From the Vicar

Sunday 14 April

You may have seen that this past week most of North America was engrossed in the passage of a total solar eclipse across the continent.  Close to a once-in-a-lifetime event (the last one for New Zealand was in 1965, our next in 2028) solar eclipses happen because of what NASA calls a “cosmic coincidence”.  Though the Sun is about 400 times bigger than the Moon, it is also about 400 times farther away.  This makes the Sun and Moon appear almost exactly the same size in our sky, meaning that in the right circumstances the Moon can cover the Sun.

In America celebrations for the eclipse abounded, especially along “the path of totality” - those places that would experience a total eclipse where the Moon completely blocks out the Sun and darkness falls.  In New York state a retired High School science teacher fulfilled a 46-year-old promise when he held a viewing party for former students that he had first mentioned in 1978.  An American journalist wrote of travelling to his daughter’s college in Ohio to join an eclipse viewing party held on the school’s football field (the party’s unofficial motto, “eat the sun”).  When the moment of total eclipse arrived, complete darkness fell for 3 minutes: students cheered and then fell silent, someone yelled out “TOTALITY”, people nervously laughed at the incomprehensibility of it all and then cheered once more when light returned.  The journalist concluded, “We marveled at this cosmic event so singular that everyone, even professors, even bosses, agreed that you should just stop everything and look at the sky for a while.”

This experience of communal wonder was typical of many people’s comments about the eclipse.  That and a sense of awe.  One writer posted online about her feeling of powerlessness in the face of a moment unlike any other.  Such accounts reminded me of the words of another American, the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson:

If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown!  But every night come out these envoys of beauty, and light the universe with their admonishing smile.

The book of Romans tells us that, since creation, God’s eternal power and divine nature have been seen through the things he has made (Rom 1:20).  Meanwhile the Psalms say that the heavens tell of the glory of God, the skies proclaim the work of his hands (Psalm 19:1).  Wonder and awe, then, seem to be the correct response.  Maybe it’s not such a cosmic coincidence after all. 

Sunday 7 April

In the Anglican Church we have to be careful about what we do each week; do something too many times and it will become a tradition!  This past week The Times carried the story of an English Parish whose Easter procession always includes a dramatic moment when the priest will throw himself to the ground, prostrate before the cross.  The practice was first adopted after a former vicar saw it while on holiday in Sicily and, finding himself moved by the moment, decided to start doing the same.  Some years later he returned to the same church in Sicily, only to find that they had no such tradition.  It turns out that the Italian priest had simply tripped during his previous visit!  By that point the tradition was so ingrained in his own parish that every subsequent incumbent has been compelled to throw themselves to the ground in what might be called “the Sicilian manner”.

Tradition aside there are reasons for much of what we do in our worship, including the habit of meeting together each week and celebrating festivals such as Easter and Christmas.  One simple reason is so that God can teach us again about his love and what he does for us.  Sometimes we need the reminder.  Amidst all the activity of life, as we hurry from one thing to another, it can be easy to start to feel distant from God and the practice of worship helps bring us back into his presence.  It also helps us when we have questions.  There is nothing wrong with asking questions about faith or God, as the writer Philip Yancey says, “Doubt always coexists with faith, for in the presence of certainty who would need faith at all?”  Indeed God will often use our questions as a way of drawing us closer to him.  But it does require that we be willing to persist with him even in the presence of doubt. 

We see a good example of this in this morning’s Gospel reading about “doubting Thomas”.  Thomas, despite his doubts, despite his initial unbelief in the other disciples’ report of having seen the risen Jesus, doesn’t walk away.  Instead he persists even as he questions, continuing to meet with the other disciples in prayer.  He was in a sense a “faithful-doubter”.  And because Thomas persisted, even while holding doubts, he was able to encounter the risen Jesus.  Encouragingly, Jesus does not condemn Thomas for his doubts but instead invites him to explore the very things that he is questioning.  Jesus is not threatened by our questions, is not worried by our doubts.  What would be worrying is if we think that having doubts means we should give up or look somewhere else.  For then we miss the chance for God to meet us in our doubting.  God can cope with us wrestling with questions, as long as we keep wrestling with him at the same time.

Easter Day

Today is no ordinary day.  We are not just gathered for another Sunday, or  public holiday nor even for a special church anniversary.  No, today we celebrate and remember the event on which all history turns, the moment when the world - and our lives - were changed forever.  For today is the day of Resurrection.

The British philosopher C.E.M. Joad, a contemporary of George Bernard Shaw and Bertrand Russell (and in his time as famous as both), was once on a radio program where he was asked what person from history he would most like to meet and what would he ask them.  Joad, who was known to be a dedicated agnostic, replied that he would most like to meet Jesus and to ask him one question: “Did you or did you not rise from the dead?”  This, Joad said, was the most important question in the world.  For if Jesus is risen from the dead, it changes everything.  Towards the end of his life Joad, after years of arguing and exploring, found the answer to this most important question and, as he set out in his book Recovery of Belief, came to believe in the risen Jesus who changes everything.

This Easter Day we declare, as the Church has throughout history, that Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed!  There is no truth more world-upending, no knowledge more universe-shaping than to know that Jesus, who was crucified and died, rose from the dead.  And when we say that Jesus rose from the dead that is precisely what we mean; the Resurrection is not a metaphor, not a fable we tell so that the story of Jesus has a nice ending.  It is an actual event of history, and a present reality today.  

