Glynn Cardy, 9th July 2023
Today is the start of Matariki, a festive season, that we now mark with a public holiday next Friday. Matariki is named after the stars – what Europeans call the Pleiades – 7 sisters/goddesses (though there are many more than 7!) – stars who are among the nearest to earth.
The celebration of Matariki coincides with Winter Solstice which is the seasonal beginning for the New Year. Both Māori and European cultures share this time. Matariki, the passing of the old year and the welcome to the new, encapsulates many themes and practices.
It is a time to firstly remember, those who have helped and influenced us. Our dead. Our stars of the past who are ever-present.
Secondly, Matariki is a time of coming change. A turning of the seasons. And the coming of light. So, it’s a time to prepare, to get ready the ground for planting, a time to dream it then do it. It is a very appropriate time to have a baptism at church – a celebration of hope, of community, of belonging together.
And lastly, Matariki occurred at the end of the harvest season. So, it was a time of giving thanks for our whenua [the land] and Papatuanuku [our mother earth] who have sustained us, and to partake in the bounty of the same. It is therefore apt that we celebrate this thanksgiving with communion, a rite of connection we have with one another, with those who have gone before us, and our tupuna [ancestor] Jesus.
Today Kymani has been brought to be baptised. Baptism is one of those rituals in the church that has evolved over the centuries. Its origin was in communal bathing practices. Baptizo was the common everyday word for bathing. And we, let’s imagine we’re in the first century St Luke’s village, would come to bathe together in the public bath.
Such bathing removed the dirt of the day but also it came to mean for Jesus groups a symbolic washing away of the ‘dirt’ of hurts inflicted, grievances, and the mental and physical difficulties of living under the harsh conditions of poverty and brutal Roman occupation. Feelings of failure, anger, and resentment were washed away to the extent that people could carry on living and loving and caring for family, friends, and others, not just in the Jesus group but society at large. And the ‘dirt,’ so to speak, was not just removed by the water but more so by the fellowship and camaraderie of others in the big bath tub. We gave each other strength and a reminder that we belong together.
Baptism today is not theoretically that dissimilar from the earliest days. We celebrate that Kymani is loved by God, belongs in God, and has always belonged in God. This is the central truth the rite proclaims. We might think of God as like that big public bath – always there, always a place of refreshment, meeting, and communal healing. To be baptised, Kymani simply needs to crawl, step, or be gently taken into the bath, and thus to signify his belonging not only in God, but belonging in this fellowship and camaraderie of the bath. To be in the water is to become who you are – beloved of God, beloved of the Jesus community.
But in belonging to the community of this bath tub, and enjoying the fellowship and camaraderie, we also in time, as we grow up, take on the tasks of helping others – to support others, to help them with the ‘dirt’ of hurts, with the injuries that life throws our way. The love and freedom we experience in belonging is not experienced fully until given away – until we love others, free others, help others.
So welcome this morning Kymani to the community of the big bath tub.
The second reading today, about mustard seeds, is a very subversive parable. Mustard was the oxalis of the ancient world. A wind-blown weed. Once in your garden it was devilishly difficult to get out. It was a big nuisance. The parable tells us that god’s empire, unlike the big established Empire of Rome, is like a tiny wild mustard seed, disruptive of good gardens, a right pain and problem!
The metaphor is pointing to the practice of early Jesus groups who were on the edge of society, attractive to nuisances and nobodies, to the ‘weeds’ who didn’t fit or were rejected elsewhere. They were counter-cultural, small, growing in plain sight. And the ‘wind,’ the spirit of their god, caused Jesus groups to sprout all the over the place, and in inconvenient places.
From our earliest records they met together, maybe a dozen or more people, to sit down, relax, eat, drink, and talk together. A ‘supper club’ if you like. It was a meal of encouragement and of connection. This was the origin of our communion practice. And as I said earlier, the bathing practice these Jesus groups engaged in was the origin of the rite of Christian baptism.
Both of these happenings, supper clubs and communal bathing, did not have strict rules around who could participate. If someone new came along, or was brought along, of course they joined in the eating and the bathing. If children came or were brought along, of course they too joined in the eating and the bathing. This was a club more concerned about values of caring than boundaries of admission, about inclusion than rules.
But in time this all changed. The small weedy disruptive groups, peripheral to good order in the first two centuries CE, became by the 3rd and 4th centuries larger attractive and central to the order of society. With this change to what scholars call ‘Christendom’ came the formalization of eating together into Holy Communion, and the formalization of communal bathing into Holy Baptism. And with such formalization came boundaries and rules about who could partake, and the importance of having the right theological beliefs and right moral behaviours. Orthodoxy was all important.
Sometime in the late 20th century the wheels finally came off Christendom and Orthodoxy, although they still had and have momentum. Western churches had been declining throughout that century in numbers, money, and influence. The God with the capital ‘G’, the one who alleged has the ‘whole world in His (sic) hands’, now looked decidedly wobbly. More and more people did not see God as the creator of the universe (it evolved), or as the righteous moral judge of all (morality is not set or arbitrated by God), or as the controller of the gateway to heaven (there is no literal heaven).
Many faith communities gladly gave up notions of an all-powerful capital ‘G’ God and that god’s privileging of an all-powerful religion (the Christian Church), and began to put the values of love and justice at the centre of not only their behaviours but their beliefs. God was not the strong leader of armies and dominions, but the insistence of love and equity. Jesus came not to take control and make everyone believe in him, but to give of himself in loving, empowering, and serving.
And this change, a post-Christendom change, this heterodoxy, had consequences for our beliefs and practices around communion, baptism, and children. The season of the wild mustard seeds had come again. Children were no longer excluded from communion. The beliefs of a child’s parents no longer could exclude that child from baptism. A stranger to church, with no one knowing her or his faith or beliefs, could join in communion. What mattered was hospitality and inclusion. Hospitality and inclusion trump so-called right beliefs and right practices. Creeds were either relegated to history or were simply disbelieved. What mattered was the practice of love, the God whose best name was love, knowing we were each born to bear that image of God/of love, and the power of such love to bring joy and hope in our own and others’ lives.