Saturday, February 13, 2016

The Wilderness

Trying to find the Wilderness this Lent?  Last week I let my wilderness be the University Book Shop where I ranged across the NZ poetry section looking for unfamiliar poets with the expectation of discerning something of the Presence stirring through others works.  Not looking for ‘believers’ you will understand, simply looking for the poetry where the Spirit speaks.  I came away with 'Gleam' by the late Sarah Broom and 'Playing God' by the poet/physician Glenn Colquhoun.

First Sunday in Lent 2016

Readings: Luke 4.1-13;

This First Sunday of Lent has made me remember the statement (attributed to Socrates) that “The unexamined life is not worth living”.  If Lent is about anything, it is about living an ‘examined life’; by which I mean to reflect on what it means to exist at all and to ponder who we are and who we are becoming.  As I say that I realise the immensity of the proposition  (after all, I am saying this in the same week that physicists have announced the discovery of
merger of two black holes
gravitational waves, ripples in the fabric of spacetime that will allow scientists to trace what happened at the initial ‘big bang’ of creation 13.8 billion years ago)!  To start to think about that and the sheer immensity of the universe – and to be ‘listening in’ for 20 milliseconds to the merger of two black holes, at a distance of 1.3 billion light years, somewhere beyond the Large Magellanic Cloud – frankly beggars thought.

Such immensity overwhelms us and the great story that science begins to decipher also overwhelms us by its strangeness, accessible only to the few that grasp the theory and its languages.  This too is surely part of the ‘examined life’ but most of us need something more accessible; a simpler form of the story that will open our mind and transport us into a space where we can recognise and re-examine our place in the vast narrative and mystery of the universe.  This is where Lent begins.

So let’s just begin with the story in the gospel this morning – the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness.  Around the world this Sunday there will be thousands of sermons and reflections on this gospel; over nearly two thousand years since this gospel was written – there will have been countless ripples of our engagement with this passage.  We come to hear this gospel against the cumulative white noise and static of all these responses.  It’s hard isn’t it?

We begin Lent with this story of a man in the wilderness.  He is alone.  There is no audience; no one about to observe him; or to approve or reprove him.  He may do as he chooses.  There are some very basic facts about his human situation: he needs sustenance; he has nothing; he is prey to deep existential questions about his being, his reality.  Nothing to live on; nothing to hold on; nothing to make sense of: here is the dilemma of every human; here we may recognise ourselves.  

(Those with a literary bent will hear the echo of King Lear in the storm on the heath (Act 3 Sc.4) when he asks “Is man no more than this? …unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor bare forked animal as thou art.”)

But to make sense of this gospel story of the man in the wilderness with nothing we need to remember another story – it is in Genesis chapter 2, the story of the first human who is placed “in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.’”  

We call this the story of The Fall. Here we recognise ourselves and our human story; our relentless capacity to ignore boundaries and limits and in the process to lose our way. Here we recognise great discoveries – gravitational waves and the like - alongside such great disasters as global warming, global financial crises, global pornography, poverty and abuse.

So we go back to that man alone in the wilderness, holding in himself our perennial human predicament: the craving for food, things and meaning.  (The tempter comes: are you hungry? turn these stones into bread; you need shelter? here are the kingdoms of the world; so you want proof of meaning? go on, test the void, I dare you!)  

The man in the garden ignored the boundaries.  The man in the wilderness let the power of evil come right up to him but said no!  For him our human predicament was a sacred trust: it is through our predicament that we learn to become human and hearts are turned to goodness, not stones to bread.

So behind us this start of Lent there are these two stories, and this is the season where we let these stories resonate in our lives: the strange, horrific but recognisably human story of the Fall and that story of the temptation in the wilderness that reverses the Fall.

Where may this take us in Lent as we seek to live the examined life and ponder news of gravitational waves beyond imagining?  The image of the wilderness is a productive place to start: it is the unfamiliar place; it could be a lonely place but think of the elements of the unfamiliar and the unexpected.  Where are the places that open us to the Spirit, what the Celts would call the ‘thin places’?

Where might your wilderness be this week?

Saturday, February 6, 2016

In Deep Water

Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time 2016

Readings: Isaiah 6:1-8; Luke 5:1-11.

There is something of a trap in the gospel this morning: I think it is the seductive ‘feel-good’ appeal of the call-story of Peter and the first disciples.  It is very easy for us to feel a bit cosy about this gospel and maybe find in Peter our model for faith and even maybe remember our own ‘call-stories’ and what we might have given up to follow Christ.  If we sense in ourselves any trace of that cosiness then we are reading wrongly – and we need to read and re-read the gospel again, and read it especially against the Old Testament and the great ‘call-story’ of Isaiah we have also just read.

This passage from Isaiah is a pivotal text.  It speaks of the experience of God, of encountering the Holy and the overwhelming sensation of utter annihilation this experience creates: ‘Woe is me! I am lost ....’  At the very moment of metaphysical terror the Seraph cauterises the Prophet’s lips, staunches his existential unravelling so that - amidst the tumult of the theophany, the noise, the thundering, the shaking and smoke of the Holy – the prophet hears God’s call and quavers ‘Here am I; send me!’

