This last month I have travelled halfway across the world,
to visit my brother Paul in Brazil. Many of you will remember
Paul from his visit last Easter. Brazil is a huge country, rich in
natural resources, with 200 million people and most of the land
area of the United States, and yet it has huge disparities of
income and some of the most violent crime in the world.
One of the first places we visited on this trip was the city
of Belem, in the state of Para. It's at the very northeast of
Brazil, on the mouth of the Amazon. It was thirty degree
heat day and night, with monsoon rain every afternoon.
Roadside vendors sell fresh green coconuts for drinking
- they slice open the top with a machete, three neat whacks,
give you a straw, and there's your drink. Jacaraes -
crocodiles that eat piranha - sunned themselves in the
zoo. In the market at the docks they sell Brazil nuts,
Amazonian berries, and herbs for African magic
ceremonies. here's also a McDonalds and supermarkets,
and our hotel had wireless Internet.
The name Belem is Portuguese for Bethlehem.
One of the most surreal sights of my trip was seeing a
city council billboard proudly proclaiming: "Belem,
birthplace of the baby Jesus."
Was Jesus born in the Amazon?
This week is the second of Lent, as we continue
on the road to Easter. In the Gospels we see the
shadow of the Cross starting to fall over Jesus
and his disciples; Peter can't believe that the Messiah
can, or should die. We contrast this with Paul, looking
back, seeing in Jesus's life and death the fulfillment of
God's ancient promise to Abraham: 'you will be the
father of many nations.'
It's hard to think of a more distant place from the ancient
Middle East than Belem in the Amazon.
Could Abraham, all those years ago - perhaps as many
as 4,000 - have possibly imagined not just such a
different country, but a whole new continent? Did
anyone back then even suspect that such a place as
America existed? In the desert, could he have imagined
rainforest, undiscovered fruit and berries, tribespeople
with languages we're still cataloguing?
Could he have imagined islands called New Zealand,
down in the far south of the world? Could he have
imagined jet travel, flying for thirteen hours across the
Pacific ocean while watching motion pictures on a
screen in front of our seats?
I'm sure he didn't. But Abraham didn't need to imagine
or understand everything that would happen in the future
to understand God's plan. He knew God and trusted
him, and that was enough.
Looking at Belem today, there is certainly a sense in
which this very distant nation is full of Abraham's children.
It's hard to walk a block without seeing either a church or
Christian imagery. You could look at Belem and say: It's
over. We've won. God's message has been preached in every
nation. Everyone now is a child of Abraham. God can wrap
this thing up and go home.
I even walked past a truck parked at the kerb with a huge
mural of JESUS spray-painted on the side. If even the truckers
are Christian, this must be a place where God lives.
But you could look here at Christchurch, New Zealand,
and say the same. A city of churches, we've got two cathedrals,
and we even have Christ in our name. How much more
religion could God want?
It IS religion that God wants - right?
Belem in Brazil was founded in 1616. It was born in a war
between the Portuguese and French over the riches of the
Amazon - the Brazil nuts, and all the other fruit and spices.
Very quickly this Christian nation began to enslave the native
Indians to harvest the fruit. As the Indians died from harsh
treatment and overwork, they imported African slaves to
In the 18th century, Jesuit priests tried to protect the Indians,
and were eventually themselves expelled from the country
for doing so.
In 1835, the poorest of the blacks and Indians started a
revolution and seized the city of Belem. British ships and
Brazilian military violently put down the revolution and killed
30,000 people - nearly a third of the population of the state.
And even today, illegal logging and slavery continues in the
Amazon. In 2005 - just a few weeks after I last visited Brazil -
an American Catholic nun, Sister Dorothy Stang, was
murdered by ranchers angry at her activism on behalf of the
And what hurts me the most is that all of this - four centuries
of it - happened in a Christian country, saturated in religion
and and rituals. Some religious people, like Sister Dorothy
and the Jesuits, tried to help the poor. Some tried to oppress them.
On a television program I saw the richest and most powerful
Pentecostal church in Brazil preaching a gospel of prosperity -
literally saying that if you came to their services and paid them
tithes, you would have good fortune in your business, and if
you stopped going to their services, you would have bad luck.
It's hard to see what this kind of religion has to do with Jesus.
But it seems very much what the Apostle Paul was talking
about when he says that righteousness - right living - is not
a matter of law but of faith - something that comes from
inside our heart, and not imposed from outside.
The reason my brother and I were in Belem was to attend
a conference called the World Social Forum. It's been held
every year since 2001, mostly in Brazil, but also in Africa
and India. The conference is a response to the World
Economic Forum: a chance for a lot of different non-
governmental organisations and political groups to present
workshops and trade ideas.
