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Saturday, July 30, 2016

Music, a Cathedral and the life of the Spirit


18th Sunday in Ordinary Time

A Festal Choral Evensong 31 July 2016

The most fundamental task that confronts anyone who follows Christ is to try to give some account of his or her faith.  We believe in the absolute love of God for the world; we believe that this ultimate reality, the mystery of Being itself, points us toward love and demands we live in accordance with love.  We are dazzled into wonderment by the realization that love is at the core of all that is, and that love is the reason and the meaning that anything exists at all.

On the Sunday when we farewell our Director of Music, it is serendipitous that in the Second Lesson we hear St Paul (1 Corinthians 14:1-19) who, while talking of spiritual gifts, alludes to musical instruments, to the nature of sound, and to the pivotal role of the mind: “I will sing praise with the spirit, but I will sing praise with the mind also.”

That is not a bad verse to remember when we talk of the life of a Christian and of the place of Cathedral music and the life of our Cathedral.

Drawing on Paul, I offer this hunch, namely that our response to the love of God is a primal and intuitive response to beauty.  

One philosopher has argued that the very first effect and sign of this is a musical stir in the depths of the soul.
“A kind of musical stir, of unformulated song, with no words, no sounds, absolutely inaudible to the ear, audible only to the heart.”[1]
He has noted that the musical experience causes us to see and that “we receive a transient and incomparable knowing, a vision, a fleeting revelation.”[2]

These are heady claims and bold assertions but they are a theological foundation for the importance of music in our cathedral life.  Music is our response, however barely formulated, to the beauty of God.   The Cathedral music carries us and trains us in that response; it extends us always – as it must.

For me a simple example of this can be the choir’s chanting of the psalms: there are moments when the psalm takes on new life in the chant and the match of one’s reading in accord with that chant creates something new, a spiritual awareness that is freshly grounded and differently known.

On this afternoon we give thanks for the music of this Cathedral, the gifts given and the life of the Spirit in this place: “I will sing praise with the spirit, but I will sing praise with the mind also.”



[1] Jacques Maritain, Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry (New York: Pantheon Books, 1953) p.301.
[2] Loc.cit. p.309.

How big is your barn?


18th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Reflection: Luke 12:13-21

One traditional Orthodox icon of the parable of the rich fool depicts labourers busily building new barns on one side of the icon, the rich man dying alone in bed on the other, and Christ dining alone at a large table in the centre.


In The Guardian, in an opinion piece on money, I was surprised to see the physicist Stephen Hawking writing about how we need to rethink our attitude towards wealth.[1]
“Is knowledge or experience more important than money? Can possessions stand in the way of fulfilment? Can we truly own anything, or are we just transient custodians ...These questions are leading to a shift in behaviour which, in turn, is inspiring some ground-breaking new enterprises and ideas. These are termed “cathedral projects”, the modern equivalent of the grand church buildings, constructed as part of humanity’s attempt to bridge heaven and Earth.  … I hope and believe that people will embrace more of this cathedral thinking for the future, as they have done in the past, because we are in perilous times. … We will need to adapt, rethink, refocus and change some of our fundamental assumptions about what we mean by wealth, by possessions, by mine and yours. Just like children, we will have to learn to share.”


Hawking’s reference to cathedrals as an image of aspirational and visionary endeavour reminded me of what we experience when we enter a cathedral: the building challenges us beyond ourselves.  I was grateful for that reminder – in the face of decline in church attendances and of doubts about the narrative of faith, our cathedrals continue to speak and call us beyond our limitations.

Hawking’s talk of ‘Cathedral thinking’ concerns the kind of thinking that is required of us all in perilous times.  It is thinking that takes us past illusion and draws us into a deeper reality.

This is exactly what we see happening in the gospel this morning as Jesus, the artful story-teller, lets us overhear the thoughts of a rich farmer. Notice how our feelings about this farmer are being shaped.  The man is rich.  The land has produced abundantly – it is the land that has produced this, not the man himself; beyond his duty of care, the land is the resource that he is dependent upon.  His thinking then evolves – since he neither can hope to consume nor have any real need for all that the land has produced, he will store the excess.  In his planning we catch no sense of any concern for the common good, but only of a preoccupation with himself; he has only a self-centred plan and a truly capitalist policy.

