Saturday, February 28, 2015

Lent 2 "The Heart has its reasons..." (Mark 8:31-38)

Readings: Genesis 17, Romans 4, and Mark 8

The wonder of scripture is that we meet ourselves; that we recognise something of our humanity in these texts and see ourselves in a greater context. 

That is certainly true for the first of the readings this morning.  The saga of Abraham and Sarah draws us almost beyond time into an encounter with God that lies as a common source for Judaism, Islam and Christianity.

Chapter 17 of Genesis is a turning point in the saga: we are told God appears to the elderly Abram and that Abram ‘fell on his face’ to hear God speak and God promises him heirs and accordingly changes his name from Abram (Great Father) to  Abraham (The Father of many).  

Then the vision passes and we hear that “Abraham fell on his face and laughed”.  In this we see two personas – the first is the ‘Abram’ who longs in his heart, unutterably, to have a child by his wife Sarah and is promised that by God; the second is the Abraham who does not believe the promise  and laughs that he should think God would do something so contrary to all reason and experience.  After all – what has been promised is the wildest folly!    

We recognise both Abraham’s in us: in our hearts we long for the assurance of God’s purpose in our lives but our reason makes us perpetually doubt and question it: we want it, but we deny it.  Does that sound familiar?  Does that echo something of our experience?

Pascal, who certainly knew something of the challenges reason could set itself also implied that what we think of as reason or rationality may exist alongside another, perhaps deeper and more intuitive wisdom:  “The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of... We know the truth not only by the reason, but by the heart."

The Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans is one of the earliest Christian texts (60-80 AD), written for a church where, although there were still some living witnesses to it, the resurrection of Christ remained as difficult to explain to others as it had been for those who first experienced it.  

Of course, Paul implies, (using the example of Abraham) reason will tell us that the resurrection is impossible!  Why would one hope for life beyond death?  It is just as impossible to hope for that as it was for Abraham and Sarah expect to have children!  Yet look what happened!  We are the people who are always ‘hoping against hope’, believing what reason alone tells us is impossible!  

Paul’s letter starts to sing as he speaks of a God beyond our imagining and wildest dreams – a God “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist”.  Paul speaks of a God who is utterly beyond our reckoning, whose being calls into question the narrowness of our reasoning and how we claim to understand the world. In Pascal’s terms, Paul speaks of the wisdom of the heart, the unimaginable God, against whom all our reasoning is as nothing!   “The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of...”

And this makes sense when we come to the gospel of Mark, the earliest of our Gospels, written (we guess) about 20 years after Paul’s letter to the Romans.   In incident after incident through the gospel Jesus teaches his disciples, tries to help them grasp the reality of who he is and the implications of that for him as the Messiah.  Peter, the boldest of the disciples, in a moment of understanding even confesses that Jesus is indeed the Messiah.  Yet that insight and understanding come to nothing as Peter tries to persuade Jesus that his destiny as Messiah must not be allowed to include the cross.

Yet again there is a divided vision here: while Peter recognises who Christ really is he also wants to negotiate a different deal, something that does not require the cross.  We can put the point another way: Peter indeed glimpses the mystery of Christ but he wants it on terms that he can understand and accept.  We might even be able to put this dichotomy into the heart and reason conflict that Pascal uses.  Peter’s heart acknowledges God but his reason can make no sense of the Cross and works against it.

As we reflect on what this season of Lent means for us – the dilemma of heart and reason that can cause us all sorts of difficulties in our faith and how we follow Christ, may be something we give more attention to.  Perhaps we may become more aware of the limits of reason.  Perhaps we may, with Pascal, become more open to the possibility that God accesses us not just through our reason but in other ways as well – and that truly “The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of...”

So, in this Eucharist we come seeking the one who knows us through and through – and who greets us in bread and wine.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Lent by the fireplace

Giotto, The Wedding at Cana
Last night, after a light meal at 6.30 (the kumara soup was judged a success) 11 of the Cathedral community gathered around the Deanery fire for the Lenten Studies on John’s gospel.  

