Limit to Free Speech

Jacinda’s sudden exit from the PM-ship has upset me.  Not the exit itself but the underlying stink of the hate mail she’d drawn.

I’ve always favoured free speech.  It’s a no-brainer.  In a free, democratic, non-fascist society, folk should be able to have any opinion about anything they like, and be free to express it.

Americans, of course, enshrine that right in their First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech …” The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights says, in its Article 19, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
Free-thinking individuals would have no problem with either of these, nor with New Zealand’s own (1990) Bill of Rights’ parroting of the UN’s, almost verbatim.

End of story?
It’s not provisional, nor conditional.  A right is a right, surely. 

No, sorry.  It’s not so straightforward.  My thinking is evolving on this one, and here’s why:
1. A right is a right as long as it doesn’t impinge on the rights of someone else; and
2. A right is a privilege and comes with a responsibility.  A responsibility to use that right responsibly.  And maturely.

People are people, right?  And every human being has a right to be respected for who she is, regardless of his foibles or quirks, beliefs, attitudes … and (let’s start listing a few other challenging miens) their ethnicity, gender, age, sexual orientation – or the rugby team they support.
This is where I’ve landed:  you can hate someone’s ideas or what they stand for.  Or their age or their social status or their religious affiliation or their rugby team.  And express it – preferably with cogent, well-informed (and formed) arguments. But not the person themselves.  No. As co-passengers in this waka of life, we maturely respect (nay, love?) them for who they are.  I don’t have to agree with their opinions or their life choices; probably won’t, in most cases, because mine are pretty screwy too.  But they deserve my respect as fellow travellers.
I cherish the right to speak freely, to express my opinions – strongly – about their choices, etc; against their choices.  But not to express hatred of the individual.  He/she is made – created – in the image of God (Genesis 1:27).  On that basis alone, he/she has my respect.

So.
I feel ashamed of the immature, faceless offal that charades as free speech on the Internet.  Much of it is so unjust, ill formed and expressed, and plain wrong.
You are most welcome to hate the policies of Jacinda Ardern, but you are not entitled to hate her, or express such – to attack her as a human being.  Or anyone else.  Free speech doesn’t extend that far.  Free speech is your right, yes, but it obliges you to use it maturely, and to respect the person. And if it takes legislation to establish that, then so be it. You asked for it.

Play the ball, not the woman, or man.  You have not that right.
Promote your ideas.  Challenge mine.  Disagree with fad topics and woke-ness or alt-right conspiracy theories.  Debate maturely.  But play the ball.

So say I.
Your opinions on this blog are welcome, but expressions of personal hate or attack are irrelevant and sub-human.

What’s Your Ministry?

By Pat Lee

(Based on Matt 4:12-23; Isa 9:1-4; I Cor 1:10-18)

What does the word ministry mean to you?
Who do you think can do ministry?
Do you know what your ministry is?

At the beginning of our Gospel reading today, Matthew tells us that Jesus left Nazareth when he heard that John was in prison. According to Matthew Henry (whose commentary on the whole Bible is classed as perhaps the greatest theological classic of English literature and a must for preachers and students), John’s imprisonment was the sign for Jesus’s ministry to begin. John, as we heard during Advent, was the forerunner for Jesus. He was the one who was to “prepare the way” for Jesus, and now he is in prison and Jesus’s time has come.

So, Jesus left Nazareth, where he grew up but was not accepted, even by members of his own family, and went to Capernaum by the Sea of Galilee (or Tiberias) in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, to fulfil the prophesy spoken by the prophet Isaiah, that we heard read this morning.

Jesus was that light, the one they had been waiting for since Isaiah’s time. His message was the same as John had been preaching: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come.” Matthew Henry says that Jesus preached often upon this subject, “wherever he went and he and his followers ever reckoned it worn threadbare, and now that it was so much nearer, the argument was so much stronger.”

When Jesus began to preach, he began to gather his disciples – who were to become the preachers and teachers after his crucifixion and resurrection. As he was walking along the shores of the Sea of Galilee he saw Peter and Andrew, who were fishermen, casting their nets.  These were the first two to be called, followed by James and John, “the sons of Zebedee”, and then later by the other eight disciples. Each of these first four immediately began to follow him.
There is some contention from some writers about this sudden response. One writer wrote, “Those immediate responses of Peter, Andrew. James and John strike me as a bit impulsive. That kind of dramatic action doesn’t appeal to most of us.” I would have to agree, but I would also add that it was exactly what happened to Paul on the way to Damascus (in Acts 9). His response was also immediate. This can and still does happen now in our times.