As a result the Resurrection is not just what we believe, it is why we believe.  For God has shown that nothing, not even death, can hold us back from knowing Him, knowing his love or knowing the new life that he brings.  It doesn’t matter our past, our failures, mistakes, or wrongs; it doesn’t matter what we carry, the pain, hurt, fears or burdens; whatever it is, God has made a way from you to him.  That way is Jesus, and Jesus is alive!  We too can know the power of Christ’s resurrection when we put our faith in him.

So today we celebrate with joy and thankfulness for all that God has done.  But the Good News of Christ’s resurrection is not just for Easter.  The story does not end there.  The life-transforming truth of Jesus risen from the dead is a daily promise and a daily call.  Well after all the hot cross buns and Easter eggs have been consumed, we should still know the joy of this morning’s cry, “Christ is risen!

He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Palm Sunday

The late Welsh minister David Martyn Lloyd-Jones would make the point that the Gospel is called the Good News, not the good advice.  The difference is that advice tells us about something we can do but which hasn’t yet happened, whereas news is a report of something that has already happened.  It has already been done and we can’t do anything about it; all we can do is respond.  Lloyd-Jones imagines a king going out to fight an invading army, if the battle goes poorly the king might send a message back to the capital urgently advising it to attend to the defences of the city.  If, however, the king wins the battle he sends back messengers with news of his victory over the enemy: 

It has been defeated! It’s all been done! Therefore respond with joy and now go about your lives. Conduct your lives in this peace which has been achieved for you.

The Good News of Jesus is just that: news of what Jesus has already done for us.  It’s not advice on how to live a really good life so that God will let us into heaven (which is just as well, for we would never make it).  No the Gospel is the news that Jesus has won the victory for us: the victory over our failures, wrongs, brokenness and sin.  It is the news of his victory over even death!  

In Holy Week we get to see just what it is that Christ has done for us.  Through our readings and services we get to follow Jesus along the road of our salvation.  We watch as he does what we cannot and we see what it costs him.  Because it does cost Jesus.  The Good News of our liberation comes at the price of his own life.  Sometimes in our modern, western, 21st-century world we are tempted to shy away from this part of the Gospel.  Terms like execution and sacrifice can seem too savage for enlightened people.  But that is how our rescuing was done, that is how the victory was won.  

This week I invite you to follow Jesus along the road to Calvary.  One way that you might do this is by picking up from this Sunday’s Gospel reading in John chapter 12 (Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem) and then reading on so that by Friday you reach chapter 18 with Jesus’ arrest and trial.  Alternatively, you may wish to follow other readings or to journey with Christ in prayer.  But however you do it, let us hear again about the incredible work that Jesus does for us. 

Sunday 17 March

As usual the year is advancing swiftly and we seem to be barrelling through Lent.  If this leaves you feeling a little caught short I shouldn’t be surprised.  The pace of modern life is not always conducive to the intent of Lent, which is supposed to be a season for reflection and refocusing when we are invited to prepare for Easter by taking up (or putting down) some practices as a way of renewing our faith and relationship with God.  But lest we think that this all just some great performance of religious devotion, let us remember that at its simplest Lent is an invitation to lift our focus from the busyness of life and look to Jesus.

Such an invitation would have meant a lot to Charles Spurgeon.  Spurgeon was a famous 19th-century Baptist minister and for 38 years the pastor of the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London.  In his time there he established almshouses and funds for the care of the poor, set up an orphanage and even established a theological college.  But he was best known for his powerful and thoughtful sermons.  Called the “Prince of Preachers”, to this day his writings remain popular among Christians and preachers.  Yet it was the most modest of preachers that had the greatest impact on his own life.

One Sunday morning in the middle of winter, a 15 year old Spurgeon was diverted by a snowstorm to take shelter in a modest Methodist chapel.  There he listened with the small congregation to a reading from Isaiah 45:22, “Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth.”  The usual minister had not been able to get to the church due to the snowstorm so one of the congregation took it upon himself to get up and preach.  In a rather ‘homespun’ manner the man focused on the words “look unto me” and exhorted the congregation to do the same, eventually pointing at Spurgeon and saying, “Young man, look to Jesus Christ! Look! Look! Look!”  Spurgeon’s heart responded immediately:

I had been waiting to do fifty things, but when I heard that word—‘Look!’—what a charming word it seemed to me. … There and then the cloud was gone, the darkness had rolled away, and that moment I saw the sun.  And I could have risen that instant, and sung with the most enthusiastic of them, of the precious blood of Christ, and the simple faith which looks alone to Him.  Oh, that somebody had told me this before, ‘Trust Christ, and you shall be saved.’ 

As we draw closer to Holy Week and the events of our salvation, let’s take up the invitation one issued to Charles Spurgeon and look, look to Jesus!

Sunday 10 March

Now that we are more than halfway through Lent our Sunday readings are increasingly focusing on the path before Jesus: on the road to Good Friday and the Cross.  As with this Sunday’s gospel reading, where he says “just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up”, Jesus is speaking more and more about his death.  This isn’t just foreshadowing, for what Jesus makes clear is that the death that lies before him is in fact his intended destination, his purpose, his secret ambition.  Jesus will not be crucified because the crowds turn against him (though they do), nor because the Roman government wants rid of a potential threat or troublemaker (though it might); Jesus will be crucified because this was God’s intention from the beginning, his plan to rescue a broken and helpless humanity.

So powerful are the events of Good Friday and Easter that, in a strange way, they can become almost too familiar and in our familiarity we can miss all that we are meant to see.  There are of course profound truths of liberation, forgiveness and redemption in Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection.  There is also a singular and unmatched representation of love.  As this Sunday’s gospel reading also says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…”.  For God so loved you that Jesus willingly walked the road to the Cross.

