Saturday, August 30, 2014

God's Spies: Shakespeare at Choral Eucharist

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (Readings: Ex.3:1-15; Rom. 12:9-21; Matt. 16:21-28)

As a Cathedral community we are particularly praying for the plight of all who are suffering in Iraq.  On the news we have seen the photographs and videos of refugees fleeing across borders to escape the terrorists of the so-called caliphate; we have seen the gruesome and horrific reports of the atrocities perpetrated by these terrorists; from our very sheltered country, so blessed with peace, it is hard to imagine how our Christian brethren in Iraq endure or keep their faith amidst such horror.

In the final act of the darkest tragedy in our literature, King Lear, Shakespeare shows Lear, the ruined king, a deeply flawed and foolish man, at last reconciled to his faithful daughter Cordelia. It has taken great suffering and appalling losses for Lear to at last see through his blind follies, arrogance, pride, and embrace reality. In this moment of self-discovery and reconciliation, now bereft of everything he had previously thought important in life; Lear is strangely poised; whatever the future may hold he now looks toward a very different way of being in the world.   Amidst the dark and corrupt world of the play, where violence and jockeying for power and influence are the norm, even in prison Lear and Cordelia will now live by a different understanding and inhabit a deeper reality, a different world. He says: (5.3)

… Come, let’s away to prison.
We two alone will sing like birds i’th’ cage.
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down
And ask of thee forgiveness; so we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news, and we’ll talk with them too –
Who loses and who wins, who’s in, who’s out,
And take upon ‘s the mystery of things
As if we were God’s spies

Lear is a changed man!  For him now to live is to live very differently; all illusion shredded he sees reality so differently.

Now set Lear’s new understanding alongside our passage from Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome where the apostle encourages his readers by reminding them of the Christian vision.  When Lear says he and Cordelia will live and act “as if we were God’s spies” he summarises the Christian life and the Christian’s calling in terms that accord with Paul’s words. 

Writing in the infancy of the Church, Paul speaks to us across nearly 2000 years and sounds just as radical now as when he first wrote: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them ... do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good.”  Paul presents us with a different way of being in the world; a way of being connected to a deeper reality. But his letter is no abstract thesis, no spiritual manual, but an understanding grasped in the light that shines from the cross; and in that light everything is seen differently.   It is Christ who sets the pattern of authentic living: who, on the cross, takes on himself the darkness, anguish, unreality and horror that evil presents – and overcomes it. 

This is of course the issue at stake in the gospel this morning where Peter is rebuked.  Peter has simply got it wrong and his head has lagged behind his big heart and bigger mouth.  Of course Peter does not want Christ to suffer; we may be sure that Jesus did not want that either – but the great shaping purpose of God in creation cannot be achieved by short cuts, special passes or privileges.  Reality has to be engaged with all that that entails – including the darkness that evil presents, its horror and fear.

Of course Peter says “NO”.  Who wants that cross and all it represents?  Who wants that much reality; that terrible glimpse into the abyss?  “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Like Peter we shudder and would turn away from it.  We switch TV channels; find a book, potter in the garden, chat about the elections and ‘who’s in or who’s out’ (the world is full of diversions). Who wants that much reality?

I doubt that Moses wanted it either – and yet in the midst of his life God confronted him – and that place of encounter was holy ground and he had to remove his sandals and hear the great story in which he was now a part:   ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ We are told that Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.  Of course he was: who wants that much reality?

No sermon can account for the scale of human misery we glimpse in Iraq or presume how God may act; but even here, another world away, privileged and safe, we also snatch glimpses of human malevolence; may suspect the way our society favours affluence and power; we may even question our own self-centredness and failure to love.  Yet the moments and places of our questioning, our searching and hoping are our ‘holy ground’ as the call to live differently resonates within us.  As we respond we start to realise that the journey from illusion to reality is at the heart of the gospel: Christ shows us the way; you, me, Paul, Peter, Moses … and, yes, King Lear … we all follow in the way; God’s spies – all of us.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Being 'connected' & Knowing Who We Are

Thinking Through the Scriptures each Wednesday in the Chapter Room with the Bible and the Otago Daily Times - and just chatting with anyone who comes to share, it's a discipline and a joy.  It always surprises me what connections emerge and what insights are given.  All are, of course, welcome ... 
(21st Ordinary Sunday. Readings:  Exodus 1:8-2:10; Rom. 12:1-8; Mt. 16:13-20.)

