Minister's Blog

Reflections from habitat uniting church's minister, Rev Joan Wright Howie.

What does God think about Christchurch?

Sunday, March 24, 2019
Have you ever wondered what God is thinking?

What on earth was God thinking creating mosquitos?

What is God doing letting Tornado’s and crazy weather destroy homes and towns in Queensland?
What is God doing about the state of our world today when people of extreme political perspectives think they can storm into places of worship and kill people at prayer?
How does God we we proclaim as the source of Love, help us comprehend events driven by hate?

Then we hear in the book of Isaiah: "For my thoughts [are] not your thoughts, neither [are] your ways my ways, says God. For [as] the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts." - Isaiah 55:8-9

I wonder what God’s thoughts are – thoughts that reside in a high place, a broad space a wide and open way that leads us beyond worrying about mosquitoes…a different kind of participation than controlling the weather…a more complex engagement with humanity than being able to cause or prevent calamity.

Human beings aching with longing – wondering ‘how can this be?’

It puts me in mind of the passage in Luke's gospel chapter 13"1-19 when we hear about Jesus spending time with a group of people minds who wanted to make sense of the things happening in their lives and communities. They wanted to know what God thought about the stuff happening in their context. Someone asks Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.

We don’t really know what was going on at that time, but we do know that Pilate was a tyrant. Perhaps he needed some extra cash to finance one of his public works project and decided to get the funds from the Jewish temple treasury. In Galilee, a group of people were worshipping in the way their tradition invited. They were making sacrifices in their temple. Pilate ordered the solders to break in and the solders ended up massacring a whole group of worshippers!! Their blood was mingled with the blood of the sacrifices.

Well Jesus, what do you think of that?
What do you reckon God thinks about that?
Do you think those Galileans were somehow worse sinners and were being punished by God?”

With the events of Christchurch ripe in our minds, we can’t help but draw a parallel. This time another soldier of tyrannical ideals storms into a place of worship massacring a group of people at prayer. 51 people lost their lives and a larger number are wounded in hospital. He Jesus what do you think of that. Are those Muslims being punished for their sins? Jesus was being asked a political question disguised as a theological question.

He was being asked God’s thoughts on this political issue.
Should we stop immigration from Muslim countries into this country?

He could have answered saying something condemning extremist, but someone might have thrown an egg at him!

In his context, he’d have been seen to allied himself with the Zealots who were a radical anti-Roman political movement and that would have made him an enemy of the state But Jesus doesn’t fall for that trick.

Then the next person asks Jesus another question in a similar vain. Another disaster story. The Siloanm Tower Collapsed and kills eighteen people. It was a freak accident. Well, did God think the people in that building crew were leading an unusually sinful life and that God caused the tower to fall? What does God think about human politics? What are God’s thoughts about calamities?

This week we might want to ask the same kinds of questions about what happened in Christchurch. When a right wing extremist decides to record himself storming a place of worship and methodically shooting people. Then going to another place of worship and shooting another group simultaneously streaming the footage of the carnage on the world wide web for all to see. Were those worshipping Muslim sinners?

What a crazy question.
Who would ask such a questions?
It makes me feel sick even to think about that question in relation to this situation.
Who would ask this kind of question?

These are the kind of questions that seem to be coming from the extremist group trying to justify the actions. They are political not theological questions. These questions are tricks.

Does God think people are sinners who are murdered by a white supremisist with a gun and a film camera streaming his violence for all to see?

The question seems to make Jesus sick too when he responds:

‘No, I tell you’; says Jesus … can you hear the frustration in his tone of voice? ‘but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did."

Here in Luke’s gospel we hear Jesus talking with a group of people who seem to be trying to trick.

What does God think about the Christchurch massacre?
What does God think about the floods in Queensland?
Are the people who died being punished?
Who are these people Jesus is talking to?
Where do their questions come from?

I wonder if Jesus is speaking directly to the people who think that there is some kind of justification in violence. People who want to manipulate ideas about God into supporting their views. Jesus has to be careful – and he tells a story.

