Saturday, November 22, 2014

‘Lord, when did we see you…?’

Sunday of Christ the King (23.11.2014)

Readings: Ezek. 34:11-16,20-24; Eph. 1:15-23; Matt. 25:31-46.

Among my great and most frivolous pleasures are the comic operas of Gilbert and Sullivan. You know the sort of thing: great tunes that you can hum to and hilarious lyrics that may haunt the back of your mind at the oddest moments. 

One that comes to mind today is Iolanthe which pokes fun at the legal and political establishment of the time, especially The House of Lords. What I best remember from Iolanthe is the ‘Nightmare song’ by the Lord Chancellor and the way this tremendously powerful establishment figure finds his whole world turned upside down in his broken slumbers.

For you dream you are crossing the channel, and tossing
About in a steamer from Harwich,
Which is something between a large bathing machine
And a very small second class carriage,

And you're giving a treat (penny ice and cold meat)
To a party of friends and relations,
They're a ravenous horde, and they all come aboard
At Sloane Square and South Kensington stations.

And bound on that journey, you find your attorney
(who started this morning from Devon);
He's a bit undersized and you don't feel surprised
When he tells you he's only eleven.

You get the idea?  There’s a moment for this man when the world he thought he knew, and had such a secure place in is suddenly twisted around and feels vaguely recognizable but also bizarre and strange.

Isn’t that a most uncomfortable feeling?  That the world we think we know does not make sense? 

For me that sort of feeling is the key to cracking open the shell around this gospel that we have all heard and so allow this gospel to speak to us, however disconcerting it may be or how uncomfortable it may make us feel.

So when I look at this gospel both groups, the righteous and the unrighteous, are panic stricken, confused and disoriented.  Both groups keep asking ‘Lord, when did we see you…?’  There is a terrifying sense of incomprehension: none of the people in either side can understand what is going on, the justice for it, the rationale. 

No one’s actions were founded on an understanding or principle.  It all looks crazy and anarchic. For a lot of us that is scary.

What we see in this gospel is a complete lack of any identification with belief or culture.  The people who are ‘saved’ are saved because of their charitable actions toward anyone in need.
That turns a lot of things around quite drastically.  

For a start, the fundamentalist who insists on a whole list of orthodox beliefs as essential for salvation is suddenly confronted with this story of a judgement where all that matters is the goodness you have shown toward anyone who needed it.  Getting your faith or theology right is not quite the point!

So, the point is … what?

Let me try … at least to where I have got for the moment.

May it be that what matters is a radical freedom, a profound transformation in us? Something that frees us to love generously and unconditionally?

It may take a lifetime getting there; or it may take only a moment of surrender. 

The wise or foolish women, the one-talent servant, the unforgiving slave – these stories from previous Sundays shake us and move us to new ways of thinking and of being. 

But this Sunday’s gospel, the last for this liturgical year; the last before Advent: this gospel sweeps us to the end of time, the rolling up of everything – and says this is what matters!  

And we stammer … ‘Lord, when did we see you?’

Let’s change how we live!  

   Come along to the ‘Thinking Through the Scriptures' next Wednesday and see where we get to!

Saturday, November 15, 2014

'That one talent ... '

Reflections on The Parable of the Talents
33D Sunday in Ordinary time (16.11.14)

Readings: Judges 4:1-7; 1 Thess.5:1-7; Matthew 25:14-30

Last week an email conversation on this gospel text began in our Dunedin archdeaconry: Canon Claire Brown raised the possibility that the third servant, the one talent servant, was a ‘whistleblower’ on the unjust and exploitative behaviour of the master.  I was delighted to hear the question asked because it so ran against the tide of traditional readings of the parable that it created a mental space in which we could engage with the story again; engage with it afresh.

The danger of traditional readings is that the story can become so encased that our readings are reduced to a formula of ‘this is what it means’ – by which point the story has ceased to engage us and you can almost feel the scriptures being drained of their power to speak.   A strong question, something that threatens to turn our understanding on its head, can revive the story and we turn to it with renewed curiosity and openness.

