Saturday, July 18, 2015

Darkness Visible: an Evensong reflection

19 July 2015
Reading: Hebrews 2: 5-18

“Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.”  (Hebrews 2:18)

“I live in the Managerial Age, in a world of “Admin.” The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid “dens of crime” that Dickens loved to paint. It is not done even in concentration camps and labor camps. In those we see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voices.” (C.S. Lewis, Screwtape Letters)

I was recently watching the History Channel which featured the Holocaust in Poland and it was (very properly) quite hard to watch.  On the one hand I was appalled that such things could happen and I kept comparing Europe just before WW2 with the Europe of the Eurozone crisis today. The ruthless subjugation of Poland with what has just been done to Greece.  In one sense such parallels seem absurd - of course.  Yet at the back of the mind lurks the intuitive knowledge – dark things have been done before; may they happen again?

On the other hand there was the banal ordinariness of how much of this happened.  Plans were prepared by very ordinary civil people.  It looked, in part ordinary, respectable, reliable – not uncivilized at all.  Yet, as we know, from such meetings emerged such killing factories as Treblinka, Belsen  and Auschwitz.  Or, more recently, even the horrible things that have been done to Greece in the European Union this week; to be yet again buried in utterly unsustainable debt, these dark things have been “moved, seconded, carried and minuted” by European leaders, pillars of the establishment.  It has on the surface seemed very ordinary, respectable if regrettable.  Fears and reservations may have been in the background but the European façade seems to have suppressed them.

Far closer to home a similar point can be made.  Church meetings are not exempt from bad things happening.  There seems to be something about the apparatus of a meeting that can seem to give permission or to legitimise ill-intentioned behaviour.  The fact that those around the table may be mostly wearing dog collars does not guarantee virtue, let alone love and compassion.  Dark political games and self-serving or malevolent agendas may still be played out behind a pious or at least respectable façade.

Invariably one comes back to the Christ who, as the author of Hebrews understood, is the Holy One, the God in our flesh, who endured the dark side of our human nature and understands our capacity for hiding dark things behind a banal and respectable façade. Lord, help us. Amen.

Compassion - an introduction to God

Sunday 19 July 2015

Readings: 2 Sam 7: 1-14a; Eph 2: 11-22; Mark 6: 30-34; 53-56.

Another foray into Mark after a hard week watching Europe.  A slightly different resonance today though.

About 24 hours ago there was a feature on some international news channels of a debate between the German Chancellor and a forum of young people in Germany. One of the teenagers who spoke was a young Palestinian refugee who was fearful that she and her family would be sent back to their homeland.  As Angela Merkel explained the difficulty of politics and the decisions that had to be made, and that Germany could not help everyone, the girl broke down in tears and Angela Merkel moved over to her to comfort her.  

In this brief moment of TV news we catch a snapshot of the great dilemma between the abstract issues of policy and the particular and human reality affected by the implementation of policy.

I understand that Chancellor Merkel has been criticised for her efforts to comfort the girl but I admire her desire to do so.  For a moment she crossed over the boundary of policy and entered the particular world of hurting humanity.  Yes, there is some irony here in the light of recent events over Greece and much more could be said – yet, nonetheless, she showed compassion – and good on her doing so!

Compassion is the attitude that shines from the gospel this morning.  

Sermon on the Mount, Cosimo Roselli 1481
Our reading today is a bridging passage in the gospel: it recapitulates some of the training of the disciples in the earlier chapters who report what they have done and taught and their subsequent departure with Jesus to a desolate place recalls all the barren holy places in the great narratives of the scriptures – the wanderings of the patriarchs, the testing of Moses, Israel’s 40 years of wandering in the wilderness; the wilderness of John the Baptist and the early prophets; and the desolate place of Jesus’ testing. 

So this move to the desolate place is a move to the formative place, the domain where God speaks and we are taught, fed by the Word.

