Friday, October 30, 2015

Last Cab to Darwin

28 October 2015

As I write the plane is about one and a half hours out from Brisbane.   Christine and I are travelling to see her brother Paul. His physician rang us on Monday night, urging that we come.

The in flight movie that I have just watched was Last Cab to Darwin, about a Taxi driver from Broken Hill who drives to Darwin to take advantage of a change in euthanasia law there. In the end he does not take his own life but drives back home to die.

The trouble is that I missed a critical moment in the film – the defining moment when he was hooked up to the machine and had to instruct it to go ahead!  Maybe just as well.  Maybe there are some boundaries not to be crossed and my feeling is that the play /film works within those boundaries.   For instance the moment on the long drive when he ejects his travelling companions and accelerates toward a dead end with what appeared to be a solid obelisk or similar monument. At the last second he jams on the breaks and muses how damn hard it is to kill yourself.

It was moving to see Darwin after so many years. Much more modern, but quintessentially I think unchanged. Mad and also magical might describe it.  The sunset from the beach at Fannie Bay or Casuarina, you could almost smell the tropics (did we ever get Durian in Darwin? I can't remember).

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Called to be on the margins

Very rich readings for this Sunday and the theme of blindness reminded me of  King Lear when the blinded Gloucester  realising his errors of judgement laments 'I stumbled when I saw'... relevant, but no room for that in this reflection and its rather speculative hermeneutic ...

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time
25 October 2015
Readings: Job 42. 1-6, 10-17; Hebrews 7.23-28; Mark 10.46-52;
I have just finished reading a novel set in Dunedin.  You could say it is a church novel: its central character is a Presbyterian minister; and its plot involves the life of a church community.  In the background of the novel is the discomfort both minister and community express at the irrelevance of the church today to the life of the society about it.
We know all about this.  The same unease affects us all – we may remember when the churches were full on Sundays, but now with shops trading seven days a week; with the world offered by the internet; with secularism so fashionable; and with faith so under question and so out of fashion and out of favour, the church seems side-lined to the margins and we expend a great deal of energy expressing our anxiety and wondering how we can reclaim relevance; how we can tell the story of faith in such a way that everyone will listen once again.
The truth is that the world has changed.  The gospel this morning gives another perspective to such unease.
The first thing we may notice about this gospel is that Jesus is in Jericho, this is the city where the steep climb to Jerusalem begins. This is the way to the cross and prior to this passage Jesus has repeatedly reminded his disciples of what must happen to ‘The Son of Man’ but they don’t seem to see what he is getting at and warning them of.  They are blind.
Now, where is Bartimaeus in this? Notice his location, he is just outside Jericho, out of the way, outside the city gate; he is on the side-lines – a marginalised person.  Is this a literal location?   I suppose it is; he is strategically located to appeal for help and beg from passers-by; he is not obstructing a storefront or blocking a thoroughfare.  But is it also a symbolic location?  Is wisdom and truth to be found on the side-lines, on the margins, rather than in the centre of action, drama and business?   Do you have to be on the side-lines before you can see what really matters?
(Can we take an illustration of the truth of this from the Rugby World Cup?  However contentious it may be, we know that only from the side-lines, or even better from the privileged view of the Television Match Officials (TMO) – can you get a view of the game as a whole, something that is certainly not possible for players bound up in the action of the maul or locked in the scrum.)

The story tells us that Bartimaeus, hearing of Jesus in the vicinity, made a nuisance of himself, bravely persisted in doing so and, when Jesus approaches him Bartimaeus throws off his cloak and Jesus heals him.  It was a blind man who recognised who Jesus was; through Jesus he becomes a blind man who now sees.  We are told that he followed Jesus on the way – this is the way that leads to the cross.
There is another aspect to this account of Bartimaeus.   That little detail of ‘throwing off his cloak’ – why was that included?  Is it a symbolic action?  Does more symbolic depth reside in this part of Mark’s gospel than a casual or literal reading may reveal? If it is a deliberate symbolic statement – how does that start to amend how we read scripture?  Is Mark the gospeller drawing us beyond what the narrative can provide; beyond what any words can provide?
Traditionally the cloak is a garment symbolically associated with philosophy – it is above all else – the philosopher’s garment.  So is Bartimaeus now abandoning contemplation of philosophy for the reality of God in Christ; dropping his cloak he follows in the way that leads to the cross; is philosophy abandoned for action?