The question asked about the one talent servant – is he a whistle blower against an unjust master – alerts us that our feelings are engaged: we recognise that we feel some sympathy with this servant.  What has this servant done that is so wrong and that merits such harsh judgement?  We feel sympathy.  We feel what Aristotle described as the basis of tragedy: he called it ‘pity and terror’, but for us ‘sympathy’ will do just fine; we recognise a common humanity in the tale, a capacity for making a mistake.  In this we recognise ourselves.

Think then of this parable as a little tragedy – one to be grouped with similar parables – such as those we have followed in earlier weeks where mistakes have been the issue; stories where understandable errors (‘Oops, no wedding garment’ or ‘Oh dear, not enough oil’) have led to disaster.

When one thinks of tragedy you might recall those first year classes in English Literature and the occasional Shakespearean tragedy, usually Othello and the question of what caused his downfall.  Critics sometimes spoke of the ‘tragic flaw’ in a character; something that made that person vulnerable to making a mistake.  Aristotle spoke of this as Hamartia, ‘missing the mark’; the same word later used by St Paul for sin – so describing it so as a predisposition to ‘miss the mark’ or make a mistake.

So then, this morning imagine yourself as if sitting in the Chapter Room among the Wednesday afternoon ‘Thinking Through the Scriptures’ group and ask yourself about this one talent servant – what is wrong?  What is his tragic flaw?  Is there one?

I think Matthew is quite clear that there is:  never mind the rationalisations he provides; just focus on the condition he names. The one talent servant says to the Master, ‘I was afraid’. 

‘I was afraid’:   that sounds familiar, doesn’t it?  That is the same phrase we hear from Adam back in Genesis after the Fall where a guilty Adam admits to God, ‘I was afraid’.  Contrast that with the constant command we hear in the New Testament, especially after the resurrection: ‘Don’t be afraid’.

The more I think about this, the more I recognise how fear is such a limiting and destructive presence in our lives.  It can keep us silent when we should speak; it may make us draw back when we should move forward to help.  Maybe we are afraid of losing our job or losing someone’s good opinion of us; maybe we are afraid of being stretched beyond our resources or ability; maybe we are afraid of too much public attention or of our limitations being exposed.  Everyone will know something of fear and we can all make our own list of the things we are fearful of.

The one talent servant is so paralysed by fear that he does nothing and takes no risk, undertakes no venture in faith, presents mere harmlessness.  Sadly this servant, merely by doing nothing, by playing it safe, loses everything.

I have on my computer’s desktop a quote from a priest and writer – she sums up the issue in the most personal terms, saying from her perspective as a writer:

“You are on your death-bed. What do you regret? If I don't write, I will die. That is, my body may live, even comfortably, but my soul will die.”

To read this parable and be reminded of what God calls us to in life is alarming and yet behind this parable the risen Christ calls to us, ‘Don’t be afraid’.

'There's a naivety in saying there's no God'

I greatly admire Brian Cox's programmes and the unmistakeable passion and reverence he shows for the mystery of the universe.  He is no theist: but about a month ago an interview with The Telegraph got me thinking.  I posted this link in Twitter and am reproducing it here for those who may care to follow it up.  This chimes in with some of the new thinking I read about over evolutionary theory - particularly epigenetics and how environment and nurture (and not just DNA) are passed on and evolution is not just by random mutations.  See what you think.

Friday, November 14, 2014

What scares off the Millennials?

We talk about church growth and about how to 'reach' (aargh!!) the under 30s and 40s and I was pleased to fortuitously receive this link on my Facebook page (something so rarely visited that messages have been left for years).

Since I have been recently at a meeting where talk touched on how to grow the congregation, I am grateful to see again some evidence that integrity in thought and speech may not be entirely irrelevant after all.

I'd be interested in your thoughts.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Remembrance Day 2014

Address for Remembrance Sunday Service 2014

It has become something of an international sensation: I refer to the art installation in the Tower of London’s moat; 888,246 ceramic poppies – one for every Commonwealth soldier who died in the First World War.  Judging from the aerial photos – its breath-taking but goodness knows what it must be like to stand amidst it.  It gives such a striking impression of the almost unimaginable losses in that war – on this day when we try to remember.

