Sunday, November 27, 2011

Advent Thoughts & Elections 2011

McCahon's paintings speak of a quintessential New Zealand and a land that has about it something speaking of the Holy, the numinous. Some very innovative spirit has borrowed the McCahon canon and adapted it with a comment, speaking for land and what New Zealanders decided at the polls yesterday. I think it is very clever - but more than that: it is also heart-rending.

When I see what seems to be happening to this country ...

Friday, November 25, 2011

White Ribbon Week

Today the occupiers in the Octagon cleared their tents away and stored them in the Cathedral for a few hours so the official White Ribbon Day could be celebrated in the Octagon unimpeded. I thought that was a splendid example of goodwill from two groups who are both working for a better society for us all to live in and it puts some of the negativity generated by a few letter-writers in the ODT in a more generous and (I think) a more accurate context.

Last Sunday night the White Ribbon Riders (otherwise known as 'The Patriots') arrived in Dunedin on their ride through the South Island to promote the White Ribbon message of men saying no to violence against women. They were met in the Octagon, greeted by the Mayor, and then came over to the cathedral for the bikes and riders to be blessed and to share in a service where they told their stories and we listened to Lesley Elliot with her story. The Cathedral is the spiritual home for the Elliot family and it was wonderful to have Lesley share her story in this place which holds such poignant memories for her.

It was an extraordinary service in every sense: we had a wonderful kapa haka group from the students at Kings and Queens in South Dunedin; a small group of talented and courageous young people from the Samoan Assembly of God Youth Group from Lookout Point sang us a song composed for the White Ribbon - 'These Two Hands'; while, running through the service, the Cathedral Choir provided, as it always does, the most beautiful music.

I can now admit that I had been a bit anxious about how these various cultural and musical threads might hold together in such a formal setting as our Cathedral - but somehow, by the grace of God - they did. At the end, as votive candles were lit and the choir sang Samuel Wesley's superb 'Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace', I had a new sense of what a cathedral can hold together in its service to the city and what a privileged ministry this is - in every sense: one is privileged to work with wonderful people and colleagues, and with outstanding community groups. This is a city where people do care and there is a real sense of community.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Inside Job & Global Financial Crisis

It was an extraordinary Saturday afternoon with nearly 150 people in the cathedral - people from all sectors of the community: the occupiers in the Octagon, the DCC and the university as we showed the film 'Inside Job' with its devastating account of the financial crisis of 2008 in America and the extraordinary greed that has affected the world so seriously and yet seems so unashamed and difficult to correct. The film was a fairly solid 'watch' but we still had about an hour to share responses to it and there seems to be a very positive response and strong desire for further discussion. Watch this space!

Remembrance Day 2011 - a sermon

Did you read Friday’s ODT editorial on Remembrance Day?

It took us back to the memory of the First World War and the society that bore the immediate devastation of that conflict 93 years ago. One in every 4 New Zealand men between the ages 20-45 was killed or wounded; one in every four, - imagine that! It seems the ratio was even higher in Otago and Southland because of the higher rates of volunteers from our region. One in every 4 – no wonder that even today nearly every New Zealand town still has its War Memorial as a crumbling legacy of the war that shredded a generation. In this Cathedral also: that Memorial Window bears the badges of all the Otago and Southland units that served in that War. But there is more: there above us is the flag that Hoani Parata, a Curate (and later a Canon) of this Cathedral, took and used as Chaplain to the 1st Expeditionary Force in France and Egypt. Each year, on the 21st of October, the Anglican Church of New Zealand remembers him.

The war changed everything and the human cost was immeasurable.

The generation that went to war was not only shredded but it returned with its confidence and hope badly dented. All around were the signs of absent contemporaries. Try and imagine what that absence might have felt like: everywhere, in every street, there were absent sons and daughters, parents, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, lovers, friends, colleagues, neighbours. Everyone who survived would daily have felt surrounded by loss.