And yet there is an irony – this move to the desolate place turns out to be a move to a crowded space!  The move has been followed, even anticipated, and Jesus and his disciples are faced by a crowd of searching, anxious, even desperate people.  

Immediately the focus changes and the disciples’ formational needs are absorbed into Jesus’ response to human need.  He is filled with compassion – and it is helpful to remember that both the Greek and Hebrew equivalents for ‘compassion’ carry a sense of the innermost being, of the guts or even the womb.  This compassion issues from the very being of God: this is a moment when Mark gives us a clear sense of what God is really like.

Detail, Trials of Moses, Botticelli,1481
Note how it is expressed: Jesus recognises them as being like sheep without a shepherd.  That is an ancient image for the relation between God and his people.  It is drawn from the Old Testament where God is the ‘Shepherd of Israel’, the one who in the Psalms ‘led Joseph like a flock’ (Psalm 80). So Jesus gathers this flock about him and begins to teach them. 

This not a classroom lesson but a kind of feeding, a nourishment, a vital sustenance that addresses the soul’s deepest hunger and calms the most desperate existential anxiety.  Food will follow but for the moment the deepest most urgent craving must be met – so Jesus teaches them.  They are, you may say, introduced to God.

Deeply embedded here is an implicit understanding of what it means to be human.  In the creation stories of Genesis we are reminded that we are made in the image of God.  This is why people seek Jesus out; why they crave what he has to give them; why they recognise in him the source and deep ground of their being.  This divine source, this imprint of God in our being, is manifest in many ways.  The love of beauty, which may well include such aspects as the passion for truth and learning, has always been regarded as a sign of the divine imago in us.  While we may all have different ideas of beauty our attraction to it is a sign of God in us – and the early Fathers of the Church have taught us accordingly.

Also embedded here is the recognition that the divine image in us can become so defaced by sin that our response or recognition of God can be suppressed.  That I think is at the heart of Jesus’ teaching – he rekindles hope and insight; he reawakens the image of God in us all and, draws us toward himself, draws us into God.

As we are drawn toward Jesus, so we experience the divine compassion, that deep embrace of God’s love that anchors us in time and eternity.  To experience that is to be changed and taught to love.  Not just love for those we love, it is so easy to feel compassion for our children, family and friends, but that is just practice for the real thing.

Which is? Well, why did Jesus say ‘Father forgive them, for they know not what they do?’  That’s the real thing; that’s compassion – and it was said for us, to teach us how to love; to love our enemies; and to love in that way – to love even those who would hurt us, no, especially them – is to change the world.

I do not pretend to understand this or how it works.  I merely assert that this is what I believe.  I am no more successful in loving this way than anyone else; but this is what I would stumble towards.

In a hurt and troubled world, in a conflicted Europe, in a planet damaged by human greed, we catch a glimmer of the divine compassion in Chancellor Merkel’s gentleness toward a frightened Palestinian teenager.  In such moments we catch a glimmer of our true selves and a glimmer of what we can be, what we are made to be, and what we need to be, for there to be hope for suffering humankind and for our exploited planet.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Heart of Darkness - the Agony of Greece

“The word ‘ivory’ rang in the air, was whispered, was sighed. You would think they were praying to it. A taint of imbecile rapacity blew through it all, like a whiff from some corpse. By Jove! I’ve never seen anything so unreal in my life. And outside, the silent wilderness surrounding this cleared speck on the earth struck me as something great and invincible, like evil or truth, waiting patiently for the passing away of this fantastic invasion.”
(Heart of Darkness)

What has happened to Greece this past week needs an expansive and tragic frame of reference.  Substitute 'Ivory' with 'Debt' or 'Money' and perhaps Conrad's Heart of Darkness might give the moral and imaginative comprehensiveness needed.  Conrad used the European exploitation of the ivory trade and the inhumanity associated with it to show something rotten, corrupt and evil in colonialism and in the human heart.   To contemplate this is to draw close to the ultimate metaphysical darkness - that darkness of Hell as Milton expressed it Paradise Lost.

