Saturday, February 9, 2013

Our national day and the common good?

Waitangi Day has come and gone without dire confrontations or great incident, apart from the sad comedy of Titewhai Harawira and the apparent inability of Maori leaders to stand up to her bullying.  That of course was a sideshow. On the upper marae, the dignity, the sense of history and of a spiritual presence came through loud and clear.  That says a great deal about why we need Waitangi Day and how important it is that we honour it.

I have however been fascinated by some of the debate over the day itself.  I never thought I would find myself in agreement with John Key but I applaud his support for the day and his realism about the grievances it inevitably attracts - and that we celebrate the day despite these difficulties.  It seems to me that our coping with the tensions of difference is one of the costs of nation-building.  I was intrigued by David Shearer's attempt to inject some joy and celebration into the day by suggesting that honours be announced at this time - but Mr Key's response that this might demean the honours with further contention on the marae was probably (that word again!) 'realistic'.  I also noted Pita Sharples' counter (to the PM's warning about the negative consequences of protest) that no one should be stopped from protesting and being able to voice grievances.  He is, of course, quite right.  You don't create a nation by requiring a culture of silence or acquiescence.  It is also undeniable that Maori protest has advanced Maori interests and - in the sense that this has helped to improve their education, housing, culture, welfare, and employment opportunities - these gains have tended to spill over into the common good.

Nevertheless there is a tendency for Waitangi Day to focus upon specifically sectional interests and not invariably serve the common good.  This need not be a problem in itself, but it does become problematic when we treat the day as our national day.  A national day must be able to speak for all our peoples and not just the two Treaty partners; it should be a day when we can focus on the needs of the nation at large; reflect on what it means to be 'New Zealanders' holding a common identity, and where we are heading as a society.  At this stage in our history I rather think that we need a separate national day in addition to Waitangi Day.  It seems to me that we need a far wider space for debate about our society than Waitangi Day seems to allow.  For instance, on a national day I would expect a 'state of the nation' reflection from all our political leaders - and that would just be a starting point.

Such an idea will undoubtedly  incur the wrath of ideologues of various interests and  (probably) of the commercial sector that will see only the added costs with another national holiday.  Too bad, it's worth doing anyway!

Monday, February 4, 2013

A strange encounter

Sermon for The Presentation in the Temple

Presentation of Christ in the Temple: Mattins

Unless a visitor to the Cathedral this morning had a pretty good knowledge of what we know as the ‘Church Year’ they might wonder why we are celebrating the festival we call ‘The presentation in the temple’. 

This Feast is poised on the cusp of Lent with Ash Wednesday only 10 days away and it marks a decisive end to the Christmas and Epiphany seasons and the story they follow.   When the Virgin Mary visits the temple 40 days after giving birth she is following the requirements of Jewish law for women but when she hands the infants Jesus over to the old priest and prophet, Simeon, a new stage of the story begins.

Of course a natural response could be something along the lines of: ‘Well this might be interesting, but, to put it bluntly, so what?  What has this story, this incident, got to do with us?’

One way of responding to that question is to look at the scene and what is going on – this is certainly what western art and especially the icons of the Greek and Russian Orthodox churches have done – they give a stylized image to invite us to see, reflect and encounter the mystery and the strangeness of what we know of the event.

Most icons have Mary (and others) on the left, arriving at the temple.  Opposite them, to the right, greeting them on the temple steps is the ancient temple priest, Simeon and often, behind him, in some, the prophetess, Anna.  Between Mary and Simeon is set the infant Jesus and Simeon often is shown to reache out to embrace him.

In one sense this is a very ordinary event.  Any parent, any grandparent, can make sense of the general picture.  Take the scene (never mind the figures and who they represent) and we can grasp the human story it represents.  There at the centre is the baby, this new life, and on one side is the proud mother with friends or family and on the other side a welcoming human community gazing with interest, curiosity and perhaps delight or wonder.  If we contemplate that for a moment, one response would be to remember that whoever we are, we live in community and in relationships; our identity, what we might think of as who we are, is utterly interwoven with the identities of others and formed by them.  We may take this for granted: but in reality, without knowing it, we are on holy ground.  So, at the centre of this grouping is a baby, a mysterious new person, a vulnerable life, dependent upon these figures about it; offering for them, perhaps, a new chance in the world; presenting the question of what it will become. Implicit in this snapshot of our human community are all the things that make for a good family, for a good and fulfilling society; and as well as this also our human potential for harm, destructive conflict and distrust.

But this is also a unique and specific event: Mary has brought the baby Jesus to the Temple and knowing the characters and the story as Luke tells it we might wonder what else can be said or seen.  

This Feast that brings Jesus into the temple reminds us of something about God.  Jesus, as the Son of God, is coming into his own place – the Temple.  But he does not enter with trumpets and cosmic upheaval and signs in the heavens – he comes as an infant and vulnerable.  This reminds us that God immerses himself in our humanity, shares it; knows it; takes it into himself.  God relates to us in our humanity – and does not force us to an awareness of him.  You could say God conceals himself in our humanity and in our world – and waits for us to respond.

