Invited Sermon by Richard Small on Luke 4:14-21: 1 Corinthians 12:12-31

Ka mua, ka muri… think….adjusting the rear vision mirror.
For most of us the holiday season is long gone. We are back into the familiar grind at home, school (particularly stationary lists and uniforms for some of us) and here at church. But amidst all the busy-ness I hope through Advent and Christmas we were inspired and recharged for the Journey ahead in 2019.

For me that journey feels a lot like the Maori proverb “Ka mua, ka muri.”Moving forward by looking back. In full: Kia whakatōmuri te haere whakamua:  i.e.“I walk backwards into the future with my eyes fixed on my past.”

We travel into the unknown future, into 2019 in faith and trust shaped by our experience of God’s grace in the past. We don’t need to look far for examples:
• Next week we celebrate our Methodist covenant service.
• Presbyters and congregations begin their journey’s together with induction services at this time.
• Our nation also commemorates its founding covenant made at Waitangi.

As we move forward I think Epiphany challenges us however, to shine new light into these and other familiar places. Past , present and future can enrich each other with new and re-discovered understandings. In that light both, of our readings today challenge our safe familiar understandings by re-discovering old truths in a new light.

Jesus preaching at Nazareth starts well…but we know next week he goes off script.
The Messiah message for first century Jews was as familiar as Christ’s Atonement is to us.
The assumption was that Messiah belonged to Israel alone.

Jesus saying the passage from Isaiah had been fulfilled may have raised eyebrows but didn’t cause offence, so long as poor, the blind and the imprisoned and the oppressed he referred to came from the known acceptable, categories within Israel.

It was then saying that God included those people, gentiles, outside Israel that caused outrage. Those people had no place in the restored kingdom.
So Jesus needed to be put in his place.
Which happened to be down a cliff!

Thankfully God’s grace allowed Jesus to walk on.

Its easy to grab the low hanging fruit here and say that the congregation in Nazareth were narrow minded provincial zealots who bear no resemblance to our more enlightened times.

But they may have been representative of many others in Jewish community of their day. And attitudes of building walls and excluding people are still powerful forces in our own day.

This was a remnant community under occupation struggling to keep its identity amongst foreign cultures. They indeed thought they were faithfully looking back.
But Jesus adjusted the rear vision mirror.

From this distance its hard to understand how confronting his suggestion of Elijah and Elisha including unclean foreigners would have been.

In fact in response to our Hebrew Scripture in Nehemiah 8 Nehemiah 13 records all partners in cross culture marriages who were excluded and deported, to please God(?).
The Jewish people had maintained that identity through centuries of civil war conquest and exile. What worked was staying separate and pure under the law. They saw themselves, not others in Palestine, as the oppressed.

I think exclusion happens, not when just when we feel strong, but out of fear when we think our identity is under threat. What we don’t know, we fear.

At a recent seminar about fresh expressions of church, a leader of a small congregation shared with me how they enjoyed talking with homeless people sleeping on their porch. Some stayed for the service and for morning tea. Maybe more the morning tea. There was mess and a little disruption but a good relationship developed. Over the Christmas break another part of the church then built a fence to keep out “dangerous strangers.”

I think we justify extreme measures to save a faith, a culture, a language, the family and many other treasured things But unfortunately too often we affirm our identity, we affirm our people, by excluding those people.  Jesus’ reference to the poor oppressed, prisoners and was backed up with examples of God’s love extending to those excluded communities.

Not just the poor but Lepers, Widows and foreigners.
Who would these be in our day?

We exclude groups that we see through “fences” but I think seeing people up close face to face gives a new perspective.

Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians also addresses issues of identity. He knew this congregation well. There had been an exchange of letters before this one which we don’t have. But it seems that in this Greek culture spiritual experiences and superior knowledge were highly valued.
Many scholars think this letter was written in the mid first century- before most or all of the Gospels. The church met in homes. One writer has said that the Corinthian church had Spirit but no Walls. They wonder if the modern church has too many Walls and not enough Spirit.

