Dan’s last day with us before the family head back to New Zealand.
Freedom beyond right and wrong
Readings Isaiah 43:16-21 John 8:1-11
My first memory of church is one that I suspect many of us have if we grew up in the church. I must have been about four years old and I was climbing under and around and through the pews of the Methodist church that we were a part of. We must have moved to be part of a different congregation fairly soon after that because my next memories of church come when I was not much older. My next memory is at the Baptist church that my family were part of for most of my childhood, I remember climbing under and around and through the pews… I also remember hiding upstairs in the balcony seating, making paper planes and seeing our far we could throw them down into the seating below. I can’t remember if this was during a service or not, but I suspect it was! My parents were always quite involved in the church community. My Father is an accountant and so he would always help out with the money counting and keeping the books etc. My Mother studied to get her Bachelor in Theology and became employed as a Community Minister in a half time position with the church. I remember many school holidays spending time at the drop-in centre and 2nd hand clothing shop where she met with all sorts of people from the local neighbourhood. Some of my favourite memories from our time with that church are the lunches at other family’s houses, people coming for lunch at our house, building a skateboard ramp with friends, all us kids getting told off by the parents for a whole number of reasons, and Christmas lunch shared with a large collection of the church and the local community in the church hall each Christmas day. I also remember the Minister coming over in the middle of the night after we arrived home one evening to find our house had been burgled and I remember the men who came and helped Dad remove and replace a large upstairs window because it was old and the frame was rotting. By far the overwhelming sense of importance I have taken from my time with this community was indeed that sense of community; that true sense of Christian fellowship – all of life, the good, the bad, the fun, the serious, the young and the old, all shared together.
My sister and I moved to a church community down the road when I was nearly 13. I followed her. She had friends from school at the youth group, and I think there were some problems with the youth leadership at the Baptist church, so I went to check it out and didn’t go back. It wasn’t a Baptist church. It was a New Life church, an independent Pentecostal church complete with lots of singing, hand waving, body shaking, people falling over, speaking in tongues; the whole nine yards! By the time we came to this community I had been learning drums and percussion for about 6 years. And so, I joined the music team, and some new friends and I started a band. I would end up playing drums in the Sunday services at that Church almost every Sunday for about 5 years, and the band had a lot of fun and got to play gigs all around town. I wasn’t a terrible teenager, but I wasn’t straightforward either. I’ve always had a strong independent streak. School and I didn’t get along at all really, my Mum and I didn’t get along very well, a few of my best friends were a few years older than me, and had cars, then I got a car, and I discovered things like smoking and alcohol, and as I got older more and more ways to exercise my independence. The normal pattern of things on a weekend for example would be that we would go out on a Friday night, drive around town, eat junk food, maybe play a gig somewhere, then play rugby on Saturday morning, head to church in the afternoon for a band practice, go out Saturday night, drink too much, turn up for the service the next morning hungover or still a bit wobbly, play the first bracket of songs, head down to the park for a smoke during the at least 30min sermon, then come back in time for the last few songs. As I look back on my time with this Community believe it or not I can also remember amazing times of faith development, of being nurtured in the Christian faith. I was baptized at the age of 17 into this community and it was a very real and important act for me. I look back on this time that was a mixture of faith, rebellion, teenage angst, fun, the beginnings of lifelong friendships, beautiful experiences of God’s Spirit, and some strange experiences of what some would try and call God’s Spirit with a very real sense of the grace of God lived out through a community of authentic and passionate people, through all the ups and downs of teenage life I was welcome – it was home for me, I always had a place there. The important things I have taken from my time with this community is indeed a sense of the unconditional grace of God that can be lived out through not so perfect community, and a sense that God is alive and dynamic and wants to relate with us as individuals and as a community seeking to live and serve together.
I left school early, which was no surprise, and a few events led to my leaving that community mainly because I began to travel with a band. Over the next year or two I spent time in a number of independent Pentecostal churches. Sharon and I met during this time and so, as is the reason for many people finding new church communities, I started going to the church where she was. This time it was a Presbyterian church. It was quite a contemporary Presbyterian church with contemporary music and not so much tradition liturgy. I got involved in the music team, which had about 50 people, and eventually came to help lead the team. One of the Ministers there became a mentor to me, and a good friend, and now as well as friends we are colleagues together as ordained ministers. Sharon and I also made some amazing friends during our time there. Our home became a place where we would eat together with friends, we would cry together with friends, we would plan to change the world together, we would seek to serve the local young people by inviting them in to eat, pray, and have fun. There was a lot going on in this church community, from food banks to playgroups, to music, to firewood, to youth group, and older age activities. Most of the large variety came about because the Senior Minister’s answer to anyone who ever had an idea about what the church could do would always be, ‘That sounds great, how can we help you do it?’ There was permission and freedom given to people to serve and express their faith in many different ways. I take from this experience of church a sense again of the importance of true Christian fellowship, of sharing life together with friends, but also a sense of the importance of variety, of being willing to try new ways of serving the local community, and permission to rant and rage about the failings of church, space to share doubts, and space to share dreams about how the church could be different.
As I moved into Ordination training with the PCANZ (Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand) we shifted to a traditional Presbyterian Church Community which was a very new experience for me. There were hymns and liturgy and fewer younger people, and committees… There was, as well as these, a relaxed atmosphere, a sense of expansive all welcoming grace, a sense of meaning that was to be found in traditions and practices and an overwhelming love and concern that we as the church were to show God’s love to the community and be open to God doing the rest.