Jesus does not call us all in the same way. I had a dramatic call to follow him, but Michael did not. His was a very different, slow awakening when Christ called him. Many of you will not be able to pinpoint a precise time of calling because you have always known and believed in Jesus. There is no one right way. None is wrong. Jesus knows the best way for each of us. What is required whenever or however we are called is to be loyal to the call and to follow Jesus. Jesus chooses us. We don’t choose him. He chooses us to follow and be devoted and loyal to him.

We don’t know what went through the disciples’ minds when they heard the summons. Nor do we know what possessed them to leave everything behind to follow him. We can only guess. Many of us, too, have heard that same voice calling at different times in our lives, and our hearts have been strangely warmed. It has a convincing ring because it comes from the one who made our hearts in the first place and knows them inside and out.

If the disciples had known then what Jesus’s end would be, they might have had second thoughts about following him. But the kingdom of God was at hand, Jesus said, and there was no time for second thoughts. We do know what Jesus’s end on earth was like and how his death on the cross was for our salvation. He is our Redeemer.

Well, the disciples left everything. Discipleship was not periodic volunteer work that could be offered at one’s own convenience and on one’s own terms. Jesus didn’t offer them a benefits package or a golden parachute clause, and said nothing about a retirement plan. They soon discovered that they were leaving everything to become the hated of the world (Matt 24:9). It would cost them everything, but it would be worth the cost. It was not easy following Jesus. But when they realized that he had saved their lives by his death, they were able to do much better in the ministry he had called them to in the first place.

Jesus knew that he would need these disciples to take over from him when his time on earth had been fulfilled, so he taught them as he went about his ministry, teaching in the synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom; and curing every disease and sickness among the people. Sometimes they let him down, sometimes they got in his way, and sometimes some of them even thought they knew better. And we know that they made a pretty good job of what they had been trained to do after Jesus’s resurrection.
Jesus was their role model. They learnt from him as they saw him ministering to the crowds of people who came to him. Jesus told them that they would be able to do the same things he did, and even more,

Each of us has been called to become involved in ministry too. Jesus is our role model also.
We are called into different ministries, some within the church, some in the community, and in our families. When my husband was alive he used to say to me, “l don’t have a ministry.” And I would say to him, “Yes, you do. You make crosses [little wooden ornamental crosses – Ed] which we give to people when they’re troubled, ill or dying.”
Every single one of us here today has a ministry. If you don’t know what your ministry is, ask the Holy Spirit to show you and you may be surprised.

Some of you may be thinking, “Please don’t send me to Africa, God!”
That’s not likely, but your ‘Africa’ might be right under your nose – here in Tairua. Some people’s ministries are obvious to us, like the ones we see here in the church, but others are not, and all are equally important. God knows our strengths and weaknesses better than we do ourselves and will call us into the ministry that suits us best.

If God is speaking to your heart about something he wants you to do, step out in faith, because you will be equipped for it. This is what the disciples did when they became his followers and learnt from his ministry.

[Almighty God, renew your people with your heavenly grace to carry out the ministry you desire each of us to do. Give us the guidance and strength that we need, and equip and sustain us to fulfil the task well, to bring glory to your name. Amen.]

Planters of Flowers

by Ken Francis

(Based on John 1:29-41; Isa 49:1-7; Ps 40:1-11)

A parable:  A homeowner locked up his house and went away for a long time.  It was a beautiful house, in the classic style, but in the course of time it began to run down and deteriorate; and became occupied by a homeless woman.  Other than a comfortable place to sleep, she found little in the house to sustain her, but she did find a store of seeds, which she planted in front of the house.  They grew into a modest flower garden, which the woman tended over many years, and which drew admiration from passers-by, who wondered how such a shabby, decaying house could sport such a lovely, well-cared-for bed of flowers.

When the owner returned, he too marvelled at what he found, and wondered who had been responsible.

….

I’ve long been conscious of the value of being ordinary!  I’ve thought of it as the ministry of being ordinary, or simply the ministry of being present.

All the readings prescribed for today, in our lectionary, for this second Sunday of Epiphany, are about callings.  I’ve just read about the calling of Peter and Andrew, but we could similarly have read about the callings of Jeremiah, St Paul, Ezekiel and Elisha.  All great biblical heroes.  But – you may have noticed – I chose two other readings – the Psalm and the Isaiah – that were of a more general call – to all of us.

Note that Andrew’s mate, also called by Jesus, was unnamed!  My wife has always pondered, as we’ve whiled away time across a coffee, what about all the ordinary people of Bible times?  Did God not have need of others – unnamed, anonymous people?  We read of so few of them.  Or their callings.

