Monday, September 28, 2015

Synod Reflection

Synod September 2015 was something I attended with very mixed feelings.  I was very sad that the Synod service was not held at the Cathedral and throughout the course of Synod had various people ask me why not.  Nonetheless I think the service at St Matthews went well and it was certainly a far more comfortable rendezvous than the Cathedral: I mean, cushioned seats, and on a wild freezing night, a heating system so efficient that you had to shed coats!

Looking back over a year I recall that the 2014 Synod was held in Oamaru and how I returned from that thinking the feel of the Diocese was changing.  As a result at the Cathedral AGM earlier this year I opened the Dean's Report with something of a little parable.

When I returned from Synod last year I wondered what images I might use to describe our Cathedral in the life of the Diocese. While it is customary to speak of a Cathedral as the ‘Mother Church’ for the Diocese - an endearing metaphor which envisages the Cathedral as a ‘hub’ for the diocesan family – and although I think the image still has value, the reality is not so simple.

We are all familiar with how the patterns and fortunes of family life have changed over time: so it is with our diocese.

Consider this as a nascent parable:
“There was once an extended family that decided, on purely practical grounds, to no longer centre their family affairs about the grand old family home in the city centre but instead to build a suite of offices in the suburbs; though the old home continued to be admired by visitors, with the passage of time and infrequency of its use by the family, some of the family came to see it as an imposing but impractical asset in a prime location…”

Although there are many ways this parable might be enriched and developed, the question it highlights is how this Cathedral community and the Diocese imaginatively grasp the future and value (or not) what it means to be or to have a Cathedral. With that in mind I note that the forthcoming Diocesan ministry conference in May is on mission and the elusive subject of ‘Future Church’. We should take nothing for granted ...

This Sunday, many months since writing that, over coffee after the Choral Eucharist I greeted some groups of travelling students from the USA and Germany .  They came because we are the Cathedral ... this place is central and symbolically an eloquent statement of the church and its presence as a diocese.  

Of course the Diocesan Office is another symbol - but very different.  I have asked the Diocesan Manager for information on the costs of running the office and having money tied up in the building; I have been assured that these matters are all under review.  I doubt that visitors such as I met this Sunday will seek out the Diocesan Office in Green Island.

Why are we reading this?

In the morning Eucharist I enquired whether anyone had made much sense of the First Lesson reading (from Esther); so for the brief reflection I offer at Choral Evensong there was this  ...

Choral Evensong  27 September 2015

Readings:   Exodus 24; Matthew 9:1-8;

We have probably all had the experience of reading or hearing a passage of scripture during a service and wondering why we read it and what it means.  This morning I found myself wondering why we were reading from the Book of Esther: a weird story, historically flaky, violent, lots of conspiracy, with elements of sex and death – it could be worked into a blockbuster novel – but you would have to search to find any mention of God.

The story of Esther concerns a Jewish maiden during the reign of Xerxes over the Persian Empire (485-465 BCE).Esther is an orphan and is raised by her uncle and rises to become queen of the Persian empire and saves the lives of the Jews from the scheming of Haman.  Jewish opinion on the book appears to have been divided: some struggled with its lack of religious sentiment but, because of its treatment of anti-Semitism, Jews through the centuries have often also read it as their ‘story’.  As for the secular tone of the book – its silence about God – the curious thing about the story and dilemma Esther faces is that so many pieces have to fall into place for the Jews to escape annihilation that a careful reader eventually has to look beyond a series of remarkable coincidences and start to see the careful operation of a hidden God working behind the scenes.

Then again the passage from Exodus we have just read presents all sorts of problems.  Unlike Esther, God is the main subject of this book.  It is a strange book: it is anonymous; it is ancient; its cultural roots are deep and remote from anything we know; and what sort of writing is it anyway?  If we attempt to read it as a historical account of actual events our minds resist the text – yes there may be fragments of history but there is so much more going on, and it feels more mythological than historical.  Though the Exodus text seems to present a strange but orderly narrative sequence more likely it condenses what was really an evolving religious understanding formed over many centuries.

Why do we read such texts – or at least why do I think we should read them?  At the simplest level we read them because these books are part of the many-layered story of faith; they are texts that belong within the scriptures and however untidy or strange or remote they may be – nonetheless they belong there and we read them for that reason.

Of course, they puzzle us and often trouble us. That is another reason we ought to read them.  They give us another view or another angle or attitude to how we may think about God.  To read them is to enter another world, encounter another way of thinking, and to remember that the story of faith is more complex than we imagine. Our own fragment in that story takes on a new perspective when we start to grasp this.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Love or Anxiety?

A hectic week crammed with writing for a project, it has seemed barely possible to think about a sermon.