The researchers employed for this work in the Tower of London also asked a great many people what they thought should be remembered.  I was impressed by the words of one schoolgirl who said ‘I think it should be remembered as something that should never have happened.’

Who would argue with that?

The truth is that no one can now actually remember: 

“At the going down of the sun, and in the morning / We will remember them.”

 No, we mustn’t and won’t forget, but neither can any of us remember: no-one actually remembers, anymore.

Harry Patch died on 25 July 2009 - the last fighting Tommy - and with him the last actual memories of fighting the First World War.

Harry Patch remembered, his whole generation remembered, yet he carried those memories inside himself for longer than most of that generation lived. For eighty years he never even spoke of what he had seen at Passchendale, of the reality of fear or of the image that haunted him all his life, of a wounded comrade, ripped from shoulder to waist by shrapnel, pleading for death and his mother: a bloody, muddy and haunting image of the war to end all wars.

Fortunately for us Patch broke his eighty year silence. It has been said that the ghosts of his memory were agitated by the futility of his experience, angered by each successive generation’s failure to learn, horror repeating horror. So, interviewed not that long before his death, the last fighting Tommy made his point very simply: ‘the younger generation can’t imagine what it was like’. That’s the truth: we can’t imagine it; that is a leap too far for us.

Libraries of popular military history and military memoir attest to our appetite to read about man at his violent, animal worst, and perhaps sometimes at his heroic, selfless best.  But there is something about the act of war, the direct human experience of conflict which seems to set it apart: participation is privileged and the accounts of actors deferred to; you don’t know ‘cause you weren’t there, man.

Perhaps indeed it is best remembered as something that should never have happened.

Yet the truth is that our remembering has to endure alongside continuing conflicts; continuing horrors.  Our digitally connected age brings the conflict into our living rooms, our phones, and into our everyday waking world. 

I believe this changes our remembering and how we think about war.  It introduces a new complexity.  I watch the Al Jazeera news and its coverage of the conflict with ISIL. The horrors are graphically revealed.  We can no longer plead ignorance of barbarism and the slaughter of innocents.  No generation has been better informed than we are.

It seems to me pacifism has now become so much harder.  I don’t want to debate Just War theory or repeat the arguments of Augustine and Aquinas; but to see the helplessness of the innocent and not to feel an obligation to act seems to me unconscionable.

And yet every action that we may take carries with it the most terrible hazards. 

We may get things wrong, make mistakes; innocents will almost certainly suffer – consider the ghastly euphemism ‘collateral damage’.  Nonetheless can our remembrance of war, our awareness of frailty and risk prevent us from action, allow us to do nothing?  May we allow ourselves to be desensitised by the recurring and overwhelming images of horror and slaughtered innocents, only to justify inaction by whatever rationale we can find?

We live in dangerous times – I think more dangerous than we may imagine.  

Today we remember a war ‘that should never have happened’.

Readiness Is All

Sermon for 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (9.11.14)

Readings: Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25; 1 Thess.4:13-18; Matt. 25:1-13

The Church’s liturgical year is rapidly coming to a close and the time of Advent is quickly approaching; we register the impending change already in our gardens, the burst of growth and in the lengthening days.  Anticipation of Christmas is almost upon us – decorations are already in the supermarkets!  A sense of urgency, of things to be done, presses in the background of these weeks

That urgency runs through the scriptures set for today.

Paul writes for people wondering about what happens when we die and for people who expected the imminent end of all things.  Paul’s account in Thessalonians sounds more than strange to us today; it sounds utterly bizarre!  There are Christians who have taken his account quite literally and speak of the return of Christ as ‘the rapture’ with the believers being caught up in the air.  There have been a lot of jokes about this kind of literalism and how we read Paul on this subject.

But before we swap jokes or ridicule Paul, think about what he is doing: for a pre-scientific age he is trying to help imagine the unimaginable.  He is saying that reality is radically different to what we think it is and he is looking toward a point when reality as we understand it implodes and something new comes into being.   This is not as far-fetched as we might think: the work of the Large Hadron Collider with its explorations into particle physics; the great questions of matter; and into the structures of space and time has caused us to seriously consider possibilities that have previously been merely the domain of fantasy literature.  Reality may indeed be very different to what we think it is: in this passage from Thessalonians Paul opens the door of possibilities just a chink and invites us to imagine the unimaginable.

