Saturday, August 29, 2015

Custom or Character? reflecting on Mark

I find this a very difficult text to engage with and will welcome thoughts as I work with what is still something of a draft.

Reading: John 7:1-23

On this last Sunday in August we are literally on the cusp of Spring and something of that season breathes through the readings set for today: one senses a fullness of life, a richness.  

We hear it in the rich call upon the senses in the Song of Solomon and in the reminder in the epistle of James that God is the source of all abundance and generosity: “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.”

In the gospel Mark appears to support this generous and expansive frame by showing us a Jesus who resists the Pharisees’ insistence on rituals of washing for hands, cups and plates as a foundation for spirituality and righteousness before God – instead he insists that righteousness is a matter of the heart – the externals don’t matter.  This is a Jesus who sounds rather modern, contemporary – everything is fine so long as your heart is in the right place!

There are some questions that come to mind as I read this passage. 

First, if Jesus said everything as Mark presents it and did indeed declare ‘all foods clean’ why is it that in Acts and elsewhere – as in Romans – we find food disputes such a feature in the early church without any reference to Jesus having made a decisive statement on the matter?  Did Jesus really say what Mark claims or has Mark presented Jesus in this way because of the tensions the church faced in its mission to the Gentiles, the non-Jewish world?

Second, this passage presents a hostile attitude to the Old Testament and to Jewish customs.  In Matthew and Luke that is not at all what Jesus says: i.e. not a jot or stroke is to be called into question (Matt 5:17-18; Luke 16:17).

Third, the Jewish attitude to the purity laws was probably far more complex than Mark implies and it is highly doubtful that Jesus disagreed with all Jewish groups or even with all Pharisees.

So, as we read this gospel and feel the presence of a redactor who is managing and reshaping complex materials, possibly with a particular situation in mind, we too may reflect on how this text, ancient and intransigent, can still speak to us.

The Pharisees as presented by Mark, are not totally alien to us.  In the story of the Church in New Zealand we have a history that shows how behaviour has been used to determine someone’s righteousness before God.  For example the strictness with which Sabbath observance was once regarded and the relentless pharisaism it imposed – for many that defined what Christianity was about.  Closely attending that attitude went a suspicion of the arts – the theatre especially; of dancing and of alcohol.   Sexual behaviour was an especially rich area for prohibition, and some will still remember contention over how we treated divorced persons in our church and the distress many felt.

Of course we might say but surely that is all different now?  We and the church have moved on from being so prohibitive.  I think that is true but there is still a palpable sense of pressure that surfaces within our church when some aspects of behaviour are encountered.  For instance the resistance to the blessing of GLBT relationships is such and there are Anglican communities that have pulled out from our church in response to that issue.

So it may be that this particular gospel holds up a mirror to us of the pressures we encounter within our faith today.  Is there in Mark’s presentation of Jesus’ words an inherent question to us as to how we view our world and one another?  Are there clear boundaries and how do we determine where they are?

What about this proposition: that Mark shows us a Jesus who is not impressed by outward conformity but attentive to the character of the person?

Does that approach to the gospel this morning offer a generosity and fruitfulness that surprises us or does it feel uncomfortably open?   What are the questions and issues that this raises for you?  I look forward to your thoughts.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

New Choristers inducted

Last Sunday was a joyful occasion as we inducted the probationary Choristers into the choir.  They are a fine group of boys and the promise of their voices is immense.  Channel 39 came to the service and this clip has been forwarded to me.  The choir section is about 6 minutes into the news.  I hope this link works!

Next week - we induct the girls!   Congratulations to our Director of Music, George Chittenden.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Lord, to whom can we go?

The 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time 23082015

Reading: John 6:56-69

Some of you will have heard the rather infamous story of the church noticeboard that bore the legend “Don’t let worry kill you – let the church help.”

We laugh at the unintended ambiguity and the consequences of faulty grammar; but as in much humour, tears are not too far away – because anyone who has had much experience of the church will have known occasions when the church has broken hearts and wills rather than been a source of love and hope.

The passage in the gospel today has a grim realism that comes from that kind of tough knowledge. We read that many of Jesus disciples ‘turned back and no longer went about with him.’ 

The more I think about that statement it seems almost incomprehensible. To have known Jesus, to have walked from town to town with him, talked and shared meals; to have seen what he did … it seems hard to imagine leaving him, turning one’s back on him and his community.  Yet John tells us that is what happened: and not just a few, but many!

Did Jesus’ heart break at this desertion?  Did his ministry seem to be a failure?  Did he doubt himself?  Anyone in the ministry of the church can identify with this situation and knows the anguish it can produce – we know it ourselves when someone who has previously always been part of our community takes offence at something and leaves. 

However we do not know how it affected Jesus – we are not told.
And yet we can speculate and John gives us some grounds for doing so.  

