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1st October 2017 - Hugh Perry

Date Given: 
29 September 2017

Readings

Exodus 17: 1-7

Maurice Andrew tells of the text his grandparents had on the wall which read 'Streams in the desert' (Isaiah 35:6). He says:

We had all been affected to some extent by the 1930’s Depression, but my grandparents lived by the broadly flowing Waikato, and we by the swift Rangitikei. I doubt whether any of us could have even imagined what a desert was like. So why did they have the text and why do I remember it?

I think everyone realises they can have something akin to a wilderness experience in their life and that it is the very place where they are most refreshed.  The wilderness may be hostile, but it is there that the relationship with the environment can be renewed, both physically and metaphorically. [1]

Once again we see the tendency to look back to the security of the past when facing the uncertainty of the future and the difficulty of the present.  At this stage the people have been miraculously fed by the quails and the manna but past slavery still seems more secure than to trust God in an uncertain future. 

Matthew 21:23-32

Jesus has moved from his ministry in Galilee to teaching in the temple and the temple elite come and question his authority to do so.  Their authority is clear, the priests by birth, the scribes by training and the elders by wealth.  They are the religious, social, economic, and political elite and their power and authority is sanctioned by Rome.  Their question is understood as a trap because if Jesus claims his own authority he admits to having no institutional or cultural authority and therefore is acting against God's purpose.  If he claims God's authority he blasphemes and violates their jurisdiction.

Jesus’ response of quoting John the Baptist puts them in a difficult political situation so they avoid it giving him a precedence to avoid their question and turn the questioning on them.  Jesus does this with the parable of the two sons and in answering his question they condemn themselves.[2]

Bill Loader makes the point that the vineyard is a standard image of Israel.  The chief priest and elders are set in contrast to the prostitutes and tax collectors. The former engage in the rhetoric of obedience, but fail to do God's will. The latter disqualify themselves, but then turn to God.  Loader suggests that all this is in response to the ministry of John the Baptist. Matthew has a way of cutting through the red tape and by-passing the religious bureaucracy.  There is no room for pretence or pretentiousness.  At least some of the prostitutes and tax collectors, the lavishly rich and the women they exploited, got the point. 

Was that because they allowed themselves to be vulnerable, to be moved, to let the word of compelling compassion address their deeper needs?  Were the religious leaders so defensive in protecting their system - in the name of the people of God and the Scripture - that they suppressed their inner cries, stopped their ears?

It is odd, Loader maintains, that we still find so many people inside the church who have a greater problem moving with compassion for change in society than many outside the church because so many of us seem bent on protecting God.[3]

Sermon

In today’s Exodus episode the people complain about water and complaints about water have been a feature of this year’s election campaign.  The people complained to Moses about not having water but our complaints have been about who uses the water we have and what else is in it.  In the introduction Maurice Andrew mentions his parents living by the Waikato river and living in Hamilton I was aware that river had a lot of things in it that meant the water needed considerable treatment before it was fit to drink.  I also learned from Paula Southgate, at that time a regional councillor and now a Hamilton City councillor, that the Waikato River’s source Lake Taupo was beginning to cloud over because of excessive nutrients leaching from surrounding farmland and flowing into the lake.

A lot of water has flowed under all of Hamilton’s bridges since I heard Paula’s talk but her hopes certainly found opposition and although she was named by the Herald as one of the nation’s best regional mayors she fell a few votes shy being elected Hamilton’s mayor. 

The struggling Israelites in the wilderness needed water to survive but we seem to use our broadly flowing rivers to take away the waste of our abundant lifestyle.  In doing so we run the very real risk of destroying what wilderness we have left along with the diversity of life that sustains us. 

But one of the key elements in the story of the Exodus wilderness journey is the acknowledgement that God was with them on the journey.  Moses and Aaron provided leadership but they acknowledged that they owed their leadership to God.  The whole people were people of the creator and therefore sustained by creation. 

The previous episode we read last week the people came together to complain about running out of food and we discussed the need for people to learn to live off the wilderness.  This week is a similarly cooperative action.

The story portrays the whole congregation complaining against their leadership but they complained as a group.  The people faced a crisis over the availability of water and they acted collectively to petition their leaders.  People have already been doing that in our world about the condition of our rivers and lakes and that has proved divisive.  But Moses and Aaron reacted to the crisis in the knowledge that God’s creation cares for creation.  The wilderness is a place where new skills need to be learned and the example of the stories in Exodus is that it is cooperation not competition that solves the problems and allows the whole congregation to survive.