The other point that I think the Feast of the Presentation helps us grasp, perhaps less directly, is something about the Church.  When the infant Jesus is brought into the temple, it can be understood as a sign that something new is to happen – and that something new will eventually come to be known as the Church.  In all the icons and art of the Presentation, the infant Jesus is the agent or link that symbolically creates a new community – the two sectors of the icons meet in him.  In his adult life, Jesus continued to create a new community – for instance in those extraordinary fellowship meals where all sorts of people, respectable and otherwise, radical opposites, came together around the one table; also, after his death and resurrection, the new community continued to grow and continued to bring people together across cultures, races and belief systems and it spread around the world.

So here we are today: and as we talk about being the Church - I think it was Archbishop William Temple who said that the church is the only society that exists for those who don’t belong to it.  The marks of the Church as Catholic require that we include everyone and exclude no one.  We are radically inclusive.  But we make mistakes.  Church history is full of mistakes.  But we progress despite that; it was St Augustine who described the church as a ‘school’ with God as its teacher.  We are a community that continually has to learn and slowly grow into maturity, generation by generation, growing into the new humanity God created us to become, including all our diversity and allowing for the latitude and scope demanded by our human freedom. What begins in the Presentation in the Temple is part of God’s experiment with humankind and the creation of the church to be a ‘laboratory of the Spirit’.  The Church is not about maintaining some identity that is frozen in time but it is always about our human growth into fullness and maturity before God. 

An Evensong for St Paul

Ah!   The delights of Choral Evensong on a hot summer evening - all one could wish for might be the scent of mown grass and a slight breeze through the open doors - but the fragrance of coffee and snatches of music from the brasseries of the Octagon will do, and very well.  Evensong sermons incline to brevity these days; the service tends to be for the aficionados and, to be realistic, folk usually come for the music rather than the sermon - a more direct path to God than any cerebrations over The Word.

Reflections on 1 Corinthians 7:17-24

In the second lesson this evening we catch a glimpse of Paul’s concerns for the first century church and the issues it faced.  As the mentor of the church in Corinth Paul engaged with a huge range of practical issues and in this section he counsels the converts against undue anxiety about social status – since status is irrelevant when one is called by God.  Instead he says ‘remain in the condition in which you were called;’ meaning, don’t try and change anything – work for God within the situation you find yourself.

‘Remain in the condition in which you were called.’

I suspect that we find that instruction sits rather uneasily with us.  We are culturally predisposed to favour change and anything that we may think of as a reform.  We want to see things improved; to see injustice corrected; to see the disempowered empowered.  We cherish legends of great Christians as those who strove for the needy – to challenge Paul we’d probably look to William Wilberforce and Martin Luther King for examples of those who did the exact opposite and actively strove to release people from the condition they were in. 

Paul is, of course, writing to the church in a culture where the social system included slavery and throughout the world of the Bible slavery is unquestioned.   He is certainly speaking of the way Christian slaves and Christian slave-owners may relate to each other in the strange freedom of the gospel.  Instead of toppling the social order Paul seems instead to set it to one side as something of a distraction.  Rather than fret about social distinctions Paul counsels with what may be pastoral pragmatism to the effect that God is not limited by our circumstances; in effect he says, ‘Pay attention to what is in front of you?’

If we keep probing at Paul’s statement, mulling it over, turning it and thinking through the implications, it starts to feel a little strange and less limiting.  In fact a world begins to open. We start to sense something deeper.  If God is to be known in in the limitations and the constraints of one’s circumstances (whether fortunate or unfortunate) – which is to say in the contingent, in the present, in this moment, - then the need is to pay attention to this moment, this ‘now’; we are to really pay attention to what is in front of us and to really be present to what we begin to see. 

The ordinary surfaces of the world about us are what we are required to see.  It may be the texture and colour of a leaf against sunlight, or a couple chatting in the Nova, someone waiting at a bus stop in the Octagon. The given surface of the world about us is what we must attend to.  It is infinitely mysterious; and it is wonderfully odd that we can even think its surface ordinary. 

Some illustrations of those who have understood this might be helpful: 
·       the artist and poet William Blake when he wrote ‘If only the doors of perception could be cleansed, then we would see everything as it is – infinite.’

·       The Jesuit theologian and scientist Teilhard de Chardin who noted:  ‘Plunge into matter’ and again ‘Plunge into God’.  He went on to say this fine thing: “By means of all created things, without exception, the divine assails us, penetrates us, and moulds us.  We imagined it as distant and inaccessible, whereas in fact we live steeped within its burning layers.”

·       The Protestant theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer: from prison, a year before the Nazis hanged him for plotting to assassinate Hitler, Bonhoeffer wrote in a letter, ‘Only by living completely in the world can one learn to believe.  One must abandon every attempt to make something of oneself – even to make of oneself a righteous person.’

