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.