Saturday, July 26, 2014

Remembering Dean Lynda

It is barely a week since we had the dreadful news of Dean Lynda Patterson's unexpected death.  We will hold a simple memorial service for her this Sunday (27 July) at the Cathedral's 3.00pm Choral Evensong and I will attend her funeral in Christchurch this Tuesday. We (speaking for the other Deans) are all going to miss her dreadfully. Lynda was outstandingly intelligent and able to communicate in a fresh and engaging way; she was compassionate, had a great sense of humour and utterly dedicated to her calling as Dean to a cathedral (and a diocese) going through a very difficult time.  Her faith and her theological thinking were so deeply grounded in God that the numerous challenges presented to Christchurch Cathedral and its future never seemed to overwhelm her.

It must be only a few weeks ago that she and I were talking about a pulpit swap next year and she was relishing the prospect of a study break in the European autumn - a glass of wine in a Rome piazza and then to the intricacies of the Mozarabic liturgy and the distractions of the Visigoths.

We remember Lynda because she is part of us and we will miss her and grieve for her.  We also remember her because in doing so we remember Christchurch cathedral and the community which will be devastated by her passing; and we remember Christchurch Diocese and Bishop Victoria in these difficult days.

Below is the photograph from the Deans' Conference last year - a warm and happy memory.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Introducing Noah

Yesterday, a dank and chilly Dunedin winter evening with the wind starting to pick up, the car stalled in the rush hour traffic, and the call came from my son in Melbourne: "Its a boy!  Noah!" So this is a moment when I simply share my happiness, joy and delight in a new grandchild and the first who will carry the family name.

I contemplate the photo of this new born - only hours old - and feel moved, awed, at the mystery of life and the promise it holds.  I am amused to find myself grateful that the family name continues (surely that is a small thing against health and life) but grateful I am nonetheless.  What a load those wee shoulders have to carry already!

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Gaza and 'The Sower'

Hard to clamber up into the pulpit these days and speak into the pain and chaos ... 

15th Ordinary Sunday 13/7/14
Readings:        Genesis 25:19-34; Rom. 8:1-11; Matthew 13: 1-9, 18-23

The news this week has been deeply troubling.  The Middle East seems to teeter on the edge of disintegration as the so-called Islamic state fragments Syria and Iraq - which each have troubles enough already - and locks Sunni into conflict with their Shia brethren.  To the South East, on the Gaza strip, conflict between Israel and Palestine escalates.  What began with the murder of three Jewish boys and the cruel revenge killing of one Muslim boy, has played a dreadful part in triggering this spiral of violence.  There was a brief moment, I think just before the Gaza front ‘exploded’, when humanity and decency met across the divide – and I refer to the phone call of Mr Netanyahu to the Father of the dead Muslim boy, to give his condolences and vow to hunt for the murders and bring them to justice.  I suggest that was a moment when the bond of common humanity was present and, however fleetingly, crossed the divisions between these two peoples who both have such deep claims on the same land.

Thinking about families and close relationships and the conflicts that often appear, the story of Esau and Jacob, their family rivalry and division, resonates with us.  They are such different personality-types: we could imagine Esau as promising material for an All Black forward, large, strong, practical, useful about the place (he keeps the meat safe full) and not too troubled by sensitivity or imagination – of course his Dad loves him!  Then there is Jacob, so different from Esau!  He presents as a schemer and opportunist, even an entrepreneur: he exploits Esau’s impulsiveness of the moment to get the rights that belonged to the first-born.  We have all the ingredients for a promising family drama or a revenge tragedy: the seeds of a grievance and the man of action v. the thinker; the man who lives in the moment, ‘give it to me now’ v. the long-term strategist.  In the confusion of the human story – the muddle of history – the issues of who is right or who is wrong, who is the better, is not clear or even for us to judge.  What matters is that always present, within the current of history, the divine purpose moves:  and of these two it is Jacob who will be used by God.

