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Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Remembrance Sunday


Remembrance Sunday - some reflections


An Address for Remembrance Sunday Civic Service 2017
St Paul's Cathedral, Dunedin

My thoughts for this Remembrance Sunday began over a month ago.  It was 15 October and we gathered in this Cathedral to bless and dedicate the Parata Chapel.  To honour the grandparents of Canon Hoani Parata whose flag is above us here today.  That faded New Zealand flag above us here is the same flag that he took with him in the First World War where he served as a military chaplain.  As always happens on such occasions stories were shared.    One story stuck with me.  It concerned Victor Spencer, the 1st battalion Otago, shot by Firing Squad at dawn 24 February 1918.   On that morning Hoani Parata was the Chaplain who walked alongside Spencer.  It is remembered that Spencer’s last words were to him: ‘Are you there Padre?” “I’m here.” The Squad fired.

So on this Remembrance Sunday we remember this grim incident; we remember the faithfulness of a padre who walked alongside a doomed man from Southland; we remember the harshness of what Spencer suffered; we might even try to imagine the anguish and the shame his family suffered; and we thankfully may also remember his posthumous pardon, too many years later, in 2007.  Perhaps most powerfully of all we may reconsider where we would stand in this story – I hope we would wish to stand alongside Canon  Parata and with him respond “I’m here”.

Every year we make the same promise in the words of the Ode   “at the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we will remember them.”  The promise to remember what we have never ourselves known is a rather tenuous thing, however well intended.  If the promise is to have some integrity it must mean that we exercise our moral imagination and our critical faculties; that we turn away from empty platitudes and patriotic sentimentality and remember with some realism – that in the mess of war terrible things happen and in the chaos we look desperately for signs of hope. ‘Are you there Padre?” “I’m here.”

This is the year that marks the centenary of New Zealand’s Blackest Day as it has been called:  The Passchendaele engagement of 12 October 1917, a futile attack on the Bellevue Spur at the cost of c.846 men.  Historically we are well informed of what the military campaigns were like: I think of Matthew Wright’s recent book The New Zealand Experience at Gallipoli and the Western Front.  Diaries, letters and various papers from those who survived the war have been keenly collected and there is a Passchendaele Society that respectfully keeps the intolerable memory alive.

And every year we gather to remember them and to try and peel back the scab of memory and face again what happened; perhaps catch a sense of what it must have been like; and we flinch to think of such things. 

But to remember is to do something more than that.  To remember requires we engage the past with our present, this is an activity of our moral imagination.  We may simply ask ourselves about our country and how we now live: does what we have and do honour the memory of those who died in this war?  Where do we stand?  We hear the question “Are you there Padre? “  Could we answer ‘Yes’?

Of course we know that our society has changed; but how do we feel about the emergence of deep divisions in our nation; social and financial divisions that have made us, I suspect more than in any other time in our history, a nation of haves and have-nots; and a nation perilously divided by those who pay taxes and those who manage to avoid them or at least pay far less than their fair share.  This is a global phenomenon, as the recently released so-called ‘Paradise Papers’ have made clear.  

The concept of care for the common good has been horribly eroded and the common bonds that make for a truly civilised society have become ever more fragile.  As social bonds have fractured – for instance in  the cost of housing, access to health care, the fact of child poverty and diminished job opportunities – the question of where we stand in our society is not just a rhetorical flourish but a matter of where we set our hearts and minds.  

Remembering on Remembrance Sunday is, I suggest, a kind of prayer. A martyr (Oscar Romero) once wrote that:

“The guarantee of one’s prayer is not in saying a lot of words. The guarantee of one’s petition is very easy to know: how do I treat the poor?  The degree to which you approach them, and the love with which you approach them, or the scorn with which you approach them – that is how you approach your God.  What you do to them, you do to God.  The way you look at them is the way you look at God.” (The Violence of Love)

.That’s a simple test.   ‘Are you there Padre?” “I’m here.”


Saturday, November 4, 2017

The Door to the Soul



A reflection for All Saints and All Souls

All week I have been quietly mulling over the two Feasts we celebrate this day.


Byzantine Style Icon of All Saints
The most immediate thing about these Feasts is that they are connected.  On the surface All Saints celebrates the heroes of the Faith and All Souls remembers all the Faithful Departed, but each Feast flows into the other as both require us to see the church and the purpose of God in all creation with a larger vision and with a more generous and hopeful imagination.

I use the word ‘imagination’ deliberately.  Imagination is a door to the soul.  Where we are blind and deaf and despairing it is the imagination that can move us and draw us to renewed insight, unheard sound and renewed hope.  We must protect and cherish the imagination – it is the artist in our souls that warms the spirit and gives life. 

This door to the soul is daily under attack by things that delude us and ultimately may twist us: advertising is an obvious example; it cultivates consumerism, conspicuous consumption of things and feeds envy.  It promotes the delusion that things offer happiness, success and fulfilment.  The imagination hooked by this drags us to a dead end.  An even bleaker example is pornography: it poisons the wells of the spirit; it sets the imagination to work against itself; it distorts intimacy and in the process debases others as mere objects for use and abuse.  We understand it is addictive and its tentacles are everywhere in our connected world.  An imagination twisted in this way can open only into darkness.