It is also not just the cloak – but also his name.  Bartimaeus can be read as the ‘Son of Timaeus’.  Those of us with some interest in such matters will remember Plato’s philosophical text, the dialogue known as ‘Timaeus’ in which the character Timaeus speculates as to the origin of the universe and the purpose of its creator.  Most relevant to our gospel, it is interesting to note the section in the dialogue where Timaeus voices his opinion that sight is the greatest benefit to us for without it we would not see the order of creation and the evidence of its creator.  Hold that thought against this gospel – when Bartimaeus can see, he follows Jesus in the way – to the cross.
It is the blind Bartimaeus who – side-lined in the darkness that we may also call faith – calls out to Christ and in response to Jesus’ call, abandons his cloak.  Can we imagine this as what we have called ‘the leap of faith’; making that deliberate choice for Christ? What follows is healing and sight – and the following of Jesus in the way – leading to the cross.
So in this Cathedral, so much in the centre of our city, it is salutary to consider that the proper place for the church, for all Christ’s followers, may be on the side-lines, the margins, where we try and see what God is doing and what really matters.  This is where Christ finds us and draws close – drawing us into light and into following him.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Thinking about Saint Luke

Notes for reflection on St Luke the Evangelist

Readings:  Isaiah 35.3-6; 2 Tim. 4: 5-17; Luke 10:1-9;

It is hard to imagine what the Christian story would be without St Luke.  We know next to nothing of him, his origins, life and ministry.  From Paul’s letter to the Colossians we have the rumour that Luke was a physician; from the early Church, from about the 8C there is the attribution that Luke was a painter of icons; there is a wealth of legend, rumour and disputed history.  That said, I cannot imagine the Christian story without Luke – it would be so much the poorer.

I say that because I see Luke as the most gifted writer behind the gospels.  Luke is exceptional as a story-teller, both in the arrangement of his materials and in the stories he gives us.  Consider this: Luke gives us more parables of Jesus than any other gospeller and, though Jesus is the source for his parables, Luke tells them with exceptional power and clarity. There are eleven parables found only in his gospel.  The best known examples of these unique parables would be that of the Good Samaritan and the parable of the Prodigal Son.  These are powerful and memorable stories – and it is hard to imagine our faith without them.

But stories, even the most powerful, hold power by the structure – the narrative frame that contains them, and gives them a context: which I think brings us to the greater context of Luke’s work as an evangelist.  In the big picture Luke is not just the writer of the gospel but also of Acts: in fact the two books are really one book and we should be speaking of it as Luke-Acts, as most scholars now tend to do.  The broad arrangement of the composite work is simple: the first section, the gospel, is geographically focussed on a movement toward Jerusalem; the second section, Acts, is all about the movement of faith out of Jerusalem and into the Gentile world.

Luke has also enjoyed something of a reputation as a historian.  The opening verses of both the Gospel and Acts remind us that he has researched his materials and is seeking to give his reader (Theophilus) an orderly story of Jesus and of the apostles.  Certainly the information in Acts seems generally to tally with what we know from Paul’s epistles of the early church’s mission to the Gentiles.   However Luke is not writing academic history but he is telling a story about faith and the faith-orientation of Luke-Acts is primary and controls the story.  That said, without Luke’s work in Acts, much of the story of the early church would be much harder to piece together.

Fortuitously the passage of Luke set as our gospel for this morning has material found only in Luke.  Nowhere else are the seventy evangelists mentioned: this sending out of the seventy marks Luke’s particular interest in connecting the person of Jesus and his ministry with the whole history of Israel as God’s people.  The number seventy is a strong reminder of how Moses appointed seventy elders to share his work with the people (Numbers 12); but this sense of continuity with God’s purpose through history is also accompanied by an ‘edginess’ and a sense of threat.

