Pentecost 22,Year A
A service led by Fionnaigh McKenzie at St Andrew's on The Terrace.
Please join in the congregational responses printed in bold italic. Stand for the hymns and the offering prayer, if you are able. AA is the New Zealand songbook "Alleluia Aotearoa" and WOV is the red hymnbook "With One Voice."
CALL TO WORSHIP
We have come here today
each of us bringing that which is God within us.
From the East and the West,
The North and the South
We gather in the presence of the Holy One.
God of love, we arrive at this place, this time,
Our paths merging
We meet as the family of God.
We bring our differences and our disagreements,
Knowing that despite our diversity
We are all made in your image.
May we never forget whose image we reflect.
PROCESSIONAL HYMN AA 26 Come to our land
A warm welcome is extended to all
especially those who may be joining us at St Andrew’s for the first time,
or who have returned after an absence.
Your presence enriches us
and this time together.
PRAYER (Fionnaigh McKenzie)
We have laid waste to the world we knew:
The trees are felled
And a desert of ash is where the forest grew.
Where is God in all this?
God is in labour, panting and groaning,
Giving birth to all creation
She puts into our hands
The fragile earth to nurse.
The skies are empty
the crops wither
Children’s bellies are swollen with hunger
Where is God in all this?
God is in those who work
To dig the wells
To water the crops
And feed the hungry.
Unemployment figures grow
The homeless huddle on park benches
And under bridges
Where is God in all this?
God is in the child
Born in a manger
God is in the healer
Who walks among the poor.
THE TRADITION IN TEXTS
First Testament: Exodus 33: 12-23
WORDS OF ASSURANCE
Even when we do not look for God
The presence of God permeates the universe
In the stars of far flung galaxies
And the atoms of the air we breathe.
Even when we do not try, God lives in us
In the grandest gesture, and the smallest touch
Risk taking, nurturing, suffering, freeing
peace making, love making
LIGHTING THE RAINBOW ROOM CANDLE
JESUS’ PRAYER (Jim Cotter)
PASSING THE PEACE
TIME WITH THE CHILDREN
Gospel: Matthew 22:15-22
Contemporary reading: From Tomorrow’s Catholic by Michael Morwood
There are many concepts of God, and many of them should die. The primary question is not, do you believe in God? but, what do you think you would be believing in if you did believe in God? There is the God who can do anything, who could prevent nuclear war, who could have prevented the holocaust but didn’t. There is the God who set the universe going in the first place, and the left it except for occasional interventions in the form of miracles which rarely happen. There is the God of the gaps who is brought in to fill the gaps left by science; that God grows smaller with every advance in scientific understanding of the universe. There is the cosmic bellhop who sits at the end of a cosmic telephone exchange dealing with billions of calls every minute, and whom the caller hopes will alter the course of events to suit the caller. There is the God who requires praise. There is the God who demands sacrifice. There is the God who is on our side in wars who would have us kill for his sake. There is the uncertain God of the soldier’s prayer please God, if there be a God, save my soul if there be a soul! There is the God of judgement who rules by fear and who dispenses post-mortem rewards and punishments. All these theologies of God make things pretty easy for atheists.
Hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church.
Thanks be to God.
HYMN AA 47 God is the One whom we seek together
REFLECTION Fionnaigh McKenzie, “A glimmer of God’s essence”
The first testament reading today is filled with paradoxes about the way we understand God. On the one hand, God is an awesome and terrifying force. It takes a spiritual giant like Moses to intercede with God, and even then he cannot merely kneel beside his bed and pray. He must trek alone, up a mountain, in order to encounter Yahweh. Yet they speak together man to man, and a power game ensues, as Moses wrests concession after concession from Yahweh. Finally he has the audacity to demand to see God’s full glory, and, rather than being put to shame for his arrogance, a compromise is reached. He cannot see God’s face, but he is granted a glimpse of the “backside” of God.
Moses is told that God’s full glory would overwhelm him. This is the kind of holiness that can destroy as much as support. Humans have always confronted a world filled with mysterious and often terrifying powers, and some of these have been experienced as sacred. Wrath becomes mixed up with mercy, love of God mingles with fear.
And so, Moses is protected from this dangerous aspect of the holy, and God’s full glory is hidden from him.