The late Catholic priest and author Henri Nouwen spent much of his later writings emphasising our identity as people who are loved, people who are the Beloved of God.  He wrote:

We are the Beloved. We are intimately loved long before our parents, teachers, spouses, children and friends loved or wounded us. That’s the truth of our lives.

If you have ever wondered how God sees you, what He thinks of you, what his attitude towards you is, then let Jesus’ willing determination to go to the Cross for you provide the answer.  God’s love for you is so great, his compassion for you so unfailing, his desires for your future so good that He held back nothing.  Not even his own Son.  As Good Friday draws closer and the pain and suffering of the Cross draws into view, let us remember that all that Jesus does is done out of love for us.  As Henri Nouwen wrote, you are the Beloved to God.

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Christmas 2023

When writing about the very first Christmas C.S. Lewis once compared it to the turning of the ocean tide - that moment when the waters stop receding, pause and gather their strength to return.  He pictures a great stillness spreading from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, Rome, Carthage, the Nile and out into the cosmos as all creation waits in anticipation of a momentous change.  And then, with the birth of Jesus, the tide begins to rush in again: galaxies begin to tingle, constellations are shaken, heaven dances, life returns - but this time new and different, “a shiver of re-birth and deliverance on the Earth went gliding; her bonds were released.”  Meanwhile, in a stable, a child cries and cattle begin to stir.

Lewis’s poem expresses his conviction that the birth of Jesus is the decisive moment in history, the turning point of all time when every particle of matter, every moment of time is reshaped and reformed.  From that baby’s first cry, nothing will ever be the same again.

Can the birth of one child really be of such importance?  Does all of history really hang on a small stable in a forgotten corner of a long-lost empire?  As Christians we declare most unequivocally yes.  For at Bethlehem God himself enters his creation, and something new, dramatic and eternal takes place.   Now there is light in the midst of darkness.  Hope, in the place of futility.  New life instead of the finality of death.  We are not alone.  God is with us.  This is not legend or myth: it is our past, present and future.  

Do we ever fully understand what it means that, in Jesus, God came to be with us?  Almost certainly not.  But we can begin to recognise that, by coming to us in Jesus, God has crossed the divide between humanity and the divine.  We can know God because he came to us at the first Christmas and because, through Jesus, he will come to be with us again - if we are willing to ask.   

This week we celebrate the event on which all the history of our world turns.  We celebrate the day that God chose to come to be with us as one of us, so that in his love he might change our futures forever.  As we do so I pray that you would all know the joy and blessing of Christ come to be with you.  And I wish you a very Merry Christmas! 

Sunday 8 October

I have spent most of this week exclaiming, “I can’t believe it’s October already!”  In truth, I’m still getting used to it being 2023.  I suspect my surprise at the advance of the calendar is only going to increase as the year progresses towards an end, though hopefully by New Year’s I will be ready for 2024.  But realising the year is marching on only reminds me of all the things that are still yet to be done.  Where has the time gone!

When the poet John Milton (he of Paradise Lost) began to go blind in his middle age, he composed a sonnet pondering its implications.  Milton mused,  “When I consider how my light is spent…” and wondered if he would be able to give a true account for how he had used the talent he had been given.  He also worried that the loss of his sight meant that he, a prolific writer and campaigner, would have nothing more to offer.

Such is the temptation to mark our time by what we produce or achieve.  One of the things that our culture values most is productivity.  Politicians debate how to increase it, self-help books teach how we ourselves can be more productive.  I well remember working as a lawyer and recording my time in six-minute increments.  Time could be recorded as billable or non-billable but you can easily guess which category law firms preferred.  A timesheet filled with billable time gave a sense of achievement, one made up of non-billable time would usually be a cause for worry.  In fairness, it is right for employers to expect workers to use their work time productively.  But should that be the measure of how our light is spent? 

Jesus teaches that we are to be faithful, and as the Parable of the Talents showed this includes using the gifts that God gives us.  Yet he does not teach that achievement should be the measure of our faith.  When he visits two sisters it is not Martha, rushing around to get things done, but rather Mary, sitting at his feet, whom Jesus commends as having chosen the “better part”.  

In his sonnet, Milton finds that patience reminds him that, as a King, God doesn’t need our gifts.  Sometimes it is enough to “bear his mild yoke” in faithful obedience, whatever that yoke may be.  There may be those who can rush to and fro, doing many marvellous things.  But, Milton concludes, “They also serve who only stand and wait.”

Sunday 1 October

The forecast for this weekend and the following week has not been encouraging.  I feel particularly for parents, faced with the risk of another storm (or at least more rain) keeping restless kids inside just as the school holidays get underway.  Yet, while the temptation is to grumble about more bad weather, I am reminded of the example of some of you, who choose not to moan when it pours but instead be grateful for what we get whether it be sunshine or rain.

George Buttrick was a 19th century American preacher (he led New York’s Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church) and a professor of Harvard University.  He once gave the example of a lecturer speaking to a group of businessmen who held up a large sheet of paper with a single ink blot on it.  The lecturer asked the group what they saw.  They all answered, “a blot”.  While acknowledging that the question was in some ways unfair, the lecturer asked why they did not see a piece of paper - only a small part of which was stained by a blot.  Buttrick went on to write:

There is an ingratitude in human nature by which we notice the black disfigurement and forget the widespread mercy. We need to deliberately call to mind the joys of our journey. Perhaps we should try to write down the blessings of one day. We might begin: we could never end: there are not pens or paper enough in all the world. The attempt would remind us of our “vast treasure of content”.

