Saturday, January 31, 2015

Reading 'When the time came'

The Presentation in the Temple (Choral Matins 1.2.15)

Reading: Luke 2 (vv. 22-40)

 ‘When the time came…’ is the opening phrase for the traditional reading associated with the Feast for The Presentation of the Lord.  ‘When the time came’ … and one might say that these words are merely a narrative link for the gospel to cover a certain space of time and keep the gospel story moving. 

But in this apparently simple phrase more than one thing is happening.  On the one hand ‘when the time came’ carries an implicit sense of duration; a potential wasteland of waiting, of enduring and longing; of tedium, uncertainty, hope and futility; of just getting from one day to another.  Might that sound familiar? On the other hand, the phrase also implies a sense of purpose, a recognition that all that has gone before has been leading to what happens now; that - concealed within the apparent randomness of all the time before - something has been leading to this moment; this is not random, this is purpose at work and now unfolding.

Is it too fanciful or just too difficult to make links or connections between this ancient phrase that opens the story of this Feast and our own lives, our own sense of time?  That might be so but such connections are I think vital for us as a people of faith to whom the gospel speaks of ‘when the time came’.

Alexis Tsipras, leader of the Syriza party
I have been watching the Greek elections with much interest and great hope. The situation in Europe is frightening, vulnerable, desperately uncertain, but after years of austerity simply not working, something has happened.  The social cost of the austerity measures imposed on Greece has been unsustainable for years as the unemployment figures alone show: 26% unemployment; 51% youth unemployment.  No society can live like that.  

At last the cry has been heard ‘Enough’ and there is a new government.  The French economist Thomas Piketty (author of best seller Capital in the Twenty-First Century) has described this result as ‘good news for Europe’.  But I think it reaches further than that.  

Even in New Zealand hope is needed.  Our neoliberal policies have failed: the ‘trickle down’ economics doesn't work; and the gap between affluent and poor continues to widen.  No society can flourish with growing poverty.  I see the Government talking about social housing and about making private charities take up responsibility for housing – but with no explanation why they should do this rather than government and no suggestion as to where the charities will get the money to purchase the properties.  It’s a big topic.  But in Europe now, however tentatively, and one day I hope here too, it may be possible to also say ‘When the time came’… and see a new hope born.

In the gospel narrative ‘when the time came’ is the phrase that launches the story we remember as the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple (we also sometimes call it Candlemas - candles being often blessed at this time).  The Feast is so timed that it looks two ways: it points backward to Christmas and forward to the season of Lent and Easter.  It looks backwards to Christmas because this is the end of the Christmas season. Forty days after Christmas is the time for Mary’s purification and the parents attend the temple to make the ritual offering the law required.   But the Feast also looks forward to Lent and Easter: in the details of the sacrifice of thanksgiving to redeem a first born child ‘a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons’, Luke’s gently underscores the irony that such an offering is made on behalf of the one who is to redeem the world.

‘When the time came’ is the phrase that heralds a new agency at work in the world.  The moment has come as, in human form, God enters into our common human story and the redeeming work of Jesus begins even while immersed in the detail, complexity and contingency of our human condition. 

The Feast of the Presentation reminds us that we are a people who are called to daily practise a ‘double vision’ – not an ocular disturbance but a disciplined and nuanced view of time and our world.  

We live not just in the moment, from day to day, caught up in chaos (as it may often feel) but in time that coexists with an eternal shaping purpose.  That is what it means to understand our lives and our living through our faith in Jesus Christ.  Daily we take up the task of trying to discern the signs of the times, trying to read the events of our day against the great work of God in redeeming the world.  

There will always be those who consider us foolish in this and we may often think that of ourselves too. But this is the great wager of faith: always looking for signs of the Kingdom, always yearning  to recognise ‘When the time came’.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Where have you been all my life?

Second Sunday of Epiphany (18.1.2015)
Readings: 1 Sam.3:1-10; 1 Cor.6:12-20; John 1:43-51.

It can be a very risky thing to tell a joke.  So much depends upon who your audience is; much may also depend upon the context, their knowledge of you, what things you hold in common – and then, of course, the subject of the joke and the manner of its telling.  Humour has at its heart a kind of intimacy, a bond, a shared knowledge; or, if you like – a common cultural space.