Open that door and we enter the world of the apocalyptic imagination and daring speculation that scripture holds: a world of possibility where brides, bridegrooms and wedding customs are used to stretch our language and our thinking beyond all common boundaries.  In Hebrew tradition God was sometimes identified as ‘the bridegroom of Israel’ but in the New Testament it is Jesus who is repeatedly spoken of as the ‘Bridegroom’ and in Matthew (chapter 22, a few weeks ago) we have already come across references to a wedding feast and the hazards of not being prepared; you may remember the incident of the wedding guest caught without a wedding robe (28th Sunday in Ordinary Time).

Our gospel this morning deals with the same concerns, using wedding customs to illustrate the point.  Imagine a group of friends waiting for the moment to greet the bridal couple as the groom brings the bride from her family home to his own.  The problem our gospel imagines is that some of those waiting are simply not adequately prepared.  In the course of their waiting there has been a delay and some, impatient or unprepared, have not allowed for any delays and have no reserves of oil for their lamps so they can escort the wedding party to the feast.

The question that underlines this parable is how any of us prepare for what God has in store for us.  We do not know what mysteries the Large Hadron Collider will disclose; we do not know exactly what the future holds for any of us: reality may be very different from anything we have imagined. 

In Hamlet (Act 5: scene 2) Shakespeare has Hamlet say:

 There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all. Since no man of aught he leaves knows, what is’t to leave betimes? Let be.

If we try to paraphrase that, we realise Hamlet is saying that God controls everything—even something as trivial as a sparrow’s death. Everything will work out as it is destined. If something is supposed to happen now, it will. If it’s supposed to happen later, it won’t happen now. What’s important is to be prepared.

So, are we prepared?  In this parable I look at the line-up of the wedding party as it is described: I try to be like those who have extra oil on hand if needed but I also know that my love and faith and hope are all too often very weak – and I am apprehensive that my reserves will be inadequate.

That thought encourages me to persevere in prayer and meditation; to persevere in being open to God and to seeking God’s work in me.  I think there is something more as well: what if the oil runs out, what if my perseverance seems to run out or the unexpected happens before I am ready? 

Maybe this gospel reminds me that I am both prepared and unprepared – as I suspect we all are.  The gospel urges us to be prepared, that is our life work; and if we may be unprepared – we are to know that Christ precedes us; love goes before us; so don’t be fearful.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Who are you becoming? (A school sermon)

Preached at All Saints Sunday Choral Eucharist with St Hilda’s Collegiate School, November 2, 2014

Every year the tradition and challenge of the All Saints Day sermon to the St Hilda's community in the Cathedral presents a formidable task ...

I want to begin with one question: for every student, parent, grandparent, teacher, Board member, choir member, cathedral parishioner, every priest – each one of us.  Who are you becoming?  Who are we becoming?  The truth is that who we are is always a work in progress.  From the time of our birth through to our death, we are always in a state of becoming.  From the raw building blocks of our DNA we grow and mature and what we may call our character (an image of the soul) is shaped and formed throughout our life.  Life is the process for this work and education is a part of it – one of the reasons that we care so much about St Hilda’s and its special character. Our life and our education shape who we are becoming.

I am confident that the Sisters of the Church who founded St Hilda’s cared about who they were becoming and felt the same for the girls they taught.  In the School prayer we come across these words:
… bless we beseech Thee
St Hilda's School, that
whatsoever things are true,
pure, lovely and of good report
may therein flourish and abound.

You’ll have made the connection and realise that those familiar words are drawn from the advice in St Paul’s letter to the Philippians (that we read a few minutes ago) where he says ‘think about these things’.  Why does he say that?  The reason is that we become what we think about.

Now there is a problem with this.  None of us like being told what we ought to think about.  None of us like to feel that we are controlled or constrained.  When Paul lists the sort of things he thinks we ought to think about at least a part of my mind turns toward the kind of things that don’t fit in with his list. What am I missing out on?  The answer might turn on that question we started with – What sort of person are you becoming and what sort of person do you want to become?