As Jesus and the disciples are now to go through Samaria they are entering unfriendly and unreceptive territory.  Facing them is the whole history of the ancestral antipathy between Judeans and Samaritans, based on matters that seem now so utterly remote from our comprehension: the rivalry between the shrines of Mt Gerezim and Mt Zion; a whole range of disputes on such matters as the right way to read the sacred books; messianism; and above all, who was a real Israelite!

For that reason the disciples need to travel light; they need to be able to move quickly when necessary.  They need to keep a low profile in enemy territory – ‘Don’t greet anyone on the road’.  They are to stay put in those homes where they are welcomed, that might be a caution for personal safety but elsewhere gadding about house to house has been associated with charlatans trying to attract attention and gain favour. They are truly being sent out as ‘lambs among wolves’ as they prepare the way for Jesus as he makes his way toward Jerusalem.

Which may be where Luke’s work, Luke-Acts, now touches us: it reaches across the millennia and reminds us that we too are caught up in the great work of the Kingdom of God.  When Jesus says “See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves,” we may not quite see how that applies to us.  But I suggest that the call to sacrifice, to a difficult innocence, to putting on of the mind of Christ, is as great and as urgent as ever – and the wolves are as fierce as ever but more subtle – lurking in the discarnate spirits of the internet, in the technology that binds the human spirit, and in the neo-liberal idolatry of the market.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Conversation on a Plane

Brucefield Church of Scotland
It was only a week or so ago that returning to Dunedin from Auckland I had a conversation with my fellow-traveller in the neighbouring seat.  As two Dunedinites returning home we swapped information and when he asked what I did I gave him the conversation-stopper "I am a priest'.  Oddly enough that led to more chat and we discovered some common acquaintances and he told me he had a subscription to that excellent Catholic magazine Tui Motu.  Just as we were about to disembark I asked him which parish he attended and he said none; that he and his family used to go but now they were just sceptical.

I really warmed to this guy and my response was simply something like: "Hang on that scepticism, there's no faith worth a candle without it."

Christine has been away and also shared an interesting conversation.  She met someone who had married very young and the two of them had gone off as idealistic young missionaries in the Church of Christ.What must have been a very extended conversation was summarised by the friend saying that now (years later) she was happier now that she did not believe in God because the God of her young missionary days made no sense to her now.   Christine's comment when she mentioned this was a wry observation about the damage 'faith' can do and how grateful she was to be an Anglican and to have had space and time within the church for a more generous faith to grow.

These are the kind of conversations that really present the church a question about the kind of faith we hold and present.  How do we say the creed without decoding it; re-telling it?  How do we sing some of the stuff we voice in some of our hymns?  How can we create opportunities for conversations of this kind?  Any ideas?

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Do you really want directions for the journey?

Reflection 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Readings: Job 23:1-9, 16-17; Heb 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31;

Let’s begin with a question.   Why is there something rather than nothing?  What is the meaning of life? 

Some of us may smile at these questions.  We may have long ago given up pondering them. But do we remember asking them?  Some of us may not smile at all but feel these questions to be immediate, real, and very urgent and disturbing. 

To be human seems to involve asking that question and we may laugh at ourselves for asking what always seems to elude us – and one thinks of the Monty Python skit The Meaning of Life or Douglas Adam’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and its sequel The Restaurant at the end of the Universe.  So as a working hypothesis I propose that to be human is to ask such questions and in our readings this morning we see Job questioning why life is as it is; and we see Jesus engaged with that anonymous figure popularly known as ‘the rich young ruler’ or the ‘man with many possessions.’

Some very contemporary images come to mind as I think about this gospel and the concept of possessions, of what we now call ‘stuff’.  I invite you to think of some images that you will likely have encountered through the TV.

The first is the image of refugees, an image that is so vivid now - of refugees fleeing the war in Syria.  In an emergency you take only what you can carry, or load in the car or on a handcart.  But in flight from the war the going is unpredictable and if car or handcart breaks down, they have to be left with everything else.  Then as you travel, the belongings you carry have to be shed: anything too heavy to carry; anything too cumbersome; they are dropped by the way.  To think about this is to test the concept of possessions and what matters.