The killings in France, the row over the Charlie Hebdo posters, are a terrible way of illustrating this point.  French humour and culture have a space and a tradition for the kind of satire Charlie Hebdo created in its cartoons.  One probably has to be well attuned to French culture to manage some of the humour – the use of racial caricatures, the apparent insensitivity to religious beliefs – and if, for instance, I find some of the satire gross, how might someone from a totally different culture be expected to manage?  For humour to work, somehow a common cultural space has to be found – otherwise watch out for trouble!  The TV news images I saw of university students throwing stones and protesting outside the French Embassy in Pakistan was a terrible reminder of a mutual cultural incomprehension.  That is an example of a situation in which both parties simply – and quite clearly – have to admit that they don’t know each other!
All of this is relevant to our gospel this morning which demonstrates how, in the right cultural context, humour can create a bond, make a connection … when there is what I have described as a shared cultural space.  Concealed in the gospel this morning, in the encounter of Jesus with Nathanael is a touch of humour, an engaging pun.  The name Jacob, the great ancestor of Israel, was attributed to mean (among other things) one who is cunning or guileful – and yet, at a critical moment in the Jacob story, Jacob was also renamed ‘Israel’.  So, knowing and remembering all that, when Jesus greets Nathanael there is a little verbal joke running under the text, he is in effect saying ‘Here is an Israelite in whom there is no Jacob’.  It’s enough to make a connection.  He’s saying, with a smile, here’s an honest man (but much more as well)! Nathanael is taken off his guard and, by this wry jest, drawn into this quirky but endearing encounter with Jesus.  To find someone who, against the odds and all expectations, really knows you is hard to turn away from – Nathanael is hooked!
When I reflect on this section of John’s gospel, especially the passage we are reading, I am moved and encouraged to see in this encounter what it means when God takes on our humanity and greets us through the incarnate Son.  We are met in our humanity, not as mere incidental persons but as individuals who are known through and through – and lovingly embraced.  Nathanael discovers that he is truly known – understood in all his being, the good and the bad.  If I were Nathanael – I wonder what I would say to this Jesus?  I think I might say something like ‘Where have you been all my life?’
Ah, the sheer relief at being ‘found’!  This morning we are all Nathanaels.   We are so made that we all have in our humanity, our spiritual DNA, the need to be known through and through and held and loved  in that knowing.  St Augustine knew it. Remember his prayer in the Confessions, where he prays “O God, you have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless till they rest in you.”  When you get home also look up Psalm 139 which is all about being known (and found) by God.
In this first Chapter of John’s Gospel Jesus is collecting followers – and there is something slightly comic in the response of those who are found by him.  Philip is one of several who say to others ‘We have found him’ (the Messiah etc).  But when you think about it that is not at all true; they are all speaking very loosely; in fact in every instance it is Jesus who has found them and invited them to follow.  Their exuberance, their excited claims about finding Jesus is really their inner transformation and joy at having been found.  When we come to the Eucharist this morning, as always in our sharing of bread and cup is the mystery that here, in this sharing, we are most deeply found and known.  
In a complicated and troubled world, our gospel reminds us that God finds us and calls us through circumstances as diverse and as varied as our natures and our world.  God finds us beyond cultural boundaries and within other faiths – as anyone who has shared in an inter-faith dialogue soon comes to understand.  Here, this morning, in this Cathedral we encounter the Jesus who called his disciples and who surprised and teased Nathanael: he found them and by his finding they found themselves.  We are all Nathanaels.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Epiphany in Paris?

Epiphany is a lovely word, if seldom used.   It means a realization, discovery or revelation of some kind. Around the world the Christian Church is in the season it names as Epiphany; a serendipitous coincidence given the events in Paris this week ; events in which so many people have come to suddenly see the world in quite different and unexpected ways.  

Think about it: whenever before has carrying a pen or pencil become a symbol of faith and hope? Whenever before have some of the most powerful world leaders marched arm in arm, in solidarity with nearly two million protesters, to affirm an idea about what it means to be human? 

In its way the geography of the event makes the point. The procession traced its way from Place de la Republique, down the Boulevarde Voltaire to conclude at Place de la Nation.  You could describe this as a procession through a narrative about western civilization and the foundations of modern Europe. Extraordinary then to see Hollande in the centre, Angela Merkel, and the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, to his left. To his right, Ibrahim Boubacar Këita, the president of Mali – where French troops intervened to push back Islamist forces in 2013 – the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, and the British prime minister, David Cameron. 

It seems extraordinary that despite (1) the chic of neoliberal economics and inequalities of wealth and (2) the consequently deflated currency of humanist values and beliefs, we have a procession of this kind.   This procession expresses an unparalleled social solidarity across Europe and beyond it.  Most extraordinary of all is that underpinning it is an abstraction, a vague idea about what it means to be human that is somehow symbolised in the form of a pencil or the phrase ‘Je suis Charlie’.

The horror of the attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices seems to have driven outrage and grief to a deeper level than we are used to seeing.  We have, unfortunately, become almost inured to human tragedy; but this attack on journalists and cartoonists seems to have taken us beyond media constructs of tragedy to the question of what it means to be human; what it is  to be sentient beings engaged in the life of the mind and in discourse with one another.  This goes beyond all the other things that divide us from one another: it goes beyond money, beliefs, politics and the luggage of the culture wars  and takes us to a numinous moment of epiphany where we affirm something we cannot quite name  and yet say nonetheless,  ‘Nous sommes Charlie’.

Of course the moment passes and we return to our usual ways.  Economists will continue with GDP as an economic measure even though natural resources are depleted.  Politicians, governments and multinationals will doubtless continue to ignore the gross financial inequalities that Thomas Piketty has identified and warned about - the sort of society such inequalities are likely to create.  And yet – despite that - there has been this glorious moment, this epiphany on a winter afternoon in Paris when everyone caught a glimmer of the mystery of our shared humanity and murmured ‘Nous sommes Charlie’.  Amen, to that.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

For the Satirists, Cartoonists

Prayer can be the only response to the killings in Paris today.  The Dean of Glasgow has given a good reponse to the issue - asking how we respond to tyranny (a question that has troubled me as the monstrous murders perpetrated by ISIL seem to demand something more than just condemnation): his point was that we need to make tyranny look ridiculous - and that is certainly the role of satirists and cartoonists.

So we pray for them, for the service cartoonists do for our society, for the capacity of humour to subvert tyranny.

For satirists, humourists, cartoonists.
For journalists. For bystanders.
For those who take risks to disturb our peace of mind.
For those who take risks to give the peace and security for them to do so.
Lord in your mercy.
Hear our prayer.