Thankfully, despite such darkness, the experience of the imagination opening us to the life and light of the spirit is not uncommon – it may be an encounter with a book, a painting, a film, some music that stirs us, a poem – but whenever this happens the limits of our world feel enlarged, there is a sense of light, and we are charged again to revisit what we have mistakenly thought was ordinary and dull. It can seem as if we are awakened from sleep. The poet Coleridge claimed that the purpose of poetry is to achieve just that:

“awakening the mind’s attention  from the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the loveliness and wonders of the world before us; an inexhaustible treasure, but for which, in consequence of the film of familiarity and selfish solicitude we have eyes, yet see not, ears that hear not, and hearts that neither feel nor understand.” (Biographia Literaria, Chapter 14)

All our readings for today challenge and can stir the imagination in us and we should read them till they do.  The writer of Revelations holds before us a vision of heaven – ‘a great multitude that no one could count’ – and we may well struggle with that thought, a vastness before which we shrink. In the Epistle John presents our future and our hope: “What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is’. Is that truly our hope or does it also carry a sense of dread?  In the Gospel – the passage we know as the ‘Sermon on the Mount’  and the beatitudes – Jesus unfolds a way of being in the world that seems flatly contrary to nearly everything we regard as normal.  ‘Poor in Spirit’, ‘meekness’, ‘mourning’ – what sense do we make of these qualities in our daily life?  These are questions that on the surface seem to cut us off from life, ambition, a glittering career path, but paradoxically these beatitudes draw us deeper into life, away from illusion and into truth. 
Christ Enthroned and the Court of Heaven, Fra Angelico, 1428

The imagination is the door of the soul: it helps us see the world differently and it enlarges the way we think of the Saints and think of ourselves and each other.  With this in mind I offer you a poem for this season by Malcolm Guite.








‘A Last Beatitude’

And blessed are the ones we overlook;
The faithful servers on the coffee rota,
The ones who hold no candle, bell or book
But keep the books and tally up the quota,
The gentle souls who come ‘to do the flowers’,
The quiet ones who organize the fete,
Church sitters who give up their weekday hours,
Doorkeepers who may open Heaven’s gate.
God knows the depths that often go unspoken
Amongst the shy, the quiet, and the kind,
Or the slow healing of a heart long broken,
Placing each flower so for a year’s mind.
Invisible on earth, without a voice,
In heaven their angels glory and rejoice.



Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Snatching at 'Being'


30th Sunday in OT Evensong 29.10.2017

Reading: Ecclesiastes 11, 12

I remember  an anecdote with Billy Connelly mocking  a certain kind of English teacher – one who, as he put it, would tie a poem to a chair and beat it with a hosepipe until it yielded what it meant!  There may be preachers who would take a scriptural text and do something similar.  Not however, I think, with Ecclessiastes.

Not that it does not give scope for some mockery:  ‘vanity for instance’.  The Hebrew ‘hebel’ has been translated as ‘vanity’ – an interesting word, and evocative too; I have embarrassed memories of theological student days and of friends muttering “vanity, all is vanity” after lectures or seminars, not that we had the slightest notion of what we were talking about but it was a mild put down to anything that might have been thought ambitious or pretentious, or anything we had not understood.

The effect of reading Ecclesiastes against the constant but irregular drumbeat of vanity can be disheartening.  We encounter such wonderful language; such  evocative imagery – there are moments where one catches the sense of life, the world, and of our different stages in the journey: the bloom of youth and the difficulties of age;  but all these may grate when we feel we are told that such intense awareness is all vanity. ‘Too much, I choke, on such nutritious imagery’ (Larkin).  For example these wonderful words:

“Remember your creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come, and the years draw near when you will say, ‘I have no pleasure in them’;

 2before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return with the rain; 3on the day when the guards of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent, and the women who grind cease working because they are few, and those who look through the windows see dimly; 4when the doors on the street are shut, and the sound of the grinding is low, and one rises up at the sound of a bird, and all the daughters of song are brought low; 5when one is afraid of heights, and terrors are in the road; the almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper drags itself along and desire fails; because all must go to their eternal home, and the mourners will go about the streets; 6before the silver cord is snapped, and the golden bowl is broken, and the pitcher is broken at the fountain, and the wheel broken at the cistern, 7and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the breath returns to God who gave it. 8Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher; all is vanity.”

One of the problems is that we take vanity to mean ‘meaningless’ which is the word used in some translations  (NIV and New Living Translation) and that thought is quite contrary to the consistent message of scripture.  The Teacher uses language that makes our best thoughts and common experiences more present to us.  This is a heightened use of language that incarnates the boundaries of our being.   However this awareness of our human condition, how we are caught in time, wrapped in finitude and mortality, is not meaningless: such awareness is an invitation to wonder and thankfulness; to the consecrated life!

The word we mistranslate as vanity is better understood as smoke or vapour: In describing human life as vapour or breath, Solomon emphasizes that life is brief and beyond our control. Life is vapour because the world goes on unchanged in spite of all our frantic activities (1:3-11); because things slip through our fingers when we try to grasp them and through our minds when we try to understand them; because nothing lasts, yet everything stays the same; because it ends in death (2:16), and we have no control over the future (2:18-19).
We are caught in time, wrapped in finitude and mortality, and in this dance of life we are drawn into wonder.  

The Teacher reminds us of the limits of our capacity and that despite all our knowledge the mystery of being eludes us; the One is who the very ground of all being remains beyond our understanding and all our efforts at management of our world and understanding are like smoke in the air, sifting through our fingers whenever we attempt to grasp it.



