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6th march 2016 - Hugh Perry

Date Given: 
3 March 2016

Readings

Joshua 5: 9-12

Our reading begins in the new land as the people recovered from the circumcision of those who had been born on the wilderness journey.  Verse 9 makes the point that this ritual makes the removing of all connections with Egypt so the people are free to start afresh in a new place.

The book of Joshua, according to Maurice Andrew, is not only an account of taking the land but also an acknowledgement that people must give up their fear of freedom and be prepared to start afresh in a strange place..[1]

Verses 10-12 describe the people keeping the Passover on the plains of Jericho which signifies a new beginning.  To eat unleavened bread was to launch out into the new because it meant having nothing left from the past year’s harvest.  This was confirmed when the manna stopped at that time, the miraculous food of the wilderness ceases, and the people eat the ordinary crops of the land of Canaan.  ‘Part of being free’ says Andrew ‘is to commit yourself to the land where you live now’. 

Luke 15: 1-3, 11-32

Verses 1 to 3 actually introduce three parables of the lost, ‘the lost sheep’, ‘the lost coin’ and ‘the lost son’ but we only read ‘the parable of the lost son’.  Fred Craddock puts a positive twist by labelling the three parables ‘three parables of joy’ and so the first two become the parables of the found sheep and the found coin while the parable we read is labelled ‘the parable of the loving father’.  This title emphasises the grace of the father rather than get into moral arguments of the virtue or otherwise of the two sons.  Craddock goes on to say that the competitive rather than cooperative nature of our society suggests there must always be losers if there are winners.  But God’s love is both/and, not either/or.  The embrace of the younger son did not mean the rejection of the older, the love of tax collectors and sinners does not at all negate love of Pharisees and scribes. [2]

Sermon

Maurice Andrew suggests that the book of Joshua, is not only an account of taking the land but also an acknowledgement that people must give up their fear of freedom and be prepared to start afresh in a strange place.[3]

People are an invasive species in New Zealand.  Much as we might lament the presence of birds like wax eyes that were blown across the Tasman and now eat the fruit in our gardens, it is people that have absolutely devastated this environment.  Both Polynesian and European migrations to New Zealand brought new plants and animals that displaced native species.  Both also exploited native animals to the point of extinction.  But the biggest damage was achieved by the first British settlers who wanted to clear away features indigenous to Aotearoa and convert the land into what James Belich refers to as a better Britain.  In so doing we created a legacy we struggle to cast off.

Our reading from Joshua makes the point that settling in a new place involves living off the land.  The feast of unleavened bread became a ritual reminder that the manna in the wilderness was finished and settling in the land involved living off the crops of the land.  This little passage skips the uncomfortable reality that they first acquired the crops of the land by killing the Canaanites.  Nevertheless the passage marks the transition from a wandering nomadic life to settled agriculture and the feast of unleavened bread marks the new beginning by leaving the past behind.  The unleavened bread also echoed the instructions for the Passover celebration in Exodus and the reason is the same.  The old world of slavery was left behind and a new life of freedom in the wilderness began.  The yeast that made the bread rise came from a portion of dough held back from the previous batch of bread but in starting a new life nothing from the old life was kept. 

The people that Moses lead didn’t flee Egypt with kumara, taro, gourds, dogs and goodness knows what didn’t survive the voyage, or the more temperate climate.  They certainly didn’t bring sheep, cows, rabbits, possums, stoats, weasels, trout, gorse hedges and old man’s beard to supplement, and later devastate the existing fauna and flora. 

However Joshua’s people did attempt to wipe out the Canaanites and despite our European forbears genocidal attempts we have a better record of living with people of previous migrations than other colonial endeavours have with indigenous people.

Nevertheless the wilderness people did settle in a new land and a new way of living and their religious culture matured from zealous nationalism to prophetic realism.  From the prophetic view of a God of all people the radical exegesis and parables of Jesus gave us an inclusive Christianity. 

That Christian culture has moved former colonial powers, including us, to apologise for past injustice and seek reconciliation with indigenous and first peoples.

However the sort of forgiveness that Jesus taught, and is highlighted in the three parables of the lost, was too radical for his first listeners and is still a bit too radical for most people today.  The problem, as Bill Loader points out, is that Jesus put the loving first, rather than keeping it till after repentance.[4]

The problem the Pharisees had in the opening of our reading was that Jesus welcomed tax collectors who they saw as traitors for collecting tax for the Romans. Jesus also welcomed those who were regarded as sinners and even ate with them, when the cultural norm was to shun such people.

Jesus demonstrated what was regarded as a radical inclusiveness where no one was ‘beyond the pale’. 