But it seems though, that the Corinthians weren’t long in starting to build walls of a different kind. Instead of being defined by buildings, as we heard from Ken last week, this early Christian community was defined by powerful spiritual gifts of speaking in unknown languages, healing and prophecy amongst others. Administration and helping the poor get an occasional mention too.

They ranked these spiritual gifts and if you didn’t have a good one you were on the outer. Like the Jewish community in Nazareth they saw themselves as a tiny island in hostile seas. So they began defining IN and Out, them and us. Those who didn’t measure up were put in their place.

Paul turns all this on its head.

He says the gifts are to serve Christ and the common good. He too points to the rear vision mirror. He reminds the church of their common baptism. He talks about the church as a body. In Roman culture that was a well known political image. Greek philosopher Plato had referred to the body as an image of harmony and interdependence. So this was very familiar.

But both have referred to a hierarchy within the body. Paul uses something familiar and turns it on its head. He says all parts of the body are of equal importance. Like Jesus he mentions cultural diversity.

Jews and Gentiles Slaves and free. God intended diversity before hierarchy. Its not a divine game of papers scissors rock depending on whether you are an ear, an eye or even an eyebrow. We are part of one body in Christ.

For the church the reason for this is not just that diversity works, and provides numbers . In chapter 13 we hear the most excellent way is Love. We are all and always measured by love, no matter high or low our gifts and contributions may be.

The more useful gifts are acknowledged, but unless tempered by love they are nothing. Love wins every time. Paul elsewhere follows some of the social boundaries and restrictions of his day. No debate about that. But the overall direction of travel is of love.
I think Paul is saying we ultimately do not put people in their place but God has already every one of us in our place as part of the body of Christ.

In Christ there is neither Jew or Gentile, male nor female, slave nor free. This was a radically new understanding for its day. Today I would add Samoan, Tongan, Fijian Indian or Palangi, young or old, gay or straight, tertiary educated or primary educated, renter or land banker. We’ll each have our own list. For as much as these differences are celebrated for the riches they bring, ultimately Christ’s love is all and in all.

Not a soft love but a practical love expressed through self control, long suffering, truth, humility, hope… and in so many other ways.

I think attaining these is a lifetime journey. They may seem unachievable but I think they are still a very good aspirational GPS setting. We glance in the rear vision mirror and try to remember. We stumble, we fall, we detour, but we recalculate the route of love and we pick ourselves up.

As we walk forward into 2019 may we move forward whilst looking back. Ka mua ka muri. May we listen afresh for the Spirit’s navigation and to each other, so that we journey forward together, remembering to stay bound together in that love that has bought us to this year and sustains us every year, past and present and future.
Amen

After encountering this sermon by Richard Small, I was sufficiently impressed to invite him to share this sample of his work on my web site.   Richard is a lay preacher from the Waitakere Parish in West Auckland.   His day job is being an immigration lawyer.

I would invite readers to react to the ideas in the sermon because I think he raises some interesting issues.

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1 Response to Invited Sermon by Richard Small on Luke 4:14-21: 1 Corinthians 12:12-31

  1. Peter Willaimson says:

    Hi Bill / Richard
    Thanks for inviting me to comment on Richard’s sermon – and it’s good to see that lawyers can give good sermons! I hope this ex-lawyer does as good a preach as this occasionally! Richard, I think your emphasis on inclusion / exclusion is a very topical issue – not just because it immediately screams of the Trumpisms that we hear all too often – but it reminds us of the appallingly simplistic attitude that countries take to immigration rules – the English Windrush and Jamaica fights ‘home,’ the despicable Australian detentions, and I suspect you have some equally horrific and unfair situations right here in NZ. But it’s easy pointing the finger at “them” and at “Government!” The predicament that you rightly point out is that exclusion rules are too easy for “us” and me to make – we only have to see the notices sellotaped up in church kitchens, and the locked cupboard doors in shared spaces (and I confess – it was me who forced the lock and opened the door!).

    It would be interesting to see how you see Brash’s “we are all equal” fitting within this sermon, and my opinion that sometimes there is a need to compensate, and not to see things too black and white (poor though the metaphor might be!).

    I realy enjoyed the read – and it tweaked the conscience. Look forward to some more!

    Blessings

    Peter Williamson

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