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27th November 2016 - Hugh Perry

Date Given: 
25 November 2016

Readings

Isaiah 2:1-5

Maurice Andrew notes that it is a feature of Isaiah that passages of judgment are deliberately interspersed with those on restoration and those writers who see the prophets as being only about doom have clearly not read the prophetic books.  

The passage we read this morning contains what Maurice Andrew claims ‘may be the most appealing words about peace ever written’.  ‘They shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks’

These words are found in front of the United Nations Building in New York and on the front of the international exhibition halls in Moscow there is a sculpture without inscription of a man clearly beating a sword into a ploughshare. [1]

Matthew 24:36-44

Today’s passage from Mathew’s gospel follows Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of the temple and warnings about false signs and false messiahs.

Bill Loader suggests that the warning in this passage is a:

Caution against speculation through which people try to get knowledge-control of the future so that they can predict for others and themselves when and how the future will be.  Not knowing is to face one’s vulnerability.  Probably people of Matthew’s time were very aware of Christians who engaged in that kind of behaviour.  Matthew makes considerable use of concepts at home in apocalyptic thought (like earthquakes and angelic interventions), so it is credible that he has apocalyptic speculation in mind.[2]

Sermon 

Prompted by my good friend and colleague the Rev Alistair McBride the General Assembly last week agreed:

That in light of the current civil emergencies from earthquake and storm disasters, General Assembly expresses its prayerful solidarity with those affected by these events.

That General Assembly rejects the view that such natural disasters are a form of divine punishment.

That General Assembly affirms its belief in God in Christ who suffers with those who suffer and through Christ offers compassion, transformation and hope.   

In its apocalyptic style our reading from Matthew says very much the same thing.  It alludes to ‘the son of man’ from the dream sequence from Daniel.

As I watched in the night visions,

I saw one like a human being (or son of man)

coming with the clouds of heaven.

And he came to the Ancient One

and was presented before him.

To him was given dominion

and glory and kingship,

that all peoples, nations, and languages

should serve him. 

His dominion is an everlasting dominion

that shall not pass away,

and his kingship is one

that shall never be destroyed.        (Daniel 7: 13-14)

Certainly this passage, like the other apocalyptic passages in this part of the other gospels, contains some pretty scary imagery.  Such imagery encourages people to exploit the vulnerable by making unfortunate statements about divine retribution when we should in fact be encouraging people to have hope.

Those sort of pronouncements by self styled religious leaders ignore Jesus’ warning in verse 36 of our Gospel reading.  ‘But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.’ (Matthew 24:36) 

In alluding to Daniel’s dream the gospel writer informs us that humanity judges itself.  Humanities’ dominion is an everlasting dominion.  Catastrophic events are part of an ongoing creation and the election of a president is not the son of man riding on the clouds of heaven, or the herald of the end of all things. 

Our calling to the world is not to frighten the living daylights out of people.  Our divine calling is to profess our belief in God in Christ who suffers with those who suffer and through Christ offers compassion, transformation and hope.   

So what was the hope that last week’s General Assembly offered to the church?  Not just hope to the Presbyterian Church but hope for the whole church, the catholic with a small ‘c’ church.

To begin with the bad news Assembly affirmed with a one vote margin the regulation that prohibits Presbyterian Ministers from conducting a marriage of same sex couples. 

The hope in that vote was the fact that margin was so fine and many of the younger members of Assembly opposed the legislation.  The strident biblical literalists of the past are getting older and the new younger ministers and elders seem to have a different and inclusive vision of Christ.  As I wrote in the bulletin, ‘the times they are a changing’. 

Another sign of hope in changing times was the church’s renewed interest in meeting with other churches and setting up a workgroup to comment on social issues.  Both these activities had been abandoned in the past because of cost and theological difference but we now seem to be moving back to the future and see these things as activities essential to the  life as a church.

The Assembly recognised these changing times in reorganising the minister’s Beneficiary fund and the fact that such a significant change went through smoothly was a testimony to the effort made to explain those changes before hand. 

However it wasn’t just the young people that demonstrated hope and some long term loyal servants of the church are recycling themselves.  My colleague the Rev Carol Grant, who retired recently, with considerable glee presented her report as the Association of Presbyterian Women’s representative on a United Nations Committee and she is also now the Police Chaplin in Dunedin.  Dr. Helen Bichan, who I first met years ago when she was a psychologist at the Porirua Hospital and her husband was the minister in Porirua, presented the report of the Inter Church Bioethics Council.  Helen has previously served as deputy convenor on the Council of Assembly and Bill Delaney and I came across her when she spoke at a Methodist seminar on euthanasia.   Helen has recently made a submission to the parliamentary committee tackling that issue. 