You know there was this vineyard which, like lots of vineyards, had a fig tree in it. The problem was that the fig tree did not bear any fruit. For three years the landowner waited to get some fruit from the tree, but there was nothing. So he told the farmer to cut down the tree... a pretty reasonable request, seeing that water and space were precious. But the farmer pleaded with the landowner. One more year he said. I’ll put some manure around the tree and tend to it and then see what happens. If it doesn’t bear fruit after that you can cut it down.

Why does Jesus respond to questions about God’s view of sensless killing with this story about the fig tree in the vineyard?

There are lots of stories in the bible which use the image of a vineyard.

In Isaiah 5:7 “For the vineyard of the Lord is the house of Israel and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting...”

Like with the fig tree in our story, things don’t always go well in God’s vineyard.

Joel laments: “the vine withers and the fig tree droops”.

As part of a conversation about local politics and natural disasters, Jesus tells this story about the fig tree in the vineyard. It’s clear isn’t it. Jesus is talking in symbols again: The vineyard is the nation of Israel, the people of God, the country of New Zealand, the state of Victoria, the church here in Canterbury. The vineyard is the Habitat of our living.

Just as the local newspapers report, there are parts of the vineyard which are not bearing fruit: this fig tree, people being exploited, the government is corrupt. A complex society. People have all sorts of opinions.

Should we race out and cut down our society?

No!! says the Jesus story!! No, let’s put some manure around our trees, let’s dig around them and give them one more year. Let’s give them time.

The farmer is pleading for time, and in this story we are invited to listen in on a debate between different ways we imaginge God to be.

It might even be that we are listening to hear the inner struggle within God’s own very being.

The owner of the vineyard and the gardener… The struggle between divine judgment and divine mercy.

Our God knows about paradox.

Our God knows about ambiguity. Our God wants us to be a nation without barren place, a church which bears much fruit and people live life in all its fullness.

The parable of the fig tree is about getting a second chance. The fig tree has failed its purpose. For three years, it has produced no fruit. But, thanks to the pleading of the gardener, it gets another chance. It seems to me that countries like New Zealand are giving refugees a second chance. As a global vineyard, we must not cut down and discard a group of people whose lives have been torn apart and have been unable to bear fruit, but give them time and space and nurture. A place to plant themselves and be given opportunity to grow.

I think at this point it’s helpful to be reminded of the words spoken the the gardens outside Al Noor mosque by imam Gamal Fouda this week at the memorial service for the massacare victims:

'Today, from the same place, I look out and I see the love and compassion in the eyes of thousands of fellow New Zealanders and human beings from across the globe that fill the hearts of millions more who are not with us physically, but in spirit.

This terrorist sought to tear our nation apart with an evil ideology that has torn the world apart. But instead, we have shown that New Zealand is unbreakable and that the world can see in us an example of love and unity. We are determined to love one another and to support each other. This evil ideology of white supremacy did not strike us first, yet it has struck us hardest. The number of people killed is not extraordinary but the solidarity in New Zealand is extraordinary. To the families of the victims, your loved ones did not die in vain. Their blood has watered the seeds of hope. Through them, the world will see the beauty of Islam and the beauty of our unity. Do not say of those who have been killed in the way of Allah that they are dead. They are alive! Rejoicing with their Lord. They were the best of us, taken from us on the best of days, in the best of places, and performing the best of actions. They are not just martyrs of Islam, but they are martyrs of this nation, New Zealand Our loss of you is a gain to New Zealand's unity and strength. Your departure is an awaking not just for our nation, but for all humanity'

What extordinary words of Grace… I find myself turning to Isaiah for comfort and consolation: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

Preaching at St Pauls

Friday, March 01, 2019
‘May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable to you O God, my strength and my redeemer’.

That’s a strange way to begin a speech to the Wesley College commencement service at St Paul's Cathedral which is where I shared this reflection on Monday night. It was a bit scary standing 2 meters above the congregation and looking out into a space holding 1000 people. I started by praying that my words are acceptable to God!!

I wonder what you people make of that. Well to start with, I wonder what comes to mind when I say the word God?

