Today is the eve of Waitangi Day – the day New Zealand chooses to celebrate its nationhood. Of course the day commemorates the signing of Te Tiriti O Waitangi between Governor Hobson, representing the Crown, and a number of Maori chiefs, predominately Nga Puhi. Representatives of various churches were also there in 1840, and it was missionaries who were largely the translators, both oral and written.
Te Tiriti is understood in Tai Tokerau [the North] as a taonga [a sacred treasure], more than just a legal treaty. And for a long time Pakeha have understood the treaty as a symbol, with some Pakeha then ignoring any obligations and responsibilities the treaty requires of future governments and settlers in this land.
As churchgoers we have a ‘high’ view of the word symbol. For example baptism is a symbol, as is communion. Symbols can have enduring power and meaning that call us as individuals and a community to be better than we thought possible; they can open our minds and hearts to new possibilities; and indeed they can be windows through which we can experience God more fully.
So while taking nothing away from the importance of the debates, struggles, and protests in many forms, over many generations, around race relations in this country, for me Waitangi symbolizes a journey – a good journey, but a hard journey. Waitangi symbolizes the difficulty of weaving cultures together, and broadening the mind-set and practices of common institutions [like government, like the church] so that all are valued and honoured.
Waitangi celebrates this good but hard road we are going down. It does not symbolize that we have arrived. It does not symbolize that we have got everything all worked out, all past grievances settled, and no institutional racism. No, the challenges are still big, huge. But Waitangi celebrates that we are on the road, and it’s good to be on the road.
From time to time leaders in our country try to tell us about the end of the road – where we are headed. They paint a vision. And that is sort of okay. But in the church we know that we don’t know the specifics of the end of the road. We might have some targets [this hill, or that horizon], but we are more like those Epiphany astrologers in Matthew 2 who follow stars [guiding lights/values] – like compassion to all, generosity to strangers, caring for the least, loving mutual relations. And following those values, who knows where we will end up?
Our first reading tells of the call to Abram in his 75th year. Note conversion and call can happen at any age!! Abram was overwhelmed by a divine insistence to leave all that was certain - his land, kin, Gods, and ways of worship – and journey into the unknown.
Fulfilment would come from being open to the divine insistence, although, as Genesis shows, it is difficult to say what that ‘divine’ meant or looked like. The divine did not reveal itself in lucid apparitions or clearly defined doctrines. Faith was not easy or life-enhancing. There was no strategic plan, or map. The plan was simply to go.
Some people speak of faith as though it were a matter of keeping true to the received texts, doctrines and sureties of the past. They call this ‘orthodox faith’. It is about following the maps of the past. But for Abram it was a radical break with the past, with comfort and certainty.
Abram left not only his homeland far behind but also his Gods. When he arrived in Canaan, the land of the Promise, he did not bring a Mesopotamian cult with him, nor did he attempt to impose the faith of his ancestors upon his new Canaanite neighbours. Once he arrived he seemed to worship the local high God, El. Continually on the move, Abram encountered El at the traditional sacred sites of Canaan: the land had to reveal its own peculiar sanctity to Abram, and he had to respect this alien piety.
In a similar way our forebears brought European Christianity to this land, but that Christianity had to open itself to the fact that the God of Jesus was already here, and the church had to discover, and continues having to discover, what faith and God means here in Aotearoa New Zealand.
The authors of Genesis do not show Abraham evolving a theology, a set of beliefs. Rather they show him responding to events and experiencing the Divine in a way that broke down old certainties and expectations.[i]
I find Abraham a very appealing character. On the one hand he’s a mess. He was a terrible father and a terrible husband. He was deceitful, indecisive, and given to self-pity. Genesis doesn’t disguise these uncomfortable truths [or give us ‘alternative facts’]. Yet, on the other hand, and the reason that three world religions honour him, is that he had immense courage. He stood up to and argued with an unknown God who he believed could smite him in an instance. He followed the urging of that God into the alien beyond, and saw little reward for that in his lifetime. He opened his mind and heart, at age 75, to the risk of the unknown and uncertain, and got up and went.
We now live in an age when the old certainties about our Christian God no longer hold. We are post-Galileo, post-Isaac Newton, and post-Einstein people. We cannot think about God in the same way that previous generations have done. The image of God as an external fatherly being, equipped with supernatural power and ready to come to our aid is simply no longer convincing. People in America did little more than laugh when evangelist Pat Robertson explained why God had not stopped the terrorist attack on 9/11. ‘It was to punish us,’ Pat said, ‘for making abortion legal, for tolerating feminism and for recognizing homosexuality as part of a person’s being.’
While pedalling fear needs the corrective of laughter, Robertson’s premise that some almighty God decides who gets killed and who doesn’t, and who is right and who is wrong, is what most find unconvincing. If God is boxed into being a human-like, omnipotent judge, merely the projection of our collective experience and prejudices, then worship is in danger of being collective self-worship rather than opening one’s heart and mind to the uncontainable.
We now live too in an age when the old certainties about church no longer hold. For a long time churches have been like clubs – collections of people who hold values in common, provide benefits for members, and seek to attract recruits. We’ve been homely, kind, and comforting to all who venture in.
At its best however, the church symbolizes that everyone in the geographical community belongs, whether they come in through our doors or not. The church matters not for itself, not for its paid-up members, but for what says about everyone mattering. So St Luke’s is here not just for its members, not just for Presbyterians, not just for Christians, but for everyone, because everyone matters to God.
Yet Abraham’s story continues to challenge our story. Maybe the sacred sites aren’t just churches? Maybe the sacred truths aren’t just what religions proclaim? Maybe holiness is out and about, unconstrained and untamed, wanting to meet us when we have the courage/faith to venture?
Our second reading comes from Matthew’s Gospel and encourages us to be salt and light. I want us to think for a moment about the former, salt. It is an interesting metaphor. In the days before refrigeration, in climates prohibitive of winter growth, the preservative salt was basic to survival. It seems in our text that followers of Jesus are being encouraged to think of themselves as being salt in a community, preserving the goodness and bounty of that community’s labour, and then allowing themselves to be eaten so the community can survive and flourish. It is a metaphor of self-giving service, rather than building up the salt business. It is about finding meaning, truth, and God in the interactions, not in some pure holy society set apart.
God resists being boxed. When we think we understand God, all we understand is the paucity of our knowledge. When we think we have God on our side, all we are proclaiming are our presumptions. When we think others do not know God, we are presuming that we do. It is better to listen, to be receptive, and to allow ourselves to recognize grace in whatever forms it comes. This is the nature of prayer.
Last Sunday I talked about prayer, and gave one definition. Here’s another: To pray is to open one’s heart and mind to all that is sacred and holy, both inside and outside church. It’s more about listening than talking, more about being receptive than being knowledgeable, and more about recognizing grace than doing good deeds. For the God-of-Jesus is incarnated and can be discovered in all sorts of surprising places, within and without the fences we construct.
So as we continue along the road symbolized by Waitangi, a road of hope and redress, a road of togetherness, celebration, and pain, let us like Abram open our hearts and minds to both God and the Gods of others, having the courage to risk and venture; and let us like the communities of Matthew’s gospel try to be salt – flavouring and preserving – for all who journey on that Waitangi road as we seek to be true to our values of compassion to all, generosity to strangers, caring for the least, and loving mutual relationships.
[i] Karen Armstrong In The Beginning: A new reading of the Book of Genesis, p.54-55.