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From Columbus: Jenny Te Paa's June 17 homily

[Episcopal News Service] 

Maori Anglican theologian Dr. Jenny Plane Te Paa, the "ahorangi" or dean of Te Rau Kahikatea (College of St. John the Evangelist) in Auckland, New Zealand, preached the homily at the morning Convention Eucharist June 17.

Te Paa, the first indigenous lay woman to serve as a seminary dean in the Anglican Communion, was a member of the Lambeth Commission on Communion which produced the Windsor Report. She is also a member of the bishops sub group of Theological Education for the Anglican Communion (TEAC), a task force established by the Anglican Primates to make recommendations and practical proposals to strengthen theological education within the Anglican Communion.

The full text of her sermon follows:

Grace and peace to you in the name of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

Lord, Holy Spirit
In the love of friends you are building us a new house
Heaven is with us when you are with us
You are singing your song in the hearts of the poor
Guide us, wound us, heal us. Bring us to God.

(James K Baxter in the New Zealand Prayer Book. p158)

I haven't traveled 14,000 kilometers to simply read to you from the New Zealand Prayer Book even though I know many of you also deeply treasure this beautiful liturgical taonga or gift.

Some 135 years ago the first Bishop of Aotearoa New Zealand, George Augustus Selwyn, also made the same journey across the oceans and mountains, which lie between us. He came as your guest, the great missionary hero, invited perhaps by your forebears because of their sense of the possibilities which radical ministries of inclusion inevitably present -- you see those indigenous Maori from whom I am directly descended had already insisted upon their rightful place within the as yet fledgling Church of England in the world and Selwyn himself was in 1871 being pressed to reconcile himself to the rightness in that claim. My great-great-great grandparents were therefore as implicated in the first official contact between our Church and yours, as they are for my being here today.

My friends I come among you today as one with you, not only because of our shared history, but as one whose life has been immeasurably enriched by the many, many friendships formed here in this vast, complex and somewhat troubled 'land of the free' -- friendships with academic colleagues, with church leaders, with colleagues lay and ordained, those with whom I have served on various Communion-wide Commissions and committee's, with researchers, publishers and co-writers, with exchange students and exchange parishioners.

I come among you today as one with you, as you struggle to discern how best to be as the Episcopal Church here in this land and in those lands for which you have traditionally offered your ecclesial embrace. I am with you as you struggle to discern how best to respond to those beyond your Provincial boundaries who are responsible for guiding, upholding and protecting our shared global ecclesiological integrity.

I am here because I believe very deeply in the love of friends -- 'friends' as in the Lukan sense of those who hold together all things in common, I am not alone -- there are a great many New Zealand Anglicans who share with you also in the bonds of affectionate friendship across the mighty Pacific Ocean that lies between our lands. What matters right now is that in our time we do indeed 'hold together' across those 14,000 kilometers to our common faith belief in, one holy catholic and apostolic church, one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. [even as] We look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.

Of late the words 'holding together' have assumed such poignancy for us as global Anglicans as I am sure the majority of us here present would never have believed possible.

Let me share a small personal story. In the days of the life of the Lambeth Commission for my own wellbeing and solace, I would meet as often as I could with the elders from my small rural tribal community, the majority of whom are Anglican and many of whom are Anglican Priests both men and women. After they would finish with interrogating me about what Windsor Castle was like and enquiring eagerly about whether or not I did get to see the Queen, they would turn in all seriousness and with deep consternation and ask me if it was true that their beloved Anglican Church was 'breaking up?' You see to them, the thought of 'breaking up' is simply unfathomable. How can human hands possibly tear asunder that which God alone has ordained?

Now given that these elders of mine are not exactly lacking in some fairly sound post-colonial analysis they then went on to claim with feisty righteous indignation, their right to be consulted on such serious matters! After all (as fully baptized and paid up lifetime Anglican members of the body of Christ) they demanded to know who in the world was presuming to speak and act on their behalf and then I would be duly dispatched to pass along their unequivocal messages of concern and of objection, firstly to John Paterson our much loved Archbishop at the time, then to 'that 'posh' committee you serve on' and finally to the Archbishop of Canterbury 'next time you see him.'