All of this is prefaced by Jesus’ warning to his hearers:
"Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions." 

So we are warned to cherish what really matters: life is what matters and possessions are no substitute for that.  Of course in our hearts we know this, but, human nature being what we know it is, we keep forgetting this fact.  (You may remember how the ancient legend of King Midas, cursed with the fatal touch that turned everything to gold, demonstrated that truth; and we have a fair collection of  sayings, proverbs and clichés such as ‘you can’t take it with you’, to remind us.  Yet we still act as if it does not apply to us.

That we have this gospel reminds us that money is to be taken seriously, not disregarded or forgotten.  The rich landowner has taken it seriously but got it wrong.  He has hoarded rather than been grateful.  He has not looked beyond himself; and the great context of all that surrounds him is ignored.  The response to abundance should not be greed but gratitude – which in turn directs us to God and to our neighbour.

I think that it was Montaigne who said, “It’s not the want, but rather abundance that creates avarice.”  That seems to be borne out by our experience: the more some have, the more they seem to want! The super-rich 1% keep getting far richer and nothing of their excess really trickles down to super-poor!  Economic systems seem to be entrenched to protect the former and exploit the latter when, in all truth, we share this one world and we all need to share and so care for one another.

Hawking, critically disabled, has a very lucid view of possessions – he doesn’t need them – and an equally clear view of money: money is a facilitator, it helps things to happen, it can help liberate us.   It is interesting that he sees new questions now being asked, when he says:
“People are starting to question the value of pure wealth. Is knowledge or experience more important than money? Can possessions stand in the way of fulfilment? Can we truly own anything, or are we just transient custodians?These questions are leading to a shift in behaviour…” 

Jesus invites his readers into reality and into life.  Life is brief and uncertain: we are not here to be burdened with possessions but to live.  To the rich man (and us) he cautions:   'You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?' So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God."

Streaming from the gospel and from the scientist, I see converging lines that direct us toward a radical shift in behaviour, a different kind of society and a deeper way of living in our world with one another. Now that is ‘Cathedral thinking.’


'Cathedral Thinking' - Stephen Hawking


Hard on the heels of Social Services Sunday; the cathedral exhibition of 'The Many Faces of Love' and now, virtually anticipating the gospel for tomorrow, is the essay by physicist Stephen Hawking in The Guardian on how attitudes to wealth have to be changed and why society has to achieve this.

Some thinking for us all to do here - but I truly relish this 'big picture' thinking that he so evocatively terms 'Cathedral Thinking' .

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/jul/29/stephen-hawking-brexit-wealth-resources?utm_source=esp&utm_medium=Email&utm_campaign=The+Best+of+CiF+base&utm_term=183833&subid=14340562&CMP=ema_1364


Monday, July 25, 2016

A Conversation: "The Many Faces of Love'


It is a real pleasure to post the transcript of the conversation featured in the Cathedral this Sunday with Professor David Tombs, Director of the Centre for Theology and Public Issues.

The Many Faces of Love Exhibition
Questions for Social Services Sunday: A Conversation between Trevor James and David Tombs
St Paul’s Cathedral, Dunedin, 24 July 2016

Trevor James: I described this as being an ‘ambitious conversation’.  As you can see, we are surrounded by exhibits that offer a small sample of the social services in our city.  Some of these exhibits are committed to special causes; others attempt to remediate suffering and hardship and, by that, mirror social and economic disparities in our society.   You are involved in the interface of theology and public issues: when you look at an exhibition like this and consider what it represents, where does your thinking take you?

