Thursday, February 25, 2010

John Donne in the cathedral

This has been a curious week. Summer seems finally to have arrived and the temperatures hover in the near 30s in the city and a forest fire beyond Mosgiel has sent a cloud of smoke drifting over the city. The Octagon is baking and streams of over-heated tourists find their way into the cool of the cathedral.

Tourists wandered in yesterday evening while I was in mid-flight delivering the first of the Lenten Studies 'Speaking into the Silence: Poets and God'. I can't imagine what they made of it, this cassocked fellow talking about John Donne. Of course 'To His Mistress going to Bed' might be thought an odd poem to introduce a Lenten meditation in the cathedral, but fun nonetheless.

... Licence my roving hands, and let them go

Before, behind, between, above, below,

O my America, my new found land,

My kingdom, safliest when with one man manned,

My mine of precious stones, my empery,

How blessed am I in this discovering thee!

I'm not sure at all what the few who came to the study made of it. I speak from my enthusiasms, and poetry is certainly that. I find poetry is another way of thinking and it makes connections that normal discourse can't quite manage or you need to go into another medium - painting or music to touch on. Metaphor crosses cognitive boundaries to create new possibilities and reach across the silence. One remembers, in saying this, that 'God' itself is a metaphor.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Sunday before Lent

First Reading: Jer 17:5-10

Second Reading: 1 Cor 15:12-20

Gospel: Luke 6:17-26

Lectionary readings are like beads threaded on a cord, each separate but linked together by a common thread. What holds us together is that we are a story-people and daily, weekly we return to the stories about which our faith is woven. Although the ‘story’ of God is multi-layered, complex, infinite as the universe, the 3 readings we have this morning provoke us to think laterally and engage with multiple images that will find their connection within us. So we come to these readings not expecting that they simply speak to us but that they will require us to work with them, reflect and ponder.

Take the first bead on the thread, the reading from Jeremiah. It begins with a salutary warning:

Thus says the Lord:

Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals

and make mere flesh their strength,

whose hearts turn away from the Lord.

This is the trouble with prophets isn’t it? They always provide us with another way of seeing the world and confront us with things that I suspect we’d really prefer not to have drawn to our attention and, worse still, make a decision on. There is something here in Jeremiah that seems to cut right against the grain of our humanity and our way of being in the world. Do we trust ‘mere mortals’? Think about it: we certainly invest a lot of our energies and affections in families and friends; at every election for council or government we invest trust and responsibility. Is ‘mere flesh’ our strength? Well, consider the amount of energy given to the cult of physical fitness and the reverence and admiration that is accorded to wealth and property – and I note here the fearfulness of the government to tax property, regardless of what the tax review has advised. If we place our trust and our heart in humans and in material things, the prophet warns us that we will turn our hearts from God and so turn from the source of our life and joy - in a word we will be cursed, not by God but by our loss of sight and connection with that which sustains all that is.

Bead 2, Paul on the resurrection: ‘Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?’ Paul walks along the same high wire as Jeremiah: where human common sense urges trust in assets and shakes its head at the thought of a resurrection, prophet and apostle point to God and speak out of their experience of God. Paul’s whole gospel is the gospel of the risen Jesus, an encounter testified to by the early church, and proclaimed by the apostles; an encounter Paul himself somehow experienced on the road to Damascus and never forgot. In this sentence Paul typically confronts and challenges how we see the world: if we believe in the risen Christ, how can we live and speak as if our life in this world is all there is? Let’s push this further and paraphrase it a little more: if we believe in the risen Christ, how can we foreclose or limit the possibilities and modes of being that there may be in the universe?

Now, bead 3, the gospel: extraordinary and perplexing as it is. Here Luke crunches material he shares with Matthew into a spare 30 or so verses. The man of letters, the author, sets the scene and the emphasis is on the crowd and their expectations of him: they all want help, healing and wholeness. There is not much information, it is left to us to imagine the crowd and how the people were – how desperate, how anxious.

We can understand or at least begin to imagine desperation. We may have had the experience ourselves. We are familiar with the desperation of others, at least through TV – we have seen the despair and resignation in Haiti, we have seen the desperate job searching of the 1500 who queued for job application in the new supermarket in South Auckland.

But Luke adds one explanatory comment, a brief gloss to his description: ‘all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them’. Touch of course to us as humans is the ultimate reassurance: we caress the ones we love, we touch the thing we are making, and we test the reality of what we see. Touch is one of the gates of the soul, and what Jeremiah called ‘mere flesh’ is in fact the most common means for testing the substance of this world. It should be no surprise to us then that the sceptical Thomas wanted to touch to test the reality of the risen Christ in that upper room after Easter.

Yet for these desperate people, for these ‘touch-hungry’ people Jesus’, beatitudes seem slightly shocking. Jesus insists that their troubles, their conditions of limitation are, to be seen not as afflictions but as blessings – because such things are a shield from the illusion of self-sufficiency that material power and assets can provide. This is a troubling thought when it first flickers through the mind. It seems to justify not doing anything about poverty or being concerned about social justice; it seems to support the most appalling ‘other-worldly’ type of thinking.