Imagine someone who has been bullied or experienced some sort of meanness.  But instead of putting it behind them they choose to brood about it and over time it eats away at them gradually taking hold of them.  Eventually they start to see meanness everywhere – and begin to suspect other people of having it in for them and of ganging up against them.  They may even begin to doubt their family and friends. In a very short time this kind of thinking becomes habitual and a basically decent sort of person becomes twisted in their soul and potentially a source of hurt and pain for everyone whose life crosses their path. This was a life built around a wrong choice and it is hard not to feel a sense of waste and loss; a sense of something being turned in the wrong direction.

That is tragic and on All Saints day we give thanks for the countless men and women just like us who have lived lives of courage and grace and influenced the world about them.  It is the saints who help us to see what really matters in life.

One man tried to express this by bringing science and theology together: his name was Teilhard de Chardin.  In the years between the First and Second World Wars Teilhard, a young priest and scientist, was researching fossil finds in China.  His discoveries in evolutionary biology, including the origins of human beings, excited him and he began to develop of philosophy of evolution together with Christian faith.  In evolution he recognised a principle of growing complexity which, with Christian faith, pointed the way toward a future consummation, collapsing time and eternity, in what he called The Omega Point – where you and I and all the saints are caught up in Christ.

You could say that what Chardin describes as the Omega Point is something like the vision of the saints that John talks about in Revelation this morning – that vision of saints in white robes: well, John’s visionary language sounds weird to us today but he and Chardin are both thinking beyond our world of sight and sense and they both point us toward a deeper reality and shaping purpose in which you and I, all of us, have our part.  Everything is involved in this: our education, our choices, our thinking, all the focus of energy, mind, imagination and will that drive us; countless things, experiences, events; all play their part to form us into the people we are becoming - all these are part of a cosmic evolutionary process beyond the end of time in which we will converge.

So this morning we remember that to follow Christ is to be caught up in a reality far bigger than ourselves; it is to make a conscious choice and so begin to see the world and ourselves in a new way.  When we come forward to take the bread and wine, we receive Christ and we recommit ourselves to following him and to taking our part in the great mystery of God’s purpose in the universe.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Ebola, ISIL, GFC and a Sunday Morning congregation

I write in some haste before going on holiday; these are rough notes toward an essay ...

The spread of the Ebola virus seems almost unstoppable as it has breached the barriers of Western borders and advanced health care systems.  A virus that has previously seemed the curse of the

poorest regions in Africa or Conrad's Heart of Darkness has now arrived and stirred fear amongst those who had previously felt safe.  Ebola seems to be a metaphor for our times.

For example Ebola could be likened to the manifestations of ISIL, spreading from the Middle East to the cities of the West and the New World, even it seems to a P.O.Box in Parnell; children brought up in urbane and privileged communities have become radicalised and disappeared into the darkness of ISIL and its appalling barbarism.  Though the epidemiology of this terrorism might be attributable to multiple forms of alienation, the sheer relentless cruelty of ISIL exceeds all explanations for its genesis and its expansion. Its behaviour not only exposes the human capacity for violence but something more sinister, the attraction of darkness masquerading as religious faith. (This has happened before, I am sure: in the West something similar must have happened with the Inquisition.)  The children of the privileged West have increasingly been brought up without any moral or spiritual formation to counter the appeal of ISIL - and my hunch is that the drift toward Jihadism reflects the spiritual emptiness of much Western society.

It is not that we have had no warnings about the problems we face.  Only a few years ago it seems that nearly every Sunday morning I was lamenting the Global Financial Crisis and I was enormously encouraged by the Occupy movement as we at last saw an almost global reaction against the abuses and injustices of the banks, corporations and the control of world finances by roughly 1% of the population.   Now we no longer hear of a GFC, the banks appear to be back where they were before and Occupy is no more.  At the heart of our economic order greed remains entrenched and the gap between affluent and poor widens still further.  The morning congregation is sparse and I wonder to whom one speaks?  The spiritual void flourishes in the self-centred secularism of New Zealand.

This year we are celebrating the bicentenary of the gospel in New Zealand.   I think we should be very careful about what we celebrate.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

A Dress Code for the Omega Point?