One of the problems that I have with St Paul’s epistles is that they are so ‘preachy’! Either they take me into some complex argument or they present me with a challenge on how to live – with the result that one instantly becomes defensive!  Perhaps this morning’s reading from Romans illustrates the point; (Romans 12:2) the apostle says: ‘Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.’  That’s great teaching; a bracing thought; a way to live; but does it lure us into the Christ life that Paul writes about?  I think the trouble is that it connects with our heads more than with our hearts.

But compare what happens when we read the story of Moses as it unfolds in Exodus.  This is a story that draws us in!  A great story (ancient but, oh so contemporary) of genocide and horror, life and death, human courage and wit – and, running through it all, against the odds, for those who look, the thread of God’s steadfast purpose.  But why the story, how does it happen?  It happens because of a great disconnection caught in a few words: ‘Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph’.   It appears there has been a huge cultural or political shift and with it has gone the knowledge, the connections, the memory that had glued the peoples and cultures together and the space created by that absence has instead been filled with fear and distrust … with terrible consequences.  

This is a story of a previously connected society losing the things vital for its cohesion; losing its shared history or narratives; and its rapid unravelling into disconnection, inequality and violence.  This is a story that resonates with what we see happening in the Middle East, Gaza and ISIL at this time but it can also resonate far closer to home, and it can speak to New Zealand life today.  What about that New Zealand vision of the common good that was once taken for granted but which now seems almost lost as inequality, child poverty, homelessness and dirty politics divide this nation?

Now think about what happens in the gospel story, we only have a fragment of the story this morning but it is a turning-point, a crux.  It comes in the form of a question: initially a general inquiry about the identity of the promised ‘Son of Man’ but then it turns into a direct question “But who do you say that I am?”  That question is the turning-point for Peter – there can be no evasion.  It has to be answered.  Peter, almost without thinking – and I suspect working from the heart – responds “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”  

The old evangelical language, the old language of the revivals and tent meetings, would describe this as ‘a decision for Christ’ – which indeed it is.  That recognition and response takes many forms but always, whether it is a St Augustine or a C.S. Lewis, or any one of us, the response to Christ continues to change the way the world is seen and the way we live: which is, of course, what Paul had in mind when he spoke about being ‘transformed by the renewing of your minds’.)

Note also what happens when Peter ‘decides for Christ’:  at the very moment of that connection he also finds out who he really is!  Peter makes his confession of faith only to discover that Jesus also has faith in him – and a work for him to do.  He now sees himself differently; he cannot go back to what he was before; now he is the one whose work will be to uphold the church that has still to come.

There are implications here for all of us.  We gather at the Eucharist to reconnect with Christ and to reconnect as a people of faith.  Together we remember the great story of faith that holds us together.  We also remember our response to the question Christ always asks us, “But who do you say that I am?”  As he did with Peter, so Christ does with us.  Christ believes in us and that means that you, you and you – and all of us are the rocks on which Christ builds his church.

It reminds me of a tagline from the film that won Robin Williams his Oscar (Good Will Hunting’): ‘Some people can never believe in themselves, until someone believes in them.’  Christ believes in us and we are the rocks on which he builds.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

A Minister of Justice & 'Dirty Politics'!

Nicky Hager's book has changed the way I now see this election.

I cannot see any way that the rebuttals or defences offered by the Prime Minister and his team can condone, still less justify, the spite, malice and hatred that seeps through the emails associated with Cameron Slater's Whaleoil blog.  It is deeply disturbing that there has been no condemnation of the links made with the blog and no action taken with those involved.

But, the really sickening thing is that it is the Minister of Justice who is clearly implicated. That this Officer of the Crown should be so close to the sleaze and malice the emails reveal is utterly horrible and, in my view, makes Mrs Collins post untenable.  I can't understand why Mr Key cannot see this ... and I can only speculate how deep this toxicity goes.

For goodness sake ... the Minister of Justice and WHALEOIL!

It is at best bizarre, but I think it is far worse than that - and it threatens to suck us into the pit ...

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Calvary: Talking Films at Evensong

Choral Evensong 17 August 2014

One of the joys of Choral Evensong is the challenge to produce a brief reflection and perhaps, ideally, work with something unexpected.  It is very different from reflections in the Eucharist. 

