Tena koutou te whanau…
Today we celebrate Matariki – the end of one year and the beginning of another.
It is traditional to begin Matariki by honouring our dead. E nga mate, haere, haere, haere ki te po. [To our dead farewell, farewell, farewell to the night]. And in the night sky they will shine. They are our stars – offering guidance, some light, and much beauty and mystery.
So we begin our service today honouring one of our dead, Vincent Van Gogh, with Don McLean’s track Starry Night referring to one of his paintings. Vincent was highly creative, misunderstood, brilliant, and familiar with suffering… leaving us with a legacy of beauty. Let us honour him and all our tupuna – the great and not so great, those who suffered, and those who were difficult, and those who knew great love and shared it freely. E nga mate, haere, haere, haere ki te po. You are our stars.
The celebration of Matariki coincides with Winter Solstice [June 21st] which is the seasonal beginning for the European New Year. Both Maori and European cultures share this time.
Matariki occurred at the end of the harvest season – and for us the end of Lockdown distancing. It was a time of giving thanks for our whenua [the land] and Papatuanuku [mother earth] which have sustained us. This thanksgiving was marked by pleasurable pastimes – like games and feasting. For us right now it is about giving thanks that we have (compared with most other countries) been well-lead, had few deaths; and are now able to be back together
It is also a time of change - a time to prepare, a time of action, a time of planting [without seeing the results], a time of new beginnings, a time of lighting a small candle of light in the darkness of winter.
The stars - Pleiades (Ply-aid-dees) – 7 sisters/goddesses – among the nearest to earth
Name came from Ancient Greece – the start of the sailing season when Pleiades could be seen. The poet Hesiod advised mariners to stay on land when the Pleiades disappeared from view and their guidance was lost.
They are also mentioned three times in the Bible. Amos 5:8; Job 9:9; and Job 38:31.
Who are our stars? Who do we look up to? How do they guide us?
The Hebrew Scripture reading today, the story of Moses being commissioned by the divine light (the star?) of the burning bush to change the direction of his life. This divine light introduced itself as the deity of Moses’ forebears. But Moses wasn’t content with that introduction – for good reason. His forbears followed different deities (as the language in the Hebrew text points to - YHWH, Elohim, El Shaddai, etc.) Each god had with their particular biases and attributes. So Moses asked again and got another answer “I am who I am”, or better “I will be who I will be”. It’s a name based on the verb “to be”. And it would be a travelling, active, and changing god Moses would end up following.
But there is a back story to Genesis 3. Moses was in Midian trying his best to fit in, and trying his best to lose the Egyptian accent that people had remarked on when he first landed in Midian (Exodus 2:18-19).
It was an accent worth losing. First, it was a lie: he wasn’t Egyptian. He’d been a Hebrew child raised like a shameful secret in the heart of the Egyptian court. Second, it provided a clue to his past misdeeds. The child became a man back in Egypt. His identity crisis sharpened and caused him to snap. He’d killed an Egyptian overseer who was beating a Hebrew slave and thus became a fugitive from Egyptian justice.
But Moses dodged the murder charge. He walked the width of the desert and crossed the border into Midian. He married the daughter of a prominent local family and began to work on his prosperity. He wanted to ‘fit in’.
Did he have nightmares? Did the ghosts of Egypt haunt his sleep? Maybe. This Sunday’s reading shows Moses following the flocks as he would have done seasonally - a perfectly ordinary Midianite shepherd on a perfectly regular day with only the barest trace of an accent. Everything is on the ‘fit in’ track.
The recipe for what Moses needed to do next is exactly what immigrants try to do when they reach a new land. He needs to keep his eyes forward and focuses, work hard, and try to get ahead. When you’re a foreigner, and your past is a bit shady, you stick to the straight and narrow. One foot goes in front of the other. Direct those fat sheep to market down the straight path. That’s all. Nothing else.
But that's not how our story ends, is it? Moses’ eyes stray. Something appears in his peripheral vision. And maybe this ‘vision’ is the insight that our imagination can bring.
The commissioning of Moses and the whole story of the Exodus doesn’t begin with the divine words from the burning bush. It begins a few lines earlier when Moses, still comfortably at the tail end of Jethro’s flocks and with everything to gain by staying the course, says to himself:
"I must turn aside and look at this great sight,
and see why the bush is not burned up."
Curiosity may kill the cat (that’s why they have 9 lives) but it also ushers in new epochs in history. From one cover of our Bible to the other, and throughout the history of the Church, the deity who delights in serendipity upsets the settled and recommended paths of prophets, patriarchs, and disciples. Rather than seeing one’s predilection to being distracted as a liability, maybe we need to reconfigure distraction as a strength. Call it ‘peripheral vision’; or ‘shifting one’s gaze’; or ‘day dreaming’ (occupational hazard for a shepherd I would have thought)… or call it ‘faith’. Whatever. A bush called to him and he forgot the sheep and he wandered off track. And he became one of our stars of faith to guide to us.