The weekly meeting in the Chapter Room always shakes me up as we face the scriptures and allow them to work upon us.

28th Sunday in Ordinary Time (12.10.2014)

Readings: Exodus 32:1-14; Phil.4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14;

Last Wednesday afternoon as a small group of us sat in the Chapter Room chatting about the readings for today – every time we looked at the gospel my heart sank and I complained ‘I just don’t understand it, it seems so unfair.’  To put it simply, thinking at the most literal level, if you invite all and sundry without any warning to come to a party, who are you to complain if someone’s dress code is not up to scratch?

The reading from Exodus presented no problems.  Think of it this way: the Israelites have been left to their own devices.  Big mistake!  After all, despite everything,  they have been the most difficult community to lead to freedom and a new life – grumbling, complaints and rebellion have marked their journey.  N0w Moses is off the scene and God is out of sight – and how do they now fill that void? The answer seems very familiar, even contemporary, as, like a class of school children with the teacher out of the room, all hell breaks loose.  Without Moses for oversight, instruction and guided spiritual formation, the vacuum is suddenly filled with the golden calves – which we can translate as various forms of materialism, greed, hedonism and conspicuous consumerism – ‘These are your Gods O Israel!’, ‘These are your Gods, O people of the 21stcentury!’  This is not just a story in the remote past but an ancestral memory that holds up a mirror to us now.

The passage from Philippians is very much a closing shot of advice from Paul to the church in that region and, especially in the context of the other readings one can make sense of it as the kind of advice that, if adhered to, starts to form moral and spiritual character.  ‘Whatever is true,…honourable…just… pure … lovely etc – ‘Think about these things.’  We are used to promoting good dietary habits by reminding people ‘You are what you eat.’  The same applies here for the moral imagination and the spiritual life ‘You are what you think about’.  Now that’s a sobering thought!  What are we becoming?

So with the story Jesus tells us this morning when he says “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a marriage feast for his son…” What does he try to tell us?  When I try to make any sense of that phrase ‘the kingdom of heaven’ my brain turns to slush – this is something beyond all imagining.  We could say it differently today, and replace ‘kingdom of heaven’ with, say, ‘the Omega Point’.  Look it up on Google – Wikipedia summarises the idea: "The Omega Point is the purported maximum level of complexity and consciousness towards which some believe the universe is evolving.  The term was coined by the French Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955)."

So, if we imagine the whole purpose of creation as leading toward some tremendous completion or consummation – imaged in the parable as the ‘marriage feast’ of the ‘king’s son’ – then the summary of invited and expected guests with the misadventures suffered by the servants with their invitations can be read as a gesture towards the story of Israel with its botched opportunities and abused prophets.  Then the invitation is extended beyond Israel to include all humankind and across all time. 

It is when we come to the encounter of the king with the guest who has no wedding garment that we come to grief: as I said – it simply seems unfair to issue a sudden (and mandatory) attendance and at the same time to harshly enforce an unforeseeable dress code.

But if the story of the universe is heading toward some great moment of cosmic completion, then this parable cautions us that our part in it requires our readiness; urges our participation in a lifelong task of formation, of evolving that formed and whole person in whom the necessary work has been done.  It is realistic: since we cannot foresee the instant of our death, it becomes vital that our spiritual and moral formation is seriously addressed so that we take our part in the evolving work of the Kingdom.  This ‘wedding garment’ of the parable is our life’s work.  We weave, design, cut and sew it through the multitude of choices and actions of our lives.  This is the person we are becoming … have become or have neglected entirely.  Who are we becoming? Lord have mercy!

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Choral Evensong with Noah (the film)

A brief evening reflection.

How would you describe faith?

The working ‘off the cuff’ description I’d like to offer is ‘faith is the story you live by.’   

‘Story’ is a supple, flexible and undogmatic way of thinking; it opens the way for the imagination and resists any clamour for empirical verification or proof for what must always be beyond proof.   So, for instance, when we say the creed we are repeating together a very bare summary of the story we share; the story we seek to live by.   Another example: in every Eucharist, in the Great Thanksgiving, we again repeat something of the story we seek to live by.