Sermon for 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Gospel: Mark 9:38-50;

A week ago I was at our Diocesan Synod and the privilege of such gatherings of our church is that we are given an overview of the church, and sometimes we see all too clearly that our church is like the fabled ‘Curate’s egg’, good in parts! We live in anxious times and it seems to me that the problem with anxiety is really what it does to us.

To read the pieces that comprise our gospel this Sunday feels like reading fragments from a manual on the dangers of the spiritual life – and that is certainly one aspect of a gospel’s work – we need to be warned of the hazards and the mess we can make of faith.  That said, this part of the gospel does not make for edifying or inspirational reading.  Here it seems that we are down in the messy area of our spiritual journey where it is hard work and we keep making mistakes.
The Last Judgement Triptich, Hans Memling, c.1473

Take that first section, for example, the disciples appear like so many pupils keen to curry their  teacher’s favour: they rush to tell Jesus how firmly they dealt with someone who, though a successful exorcist and one even who used the name of Jesus, was not one of Jesus’ followers.  Even a superficial reading of this passage makes you uncomfortable, it feels so immature and the thought of disciples behaving like religious enforcers is uncomfortable.  Jesus’ rebuke deflates the disciples and to read it now should make us very cautious how we act to others.

There is a recurring problem in the spiritual life: for instance, we see the disciples wanting attention and affirmation. They want Jesus to endorse what they have done. Is this enthusiasm the product of love or is it driven by anxiety? From the beginning of Christianity to the present, a lot of denominational sniping (and much worse) turns on this one question.  Denominations like to think that they have got faith ‘right’; they invest a lot of energy into promoting themselves – think of the big flash sign boards and expensive advertising; think of the punishments ‘believers’ dish out to those who don’t ‘toe the line’.  Is such behaviour the product of love or anxiety?  Behind this of course is the really big question: does God care?   I doubt that God cares about any of us getting our faith ‘right’.  Can we ever get our faith ‘right’? The more you think about it, the sillier we can look: can we fit God around our beliefs?  Is what we think about the Trinity likely to trouble the creator of this still unfolding universe?  The notion is absurd!  God is always far more than any of our constructions – a point I remember making during the visit of the Dalai Lama a few years ago.

These are not easy days for leaders in the church but the real leader has to be someone who is prepared to see the bigger picture and who looks beyond protecting the denominational brand or a religious franchise, or even the details of the Creed – and instead looks for the activity of God and the ways the Spirit of God may be working in the world.  Today perhaps the most prominent example of a religious leader doing that would be Pope Francis – who again and again has withheld condemnation and judgement on matters that have besieged the church.  

For me one of his boldest, almost off the cuff statements,was in a sermon based (I think) on our gospel today:  he said something along the line that the atheist who did good may well be found in heaven.  That may sound daring, certainly coming from the Pope, but there is a strong theological argument to support him: if God is the source of all good, then the one who does good cannot be far from God.  Pope Francis follows the logic.  He also seems to follow our Lord’s words in our gospel this morning.

The next section of our gospel reading is truly alarming: this is when our Lord talks of anyone who puts ‘a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me’ and the judgement that may be expected. Is Jesus talking about children, or vulnerable people, or simple believers? It’s not clear but I certainly read it as a warning to the church community about how we treat one another.  Faith can be difficult but there is nothing more damaging to anyone’s faith than believers behaving badly to one another.  It was a problem in the early church and is still today.

But I also see this gospel fragment pointing further, beyond any religious frame: I’m thinking of the refugee crisis that is swamping Europe at the moment and the immense suffering refugees experience.  In the TV news one sees the most vulnerable, the little children and elderly: but the little ones especially; many weeping and frightened, utterly exhausted. I keep asking what effect this trauma is having upon these children; what are the fears and terrible memories that will remain with them? How will they trust the West; or even just trust fellow humans after such experiences? Think of the stumbling blocks that have been put in their way.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

The Sign of the Cross

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Reading: Mark 8: 27-38

The odds are pretty good that most of us will have seen or read Shakespeare’s tragedy Macbeth.  You may remember that scene in the first act where Macbeth encounters the witches on the heath and we hear their strange predictions of his rise to power.  The dramatic effect of that encounter is to create in the audience a premonition of foreboding and a sense that here is a man unable to escape his fate. 

Another example: when Wordsworth says ‘The Child is Father of the Man’ (in My Heart Leaps Up) would we agree that, whether by nature or nurture, what we see in a child truly determines the character of the adult?  Will the selfish child become the selfish adult?

Or, moving from the sublime to the ridiculous, what about the signature phrase of the Calvinistic undertaker in Dad’s Army’ ‘We’re all doomed’?