Paul grasped what it means to live within the purpose of God; what it means to navigate, choose, between what pertains to life and what will take you to a dead end.  The choice may not always be clear and a poor choice may lie concealed within what seems trivial – such as an impulsive word and a bowl of lentil soup!  He reminds the Christians in Rome that ‘the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death.’

And so we see the story of the sower, throwing the seed extravagantly abroad across the furrows, ways and wastelands of the world and we catch a glimpse of our world, the sphere within which we all act and how we are confronted with choice and opportunity.  (I will not consider the so-called explanation of the parable provided in verses 18-23 and attributed to Jesus.  That tends to foreclose on how we read and engage the parable. I prefer to stick with the parable as we hear it delivered and that we then engage its strangeness and let it speak to us.)  In Matthew this parable is a gateway to all the parables that then follow it and it confronts us with the mystery of what we may describe as the divine economy – the justice of God and our freedom to receive ‘the word of the kingdom’(v.19).  One notices that seed is sown indiscriminately but is only productive where there is good soil: so even in the world of the parable we sense inequality; fruitfulness is variable and a good response will be more difficult for some than for others.   Esau, constituted as he was, seems fated to make a poor choice. Of course the Esau within us may cry ‘unfair!  Always the world, the human condition, seems unfair: we do not inhabit a ‘level-playing field’.  We must choose life or death amidst testing and unequal circumstances. The parable cautions us to pay attention to what is going on here – ‘Let anyone with ears listen’!

Of course we change over time: we cannot speak of ourselves as if we are static or our circumstances unchanging. So, notice how within this parable there is depth and room to accommodate the changes in our lives.  For instance, thinking metaphorically, we may remember times when we ourselves have been ‘rocky ground’, ‘shallow soil’ or ‘choked by thorns’; we have all known times when we have been unresponsive to ‘the word of the kingdom’ – whether it be because of a hardness of heart, lack of imagination or our sheer preoccupation with the difficulties of life.  And still we must choose life or death amidst changing circumstances and the parable still cautions us to pay attention – ‘Let anyone with ears listen’!

Which is why we are here this morning: we come to this Eucharist to hear ‘the word of the kingdom’ to us.  To receive the grace to live in a way so open and receptive to God that we will make the choices that lead to life and not to death.  Also, we come to pray for those leaders in Gaza and Tel Aviv – and elsewhere in the world – that they may make wise choices, choosing life, not death.

Rolf Harris & our story

Nearly every Sunday the Eucharist provides the context (and consequently shapes) preaching - such a dangerous word in a world that definitely suspects 'preaching'. However, thinking of it as an engagement possibly locates it amidst a more open space. In that space I am currently working on a project of holding all 3 readings within the engagement and reflecting at the same time on some item of the news.  I'll be interested to see how this evolves.  

Sermon Ordinary14
6 July 2014
Readings Gen.24 34-38, 42-49, 58-67;  Romans 7:15-25; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30.

Over these past weeks, perhaps especially these last few days, many of us have followed the news of Rolf Harris’s conviction and sentencing with sadness and a sickening dismay as we have begun to recognise the terrible disparity between the cheerful and benign public persona we took to our hearts; and the predatory dark self we never recognised, who crossed boundaries and abused trust and has caused so much suffering.  It is a terrible story … but a very human story; part of our story too.

I refer of course to the story that begins in Genesis – where in Chapter 3 humankind is shown to abuse God’s trust and goodness by deliberately disobeying the divine constraints or conditions under which they are to live.  We call it the story of the Fall! 

The consequences are disastrous and from Chapter 11onwards all the rest of the story of Genesis is taken up with the stories of the Patriarchs - solely because they are God’s answer to the problems of mankind as set out in Genesis 3-11.  

So, while last Sunday we were horrified by the story of the binding of Isaac, now this morning we have the lovely story of how Isaac is found a wife. And we are meant to realise that in the midst of dark and frightening things (such as Isaac endured) there is a vast redemptive purpose at work.  God is keeping faith with Abraham; all is being cared for; the promises of blessing will be fulfilled.  While we may feel as if we are forgotten or afflicted, while we may get things badly wrong, despite such moments, God is faithful.