Before the Word, all speech ceases. The Holy precludes all speech: no speech about God can be anything but illusion and deceit; as Wittgenstein declared "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent." I have in mind the icon of St John the Theologian, a silencing finger pressed to his lips.  To remember that in the context of our sermon is a rather gorgeous irony, but also a salutary reminder of the limits of all speech and expression of the Holy.

By contrast with Isaiah’s theophany, Luke’s story of the call of Peter and the first disciples appears serene and almost domestic.  The scene is described in some detail and almost too easily visualised; consequently it has been the subject of artists and illustrators so that it can be hard to read this gospel without the cloying residual influence of some pious illustration affecting us.  We glimpse Christ as the teacher seated in the boat and his authority is acknowledged by Peter who calls him ‘Master’ and agrees to put out the nets again when commanded.  The result is awe-inspiring and deeply disturbing for those who have laboured fruitlessly all night: where there was no fish, now suddenly and with no natural explanation, there is an overwhelming catch that has nets breaking and an extra boat needed to avert disaster.

The experience is a theophany: the domestic scene is shattered; the serene images of country folk and simple fisherman at their nets are obliterated.  The space we call our world is invaded by God who summons this superabundance of fish and clearly commands the waters and all that inhabits them.  The orderliness of Peter’s world implodes at this realisation.  Peter crashes to his knees, calls Jesus ‘Lord’ and, reminiscent of Isaiah, is overwhelmed by his unworthiness in the presence of the Holy … ‘Woe is me, I am a man of unclean lips’ … ‘Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man.’  Yet this moment of terrifying awareness is also the moment of call and, stemming panic as the boundaries of reality shake, is a voice that echoes from the resurrection, saying “Do not be afraid”.

Where do we go from here?  I think the task of the preacher at this point is to try to see how these readings may speak to us today, this Waitangi weekend.

Isaiah surely speaks to our condition and our predicament: ‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips …”   Might we allow that to describe us?  We know well our own lapses of speech: the glibness and the shallowness of our talk; the half-truths, platitudes and self-serving put-downs of others.  Of our speech in general – well what of the political speeches of the last few days over the TPPA and all the verbal posturing we associate with Waitangi?   How do we rate such speech in our hearts?  Isaiah strikes home … again: “ I live among a people of unclean lips.”

But there is something more, it is in the gospel where Jesus says ‘Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.’ 

  • First there is an irony, for the ones who cast the nets are the ones who are themselves ‘netted’ in this encounter with Jesus – and, as the writer of Hebrews reminds us, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb.10:31).
  • But it is the mention of the ‘deep water’ that has sat with me over this week. The mention of ‘deep waters’ runs through the Old Testament as an image of disaster and of saving grace: in Isaiah (43:2) we hear the promise “When you go through deep waters, I will be with you.” In 2 Samuel (22:17) the image recurs again, where we hear “He reached down from on high and took hold of me; he drew me out of deep waters.” 

The question I want to ask is: where are the deep waters in your life?  The suggestions is, whatever those ‘waters’ – work, relationship, whatever – that is the place in which we are liable to encounter God.  I’d even speculate further about the ‘deep water’ and our national life – where is the deep water for us as a nation?  What are the issues that we should be addressing but keep avoiding? What will we discover in the deep water?

Friday, February 5, 2016

Choral Evensong and Waitangi Day Collect

Choral Evensong is almost timeless in its stretching of the soul toward the Holy as word and music trace a path that (as Keats' might have put it,) "dost tease us out of thought/ as doth eternity".  Well, that's a way of describing what Evensong does.

Tourists came in during the service, and went, and stayed, and lingered afterwards - not just the wanderers with a camera, but many who heard and felt something of eternity in the liturgy and cherished it.  At one point there would have been about 30+ strangers in the pews.  One recalls the naysayers who dismiss Cathedral music, liturgy and spirituality as irrelevant to the 'modern world' - they could not be more wrong.

The TPPA protests in Auckland earlier in the day figured in our prayers - as did my Waitangi collect below, remembering that we are bracing ourselves for our 'national day' and that we await it with anything but certainty and unity ...

Source of all joy, you rejoice in your creation:
Look upon our nation at this time
As we prepare for Waitangi Day,
And brace for unrest and disputation;
Open our hearts and minds to be grateful
For all that is good in our common life,
And grant us a greater willingness to
Strive for the good of all,
Through Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you,

Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

'This Is What Democracy Looks Like'

The TPPA protests have been buzzing on my IPhone with live feed of what's happening in Auckland.   There are no surprises: I guess we knew it would be something like this.  The protestors seem well organised and clearly include contingents from various organisations that have done this before.  

Some of the chants are interesting: 
'This what democracy looks like', caught my attention particularly. 
The saddest chant was directed at the police: "Army of the Rich, Enemy of the Poor'. Auckland has of course seen this (and far worse) before - and historians may mention the Queen Street Riots of 1932.

Yet we are a small country, and the divisions and the frustrations aroused by the TPPA, and not least the sentiments of the chants, should urge us to take stock of what is happening to us as a people.