Perhaps the greatest loss in the war was immeasurable – and it was the loss of faith in human purpose, human meaning and our institutions. There was no longer any automatic belief in such things as national righteousness, wise government, the trustworthiness of official communication and popular media alike – was shaken beyond repair. All the spiritual and intellectual maps and landmarks of that generation were damaged beyond recognition. In the spiritual winter that followed, they experienced the Great Depression, the sugar bag years, and the economic consequences that splintered the nation and saw riots in Queen Street and unemployment rise to an estimated 30%.

Yet despite the horrors and losses, some good things happened.

For some there seems to have been a new moral clarity and I think of such things as:

· a deeper understanding of social injustice;

· a renewed determination that war should not recur;

· and a new kind of idealism that led to the Welfare State and visions of a sustainable society;

· and, for some, there was a new understanding of God

What I mean by this last point is that the shambles and agony of war caused (for some) a new understanding of God to come painfully into being. The God of nations and Empires, God the problem-solver, many familiar but questionable understandings of God, began to change.

For example, one of Hoani Parata’s chaplain colleagues illustrates the sort of change that began to emerge: Chaplain Geoffrey Studdert-Kennedy (better known as ‘Woodbine Willie), who doled out smokes while he chatted to the troops, and wrote his poetry in the language of the ordinary soldier in the trenches. He was no ordinary chaplain. In one of his meditations on prayer he recreated a scene in the trenches and says: 'I wish that chap would chuck his praying. It turns me sick. I'd much rather he swore like the sergeant.'

In the mud, the muck and the misery Kennedy is revolted the thought of a bland problem-solving God and all the pious platitudes that reloigion can produce. Instead he looks at the cross and to the God who is discovered in the heart of one’s own endurance and pain – a God is not a solution, not a Father Christmas or a fairy godmother, but simply the one who ‘holds’ your deepest self, shareing your suffering, and so makes it possible for you to look out on the world without loathing and despair. I suspect that the way Studdert-Kennedy talked and wrote was pretty well the only religious response that was at all credible to those who were living through a daily nightmare. Throughout the mayhem he maintained his discipline of prayer – a discipline that kept his heart and imagination open to who he was, and that kept him grounded deeply in the reality of the suffering Christ. Doubtless some found their lessons at the front through other disciplines, but whatever kept them grounded in themselves, and with one another – I’d say God was in that anyway.

However, the trouble was that after the war, people being what they are, too many forgot to keep asking those questions, and abandoned the disciplines of mind and spirit that nourish us and keep us honest: many religious people went back to cosy shallow ways of thinking about God, while others settled for easy clich├ęs about world progress, and so the hard lessons learned on the front line were forgotten. And the winter of the spirit, and another war, were yet to come.

So Remembrance Day is not just a sad and wistful looking backwards but very much a day to search our hearts for what it means to be a human being and for what kind of society we are building. It is a time especially to be wary of what Chesterton described as ‘The easy speeches that comfort cruel men’. In our current Global Financial crisis, with the power wielded by faceless unregulated global financial agencies, it may be that those who now camp in the Octagon and protest at what is happening to our country are asking the questions we should all ask. The generations we remember today walked forward with courage and held the bonds of our society, our nation and our Commonwealth together. Today may we ‘remember the lessons they learned and may we be spared from learning those lessons the way they had to’.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Babel, Egypt and the Global Financial Crisis

I am fascinated by the 'Occupy' in the Octagon. It was kind of someone to suggest that the sermon at Mattins last week was worth putting on the blog, so here it is for those who want to mull it over and reflect on how our faith might speak 'into' the Global Financial Crisis.

Sunday, 6th November 2011

32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Old Testament lesson: Deut 17:14-20

When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and have taken possession of it and settled in it, and you say, “I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are around me,” you may indeed set over you a king whom the Lord your God will choose. One of your own community you may set as king over you; you are not permitted to put a foreigner over you, who is not of your own community. Even so, he must not acquire many horses for himself, or return the people to Egypt in order to acquire more horses, since the Lord has said to you, “You must never return that way again.” ...