But hang on a minute, isn’t God supposed to be omnipresent? If God is everywhere, how can God hide? In our imperfect attempts to describe God, we inevitably run into contradictions. God is transcendent, rising above the world, passing beyond everything we understand.
But God is also omnipresent, everything that exists is permeated with the presence of God, everything around us is a revelation of glory.
Problems arise when we see God’s transcendence as a physical distance, an idea that old testament stories seem to emphasise. God has withdrawn from us, and our imperfection.
The prevailing image of God is still a supreme Person up there somewhere, who hears and reacts much like a human being, and takes offence at our wrongdoing. This idea sat easily with a cosmology in which Earth was the center of the universe.
With God’s transcendence comes the idea that God is unchanging. Perfection, of course, does not need to change. But maybe we need to start asking, why not? Our ideas about everything else have undergone radical change, but has our imagining of God kept pace?
We now know that we live on a tiny, insignificant dot in space. We have enough trouble imagining the distance to the next planet. And then we are told that our solar system is the size of a postage stamp in a galaxy the size of Australia. Then, scattered through the blackness of space, there are a further 300 billion Galaxies.
How does this knowledge change our imagining of God? How can we accept a boxed in, localised, God? A God who looks down on us from the blue of the sky is still just the tiniest dot in an inauspicious corner of space. But if God stretches to the ends of the universe, who do we imagine listens when we pray?
What does it mean to believe that this infinite reality called God loves me personally? Is my image of God capable of dealing with new theories about the universe?
As we find out more about the vastness of the universe, we also uncover more of the intricate detail. The minute dances of atoms in our bodies. The way our genes influence our destinies. What role does God play in this? Does God set the system in motion, and then take a step back, or is God a part of the process in every minute detail of atoms dancing and chemicals interacting?
If God exists in outer space, and inner space, what of cyber space? As emails zip backwards and forwards across the globe, how does this change our understanding of God? Do we seek God in cyberspace?
Images of God are always shaped by the culture in which they are created. The internet brings us a new and exciting opportunity for an exchange of ideas about imagining God. Anyone with access to a modem and a computer can communicate with people on the other side of the world. Revelation can happen through these encounters. Expanding our understanding of God to embrace this fast changing reality will stretch us, push us, beyond our limitations. By integrating these changes into our understanding of God, our spirituality must evolve.
The idea of God must somehow simultaneously depict a limitless vast reality, beyond our imagining, and on the other hand, God is everywhere, sustaining and energising life. God is inherently present in our families, our bodies, the trees, the stars, our interactions with humans of every Creed, even through the internet.
This is not a description of God, because like Moses we cannot grasp the full extent of God’s glory. All we have is inadequate language with which we struggle to describe aspects, glimmers, of God’s glory.
And our language needs to evolve further still. Language shapes the image we create of God. What kind of image of God do we create if we say “thank God” when we hear a story of someone’s miraculous survival after a natural disaster. What kind of God answers one mother’s prayers, while taking away the child from another? This is a distant, personified God, who pulls the strings in our world.
The new testament reading contains an echo of a different understanding of God. The coins, marked with Ceasar’s face, belong to Ceasar. But render unto God what is God’s. We are invited to imagine what is imprinted with God’s face. Of course the idea that we are created in God’s image comes to mind. This is quite a different understanding from the mountaintop revelations Moses experienced. Now God has become an intrinsic part of our nature, not separate and distant from us, but ever present in our potential, our capacity for love and justice.
This is an amazing revelation. If God is reflected in us, God is Pakeha, Maori, Pacific Islander and Asian. God is gay, bisexual, straight, male, female and transsexual. God is able and disabled, mad and sane, young and old, Muslim, Buddhist and Jew. Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me. The way we interact with any human being is the way that we interact with God.
We may well talk to someone in Alaska about their understanding of God, but sometimes it seems harder to talk to the people who are right next to us.
When my Pākehā ancestors came here they brought their own particular understandings of God, and tried to pass these on to the people the encountered. And many Maori people embraced some of these ideas, and adapted them inline with their own understandings, and adapted many of their own traditions in light of the new teachings they received. A dynamic revelation occurred. But the spirituality of my ancestors remained relatively unchanged by the encounter. And even today, even in a church as progressive as St Andrew’s, encounters with Māoritanga have not had a huge impact on our worship.