I imagine that for some God does not exist, just a conceptual figment of the naïve imagination; for others, the word reminds you of pictures of an old man with an outstretched finger sending blessings and curses from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. For some I imagine God is vast and beyond the institutions. The great Creator calling all things into being; or the universal energy of Love pulsating through and beyond.

The word God is such a tricky word. It means different things to different people. For me, God is not a Santa Claus type character who can grant or deny wishes, God is the one in whom we live and move and have our being. The source of all that is. The ground of being – not an old man in the clouds, but an energetic loving presence drawing all things into unity. Light in darkness, hope in despair, freedom in struggle, Love longing to live in the hearts of humanity so that we all discover profound joy in our living and peace at our core. We breath in and breath out and sense ourselves belonging in the more…

‘May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable to you O God…’

If I am praying that my words are acceptable to God, in tune with the ground of being, With all due respect, I’m not trying to make my words acceptable to the (Wesley college principle) Mr. Brenker or even to the Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral. I pray that my words are acceptable and in tune with this God, the source of all that is…

If I’m going to try and come up with words that are acceptable to God, I’m afraid I might end up offending some of you. I’m afraid we are all going to end up offended. I mean, who does Jesus think he is! We'd just read a passage from Matthew's gospel with Jesus telling a crowd of farmers a story about a gardener scattering seeds willy-nilly about the place and then basically telling them that they are all too stupid to understand the meaning of it.

‘You will indeed listen, but never understand,  and you will indeed look, but never perceive.’

This kind of thing might be acceptable to God, but it’s a bit rude don’t you think.

Jesus says: ‘People’s hearts have grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes…’

Sounds like Jesus is making a comment about people’s ability to tune into the presence of God. Perhaps our hearts have grown dull, and ears hard of hearing…

Perhaps we’ve lost the ability to see, like our indigenous peoples, the creator at work in all things.
Perhaps we’ve lost the ability to hear the primary call to love one another.
Perhaps we’ve stopped daring to believe the things rational minds think impossible and develop connection with the deep wisdom and understand with our hearts.

Sounds a bit like the moto of Wesley College which is all about daring – dare to be wise… and the vision to know, to do, to live with, to be, with innovation and wisdom.

Perhaps Jesus isn’t so much being offensive, but provocative.
Perhaps he is daring us not to close our ears to his message, but to know, to do, to live with to be, not with ignorance, but with innovation and wisdom.

‘Blessed are your eyes’, says Jesus, ‘for they see, and your ears, for they hear’.       

One day, Jesus sat beside a lake, and people gathered around to listen. He told stories about things going on in people’s daily lives. In Jesus’ day in ancient Palestine, and still today, the land is harsh. Those farming people knew about sewing seeds. Desperately hoping that some seed will fall on fertile soil and take root and grow. They knew: path, rocks, thorns & fertile ground. We hear about a gardener with a bag full of seeds walking around scattering the seeds to the left and to the right – just tossing them out and everywhere. Some of the seeds land on a path where they get eaten by birds – others fall on rocks, but when they try to grow they lack moisture, some fall in thorns and grow a little only to become strangled. Others fall in good soil and only those seeds grow into mature plants abundant with fruit.

What’s this all about?
What does this have to do with us?

Well, the parable is a metaphor of course. A story about something familiar in one context, that holds a message for us in another context.

I wonder, who is the sower?Is Jesus saying that God is like the sower, generously scattering seeds of possibility out into the world…

What are the seeds? What do they represent? Are the seeds messages, messages about how to dare to live well, how to know, to do, to live with, to be, with innovation and wisdom.

What do the four different environments represent: the path, the stones, the thorns and the fertile soil? How might schools foster the fertile ground in which the seeds of life may grow and flourish?

In education, we could imagine the classroom like the landscape and the teachers like the sower – the teacher has seeds to send out during a lesson, some seeds land well and students flourish, some miss the mark and students struggle, here thorns grow – over there fruit – and here a wild patch and there are flowers.

But that does not seem quite right.

Anyone with ears, says the teacher, listen!!

Well from my experience of the parents, I can hear people starting to say among themselves: 'we’re not sending our children to an expensive private school so that educational seeds can be randomly scattered in the hope that some land in the fertile young minds of our children and take root.

