Monday, March 28, 2016

Easter Monday

Easter Monday and there are some pieces of work that need to be cleared today - not the least being the Dean's Report for the Cathedral AGM (10 April), as I write I am listening to the broadcast of the Cathedral Easter Service, pre-recorded on Palm Sunday afternoon, the broadcast can be heard if one uses the information below:

It feels a little odd, after this hectic week, to feel the impact of technology subverting space and time and at the end of Holy Week to be remembering our anticipation of it over a week ago.  Also to hear the broadcast will, I expect, throw up insights about our liturgical workings - we always learn ...

It has been a good Easter with good attendance at all services.  Easter Day Choral Service was crowded with visitors and a startling range of ethnicities.  Cathedral people organised an Easter Egg hunt for the children present - one section for pre-schoolers and another for the older children (I would never have thought of that astute niche management!).

Easter Day Choral Evensong - I enjoyed the Samuel Wesley anthem but felt the phrase 'the word of the Lord endureth forever' to grate slightly against that extraordinary second lesson from 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 where Paul cites the tradition of the resurrection witnesses and then introduces his own place in the tradition 'the least of the apostles' only to justify himself with the argument that he worked harder than them all.  It's an awkward passage and I at least feel a dissonance within it.  Is that only me?  Accordingly I went quite off the cuff and commented on how the word of the Lord that endureth for ever is filtered through human sources and the Paul passage seemed to me to be a good example of that (another of my occasional squabbles with Paul)!

The rest of the brief homily was really a domestic Cathedral reflection on the journey we have shared this past week ...

At Choral Evensong on Easter Day in the Cathedral it is probably fair to say that (at least) Choir and clergy may feel a certain tiredness – and while I don’t wish any of you to be tired, I admit I really hope that I am not just speaking for myself!

The fact is that if we have followed the Great Three Days (from Maundy Thursday through to Easter Day) we have traced a very intense and demanding course.  Even those singers who may think themselves tolerably immured from the challenges of faith may respond to the elements of these days.  

The Three Days are less a conventional call on the mind than a complex if familiar story that is enacted mainly through images and symbols – be it the stripping of a church or the darkness of Tenebrae, or the powerful images of the Easter Vigil.  To have come to Choral Evensong through and after all this is to acknowledge a journey that has likely been physically as well as spiritually and emotionally demanding.  It is necessary and wise that after such intensity the choir breaks for a brief recess.

For a Cathedral the music is the voice that reaches past the mind and that lifts bare text and images to take us beyond ourselves.  There are points where the life of the Spirit breaks through. You likely remember Vanstone’s poem ‘Morning Glory’ and how he layers fragments of human awareness and experience to signal the moments of gift, what he calls God’s ‘gifts of love to mind and sense’.

Morning glory, starlit sky, Leaves in springtime, swallows' flight, Autumn gales, tremendous seas, Sounds and scents of summer night;
Soaring music, tow'ring words, Art's perfection, scholar's truth, Joy supreme of human love, Memory's treasure, grace of youth;
Open, Lord, are these, Thy gifts, Gifts of love to mind and sense; Hidden is love's agony, Love's endeavour, love's expense.

At the end of a demanding Easter, it is right for our awareness of the gifts of mind and sense to be heightened; and to be more deeply grounded in the divine mystery that reaches us  so powerfully in such diverse ways.  Here is love …

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Easter: The Unpredictability of Matter

For those who would like to follow the broadcast of this service (pre-recorded on Palm Sunday afternoon) with the superb music - it can be found at the following reference:

Something that always impresses me about the bible accounts of the discovery of the empty tomb and the first encounters with the risen Christ is the sense of chaos, disorder and incomprehension that the first three gospels record.  In each gospel those who attend the empty tomb are completely unprepared for what they discover.  In no gospel do they find what they expect. Each gospel nuances the story in its own way while sharing common elements – angels, fear, the empty tomb, the mention of Galilee.  All the witnesses are instructed to tell the apostles – and in Matthew they obey; in Mark, they are too afraid; while in Luke they are disbelieved by the apostles and we hear “these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.”   

In each account we sense the contradictory energies of life as we know it, and in each gospel there is waywardness, an embedded uncertainty as the witnesses encounter something utterly beyond their comprehension and experience – something that nobody counted on.

We like to think that the world is composed of things that we can count on.  We act as if it is: after all we expect the sun to set in the evening and to rise in the morning.  That seems to work for us in the macroworld that we know, where we get by with probability and predictability; but in the microworld of subatomic particles it does not.  For about 100 years scientists have acknowledged  that within the very structures of matter there is uncertainty – an understanding quantum theory named as the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle – that in the world of matter there are processes and outcomes that are not fixed or predetermined and that we cannot count on.

It seems a paradox: how is it that we can operate with predictability in the visible material world, but not in the invisible subatomic world?  Is God in control or not?  Or can we ask the question differently, perhaps something like this: is uncertainty the cost of freedom?   Might God act by influencing through love rather by compulsion?  Is God’s activity concealed within the hidden looseness of unfolding quantum processes?   In the open structures of matter is it love that ‘loads the dice’ to create stability; bring order out of chaos; good out of evil?   The dark before the resurrection holds this question.