Our attention focussed on the first of the ‘signs’: the wedding at Cana with the transformation of the wine into water.  We began to appreciate the distinction between ‘sign’ and ‘miracle’ and quickly moved on to share thoughts on the reality of transformation as Christ works in our lives and in various situations.  As we are changed, so are others.  

The transformation of water into wine, suggests the ‘openness’ of matter and that it may become far more than we have previously imagined; metaphorically it speaks of how our understanding of the world and ourselves is radically enriched through our life in Christ.

After everyone had gone and the dishwasher was loaded, Christine and I sat chatting by the fire.  It was a grace laden moment as we reflected where the journey of faith has taken us and what transformation may come to mean in the life of our Cathedral community.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Icons and the Incarnation

About 20 years ago, while visiting very briefly in London, I attended an exhibition of  Russian icons.  While I am embarrassed that I cannot remember which gallery held the exhibition (either the Victoria and Albert or The British Museum) I still remember the feel the exhibition evoked.  The first thing you noticed was the atmosphere of awe and wonder  - the resonance of the Orthodox liturgy that sounded throughout the gallery; then there was the dim light and the fragrance of incense – all of this was “the stage set” for this exhibition of the icons.  This was an encounter with an art that manifested otherness and presence.   These were images that were used in worship; that were venerated and that projected something of the holy presence.

These are ideas that the Western Church, Latin and Protestant, is traditionally not comfortable with.   We tend to emphasise the educational value of art; its utility as a vehicle for intellectual instruction, stimulating thought while pleasing the eye. 

That is not at all how the Orthodox understand it.  They have argued that the veneration of the icon is the necessary outcome of Orthodox Christology.  

If Christ is the Word incarnate in our material substance, then the form and making of images follows from the incarnation.  Think of it this way: if God deified matter through the incarnation of the Son, not only has all humanity been subsequently changed, so too has all visual imagery and aesthetic form. 

Consequently the icon is not merely what it shows; it is not only an image, it is also an object, a piece of wood panel with paint applied.  But it is also more than its material properties.  Its making, too, is what gives it power. The tradition of icons, the materials, the practices and discipline in their construction are all reminders of how matter is infused with spirit and the completed icon is carried about in worship, physically reverenced by being touched and kissed.  Icons are a window through which the spiritual can be experienced in matter.

In the exhibition space of the Cathedral’s ambulatory I am pleased to see the series of paintings on biblical subjects by Bill Graham.  These are not icons, but like icons they also stretch the spirit.  There is not just a familiar biblical story given local ‘colour’ or context but behind the composition may be the classical structure of da Vinci and an intuition, even a theology, of presence.  Tradition, contextuality and biblical narrative come together in this material form as a local artist mediates for us this sense of presence.  These works draw us into contemplation.  Encourage others to see them this Lent.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

“Don’t blink, or you’ll miss it!” (Mark 1:9-15)

First Sunday in Lent 2015

Gen 9:8-17; 1 Pet 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news." -Mark 1:9-15

 “Don’t blink, or you’ll miss it!”
That could be the chapter heading for this section of Mark’s gospel.  Nothing prepares us for what happens.  We are barely told of Jesus baptism when with the words ‘και ευθυς('And immediately' - Mark’s stylistic signature) Mark’s text lifts off the page as the world tilts; the planes of appearance and reality collide and shift; the heavens open, the Spirit appears and the voice of the Father affirms the Son who rises from the waters.

The sheer speed of events overwhelms us.  Nothing prepares us for the sudden shift from facts to vision.  How did this happen?  ‘και ευθυςDid we blink and miss something?

For Mark, in the baptism of Jesus the world has changed; reality is different from what we thought it to be.  Reality is not that crowd of newly baptised about the Jordan two thousand years ago; not this preacher and people two thousand years later; but reality is more than everything we thought we understood. Reality is redefined and focussed in this Jesus who rises from the waters: transcendence breaks through our surface of time and matter; and we are startled by this power that erupts among us (‘και ευθυς’).