Saturday, October 21, 2017

In The Field Hospital for the Soul



Reflection

There are those life-changing moments when something in us is stirred and we see the world differently: the birth of a child is one of those moments.  There is a sense of miracle in the emergence of this new life - this product of the reproductive systems of nature; and yet there is the uniqueness of this new life; this is no clone but an individual being, someone who is utterly distinctive and holds an innate capacity to contribute to the world.  Most parents have known the awe of such a moment.  You don’t have to be a church-goer or a Christian to have had something of sort stir in you.  It seems to be wired into our humanity.

Baptism celebrates this uniqueness, it celebrates who we are; it celebrates the miracle and the wonder of creation and it reminds us who we are: it connects us with God and prepares the way for this new life to be nurtured and fulfilled.  For us all, baptism is one of those moments when we see the world with renewed and deeper understanding.

Have you watched any of David Attenborough’s BBC nature programme series Planet Earth?    When watching these films, have you felt (as I have) a sense of wonder at the sheer variety of species and the complex responses of life to a changing environment?  Even as I am amazed at the diversity and differentiation in life, I am also humbled as I become aware of how everything in this planet is interconnected and one form influences another.  The realization of this is overwhelming; I just can’t grasp the scope and the massive implications of this process as it unfolds.  The universe is charged with glory.

We hear Moses ask the Lord “show me your glory, I pray.” The response seems strange: “while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen."  Why is God’s response to Moses request qualified in this way?  I suggest is that it is because the writer knows that the glory of God is more than we can imagine or understand: and that while we may glimpse something of God obliquely in creation, we cannot grasp not the reality of the Holy itself; so it is that Moses may see God’s back, but not his face.

“Show me your glory” the irony of that request is that it is humankind, we, who are ‘made in the image of God’; and it is we who are made to reveal the glory of God.  Let’s push that a little harder: why are we here?  What is our role in creation?   Saint Irenaeus of Lyons summed it up in one phrase: “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.”  ... “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.” To be fully alive is our life’s work. Our life’s work – think of it! That is why we have the church: because as human beings we have so much to learn and a great talent for getting things wrong; for not seeing the truth; and for grabbing at such baubles as money, prestige and possessions instead of the truly important things.  To become ‘fully alive’ is a messy process and the church helps us, not as a club for good or perfect human beings, but more as a field hospital for the soul to bring us back into health.

The gospel this morning with this encounter between the Pharisees and Jesus is a harsh reminder of our capacity to ignore what is important and dismally fail to be “fully alive”.   Confronted by Jesus the Pharisees have no sense of him as the one who is ‘fully alive’.  Instead they surround him with their malice and hypocrisy.  They try to trap him with the denarius, the empire’s coin, minted with the Emperor’s image, each coin more or less identical, no living image here, no creative richness, no life, no differentiation.  Is this the measure of who we are?  Is this the measure of our lives?


That is why we are here this morning.  The Cathedral is just a field hospital for the soul.  We come here to take our bearings; to trace our way through the tests and challenges of life.  Here we learn to discern God’s call; we learn to pray; we are nourished by the sacraments; we become ‘tuned’ to the holy and to be receptive to wonder and mystery.  So, in baptism this morning we welcomed Logan to membership in this field hospital of the soul; so, together we are learning -  admittedly slowly and by  fits and starts - how we may give glory to God as a people who will yet be fully alive! 


Saturday, October 14, 2017

The Garment of our Lives


Reflection 

Reading: Matthew 22:1-14.

There is a challenge this morning: we celebrate the dedication of a Chapel honouring the Parata family and alongside that we address the question of the gospel and its meaning for our lives.  Can we find a point of connection?  So, I begin by offering you a phrase, a question, for reflection.  What is ‘the garment of our lives’?

One of the things you notice about special services in the Cathedral is that there are usually clergy who ring or email to enquire about what curious items they are expected to wear for the occasion!  Is it albs or cassock and surplice? Eucharistic or choir dress? If stoles are worn, what colour? Is this a service when copes are an option?  Usually everyone wants to get it right!  No one wants to stand out by looking different.

It’s a very human feeling and not just in the church!  You know the sort of situation:, there is a dinner invitation and there is that sort of discussion that goes on at home while you get ready and one says to the other (Caution is the better part of valour, so I won’t identify anyone but you can fill in the blanks): One says, ‘What are we to wear?’ The other replies  ‘Oh I don’t think it matters.” The question is pressed further, “Posh dress or jeans?’ The answer comes back, ‘Yes, that will be fine.’  

We could revisit this conversation when it happens that the jeans were chosen and the invitation turned out to have been for a black-tie dinner! You might imagine the conversation back home afterwards.  ‘We looked like hillbillies from Hicksville!’ ‘O it will blow over; we’ll laugh about it later.’  ‘What world do you live in?’

The dress code is the sign of belonging and getting it wrong results in embarrassment or exclusion: it happens at High Table, in clubs, the officer’s mess and certain fine dining restaurants; for instance in places where jackets and ties are required and where jandals are excluded.

We understand this: we may rebel against it and decide to flout convention and expectations but that decision carries consequences that we impose upon ourselves.
So, what sense do you make of the parable Jesus tells this morning?  What is ‘the garment of our lives’?

The gospel reminds me of other stories: for instance the story of the women waiting for the marriage celebration; the wise women who have kept their lamps ready and the foolish ones who have no oil (Matthew 25:3-13).  Behind that parable and the parable we face this morning is the tension between the way of wisdom and the way of folly.  It is an ancient tension that runs through the wisdom literature of the Old Testament – for instance we catch echoes of it in the psalms.