Well you can see where this is headed: are we free to make our way in life or are we trapped, locked in by genetic predispositions or other social and cultural factors to an identity and a destiny that is effectively defined for us?   

In the Lady Chapel of St Peter’s Cathedral Adelaide is a painting of a young man in bright sunlight carrying a hefty wooden beam and the shadow he casts seems to show a man hanging from a cross. The title of the painting is ‘The Foreshadowing of the Cross’. The gospel this morning can also be read as a foreshadowing and make us feel we are observers of the inevitable and must now watch the action remorselessly unfold.

The drama begins with the question of who Jesus is – and Jesus opens the subject by polling the disciples – what do the people say and what do you say?  It is common to read this as Jesus’ way of teaching his disciples about himself but it seems to me that this is also Jesus broaching his own questions about his identity and then coming to terms with what it means to be the Messiah and all that may entail.  This makes good sense of the so-called ‘messianic secret’ in Mark’s gospel: we can understand that Jesus would keep things quiet if he had to assimilate difficult information, and as that intolerable knowledge becomes clearer he has also to prepare for what will come.

Is Jesus trapped by his identity as the Messiah?  Well, we speculate here –but it looks to me as if Jesus has the freedom to walk away.  Peter’s horrified response when he learns what the Messiah must suffer voices the instinct for self-preservation that Jesus must know within himself; the natural desire to escape the cross, and abandon who he is.  But when Jesus rebukes Peter we realise that a bridge has been crossed.  The decision has been made – if he is the Messiah, so be it, let come what may.   Peter has failed as career advisor and counsellor.  Jesus has chosen the difficult path and leaving himself for the will of God, steps along the road that leads him to the cross.

Horrific though the cross is as an instrument of torture and death, it is also a paradox: Jesus makes the cross a source of life.  In an act of total commitment, by a determined orientation of his will, he set self-preservation and self-interest aside – and faced the horror of the cross.  That is a radical act, but maybe it takes such radical acts, such counter-cultural acts, to shake us awake, and arouse us from indifference.   By that great self-giving the world changed.

And that is where we come in – when Jesus tells us that our true life consists in taking up our cross and following him.  He certainly does not mean that we should be nailed to a cross but that we should take the cross inside us.  Even in this season of examinations, or in all the other stresses of our lives, let the shadow of the cross lie over everything – and consciously take within us the life of Jesus. The image of the cross puts the question as to who we are, how we live and who we are becoming.  To ‘take up the cross’  is to see the world differently, see our neighbours differently, and certainly not to be so possessed by self-interest. To take the cross within us changes  how we respond to refugees, the unemployed and the marginalised, the poor and the homeless. 

One priest gives this advice:

“When we cross ourselves let it be with a real sign of the cross.   Instead of a small cramped gesture that gives no notion of its meaning, let us make a large unhurried sign, from forehead to breast, from shoulder to shoulder, consciously feeling how it includes the whole of us, our thoughts, our attitudes, our body and soul, every part of us at once, how it consecrates and sanctifies us.”

Take up your cross.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Life Matters

A very wet night last night yet, despite the rain, the cathedral was full as hundreds came for the service to observe National Suicide Prevention Day. Set out on the sanctuary steps were tea light candles, one for every suicide in New Zealand in the twelve months May 2014 - May 2015.  The dreadful and startling realisation this gave was that there were so many candles, 569 in all.

The service was planned and led by our University Chaplain, the Rev. Greg Hughson and the Life Matters Trust Committee.  The Cathedral Choir and other community groups shared in the service and many stayed on afterwards for time together and the refreshments in the crypt.

My own words of welcome as Dean were very simple:

  • I want to welcome you all to your Cathedral this evening. I say your cathedral quite deliberately because this cathedral is here for our city and to serve all Otago and Southland. To those among you who may have travelled some distance to be here this evening, an especially warm welcome to you. 
  • To the organisers, the Life Matters Trust, the speakers and participants of this service, and to my colleague Greg Hughson, this is a major project – a major piece of work – that you have a taken on. I so admire your vision, compassion and dedication – and thank you for allowing this Cathedral to be your place this evening. 
  • To those among us who come this evening with the ache of loss,with tears and with painful memories, I hope and pray that here tonight, you may know some comfort, some consolation, some renewal of hope. In this place of faith and hope, know that you are among friends.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

The crumbs of God's grace are for all

23d Sunday in Ordinary Time

Reading:   Mark 7 (vv. 24-37)

On the news we have probably all caught glimpse of the little body on a Turkish beach of the drowned Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi.  For weeks and months we have been hearing stories and watching news clips of desperate refugees in boats washing ashore or the horror stories of wrecks and mass drownings; we have been watching the terrible images of desperate crowds cramming refugee camps, European railway stations and scrambling over barbed wire barriers. 