In the documentary I recently saw about a tribe of hunter gatherers there was an incident where a member of a hunting party shot a very small bird.  Immediately the whole party gathered together, lit a fire, cooked the bird and shared it among the group.  There would not have even been a mouthful each but these were people living in tune with creation as they had for thousands of years.  Primitive the people may have been but they knew that cooperation was the key to survival in the wilderness because humanity is a cooperative species.

That is a contrast to the reaction of the chief priests and the elders to Jesus’ teaching. 

When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said ‘by what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority? (Matthew 21:23)

Imagine the leader of the hunting party coming to the archer and instead of lighting a fire demanding who gave him permission to shoot.  In fact the documentary made it clear that the group did not have a chief and decisions were made by consensus.  What was apparent was that very few decisions were needed because each person acted for the good of the whole group.  That is a vision of Jesus’ Kingdom of God and Jesus tells another parable in reaction to the challenge of the chief priests and the elders. 

Clearly the chief priests and the elders are the people called by God to care for the vineyard, a classic metaphor for Israel.  But the parable suggests that they have failed to fulfil that task.

It is the tax collectors and prostitutes, those who rejected Israel’s ethical standards and purity code, that belatedly react to Jesus’ preaching and build new lives within the Kingdom of God.  The chief priests and the elders could not exist in Jesus’ vision of an ideal human society because, like the hunter gatherers I described, Jesus’ vision of an ideal society was one where each member acts in the best interest of others.  In fact the priority for the chief priests and the elders was their authority rather than the well being of the people they were supposed to lead. 

Jesus had been healing people and restoring them as full members of the community.  That was a challenge to those who enforced a strict purity code and placed them as the sole arbiters of people’s repentance.  Furthermore the viability of the temple depended on people who had been excluded by the purity code seeking restoration by coming and sacrificing an animal that they bought at the temple.  The system was very like the purchase of indulgences that blew the Christian church apart when Luther posted his 95 Theses on the door of All Saints' Church in Wittenberg on October 31 1517 exactly 500 years ago at the end of this month.  Luther’s challenge to religious authority was very like the chief priests and the elders perceiving Jesus as a challenge to their authority and Luther was lucky that the political mood was more favourable than it was for Jesus.  Both the purity code and the indulgences were methods of funding and cementing the power of the ruling elite in dominating theocracies by taxing the poor.

That is a contrast to Moses splitting open the rock and allowing water to flow freely to the people.  Furthermore that incident is a metaphor that fits today’s parable where promise is not fulfilled but the possibility is opened for others to fulfil the promise.

Some of our political debate has also centred on the idea that water in our land flows freely for the use of everyone.  Our problem is that some have taken water for their exclusive use and the activity of others has rendered water unusable for everyone.

Returning to the hunter gathers in the documentary a number of them expressed concern that the presenter of the documentary participated in a precarious climb of a very high tree to shake fruit from the top branches.  They were concerned that he had not time to practise the skills required and feared he my fall and kill himself.  He was an outsider but while he was sharing with them they had empathy for him.  That is also an image of a truly human community, where those outsiders who were welcomed in experienced the empathy the group had for each other.

Everyone shared the fruit that fell from the tree just as everyone shared the water Moses released from the rock.  It is sharing, empathy and a reverence for creator and creation that allowed humanity to move out of the rift valley of central Africa and across the globe. 

Along that seeming never ending journey leadership has accumulated power by enslaving others forcing further migration into new wildernesses. Along the way the search for substance developed new skills until we reach the saturation of human population we find ourselves in.  We live in a time when we face increased migration and a shortage of wilderness.   We now seem to face the alternative of complete annihilation through megalomania or the collapse of the very biosphere that keeps all life precariously balanced. 

The hope our Gospel reading gives us is that we all have the opportunity to begin again.  Those who hold leadership positions may well procrastinate and negotiate, bluff and bluster to the brink of disaster.

But in Jesus’ promise of a divine realm we all have the opportunity to break open the rock of innovative inspiration and let the water of new life flow into our world.

 



[1] Maurice Andrew The Old Testament in Aotearoa New Zealand (Wellington: DEFT 1999)p. 105

[2] Warren Carter Mathew and the Margins: A Socio-Political and Religious Reading, (London/New York: T&T Clark

 

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