There aren't perhaps a lot of Christians who come to a
forum like this. There were a lot of red flags and Che
Guevera T-shirts. The official Communist Party of Brazil
was there, as well as other parties who think the Communists
are too far to the right.
There was a group of people who remember the death
of Sister Dorothy and who have formed a movement in
her name to protest what's going on in the Amazon.
There were other religious people: the Quakers, and the
Jesuits, and Caritas, and an evangelical Christian group,
as well as the Buddhists and the spiritists.
Everyone had an opinion and not everyone agreed.
It was like a big supermarket of ideas. Unfortunately
most of it was in Portuguese, so I only got the tiniest
glimpse of what everyone was saying.
But in all of it I had a sense that almost everyone is
looking for change. There is a sense that the way we
have been living isn't working and that we need to find
alternatives. Even people who don't believe in a God
seem to be asking the question: how do I live rightly in
this world? How do I live as if other people mattered?
It thrills me to see people asking this question. We often
take for granted that we already know the right thing to
do and that all we have to do is get on and do it: go to
school, get a job, go to work, go to church, come home.
But sometimes, something stirs us up. We face a crisis,
or a point of decision. The easy answers no longer satisfy us.
The normal things don't work. Everything seems to be falling
apart. What do we do then? How do we reinvent ourselves?
How do we find out the right thing to do? How do we live
rightly in a time of great change?
This seems to be the same question the Apostle Paul is asking.
What is it, really, that God wants from us?
The answer that Paul comes up with seems to be surprising.
The law, he says - religion, nationality, justice, everything
that would normally seem important in ordering our lives -
is not the most important thing. What came first, what created it,
was faith. Just trusting that God is good and that he has a plan for us.
When I visited Brazil, before I stepped on that plane, it felt like
I was walking into the unknown. My Portuguese is not that
good. I've been there before, and I knew my brother was
going to be at the airport to meet me... but what if he wasn't?
What would I do? Sometimes it feels like that with God.
What if God doesn't come through for us?
I'm sure Abraham felt like that. I'm also sure that even
Jesus felt like that at times.
I think the kind of faith that Jesus and Abraham and the
Apostle Paul modelled for us is the kind that doesn't always
*know* with 100% certainty what is in the future. But it
takes the first step anyway.
I did feel very safe all the time that I was in Brazil.
We travelled from Belem back to Rio de Janeiro, I lived in
the little house that my brother built on top of a church in a
slum. I met some of the wonderful people who go to his
church - only around twenty of them, it's a smaller church
than this one. I met other missionaries from Brazil, from
England and America. I heard Paul preach in a small town
outside of Belo Horizonte, a mining city further in the interior.
A lot of young people there seemed to experience God
in a new way. A couple were healed.
In all of this, living in Brazil was harder than here, and it
sometimes feels dreamlike coming back. We drank bottled
water because we couldn't trust the tap water. There were
places you couldn't take photos because drug dealers -
mostly teenagers - were selling cocaine. When it rained,
the power would go off and huge potholes would appear
in the roads. And yet people are still pretty much just the
same as here.
I wish I knew what was going to happen this year. I can't
believe that it's 2009 already. It seems like only yesterday
that it was 1989, and I was leaving school and wondering
what I would do with my life. I'm not sure that I've figured
that one out either.
But the path of my life seems to have led one step at a time.
Last month I was in Brazil. Now I'm back here in New
Zealand. Everywhere I go, I think God is there, even when
I don't understand exactly how.
I think that Jesus can be born in Belem on the Amazon,
just as he was in Bethlehem in ancient Israel - or as he might
be in modern Bethlehem in the West Bank. I think that Jesus
can be born here in Christchurch, New Zealand.
It never ceases to amaze me how many strange places
I find reflections of God. While I was writing this sermon
I stumbled on a pop song from 1991. It was written by the
singer Prince and sung by Martika. I'd never looked at the
lyrics before. This is what they say.
Love, thy will be done
I can no longer hide
I can no longer run
No longer can I resist the guiding light
It gives me the power to keep up the fight
Love, thy will be done
Since I have found you my life has just begun
And I see all of your creations as one
No one less beautiful or more special than the next
We are all blessed and so wise to accept
Thy will love be done
Love, thy will be mine
And make me strive for the glorious and divine
I could not be more satisfied
Even when there's no peace outside my window
There's peace inside
And that's why I no longer run
Love thy will be done
This Lent and Easter, may we say 'Love thy will be done' as Jesus did.