At every service today, including the service for the Blessing of the Animals, I have spoken about story and also, at least in passing, mentioned the film Noah.  If you have not seen it I commend the film to you, and suggest further reflection on it if you have. 

There is a pivotal and highly emotional moment in the film when Noah (Russell Crowe) says to his family: “let me tell you a story.  The first story my father told me, and the first story I told each of you.”

What he recounts are the events of Genesis 1, the creation of the world.  At this moment the producer (Aronofsky) relates the creation story not just verbally but also visually.  As the 6 ‘days’ of creation are recounted these stages are juxtaposed with time lapse images of the origins of the cosmos – from the Big Bang to the arrival of man: science and story flowing and complementing, the one the other. 

The story of Genesis 1 is the foundation narrative for Noah and his family.  In holding firm to this story they also face a crisis, like our own in the church, they are like religious castaways in an utterly secularised culture.  They are surrounded by the violent and rapacious civilization founded by Cain.  Noah and his family try to live apart from it – but they are encircled, embattled and likely to be overwhelmed. 

Embedded in the story is an element of uncertainty – initially surprising when we think we know the story – but actually a degree of uncertainty is necessary for any great story as it may be nuanced over time in various forms, different tellings and diverse expressions. 

In the film we see this as Noah struggles with his questions, doubts, confusion and the signs of the times; is he right or is he deluded?  What does God want him to do?

How is that different from the story we live by?

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Reading Matthew at Choral Matins

27th Sunday in Ordinary Time (5.10.14)
Readings: Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Phil.3:4b-14; Matthew 21: 33-46

This morning our Choral service is Choral Matins and we are possibly the only Cathedral in New Zealand that still offers Choral Matins, though only for a few occasional Sundays in the year and only on a provisional basis.  We revived Choral Matins partly to prevent a mass of fine Church music being forgotten and to deliberately change our routine so that, once in a while, we shift from being ‘consumers’ of the Word (in the sacrament) to being contemplatives of the Word through music and sermon.

There are words that I rather wish we could eliminate from our vocabulary: I mean ‘preach’ and ‘sermon’; nowadays they carry almost entirely negative connotations and preaching and sermonising are definitely out of favour. 

Instead I prefer to point toward the common ground between pew and pulpit.  We are all readers and my task is to share with you my experience of the text we are engaged with.  As readers we face various problems of course: not least the difficulty of responding with interest to a text we have read many times before; but that is the problem of every reader who yet once again reads a text he/she thinks he knows.

So, look at this reading from Matthew’s gospel. 

We read the familiar parable and at the end we find a sentence that wraps up the moment of it’s telling with that conclusion or commentary by the narrator: ‘When the Chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was speaking about them.’

Here begins a problem for every reader and certainly for any would-be critic.  In the light of the narrator’s words how do we engage with reading this parable?  Has he so interred the parable in the past that it is closed for us in the present?  If so, is our reading and our reflection doomed to be historical and explicatory – looking ever backward to explain how the parable impacted on those who heard it and to expound its part in the story that leads to the cross?  

The problems with that approach are various.  For instance, it leaves us as readers estranged from the story – it is for and about someone else, not us - and it effectively reduces our reading (to a historical study) and induces boredom.  It ignores the genre and with that the power of story as a way to map our human condition and to draw us into an encounter, an epiphany, an experience of fresh realisation and insight. 

I suggest that one of the things the attentive reader soon appreciates about almost any parable is that it resists our inclinations to limit its meaning or to close it off by locking it into the past with an audience long ago.  On the contrary the power of the parable is unlocked whenever an attentive reading upsets our comfortable indifference, shakes us from being casual spectators, and makes us stand alongside those first hearers, the Chief priests and Pharisees, and to realise with them that Jesus is speaking to us all.

You might notice that the parable opens without any location in time.  Instead Jesus begins the parable in the timelessness of story and myth; in effect he says ‘Once upon a time’!  Then as you follow the story with its reference to someone who plants a vineyard and whose tenants prove ungrateful and disobedient we start to recognise the story we are being told and to catch echoes of an earlier story of which this is a variation.  We remember the story of the first garden and of its first inhabitants.