How do we make sense of the chaos of our world?  Let me share some thoughts on a film I watched recently while being tossed about in a plane above the Tasman.

The film is called Calvary and  is set in Ireland, Sligo; it stars Brendan Gleeson (Mad Eye in the Harry Potters) as Father James, a late vocation village priest.  After his wife died and he recovered from alcoholism, James had left his grown up daughter and entered the priesthood.  So he comes to his rural Irish parish with a real grasp of the world; sports a soutane and drives a sports car, dotes on his dog. 

(credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures)

It is here we start to discover the contours and closeness of Calvary.

The film begins with a screen text – unsettling paradox attributed to St Augustine:  “Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume; one of the thieves was damned.”

The first view we have of Fr James begins to make Calvary present to us.  He is sitting in the confessional as one of his people (unseen by us but known to the priest as it is a small village) comes to make confession. 

He begins by saying, “ I’m going to kill you Father.”

To this Father James responds, with an admirable dry composure “Certainly a startling opening line."

What follows is the disclosure that the penitent as a child was a victim of rape and abuse by a priest.  His abuser, he goes on to say, is now dead but he seeks some form of revenge. So he plans to kill Father James, but he will give him a week to “put his house in order.”

But why target Father James?

Because, says the parishioner, killing an innocent priest will have more impact and serve as more of a parallel to what happened to him years before than going after a more deserving sinner.  Now the meaning of Calvary becomes almost explicit as Fr James takes upon himself all the weight and shame of the Irish Church's story of abuse as he prepares to suffer for what another did.

So, in the week that he has been given, Father James walks his via dolorosa.  He comes to know his daughter better as she visits him but through the week he endures the mad, funny and dark world of his small Irish parish as it batters and mocks  its priest.  There is the cuckolded butcher Jack Brennan, his unfaithful wife Veronica and Simon, the Ghana-born man she has gotten involved with. Also Dr. Frank Harte, a cynical physician who mocks the priest's faith with medical horror stories, and Michael Fitzgerald, a wealthy landowner who seems to find no meaning in anything he owns or does.  All seem to resent his hold on faith.

Just as Christ walked to the cross, spattered and smeared by the mockery of the city, so Fr James makes his way through the mockery and malice of his people and, steadfast to the end, waits on the beach for his executioner – unsure whether he will live or die.

There is no reprieve, no change of heart, no rescue – he is shot.

The Augustine quote must be remembered: “Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume; one of the thieves was damned.”

To the casual viewer this looks like futility; a history that has no hope, no meaning; an action in which God has remained silent or absent.

Except, though no stone is rolled from any tomb, something seems to have shifted or moved in some way.   No words are uttered, but in the visiting space of the prison where Father James’ murderer waits, a door opens and we see his daughter – she has come to visit her father’s killer.  They eye each other and she picks up the handset so that they may speak.

The flame of grace flickers:   “Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume; one of the thieves was damned.”

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Reading the times...? 17 August 2014 Thinking through the Scriptures

17 August 2014, 20th Sunday Ordinary Time

Genesis 45:1-15, Romans 11: 1-2a, 29-32, Matthew 15: 21-28

If I were a news-reader, how might I summarise this week?  In the Middle East the Islamic State terrorists have rewritten geographical boundaries, astounded everyone by their conquests and appalled us by their cruelty and ruthless barbarism.  The suffering in Gaza and the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis seems deadlocked.  In the Ukraine the stand-off between Russia and the West seems to teeter on the edge of overt conflict and the days of perestroika glasnost have become a distant memory.  Here at home, Nicky Hager’s book Dirty Politics is raising real questions; the Internet-Mana party seems to be attracting more support than we imagined and the nation’s political scene seems to be less predictable than we had thought.

I think a cathedral community (including the Dean) must be ‘news-readers’.  We must try to make sense of what is happening.  We look for shape and meaning; for light in darkness and for order amidst chaos.  We look - hoping to catch a sense of how God is at work or (and this may be the same thing) what God is calling us to do. Now, you and I know that the news over this past week has been difficult to follow with any sense of composure. 