Our passage from Roman’s Chapter 7 is famous: it influenced St Augustine and Martin Luther.  In it Paul tells us something about human nature and provides what can be read as a commentary on the story of the Fall in Eden.  You could think of it as the Cookie jar theory:  you know how often a parent says to their child ‘Don’t put your hand in the Cookie jar.’  We know what happens – ‘ah, cookies’! Just as in Genesis Chapter 3 ‘Don’t eat of the tree’ – what happens –‘hey … fruit!’ 

In very personal terms that we can all identify with, Paul  points out how prohibitions seem to stimulate bad behaviour in us… and that there seems to be something inherently flawed in who we all are.  

Paul struggles with the conflict he recognises in himself and says: ‘I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand.’ (8:21) But that is not the end of the story – just the beginning; we may be like this but Paul knows that we are created for something far better – in the next chapter he talks about what it means to live in the Spirit of Christ – ‘the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus  has set you free’.  Christ makes us alive!  Paul closes that chapter with a great shout of joy: ‘For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ (Romans 8:38-9)

That brings us to our gospel this morning and why we are here.  Jesus is speaking to people not that different from us.  People seeking to live good lives but getting stuck in their fears and selfishness; sometimes it may be they give up or go astray through flawed ideas about God.  To all who are struggling to live honourably, to live graciously and fearlessly; to live freely, Jesus offers a radical alternative.  In effect he throws the rules away; he dismisses the burdens (the yoke) of trying to live by the law of Israel and says, ‘God is more than that’  ‘Come to me’. 

I love the image of the ‘yoke’ – one can easily think of the yoke as a burden devised to limit and control oxen but Christ directs us to himself.  To follow Jesus is to embrace his yoke and to be constrained and directed by him.  Christ makes us alive! To follow Jesus is not a burden but the way toward life and freedom: ‘You will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.’

Which is why we are here this morning: we come to the Eucharist to draw near to Jesus and to encourage one another.  Again we embrace his yoke and we seek to be shaped, formed, constrained, directed and renewed by him.  Then we will leave here to take up once more our part in the great story that we are all part of, and live lives charged with God’s love.  

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Wonders of the Solar System

I was watching Brian Cox present one of his splendid 'Wonders of the Solar System' shows on the BBC Knowledge channel and - as he always does - he had me absolutely riveted.  These shows are a visual feast but also startlingly lucid in how the science is made to feel accessible.  Cox is an extraordinary communicator.

(He describes himself as an atheist but when he does that I also remember how on many occasions he speaks in glowing terms of 'the magnificent story of the universe'.  Note: 'A magnificent STORY'.  It's a minor point but a significant one: even allowing for him speaking metaphorically, the concept of 'story' implies creation or shaping purpose - and so rather undermines pure atheist credentials.   Strict atheism is so difficult to maintain!)

Cox's programmes make me see space in dazzling colours and he populates the universe with an endless creative energy.  Last Sunday night the presentation was built about the notion of gravity - and he had me spellbound as the narrative unfolded.

This did however also make me remember something from C.S. Lewis (wonderful how one can keep coming to him) where in Out of the Silent Planet he gives an imaginative description of how his character Ransom, experiences "a progressive lightening and exultation of heart" as the spacecraft takes him away from earth into space.

"A nightmare, long engendered in the modern mind by the mythology that follows in the wake of science was falling off him. He had read of “Space”: at the back of his thinking for years had lurked the dismal fancy of the black, cold vacuity, the utter deadness, which was supposed to separate the worlds. He had not known how much it affected him till now—now that the very name “Space” seemed a blasphemous libel for this empyrean ocean of radiance in which they swam…. He had thought it barren: he saw now that it was the womb of worlds, whose blazing and innumerable offspring looked down nightly even upon the earth with so many eyes—and here, with how many more!"

That last sentence could have come from Cox himself!