This movement accelerates: the scene immediately switches from the Jordan to the Wilderness.  Did we blink? Did we miss something? We are told that the Spirit drives Jesus out into this place (the verb used (έκβάλλειν) being the same as for the expulsion of demons); there is no sense of transition but immediate relocation – Jesus is hurled into the wilderness.  He is alone.  Satan tempts him. There are wild animals about him – but, yes, … angels minister to him.

And with that we arrive in Lent.  

Maybe we wonder how this all connects to us here and now.  Did we blink and miss something?  Is the power that pulses through this gospel a bright light that we can no longer see; something lost in time?  What is the wilderness to us?  What has Lent for us? At best, is Lent just a church custom, quaint but really out of date?  Or, worse than that, is the whole thing a bit of a charade – along with all such trivial things as giving up sugar in one’s tea?

Mark tells us little about the wilderness except that it is the place where Jesus begins his ministry.  The wilderness is the place where Jesus is shaped and formed for the work he came to do.  The wilderness is the place where illusion is stripped away and where understanding and self-knowledge emerges.  Maybe a wilderness experience is what we all need.   Maybe that is what Lent invites us to encounter – the true wilderness.

It may not be that straightforward.  It’s not that we have ‘blinked’ and just missed it. Mostly we avoid the wilderness or at least keep it at bay with innumerable distractions and evasions.  I find it almost terrifying to recall that Huxley’s Brave New World (1931) depicted a dystopia where people were controlled and sedated through an infinite amount of entertainment. Maybe this has always been the case in one form or another – the Roman mob was sedated or entertained by the cruelties of the arena.  But today I think particularly of the unremitting and addictive power of technology - the TV, the all-pervasive smart phone and all the diverse gadgets of technology that serve to distract us, to keep us in oblivion. 
There is no signpost or booking agency for the true wilderness; though travel operators will tell us differently.  We know the desert fathers abandoned the cities of Egypt for the desert and there are still those who follow Christ in that kind of emptiness. 

However for us at Lent I suggest the real wilderness is very close to us. 

There are what I describe as ‘wilderness moments’.  We all have them.  They are always the moments when we feel alone, or vulnerable or isolated.  Usually we try to shake off that moment; to put that experience behind us – except that in that feeling we share something Jesus also endured and understood, to show us who we may become.  That loneliness and vulnerability (whatever form taken) help us to see what it means to be human and so to grow in compassion and love.  There are wild animals in our wilderness – think of the times when anger, despair, self-doubt, lust, malice and envy have circled about us; the times when another’s word or criticism has torn us or driven us into the dark of depression or rage.  

Lent is the time when we contemplate our wilderness moments – and wait with Christ so that we may be formed like him.  As the First Epistle of St Peter (4:12-13) advises us:
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice in so far as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Our Image of God?

Reading: Mark 1:40-45
 A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, ‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’ Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’ Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, saying to him, ‘See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.’ But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.

What is your image of God?  

Most of the squabbles and debates about faith or unfaith turn on how we answer that question.

One example:  I was asked by a friend, someone I pastorally care for, to listen to a UTube talk by a contributor to the AA 12 step programme.  It was a long talk (over an hour) but the speaker talked about what he called emotional inebriety and people who were caught up in self-hatred, who were rigid and spiritually dead – and he said their condition reflects their image of God (i.e. their image of God is lived out in their lives.)

Another example: my late-afternoon routine during the week often has me in the car listening to the national radio afternoon programme (and its panel of highly opinionated commentators). A few weeks ago I caught an exchange about how we comfort people in grief or explain loss and suffering.

I nearly crashed the car when I heard one commentator claim that a theologian had explained that suffering ennobles us!  The rest of the panel were merciless with such comments as ‘What sort of God demands this?’; ‘Would put us through this?’ etc.  Those were just the polite and respectful comments!  (Do we have an image of God as one who wills suffering?)

What we think about God, how we think about God, affects us.  

For instance, think about the phrase ‘God’s will’ and how often we may have used it or heard it: how often that phrase makes God responsible for some disaster or tragedy; or for some loss.

That is where the gospel this morning takes us.