In seasons like Lent (or indeed at any point in the year) we may focus on various spiritual disciplines like prayer, fasting, good works or study of the Scriptures.  Such rhythms of grace are important to our faith.  But let’s not forget that gratitude or thankfulness is a spiritual discipline as well.  So from time to time we might perhaps want to take a leaf from Buttrick’s book and try writing down all the blessings of the day.  After all, as Psalm 107 tells us, “Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever!"

Sunday 10 September

In Shakespeare’s telling of the life of Henry V, he imagines the King rallying his troops on the morning of the Battle of Agincourt with a rousing speech.  Outnumbered by the facing French forces, Henry tells the soldiers that their deeds that day will be remembered, “to the ending of the world”.  But the King’s principal appeal is not to glory but to brotherhood:

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;

For he today that sheds his blood with me

Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,

This day shall gentle his condition…

Like so many of Shakespeare’s words, the speech and its “band of brothers” has lived on.  In the midst of the Second World War Laurence Olivier read it aloud on the radio to boost British morale.  It was quoted by Admiral Nelson prior to the Battle of the Nile, gave name to a popular miniseries and has even been used as a motivational tool for lawyers.  What is it that resonates so strongly?  There is of course the idea of fighting against overwhelming odds.  But more than that is the sense of doing so as part of a band, a team, a fellowship.  Shakespeare expresses not so much our desire for victory as our longing to belong, to be part of a community.

The British journalist Juliet Samuel recently wrote that there are almost no places of real community left; that is, places where people will gather together on a regular basis to be with one another.  Instead, she noted, we increasingly spend our time in non-places, “transient spaces such as hotel lobbies, shopping centres and motorways, where humans are alone and anonymous”.  Even in the home the hearth, around which a family would gather, has been replaced by individual screens.  Attempts to create communities online often devolve into fights about bad driving or noisy dogs.  All of this, Samuel says, has diminished us.

So it should be with confidence that we affirm what we do this morning, as on every Sunday morning: gathering together as the Body of Christ, in communion (or community) with one another and with God.  Here we are a part of something, here we have a place to belong.

Sunday 27 August

It’s perhaps an inevitable consequence of life in a western economy but most of us will, I suspect, be somewhat dubious about the bold claims that advertisements make for their products.  Will buying this shampoo truly give you a spring in your step, will owning this car really release you into a life of adventure?  Probably not.  The best we can hope for is that a product is reliable and will do what it says it will do, and even that is not always a certainty.  A certain cynicism towards the claims of marketers and ad men might be considered sensible, if not inevitable.

Some years ago, however, a British journalist with the rather wonderful name of Peregrine Worsthorne contended that adverts provide a more accurate picture of the world than the news.  His argument was this:

Advertisements suggest that aeroplanes take off and land safely and almost all of them do; that butter tastes nice, which on the whole it does; and that soap, correctly used, will wash the user, as is certainly the case… News stories tell us only of aircraft which crash, packets of butter that have unfortunately been adulterated with a deadly poison and wiped out whole families, and soap which by some unfortunate mischance turns the user’s face black.

When one considers the news’ preference for disaster, drama and discord you might think that old Peregrine was onto something.  There is the world as it is presented to be, and the world as it actually is.

This of course is the argument of faith.  Not, as some would accuse it of being, a blind refusal to face an unpleasant reality.  Nor is it simple wishful thinking.  Faith is an acknowledgment that reality is higher, broader and deeper than what we simply see or perceive.  It is the affirmation of our own experience but also the conviction that this is not the full story.  Faith says that the story of us has more to it than meets the eye.  

Part of what we do as a Church, in our worship, our liturgy, in the Word that we proclaim and the beliefs we affirm, is to both remind ourselves of and try to live out the full story of which we are a part: the story of God.  This is why we pray, this is why we sing songs of worship even in times of hardship.  It is because we are a people whose story will not end here and which will not be defined by what we go through in this world.  God is writing our story and the ending is good.

Sunday 11 June

In recent years it has been the fashion for different organisations to designate specific days of the year as the “World Day of X” as a means of highlighting their cause.  For example, in New Zealand we know that Daffodil Day supports the work of the Cancer Society, while the International Day of Children usually gets some form of official attention.  But there are many, so many, more “days” that get lost in the mix.  For instance, did you know that the Global Day of Parents was on the 1st of June (and did your children get you anything to mark it)?  Or that already this month we are supposed to have marked World Milk Day, World Bicycle Day and the International Day for the Fight Against Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing!  If you happened to miss these days then this weekend offers a chance to get back on trend with World Gin Day on Saturday and the National German Chocolate Cake Day on Sunday.

Of course the Church has its own calendar of special days and one of those which the Anglican Church here records is Te Pouhere Sunday.  Te Pouhere is the name for the constitution of the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia.  Coming into force in 1992 this constitution recognised that the church in our province is made up of three strands or tikanga, representing Maori, Pakeha and Polynesia.  Te Pouhere celebrates this.

There is more to this than simply legal structures and official bodies.  For, in its own way, Te Pouhere was an effort by our Church to live out the Gospel in which we believe.  A few years ago, Bishop Ross explained how:

God in Christ has reconciled us to himself and has entrusted to us the ministry of reconciliation. Those who are reconciled to God demonstrate that through reconciled human relationships. Paul writes that Christ died for all so that those who live should cease to live for themselves and should live instead for Christ. And for whom did Christ live? He lived for others. As the church we are constantly seeking to model how that is so in our relationships with one another. We seek to express it in the life we share as local communities of faith. Te Pouhere seeks to express it structurally for the life of our church as a whole.

For us at a Parish level there is often little chance to experience the fullness of our Anglican Church as represented in all three tikangas of Maori, Pakeha and Polynesia.  But it is still a part of the life of our church and this Sunday we might pause and give thanks for all those who make up the Anglican Church in this province, and for the reconciling ministry of Christ which brings us together.