From the point of view of the Pharisees Jesus was undermining their society and the scriptural tradition at the heart of their faith.  But Jesus was honouring the tradition of prophetic realism that recognised God’s care for all humanity.  That universal view is held in tension in scripture with the exclusive zealous nationalism that lies behind our reading from Joshua.  Zealous nationalism promotes the right of a chosen people to displace other peoples who are seen as unworthy of God’s love.  It is a biblical stream that promotes racism, sexism and just about any other ism we could think of.  It is also used by some evangelical churches as a warrant to move into other churches areas and build new mega churches that displace existing congregations.  The Rev Dr Steve Taylor, principal of the Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership, posted an article on Facebook that was highly critical of the Hillsong church setting up a branch in San Francisco.  The author was cross at the assumption that God was calling them to that region based on a couple of texts quoted out of context.  The point made was that there are already churches in San Francisco who have diligently been Christ for others for hundreds of years and then the article goes on to name the Hill Songs leader concerned and say:

Ben Houston has pulled the age-old theological sleight of hand that has enabled all colonial destruction that has occurred in the name of Jesus: He has positioned himself in the place of Biblical Israel within the Biblical narrative, effectively positioning Hillsong Church as God’s chosen people to bring their exquisite salvation to the rest of the world, by any means necessary. It also means, to be clear, that the strategic cities of the world, of which San Francisco is one, are the Promised Land, filled with milk, honey, and slow drip coffee, destined to fall into the hands of God’s chosen people. And San Francisco’s residents, of course, are the Canaanites, to be driven out, destroyed, raped, murdered, and pillaged for our resources.[5]  

In the gospels the Pharisees are used as the personification of that particular stream of biblical understanding and exclusivity and Jesus is juxtaposed in opposition to that perspective.  But if the Pharisees thought Jesus’ behaviour was radical the three parables of the lost are even more radically inclusive.  The parables illustrate that instead of arguing from the tradition which only the knowledgeable could appreciate, Jesus starts his theological comment with common daily experience.  Jesus democratised religious tradition and made it accessible to everyone.  Jesus talks about typical human situations and tweaks the stories with elements that challenge people’s presumptions. 

In today’s parable we are faced with an arrogant young man who insults his father by demanding his inheritance.  He leaves home to make his fortune or go on his great OE.  He hits rock bottom especially as a Jew ending up in the piggery and comes to his senses.  In his time he couldn’t phone home and ask if he could put an air ticket on his father’s visa card but he went home anyway.  The father in the parable is so delighted that his son is coming home he abandons the cultural norms of patriarchal dignity and runs to embrace his son.  

Jesus’ basic message is that if a parent loves that much, why wouldn’t his audience think God would be equally embracing of the lost.  Furthermore at the point of the reunion the father does not know the mind of the son.  The father does not know if the son has repented but he welcomes him to the feast anyway.[6]

Throughout the gospels meals were a place of controversy for Jesus.  The Pharisees complained ‘this fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them’. (Luke 15:2)  Indeed shared meals were an important part of Jesus’ mission and they feature regularly as images in his teaching.  His Jewish tradition featured future salvation as a great feast.  Feasts were celebrations of belonging, which of course was why people who were seen as different were excluded   

But Jesus’ response was to welcome everyone to the feast just as the father welcomed his returning son, finding the lost and including them was what the celebration was all about.  

Certainly Jesus saw meals as celebrating what was to come but they also celebrated the belonging of what was already in the present.  The kingdom of God was at hand. 

Meals used bread and wine as the key elements but with Jesus’ meals there was an openendedness of belonging and no one was excluded.  Jesus didn’t send his disciples through the crowd at the lakeside to see who was worthy, he sent the disciples to distribute the feast.

His willingness to be present at the celebrations of the tax collectors and sinners is closely related to his willingness to include all in what would have been the much more meagre celebrations of belonging to his group.  

For this inclusive principal he lived and told stories and for this principal he would die.  Just before his death he would link the broken bread and poured out wine to his broken and poured out life.  That was adopted by the church as a ritual that symbolised the nourishment found in celebrating life, a ritual for keeping the vision alive and for living its agenda into the future.[7]

It is that understanding of Jesus, which is backed up by the parable of the prodigal son, that must guide our mission, both as individuals, and as a church.  Our mission must be a Christ mission that includes everyone.  Christian mission is not a mission to the in-crowd or the specially selected.  Despite some past traditions of the church there are no prerequisites to Christian inclusiveness and all are welcome at Christ’s table.  As the loving parent of creation God is focussed on returning the lost to the inclusive family of all humanity.

Within that understanding our calling is to love the unlovable and open the possibility of new beginnings to all people. 



[1] Maurice Andrew The Old Testament in Aotearoa New Zealand (Wellington: DEFT 1999), p178.

[2] Fred B. Craddock Luke. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press 2009), p.188.

[3] Maurice Andrew The Old Testament in Aotearoa New Zealand (Wellington: DEFT 1999), p178.

[6] Loader, op.cit

[7] ibid.

 

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