Isa 52:1-6, Gal; 5:13-23, Luke 1:68-79
We have just heard a prophecy by Zechariah about his soon-to-be born son John – ‘you, child, will be called the prophet of the most high.
Today we commemorate another prophet – not from the days of Isaiah, though he knew and loved the words of Isaiah. Not from the days of the first century, though he was familiar with all that John spoke and did. The man whose picture you can see is a New Zealand prophet – Te Whiti o Rongomai.
He was born in Taranaki about 1831, and went to a Lutheran mission school. He had already heard about the Gospel before his studies though, as Maori returning from the Bay of Islands had brought the good news with them. When the Lutheran missionary told Te Whiti and his friends that he came bringing the word of God, the fifteen -year old Te Whiti answered that “we know that word and greet you in God’s peace.’
Peace was to be the driving force over Te Whiti’s life. I don’t know how much history you know of Taranaki in the 1860s and 70s. When I was at primary school we studied what were called the Maori Land wars. More recently this name has been thought rather unfair, as there are always two -or more- sides to any conflict.
The government had confiscated vast tracts of land in reprisal for Maori uprising, and there was a huge demand from the settlers for this land. One area of land which was designated for resettlement was on the western slopes of mount Taranaki, and included the village of Parihaka. This is a familiar name isn’t it? Many artists and poets have celebrated what it stood for.
I’ll tell you a bit about this town. Te Whiti and his friend Tohu Kakahi had set up a unique community – not a fortified pa, as was the norm. They planned the layout, they managed the economy and agriculture carefully, they made sure the kids were educated, they enforced health and sanitation measures, and banned alcohol. Wow, what an idyllic place to live! A place where life was planned out, not just haphazardly gone into.
Unfortunately, the settlers were still arriving, wanting land, and government surveyors arrived to measure it out. Te Whiti and his men escorted them over the river to land already sold to the government, and hoped for peace. But the government forces kept coming, and arrested Te Whiti’s followers until the jails were full. By 1881 a group of volunteers joined with the constabulary in a march upon Parihaka, intending to arrest Te Whiti and the other leaders.
When the troops arrived, they did not find resistance! The boundary fences had been pulled down to allow them in, and they were offered bread and water! 200 children were singing songs for them!
What a welcome! Who would welcome their enemy with food and drink, and entertainment? Jesus would, I think. Maybe it was about heaping coals on their head- that is, making them feel so bad by being loved. You see, Te Whiti knew God’s healing love, and Jesus’ sacrificial love. He did not meet force with force, but with passive resistance. The leaders and their wives came quietly with the troops into custody, and did not return for two years.
Te Whiti’s struggle for justice did not in any way clash with his desire for God’s peace. He certainly did guide his people in the ways of God’s peace, just as Zechariah prophesied that John would do. The way of passive resistance caught the attention of many around the world, in particular Ghandi, who 60 years later would follow the same path.
This is why Te Whiti is called a prophet. A prophet can be someone who speaks about the future – what is to come. Another facet of being a prophet is speaking God’s word to all who will listen, calling people into repentance and encouraging them to let the Holy Spirit shine its light into their hearts, to show us where there are things that are not in line with what God wants for us.
Our reading from Galatians talks about these things –
‘Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.’
Often when we think about sin, the ones that leap out tend to be the big ones, such as those spoken about in the ten commandments.
“I’m ok Lord, I think. I haven’t committed murder this week, though it was tempting. I haven’t committed adultery, though I did think about it….”
This list from Paul has more detail, and it would be useful I think to meditate on them slowly at confession-time. Idolatry – who these days worships idols, except in countries where that is their religion? But how about the idol of money? or success? Sorcery – who would do that except for the obvious Wiccans. But how about trusting in your horoscope? That is sorcery. You can see how these things have more relevance than we might see at first glance. How about enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions and factions? There would be nothing to watch on our favourite soap operas if none of these were present. And it’s this lot that is so very hard to keep away from. People are by nature jealous, and confrontational. Or maybe that’s the flesh rising up against the spirit. A snappy retort, an insult for a smart remark, it’s so easy to let arguments escalate. I’ve got kids, I see this hourly. My friends, this is an area of great challenge to us, as human beings who have to live with other human beings. In our families, at work, at school, in our clubs, and dare I say it, in our churches, arguments arise so often that we could almost consider them normal.
But that’s not God’s plan for us. Te Whiti showed his people and the world who were watching that there is another way. A way that shows the fruit of the spirit. ‘The fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.’ Tongue in cheek Paul goes on to say that there is no law against these things.
It’s easy to love people when they are not annoying us. I heard a story about a lady who was praying. “Lord, I have done really well so far today. I haven’t been angry with anyone, I haven’t lost my temper, or even spoken a cross word. I haven’t been resentful or envious. But Lord I’m getting out of bed soon and I’m going to need your help!”
Yes we do need God’s help. It’s not so hard to avoid these sins of anger when we don’t see anyone, though things can still fester. But the list we read just now is not a list of virtues in isolation. It’s the fruit of the spirit.
If you look outside at the recently-planted orchard, you can see fruit trees. They are little and frail at the moment. Their roots are not yet deep, they are not yet strengthened by resisting the wind. The little apple trees are just starting to trust that the rain and the sunshine and the goodness of the soil will be there to let them grow and bear fruit. It’s the same with us. In order to bear the fruits of the spirit, we must be planted in good soil. The soil of belonging to a congregation, and of feeding ourselves with scripture. We feel the warmth of God’s love, and it helps us grow. Now our little fruit trees may not always have it easy. There may be codlin moths, little black slugs, leaf curl, and a whole lot of other pests and diseases that challenge them and stop them producing their best.
We’re just like the new trees. Things may happen in our lives to throw us off our walk – the enemy attacks those who seek to follow God. Health can be a challenge. Family circumstances can be difficult. But if our roots are deep, and if we care for each other, we can produce fruit. When you tend a fruit tree, you take action where there is a problem. You can pick off the diseased leaves, or spray them. You can set traps for the moths, and deal with the pests when they are small and haven’t sapped the strength of the whole tree. Help each other- and be prepared to listen to each other. Do not harden your hearts to a loving hint from someone that may help set you right. BUT, and it’s a big one, do this in love, by the Holy Spirit. As Paul says, You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’
That’s what Te Whiti and the people of Parihaka did when the troops came in to arrest them. They offered no resistance, instead, hospitality. Can we do this when we too are challenged?