Remembering that, nonetheless, my knee-jerk reaction is sympathy for the character who doesn’t meet the dress-code.  How could he be expected to meet the dress code of the Kingdom when, without warning, he is pulled into the banquet hall?  It seems absolutely unfair!  (But cf Luke 12:15-25)  And yet the truth of our lives is that we have little control over important matters and we certainly can’t control when we will die.  You will remember the famous parable in Luke (12: 15-25) where the wealthy landowner sets out his plans to build numerous barns to store and grow his business but God says “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” So our life is that vulnerable space where all sorts of things may happen and quite beyond our planning.  What is ‘the garment of our lives’?

With that thought in mind, what do you really make of this story of the garment without which this guest at the banquet is so roughly and arbitrarily cast out into darkness?  This has to be a metaphor – but of what?  There is a history behind and a tradition.  

The best account of it is in the tradition of Jewish mysticism, in the Jewish Kabbalah, the book known as Zohar.  In the Kabbalah this world can be thought of as a vestibule to heaven and all that we do is preparation for eternity.  We learn to become our true self and in the process prepare what we may imagine as ‘the garment of days’ that fits us for eternity.  
So I quote from the Zohar:
“It has been taught: Happy are the righteous for their days are pure and extend to the world that is coming. When they leave this world, all their days are sewn together, made into radiant garments for them to wear. Arrayed in that garment, they are admitted to the world that is coming to enjoy its pleasures. Clothed in that garment, they are destined to come back to life. All who had a garment will be resurrected as it is written: 'They will rise as in a garment' (Job 38:14).”
What then is ‘the garment of our lives’? It is the self we have spent our lives holding before God.

On this day of remembering the name ‘Parata’ in this Cathedral we find ourselves giving thanks for those who have lived wisely and well; those who have so followed Christ that their memory is to us a source of light, a warmth of love and a sustaining and gentling presence that encourages us on our way as we seek to follow Christ.  To live in this way is to be changed and to work for change in our world.  We seek to become lights in the darkness of a world that is damaged by exploitation and defaced by greed.  We become workers for the Kingdom as we follow Christ: this is ‘the garment of our lives’.



Saturday, October 7, 2017

The story of our lives


27th Sunday in Ordinary Time

A Reflection


There are some words that open our hearts; that turn a key even in a rusted lock; and that prepare us to see our familiar world afresh: I think of the phrase, ‘Once upon a time.’  It is the story teller’s overture, the gambit that catches our attention and draws us in to a world that unfolds around us.  A world where good and evil are encountered; a world where we learn to see, discern and discriminate; a world where the ordinary and the wonderful coincide and where, nearly always, there may be more than we expect.  It is the phrase we remember from early childhood; heavy with expectation and promise; it is the phrase we may use ourselves, when the time to tell a story is given to us for our children and grandchildren.

Story is the natural genre of scripture.  The bible begins with a story, that starts like this: ”In the beginning God made the heavens and the earth, and while the earth was still unformed, God said, "Let there be light," and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. Then God separated the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day and the darkness Night. And there was an evening and a morning, making the first day.”  We remember that this story goes on to tell of the first humans and their location in the first garden, the perfect place and the conditions they are given for its care.

It is the nature of stories that they carry within themselves connecting strands that can link one to another; or, another way of putting it, they can hold resonances and echoes that spill over from one to another.  For instance in the story from the Gospel this morning when Jesus says “Listen to another parable” he tells another story and the careful listener recognises echoes of an older tale.

Jesus tells the story of a beginning, when someone went to a great deal of work and created something.  He did all the hard work needed to make a vineyard: he planted, fenced, and installed a wine press; he even built a watch tower so that the vineyard could be protected.   When you think about it you realise that a vineyard is a long term project.   It involves a long term commitment to the land, to people and to generations to come.   It can flourish only in times of peace, giving vines time to grow and fruit without disturbance.  It carries the promise of aged wine, reflective thought, sustained projects, safety, seeing your grandchildren grow up.  But one thing went wrong.  The people placed to care for the vineyard, did not fulfil their duty of care, but conspired against the landowner so that the promise of peace and plenty was lost.  We recognise that this is our story too and that we may recognise ourselves in the rebellious and unfruitful tenants.

Yet the story of God with us is always about how what has been lost is recovered, restored and redeemed. So, for instance, in the Old Testament, a new relationship occurs in the event known as the Exodus : that becomes the foundational story for Israel. It is the story that must not be forgotten.  So the Old Testament reading this morning celebrates the mighty acts of God: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” and the story remembers the commandments that mark the special relationship between God and his people.  Remembering is central to how story works, we remember so that we learn to respond and the story lives within us, shapes us and changes us.