David Tombs: The dedication and energy given to social services in this city is truly inspirational. In the Cathedral today we can see exhibits by: Anglican Family Care; Presbyterian Support; Servants Health Care; Night Shelter; St John’s Ambulance; Foster Care; Buddy Project; Plunket. And we know of many others in the city as well, such as the Red Cross (and its provision for Syrian Refugees), and the Salvation Army. Some of these services are motivated by explicitly Christian values, and others by a more general humanitarian concern, but a shared value in all of them is a willingness to reach out beyond ourselves to meet and serve others.

In Christian terms, this reaching out to others is a mark of discipleship. In Mt 25.31-46, Jesus describes the final judgement as like a separation of sheep and goats. There are two important points here. First, the criteria of this  separation is how people responded when they were confronted by others in need, the sick, the hungry, the homeless, the naked and the imprisoned. Second, the encounter is Christological. The response (or lack of response) to people in need, is also a response to Christ. Thus Mt 25.46 ‘Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me’ (NRSV).

Thinking about the title ‘Many Faces of Love’ in light of this verse, I can’t help thinking of a line in the musical ‘Les Miserables’, ‘To love another person is to see the face of God’. In view of Mt 25.46, this might be changed slightly to ‘To serve another person is to see the face of God’. Love for another person, and service to another person, are closely related and inter-dependent. Of course, the musical has romantic love in mind at this point, but it is an invitation to think of it as Christian love, a love that sustains concern for others and service to others.

Christian recognition that love for service to others is also an encounter with God, needs to be a ‘both and’. The recognition of God or Christ in the other should not displace the importance of the other as a person, and their importance in their own right. Rather it adds to it, and acknowledges that in Christian terms, as a person they are created in the Imago Dei—the image of God—and they carry the Face of God’s in the world.

TJ: In the last few weeks the lectionary has set several readings from Amos.  I was especially struck by Amos 8:5-6 and found myself responding and making connections between the prophet’s critique of financial corruption and oppression and the growing gap between most of our society and the top 1%.  How might you respond to Amos and what connections would you make?

DT: It is the role of the Prophet to call people to account, and especially to call the powerful to account. And Amos does this with full force in these verses.

Sometimes it is right for the church to do the same. There are things in our society that need to be forcefully challenged. It cannot be right that wealth is so polarised and some people have excess and others are living in car and garages, whilst others have to borrow huge amounts to stay in emergency accommodation because nothing else is available.[1]

However, there is a danger that in the role of prophet the church can become ‘self-righteous’ rather than ‘servant-righteous’. The church is called to a prophetic role as a service to wider society. It can’t just criticise others, it has to constantly critique itself as well, and it needs a sense of humility when it criticises others. I hope Amos had that in mind.

If Amos was with us today, one issue that I think he would have to wrestle with is the danger posed by an erosion of concern for truth. In his day, Amos ‘spoke truth to power’. He spoke the truth as he saw it, and as God guided him, and he believed that people would be swayed by the truth of what he said. Today social and political commentators warn us of the growth of ‘post-factual politics’ or ‘post-truth politics’. Where facts and truth become less important than in the past, and politicians refuse to be held accountable in the same ways as previously.

We saw this in the UK with the false claims over Brexit, we have seen it in the US with Donald Trump fear-mongering, and there are signs that some politicians do not see themselves as accountable to truth or facts.[2] An optimist might think this is just a passing phase. But I fear it may be more of a threshold that is hard to reverse. Of course, politicians have always argues about facts, and have wanted to avoid hard truths; but to reject the principle of being held accountable to truth has much more serious implications.

Post-factual politics is neatly captured in the phrase ‘A lenient attitude towards truth’. The phrase itself is suggestive of the problem. It is a highly misleading euphemism, which allows those in power to disguise something negative and destructive (a disregard for truth) as if it were something positive and generous. Amos would have a lot to say about that!



TJ: The Church designates this Sunday as Social Services Sunday and it is an occasion when we review how we serve our society. Are we speaking just to ourselves?   Can we still speak to the society about us?

DT: Service is one of the most effective ways to speak to the society. It is commonplace to refer to New Zealand as a secular society, yet the churches are still an influential social institution, and church-based social services are very important. The good work that they do is usually recognised but perhaps there is not enough awareness of the transformational message that underlies these good works.