“Of man’s first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste
Brought death into the world, and all our woe,…”
(Milton. Paradise Lost I:1-3)

Once we admit such vast dimensions as a presence in the background of the parable we become aware that the parable must inevitably speak to us.  So consider then that we are the ungrateful disobedient tenants of the ‘vineyard’ – and let the vineyard be the world that we have not created but of which we are at best poor and ungrateful stewards.  As we consider the crisis of global warming and its terrible consequences for the environment – this parable can speak to us.  What disasters do we bring upon ourselves for our dreadful stewardship of the creation?

If we reflect upon the behaviour of the tenants we notice the symptoms of dysfunction and disorder; the evidence of unprincipled greed, violence, lawlessness and destruction of the environment.  They display no concern for the common good and instead manifest a way of being which one can only associate with a seriously dysfunctional society.  If we reflect carefully about this we may recognise our own world and aspects of our time and our society.

Of course we have no ‘quick fix’ to the problems of our time.  While this parable sets our human relations in a cosmic frame and reminds us of our place in our world and our accountability, the story it tells is barely heard outside these walls. Even so, it is not entirely lost: echoes of it resonate or reappear in various forms, some in popular media – as in the recent film Noah (starring Russell Crowe).  How we may share this story with other readers is the question: it is not that there is no interest or curiosity in the questions the parable takes us into, but there is the problem of how this group of readers can meet with all those potential readers beyond these walls.  That is what this Cathedral is here for: your suggestions are invited. 

Monday, September 29, 2014

The Search for Home: Faith, Imagination, Music & Myth

An Evensong Meditation on the Feast of St Michael & All Angels

Evensong 26th Ordinary Sunday (28.9.14)

You may recall that prayer after communion (in The New Zealand Prayer Book) which contains the phrase ‘You met us in your Son and brought us home’: while alluding to one gospel story, that phrase carries the main thrust of the Christian story; our journey of faith, our search to make sense of our lives and find again our home, our ground in God.  

I suggest that this religious search is deeply grounded in our humanity and we find it in poetry, myth and music and I want to very briefly reflect on some aspects of this.

I want to begin with T.S. Eliot because yesterday was his birthday and  because the search for our home in God resonates through his poetry.  At the end of his Four Quartets there is this familiar passage
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, remembered gate
when the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;

Eliot maps our human condition as one of constant exploration but he has no doubt that as the source of our being resides in God, so is our end – and we ‘will arrive where we started’. (That is of course an over-simplified way of putting it - symbolically there is a profound difference between the lost Eden and the New Jerusalem.)

Like Eliot, but from his own medium of music, the pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim has suggested ways in which musicians cope with the explorations we all make in our living.  By way of illustration, Barenboim pointed out that the introduction to the Beethoven Fourth Symphony is a search for tonality that begins with a lone B-flat but by the end of the Introduction we are clearly in the dominant chord of B-flat.  Further in, the main Allegro of the piece, the exposition with its two themes, again affirms B-flat.  Barenboim explains that the purpose of this affirmation of B-flat has been to establish B-flat as the ‘home’ of the music.  Once that home has been established the music ranges into unknown territory but eventually returns.  This affirmation of the key and then the exploration and the return in an unexpected way are, he suggests a parallel of the process we all go through in our inner lives to discover who/what we are and then through many explorations find our way back the depths of our being, our truth.

The Palestinian critic and writer Edward Said pointed out that Barenboim’s explanation of the Beethoven Fourth Symphony is an allegory that corresponds to the great myths in literature – the myth of home, discovery and return: the Odyssey.  You know the schema of the story: Odysseus leaves home, leaves Penelope and all the familiar and comfortable things of Ithaca.  He goes to war, but after many hazards, adventures and a whole lifetime of exploration and discovery, returns home.  In other words Beethoven and Homer are dealing with the same deep human material. 

This is absolutely and quintessentially a religious and spiritual quest.  It is the grounding reality that Christian spirituality taps into and maps.  The vast scope of the Biblical story begins with the loss of Eden and ends with our yearning for home in the new creation, the heavenly Jerusalem, and foresees our eventual return - when we will know the place for the first time, entering through that ‘unknown, remembered gate.’