And, what about us?  Are we called in similar ways?  It’s easy to read about Peter’s calling, for example – “Follow me,” it says in Luke’s account, “and I will make you fishers of men” – and think it applies to us personally.  Maybe it does!  But I’ve been following Christ for decades, and he hasn’t made me a ‘fisher of men’.
I remember once noting the outrageous things happening in Somalia:  so-called warlords were intercepting and stealing any food aid the UN was sending to that country, so famine was rife.  And a friend and I decided we were going to lease a cargo ship, load it up with supplies, and take it to Somalia ourselves.  We were highly motivated … wanted to do it for the Lord … felt called to … but it never got off the ground!

I have another friend, in Hamilton, now ninety years old, who for decades has been travelling back and forwards from the Sudan, establishing churches and teaching pastors in that scorched, war torn land.  He, apparently, was called to that work.  I wasn’t.

So, what about we ordinary folk?  We can’t all be Peters – or Jeremiahs or Moseses … or missionaries.  If we all strive to be Peters we just end up frustrated and guilt-laden.  So, what is there for we ordinaries to do?

I give you that shabby old house as a metaphor for our world.  While we wait with longing for the full renovation to be done, the flowers we plant along the frontage tell the neighbourhood that someone new is in charge and that one day the whole house will match their beauty.

There is plenty we ordinary people can do, if we take it up.  I have some ideas.

A line from something I was listening to the other day really struck me.  It said, “The world is full of lonely people afraid to make the first move.”  Does that strike you?  Do you know any lonely people?  Think for a moment.  Is there anyone you might make “the first move” towards?  Someone in your street?  Perhaps someone in your family – even someone from whom you’ve been estranged.  It may be someone you wouldn’t naturally be drawn to … might not appeal to you … But, there you go – it’s time to plant some flowers.

Or … I saw something about the Beatitudes.  In the Beatitudes (in the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew’s Gospel), Jesus lists a bunch of types: the poor in spirit; those who mourn; those who hunger and thirst after righteousness; the persecuted; the meek … there are nine groups mentioned.  And this commentator, Dallas Jenkins, suggested that this list was like a map.
Huh?  How could the Beatitudes be considered a map?  Well, it’s a map to help us find Jesus.  Again – huh?!  Yes – he said, find these groups of people and join them; embrace them … and that’s where you’ll find Jesus.

So there’s a thought!  Do you know anyone meek, poor in spirit, a peacemaker?  There’s your cue.

Or … does the plight of the poor and marginalised in the world trouble you?  Is there anything we can do to minister there … in an ordinary way?  Can we plant flowers in their front gardens?  We’re relatively wealthy here in NZ.  Do we deploy the resources God has given us – to share, mind you – wisely?  Let’s review our giving – to charity, relief work, mission … particularly in suffering countries.

We can all be homeless people, somehow planting flowers in this shabby world.  We can be ordinary, but even within that we can sense a calling – even a ministry.  You might be being called to be a Moses or a Peter.  That would be wonderful.  But you might be being called to be an anonymous, ordinary, present person.  There’s nothing wrong with that!  Just be an extraordinary ordinary person, serving God in your specific habitat – a deliberate planter of flowers.

[Father God, may we take up the challenge this week.  Let this not be just a nice word, a nice parable, but a cue to take some initiative to find someone to embrace:  someone poor in spirit, or pure in heart.  Someone perhaps lonely or persecuted in some way, or someone unlovely … or discouraged or depressed.  May we seek such situations with intent, trusting in your guidance and calling, that we may be you to them.  Amen.]

Epiphany

by Sharon Marr

(Based on Matt 3:13-17)
With thanks to Debie Thomas.

Last week we were encouraged to think of a word that has been on our heart this Advent season, and the word I thought of was relationship.  That it had been at the foremost of my mind was unsurprising because I was about to meet a half brother I never knew I had, that afternoon. But … it was even more than that.  I have been considering for some time, as part of my mind wanderings, the importance of Relationship, the belonging to, being part of a whole. Then I personally witnessed just how important relationship is, when my new 66 year old brother broke down and wept at our father’s grave here in Tairua.  Relationship.  And then again when he and his family met my brother and sister and son and families.  Relationship.  We need to belong. We need to know who we belong too.  And then I read today’s Gospel – all about the restoring of relationship.  How wonderful.  Is that not a true Epiphany moment? 