The other image, also made very current by TV programs, is that of the hoarder: the person whose home and whose life are overwhelmed by stuff.  Today we understand it as a medical condition – as a kind of anxiety disorder.  Nothing is thrown away or tidied.  The home becomes a total mess, a prison, a nightmare. Hoarders are trapped by possessions, though they usually may not recognise it that way.   Thinking about this image also tests how we think about possessions.

You may notice that the gospel begins by telling us that Jesus was just ‘setting out on a journey’ when the young man runs up to him and asks his question about the meaning of life. Pause here for a moment and think of the images that the idea of the journey generates: walking the Camino De Santiago; Columbus setting sail to discover America; Dante’s Divine Comedy; Bunyan’s pilgrim carrying his burden; Otago’s first settlers aboard the John Wickliffe and the Philip Laing in 1848; any student with backpack and passport heading overseas on the big OE.  The possibilities of the image of the journey are endless.   Always the journey is about life itself: discovery and change; about us becoming who we are created to be.  So in the gospel story the young man approaches Jesus as the guide he needs, and he asks for instruction: which he gets.   Like most of us who ask advice, he doesn't like what he hears.  The idea of disposing of his possessions does not appeal at all.  We may catch a glimpse of the consequences.

In the Tate Gallery is a painting on this subject by Frederick Watts, called ‘For he had great possessions’ (1894).  You could Google this when you get home and study it.   The body language of the painting tells it all.  We barely see a half-profile of the young man: his head is hanging, his shoulders are slumped and he is wearing a luxurious garment made from some costly fabric.   He has asked the great question about life and the great journey it is, but he can’t quite bring himself to do what is needed.  We look at this painting and there is an overwhelming tragic sense of an opportunity lost.

Which image brings us back to why we gather in this cathedral this morning: we are a people on a journey – the journey of faith.  Our journey seems always to start with the big question – the ‘meaning of life’ question and sooner or later we have to check what gets in our way.  The issues of money and possessions are always a good reality check. If we are tight, selfish, grasping – anything of that sort – we have been warned and something is amiss.   But behind this is a deeper issue: are we still asking the ultimate question about the meaning of all this; why are we here and whom are we becoming?  Are we still working on the journey and what do we need to shed on our way?

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Pet Blessings and becoming human

Choral Evensong 27 Sunday in Ordinary Time

Some of the Junior Boys and Girls Choirs
4 October 2015

This afternoon we had the annual blessing of the animals service with the SPCA.  The Boys and Girls Cathedral Choirs led the music and there may have been about 120 people present, a large number of dogs and one brave rabbit and one (even braver?) guinea pig.  I am told there was a lamb but I missed it in the chaos! It was a good service.  There were few Cathedral people present but it is a service that brings in folk from all over Dunedin; some from different faiths and some with no particular faith at all.  The common element is that they care about animals.

That is really where I want to start the reflection this evening.  I don’t want to start from a ‘biblical position’ or a dogmatic theology basis – nothing so abstract.  I simply want to start from us and our experience.  Here goes. 

What happens to us when we care about animals?  I think caring is a process rather than a simple attitude; to care is to pay attention and as we increasingly consider our pets and discover their needs, we learn more about them and they become part of us.  So we build parts of our lives about our pets and our lives become more complicated as we make adjustments to accommodate our pets.  
Part of the congregation 2015

It’s no good saying ‘X of Y is just a dog’: for the attentive dog owner the inner reality is much more than that. Through the process of caring and companionship the owner is changed.  As the owner adapts to the needs of the dog (it might equally well be a goldfish, though I doubt that would work for me) the owner becomes more human and more humane.  Emotionally, spiritually we have started to move into another dimension: we are moving beyond ourselves and moving across species.  Our animals teach us to be human.

The emotional connection we make with our animals can teach us also to start to become more attentive to the life of the creation about us.   We become more aware of these other ways of being in the world; we become more attuned to the richness and diversity of creation.  That also changes us as humans: it should certainly make us more compassionate; deeply concerned about animal welfare; how we care for the environment; what we can do to prevent cruelty to animals and, at least, better in how we treat one another. 