That is the framework against which I see what has happened to Greece.

It is a tragic irony that after the clear decision against austerity in the Greek referendum nearly two weeks ago, the moral strength that Alexis Tsipras believed that vote would give has proven useless against the might of the Troika's banks.  What I find morally incredible is that Greece has been punished for its protest and the final settlement is far more punitive than the deal that Tsipras originally walked away from.

I cannot think of any comparable example for such humiliation of a sovereign nation. No wonder Varoufakis's ominous but prescient comparison of it with the Treaty of Versailles has been echoed around the world. No wonder that the compliance of the EU in this matter has been compared to the violence of colonialism - though accomplished through banks rather than tanks.

The moral and spiritual bankruptcy of neoliberal economics is clear and - as Kurtz would say 'the horror'.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Financial Crisis and The Joy of the Gospel

Evensong Reflections

Readings:   Job 4:1;5:6-27; Rom 15:14-29

“Misery does not come from the earth, nor does trouble sprout from the ground;
but human beings are born to trouble just as sparks fly upward.” (Job 5:6-7;)

The proposition offered in these words to Job is that misery is not a feature of the natural order but something that evolves from within our (disordered) human nature.

In 2008 our world was reeling from the Global Financial Crisis and we saw the way Wall Street and other global Financial Centres had manipulated the market and had to be bailed out with tax payer money to prevent further financial collapse.  We saw the Occupy movement formed to oppose the great global corporations that managed the markets and enriched the 1% who controlled the world’s wealth.  Occupy was a grassroots peoples’ movement; it was a movement in favour of democracy as opposed to the veiled totalitarianism of the market. 

A few years later it seems to me that we have learned little.  We see much of the same behaviour continuing.  In 2015 the Eurozone Financial crisis over Greek debts has shown Greece humiliated by the financial centres of Europe, punished because its leaders and people questioned the legitimacy – even the sanity – of imposing more debt to sustain debt that was already unsustainable.  Greece spoke in favour of democracy and the primacy of the people, but the cold hand of a totalitarian neoliberal market may have stifled that brave protest.  It did not have to be like that.

Truly, “human beings are born to trouble just as sparks fly upward.”

What we have seen from Europe these last few months has made me question the European project and warm to the Euro-sceptics!  It was the late Margaret Thatcher who warned of the danger of any monetary union that was not controlled by democratic checks and balances.  The people who set the interest rates, who may never be accountable to any electorate, are the true political masters and control the fate of nations.  There is a democratic deficit in Europe and it is still unaddressed.

For example, the Transatlantic Treaty Investment Partnership is it seems something negotiated in secret with large corporations, and it conspires to give them the power to sue elected governments in secret courts to try to stop policies they believe hit their profits. The EU treaty negotiated in 2011 effectively forbade any future eurozone government from developing a fiscal policy that might buoy up a flagging economy. 

A similar democratic deficit could so easily happen in New Zealand via the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA).  The agreement would override the sovereignty of our parliament; our government could be sued by corporations in off-shore secret courts: if anyone can feel content with that, then indeed, “human beings are born to trouble just as sparks fly upward.”

In 2013 Pope Francis wrote the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel) calling us all to the freedom of the gospel while also providing a clear and simple description of the plight facing a world where capitalism has gone amuck.

56. While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few. This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation. Consequently, they reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control. A new tyranny is thus born, invisible and often virtual, which unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules. 