That is what happens in the epistle this morning; remembrance becomes response.  Paul remembers the story of God in Jesus Christ and Paul responds by following Christ with all his heart, energy and strength.  Paul is drawn into the story and into Christ: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death … forgetting what lies behind, and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”

This is what happens with us in the Eucharist this morning.  The Eucharist is the ‘Once upon a time’ story of the Church when we tell, remember and respond. May our hearts be opened, our closed and rusted locks released!  The Eucharist is our foundational story; it taps into our memories and our humanity; it encompasses our deepest hopes and fears; it draws us into great mystery of Christ; it forms and changes us.  Christ meets us in the bread and wine …  (Love’s Choice, Malcom Guite)

This bread is light, dissolving, almost air,
A little visitation on my tongue,
A wafer-thin sensation, hardly there.
This taste of wine is brief in flavour, flung
A moment to the palate’s roof and fled,
Even its aftertaste a memory.
Yet this is how he comes. Through wine and bread
Love chooses to be emptied into me.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Packing Thoughts and the luggage we carry



Gracious God,
when two or three are gathered in your name, you are there.
Be present with your family, the church.
Give us grace and maturity when we are in conflict.
Help us to listen, to forgive and to live together in mutual love.
We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit,

one God, now and for ever. Amen.

It's a bold frank collect, very realistic.   And I would like to be a fly on the wall of the Cathedral to hear what the preacher may make of it.  Matthew 18 is such a gospel to engage with.  The best and simplest comment I have heard on Matthew 18 is below, a comment by a very wise and experienced pastor who understands the dynamics of congregations...

"Jesus says to love your enemies. But there is a difference between loving and tolerating - especially for the sake of the “little ones,” that is, the rest of the congregation. One negative person can suck all the energy from a room. One skilled gossiper, craftily playing on others' craving of intrigue, drama, or titillation, can bring down a good pastor. One envier, with a huge unacknowledged shadow, can demolish a church.

Love the envier. Love the gossiper. Love the poor nay-sayer. Pray for them. Listen to them. But don't let them infest the church - because everyone will suffer. Be as innocent as doves but as wary as serpents - because the folks who bring down a church often do their work in secret until the foundations crack beyond repair.

A woman who just lost her job said to me, “Sometimes an angel has to push you off the cliff before you get the help you need. I'm scared, but grateful I lost my job - because that's the only way the good that is to come can happen.”

Don't stop the angel from nudging. Let God help the troubler face the consequences of the hurt they carry inside but project onto the community. I always thought that the church should put up with all kinds of malevolence, and asking even the most destructive person to leave was not a Christian option. But now I know what looks cruel may be, in fact, kind."


This has been a strange day with odd moments of hilarity and anxiety - packing to travel for four weeks of flights, buses and walking, overnighting here and there and doubtless hordes of other tourists.  Dunstan is unhappy, he knows something is up. He follows me from one room to the other and eyes the suitcases with deep suspicion.  He clearly wonders about the early morning walk routine - or is that just me?  Few chances for writing in the blog for a while I fear.

Dunstan




Saturday, September 2, 2017

The Sign of The Cross


The 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time 2017

Choral Matins


Do you have a memory of a film that profoundly affected you?  I have memories of a variety of films with powerful moments, some moments almost too much to watch, but I have a particular memory, now more than 60 years old – it was The Ten Commandments and that moment when the wandering Moses encounters the burning bush and is told, “Take your sandals from off your feet, for the ground on which you stand is holy ground.”  That is the moment when Moses hears God’s voice and receives his call.  I remember that moment and the frisson of awe that shook me as a very susceptible nine-year-old; that thought of ‘The Holy’.

Moses and the burning bush
In the scriptures, that is the moment where the purpose of God is revealed and promised, God will deliver his people from oppression.  And so begins the great mission of Moses, accompanied by all the turmoil, the blood sweat and tears, that marked the Exodus.  In the course of this mission, Moses is transformed, his life is no longer his own, and God’s purpose is accomplished.

It is no accident that in the New Testament Jesus is seen as the second Moses; he is charged with the redemption and deliverance of Israel and the World.  So, too, in the gospel reading this morning, when Jesus discloses what the cross means for him and for us, it is made clear that the cross is not an abstract principle but the agonising precondition of following Christ.  "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

In these words Our Lord outlines in summary form a whole way of life.  The denial of self is a clear renunciation of wilfulness, of having our own way, of indulging our preferences for the soft option; this is a way of being that is summarised by the cross; and embedded here is a life-changing and soul shaping process of transformation.  This is at the heart of our calling, the cross changes us and shapes us.  Paul explains this when he writes: “I have been crucified with Christ and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Galatians 2:20

In the Episcopal Prayer book, the office for Morning Prayer,  the Collect for Friday is explicit:

A Collect for Fridays
Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but
first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he
was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way
of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and
peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

I remember being prepared for confirmation by the university chaplain at Ramsey House, the Anglican Centre in Victoria University, when I was a young student.  The Chaplain was in the Catholic tradition of our church and had been trained at Mirfield, in The Community of the Resurrection.  A little of that rubbed off on me: I was taught to make the sign of the cross.  It is not about lugging the cross around, but was always about taking the cross inwards! An Eastern Orthodox has put it this way:

“The summation of the life of Jesus in the symbol and the sign of the cross is not meant so much as an act of "taking up" the cross, as it is of "taking the cross inside." The direction of the sign of the cross is inward, which suggests embracing and internalizing the life of Jesus. Nevertheless, this inward direction suggests that, starting with the historical events of the life of Jesus, we live these events here and now, appropriating them outside time and space, as we become one with the timeless Christ.” (Andreas Andropoulos)


I still remember how strange it felt for me, newly confirmed, to make the sign of the cross and how self-conscious I initially felt doing it. (This was something utterly alien to my family’s staunchly protestant tradition). ‘Taking Christ in; putting Christ on’ … these were quite conscious thoughts then; and now, I often deliberately recall them to remind myself.  