Now I recognize there is a problematic here because even my esteemed elders are speaking out from the always unstable position of their idealized, closed and secure indigenous community of dreams as opposed to their really existing community which is still one of abundant hospitality and yet also now, is one of blurred boundaries, one which increasingly demands unconditional loyalty and one which is becoming predictably mistrustful of the 'strangers' at the door.

However be that as it may (and I will return to this notion from Baumann of the community of dreams versus the really living community a little later on), since my time as a Lambeth Commissioner, on every sacred occasion when I say any one of the Creeds, or say the Lord's Prayer or indeed respond to the Eucharistic prayers I too continue to be saddened and bewildered by any suggestion, any prospect that there ought to be, will be, might be, could ever possibly be, a time when worldwide Anglicans will 'choose to walk apart?'

I think to myself if that were to happen, what then would I say to the elders when they ask me why? What then would we say to those whose abiding love for us and whose faith in God brought us to our baptism? What then would we say to those whose abiding love for us and whose faith in God brought us therefore into the Anglican family of Christ?

What would we say to the Saints, the holy Martyrs, to incalculably courageous souls such as Bernard Mzeki whose life and martyrdom we pause to give honor to today? Would we say his work of mission in teaching, translating, liturgical development, evangelizing, caring for God's creation in the name of the Anglican Church he devoted himself to and gave his life for, was at all misguided, in vain? When we pray Bernard's prayer, 'Grant to us, thy humble servants, a like faith and power of love, that we who rejoice in his triumph may profit by his example' what are we to understand?

My friends, what profits us more than our exemplary unity in Christ? Time and again Archbishop Robin Eames would gently reflect with us, "If we are in communion with God and God is in communion with us, then we have got to be in communion with one another."

What greater tribute can we offer to the Saints than by holding together to their model of selfless devotion to the missio Dei?

Are not the words of the Psalmist ones we would wish to utter with sincere love in our hearts for one another, 'How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity?'

Are not the related words of John indicative, 'I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you ...'

Are not therefore the Gospel words of our Lord and Savior compelling enough for us to reach out to one another across the arbitrary and humanly contrived divides of attitude, bias, fear, lust, bigotry and shame – those things, which currently and tragically, are proving to be so threatening to our unity?

In all I have witnessed in this extraordinary Convention I have seen and felt and heard unequivocal affirmation that yes the words of the Gospels are compelling and yes they are definitive and yes, we believe, 'our help is irrefutably in the Lord who made heaven and earth' and therefore as committed Anglicans we want to publicly and proudly refuse to entertain for another moment the prospect of disunity, schism, walking apart, parallel or two tier Communions. We want instead to commit to working for the preservation, strengthening and nurturing of unity within our beloved Communion and on this basis I am seeing a very clear intention to resist the would be home breakers, those who say there is no option, those who say there is no hope. It isn't so, it can never ever be so impossible to redeem any situation of conflict -- there is always hope, in God's name, there is always hope.

I say these things because like you, I believe with all my heart and soul that our Church, our worldwide Anglican Communion is too precious, too important, too sacred a global institution for any of us to allow any further threats, plots, schemes, proposals leading to division, to even be given the time of day. I say this because I have not the words for the elders. I have not the words for the Saints. I cannot begin to imagine how I, how anyone of us, could explain to them what 'walking apart' might mean. I say it also because the irony of my situation (in respect of the current tensions) as an indigenous person is not lost on me and in this I enjoin my heart and my hands to those of my indigenous sisters and brothers throughout the Communion.

Please remember that historically it has been previously colonized indigenous Anglicans who have had to endure some of the most sustained and humiliating experiences of being variously marginalized, abused, disenfranchised, patronized by those traditionally dominant, especially in those nations where the Church of England went hand in hand with the colonizers. Even a cursory read of any historical record involving missionaries and indigenous peoples will soon reveal a rather ambiguous legacy. While it is true that there were some exchanges of mutual benefit, so it is also historically proven that in any situation of occupation the scales are most definitely tipped against those being occupied. These elders of mine to whom I have already referred can tell all manner of stories of being excluded, treated unjustly as Priests and Bishops, of having lands appropriated without proper recompense and so on it goes.