I have seen the videos and photographs coming out of the Islamic State – its instruments of terror: the beheadings, crucifixions, the mass killings, genocide and the terrified refugees now in their millions.  How can we look for shape, light, or meaning in such horror?  Yet it is in this mess and muddle that history is formed – and we believe that it is in exactly such man made horror that God acts.  The other night I watched a film that drew much of this home to me:  The Book Thief – set in Hitler’s Germany it quietly revealed how, despite the outrages and the terror, nonetheless, courage, goodness and love endured.

One dares to claim that God acts in history amidst the darkness and violence, but to say it is also to find the words catch in the throat and sound false to your own ears – contradicted by the sheer scale and reality of cruelty.  Yet, somehow, we are the people called to dare to say it, however difficult it may be - and that thought reminds me of those words found inscribed on the walls of a cellar in Germany where some Jews hid for the entire duration of the war.
I believe in the sun, even when it doesn’t shine.
I believe in love, even when I don’t feel it.
I believe in God, even when He is silent.

So Joseph looks back across the troubled and lost years, the years ‘the locust has eaten’ and at last reveals his identity to the brothers that betrayed him and, instead of lament or recrimination and blame he says ‘God sent me before you to preserve life.’  In this moment of revelation Joseph declares that God has acted in their history – they are all surprised by this inexplicable grace; ‘God sent me before you.’

In that terribly opaque passage from Romans, Paul says something surprising about the brokenness of the human condition, the mutual ‘fallenness’ of both  Jews and Gentiles, and he claims that even in what looks like futility, the great purpose of God is still being played out: “For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.”(Rom.11:32)  That was not what anyone could have expected.

What then about the gospel this morning and that confrontation between the Canaanite woman and Jesus?  Matthew’s gospel shows Jesus as upholding the privileged status of Jews as the Chosen people but in this incident something unexpected happens.  Note that the woman is described as a Canaanite, a descendant of the ancient pagan inhabitants of the area.   Forced by the desperate circumstances of her daughter’s condition, she approaches Jesus for help.  But she is an outsider; the cultural, religious and ethnic customs dictate that she can have no expectation of help of any kind.  At the outset, in the first formal exchange, she is declined by Jesus who sees her request as beyond his mandate: ‘I have been sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’  But she persists, and even though he rebukes her as equivalent to dogs; her wit and importunity make an impression and grace is given; her daughter is healed.   

In that moment, across all the barriers that lay in the way, despite everything, the miracle of grace was given and we are surprised by the action of God entering and acting in our history, even in what seemed a lost cause.

When we leave here this morning and return to our papers and to the news broadcasts – as we again confront the confusion and pain of our world – Joseph, Paul and this Canaanite woman hold stories for us of the surprise of Grace; stories of the experience of God working amidst the brokenness and darkness of our world; stories of hope to fill our hearts and open us to wonder and to exclaim with Paul, “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgements and how inscrutable his ways.” (Rom.11:33)

Friday, August 15, 2014

Words from the Past

I was moved by these words to the New Zealand Parliament nearly a century ago (1918) from the maiden speech of Harry Holland, Labour's first parliamentary leader:

"We of the Labour Party come to endeavour to effect a change of classes at the fountain of power.  We come proclaiming boldly and fearlessly the Socialist objective of the Labour movement throughout New Zealand; and we make no secret of the fact that we seek to rebuild society on a basis in which work and not wealth will be the measure of a man's worth.

We do not seek to make a class war.  You cannot make that which is already in existence.  We recognise that the antagonisms which divide society into classes are economically foundationed, and we are going, if we can, to end the class war by ending the causes of class warfare."

Nearly a hundred years on from that speech we have a nation now trapped in a globalized and deregulated economy with crushing social and financial consequences.  Harry Holland, in a difficult time, expressed a vision and a purpose for the common good.  It will be refreshing if our politicians will do the same.

'Don't be Afraid' ... Thinking Through the Scriptures 10 August 2014

Thinking Through the Scriptures is the name I have given to the Wednesday mid-afternoon session in the Cathedral's Chapter Room where I, and whoever else turns up, read and reflect on the lessons and gospel for the Sunday ahead.  It is a time of discovery where one engages the news items of the week alongside the scriptures and waits to see what may emerge.  At the end of it all, by the Sunday, I will have prepared a sermon.  

Readings 19th Sunday Ordinary Time:
Gen.37: 1-4, 12-28
Rom. 10:5-15
Mt. 14: 27-30.