By chance I came across reference to a former 18-19th  century Episcopalian who converted to Rome and was taught to make the sign of the Cross while there.  She became the first American-born Saint, Elizabeth Anne Seton  (1774-1821) and she remembered the impression of making the sign of the cross for the first time.  She wrote: “I was cold with the awful impression my first making it gave me -- the sign of the cross of Christ on me! Deepest thoughts came with it of I know not what earnest desires to be closely united with Him who died on it. Oh, that last day when it is to be borne in triumph!

To bear the cross is to be vulnerable and we do not know where it may lead.  I am very struck by these word from Sophie Scholl, a German student who felt led to oppose Nazism.  She was a founder of the society known as The White Rose” and was captured for distributing anti-Nazi literature and trying to arouse Germans against Nazism.  Her words describe what I consider her way of the cross.

"The real damage is done by those millions who want to “survive.” The honest people who just want to be left in peace. Those who don’t want their little lives disturbed by anything bigger than themselves. Those with no sides and no causes. Those who won’t take measure of their own strength, for fear of antagonizing their own weakness. Those who don’t like to make waves – or enemies. Those for whom freedom, honor, truth, and principles are only literature. Those who live small, mate small, die small. It’s the reductionist approach to life: if you keep it small, you’ll keep it under control. If you don’t make any noise, the bogeyman won’t find you. But it’s all an illusion, because they die too, those people who roll up their spirits into tiny little balls so as to be safe. Safe?! From what? Life is always on the edge of death; narrow streets lead to the same place as wide avenues, and a little candle burns itself out just like a flaming torch does. I choose my own way to burn.

Source: Die Letzten Tage  (Sophie Scholl: The Final Days (2005) )

Saturday, August 26, 2017

The real question we have to answer







Readings: Exodus 1:8-2:10 and Psalm 124Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20


Who do you say Jesus is?  That is the great question that all the Gospels try to answer; that is the question that looms behind all the stories that are remembered, treasured, recorded, mulled over and meditated upon.  Within the question is the ‘Open sesame’ for all the questions of our lives and of all our searching; within it is the map that shows us the way home and gives us the keys to the kingdom.

Who do you say Jesus is?  How do we begin or where do we begin?  Do we begin with what we know, or rather with what we think we know?  Is this simply a matter of thinking?  A matter of getting our theology sorted out?  Good luck with that!  Can we sort out our Christology and answer the question?  Have we world enough and time?  

Can we explain how Jesus is both truly God and truly human?  Reason would tell us that is an oxymoron: one or the other might be arguable but not both.  Paul encourages Jesus as a model for all his followers and in arguing his case offers a suggestion as to how the two natures, human and divine, may be imaginatively linked.  In Philippians 2 (5-8) he says:


5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.


Christ ‘empties himself’ of his divinity, he puts it aside.  This self-emptying we know of as kenosis – from the Greek term Paul uses.  It could be seen as a dangerous approach to the problem.  Because is a Christ drained of divinity, even voluntarily, really God? But, by the same token, if divinity is not yielded, how can he be truly human?  Are we going to sort out our Christology this morning?  

Paul takes us boldly into the intolerable abyss of ambiguity and seems to grasp the terrible anguish of a God who endures such a state – even ‘death on a cross.’ To be truly human must entail uncertainty: meaning limited knowledge and limited power.  So when Jesus asks the disciples what people say about him, is he voicing his own inner uncertainty?  Is he trying to identify who he really is and what God is requiring of him?  If that is so, is the consciousness of his calling something that gradually emerges over the course of time and through the experience and encounters his ministry provides?  

You may remember from last Sunday that I touched on this in his encounter with the Canaanite woman – when she out-manoeuvred him in theological debate – as I said then, ‘The Son of God changed his mind’. Are we going to sort out our Christology this morning and answer the question?  It seems our minds can’t quite get us there?

Now, what is happening when Jesus asks the disciples what they think of him?  Is he seeking reassurance?  Is he testing them?  Or is he giving them an opportunity to commit themselves and to make a leap beyond where the mind can go?  Perhaps all of these possibilities are on the table.  

Peter’s response seems typical of the man.  He speaks impulsively – typically from the heart rather than the head.  He speaks out of his experience of Jesus – the experience that the gospels record and much more that we can only imagine must have taken place in the informal talk shared during long journeys; conversations through the nights by a fire; questions that arose when impossible things happened; healings, of course;  and then maybe that eery sense of sheer mystery, of otherness,  that always seemed to surround Jesus; but perhaps, most of all was his feeling that whenever he was near Jesus, he felt he was truly and utterly at home; known through and through; at home and at peace.  It was being loved… yes, that was it, love was the key!  

Peter answers out of love.  "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  Love takes Peter where the mind can’t quite go and love gives him the keys of life.  The life we all seek from the very depths and marrow of our being.

Be encouraged in this great journey of the heart, as one great Archbishop of Canterbury, noted:

O Lord my God,
teach my heart where and how to seek you,
where and how to find you.
Lord, if you are not here but absent,
where shall I seek you?
But you are everywhere, so you must be here,
why then do I not seek you?...

Lord, I am not trying to make my way to your height,
for my understanding is in no way equal to that,
but I do desire to understand a little of your truth
which my heart already believes and loves.
I do not seek to understand so that I may believe,
but I believe so that I may understand;
and what is more,
I believe that unless I do believe I shall not understand.

-Anselm of Canterbury c.1033-1109


Lord Jesus, ‘Teach our hearts’.  Give us the keys to the Kingdom.Amen!