Immediately after being told of many leaving Jesus we read:
‘So Jesus asked the twelve, "Do you also wish to go away?" Simon Peter answered him, "Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God." -John 6:56-69

Jesus’ question to the twelve may hint at him carrying some grief at the loss of his followers – this is a foreshadowing of the via dolorosa – but it is also a sign of the freedom given those who follow him.  This is a choice to be made.
In this moment of pain and grief there is also recognition and affirmation since Peter speaks for the twelve and says ‘To whom can we go?’  He affirms their experience of Jesus and declares “we have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

Peter summarises a process in those words ‘we have come to believe and know’ – it hasn’t just happened but this is a commitment and relationship born out of much experiential knowledge.

You may remember that last week I talked about this chapter of John in terms of ‘cognitive dissonance’: this week we have seen cognitive dissonance alienate many of Jesus’ followers but equally we now see how the same cognitive dissonance can also bring others to new and deeper realisation of who Jesus is.
The Christ who shocks and repels with his hard sayings is also the Christ who draws us to himself; the one who invites us to share the cross and who walks alongside us to the end of our journey.
The 6th century philosopher Boethius understood this when he wrote: 
“To see Thee is the end and the beginning,
Thou carriest us, and Thou dost go before,
Thou art the journey, and the  journey’s end.”

St John's Gospel and cognitive dissonance

20th Sunday in Ordinary Time 160815

Gospel Reading: John 6:51-58

“I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh… This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever."

We are at a point in the church year when our reading through Mark’s gospel is interrupted for 5 or 6 weeks by readings from John’s gospel. So for a brief time we enter the strange world of John and have to engage with the challenges that presents.

I talk about the strange world of John but this morning we have just this small fragment of gospel to work with and we come as always (explicit or implicit) with the basic question of ‘How does this
gospel speak to me now?’ Can it speak in the confusion and complexity of this moment, this ‘now’; and speak through and above the hubbub of all my doubts, my unfaith, and my indifference? Perhaps even more difficult, can it speak through the dense insulation provided by my familiarity with this text, all my prior knowledge, assumptions and interpretation of it?

I want to begin with a proposition that I heard in an address at the Deans’ Conference in Adelaide: “Without cognitive dissonance we learn nothing.”

That proposition rather neatly summarises how I find myself tackling scripture on most Sunday mornings. Too often the church seems to have tried to ‘explain’ scripture – in the sense of smoothing away difficulties, harmonising dissonances and trying to homogenise the text into a more culturally palatable form. I suspect that to be a mistaken approach. Instead I suggest we cannot learn from what we think we understand; we only learn from what we realise we don't understand.

So, with that in mind, think about what strikes you as strange or difficult or different about this passage. We tackle these problems directly, ‘head-on’. It is in the strangeness or difficulty of the gospel, in what affronts us, that the ‘Word’ may really come alive for us.

So, for instance, what about that daring proposition: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh”? This is not normal speech: it sounds breathtakingly arrogant and strange. More than that, this is a very ‘high’ form of speech; it is speech that is at war with itself; it is freighted with paradox – after all ‘bread’ and ‘forever’ don’t hold together; and neither do ‘bread’ and ‘flesh’; you might also note that this is highly metaphorical speech – though to say that does not explain the speech or it’s shock effect. It is speech that seems to reach to us from another dimension and that calls our grasp of reality into question. I am painting with words as I say all this: do you feel the strangeness in the words of this gospel? Do you feel the grate and stress in the words – the ‘cognitive dissonance’ as we try to make sense of what Christ is saying? “I am the living bread…”

And what do we say of the response of those other Jews in the synagogue who hear these words but are not followers of Jesus and respond, "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?"

In this little drama we recognise something of ourselves. On the one hand we feel the dissonance, the strangeness, in Christ’s words; but, on the other hand, we also hear within ourselves the voices of those other non-followers in the synagogue: "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?"

To hear “I am the living bread” is to be confronted by a statement that directly opens another world or dimension to us. While we may know the biblical background and the Eucharistic theology that can be attached to these words, the words themselves shock us with the inexplicable reality of the one who speaks them and the deep reality he opens to us. To follow him, to stand in the queue at the altar and receive the wafer, is to receive him and enter that deep reality and see the world in a different way.

Opposed to this deep reality is the little world of literal speech and surfaces and mere appearance. In John it is the Nicodemus world – you know the story in John 3 when Jesus explains to Nicodemus the need to see reality, to be born again, and Nicodemus asks how a man who is old can enter his mother’s womb - that's the Nicodemus world, where reality is reduced to literalism. It's the Nicodemus kind of thinking that we so often use, it's the kind of thinking those other Jews used in the synagogue when they asked “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?"

To read this gospel, to engage with the ‘living bread’, is to feel the boundaries of our world start to shift; to sense a massive cognitive shift pressing against the narrow frames we use to define reality and set our priorities. Our world changes and the Christ beckons.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Feeding the 5000 - ancient urban legend?