Sunday 23 April

There is a lot going on this weekend, with the school holidays ending and then ANZAC Day on Tuesday.  The Church calendar is quite busy too.  Ahead of us lie more great feasts, those of Pentecost and Trinity.  But right now we remain in the middle of the season of Easter (or Paschaltide).  This is a time when we not only celebrate the Resurrection but also remember those occasions when the risen Jesus appeared to, and spent time with, his followers up until the day of his ascension.  

Amongst those encounters, including miraculous appearances in locked rooms and unprecedented hauls of fish, this Sunday’s Gospel account of two disciples meeting Jesus on the road to Emmaus might seem comparatively undramatic.  Two men walk down the road and are joined by a third, with whom they talk about the events and meaning of Easter and the Scriptures.  It is only when they stop to eat, and he breaks the bread as he did at the Last Supper, that they at last recognise their companion as Jesus himself.  

A simple encounter yet the results are dramatic.  God transforms an ordinary event into an extraordinary one and the two men, who had been walking “with sadness written across their faces”, excitedly race back to Jerusalem to tell the other disciples what happened - and to discover that those disciples have their own resurrection encounter to share.  But what resonates with me is the image of Jesus walking with the men, talking with them, teaching and ministering to them, even as they are unaware of who he is.  Even as they are unaware that Jesus is with them.  It is only later, in retrospect, that they understand: “Didn’t our hearts burn within us as he talked to us on the road…” they say.  Their eyes opened, they realise that God was with them the whole time.

I wonder how often God is with us, and we don’t recognise it.  How often He is speaking to us, ministering to us, and we don’t realise it.  Because the promise Jesus makes is that he will always be with us, “even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).  Just because we don’t always see Him does not mean He is not there.  Perhaps we might remember those occasions when our hearts burned within us, those times when we belatedly realised that God had been with us, helping us all along.  Or perhaps we might take encouragement from two men journeying to Emmaus.  Two men who, in the middle of their discouragement and sadness, were met by the risen Christ as he walked down the road with them.    

Sunday 16 April

It says something about the unfairness of life that a man who followed Jesus as a disciple and would then go on to become a great missionary apostle, one of the first to carry the Gospel into Asia, should be known throughout history as “doubting” Thomas.  We might wonder what more a person needs to do to be considered faith-filled!

Yet there is something apt about remembering Thomas in this way.  As the writer Philip Yancey says, “Doubt always coexists with faith, for in the presence of certainty who would need faith at all?”  We therefore should be grateful for Thomas’s example, for showing us that it is possible to be faithful-doubters when we ourselves have questions or uncertainties.  We see that Thomas, despite his doubts, despite his initial unbelief in the other disciples’ report of having seen Jesus, doesn’t walk away.  Instead he persists even as he questions, continuing to meet with the other disciples in prayer.  And because he persisted he was able to encounter the risen Jesus.  In a way it was through his doubts that Thomas came to believe.

It is also encouraging to note that Jesus himself does not condemn Thomas for having doubts but rather engages with them.  By inviting Thomas to put his hands in his wounds, Jesus invites Thomas to explore the very things that he is questioning.  Yes Jesus will say that those who believe without seeing are blessed.  But it is clear that Jesus is not threatened by our questions, is not worried by our doubts.  He is happy for us to wrestle with these things, as long as we keep wrestling with him at the same time.  

Christ’s resurrection is a challenge for our faith because believing in it means we have to completely reshape our understanding of life, the universe, indeed everything.  All our former certainties are upended and we must learn to understand the world anew in the light of Easter morning.   There is risk here; as the German theologian Pannenberg points out, the problem with the Resurrection is that if you believe it happened you must change the way you live.  

No wonder we might have doubts.  No wonder vague ideas of the Resurrection as a metaphor or symbolic action might seem appealing.  But the witness of Thomas, for all his doubts and questions, is that Jesus is risen.  And life for Thomas will never be the same. 

Easter Day, 9 April

Today, in countries across the globe, in churches of all different styles, in diverse languages and tongues, millions of people will greet one another with the words, “Christ is risen!”.  And, like a rolling acclamation, the reply will resound from the Pacific, through Asia, across Africa, Europe and the Americas, “He is risen indeed, alleluia!

Few words are as central to our Christian faith, to our hope and to our lives as Christians, than the declaration, He is risen!  Here is the answer to our fears, to our failures, to the pains and shadows of life: Christ is risen!  Here is our hope for the future, for new beginnings and life everlasting: He is risen indeed!  Like a defiant shout into the chaos and darkness of our world, everything that seeks to pull us down and consign us to dust is silenced by the cry that Jesus is alive.  For in raising Jesus from the dead God has shown that nothing, not even death, can stop us from knowing Him, knowing his love or knowing the new life that he brings.  

He is risen!  Not revived, not resuscitated, not reanimated, reincarnated or reimagined – risen!  Jesus did not avoid death, he was not rescued from its grasp.  He submitted to death when it was before him.  But by the power of God’s love he was able to pass through that darkness to the dawn of resurrection and now he is risen!  No longer dead but alive, now and forevermore.  So we celebrate today because our’s is a resurrection faith.  We don’t believe in the perfectness of the church, the brilliance of theologians and priests nor even in the specialness of Christians.  But we do believe in Christ crucified and risen.  Every sermon preached by the apostles and recorded in the New Testament has the resurrection as its central theme.  For this is the very heart of the Good News of Jesus.