I tell you all these parts of my story because it has taught me a number of important things. I learnt that church is in all its forms kind of like the different personalities that we as people have. Some prefer facts and data, some prefer experience, some prefer emotion, some prefer logic, some are extraverted and outgoing, and some are introverted and quieter. Some can reflect easily beyond the surface, some prefer details at face value, some prefer big ideas and visions of the future. Just like people being complex and different and unique, yet we’re all people; churches are just collections of people that develop sort of personalities of their own, yet they are all churches. Some people are mature, some are immature. Some people struggle from sickness, some experience constant growth and health. Some are open to new experiences, some are stuck in their ways and won’t change, ever. So it is with churches too. I have learnt though that God tends to come and meet us where we are, always. And God comes with love, always with grace and mercy, and yes always with a challenge of truth that if we are willing to take notice will lead to freedom, growth, and life.
I have also learnt that it tends to be people, in their various differences, who make rules, boundaries, expectations and beliefs. I have learnt that most of the time this is fine, until we start demanding that others fit in, that our way is the only right way; until we start policing the boundaries, enforcing our rules, and dishing out consequences if they aren’t followed. It seems though to me that God doesn’t really care for our categories. I have learnt that God tends to come and meet us where we are, always. And God comes with love, always with grace and mercy, and yes, always with a challenge of truth that if we are willing to take notice will lead to freedom, growth, and life. I look back on my journey in church so far and see that God met me in different ways in each place and indeed that God met each of those church communities through different events and in different ways.
The parable today you will have noticed isn’t a traditional parable, it isn’t a verbal story but more of an enacted one. Jesus in a way here acts out the parable. The religious leaders seek to trap Jesus in order to condemn him. They use as a tool in their scheme a woman who had, according to them, been caught in the act of adultery. The unusual moment in this story, which is always where the fun is with parables, is that Jesus, when confronted by the religious leaders, stoops down and start doodling in the sand. Much effort throughout history has gone into trying to figure out the content of what Jesus wrote in the sand, an endeavour to me that seems to miss the point. If the content was important it would have been included. The important thing seems to be Jesus action of bending down and writing in the sand. Notice what Jesus didn’t do – he didn’t offer a counter argument, he didn’t react, he simply stoops down and doodles in the sand… what he does is refuse to engage in the argument, he refuses to rise to their level of attack and when he does speak he changes the topic completely. They have come to him with a legal issue of morality, of an offense committed and a crime needing to be punished. He replies with a levelling of the playing field, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” (v7) he refuses to engage on their level, and chooses to engage and a far deeper one, one that saw all who were present as equal before God, one that challenges the religious leaders about their own life and conduct to this point, and one that challenges the woman about her life at this point and into the future. In both of these there is the challenge of God’s truth, but also an invitation to step into a new frame, a new way of being and living, one that offers freedom and life, not one defined by consequences and death. In this simple act of refusing to engage at the level of violence, Jesus offered a non-anxious insight, challenge, and invitation. He offered them all a chance to live in a world re-ordered.
A question that we have been asking as my colleagues and I have preached through the parables of Jesus this year, is ‘What do the parables have to say to us about how we do and be church?’ What does Jesus’ constant turning things upside down, alternative way of being have to say to us as we attempt to live out our calling as the Christian Community here and now?
For this parable today, I wonder if there is a challenge for us to ensure we have the right order of things. It’s no shock to say that we as the Church across the globe, across countries, across cities and towns, across streets and roads have our differences… it’s no shock to say that we as people across the globe, across countries, across cities and towns, across streets and roads have our differences. The question for us is as we experience these differences, where do we place God amongst it all? Where do we expect God to meet us? In the midst of the many theological arguments, in the midst of the many evangelical or liberal preferences and all the spaces in between, where do we place God? Does God only fit into our point of view? I’ve met a few dogmatic evangelicals, and I’ve met an equal number of dogmatic liberals! All who believe and seek to convince everyone else, many times in quite confrontational ways, that their way is the right way, God is on their side and not on the other side. We could say the same also about all the political positions and opinions that fly around in our day and age. Each side equally as dogmatic as the other. As the church how do we respond to both of these? Do we let our rules, our beliefs, our opinions become the only way? Do we enter into arguments at the level of the argument? Do we order our living in such a way that we dictate where God is or what God says as having to fit into our categories of right and wrong?
Or do we see Jesus’ response as pointing us to a way where there is always another way. Do we accept that our beliefs and options and categories could potentially be wrong? Do we let God be God? Do we offer a non-anxious dis-engagement and re-engagement that steps beyond rule and consequence, one that sees us all as equal before God, one that sees God wanting to meet us all with grace, mercy, challenge, freedom, and life? Whichever side we are on?
Despite all our differences in personality, preference and belief, we as people are all people, and we as churches are all simply collections of people seeking to be the Christian church in our day and age. Can we respond to Jesus’ invitation to live in a different way? Can we respond with a ‘yes’ to a way of non-anxious reflection, a way of equality before God who sits above all our beliefs and opinions, above all our rights and wrongs? Can we refuse to engage with arguments bound by categories of in or out, right and wrong, rules and consequence, and instead engage in the ways of grace and mercy? Can we let God be the one to offer the challenge of truth to us all wherever we stand?
We as the church are called to bear witness to the good news of Jesus. The only way we will do that is if we step out of our differences and into Jesus’ invitation to freedom and life for ourselves. We cannot do it for others, we cannot shout at others to do it if we have not done it ourselves.
Despite all our differences of belief theologically and politically, we are all beloved children of God, every single human being. This is how God sees us and this is how we are called to see each other. That is the identity we are called to inhabit. When we truly step into this, this is where we will find freedom and life for us all.
Can we learn what Punchinello1 learned, that our Creator simply operates in this different way, and can we learn to accept this for ourselves?
Sharon, Dan’s wife read the simple story ‘Dots vs Stars’ from Max Lucado’s children’s book ‘You are Special’