoners who could no longer work.  Soldiers who were left to die.  Because he cared others began to also care and many of the sick, including the author recovered.  

That miracle was spelled out in in Matthew’s Gospel long before World War Two.

‘For I was hungry, and you gave me food, I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked, and you gave me clothing, I was sick, and you took care of me, I was in prison, and you visited me’.  (Matthew 26:36)

Being Christ to others is a way of living the divine realm into reality.  The Kingdom of God comes near as we live as Christ to others.  

Christ comes into the world in each of us who live as Christ to others.  Christ comes into the world as we see Christ in those we meet along the way.

The Matthew reading tells us there are always sheep and goats and there are always Ezekiel’s fat sheep and thin sheep.  Certainly, the Ezekiel reading is a warning to the greedy and leaders who make a goat of themselves.

But in suggesting how we might be judged in the everyday moments of our lives the Matthew reading calls us to a self-discipline of caring for others in every moment of our lives.

Like so many gospel texts, this story talks about how people become part of the kingdom of God.  The opening verse may well invoke images of entering a heavenly throne room with a divine monarch surrounded by heavenly bureaucrats.  But that is imagery of a divine realm that wraps around and inspires us rather than fact about the next life. 

If the kingdom of God or the realm of God is at hand then we should understand it as being within reach, within our reach.  Matthew lists of judgment criteria are suggestions of the ways we can make God’s realm real. Real in our time and our world.

Christ in all possible divine glory does not suddenly come into our world as a divine ruler with a heavenly prosecutor trailing a wheeled suitcase filled with evidence files. 

Neither are children lifted through the roof during calculous. 

The ruling Christ comes into our world as the least among us.  Our world is transformed as we care for those less fortunate than ourselves.  

The realm of Christ comes into our world when both ordinary people, and extra ordinary people live as Christ to others.

[1] Tim Wilson, Their Faces Were Shining (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2010) p.60

Sunday 22nd October 2023 ~ Rev Hugh Perry

‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s’ (Matthew 22:21) 

That is a very wise statement about taxation and the human response to the divine.  However, we live in a secular democracy without an emperor in which people give little thought about what they might owe to God and still don’t like to pay tax.  In fact, the very wealthy seem less inclined to pay tax than the average wage earners.  Furthermore, on one of the incentives to give money to the church is that it is tax deductible.

So perhaps it’s worth also reflecting on a couple of more recent statements.   

The first is the classic statement from Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. who lived in the United States from March 8, 1841 to March 6, 1935 and was a jurist and legal scholar.  He said that ‘taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society.’ 

An even more recent American and respected Episcopalian lay leader, Bill Gates Senior maintained ‘Society has an enormous claim upon the fortunes of the wealthy.  This is grounded not only in most religious traditions, but also in an honest accounting of society’s substantial investment in creating the fertile ground for wealth-creation’. [1]  Those of you who use Microsoft computer products will understand that Mr Gates senior has firsthand experience of people who create wealth. 

It is also worth noting that quote came from a book by   Jim Wallis, called God’s Politics: Why the American Right Gets it Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It and I would suggest that people to the left and right in Aotearoa also get it wrong and don’t get it either.

Bill Loader, a New Zealand Methodist living in Australia, suggests that, although our opening quote could well be one of the most famous of all anecdotes told about Jesus, it is also one that is frequently misunderstood.  Dr Loader suggests that it lends itself to justifying a separation of religion and the activity of commerce and government.[2]  However we could also profitably understand it as a recognition that Christians exist within a wider community and as they benefit from the structure of that community they should also contribute to it.  That fits what we understand of Jesus’ vision of ‘the kingdom of God’ which is both a present and future reality that Jesus’ followers are called to live into reality.  The kingdom of God’ is not something that comes into being through violent revolution but by law abiding citizens loving their neighbours, offering healing and hope.  

Furthermore, giving to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s is not about setting up an inclusive Christian community and shunning the rest of the world.  It is not about refusing to vote or avoiding civic responsibilities.  It is about being part of our community, facing up to the responsibility of living collectively.

In Jesus’ time people resented Roman taxes.  Like most ethnic groups they felt they would be better off being ruled by one of their own kings.  But the Romans provided security, roads and a three waters system but they certainly believed in user pays. 

Like the corporate empires that rule our world they also believed they should make a profit so the tax may well have been harsh.  Much of it was a flat tax which is always harder for the poor to pay than the rich. 

We have a flat tax called GST and a flat tax is always favoured by the wealthy because there is a lot of poor people to pay it.

Nevertheless, Christians living in the Roman world, or our secular world, must pay for the benefits they receive.  They are also expected to live better lives than people around them and to influence their society by the way they live and the way they participate in their society. 