One of the biggest political forces in the world at present is fear of the other, and rejection of the other. We saw this last month in the Brexit referendum, and we saw it last week at the Republican Convention, where it was captured in Donald Trump’s address and the chants to ‘Build a Wall’.[3]
One of the most important messages that Christian service offers is that the church sees the world differently. It is not about the fear and exclusion of others, but reaching out and embracing our neighbours and the wider community.

A second feature of Christian service, which also carries weight in the eyes of wider society, is that is not just talking about this different set of values, but ‘doing’ them. Service enacts and incarnates these Christian values in our society. It shows what they really mean, and what they actually look like.

This witness to transformation is hugely important for wider society, especially in these difficult times.



TJ: We talk a lot about globalisation: many of our economic and social problems seem to lie beyond our control, even of parliament, because the issues are embedded in the policies of global corporations, international trade agreements and the international financial sector.  It feels very disempowering.  Maybe the Brexit can be read in part as a reaction to disempowerment.  As a theologian how do you approach Globalisation?

DT: Globalisation has greatly increased the free movement of goods (by trade), the exchange of culture and ideas (by communication), and the movement of people (by travel). Globalisation should be a reminder of our connected world, and how we need to live together in the global household of God.

However, each one of the benefits that globalisation has also brought an underside.
In principle, trade should benefit everyone involved, but in practice weaker parties are often exploited. Did anyone hear the Radio NZ account on what it called the ugly side of the banana trade last week?[4] It showed how imbalanced the benefits from this trade are.

Likewise, in principle, globalisation promotes the flow of ideas and culture, and this can enrich us all. We can keep in touch with friends and family around the world more easily and more frequently than has ever been possible before. We can also access information and services from around the world as never before. We can read the news in the New York Times as well as the Otago Daily Times

However, the global availability of media also means that privileged cultures and ideas will become even more dominant, and less powerful cultures and ideas will be undermined and marginalised. People who feel that their culture and identity are threatened can react with frustration and violence in response to these global forces.

In addition, when the free flow of capital is prioritised ahead of the movement of people, we have to ask who this is really benefitting. It takes us back to earlier discussion on whether the common good is to be served, or just the interests of the economic elite. The rich elite then try to disguise what is happening by blaming migrants, and encouraging populist hostility against immigration. Both in the US and the UK we are seeing this retrenchment. Borders are strengthened, with the intention of shutting people out and excluding them.

If globalisation is about handing over the global economy to unrestrained free market forces for the benefit of a rich elite, we have a huge problem. Globalisation needs to be about serving people, the common, and the global family.



TJ. Have you got any thoughts about the future of employment?  As technology advances we see job opportunities contracting?   Can society adapt to paid employment as the privilege of a few?  Is this sustainable?  Is a new kind of society needed or is it already emerging?  Thinking about the future of work, where does your theological reflection take you?

DT. The biggest shift I see is the shift beneath the obvious changes in the employment scene, and this is the shift towards digitalisation. It is this shift that makes so many of the other changes possible, and is likely to accelerate them more and more.

It is amazing how much of our reality is controlled by the most simple of all binaries – the presence of a 1 or 0. So much of life is now determined in this way. In the home we take it for granted in our music, in our photos, in our reading, in our communication, and in many other areas. In our work place we see a similar transformation. Where will this take us in 20, 50 or 100 years is hard to anticipate, but we can be sure that the pace of change will keep getting faster and faster.
Dunedin is ‘GigCity’ (www.gigcitydunedin.co.nz) so we need to be thinking about work opportunities in digital enterprises.[5] However, we also about how digitalisation will transform every other area of work and jobs, whether we are working in a digital enterprise or not. And beyond the jobs’ sphere, digitalisation will also increasingly challenge us to think about our lives, our future, and our identity and sense of selves.[6] We have barely begun to do this.


TJ: Looking back to the exhibits, ‘The Many Faces of Love’, how do you imagine the future of Social Services generally? Also, even more, do you think Social Services can transition from the ‘band-aids’ of society to agents of real change?