Epiphany: meaning ‘appearing’ or ‘revealing’.  During this brief Epiphany season, between Advent and Lent, we leave mangers and swaddling clothes behind and turn to stories of shimmering revelation.  Kings and stars.  Doves and voices.  Water.  Wine.  Transfiguration.

In Celtic Christianity, Epiphany stories are stories of “thin places”, places where the boundary between the mundane and the eternal is very porous. God parts the curtain, and we catch glimpses of his love, majesty, and power.  Epiphany calls us to look beneath and beyond the ordinary surfaces of our lives and discover the extraordinary.  To look deeply at Jesus … and see God.

Christian historian John Dominic Crossan says Jesus’s baptism story was an “acute embarrassment” for the early Church. What scandalized the Gospel writers was not the miraculous, but the ordinary.  Doves and voices?  All well and good. But the Messiah placing himself under the tutelage of a rabble-rouser like John?  God’s incarnate Son receiving a baptism of repentance?  Perfect, untouchable Jesus?  What was he doing in that murky water, aligning himself with the great unwashed?  And why did God the Father choose that sordid moment to part the clouds and call his Son ‘beloved’?

I suppose every age has its signature difficulties with faith.  When we’re not busy flattening miracle into mirage, we’re busy instead turning sacrament into scandal.  After all, what’s most incredible about this story?  That the Holy Spirit became a bird?  That Jesus threw his reputation aside to get dunked alongside sinners?  Or that God looked down at the very start of his son’s ministry and called him Beloved — before Jesus had accomplished a thing worth praising?

Let me ask the question differently:  what do we find most impossible to believe for our own lives?  That God appears by means so familiar, we often miss him?  That our baptisms bind us to all of humanity — not in theory, but in the flesh — such that you and I are kin, responsible for each other in ways we fail too often to honour? Or that we are God’s beloved — not because we’ve done anything to earn it, but because our Father insists on blessing us with his approval?

Here’s my real problem with Epiphany:  I always, always have a choice — and most of the time, I don’t want it.  I want God’s revelations to bowl me over.  I want the thin places to dominate my landscape, such that I am left choice-less, powerless, sinless.  Freed of all doubts, and spilling over with faith.

But, no.  God has not insulted humanity with so little charity. We get to choose.  No matter how many times God shows up in my life, I’m free to ignore him.  No matter how often he calls me Beloved, I can choose self-loathing instead.  No matter how many times I remember my baptism, I’m free to dredge out of the water the very sludge I first threw in.  No matter how often I reaffirm my vow to seek and serve Christ, I’m at liberty to reject him and walk away.

The stories of Epiphany are stories of light; and yet, quite often, they end in shadow.  Jesus’s baptism drives him directly into the wilderness of temptation and testing.  Soon after he’s transfigured, he dies.  There is no indication, anywhere in Scripture, that revelation leads to happily ever after.  It is quite possible to stand in the hot white centre of a thin place, and see nothing but our own ego.

We speak so glibly of faith, revelation and baptism.  As if it’s all easy.  As if what matters most is whether we sprinkle or immerse, dunk babies or adults.  As if lives aren’t on the line.
Until Christianity became a state-sanctioned religion in the fourth century, no convert received the sacrament of baptism lightly; one knew the stakes too well.  To align oneself publicly with a despised and illegal religion was to court persecution, torture, and death.

I don’t know about you, but I find so much of this maddening.  How much nicer it would be if the font were self-evidently holy.  But no — the font is just tap water, river water, chlorine.  The thin place is a neighbourhood, a forest, a hilltop.  The voice that might be God might also be wind, thunder … indigestion. Or delusion.

What I mean to say is that there is no magic — we practice Epiphany.  The challenge is always before us.  Look again.  Look harder.  See freshly.  Stand in the place that might possibly be thin, and regardless of how jaded you feel, cling to the possibility of surprise.  Epiphany is deep water — you can’t stand on the shore and dip your toes in.  You must take a breath and plunge.
I remember our grandson Steffan … when he jumped off the Tairua bridge for the first time, aged about seven, and nearly drowned.  When asked why he had jumped when he couldn’t swim, his answer was, “I didn’t know I couldn’t.”  Let us, beloved family, have that same trust to plunge forward.  Regardless.

New Testament scholar Marcus Borg suggests that Jesus himself is our thin place.  He’s the one who opens the barrier, and shows us the God we long for.  He’s the one who stands in line with us at the water’s edge, willing to immerse himself in shame, scandal, repentance and pain — all so we might hear the only Voice that can tell us who we are and whose we are …  Drawing us into relationship. Listen:  We are God’s own.  God’s children.  God’s pleasure.  Even in the deepest water, we are Beloved.