And yet, it was these same 'uncivilized natives,' having welcomed the Gospel bearers, having been equally and willingly touched by Christ's saving grace, having experienced the serenity and beauty of Anglican sacramental worship, having found ways of incarnating belief in the triune God through our own languages, art forms, dance, hymns, and latterly in liturgy itself, who have also never been deterred nor dissuaded from their Christian witness.

My elders have always, in spite of suffering, in spite of oppression, continuously 'found' through the strength of their discipleship and their dignified resilience, the agency necessary to overcome. Our continuing witness in today's world is for God's redemptive justice to some day prevail for all and not just for some.

For all the years of incredible struggle, my own people today, are now illustrative of those our darling Papa Desmond Tutu describes as beneficiaries of 'improbable redemption.' I am so proud of the structural and spiritual transfiguration that has occurred especially over the past two decades in the Anglican Church in Aotearoa New Zealand. The unstoppable movement toward embodying redemptive justice is well underway. An albeit small and yet hopefully increasing number of our shared global church histories are characterized by other such inspirational examples of unwavering faith commitment managing to triumph even in as yet incomplete ways over extraordinary and often overwhelming injustice.

It occurs to me that the analogy can and should be drawn by women and by the lesbian and gay community. The inevitable costliness of faith filled discipleship is something those intentionally excluded have always known and most will continue to live with until God's justice does indeed prevail for all. To paraphrase Bonhoeffer, "We're not necessarily doubting that God will do the best for us; we are merely wondering how painful the best will turn out to be."

Today's Gospel helps me to understand even more profoundly this costliness, especially in times of great danger. To set the stage for today's encounter, Luke takes us his audience on the prophetic journey to Jerusalem. According to Johnson, he has the Prophet accuse the Pharisees and the lawyers of holding murderous malice against the apostles. The Pharisees readily fulfill the prophecy; they lie in waiting for Jesus intending to trap him by his speech. In everything Jesus now says there is danger not only for him but also for his listeners. To create an atmosphere of electrifying tension Luke has Jesus surrounded by a crowd so large that some are being trampled. Fear arises, this is no longer an occasion where religious awe at Jesus miracles is the prevailing sentiment, no, now is the time of terror as the threat of arrest, persecution and death are rendered abundantly apparent. It is into this atmosphere of frightened apprehension that Jesus begins to teach. He tells the disciples to be utterly transparent in their convictions and not to mask their Christian witness behind all kinds of hypocritical gestures and claims. When all of that is stripped away,' 'there will be nothing concealed that will not be revealed, nothing secret that will not be known.'

Jesus goes on to describe the way in which fear, especially fear of death can cause human beings to abandon moral principles, to become self-protective, to become cowards. He goes on however to relativize human death, 'don't fear those who kill the body and afterwards can do nothing more. I will show you whom to fear.'

The final dimension of this Gospel has to do with the implications of denial ... 'the one who denies me in front of people will be denied in front of God's angels.' There is a compositional twist to the end of this little story ending in a reassurance that the Holy Spirit will at the end, 'teach you what you must say.'

Hypocrisy, fear and denial then are the prevailing options for the disciples in the Gospel -- Jesus acknowledges the danger and teaches the alternative, albeit costly responses.

The danger then, was that the disciples didn't really know yet who Jesus was, the danger now, is that we do and yet still we allow hypocrisy, fear and denial to prevail. 

What kind of community was Jesus trying to teach the disciples about -- is there something here, which can be applied to our own current situation of complexity, tension and threat?

In our seeking to become the Anglican Communion incarnate are we missing something of fundamental importance from Jesus' own example and teaching?