Then the talking bonfire of a bush told Moses to take off his shoes. Anyone with children and a Health and Safety manual knows that this is not a good idea. Sparks and cinders hurt. The ‘shoes off’ command is about making oneself a wee bit vulnerable when in the presence of the divine.
We are familiar in Aotearoa with the instruction to take one’s shoes off before entering a whare nui (meeting house).
The courtyard [marae atea] outside the whare was said to be the domain of Tu, the god of war, and dust and dirt from Tu’s domain should not be brought into the whare nui, the domain of Rongo, the god of peace.
Like in a medieval church where you had to leave your sword and shield at the door, so too you leave your shoes outside so that you can commune with others in this sacred space, to sit, talk and make peace. The writer of Ecclesiastes wrote ‘there is a time for war and a time for peace’. What the writer didn’t add was there are a lot of problems when violence crosses that boundary [as it so often does].
The whare nui is also called the whare tupuna [ancestral house]. Taking your shoes off is also a sign of respect to your tupuna. When you enter you are inside the body of your ancestors.
So on the one hand removing shoes is practical advice about trekking in mud and dirt. On the other hand it is about tapu (holiness) for a whare nui is symbolically a body made up of the ancestors. To enter a sacred space some physical act like bowing or genuflection, or putting on or off clothing/footwear, orientates the mind and heart to the hallowedness of what might be encountered.
I think it is helpful to consider a church building, a place of worship, like this space, in a similar manner. This is a whare of peace. It is a place different from what’s outside the door. It’s a place of kindness and gentleness and healing. For this house is also the body of our tupuna Jesus, the body tapu; and the body of our ‘saints’ (some of whom are pictorially represented): and our behaviour towards one another and towards guests should reflect our respect for Jesus and our other ancestors. Those of us who feel they belong to this place are kaitiaki [guardians] of the mana and ethos of this whare.
That ethos is very simple: hospitality, kindness, and compassion. Hospitality means to make room and be that room for others – a space, a place, smiles, food, empathy, and engagement. Together we weave a culture of kindness and encouragement, not for our own benefit (although we are indeed beneficiaries), but for the beneficence of others – particularly those beaten down by the injustices of bad decisions, bad behaviour, and bad luck. And so our mantra, strategy, and theology is compassion, compassion, compassion.
This house is also a place of dreaming; and Matariki is the time for dreaming.
Most years on December 31st I’ve struggled to stay awake to see the new year in, and then marked the occasion with a wee dram and shortbread [not sure how those two fit together!]. There’s also been the New Year resolution thing. If social media is any guide there seems to be little thought given to New Year resolutions – they are a form of wishful thinking done in the hours, or minutes, beforehand.
Matariki, on the other hand, offers us a different metaphor for thinking about resolutions. It offers the metaphor of planting – taking a seed from the fields and forests of hospitality, kindness, and compassion, putting it in the right sort of prepared ground, watering and fertilizing it, maybe staking it later when it grows, and keeping it safe from hungry insects. In other words we undertake actions now that will in time, with the right care, bring results. But the results aren’t instantaneous, and will take much work and attention.
In this house of our tupuna Jesus we are encouraged to do this sort of dreaming. Indeed this sort of dreaming is a prayer. We dream of ‘God’s kingdom/queerdom come’ – not in an end-of-time drop-from-the-skies apocalypse – but something that we plant, tend, and help bring to fruition.
The scripture reading today from Matthew 6 asks us: ‘Why do we worry?’ It is usually because we are afraid. We are afraid of insecurity and loss and pain and others’ criticisms. Matthew tells us to set aside our fears [park them in the garage], trust that they will be resolved in time, and dream/plant the coming of God’s reign – prepare the ground and plant the seeds of it in your own life and places where you have some influence.
One way to express joy at Matariki is to engage in Nga-Mahi-a-te-Rehia, the "arts of pleasure”, namely singing, dancing, weaving, carving, problem-solving, story-telling, feasting, and game playing. During this period of joyful abundance tribes throughout Aotearoa, without exception, historically placed their greatest emphasis on kite flying. As a community we sing, pray, think, care, help, eat, seek, and make. It’s probably ‘making’ that many of us do the least of.
When did you last make a kite? Kites are a form of joy that encourages our dreams. The wind, seemingly miraculously, catches the kite and lifts it into the heavens. There, with some help from us, it stays bobbing and weaving and soaring. Kites are a symbol of the connection between our grounded selves and the mysterious beyond.
Jesus came to be called by the community of John: ‘the light of the world’. Dreaming in the body of our tupuna Jesus resonates too with the Matariki theme of light – the light given us by our ancestors in the past, the light of the guiding stars. It is our responsibility to be bearers of light in our time, and to pass it on to those who would follow. As Matthew said in our first reading today: ‘Let your light shine before others’.
At this Matariki season we may ask: Where is the light leading us? Can we turn aside, go off-track like Moses did, follow our curiosity to something new and something that would be demanding? There is an old proverb: the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, the second best time is now. What will we resolve to do this New Year ahead?