Yet the image of this little child’s body seem to have transcended the barrier of public indifference or emotional exhaustion and become a trigger for a more concerted approach in Europe and has rippled around the world – even in New Zealand -to focus attention on the tragedy that is happening.   To focus on this one tragic death makes us identify and empathise; we look at our own children and grandchildren and start to understand the wider disaster more personally.  This is an imaginative connection that transcends the boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them’.

At the heart of the refugee crisis is that boundary between ‘us’ and ‘them’: it may be cultural or religious; it may be economic with we who ‘have’ not wanting to give way to those don’t.  It can be we who are the insiders and they who are the outsiders, the strangers.  It can be expressed in violence, abuse, and xenophobic language.  Have you heard the refugees shouting at police and border guards ‘We are not animals.’

Our gospel this morning speaks directly to such boundaries.  We encounter a Jesus we don’t want to recognise; a Jesus who contradicts himself – after all, just a few verses earlier he had declared all foods clean and so abolished the boundary between Jews and Gentiles; yet now he meets someone who is a Gentile and a woman and he dismisses her and her gender and culture with abuse – as dogs.  

It is uncomfortable to read this.  That is a good thing.  We should not try to soften the harshness here with equivocation. Matthew’s version of the incident attempts to soften it.  The truth is the gospels are drawn mainly from oral tradition and we don’t know exactly what Jesus said.  This incident has been placed by an editor into a section where Jesus crosses the boundaries between Jew and Gentile – and the focus is on the crossing of various boundaries not the political correctness of the words or sentiments.

I am tempted to consider what the incarnation may involve culturally – and whether bias against women and Gentiles might be included in the person of our Lord.  That is a speculation for another time.

Yet in this Jesus – who may speak in that moment as a Jewish man of his time with the usual prejudices against women and Gentiles – do we catch a glimpse of ourselves, remembering the diverse biases that we ourselves may carry and that are revealed in habits of unconsidered thought and casual speech?  And do we remember the moments when we have heard ourselves or reviewed our thoughts and been embarrassed at our bias and resolved in our hearts to do better?

In this encounter of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman – the boundaries are crossed when the woman turns Jesus’ language of prejudice (dogs) against him and reminds him of how at the dinner table the children are prone to drop food for their pets.  It is a bold and witty inversion of the language – here is a woman of spirit and wit who trumps Jesus’ dismissal of her request – and Jesus immediately acquiesces. A boundary has been crossed, in his mind; and also for the church and for the world.  The crumbs of God’s grace are for all, not just a select few.  Once that realisation dawns the way we see God, the world and one another changes.

One of Archbishop Cranmer’s original collects for The Book of Common Prayer holds this Gospel moment of discovery at its heart and has been a gem of our liturgical heritage – I mean of course the collect we know as “The Prayer of Humble access” used in the Eucharist.

We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy: Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that we may evermore dwell in him, and he is us. Amen.

Think then of the boundaries we set between us and others and how this gospel shows us that the crumbs of God’s grace are for all.   At the borders of Europe dare we turn the desperate away?  When a refugee shrieks “We are not animals” can we hear the rebuke of this gospel and change how we live as people who believe that the crumbs of God’s mercy are for all?

Friday, September 4, 2015

The Cathedral Gallery

Last Friday evening, 28 August, was the start of Dunedin's Heritage Weekend and the Cathedral community participated wholeheartedly with tours on the Saturday led by Cathedral guides while, on the Friday night, we celebrated the opening and blessing of the Cathedral Gallery.  This has been a very complicated project to restore and better present something of the story of the Diocese and of course the Cathedral itself.  The project was overseen by Dr Stella Cullington who is centred in the photograph below.

There were about 60 people present from the city and the diocese, and a fine speech was given by our Mayor Mr Dave Cull who noted the many years the Cathedral and the Town Hall have presided over the Octagon and the memories they share in the service of the city.

I like this photo very much and am obliged to Mr John Burton for it.  It is a rather lovely detail to see a few of us gathered under the eye of the founding Bishops of our Church and Diocese.

The Joy of Singing

Over the last few weeks it has been a joy to install our new junior choristers in their respective Boys and Girls Choirs.  The work of our Director of Music, Mr George Chittenden is much appreciated. On the principle that pictures tell more than words I am posting the informal photographs of the occasion that were taken by our Cathedral photographer, Mr James Aitken.

Later this month on the 19th of September there will be a Choir Open Day and the opportunity for other young people to learn more about our Cathedral Choirs.  Details of this event will be advertised on the Cathedral website.

The Cathedral Boys Choir

The Cathedral Girls Choir