If I know anything about the teachers , I can hear them saying, we are not randomly scattering seed, we are carefully choosing which seeds to place where, how to water them with exactly the right combination of fertilizer and sun light according to the best educational practices to grow students who are well rounded, capable and ready for the world.

But the student’s I know and love might want to call out: Anyone with ears, listen!

There are sometimes when school feels like it’s an exposed open path and there are dark birds that come along and pluck up all the wise words; there are times when school feels like it’s full of rocky ground where we try to put down roots, but you just feel choked by all the expectations; there are times when school feels like it is full of thorns. You might be able to grow a bit, but then you’re squeezed out or squashed. Then there are other times when school does feel like a place of fertile soil, that teacher who really inspires you, that group of friends, those ideas, those opportunities… and you can put down roots and feel at home.

Some might want to argue that the whole school is fertile soil with its amazing facilities and state of the art technology and purple and gold pride. There is no random scattering of seeds. And that may be so. In any case.

I don’t think Jesus is imagining that the sower in the story is like teachers in a school and the different landscapes the students in a classroom.

The parable is painting a picture of God. God who is like a sower, who is not very economical in her farming techniques. She scatters seeds of love everywhere with generous abandon. The landscape is both exterior and interior. The contexts we inhabit and the inner landscape of our souls. Within every community and context, and within every human being; there are hard paths with birds that peck up the seeds, there rocky ground, and thorny places and within every context there is a place of fertile soil, where the seeds of God’s love can be nurtured grow. This puts me in mind of a story by Arnold Lobel about two good friends, Frog and Toad:

Frog was in his garden. Toad came walking by. “What a fine garden you have, Frog,” he said.
“Yes,” said Frog. “It is very nice, but it was hard work.”
“I wish I had a garden,” said Toad.
“Here are some flower seeds. Plant them in the ground,” said Frog, “and soon you will have a garden.”
“How soon?” asked Toad.
“Quite soon,” said Frog.
Toad ran home. He planted the flower seeds. “Now seeds,” said Toad, “start growing.”
Toad walked up and down a few times. The seeds did not start to grow.
Toad put his head close to the ground and said loudly, “Now seeds, start growing!”
The seeds did not start to grow.
Toad put his head very close to the ground and shouted, “NOW SEEDS, START GROWING!”
Frog came running up the path. “What is all this noise?” he asked.
“My seeds will not grow,” said Toad.
“You are shouting too much,” said Frog.
“These poor seeds are afraid to grow.”
“My seeds are afraid to grow?” asked Toad.
“Of course,” said Frog. “Leave them alone for a few days. Let the sun shine on them, let the rain fall on them. Soon your seeds will start to grow.”
That night Toad looked out of his window.
“Drat!” said Toad. “My seeds have not started to grow. They must be afraid of the dark.”
Toad went out to his garden with some candles. “I will read the seeds a story,” said Toad. “Then they will not be afraid.”
Toad read a long story to his seeds.
All the next day Toad sang songs to his seeds.
And all the next day Toad read poems to his seeds.
And all the next day Toad played music for his seeds.
Toad looked at the ground.
The seeds still did not start to grow. “What shall I do?” cried Toad.
“These must be the most frightened seeds in the whole world!”
Then Toad felt very tired, and he fell asleep.
“Toad, Toad, wake up,” said Frog. “Look at your garden!”
Toad looked at his garden. Little green plants were coming up out of the ground.
“At last,” shouted Toad, “my seeds have stopped being afraid to grow!”
“And now you will have a nice garden too,” said Frog.
“Yes,” said Toad, “but you were right. It was a very hard work.”

Schools can be a wonderful place of fertile soil, astonishing opportunities and rich resource, we can get tempted to think we have do do a lot of clever work to get the seeds to grow. We can end up a bit like Toad working day and night on our music practice, poetry reading and singing lessons to provide the perfect environment.

If there is one thing I have learnt as a parent and the proud mother of three accomplished young people, is that no mount of yelling will make the seeds grow the way I think or want them to.

Better to step back and trust, to trust that God – the ground of all being – is growing and emerging and becoming present and calling forth new life. New life for a new year. Amen.


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