DT: Many of the exhibits include the question ‘What would you wish for government be?’ and they link what they are doing themselves to what might be done by government at policy level. This linking of local action to national policy initiatives is important if voluntary social services are to help real change and not just short-term relief.

The reading from Luke this morning (Luke 11.1-13) tells of the man with an unexpected guest, who keeps knocking on the door of his neighbour at asking for food to offer his guest (Luke 11.5-8). He is eventually rewarded for his persistence, not because the neighbour wishes to get up to help him, but because this is the only way his neighbour can stop the knocking. This reminds us that sometimes politicians and policy makers will want to do the right thing and fix social problems, but sometimes it is easier to try and ignore them. When politicians don’t want to do what is needed, making a noise and steady persistence can help to encourage them.

Looking to the future, we can be sure that service organisations are going to have an important role to play, and they will need to change and adapt as they confront new challenges. To return to your first question, and my belief that Matthew 25 offers a theological grounding to social service, we need to remember that Christian service is not about just ‘doing good’. It is also about living by alternative values, and in doing so witnessing to a different life and a different reality. A life in which we more fully encounter the presence of God in our world.



[1] Sharon Brettkelly, ‘Homeless family faces $100k WINZ debth’, RNZ (24 May 2016). Available at http://www.radionz.co.nz/news/national/304607/homeless-family-faces-$100k-winz-debt
[2] Jonathan Freedland, ‘Post-truth politicians such as Donald Trump and Boris Johnson are no joke’, The Guardian (13 May 2016). Available at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/may/13/boris-johnson-donald-trump-post-truth-politician
[3] Donald Trump, ‘Transcript of Speech at Republican National Convention’, Cleveland, New York Times (21 July 2016). Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/22/us/politics/trump-transcript-rnc-address.html

[4] Tess McClure, ‘Banana Republic: the ugly story behind New Zealand’s most popular fruit’, Checkpoint, RNZ, (19 July 2016). Available at: http://www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/checkpoint/audio/201808688/banana-republic-the-ugly-story-behind-new-zealand's-most-popular-fruit
[5] Frances Valintine, ‘New Zealand risks missing digital wave’, New Zealand Herald (23 July 2016). Available at: http://www.nzherald.co.nz/education/news/article.cfm?c_id=35&objectid=11679480
[6] ‘Ironically, the Gig’s single most important contribution to the city won’t come from the infrastructure itself, but from an enhanced collective understanding of what the future holds, a shift in attitude, and a refocusing of our city’s perception of itself.’ Gigatown - Plan for Success, p. 1.  Available at https://www.chorus.co.nz/file/65245/Gigatown-Dunedin---Plan-for-Success_FINAL.pdf

Friday, July 22, 2016

After Charlemagne, what?


Yanis Varoufakis is an acute economic and political commentator and I follow his work with interest. In a keynote presentation at a Moscow cultural conference,   the Moscow Biennale for Contemporary Art 2015, he brilliantly combined economics, art, politics and our contemporary global neoliberal dilemma with wit and insight.

Varoufakis clearly has a good working knowledge of European film and makes some telling points through that media.  My favourite instance is where he refers to The Third Man.

"Recall the scene in the Orson Welles movie The Third Man (1949) when looking down from the heights of the famous Ferris Wheel at Prater in Vienna, when Harry Lime, played by Orson Welles, issued an impertinent theory of culture: ‘In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.’"  (Unfair?  Certainly, but definitely droll!)

Another instance of  his imaginative and creative synthesis is how he sees the figure of Charlemagne used as an ambivalent feature in the European imagination.