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Christ in the flux of History


20th Sunday in Ordinary Time


Reflection

Political events this week – Riots in Charlottesville, North Korea tensions, terrorist violence in Barcelona, the tragedy of the mudslide in Sierra Leone, this is a catalogue of shocking  pain and loss. What response can we make? We come this morning with these matters on our hearts.  Alongside these stories of the world’s confusion and pain we come also to hear again and remember the stories that shape our faith.

The story of Joseph is a tremendous family story of jealousy and betrayal and of reversal of fortunes as the young man sold into slavery becomes a leader of a nation and the story climaxes in the moment when the brothers who sold him come before him for his help.  In a dramatic moment  of disclosure, a brilliant and emotional moment, Joseph re-writes the family story; and sees the whole family narrative, its tragedy of loss and pain, from a greater perspective, “It was not you who sent me here, but God.”  This most Jewish story recognises the purpose of God faithfully keeping the covenant with his people Israel, working within the flux of history.

The gospel this morning is caught up in a family debate within the Judaism of Jesus’ time.  Some of the Pharisees promoted a tradition of hand-washing before meals as a way of encouraging holiness, a spiritual discipline, not a matter of hygiene.  Jesus dissents from that tradition when he declares that holiness proceeds from the heart and not from the laws and customs associated with food: this was a controversial position to take.  In this moment we see Jesus speaking as a Jew within the assumptions and debates of Judaism.  But what happens next?

Jesus heads away from Jerusalem and heads northwest toward the Mediterranean coast, toward a region associated with non-Jewish communities.  There he encounters an unknown woman identified only as a Canaanite – the ancient designation for the inhabitants of the region.

The Canaanite Woman asks for healing for her daughter . 
Juan, de Flandes, approximately 1465-1519 
The Jewish Jesus is confronted by his cultural and religious antithesis – a Canaanite woman who wants him to heal her daughter.   Again we see Jesus speaking as a Jew within Judaism: he ignores this religious ‘outsider’.   She creates a scene and obviously makes his disciples uncomfortable – because they ask him to send her away “for she keeps shouting after us”.  He explains the problem and why he ignores her: she is not within his mission: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”.  This is a very orthodox Jewish point of view, a family perspective if you like.  His objection is entirely comprehensible to Jesus’ Jewish followers.  There is no surprise in this.

But what follows does surprise us.  The Canaanite woman directly approaches Jesus and kneels in front of him directly with a direct petition “Lord help me”.  In that moment, by that movement, the Canaanite woman cannot be ignored.  She is seen differently, she becomes a person and cannot be dismissed simply as a cultural outsider.  She says, “Lord help me”.   It cannot be more direct or simple than that.  It is the suppliant’s prayer.  We may find ourselves praying that a dozen times a day: in every situation where we are stumped as to what to say or do.  It is a relational plea; it produces a relational realignment.

This is not Charlottesville, a race confrontation  with no one really ‘seeing’ each other,  just different groups , ‘us’ and ‘them’, yelling across a history of stereotypes, slogans and prejudice.

Jesus’ response is still firmly rooted in his exclusive Jewish vision: salvation is for the Jews.  Accordingly his response sounds harsh: "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs."  For him, the Jews are the children, and the dogs are the Gentiles.  Admittedly his harshness  is somewhat softened by his use of the term for puppies – but that is a trivial nuance – the relational position is still severe: Jews are children; Gentiles are dogs.

Her clever response turns Jesus’ words back upon him "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table." In a word, all are fed by God.

At that response Jesus, the Son of God, changes his mind: in that moment his vision of salvation is transformed; expanded beyond recognition. He is ‘out-theologised’ by this early feminist theologian!

Jesus’ theology has shifted; it has become more comprehensive as it has been challenged in this ministry encounter. But it is even more than that: his consciousness has changed. He starts to understand his calling differently under the pressure of this encounter. Maybe here we see something of the nature of the incarnation; a Christ who develops into his calling; in the activity of a God who works constantly within the untidy flux and hazards of history. God works in the encounter with this unnamed Canaanite woman; it may be that God is at work in the shambles at Charlottesville, even in the tragic death of Heather Heyer.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Believing with the Heart


19th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Readings: Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28; Romans 10:5-15; Matthew 14: 22-33;

Reflection:  “One believes with the heart”

There is a moment in Mark’s gospel (Mark 9) where a desperate father brings his son to Jesus for healing and, when Jesus says all things are possible if you believe, the father says “I believe, help my unbelief.”  I suspect we can all sympathise and identify with that man’s dilemma: do we believe?  How can we know? Be certain?  Is the voice of doubt and unbelief perched on our shoulders whispering?  Each time we say the creed, just that first phrase “I believe in God…” is there a tremor of uncertainty, a moment in which we engage with the question “what do I mean”, and “what if this is true”?  In that brief moment our world begins to shift, the paradigms by which we see ‘reality’, tilt and something new emerges.

Thomas Kuhn (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 1996) has traced the way scientific method has advanced, especially when the results don’t fit the accepted paradigm and supposition and imagination press the boundaries to find a new way of seeing.  A new paradigm emerges.  George MacDonald wrote about the imagination as enabling the scaffolding of hypothesis without which “the house of science would never rise.”
So, if Mark reports the situation accurately, what changes for the father when his son is healed? Belief is not just a hypothesis but a paradigm shifting moment in which he sees Jesus differently. Can we imagine how we might respond to such a moment in our lives?  I am confident that we too would experience a paradigm shift and believe!