So as well as hope being demonstrated by the church’s younger people those that just keep on keeping on are part of the Christ filled humanity that continues to transform our world. 

In terms of those who are continually recycled by the call of Christ the most surprising event was the election of the retiring moderator as the moderator designate. That has never happened before and Presbyterians are not good at coping with changes in tradition. .  The hope in such a change is the tremendous work Andrew Norton has done as moderator and his willingness to challenge the church to change.  An import part of accepting the decisions of the church is to remember that, much as we worry about the decisions we make, hindsight often sees the Holy Spirit in those decisions.

A further sign of hope was the international guests who made real the concept that the divine realm is made up of all peoples, nations, and languages.  The Rev Dr Min Heui Cheon from the Presbyterian Church of the Republic of Korea delighted the Assembly with her personality and her national costume.  As well as addressing the Assembly she was the guest speaker at the graduation of ordinands.  In one of those strange connections that weave through our church I was delighted to see that one of those graduates was Mo Morgan.  While we were in Hamilton Mo was the PCANZ youth director had visited us at St Stephen’s.  Furthermore she has been an intern at St James in Wanganui and I understand will be ordained there as their minister. 

St James was where Raewyn and I worshiped when we were first married.

Mo’s parents were both ministers, her mother in a parish and her father as prison chaplain.  Both of them were strong voices for peace and justice in past Assemblies.  In her brief visit to St Stephen’s I gained the impression that Mo was ready to carry on the family tradition of turning swords into plowshares.  As part of her presentation Mo showed us a PowerPoint produced by a youth group member.  That presentation contained a picture of Bishop Desmond Tutu.  One of our South African immigrants came up to her afterwards and raved on about how disgraceful it was to have that picture in the presentation.  Desmond Tutu, he said, was a disgrace to the church and a communist.  My mind raced as I tried to work out how to defuse the confrontation but by the time I reached the two Mo had already shamed and dismissed my parishioner.   So I am really pleased she is continuing her career within the church and is part of the hope we have for the future.

As we look back at the history of the demise of the apartheid regime in South Africa we are always reminded that Desmond Tutu stood for peace and reconciliation in a situation that could easily have overflowed into revenge and violence.  Furthermore Nelson Mandela spent thirty years in prison to emerge as one of the great peacemakers of history.  Christ comes to our world in such people but also in ordinary people, people like us.  The struggle with apartheid reverberated around the world and even divided our nation as our passion for rugby became one of the fields of confrontation and our sense of order was challenged by the indignation with sense of injustice in others.

As the clouds of fear and distrust parted Bishop Desmond Tutu was just one of the human being that came with those clouds and lived as Christ to others and so transformed our world.  He didn’t fix everything but he delivered hope and that hope transformed lives. 

That is the story of the Christian Church.  We are all woven together as part of the family of humanity.  More precisely we are children of the resurrection; Christ filled individuals who ride the clouds of despair and uncertainty to bring peace, justice and transformation into a frightening world of war and extreme natural events. 

Each and every one of us is involved in bringing Christ into our world.  The power and the glory is not in some catastrophic event but in the link we have with each other through history and across peoples, languages and cultures.  Some of that connection, as well as some of the frustration, is within the organisation of our churches.  But the true weaving of transformation is between those individuals who live Christ into reality in their worlds. 

Throughout this Advent season we will follow the work of our Christian aid agency, Christian World Service, as they, in partnership with others, continue to beat swords into plowshares by empowering people to live in peace. 

Advent is our journey towards Christmas; the time we remember that Jesus was born like the rest of humanity is born.  The Advent journey reminds us that every baby has the potential to transform our world. 

Christ comes into our world with each baby baptised in his name and it is a real privilege to welcome Sylvia as part of the Christian network of human potential. 

Transformation happens through those who continue to be open to the divine call and peace and justice comes in the weaving of all the threads we build.  Threads knitted in a weaving of mystery through generation upon generation that cross languages, cultures and peoples to build humanity into God’s realm.

Through such weaving the Christ who suffers with those who suffer comes riding on the clouds of confusion that enfold an unjust and frightening world. 

It is indeed the Christ in each of us woven into the human network that brings compassion, transformation and hope to our ever changing world.   



[1] Maurice Andrew The Old Testament in Aotearoa New Zealand (Wellington: DEFT 1999), pp. 398,399

 

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