Yet I think in these beatitudes we see Jesus at his most deliberately contentious, provocative and challenging. He heals, he feeds, he makes whole: no one suggests he does not do these things – but with that behind him – he challenges those who have come to him to see the world and their circumstances (and God!) very differently. It was the romantic poet and painter William Blake who said ‘If only the doors of perception were cleansed, then we would see everything as it is – infinite’. Learning to see things as they really are 'cleanse the doors of perception' ... that is our task and our calling on this journey of faith.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Log Tossing

Firewood and wood heaps seem to be a way of being in Dunedin and the deanery is no exception. Tuesday morning after Mass I passed the administrator as his car swung into the cathedral car park and there was a moment, both cars blocking the entrance, while I blithely reassured Monty that I was off to supervise the delivery of a load of firewood and would be back imminently. As the brewer’s ad has it, ‘Yeah, right!’

The conjunction of eight cubic metres of heart-stoppingly expensive wood in a large truck with a small gateway was transforming. The crisp brilliance of the morning metamorphosed into a day of drudgery.

The holly hedge swiped the truck’s wing mirror and the truck tray crunched into the deanery gatepost. Blinded, the driver stopped: the truck lodged between driveway and road, squarely beneath a low overhead cable; a cable so low that the tray could not fully tilt to dump the wood. So, he tilted till I bellowed ‘stop!’ when the tray brushed the cable. A paltry spill went on the driveway to block the gate. Then the truck heaved away from the splintering gatepost and the rest of the load cascaded into Every Street.

The rest of the day was passed tossing wood. By 4.00pm Every Street was liberated and decorous once more. In the deanery driveway was a massive heap of wood, carefully sited to allow the gates to shut and to keep Mackenzie and Dunstan (the dogs) inside. Not quite how I had planned the day.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Art & Imperfection

"(the) finite beauty or finishedness in the work always incomplete at some level, 'limping', like biblical Jacob, from the encounter with what cannot be named; achieved art always has 'that kind of imperfection through which infinity wounds the finite'.

(Archbishop Rowan, in his 2005 Clark Lecture quoting Jacques Maritain)

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Living with Scripture

In one form or another Scripture Wars seem always to be with us. True, Christians no longer literally kill one another over interpretations of scripture, but there are acrimonious divisions. For instance, consider the bitterness with which some fundamentalists defend their view of the inerrancy of scripture against the historical scepticism of the Jesus Seminar. Yet beyond the intensity of such hermeneutical feuds is a wider society in which knowledge of scripture is poor and often muddled by what are seen as its inconsistencies: as a correspondent in the ODT recently complained, 'Why are preachers like Dr James remaining silent? Why do they not expose the many shortcomings of the Bible to the whole world?'

Virtually all acts of reading involve our anticipation and expectation: so we anticipate finding a friend’s number in a phone book because our expectation of phone books tells us that is where we look for such things. We get miffed or muddled if our expectations seem betrayed. For instance, I might buy a book with the title To Cast a Fly expecting it to be about trout fishing but on reading find it is a political thriller. I might still enjoy it but my anticipation of its reading must change because my expectations were askew.

Something like this is an underlying problem when we try to read the bible, or even, just the gospels. What do we expect of the gospels? It is it is not at all clear what sort of books the gospels are; what we should expect of them, or how we should then read them. They are neither histories nor biographies, though aspects of those genres can be found in them; they are neither dogmatic texts nor systematic theology; still less are they works of fiction, but in each a shaping purpose, narrative sense and imagination are clearly present. How do we read these books? What are they?

A reader who approaches the bible with an expectation of a definitive account of Christ finds four gospels, not one; and, remember, none of them biography or history. Over the centuries countless scholars have explored the complex textual connections between the gospels and the different traditions and contexts that lie behind each of them. The general experience of the church has been that the differences between the gospels have proven to be not a shortcoming but richness. The gospels are a web of story that taps into a common well of memory and experience but in each case speak with a distinctive voice and theological slant that indicate particular authorial sources and contexts. So, when detractors of the Christian faith cite differences between the gospels as evidence of their unreliability or proof against Christian faith, they repeatedly fail to grasp the unique character of these texts.

The mystery about which each gospel turns remains enigmatic and irreducible. One image for each Gospel, indeed each section within a gospel, could be to think of it as a window through we may glimpse something of the mystery of God. The multiplicity of windows or points of entry to the mystery on which they give some access allows a greater range of vision, a different perspective – rather frustrating for readers who seek a single vision. The view is never complete, always an invitation to enter to see further; always, an invitation to faith. I like to think that St Paul had something similar in mind when he spoke of seeing ‘through a glass darkly’.

