It was a real privilege for me to preach at the opening eucharist service of our General Synod this year. Needless to say, I was absolutely nervous. I prayed a lot, and hoped to offer a message that would cause our Synod delegates to think. I’m not sure if I succeeded, though I was humbled by Bishop Kelvin Wright’s response. But with an audience filled with as many cynics as there are supporters, in some ways I’m glad to “have gotten out of there alive” (which I say, though ever so slightly, with tongue-in-cheek).

Here’s the text of the sermon:

1 After this there was a festival of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 2 Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. 3 In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. 5 One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. 6 When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” 7 The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.” 8 Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” 9 At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk. Now that day was a sabbath.

John 5:1-9

Let me share with you a saying that I first heard as a child, growing up just north of Gisborne, on the East Coast, in the heart of Ngāti Porou country.

Kaua e mate wheke, me mate ururoa.

A rudimentary translation into English would read:

Don’t die like an octopus, die like a hammerhead shark.

Kaua e mate wheke.
Don’t die like an octopus.

The octopus is one of God’s most amazing creatures.

They have keen eyesight, and will see you long before you see them. If you’ve ever seen one face to face, it can be unnerving, as they stare you right in the eye.

They’re fast, strong, and flexible. They can change the colour of their skin, alter the shape of their bodies, and fool you into thinking that they are not even there.

I don’t like octopi. I have my reasons.

I was diving once, off a reef near the old boat ramp in Waima. And as I was standing waist-deep in the water, debating with my cousins about where the best kina and paua were to be found, I felt something move, just above my ankle.

I felt a tentacle wrap around my lower calf muscle, and press into the rubber of my wetsuit.

I felt a second. Then a third.

It happened quickly, but it took me all of a second to realise what was happening.

An octopus had taken a firm grip on my calf, and I could feel its beak nibble at my wetsuit.

So I did what all proud Ngāti Porou warriors would do:

I screamed.

Now, of course, my recollection of it was that it was a masculine, deep baritone scream.

I screamed, and I thrashed about, and I scrambled high up onto the flat of a nearby rock.

I was not happy.

And as I tried frantically to kick away the octopus on my left leg, while simultaneously grabbing at the diving knife strapped to my right leg, the octopus let go.

And it collapsed on itself, in a heap, on the rock. It tumbled around on itself for a moment, as it seemed to reach out and search for a way down. And then, it just lay there, limp, helpless, and almost inside out.

In the water it was formidable. But out of its element, it seemed to lose all of its strength and tenacity. It gave up. And it was easily dispatched.

Now, I’ve since been told that the octopus is not given to attacking humans. It’s just that they are curious and inquisitive creatures. They don’t mean any harm.

I receive no comfort from that explanation.

Kaua e mate wheke, me mate ururoa.
Don’t die like an octopus, die like a hammerhead shark.

Unlike the octopus, there is no easy way to dispatch a hammerhead shark.

I’d heard stories about them. I’d heard how my uncles would drag in their fishing nets, only to find the angry writhing entanglement of a small hammerhead shark. They much preferred to hack away their nets, and lose all its contents, then contend with a hammerhead.

I’d heard how my Father had landed a four-foot hammerhead while on his cousin Mick Harrison’s 12-foot dinghy. Mick told him not to.

Dad insisted. Once brought on board, the hammerhead launched itself in every direction that it could, punching left and right with its powerful tail, while crunching its teeth into anything near its mouth.

My father and his cousin launched themselves overboard, preferring to take their chances in the waters of Waipiro Bay, rather than remain on board with the psychotic hammerhead.

Kaua e mate wheke, me mate ururoa.
Don’t die like an octopus, die like a hammerhead shark.

Now, my simplistic translation of this saying might confuse you. You see, this saying of ours is not about dying. It’s about living.

It’s about the tenacity, the grit, and the determination needed to survive.

Given the right circumstances, the octopus will fight to live, and can be spectacular while doing so.

But when it realises that its environment has changed, it surrenders, drops into a heap, and dies.

The hammerhead is a different proposition. It doesn’t care if it’s in the water, or on your boat. It will fight you for the right to live. And itwill do so with every last ounce of strength and breath that it has.

Kaua e mate wheke, me mate ururoa.

Now, you might ask “Don, what has this got to do with the Gospel?”

Well, I’m gonna tell you.

There’s a powerful lesson in this morning’s reading. The Gospel mentions it so briefly, and so casually, that you almost miss it.
We are told here of a man suffering from illness. He had been this way for 38 years.

That’s a long time.

Every day, this man lay near the pool of Bethseda, and every day he waited there for the waters to be stirred — which was caused, as legend had it, by the hand of an angel. So it was believed, that whoever was first to enter the swirling waters of the pool would be healed.

Every day this man watched and waited. And every day he made the attempt to be first. And every day he failed, for 38 years. This man has a lesson to teach us. It’s a lesson of struggle, determination, and of never giving up hope.

It is a lesson of tenacious faith.

Kaua e mate wheke, me mate ururoa.

It took a tenacious faith for Ruatara and Samuel Marsden to preach the Gospel for the first time in these isles, and to bring glad tidings of great joy.

It was the same tenacious faith that spread the Gospel throughout the land, courageously evangelising whether in safety or not. The same tenacious faith that planted churches, built schools, nurtured ministers who were called by God, blessed with talent, and who preached the Gospel with contagious conviction.

The same tenacious faith that rejoices in the Lord always, that prays without ceasing, that grows congregations, faithfully serving the sacraments; that lives in the community and serves them as Christ served them – unafraid of the rot and the rust of life, being salt to the earth, and light to the world.

That same tenacious faith that earned our forebears the name Te Haahi Mihinare – The Missionary Church.

If we are a church in decline, if we have rendered ourselves irrelevant and ineffective in our mission field, it is because we have forgotten our tenacious faith.

We have forgotten what it means to be Mihinare.

Let that not be the last word.

Kaua e mate wheke, me mate ururoa.

Archbishops and Bishops; Leaders and Delegates; Hosts and Staff, Observers, Presenters, and all of you who have gathered here for this, the 59th General Synod – Te Hinota Whanui of the Anglican Church in Aotearoa-New Zealand and Polynesia; this is the challenge of the Gospel to you:

Don’t let the your faith become imprisoned by simple hierarchy and bureaucracy, by canon law and regulation.

Don’t let mediocrity become our walls, and fear become our ceiling.

This is not what Christ intended for his Church.

There will always be hardship and struggle – Jesus told us this.

There will always be tares among the wheat, wolves among the sheep, and hired-hands among the shepherds.

But let us cling to the Gospel, and to everything that makes us Te Haahi Mihinare.

Let us cling to our tenacious faith.

Kaua e mate wheke, me mate ururoa.

Kia Ora Tatou.

 

Walking the faith ain't easy, even if you are an Anglican priest. So I keep my family first, stay grateful, and try to live a little.