"Let me take you to an interesting moment, in 1978: It was autumn, it was September. Two suited men entered Aachen’s cathedral where the remains lay of Charlemagne, the great Christian king who unified Europe into the Holy Roman Empire. The two suited men were President Giscard d’Estaing of France and Chancellor Helmut Schmidt of Germany. The reason they went, according to what they told us later, is that they had just signed a treaty. It was called The European Monetary System Treaty. It was the beginning of Europe’s common currency, when they decided to create a monetary union between France and Germany that, in the end, brought as the euro. So why did they go to the cathedral, to the tomb of Charlemagne? Their own explanation is that they felt trepidation, anxiety and they needed Charlemagne’s blessing. This is a cultural reference. It is a bit of Eurokitsch and reminds one of the Eurovision’s aesthetic. But let me also draw another two historical parallels. In 1993, when the European Central Bank was created, the President of that bank (called The European Monetary Institute at that time), felt that he was doing his duty according to… Charlemagne! Let me give you now a third dimension, which is pretty nasty. It is 1944 December, The last fresh unit of the SS is formed in Berlin. It comprises 11.000 Frenchmen who were collaborators of the Nazi regime. They were the ones who fought tooth and nail to defend Hitler to the last moment. Of those 11.000 only 13 survived as they fought to the bitter end. What was the regiment called? Charlemagne."

Not everyone would have made those connections!  

I recommend you read the article at https://varoufakis.files.wordpress.com/2016/07/varoufakis-moscow-keynote.pdf.


Saturday, July 16, 2016

Recognising Dislocation


16th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Readings:   Amos 8:1-12 and Psalm 52  • Colossians 1:15-28  • Luke 10:38-42

I think there are two words that can guide us through our readings this morning: location and dislocation. One about knowing where we are or where ought to be – that is ‘location’; the other about losing our way – dislocation. In the Amos passage we catch a glimpse of a society that has lost its way: it is ripe for judgement and is compared to a basket of summer fruit.  We hear of a people ruined by their corruption, their inhumanity, their financial manipulation and their oppression of the vulnerable.  This is a society rotten to its core and it will be judged.  In Amos’ words: …“they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the Lord, but they shall not find it.” A dislocated society.

Contrast then that terrible condition of dislocation with the passage from Colossians where the writer sings of Christ:

“1:15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation;

1:16 for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers--all things have been created through him and for him.

1:17 He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

1:18 He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything.

1:19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,”

This is powerful language, and it is a highly developed statement of who Jesus is: it is a statement that is lyrical, confident and grounded in a deep sense that in Jesus Christ we are held in the ground of ultimate reality.  To know that is to be located in the truth. This glorious sense of location surges through Colossians and it contrasts with the terrible sense of dislocation imaged in Amos: so, location in Colossians and dislocation in Amos.

All of this prepares us for the gospel and the intensely domestic incident that occurs when Jesus visits the home of Martha and Mary.   Everyone will feel for Martha, who is overwhelmed by her work and thoroughly annoyed that Mary won’t lend a hand.  

To really appreciate the situation, I am struck by the 16th century Italian painting by Campi, called ‘Christ in the House of Mary and Martha.  Painted in a stunning naturalist style, one is confronted by a kitchen absolutely flooded with food needing to be prepared.  There is sufficient for a regiment: varieties of fish, fowl, meats, fruits and vegetables – a staggering and extravagant abundance, more than anyone could hope to prepare in a month, let alone for a single meal.  In the midst of this is Martha.  But where are Christ and Mary?  You really have to look.   In the far distance, seated at ease, presumably in conversation, barely visible over Martha’s right shoulder (though almost hidden by a hanging chook) there are two figures who must be Mary and Jesus.  To understand what location might mean you have to look at that distant pair.

Our attention is fixed on Martha.  Her harried look and the vast amount of food demanding her attention, tells us something.  This is not just a matter of extravagant hospitality; there is simply too much.  Hospitality is subverted by excess.   What should be seen as an abundance of good things has clearly become the opposite of the good.  The painting becomes a sermon in itself.  Despite all Martha’s good intentions, the traditional virtues of hospitality and the amount of food available, what we eventually come to recognise are Martha’s dilemma and her condition of dislocation.   She is overwhelmed by her situation and cut off from the joy that is just over her shoulder: the one in whom “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.”  In Martha may it be that we catch a glimpse of ourselves?