It seems to me that the world as envisaged by the Eurozone, the Transatlantic Treaty Investment Partnership and the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement is incompatible with the joy of the gospel.  Those are my thoughts; I will be grateful to hear yours.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Standing up to the bullies

15th Sunday in Ordinary Time: 12.07.15

Readings: 2 Sam.6:1-5, 12-19; Eph.1: 3-14; Mark 6: 14-29;

Last week I asked some questions about the crisis in Greece and how reflections on the gospel might speak into that situation.  I propose to continue that question this morning.  First because I am highly conscious that the issues raised by the tension between Greece and Europe have troubled me and continue to do so.  Second, because behind this is a fundamental hermeneutical proposition: that we cannot read scripture without attention to the context in which we read.

The 'No' (oxi) verdict of the Greek people to the referendum last week was resounding and, stating the obvious, one of the people most responsible for achieving such a result had been Yanis Varoufakis, an economist and the Minister of Finance.  It was extraordinary and unexpected that in the wake of the desired verdict he also resigned.  Not, it would seem, out of any personal disappointment or pique but because it seemed to him, that his commitment to the cause he served, required it.  In a reflection he wrote "Soon after the announcement of the referendum results, I was made aware of a certain preference by some Eurogroup participants, and assorted 'partners', for my 'absence' from its meetings; an idea that the Prime Minister judged to be potentially helpful to him in reaching an agreement.  For this reason I am leaving the Ministry of Finance today."  He later said: "I consider it my duty to help Alexis Tsipras exploit, as he sees fit, the capital that the Greek people granted us through yesterday's referendum." Varoufakis had done no wrong - but his outspokenness had riled those European leaders who demanded his head. I greatly admire his parting shot at them: "I shall wear the creditors' loathing with pride."

You may now see why the current circumstances surrounding Yanis Varoufakis resonate as we consider the story of the beheading of John the Baptist.  At the least it may be said that it is dangerous to live the called life and we should be warned that the consequences of the calling may be murderous and unjust.

The Feast of Herod, Spinello 1385
The story of John's death is an exemplary lesson as to what the called life can involve and in his gospel Mark sandwiches it between the sending out of the twelve apostles to begin their ministry and the feeding of the Five Thousand. The called life will excite questions, speculations. Accounts of Jesus' ministry have reached Herod and speculations as to Jesus' identity are rife: Elijah? A prophet? But Herod is certain - his guilty conscience speaks: John whom he beheaded has risen from the dead. Is it that there are some things you just can't kill?

Mark gives a potted version of the story concerning Herod, Herodias and John the Baptist.  Herod and Herodias were quite an item and something of a scandal - ending up out of imperial favour and exiled on the fringes of the empire in Lyons .  There is the creepy aspect of Herod's reputed feelings about his step-daughter Salome, which we can guess that Herodias was aware of but not above exploiting to serve her ends. But in the story as Mark tells it we also get a sense of something about Herod.

We are told that Herod liked listening to John.  Now this is an unexpected detail.  Despite John being outspoken, blunt and charismatic; even despite him telling Herod of the gross impropriety of his marriage to his brother's wife, Herod was still drawn to hear John speak and when John spoke Herod's view of the world was shaken and became complicated. No wonder Herodias determined to get rid of John.

John stands in the prophetic tradition of bold truth-tellers who live their message, and frequently have died for it - often horribly.  It is not clear why Herod was so fascinated by John.  At the simplest human level it might have been a mere matter of curiosity about someone so different from himself. It may also have been the pathology of a power freak, someone so obsessed with power and its manifestations, that to encounter John and hear his world verbally shredded though by a prisoner in a prison cell to which Herod held the key, was to feel somehow secure against having his power torn from him.  Perhaps in Herod (and Herodias for that matter) we have bullies, people of privilege, who encounter in John someone who will not submit; not yield to intimidation. At a theological level it might be a reminder that God's word can still reach us even if we choose to disregard it.  Is Herod the haunted man who hears the Word but will not change his life?

The consequences of being that sort of man unfold very quickly in what happens at the banquet.  The sensual and dissipated Herod makes a stupid and boastful pledge to Salome and can't back down in front of his guests when the girl does her mother's bidding and demands John's head brought into the dinner table.  One can only speculate what the other dinner guests thought about this!