He is risen!  These words are as much invitation as they are proclamation.  Because in the resurrection God unveils a new world and a new life, and we are invited to share in them.  Christ’s resurrection holds within it the promise of our own.  It is the promise of the restoration of the life we were always meant to have, the life we were created for.   Christ is risen and as a result we can know new life and new beginnings in him.  

That new life begins today.  We find it in Jesus.  We find it when we open our hearts to the truth of this glorious morning and, joining with the Church universal, declare once more: He is risen indeed, alleluia!

Sunday, 19 February

Sometimes lines from the hymns or songs we sing on a Sunday morning can have a particular resonance.  This was certainly the case last Sunday, as we sang “thou rushing wind that art so strong…” while gusts buffeted the Church.  (I hope we might soon be singing again about the sun’s “golden beam”.)  It has, once more, been an extraordinary start to the year.  While fortunately most of our district has been spared the worst of Cyclone Grabrielle, I know that there was damage suffered and that parts are again underwater, recovering from more flooding or still without power.  Can I say thank you to those of you who have been checking in on neighbours and other parishioners and who have offered to help out any who need it.  It’s great to see (or hear about) the Church in action in these very simple ways.

The news from other parts of the country has been much harder, and I hope you will keep the people of the Hawkes Bay and East Cape in your prayers.  But while we by comparison have good reason to be grateful, even so, the repeated cycle of crisis that seems to be the current normal can be taxing.   So I paid particular notice when one of my daily Bible readings this week came from Proverbs 3:

Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own   understanding.

There is a simple truth, of which the Bible time and again seeks to remind us: we are better off putting things into God’s hands.  To the extent that we might try and master our own lives, trying to control events or focusing on our own strength and abilities, we will find ourselves tossed around by all those events we cannot control - natural disasters being one of them.  But the wisdom of Proverbs is that when we trust in God we no longer need to lean on ourselves or rely on our own strength; we can transfer everything onto God and rely on Him instead!

We know that this doesn’t mean there won’t be storms, hardships or even grief.  But in the midst of such times we can have security and comfort: the security and comfort that comes from trusting in God, in his goodness, his purposes and his love.  For these things will never fail.  And God is more than able to cope with the things that overwhelm us.  This week and every week I pray that the love and faithfulness of God may be your trust and hope.

Sunday, 12 February

Have you ever asked yourself why we not only gather on a Sunday morning for worship and fellowship but do so every single week?  Someone who had an answer was D.L. Moody, one of the great revival evangelists of the 19th century.  The story is told that Moody was invited to dinner with a prominent Chicago citizen.  As they sat around the fire and talked they began to discuss the place and role of the Church.  Moody’s host insisted that there was no need for a Christian to be part of a church.  In response Moody said nothing but instead picked up some tongs and took a blazing coal from amongst the fire.  He sat in silence, watching the coal as he held it in his tongs, his host watching too.  All too quickly the coal smouldered and went out.  “I see”, Moody’s host replied.

We are not a Church because of our old wooden buildings, nor thanks to the stained glass windows, nor our having a Vicar, nor a Prayer Book, nor even the cross on our roofs.  What makes us a Church is that we are people of Christ, who gather together in his Name, in his presence, for his purposes.  And if we were to stop gathering, then the buildings, windows, hymn books, and yes clergy could remain but the Church would not.  

It is true that just coming to church is not what saves us.  For salvation comes through our faith in and relationship with Jesus.  And yet it is not possible to divorce being a Christian from belonging to the Church, not least because the story of Jesus is also the story of His Church.  As is often said, Jesus did not build a building or write a book to be his legacy, but he did establish the Church.  What is more, the Bible makes it clear that there is nowhere for us to be part of Christ other than in his Body - which is the Church (1 Cor 12, Eph 4).  Put simply, it is in the Church that we are given Jesus.  

Gathering together is therefore about so much more than preserving our Parish.  It is because it is in the Church that God says he will encounter us and that means - though being a part of a Church can at times be annoying or frustrating - it is there that our faith can grow and our relationship with God be transformed.  Outside of it, we are like an ember left out of the fire to cool and go out.  But inside we are warmed by the flames.  As the poet John Betjeman wrote:

A fitful glow, is all the light of faith I know; 

Which sometimes goes completely out; And leaves me plunging round in doubt;  Until I will myself to go; 

And worship in God’s house below - My parish church.

Sunday, 18 December

In his short story, Smith of Wootton Major, J R R Tolkien tells of a man who discovers the long-forgotten land of Faery.  Tolkien writes that Faery was a mythical place both beautiful and fearsome in equal measure.  When Smith began to explore it he at first walked quietly among the gentler creatures of the woods and meads of fair valleys.  But as he grew bolder Smith went further: he stood beside the Sea of Windless Storm, gazed upon an untouched lake in the mountains and wandered lost in a vast grey mist until he saw the shadow of a great hill and the King’s Tree on top, its light like the sun at noon.  

Eventually Smith found a winding road through the Outer Mountains and at last he stood before the Queen of Faery herself:

She wore no crown and had no throne. She stood there in her majesty  and her glory, and all about her was a great host shimmering and glittering like the stars above; but she was taller than the points of their great spears, and upon her head there burned a white flame.

It was then, standing before the Queen, that Smith felt grieved for he remembered from his childhood how the village would place a toy figure atop a cake and called it the Queen of Faery.  In the presence of the Queen herself the memory of the toy seemed embarrassing to him.  But the Queen told him not to be ashamed, for maybe a little doll was better than no memory of her at all: “For some the only glimpse.  For some the awakening.