We surround ourselves with things to do; we saturate our lives with tasks and business.   We measure ourselves by work and achievements.  We fill our lives with trivia.  Our society, our church, expects such business of us.  This gospel reminds us to locate ourselves again. "Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.” 

How do we feel about this?  Can we really put aside the expectations society has of us and that we have of each other?   Maybe we would like to rewrite the gospel?  Maybe Martha could suggest “Come on you two, lend a hand and we’ll talk while we work.  There’s the fish to clean, Jesus…”

As it stands the challenge of our location remains: "Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.” 





Saturday, July 9, 2016

Looking for a Neighbour in Dallas



15th Sunday in Ordinary Time


This Sunday there will I expect be many folk in pews and pulpits trying to make sense of the violence in America; particularly where in Dallas a peaceful protest against violence turned into chaos, violence and death.  Can the scriptures speak to us against that grim context?

This morning we read our way to the gospel through the Old Testament and the tough and relentless voice of Amos.  It is quite startling to read Amos; to hear how uncompromising he is; and to hear how the religious authorities tried to shut him up, and failed.  They found him an uncomfortable presence and they hated what he had to say.  At the heart of who Amos is, is that image of the plumb line, a measure of straightness – of what is true and what is not.  To have that sense of the plumb line held against our lives, against who we are and what we are not, is uncomfortable.

A few hundred years after Amos another member of the establishment tests Jesus with a plumb line question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Jesus asks him what the Jewish tradition prescribes and he comes back with the proper ‘ten out of ten’ plumb line answer:
"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself."

When told to do just that, the lawyer “wanting to justify himself” asks the question that prompts the parable with which we are all so familiar but which forces us to discover that the plumb line of God’s love is not always as we have imagined.

The story has a context: Jesus is journeying to Jerusalem through Samaria and the region and its people, the Samaritans, have a family history and feud between them and the Jews.  In a word: the Jews think the Samaritans are wrong; the Samaritans think the Jews are wrong; and neither will have anything to do with the other.  So with that in the back of our minds we have this story of a Jewish man who got into trouble and was not helped by either of his Jewish neighbours, either the priest or the Levite.   So happens that it is the Samaritan who helps this Jew who has got into trouble: and in this story boundaries have been crossed; generations of feuds have been set aside; all the luggage and prejudice of the past have been stepped over.  All this is accomplished when this one (fictional) Samaritan responds to raw human need and recognises in this bloodied and ruined man someone whom he chooses to help regardless of everything else.

We know this story as the parable of the ‘Good Samaritan’ and the phrase is a cliché in our everyday language; we use it as a standard term for somebody who helps another in distress.  It has long ago lost any sense of shock, of contradiction or of an oxymoron.  We don’t hear it as first century Jews would have heard it.   For centuries before Jesus the tension between Samaritans and Jews had existed and the idea of a ‘good Samaritan’ was no cliché but a challenge, a provocation, a paradox, an oxymoron – there could be no such thing as a ‘good’ Samaritan!

So how do we read this parable?  The story presumes that compassionate help is the correct response and it has traditionally been read as modelling moral behaviour – giving us an example on how we are to behave.   But, set that against the plumb-line image in Amos, it forces me to think more deeply, more critically.  The parable is not about how to behave; it is not about being kind or even good.  It is about the person I am or am becoming; it is about how I see the world.  This parable is not an example but a challenge to make us think long and hard about our “social prejudices,…cultural assumptions and … even (our) most sacred religious traditions.”  

We are like that lawyer who asks “Who is my neighbour” and then find that the boundaries we have set ourselves or simply accepted over time and habit are really irrelevant in the great purpose of God and that we are being called into a deeper understanding, a deeper connection that will change everything we have previously thought we understood as given and settled.

This is not an abstract proposition but a life-giving realization – and we only have to look at the terrible news of killings of black people by police in the USA this week and those terrible murders of white police officers by a sniper in Dallas – to see the consequences of the limits and boundaries we surround ourselves with.   We have to think again.

That is why we are here.  We are here to be changed.  A Jewish mystic said this about prayer:
“Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism, falsehoods.” (Abraham Heschel, 1907-1972).