It's always a challenge preaching in a different space and followers of this blog might be interested in the sermon  I was privileged to give in Melbourne a few weeks ago.

A Reflection for St Paul’s Cathedral, Melbourne
Reading: John 6:1-21

The last thing our cathedral administrator asked me before I left the cathedral office was ‘what are you going to preach on?’ to which I replied vaguely - something along the lines of that the gospel was John and the feeding of the 5000.

The scene changes to  the following Friday night when our rental car is stuck in Flinders street traffic as a tide of humanity surges toward the stadium for a football international. Our car surges too, maybe a foot. One has time to think. Now imagine – the question is there is this boy with his supper, fish and chips, could you feed this multitude with that? That’s a dumb question. But what if in The Age next day is the headline Jesus in Melbourne? One boy’s fish and chips  feeds Thousands! What would you think?

Well, we wouldn't believe it.   Maybe we'd say it was a hoax and write a complaint to the Press Council.  We wouldn't believe it - we'd seen the crowds; we know what's real don't we? We are not with Alice in Wonderland and we don't have to believe six impossible things before breakfast.

Now stay with me in this: what if The Age staunchly defends its story and reports from the crowd repeat the story that the impossible happened.“It's true - they handed out fish and chips, it never seemed to give out. There was enough for everyone. The stall holders and franchisees weren't happy though. It was amazing!”

What may we do when people keep insisting that the impossible has happened? (Fortunately this doesn't usually happen because most people are too sensible and don't want to be laughed at.) but what may we do if sensible, practical, feet on the ground, trustworthy and reliable people keep insisting that the impossible happened?  (“I was there mate, I  know a bit of fish when I eat it.”)

If this becomes a serious threat to our grasp on reality, maybe we’ll  say that it was all a stunt, an illusion, we don't know how they do it; if it persists over time, maybe we’ll find other ways to keep it at bay – dismiss it as an urban legend.

All of which is a long lead into this gospel that speaks to us across 2000 years as if it were an ancient urban legend. I simply ask a very ordinary blunt question: is it true? Is it an account of something that actually happened or is it a literary fabrication? Was there this moment in time when a door opened in the universe and we caught a glimpse of a deeper reality at work? May we believe in miracles or are the gospels simply fantasy novels?

Miracles are events that don't fit our concept of reality; they don't fit with the narrative science has given us. The trouble is that the narrative of science is dynamic not static. With new knowledge the narrative is continually amended – for instance string theory and the advances in particle physics.  Is it conceivable that laws of science that explain our reality are not the only laws but are actually underpinned by a far deeper reality that may occasionally manifest itself, opening as it were a door in the universe?

This proposition is of course the stuff of science fiction and fantasy literature.  It is also the underpinning truth that drives the gospels.  All the gospel writers had shared the same great mind-bending reality that we call the resurrection; not just a weird momentary thing to be forgotten as a drunken dream but an encounter with the risen Jesus that lasted weeks; something that could not be shrugged off as delusion or an hallucination; this was an experience that rewrote reality for them. How do you live when your whole reality has changed? How do you tell the story of the deep mystery, the deepest reality, that compels the gospels?

·         About this point us theologians usually show some nervousness with the idea of miracles and, for instance, one may insist that miracle compromises the integrity of creation and of the incarnation.   A good point. 

·         Another may point out that the way John tells the story is to remind the Jewish audience of the great stories and dreams of Israel. Jesus is like Moses in the Exodus and feeds the people in the wilderness; there is more than enough food – and that strikes echoes of their longing for the return of God among them and the dream of plenty for all. This is to look for parallels and connections, literary artifice, rather than face the mystery itself.

·         Another might try to explain the miracle away.  For example – all those women and children: well how many mum’s would let the family go off without some sandwiches? So there must have been some food available. Was the real miracle that our Lord used the lunch provided by one boy to induce everyone to share what they had – with staggering results – showing the abundance that love can produce?  Now I think that's a perfectly plausible suggestion, that may be what happened. 

But these options are all attempts to evade the inexplicable. Why is it that all  four gospels tell this story of the miraculous feeding of the multitude?  If the truth was really a story of simple sharing, why not tell it as that?  Why did each gospel writer instead present it as miracle?   If they all conspired to fabricate an urban legend (which strikes me as unlikely) what a foolhardy incident to use - it would be so easy to disprove – there were so many witnesses to the facts who could have laughed it into oblivion. 

Instead in our gospel this morning, John tells us a story where it is as if a door opens in the universe and the principles and rules of another dimension pour through and are set in motion.  So that in the hands of Jesus, matter itself, mere loaves and fish, seems inexhaustible; our world is changed; reality is more than we thought; it is less defined, less predictable and far more dynamic than we can bear to imagine. This gospel takes us to the limits of thought.

Shortly we will baptise Noah. In baptism (as in Eucharist) it is as if a door opens: such simple things – water and oil – and the boundaries of our material world are enlarged and Noah is joined to Christ.