The enigmatic nature of the gospels is underlined if we reflect on what is probably their most memorable form of discourse, the parable. Many of the parables parallel or echo one another across the synoptic gospels; some are particular; some have so-called interpretations attached to them and others do not. Readers have become familiar with parables – the simplicity of the memorable story form encourages that – and typically have tended to understand the parables in fairly consistent ways as if such interpretations were a foregone conclusion. Some theological positions and critical traditions have done something similar, tending to limit the scope of some parables as if wanting to foreclose on any alternative readings. In such environments one consequence has been that scripture tends to be treated as dogma and the sense of surprise or discovery that most truly characterises its reading is lost. So, for instance, the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15: 11-32) is most commonly read with the focus on the prodigal; but the parable is more about the nature of the father who has to contend with both the waywardness of the prodigal and the bitterness of the elder brother. Although one can read this as a moral tale of wayward humanity, it holds a powerful element of the unexpected that undermines easy readings and invites us to reconsider our assumptions. It extends and challenges our understanding of what it means to live as authentic human beings – after all there is certainly something amiss with the elder brother. This parable hints at a God who is much more than we may imagine; unknowable and mysterious.

We are not dismayed by this: we can trust the parables because we trust their source, Christ. That faith encounter remains the foundation for enduring and enjoying the struggle with scripture. Of course, I understand this must be an exasperating opinion for those who don’t share that faith.

Epiphany 5

In the urgent and sometimes almost luminous language of Paul writing to the church in Corinth, Paul presents in the 11 verses of this morning’s epistle (1Cor.15:1-11) the bare outlines of his ‘creed’ – what it is that defines the Christian people, and that makes them who they are. It is a faith that defies reason and is based entirely on the experience that eludes explanation: the great gospel mystery of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In these 11 verses we have the bare essence of ‘the gospel’ – this is what the first generation of Christians proclaimed; the hope that sustained martyrs in the persecutions; the faith that was to encompass the world. This gospel, forged in an inexplicable experience, is the driving energy of the first generation church; it precedes the extended narratives and collections of memories and sayings that we more conventionally now know as ‘gospel’.

Then, sequentially some years later, we come to the ‘second generation’ narrative – the gospel of Luke and Acts (the 2 volumes belonging together) and we find this morning’s glowing vignette – the memory of when Jesus called his disciples (Luke5:1-11). It has something of the glow of nostalgia about it – the blush of reminiscence as old friends may say ‘do you remember when...?’ All of this is captured in that first word ‘once’ which introduces the memory. The word stands apart from time; it inhabits the timelessness of story while it registers a unique and exceptional moment.

The heavy reality of memory is vividly caught. Luke remembers the crush of the crowd around Jesus – pressing in on him to hear him, to hear ‘the word of God’. The compelling power of what Jesus says is evidenced in the pressure of the crowd and so he remembers how Jesus was obliged to teach from the lake itself, sitting in one of the boats.

But notice the silence! We are not given one word of whatever it was Jesus said. What can fill that silence, that shocking omission on the part of the writer? The truth may be that this silence is more eloquent than any summary of Jesus’ teaching – because in the end it was not Jesus’ words that people responded to, but Jesus himself. When we hear of Jesus speaking the ‘word of God’ what people almost certainly encountered in Jesus was an ‘embodied word’ – we may guess that there was that about Jesus which brought people into a sense of the reality of God calling upon their lives that spoke more eloquently than any teaching. We may guess that in Jesus they found again new possibilities of life, new ways of being human, which were transforming and liberating. Through Jesus they were brought into radical and new ways of seeing and understanding the world, their place in it and the purpose of God for them. Through Jesus they discovered a new sense of the incredible depth and potential of their being and that they were part of a great shaping purpose transcending anything they ever previously imagined. What we are speaking of here is a powerful and transforming religious experience, an encounter with absolute ultimate reality – what the 1920s philosopher Rudolph Otto wrote about in his book The Idea of the Holy – where he spoke of the holy as the mysterium tremendum, the fascinans. For Otto the holy is beyond all comprehension, awesome (mysterium tremendum) and it is compelling (fascinans). This probably helps explain why our First Testament lesson for this morning is the account of Isaiah’s encounter with the holy in the temple – the effect of that encounter and the obvious thematic connection with Peter’s response in this gospel speaks directly into the mystery that the gospel narrative unfolds beside the lake of Gennesaret.

You will note that what follows the evocative silence in our gospel is simply an instruction to ‘put out into the deep water’ and to let down the nets. Notice how the pressing of the crowd about Jesus now becomes the crush of fish held in overflowing nets. Whether the crush about Jesus is of people or fish, one catches the sense that here in Jesus is the compelling reality of Being itself toward which all being is irresistibly attracted: we are drawn to our source.

Unsettling it is, but our joy and our fulfilment, our true humanity, is in that call ‘out into the deep’.


A previous Dean of this cathedral is reputed to have described a sermon in a rather pithy phrase: "A sermon must warm the heart, inform the mind and move the will." That I attribute to Tim Raphael and I hope I have quoted him correctly.

However there are many kinds of sermons - and mostly when I place a sermon in this blog I expect it will be for a Sunday Eucharist and reflect my own engagement with scripture and the question of how that mystery about which scriptures turn connects with my own life and the questions that hold me - whether in perplexity, despair or delight.