It would be easy to dismiss our celebration of Christmas as little more than a token.  Despite best efforts our services will fail to match either the humility of the stable where Jesus is born or the glory of the angelic choirs that greet his birth.  And even some of those who visit our churches at Christmas may think it is only a sentimental tradition.  But there is more to the story than nostalgia and carols.  On that first Christmas night in Bethlehem, heaven touched earth - for God came to be with us, as one of us.  

For many the celebration of Christmas remains only a glimpse.  But for others it can be an awakening: an awakening to the greatest love we have ever known, a love more powerful than death and which will never leave or give up on us.  I pray that you will be awakened once more this Christmas.  I pray that you might look upon the manger and open your heart to know the child who was laid in it: this Jesus who is our Saviour, Christ the Lord.  

Merry Christmas.

Sunday, 20 November

Let me start by saying congratulations!  You are not just one in a billion, you are one in eight billion.  Yes, according to the United Nations, this week the world’s population passed the eight billion mark.  Pretty impressive when you remember that a short 70 years ago there were only 2.5 billion people on earth.  If we go way back, to the Year of Our Lord (1 AD), the population of the globe was a mere 300 million people.  (Imagine how cheap house prices were then!)  But here we are in the third decade of the 21st century trying to squeeze past another 7,999,999,999 people - many of whom, it seems, are trying to get through the Hill Street intersection at the same time.

No wonder the internet is full of teenagers doing silly dances; it’s hard to stand out when 8 billion other people are trying to do the same.  But even if online fame is not your primary concern, all of us at some point wonder about the mark we are leaving on the world.  The psychologist Henry Cloud says people go through life like a ship moves through water, with each one leaving a wake behind them.  The wake which we leave is in our tasks and in our relationships: what did we accomplish and how did we deal with people?  He goes on to say that we can tell a lot about people by the wake they leave behind.  

What wake are we leaving behind in our families, our street, our workplaces or community?  Not just what have we achieved but how are we relating to people?  Do we leave people feeling loved, knowing that they are valued?  Are we adding to the frustrations and aggravations of life, or are we finding ways of adding God’s grace into the mix?  

Last Sunday’s readings, where in the gospel Jesus encouraged us to have “patient endurance” in the face of trials and tribulations, included this verse from 2 Thessalonians 3: “And as for you, brothers and sisters, never tire of doing what is good.”  It’s the Bible asking the Church (which means all of us) to keep being faithful, because God is faithful.  To go out and meet Jesus in the messiness of the world, and to be his hands and feet in amongst that mess.  It’s asking us to leave a Christ-shaped wake behind. 

Sunday, 9 October

C.S. Lewis once wrote, “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal…”  His point was that everyone, every person we meet, is created for God’s Kingdom.  Created for eternity.  For all of us have the opportunity to share in Jesus’ resurrection.  As a result, even “the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to” is someone who may be resurrected in the glorified splendour of Christ.  Someone whom, if we saw them now as they will be then, we would be strongly tempted to worship so great will be their glory.  This, Lewis points out, changes things.  It means that we live in a society full of people defined by what Jesus may one day make of them.  So then, he says, “It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics.

Of course, in the midst of life and all the stresses and hassles that it brings, it’s not always easy to treat other people (especially given the stresses and hassles they can bring) with “awe and circumspection”.  One person who tried to do so was John of Kronstadt.  A nineteenth-century Russian Orthodox priest, John worked and ministered at a time when alcohol abuse was wreaking havoc amongst his community.  John would go out into the streets where, finding someone lying in a gutter in soiled clothes, he would pick them up, hold them in his arms and say to them, “This is beneath your dignity. You were meant to house the fullness of God.

You were meant to house the fullness of God.  This is the truth about our neighbours and it is the truth about us.  No matter what we may think or say about others, no matter what others may think or say about us, it does not change our true identity: we are children of the Most High God, chosen to be one of those in whom He lives and dwells, and created for eternity.  As C.S. Lewis would encourage us, we should let that truth inspire our lives.

Sunday, 20 February

As I was leading the service at Warkworth last Sunday morning the building shook and the doors blew open - I felt like an old time revivalist preacher!  Sadly, I think it had more to do with last weekend’s storm than the power of my sermon.  The storm itself certainly delivered with its whipping wind; heading out to Kaipara Flats cemetery this week I was counting the fallen branches and broken trees.  But perhaps the most striking thing about the storm was how suddenly it abated.  After all that sound and fury, Monday and Tuesday were two of the most still and perfect days we have had all summer!

I was reminded of the events of 1 King 19 when the prophet Elijah, his life threatened by Jezebel, flees to the wilderness in despair.  Sheltering on Mt Horeb he cries out to the Lord, only for God to tell him to stand on the mountain and wait for him to pass by.  A great wind is stirred up, so mighty that it breaks rocks and splits the mountain - but the Lord was not in the wind.  Then there is an earthquake - but the Lord was not in the earthquake.  And then a fire!  But the Lord was not in the fire.  Last of all there is only silence.  And it was in the silence that Elijah heard the still, small voice of God speaking to him; “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

Lest we miss it, what is important about that moment is the intimacy of the stillness.  Paradoxically, God speaks through the silence, not because his was presence was in the silence but because his presence was the silence.  God, the creator of mountains and winds and fires, steps from behind the curtain of nature to be present with Elijah.  

Our world certainly has its fair share of storms and wildfires at the moment.  In such times we can be all too focused on the storms and what God might be saying about them or even through them - because surely a worldwide pandemic, global protests or the threat of war must mean something.  And yes of course God speaks about and in the midst of such events.  But if we only ever focus on the storms - what they might mean, what others say about them, how we should interpret them - we run the risk of missing God speaking to us in the quiet of his presence.  In the midst of the storms of life, perhaps we sometimes need to turn our attention away from all the wind and fury and instead listen in the silence for the still, small voice of God who is present with us.