We are called to love God by loving our neighbour.  That involves caring for others and caring for the way society cares for its people.

Living within the divine realm is about allowing God to guide our life’s journey and our Exodus reading helps us understand that.

Moses had freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, saved them from the murderous pursuit of the Egyptian army and had worked through, not just living in the wilderness, but living off the wilderness. 

But with the burning bush experience way in the past Moses had doubts about the journey.  Was God with them or had they all just experienced a series of serendipitous events.  That surely is a question for all religious people which is why we are called people of faith. 

I am sure that many of us facing difficult choices have wished that the divine voice would be absolutely and irrefutably clear to us. 

Many years ago, as a new Christian I was envious of those I met who seemed so full of confidence that God was leading them off on exciting missionary adventures.  But I began to notice that some of them never really completed anything. 

So, it wasn’t long before I began to ask myself ‘how can we distinguish the still small voice of God from the enthusiastic brainwaves of an individual’s inflated ego?’

Reading the story of Moses’ miraculous rescue from a floating basket, adoption by a member of the royal household and the murderous assault on a slave master we certainly could imagine him having an inflated ego as a young man.

But we also see maturity in his discussion at the burning bush when he pleads his lack of public speaking ability and his concern that he will not be believed.

We are told the Israelites spent forty years in the wilderness but the stories are not date stamped or even guaranteed to be in chronological order.  Nevertheless, we can reasonably assume that today’s reading happened a good way along the journey.  A journey through the wilderness but also a journey from nomadic herding to settled agriculture and above all a journey towards a better understanding of divine action in human communities. 

As the journey dragged on, we can certainly imagine that Moses would begin to doubt that he was fulfilling a divine purpose.  Divine patience often clashes with human impulsiveness and, as Moses neared the end of his life, he would be wanting to ‘get the job done.’  They were heading for the ‘Promised Land’ but they didn’t have a map with ‘Promised Land’ marked on it and Bill Gates had not paved the way for Google Maps. With all the time that had passed they would all be wondering if there was such a place.  That is a problem we all have. 

Like the rest of us those moments that Moses remembered meetings with God would have become faded memories. 

So according to our reading Moses experienced another theophany and was given a message for all of us.  Humanity cannot gaze on the glory of God, but we can see when God has passed by. 

In other words, we have a much better chance of seeing the action of God in our lives in hindsight than being directed by a blinding flash of light. 

The moments in my life that I consider to be spiritual experiences were simply a feeling of enfolding presence and an affirmation of belief rather than direction for life’s journey.

One of the struggles I had being selected for ordained ministry was that I could not in all honesty articulate a divine call.  My minister, a delightful petite Irish woman, simply suggested that one day and I might be a wee minister.  At the time I rebutted the idea.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed the study and felt I was happy doing new things.  I met amazing people as the minister of St Stephens in Hamilton so when the Rev John Hunt phoned me and put me in the cleft in the rock by suggesting I should come back to Christchurch I took a fair bit of convincing. 

My own wilderness journey has had its share of anticipation and extremely difficult decisions. Plenty of feelings of inadequacy and sleepless nights.  But when I look back on my life I realise that faith has indeed set me on a journey. 

Moses’ people did get to the ‘Promised Land’ but they probably only recognised it as such when they settled there.  In terms of becoming a people of God they, like us, still have plenty of journey still to go.

That is certainly the case of those who heard Jesus’ call to be part of the divine realm.  On that Journey we are two thousand years and counting and although we can look back at our history and see the glory of God in the footprints of many of the faithful, there are also many dark and godless moments to repent. 

As a church in Aotearoa New Zealand, we are very much a minority and have lost considerable influence in our lifetime.  But that does not make our task any less important.  From our metaphorical cleft in the rock we can look back on those two thousand plus years and see the glory of God shine forth in the civilising influence of the gospel.  

When the disciples of John the Baptist came to Jesus and asked if he was the one Jesus replied: Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. (Matthew 11:4,5)    s 

That is the history of our church, and if we look at our history in the church that is still the church’s story. It also is our story.  The Christian story is a story we are called to keep telling by our living and our loving. 

We live as a minority in a secular world that our Christian values have helped to shape.  We therefore have even more responsibility to give to our democratic society the taxes and the energy it demands of us. 

But as followers of Christ, we must also give to God what God requires of us.

It is in that cleft between our democratic secular society and the divine realm Christ calls us to, that we can glimpse the glory of God transforming our world through us. 

[1] Jim Wallis, God’s Politics: Why the American Right Gets it Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It (Oxford: Lion Hudson plc 2005)p.268