We are living in strange times. The letters GFC are now commonly encountered as the acronym for Global Financial Crisis – a crisis which feels so complex that it seems a sort of Gordian knot and impossible to unravel – so we have the unusual spectacle of protestors camping in the Octagon (as part of a world movement): camping, protesting, not because they have a simple solution but because the world has to make a start somewhere. Think of the protestors as seed, sown among us, to help us see past the present world order that has created the GFC, to imagine a new future, a way of being in this world in which we all strive for the common good.

To change the current way of economic thinking and practice that has produced the crisis seems, I know, unimaginably difficult. But that difficulty must be engaged. It is a call of the Spirit for every Christian to engage with; a cause for everyone of good will to engage with.

Theology works through symbols, images and stories and this morning I invite you to think of the current economic order as a modern tower of Babel – a monstrous edifice built upon fear, arrogance and greed – with the protestors camped in the heart of our city encouraging us not to be overwhelmed by the order that threatens to destroy us. Babel is a great image for our contemporary crisis where the global economic order does not serve the common good. In the OT Babel is a symbol that is linked to another image, Egypt (but I run ahead of myself) and here is how I suggest it can be understood.

In the OT the story of Babel is in Genesis: that book that talks of beginnings, of creation and fall, of the development of human nature and the selection of people through whom God acted. At the heart of the Babel story is human fearfulness – the very human anxiety at scarcity of resources – and what happens when that fear drives you to live without the sense of God, and without concern for the common good.

Now the rest of the Torah (first 5 books of the OT) reveals God showing the chosen people (and us) how to get beyond Babel. In the very next chapter after Babel we meet Abraham and the story zips along until we find ourselves in Pharaoh’s Egypt. Take note that Pharaoh has become wealthy by creating a monopoly over grain in a time of famine and in the process the people has become a nation of slaves. They have become so enslaved by Pharaoh’s manipulation of power that by the time we get to Exodus we find a Pharaoh scared of the oppressed work force he has created and those slaves scared of the Pharaoh and his insane policies. Both the Pharaoh and the people he has enslaved are trapped in a ‘kingdom’ (or system) of anxiety.

The Israelites have to make a journey out of this Kingdom of anxiety – a journey out of selfishness and a journey toward a greater common good. Moses leads them – but they struggle with what the journey demands of them and early in Exodus the people want to go back to Egypt. But, in the scarcity of the wilderness and against all expectations, God provides food – quail and manna. They don’t know what to make of the manna, they have never encountered anything like it before – it does not fit with any of the categories of their knowledge. (We may admit that this is also our experience in the mystery of the Eucharist; that we regard the consecrated wafer with the same sense of bewilderment – the strangeness that this tiny thing bears the Christ, holds the love of God.) In the wilderness this heavenly bread, this sign of divine generosity, is in complete contrast to the anxiety and fear of scarcity they knew in Pharaoh’s empire. It comes, as it were, as a sign from another world.

As we know, the Children of Israel persevere and after many adventures, hardships and follies their descendants finally enter the Promised Land.

Which is more or less the point where our First Lesson this morning finds us: but notice what the text says- any ruler in the Promised Land must work for the common good and not acquire great wealth – that ruler must not take the people back to Egypt – back to the Empire of anxiety where greed and fear and oppression abound.

Now can you see how the broad sweep of the Old Testament story is relevant to us today?

Pharaoh’s kingdom of anxiety is alive and well today. The forces of globalization, the deregulated financial markets, are built on fear: but we are called to live very differently. There is an alternative to Pharaoh’s kingdom of scarcity but, if we are to find it there is a journey that has to be undertaken before we can enjoy its freedom. To help us on that journey is the task of the church (and its allies); in its preaching; in its spiritual life; in its generosity; and in its theological education – everything is to encourage and guide us on that journey into freedom which every Christian is called to engage in. We are to make our way out of Egypt and learn to share in God’s abundance and freedom. This is the context against which we understand the Gospel feedings of the 4000 and the 5000: wherever Jesus is the world of scarcity and fear is transformed into a place of abundance and fearlessness.

This Global Financial Crisis shows us the nature of Babel and Egypt – and presents the question is this where we really want to live and what we want to work for? In this crisis is there a challenge or opportunity to work and strive for the common good, for a new way of being in the world?