Herodias and Herod are a poisonous pair, gilded, privileged and ruthless in their hold on power.  We find such people in surprising places.  Of course one may find them in the political world and its equivalents of Game of Thrones or House of Cards but we may also encounter them, or their banal equivalents in our daily life in business, in institutions such as schools, university and church.  We may recognise them or their shadows in bullying behaviours; wherever there is misuse or abuse of position, power or wealth.  John is beheaded. Varoufakis is excluded.  Countless souls suffer daily because they are poor.

This story cautions us all - that in our calling we are not to be too surprised when we meet such behaviour.  Always the shadow of the cross lies across our lives - but as our Lord tells us "take heart: I have overcome the world." (John 16:33)

The Life Well Lived

I knew David McKenzie only slightly, mainly from a long conversation when I called on him and Katherine in their Cannington Road home earlier this year.  His funeral yesterday gave me a far greater insight into this extraordinary man as the memories that were shared went for well over an hour but, in all truth, I could not have wished them to be less and they were of a quality that had me absolutely spell bound.

This was a scholar's funeral but what came through was not the quality of educational scholarship (excellent though that was) but the quality of the man who emerged through that scholarship: the puffery of ego seemed entirely absent and in its place the love of learning and the love of people - generously given and, as was obvious yesterday, generously remembered and returned.

Of course I had seen David in the Cathedral many times.  Mainly I had observed him from the Dean's stall as he had stood by the Robinson Porch as a sidesman and welcomed people with that kindly smile that revealed something of his essence.

The text we read was John 14:1-6 with its generous vision of God and of the Christ who is our way, our truth and our life: one caught a sense of Christ in David.  May he rest in peace and rise in glory. Vale David!

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

A snow morning and the matter of a bra

A snow morning and I have just seen a TV shot of a car that went over a bank in Mornington - fortunately the driver walked away.  Have just texted the Cathedral team advising them to stay home until conditions improve and have received a text from the regular who would otherwise attend the 10.00am Mass - he is snowed/iced in.  The morning has to be readjusted - the dogs don't seem to have a problem with this, the human members of the pack have to think about it.  I watch the news about Greece and become increasingly ... well, disgusted and deeply concerned might cover what I feel.

On a lighter note, yesterday afternoon I had a call to the hospital and buzzed off in some haste  with oils and prayerbook, very focussed on the spiritual task ahead but along the one way system, near Cumberland College someone honked their horn at me and waved.  While Dunedin drivers can be friendly this was obviously something more than that.  We paused more or less abreast at the lights and from the passenger window someone yelled at me "you've got a ... from your car."  


I couldn't hear above the roar of a truck engine revving behind me ... "A bra!"

That made no sense at all and the lights changed and we moved on, me rather circumspectly as I tried to make sense of what automotive hazard I was being alerted to. I had to pause again as the traffic slowed.  By this time another vehicle - a utility paused by me and a chunky Maori gentleman stuck his head out the rear window and roared at me "You've got bra on your car!"

I tried to look nonchalant but felt a little overwhelmed by the contrast between, on the one hand, my clerical collar and spiritual duties and, on the other hand, the accusation that I was a mobile display for women's underwear.

I pulled into a parking space and nervously inspected my car.  Nothing was very obvious but after a closer look under the right front wheel arch, hooked on the edge of the chassis - there it was.  A very soiled and sad bra which I promptly detached.  How on earth did it get there?

Its moments like this that can make a day!

Friday, July 3, 2015

A Crisis in Greece and Jesus in the Synagogue

Reflection for the 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time
5 July 2015
Readings: 2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10; 2 Corinthians 12:2-10; Mark 6:1-13

This week I have been troubled by the financial crisis that confronts Greece and deeply disturbed by the implacable neo-liberal economics that demand more of the austerity and that has shredded Greece’s social fabric. As I think about this and then contemplate the gospel story of Jesus being rejected in the synagogue, I feel these two situations of crisis grate against each other.  I find I have a question: could the rejection of Jesus by the establishment in the synagogue have something to say to the European financial establishment and its scorn for the Syriza party with its promise to protect the vulnerable and suffering of Greece?  I leave the question open ‘on the table’ for your thoughts and I declare it to you because it has been weighing on me.