As with the gospel last week, I see the first lines of this gospel as an icon, an image.  There is this afflicted and desperate man (one can think of the leprosy as a metaphor for all afflictions) and he kneels before Jesus with these stark words “If you choose you can make me clean.”

This statement is about God’s will, God’s purpose; it is an implicit question about the will of God or, using the Greek, the thelein of Jesus.  This man is like any of us who may be afflicted in some way – he is wondering where God’s will may be in all of this.  

He voices our question about God; perhaps the question we have not put words around: he is not sure about God’s will … he uses that conditional conjunction… ‘if’.  So there he is in front of Jesus, kneeling in the dust, and voicing that gnawing fear-filled uncertainty about God, ‘if you choose’, ‘if you will’.

See it as an icon, an image – of our condition and of our image of God.

This gospel passage does not explain why there is suffering; it does not explain evil; it attempts none of those things.   It holds both our doubt and our need before God and awaits Jesus’ response.

The response is unconditional.  “Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’”

We need to add another panel to the icon, to our image of God.  This is the image of a God driven with compassion and purpose; a God who reaches out, touches us and wills us into wholeness.   You could read it as a summary of the gospel – God takes on our humanity, comes among us, and reaches out to us in our affliction and restores us to wholeness.

That is not the whole story.  The hazards of life and human evil are daily with us: but the image of God we bear in our hearts is the Jesus who says to us “I do choose. Be made clean”.  That is the image we live by and seek to be formed by.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Holding it together

Evensong Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time (February 8 2015)

Reading: Mark 1: 29-39
 That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. …  In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. 

Those of us who were here for the Eucharist this morning will realise that in choosing this text for reflection I have returned again to the gospel on which I spoke this morning.  A different strand of the gospel set for today, certainly; but an example of what a rich gospel text we have had to engage with and, in this passage we catch a glimmer, an insight, the shadow of a hint about the mystery, the otherness of Jesus.

We are familiar with the distinction between public and private life. For politicians, celebrities and many professions the public persona presented to the world is usually (and necessarily) kept quite separate from the private self that is known only to intimates.  The distinction is of course a functional construct: we are who we are. 

Tragically a public persona can be misleading; it can be a mask – and we have had some prominent examples of public figures whose benign, even avuncular persona has been the front for a dark and predatory identity.  There is nothing wrong with recognising a public persona and a private self, but what we need is a deep inner coherence between them, not dissonance or disjunction.

The gospel passage gives a snapshot of Jesus’ early public ministry and the profound impact of his presence and work in Galilee.  One translation of this passage would have it that “the whole city was pressed against the door.” Consider it: all that pressure, all those people, crowded and pressing against the door of the house wanting access to Jesus – even the most extroverted, the most gregarious – would want a little space.

So in contrast to that description of a claustrophobic public life and ministry, Mark offers us the picture of the solitary man, up before dawn, in a deserted spot, at prayer.  You could say that this is a glimpse into the reality of who Jesus is; this is a snapshot of the private persona and what keeps integrity and coherence in him.  Prayer is what sustains and renews him.  Prayer is what holds and drives his ministry.  

So for us too: away from others, open to silence and away from distractions, it is prayer that grounds, connects and renews us.

As some may know from my blog, one of my routines is to rise very early and to sit on the deck and just be still.  Sometimes the mind is racing or distracted but the aim is to become quiet and still; and to hold that stillness.  

I see the band of light in the east over the peninsular; the first leaves on the great copper beech looking near to fall; the calls of bellbird and tui sound before the light; the swoop, flutter and thump of a pigeon in the shrubbery - this is all so simple; so ordinary.  Something anyone can do.  Dare we claim something so ordinary as this to be prayer?   


Stacked on my mantelpiece are the journals of the mystic and contemplative Thomas Merton.  In one (Thoughts in Solitude) he writes: “Let me seek, then, the gift of silence, and poverty, and solitude, where everything I touch is turned into prayer: where the sky is my prayer, the birds are my prayer, the wind in the trees is my prayer, for God is all in all.”*

As our Lord shows the way in a deserted place and in solitude, so may our inner and outer world be coherent; may our public and our private worlds be grounded in truth; may everything we touch be turned into prayer.