It is so easy for Pākehā explorations of Māoritanga to become tokenism or appropriation. So what is the solution? It has been my experience that powerful exchanges can take place when we approach with humility and willingness. And maybe it will be necessary for us to practice a little of what we preach. Our understanding of God is closely connected with peace and justice. Now we need to radically apply our convictions in relation to the injustices between the peoples of our own country, as well as overseas. There is so much we could do, right here, right now.
If we go down this road it is likely that we will face opposition. It’s impossible to please everyone, and some people will question our right to be meddling in these affairs. But if we come with honesty, and offer our own experiences, our own journeys, then, sometimes, we may find the opportunity for an exchange of gifts that can radically impact on both parties. We may even find our imagining of God changes.
Let us return to the image of Moses talking to God on the mountain, and reflect on how our thinking has changed. I’m not sure whether it brings more comfort to imagine God as part of our very being, or whether it is lonelier, no longer being able to talk one on one with God, and expect a clear reply. An expansive understanding of God brings new challenges as well as rewards.
I want to finish by reading another passage from Morwood’s book, about incarnation.
What if we were to take this basic Christian understand of God’s involvement with humanity, and push it back to the beginning of creation? What if, still being beyond and greater than the sum total of creation, God was “incarnated” into all of creation, so that all of creation is infused with, sustained by, driven by the energy that is of God?
Everything in existence is permeated with the presence of God. Let us be clear, we are not talking about a shadowy presence like a cloud moving through a forest. No, we are talking about a presence within the depths of all that is. For humans, we would point to the love that is in our hearts; we would point to DNA, and the atoms and molecules in our bodily structure where there is spontaneity and life and movement; where there is growth; where, because there is freedom of movement and limitless possibilities, there is also illness as well as health.
The wonder of human existence is that human beings can be conscious of this presence, and give it a name. We can identify ourselves in terms of its reality. From it we can derive significance, and give meaning to our lives. We can give praise and thanks on behalf of all creation. We can wonder as we engage in the mystery of a God beyond all imagining. We can marvel as we contemplate the miracle of who we are. And we can accept the challenge of allowing our imaginings of God to be fluid, not stagnant, always open to change and revelation.
In a Jewish translation of the Exodus passage, God says to Moses, “you will see a glimmer of My essence.”
I hope that, by allowing our imaginings of God to be expansive and dynamic, we too will be given the gift of such a revelation.
HYMN AA 49 God of all time
AFFIRMATION OF FAITH
We experience the holiness of God
In the immense, infinite dance of the galaxies
In the slow journeys of mountains and glaciers
In the rhythm of the seasons
The glow of kowhai
The pure notes of korimako
Hebes that push between cracks of concrete
And sun that glances of the sides of sky scrapers
In the trembling of karanga
And the laughter of children.
We come to know God in Christ
In gifts of healing
In liberations of life
In recognitions of love
And callings to serve
In sufferings for others
And glimpses of grace.
We live in God’s Spirit
In dreams beyond hoping
And hope beyond dreaming
Moments of peace
And sparks of inspiration
Courage found and wisdom known
And lifted hearts.
This we believe.
This is the wonder of our God.
LIFE IN THE COMMUNITY OF ST ANDREW’S
OFFERING AND PRAYER OF DEDICATION
We recognise and bless the gifts brought to the table and those given to support the mission of the church through automatic payments.
Let our inner replenishment
make us more alive to life's moments
and more responsive to life's creative possibilities.
Let the offerings we place on this Table today
be a sign of our gratitude,
and a sign of our hope for life and the world.
PRAYERS OF THE PEOPLE
CIRCLE OF PRAYER
We think today of the Kashmiri people, of Pakistan and India, who struggle to find food, shelter and medical aid in the aftermath of earthquake ... we give thanks for relief teams who battle their way through to remote mountain areas ... and for the few they are able to save from communities obliterated by the mighty force of Nature.
PRAYER FOR ST ANDREW’S
BLESSING AND SUNG AMEN
It is time to leave one form of worship
and begin another.
God has put within you the whispers of eternity
and spiced your dreams with stardust.
May what you do at home
be as sacred as that done here,
your work and your leisure be a liturgy,
your listening and caring be a form of praise,
Go in peace.
And may you be surprised
by glimmers of God’s essence
wherever you go.
The second verse of the affirmation of faith are from Dorothy McRae McMahon, Echoes of our Journey; Liturgies of the people, The Joint Board of Christian Education, Australia, 1993.
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