But such a paradigm shifting belief is not founded on intellectual conviction or scientific comprehension – for we don’t have that measure of control – but something else, something that Paul describes in terms of the heart. He says “one believes with the heart.” One believes with the heart! Take note, we are so accustomed to think of belief as a matter of the mind and intellectual conviction, but instead Paul locates the core of belief in the heart! In saying that, he follows a consistent thread through the OT scriptures where the heart is our spiritual, intellectual, moral and ethical centre. It shapes our fundamental disposition; and Proverbs accordingly counsels us “keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.” (Prov. 4:23) Much closer to our own time we find similar conviction in Blasé Pascal, who famously noted "The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of... We know the truth not only by the reason, but by the heart."

So I encourage you to read our gospel this morning not merely with the critical faculties but also with the warmth and insight of your imagination.  Remember the context: the disciples have witnessed the spectacular miracle of the Feeding of the Five Thousand and have been separated from Jesus who went off to pray while they launched off into the Sea of Galilee.  These are experienced fisherman, used to weather, boats and the ways of the sea; but nothing in their life has prepared them for the appearance of Jesus walking on the water toward them.  Can we believe the gospel here?  Is the gospel presenting a symbolic and metaphorical statement about the nature of God or is this a literal account of something that happened?  If it is a true record, what are its implications for us?   Is this a moment when the disciples’ understanding of reality and the world endures a radical paradigm shift and adjusts to a new understanding of faith and of Jesus?

Their initial reaction to the sight of Jesus walking on the sea is one of fear – they dismiss what they cannot comprehend, and explain the improbable and inexplicable event as a supernatural apparition – a ghost.  Can we blame them?   But Jesus identifies himself and in terms we associate with the resurrection appearances “It is I, do not be afraid.”
Peter’s response is a test: “Lord if it is you command me to come to you on the water.”
‘If it is you’ – This is the question.  Peter is testing the unknown.   He knows the sea, its dangers and the hazards he faces so far from land – he risks himself to know the truth.  “Lord if it is you command me to come to you on the water.”

He knows this is madness, sheer folly.  We do not walk on water.  And yet against every human instinct he steps out of the boat and begins to walk toward Jesus.  Maybe like a tightrope walker his eyes focussed ahead to his destination and all his thoughts keeping at bay the thought of the depths  beneath him until, until the moment he is distracted and,overwhelmed  by fear, he  sinks into the dark waters.


“Lord save me!”  That is the moment when we are told that Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him saying “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”   As Peter finds himself held and safe, what might have gone through his mind; or is it rather what overwhelmed his heart?  He was safe in the abyss, in the dark waters.  

All of us may recognise something of ourselves in Peter and something of what it means to be people of little faith.  We may say, Lord it is human to doubt.  We want to believe but help us with our unbelief. 

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Prayers for the City at noon


Most days the Cathedral offers Midday Prayers for the city.  Some have asked what we use and I post it here for those who are interested.  The greatest variation is about the 'particular' collect which usually engages with a particular concern for the city.  (However we did create a collect for the Grenfell Towers tragedy.)  Suggestions for Midday Prayers are always welcome, and local offers to share the prayers especially so.


Midday Prayer

The ambulatory bell is rung at noon

Welcome to your Cathedral.  Please pause for this brief midday prayer.

Invocation

E te whānau / My brothers and sisters,
our help is in the name of the eternal God,
who is making the heavens and the earth.
Eternal Spirit,
flow through our being and open our lips,
that our mouths may proclaim your praise.

Silence

Let us worship the God of love.
Alleluia. Alleluia.

O God of many names,
lover of all peoples;
we pray for peace
in our hearts and homes,
in our nations and our world;
the peace of your will,
the peace of our need.  Amen.

COLLECT FOR THE CITY
Gracious Lord of all that is,
You delight in all fullness of life;
Look with your grace and mercy upon our city:
Bless all who labour for the common good and who
serve to build up the life we share;
Bless our City Council, our University and all places of learning;
Bless our Courts, all who administer justice and all who seek it;
Bless our hospitals and all places of healing, social service and support;
that your fullness of life and purpose may abound and flourish here.
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Particular Collect (may vary)
God of grace, we thank you for the many years the Cadbury Factory has enriched the life of our city: provided employment; sustained families; and served the common good.  We grieve the factory closure and ask your grace to uphold all affected staff and their families in the days ahead that they find alternative local employment. In the power of your Holy Spirit, so lead us that this darkness and adversity will not prevail and we will know the joy and purpose of your perfect will, through Jesus Christ our Lord, ever one God, world without end. Amen

COLLECT FOR MIDDAY
Blessed Saviour, at this hour you hung upon the cross, stretching out your loving arms; grant that all the peoples of the earth may be drawn to your uplifted love; for your kingdom’s sake.
Amen.



THE LORD’S PRAYER & BLESSING
Jesus, remember us in your kingdom and teach us to pray
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins
as we forgive those who sin against us.
Save us from the time of trial
and deliver us from evil.
For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours
now and for ever.    Amen.

Dismissal & Blessing
In the following a deacon or layperson says ‘us’ instead of ‘you’.
Go forth into the world in peace;
hold fast that which is good;
render to no one evil for evil;
strengthen the fainthearted; support the weak;
help the afflicted; honour everyone;
love and serve the Lord,
rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit;
and the blessing …