We mere mortals know there is a price to be paid for the privilege of being secure 'in community' and it is paid in the currency of freedom, variously defined as autonomy, the right 'to be' and so on. Balancing the two equally precious and coveted values of security and freedom often appears as an irreconcilable challenge. It would seem to me that this is where we all sit so precariously at this moment in time. Freedom without security is as untenable as security without freedom. Some suggest that the argument between security and freedom is the argument between community and individuality and that it is, at least in the contemporary circumstance, likely irresolvable. But what I will not concede is that this will ever stop human beings from trying. Being human there are times when we can neither fulfill the hope, nor cease our hoping. We cannot be human without both security and freedom but neither can we always have both at the same time and in quantities, which we find fully satisfactory.

It is indeed ironic that even as we as Christians yearn so deeply for the beloved community, it remains so tragically elusive.

Life in our complex and now irreversibly globalized villages and nations has exposed us all to the infinitely creative variety of ways in which human beings must struggle to make sacred the spaces with which we are each entrusted by virtue of the circumstances of our birth. The human longing for community, for that good thing which is our place of belonging, of knowing, of being in safety and security is what we want.

The trouble arises as I mentioned earlier when the decisive differences emerge between the community of our dreams, our paradise lost and the 'really existing community' which we fallible human beings consciously create for ourselves (in spite of our idealized and well intentioned dreams) and in spite of our theological rhetoric about 'being brought near by the blood of Christ.'

Inside the 'community of our dreams' we imagine ourselves to be safe, protected, surrounded by familiarity, insular, cozy, secure, contained. However, in the 'really existing community,' we are increasingly insecure, vulnerable, surrounded and challenged by difference, exposed, pressured to conform and often to blindly obey, and so we invent categories of human worthiness to try and justify forms of social order and all we do is allow for the creation of unjust hierarchies of power and dominance, we selectively valorize aspects of human identity in order (amongst other things) to protect unjust economic realities, we invent clever race and gender neutral discourses to disguise our own deep prejudices, we contrive scientific and medical evidence to bolster our homophobia, we appropriate Scripture in order to do harm to one another instead of exemplifying the gentle, grace filled, deeply compassionate behavior of the One who came in order that all would have life and have it in abundance -- the One who created us to be, the one new humanity in place of the two thus making peace ... no longer strangers and aliens but citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.).

No longer strangers and aliens but citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, surely it is this glorious transcendent imagery of unconditionally inclusive human community created and sustained by covenant of God to which we must aspire? Stripped not of the irrefutably blessed aspects of our unique sexual, gender and ethnic identities, but rather of those deliberately and oppressively politicized claims of 'acceptable' identity, we surely rate a much better chance of standing before the throne of God, where all will be sheltered, where none will hunger nor thirst, where all will be guided to the springs of the water of life and where God will wipe away the tears of all who have ever suffered.

My sisters and brothers in Christ, I believe we must take courage and collectively and relentlessly confront the extant human pathologies of prejudice, bigotry, hatred -- these intentionally sinful things expressed variously as homophobia, racism, sexism, and imperialism, for these are the ultimate hypocrisies of our times causing us to objectify in cruel and destructive ways those whom God has created so perfectly in God's own image. We must I believe with great urgency and without fear, go as Jesus showed us, 'beyond the yeast of the Pharisees'.

This I see as more likely to create the preconditions for achieving mutual interdependence and ultimately for collective flourishing because it takes us all beyond the ghettoized realms of self-righteous particularity borne of insecurity and ultimately of injustice, it takes us all beyond the realms of sophistry masquerading as timeless theological truth. It takes us all beyond the realms of our own hypocrisy, fear and regrettable penchant for denial.

If we are indeed to be active agents of God's will being done on earth as it is in heaven, if we are indeed to be fully and unconditionally responsive to the cries of the poor at the gate, then we need to be fully, visibly and authentically a Christian community, preferably a community of friends willing and committed to holding together, to holding all things and each other in common.

For it is only by achieving such deep and abiding intimacy that we can expect to transform ourselves into being the Communion of our dreams, the Communion of our prayers, the worldwide Anglican Communion which celebrates with the angels and saints and all the glorious company of heaven the God given equal right to be human and the equally God given ability to act on that right in all ways and at all times, only, to the Glory of our God of Justice and Compassion.

Lord, Holy Spirit ... in the love of friends ... guide us, wound us heal us. Bring us to God. Amen.

Dr. Jenny Plane Te Paa