Sunday, 6 February (Waitangi Day)

On Waitangi Day last year two Anglican churches in Otaki came together for a special service.  The Rangiātea Pastorate Church (part of Tikanaga Maori) and the Anglican Parish of Ōtaki (part of Tikanaga Pakeha) met for worship and fellowship on a grassy field that happens to sit between the two church buildings.  You see both Ōtaki churches stand on land gifted by local iwi, Ngāti Raukawa, to The Church Missionary Society (CMS) - making it a fitting spot to celebrate Waitangi Day.  

The churches said the hope was to set about living a new story on their small patch of shared ground: one of friendship, of faith, of solidarity.  As the Rev’d Dr Rangi Nicholson, priest and Minita-ā-Iwi at Rangiatea Pastorate Church, explained it, each Waitangi Day was a chance to face squarely some of the history that had stood in the way of the dream of togetherness in Gospel mission.

Waitangi Day is a day to celebrate.  As Archbishop Philip Richardson has said, I believe ‘our’ day is a day of which we can all feel proud. I’m grateful for all the Treaty offers everyone who lives in this land. It’s a covenant based on generosity and hospitality…”  But, embedded within Waitangi, in its promises, its hopes and its failures, is also a call to work.  It’s a call to the work of acknowledgement and honouring, of repentance and restoration, of reconciliation and healing, of living a new story.  In case we forget, this is Gospel work too.  This Waitangi Day let our prayers be for this ongoing work here in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Sunday, 18 July 2021

As I commented last Sunday, it is very odd to realise that the Tokyo Olympics begin in just under a week’s time.  Where’s the hype, the build-up, the daily countdown that focuses our attention on this four yearly sports extravaganza?  We know the answer, it’s the same thing that has been cancelling flights and shutting down cities for the last 18 months.  Thanks to Covid this year’s Olympics will be held in empty stadia with few or no fans allowed.  According to recent polls most Japanese people would rather not go ahead with the Olympics - probably because they want to focus on more important things (like, again, Covid).  But it seems the power of the IOC will not be resisted; the show must go on.

It’s very easy (and probably right) to be cynical about the Olympics: the corruption of the IOC and the role of money and corporate sponsorship.  But truth be told, I do enjoy them.  It is an enjoyable and, rare for this age, somewhat unifying spectacle.  What I particularly enjoy is how, for a few short days, some of the most obscure sports seize the world stage away from football or cricket and their competitors get a chance to shine.  (We see this most winter Olympics when curling usually enjoys a brief but very intense burst of popularity.)

I still remember watching the Beijing Olympics late one night and becoming completely caught up in a particular archery competition.  As midnight approached I was gripped, willing the South Korean competitor to gold as I quickly became an expert (thanks to the commentators that is) in the interplay between aim, breathing and the all important release.  And I think that is quite wonderful.  That these athletes, who have shown extraordinary commitment and dedication to excel in their chosen sport, have this chance to be recognised and maybe even become heroes in their home countries.

Of course, most of us don’t get the chance to be an Olympian. There are no expert hosts breathlessly commentating our actions as we take out the rubbish, no crowds to cheer as we wash the dishes or visit the Post Office.  But what we do have is a Heavenly Father who doesn’t just love us but is deeply interested in us and in our lives.  “Give all your worries and cares to God, for he cares about you.” 1st Peter 5 says.  God cares about us - and not just the big things, but the little, daily things too.  Our delights, our disappointments, even the very ordinary.   Remember this the next time you are praying, God is interested in you and in what is happening to you.  None of it is too small for God.  For he cares for us, and for our prayers.

Sunday, 8th Nov, 2020

My earliest political memory is of being in primary school and sending a card to a classmate who was away ill for a month.  To cheer him up I included the biggest joke of the year, “What goes up and never comes down? Muldoon’s prices!”.  The tragedy for me was that the 1984 snap election then took place with Muldoon losing, so by the time my friend returned to school he told me that my joke was all wrong and that it should have said “Lange’s prices”.   Such was my introduction to the vagaries of politics.

This last month has been something of a festival for political junkies with first our own election and referenda and then, this past week, elections in the United States.  Of course, like a World Cup final, the nature of elections is to have winners and losers and so some of us will have been delighted by the results of our own ballot and others of us will be counting the years to the next vote and a chance to try again.  The elections in America are more distant but, this year in particular, I think we have all been keenly interested and might even have had our own (sometimes strong) views about who should win or lose. 

Is there any guide for Christians when thinking about politics?  Can we claim that God is on one side or another?  In the past I have heard preachers claim exactly that - unfortunately they don’t always pick the same side!  

This year I have been reminded that a lot of what Jesus spoke about is very relevant to the political season, especially perhaps in countries where the divisions are the greatest.  What am I thinking of?  Teachings like, “love your enemies” or “bless those who curse you, bless and do not curse” and even “turn the other cheek”.  I am not suggesting that as Christians we shouldn’t be interested or involved in politics, nor am I saying that we shouldn’t campaign and advocate for those ideas, policies or values that we believe in.  Quite the contrary, I believe that part of our call as Christians is to be active in the public space - to use the opportunity we have as citizens of a democracy to influence our nation.

Politics matters, as do elections.  But the Kingdom of Heaven is much bigger than who sits in the Beehive (or the White House) for the next term.  In a world where politics is about winners over losers, which (in some countries at least) sees political differences as grounds for division and hostility, we should remind ourselves that for Jesus the priority was not to beat our opponents but to love them.  For in doing so we testify to the power of the Gospel to transform our world.