Votive Candles,in remembrance of pets who have died
So when we bless the animals we are sharing in a deep spiritual connection that changes us and how we connect with the world about us.  Think of the animal or pet that you most remember and ponder how that animal may have helped you become more truly human.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

A Hard Gospel and St Francistide

A crowded Sunday this weekend with four services.  The gospel is a hard one to engage.  So many have gone through divorce somewhere in the family if not personally; the agony of dysfunctional relationships, the guilt and shame; the grief of a love gone awry ... the list just goes on ... and as we remember St Francis ... this is very much a work in progress

27th Sunday in Ordinary Time
4 October 2015

Readings:  Job: 1:1; 2:1-10; Mark 10:2-16;

Those of us of a certain generation will, I think warmly, remember the Beatles’ song ‘All you need is love’.  In retrospect we also will probably say that while we agree with the sentiment, love was never that simple and there may be points in our lives where, remembering, we might even say something like ‘Where did we go wrong’?

The past week or so we have heard of the report on Child Youth and Family and the desperate situations some of our most vulnerable people face.

Before we reflect on the gospel it is also useful to remember that we are remembering St Francis of Assisi today and of course this afternoon we have the blessing of the animals.

St Francistide is about more than how we treat the earth and all living things, it is most deeply about the power of love to shape and change us.  In his day St Francis made popular a very distinctive style of spirituality.  At a time when the religious life was associated with great austerity and asceticism, Francis talked about the power of love and how that was more effective in keeping us in a fruitful and productive way of life.

In the collection of writings known as The Little Flowers of St Francis there is the story associated with Friar Giles when another Friar asks how it is possible to keep the vow of chastity the monks have made.

A friar asked Friar Giles, saying: "Father, is not the virtue of charity greater and more excellent than that of chastity?" And Friar Giles said: "Tell me, brother, what thing in this world is there to be found more chaste than holy charity?"

So the Franciscan answer to the difficulties of life, whether religious or secular, is love; and learning to love is the work of a lifetime.  Love is always about getting past the compulsions and twists of the self, of ego and libido.  Love is always about relinquishing power over others; always about seeing the other as a person and not an object.

Think of this then as the stepping stone into the gospel this morning.  Our lord is talking about our very human failure to truly see others as persons.  Always this a failure of love – and that is why he speaks of ‘hardness of heart’.  There is a sexual ethic here but it is an ethic founded in love and our all too frequent failure to love.

Our failure to love is most powerfully expressed amongst all who are vulnerable.  One way of reading this gospel is in terms of power and powerlessness, and Jesus is speaking up for the powerless.

You will see in the gospel two groups of vulnerable people: women and children.  They are matched by two groups with power – all men – the Pharisees and the disciples.

The Pharisees want to test Jesus by asking him about divorce and they cite the law of Moses – but Jesus does not beat about the bush – and instead says that the provision for divorce was made because of our hardness of heart.  Mosaic law made it too easy to get rid of a wife.  He was speaking in a period when women and children needed the institutional protection of family and marriage to survive.

Love is the issue here.  Jesus is addressing the attitude or mind-set where someone who has the power uses it to keep people in submission or to get rid of them.  It is an ancient problem but it has a very contemporary edge to it: today – in the Family Court or Child Youth and Family, we hear of women and children who have lived with fear and violence and who have endured the most horrible abuse – inflicted by abusers who have no moral imagination or compassion.  But in his time Jesus is talking of women being thrown out of the protection and security the extended family gave – and the phrase he uses ‘hardness of heart’ is synonymous with love and the absence of love demonstrated all who feed their egos and have no moral imagination or compassion. 

The passage about the children is deeply realistic – where the disciples push the children away - Jesus rebukes them and blesses the children; he treats the children as having dignity and worth.  There is a contemporary feel to this, especially in the wake of the recent CYFs (Child Youth and Family) Report released by the Government this past week.  We hear in our own day of children suffering exclusion, demeaning behaviour, abuse, violation, enslavement, and killing.   Again children suffer from grown-ups hardness of heart, the adult’s lack of moral imagination and compassion.  

Every child needs love: we know that; the tragedy is that the failure to love blights innumerable lives.

Jesus and Francis remind us of the challenge of love and that is  what our calling as Christians is all about – to follow Christ is to learn to love.