(*Merton goes further: “In true prayer, although every silent moment remains the same, every moment is a new discovery of a new silence, a new penetration into that eternity in which all things are always new.  We know, by fresh discovery, the deep reality that is our concrete existence here and now and in the depth of that reality we receive from the Father light, truth, wisdom and peace.  These are the reflection of God in our souls which are made to his image and likeness.”)

We are taken by the hand and lifted up

Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time (February 8 2015)

Reading: Mark 1: 29-39
Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

I could begin this morning by asking you what sort of week you have had and your response to that might be a kind of curious bemusement – as if to say ‘Well, what has that got to do with the gospel?’  In turn my response would be ‘Everything’.  You see when we gather in the Cathedral and we hear the scriptures read our response will be influenced by everything we bring with us.  We bring our culture.  We bring our memories and associations; we bring all the other times we have heard this scripture read or preached; we bring our past and we bring the week we have just had; we bring our prejudices, hobby horses, foibles, foolishness and our dogmatism.  We bring the person we would like to have been but have failed to be; we bring also that other person, that other self, that keeps getting in the way and tripping us up.  Despite our best intentions, what we do not bring is a truly open mind or a clean slate!

For example one detail in the gospel story might play into our cultural prejudices and stereotypes: the fact that Peter’s mother-in-law is sick, then healed and immediately starts to get dinner ready for these men.  I can imagine wry looks, knowing smiles from the women in our congregation; and possibly a general sheepishness – at least on the part of the men.  On the surface reading this detail of the story presents a scenario that we seem culturally conditioned to be sensitive to and suspicious of.

So, does the gospel this morning culturally irritate us with what appears to be an example of patriarchy and the subjugation of women?   It is quite likely that somewhere in the world this Sunday a sermon of that kind on this text is being delivered or prepared.  Although I think that approach to this gospel may be misdirected, nonetheless an attempt to connect the gospel with our culture and our time gives strength to any sermon.

To that there is also a counterweight: we need also to be keenly attuned to the gospel itself and its deep connection to an early church where apostolic witnesses of the resurrection were still alive; a church that was rapidly growing in numbers and evolving in the organisation of ministry; and that in its mission was expanding across the Roman world.

So, for example, there is this moment of encounter between Simon’s mother-in-law and Jesus and we read: that Jesus “came and took her by the hand and lifted her up.”   Elsewhere in Mark we encounter something similar: there is the case of the possessed boy (9:27) and in Luke, the dead daughter of Jairus (Luke 8:54).  In each instance we encounter the same phrase, and the same action: being taken by the hand and lifted up.  In each instance we find the same word being used: (egeiro) one of the words used in the New Testament for the resurrection.

The minute we pay attention to that detail we have the verbal equivalent of an icon in which we see the dead person being drawn firmly from the grave by the risen Christ; or in this instance the encounter with Christ restoring Simon’s mother in law to health and to a new life.

The difference is the encounter with Christ – and held firmly in the heart of the gospel is this living memory of the encounter with Christ and the transformation it effects. 

Simon’s mother in law gets up and serves them.  But again the word used is quite particular (diakoneo) – the particular word taken over by the church to denote the work of a Deacon.  At the very least this word is being used to signal that this woman is now a follower of Christ and this serving is an act of love, an offering, a response to the redeemer.

So, in your imagination, see this as an icon – the Christ reaching out his hand and taking the hand of this woman on her sick bed, raising her up to life and wholeness.

That is the image we are to lay hold on as we read this gospel and as we come to this Eucharist.  

As I said at the start, we come here with everything, encumbered with so much on our minds or in our hearts that we may feel overwhelmed by it all.  Yet here the image applies to us: Christ reaches out toward us to take us by the hand and raise us up, to restore us to life, to hope, to purpose.  That was the experience of the first Christians.  That is the experience of the Church.  That still happens.  In this Eucharist Christ reaches out toward us.