'Don't be afraid' those words of Jesus in the gospel this morning are words of reassurance.   But how can we hear them as reassuring?  They come to us from an extraordinary context - the apparition of Jesus walking on the water in the middle of the Sea of Galilee.  In other words, he appears where, in the world as we understand it, he has no right to be; he is supposed to be miles away on shore, yet here he is - and walking on the waters!   Reason collapses at this point and he presents us wIth an intolerable challenge to our minds as well as to our senses - at this moment the world no longer makes sense; everything has to be revised; where will this stop?

It is helpful to remember other occasions in the scriptures when we have been told not to be afraid; other moments when the physics and structure of our world seem to have been bent and our understanding of reality appear threatened and possibly in need of a radical revision.  For instance: it happens to Mary at the Annunciation; to the shepherds in the fields of Bethlehem; to the women visiting the tomb; and to the apostles gathered in the Upper Room with all the doors locked.  

Fear is a constant factor in our human condition.   If we were to live entirely without fear, we would not survive.   Fear is a mechanism essential to our survival - it keeps us aware of boundaries and limitations; it prevents us from trying to walk on water!

But fear is an ambiguous instinct - it has the capacity to trap or ensnare us as we become increasingly obsessed with our survival and our understanding of the world.  The TV program's that feature people described as 'hoarders' may reveal an aspect of our wider cultural fearfulness:  are we gripped by a culture and a world view consumed by consumption and possession?  Are we so fearful that every instinct is geared to possession and constant acquisition?   Is the neoliberal society and the ever widening gap between the poor and the affluent an indicator of our fearfulness and the spiritual sickness from which it comes?

Yet there is a sense in which fear is an entirely proper response.  To be confronted with the manifestation of God must evoke fear: it confronts us with our limitations and with that source of all being that is utterly other than us. God is that otherness we cannot domesticate, control or - ultimately - avoid, even though we may spending our conscious hours more or less doing so. 

What thoughts come to Joseph as he lies abandoned in the well, his family life turned upside down? Is this where he cries out from the depths but cannot imagine how he may be dealt with?  We, with Joseph, will all have known something of these depths and darkness - our life is so fraught and vulnerable and unspeakable fears can haunt us.  Paul understands this and speaks for us when he asks 'Who will descend into the abyss' and then reminds us that there in the abyss, in the most threatening place that tests all our fears and every vulnerability, there is Christ - on our lips and in our heart.

Come back then to that scene on the boat: the disciples are aboard a smallish boat far from land amidst the Sea of Galilee and in rough conditions.  They are vulnerable, keeping afloat on the primeval waters of chaos and it is in this rather tense situation, with all their nerves jangling, that they see Jesus - and walking on the water!  Already fearful, his appearance triggers not relief but accentuates their fears, raising appalled questions as to what is going on.

But there, nonetheless, walking at ease on the waters of chaos, in the darkness and amidst the storm, is Jesus - searching for the disciples, as he does for us all and always.   Peter asks if this figure is really The Lord but Jesus is not there to answer questions - rather he is there to ask questions of us.

It is really all of a piece with that primary question in the book of Genesis, the first question asked of humankind, when The Lord God, searches in the garden for the guilty Adam and Eve who are trying to hide from him, and asks 'Adam, where are you?'

That is the question that really sorts us out and from which there is no hiding. Where are we in our relation with the source and ground of our being? We spend so much time and energy on evading the question - and yet our true joy and freedom turn always on our response and readiness to answer 'Lord, I am here.'

To answer that question is to face the truth about ourselves: the selfishness and fearfulness that would shield us from the world's pain and our own darkness; our deceitfulness, disconnection and desire to control our lives.  It is also to face the call of God upon our lives, a call to self-sacrifice and unstinting generosity and open-heartedness in the world where we are called to give life to others.

In these troubled weeks before the election, is it entirely fanciful to imagine that God's question may be applied to us as a nation?  'New Zealand, where are you?' In our society, now so fractured by the gap between rich and poor, where inequality eats away at the very fabric of our social life and helplessness and despair are increasingly real - 'New Zealand, where are you?' is a question we all need to hear.

So we come to this Eucharist this morning to heed that life-changing question and answer  - 'Here I am Lord'.