The Apostle Paul, the poet William Blake, the martyr Bonhoeffer, the Jesuit scientist and thinker de Chardin, each of them in different times and circumstances, draw our attention to the otherness and presence of the Holy, hidden but present in and through all the matter, substance and phenomena of this world.

St Paul and the Summer of Les Miserables

I see that I have not blogged since September.  Perhaps that does not really matter, I have after all written and communicated in other ways, but I did intend to try to keep a discipline about it.  So I (like a lapsed dieter once more eating salads and slogging on the treadmill) am at the blog page once again.  My thanks to the hardy Cathedral regulars who have asked that I lodge some recent sermons here.  

We resumed normal Choral Services on the Sunday following the Conversion of St Paul and, of course, celebrated our patronal festival.  The informal barbecue in the Cathedral grounds on a brilliant hot Sunday was a delight.

A sermon for the Feast of the Conversion of St Paul
This year our Feast of the Conversion of St Paul coincides with what might be described as the Summer of Les Miserables.  I saw the film last week – and enjoyed it immensely. As we talked about it afterwards, Christine rightly observed that it was a deeply religious film.  On the occasion of the Conversion of St Paul, one character in the musical comes immediately to mind, the policeman - Javert. 

As you will recall, Javert’s way of understanding himself and the world is that there is an absolute order, it is a moral order from which there may be no deviation and which, for any lapse, offers no forgiveness or mercy: it is an absolute and Javert clings to this certainty with all his being.  The great song known as ‘Stars’ expresses his code – the stars order the cosmos, and their patterns and movements speak of  this cold and indifferent moral order:  He says…
And so it is written
On the doorway to paradise That those who falter and those who fall Must pay the price!
And those who follow the path of the righteous
Shall have their reward
I should have perished by his hand!
It was his right.
It was my right to die as well
Instead I live, but live in hell!
And my thoughts fly apart
Can this man be believed?
Shall his sins be forgiven?
Shall his crimes be reprieved?
And must I now begin to doubt
Who never doubted all these years?
My heart is stone and still it trembles
The world I have known is lost in shadow.
Is he from heaven or from hell?

His whole hope in life is that he has never faltered in his inflexible obedience to this code.  He says
But mine is the way of the Lord

This code psychically anchors him in the chaos and darkness of the world he inhabits, Paris in the year of the Commune.  But of course the great theme that runs through Hugo’s novel is of something else – of forgiveness and selfless love.   So when Javert finally and inescapably encounters this love and forgiveness, and cannot flee from it or deny it any longer, his world falls apart.  The realisation simply destroys him. He has what we might call a psychotic break – and he throws himself into the Seine.

Now I have spent this time talking about Les Miserables and Javert because the dilemma of Javert could so easily have been the dilemma of the man who was first known as Saul of Tarsus.  Long after his experience on the Damascus Road Paul boasted of his credentials as a Jew …

If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. (Philippians 3:5)

Paul’s background, his whole mental world and his understanding of himself was anchored in that strongly centred and robustly framed world of strict Judaism.  This culture and creed absolutely formed him – to be outside it was unimaginable; to conceive that it could be altered or amended in any way – unthinkable.  Intellectually and emotionally it would appear that Paul was so formed that any departure from this way of being would have been utterly traumatising and alienating.  If we think about the character of the man who appears in his letters we sense an utterly driven and focused personality; a man totally committed.  For someone like this a complete turnabout could have mentally and spiritually destroyed him. 

So, what happened to Saul the zealous Jew on the road?  Certainly something very odd and that seems to evade all explanations.    In Acts, despite Luke’s smooth and polished account of the mysterious event on the Damascus road, one senses that the actual events were complex and more chaotic and inexplicable than the narrative suggests.   If we look at what is presented (rather than how it is framed) the recorded facts seem to hint at something like a dramatic and sudden psychic disintegration: Paul falls, he is incapacitated, blinded, and has to be led and cared for.  While those with him heard something they saw nothing.  What has Paul experienced?  It is hard to imagine but it seems that he has come up against something that is so utterly different from everything he has previously believed or experienced that it is unnerving; mentally shattering; alien (not of the world as we know it); it annihilates everything about which he has ordered his life – and it is not surprising that he crashes – and experiences what might have been a psychotic break.  What other alternatives are there to such an experience?  Hugo has Javert commit suicide; Shakespeare has Lear descend into madness.

In short, I suggest to you that Paul’s conversion was an immensely traumatic event.  He encountered something not of this world – and there is no language or conceptual structure for that absolute otherness - and in the horror and awe of that mind-bending experience it was as if he died.  A new and very different man was to appear – after 3 days.

Can we face the questions Paul’s conversion puts to us?  That it was no easy thing and that at its core is this terrifying encounter with the Holy – something so other, so different?  This tests our vocabulary of faith; it bursts the na├»ve and simple constructions that we call ‘God’; it takes us beyond our comfort zones and into the unknown space and utter strangeness of the empty tomb.