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.