Now, to our text!   Reading our gospel this morning one has a sense of recognition, a vague familiarity: is it just that we have read this before, even often?  Or is the recognition something more than that? Are we recognising something that is more reminiscent of a melody or a pattern or a pathway remembered only in dream? Does some instinctual memory in us respond?

What I am suggesting to you is that we have been here before. As elsewhere in Mark, here we have two passages that mirror against each other.  In the first we see Jesus enduring the hardship of the work of the Kingdom of God; in the second, we see the disciples sent out to do that work.   But you may rightly say – but aren’t these passages so different, since in the one we see Jesus being rejected but in the other we see the disciples having a fruitful ministry?  The way I see it, in musical terms, the relation could be thought of as contrapuntal.

We begin with the wonderful start where Jesus leaves the place where he has brought a dead girl back to life and returns to his home town, and the community which knows his family and, it would seem, even remembers him. In this dangerously familiar context he starts to expound the scriptures and brings down the wrath of the community as a series of querulous questions beat against him.

 ‘Where did this man get all this?
·         What is this wisdom that has been given to him?
·         What deeds of power are being done by his hands! 
·         Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?’

It’s impossible to miss the sense of indignant outrage as the great and the good of the synagogue community don’t hold back but get a vast load of resentments off their chests; so quickly does this poison bubble to the surface that one feels that there is a history of resentment here.  Is this a toxic community that Jesus has returned to?  Is this a community somehow predisposed to nastiness?  The venom in the questions and the jibe about him being a labourer (tekton) ‘the carpenter’ all point toward a troubled community.  If so, then he, who has been sent as redeemer of the world, will not be surprised at what comes later.  Here in his home town the shadow of the cross already lies across his life. 

But maybe this Nazareth is also everywhere – perhaps we recognise ourselves in these sneers and jibes; recognise our own quickness to reject, critique, judge and condemn.   Take this self-knowledge a little further and embed it in our context and experience: could this village synagogue even be our shadow, our cathedral – a dreadful thought!  Do we recognise the shadow of the cross in our midst?

Did you notice that Mark provides us with a surprising detail when he notes that Jesus “was unable to do any mighty deed?”  It seems strange to record a limit to Jesus’ power; especially strange when we think back to that momentous raising of the dead girl only a few verses earlier.   That Mark registers this nonetheless suggests that something important is at stake.  My hunch is that we are discovering something about the nature of God: Jesus is no miracle worker who indulges in flashy signs and wonders to dazzle us and compel belief; he does not transgress our freedom to receive him or to deny him.  Where there is no openness to the power of God, no ‘mighty deed’ will take place.

Now, for the second part of the gospel this morning: here, in contrast to the intense experience of rejection in the synagogue, Jesus sends the twelve out on a mission. The disciples are given power over unclean spirits and they are instructed to travel light, not be encumbered by luggage or by anxieties of how they will live, and where they are well received they are to stay put and not move around.  We see that, like Jesus, the disciples cast out demons; they proclaim repentance; and they do works of healing.  The disciples replicate the mission of Jesus fruitfully. 

In just a few verses we catch a fascinating glimpse of the church established as a community that is sent: (1) to proclaim the gospel fearlessly; (2) to confront evil; and (3) to be the instrument of God’s healing power. 

In times of doubt or difficulty it is always good to come back to this image of the church.  This is who we are.  This is our identity and it is our core business.  Are we doing this?  How are we doing this?  And, returning to the problem with which I started, what would we say to the European ministers of Finance?