In John’s gospel the discovery of the empty tomb is imbued with a strong sense of chaos and uncertainty.  So much takes place in the darkness – not just the darkness of the night but a darkness of unfaith and incomprehension.  So we follow Mary Magdalene through the dark to the tomb and her discovery the stone has been rolled away from the entrance.  The immediate effect is chaotic: and we follow a flurry of movements as the inner circle of Jesus’ followers are alerted and struggle to comprehend what has happened.

Mary remains at the tomb and, although uncomprehending and confused (after all she makes no sense of the angels or the resurrected Jesus, whom she mistakes for the gardener) there she is confronted by a new reality.  Jesus names her and as she recognises him so she also discovers that she cannot relate to him as before – something has changed – and she may no longer cling to him as ‘teacher’ but now must know him as ‘The Lord’.  That is what she tells the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’.

This is not what Mary expected.  She had expected to retrieve a corpse.   Instead the probable and predictable have taken a different slant and the body of the man she saw die on the cross is now transformed in the risen body of The Lord. 

In the death and resurrection of Jesus we catch a glimpse of God working within the precariousness and vulnerability of a world where there is freedom to choose for good or ill, and where matter itself is unpredictable.   The risen Lord reveals the power that sustains the universe and brings order out of chaos and good out of evil.  At Easter we always bring with us our bitter knowledge of vulnerability, loss and pain; and in the Risen Christ we encounter the source and ground of all our hope.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Good Friday at the Cathedral with Grahame Greene

A Baptist theologian friend used to read Graham Greene’s novel Monsignor Quixote on Good Friday and, when possible, also watch the DVD of the film with Alec Guinness in the part of the priest ‘Monsignor Quixote’  and the redoubtable Leo McKern as his wonderful ‘Sancho’, the Communist Mayor.  

I think my friend would enjoy the Three Hours at the Cathedral this Good Friday.  

Literature enthusiasts will recognise Cervante’s  romance Don Quixote as the vehicle for Greene’s work and catch echoes of Giovanni Guarreschi’s Don Camillo fictions – but with the lightest of touches Greene shows Christian faith as the most romantic and daring of endeavours and boldly invites all believers  to explore the ‘windmills’, doubts and uncertainties essential to the journey of faith.

Since Greene’s novel will be part of the meditations in the Three Hours this Good Friday, any who might come are encouraged to read the book and/or watch the DVD beforehand but I will try to design the meditations to allow for those who will come without anypreparation.

Some other voices would be good: if there are any with an interest in drama who would like to help read parts of the text in the Three Hours, the Dean would like them to contact him (0274304737).

Monday, March 14, 2016

And Satan entered into Judas

Choral Evensong Passion Sunday 2016

Readings: 2 Chronicles 35. 1-6, 10-16; Luke 22. 1-13;

We call this Sunday, falling the week before Palm Sunday and Holy Week, ‘Passion Sunday’ and we can describe the next two weeks as ‘Passiontide’.  I find the phrase “Passion Sunday” helpful because it suggests to me an intense focus of intention, a focus of mind and heart.  This is a priming preparation for us before we enter the strange intensity of Holy Week and the Great Three Days of Easter.

The passage from Chronicles recounts the Passover as it was celebrated by King Josiah of Judah who had resolutely turned his kingdom back to faith.  He had torn down the structures associated with the pagan cults and had repaired the temple (which had fallen into disrepair badly after years of little use) and in the course of the restorations had discovered an old scroll of the Torah.  This was a major discovery and quickened Josiah’s reforms.  So in the repaired temple we find a Passover again being celebrated in Jerusalem and the great story of God’s covenant with his people is relived; the story of their deliverance from Egypt is again rehearsed. 

This however a story of loss and rediscovery, but the thread of brokenness runs through it; even as one celebrates Josiah’s reforms and the repair of the temple, there is an unspoken question: how long will this last?  A different king … human nature being what it is …

Luke’s gospel takes us to another Passover and the preparations for the meal – but here we are seeing the groundwork for a new story, a new temple and a new offering – shortly Jesus will be be understood as the true offering of the Passover and his body will replace the temple. God is doing something very new here; something unimaginably bold.  The story is ironic: Jesus knows what is to happen – the disciples may be directed to make preparations but the event is moving out of their hands.

The dramatic centre of this narrative fragment is Judas.  

We are told simply and without explanation “Then Satan entered into Judas called Iscariot”.  The way it is told here, the betrayal seems motiveless.  Does evil need a motive?  As so often happens in life, we attempt to make sense of what something that resists understanding.  

What drove Judas?  Were there circumstances that might make his betrayal understandable? Possibly – but then again, maybe not.  

Can we understand malevolence?  At times we may sense a capacity for darkness in ourselves but is that a mere shadow of something more … something more than we would ever wish to imagine or confront? Shakespeare’s King Lear raged at it, helpless; Auschwitz and the killing fields of Cambodia and the Balkans press the question.  

The Christ still  walks on toward the upper room and the Passover meal.

Commonwealth Sunday - thinking about an inclusive society

It was a fine service today with a splendid turnout from university colleges and senior students from our High Schools - so many talented youth alongside the much older recipients of Royal Honours was a moving sight.  The Queen's Message addressed the subject of inclusiveness - and the address below was an attempt to engage the question.

Commonwealth Sunday 13 March 2016

In her message today, Her Majesty the Queen focuses on the theme of ‘An Inclusive Commonwealth’ and urges us to give it practical effect  by “contributing collectively to positive global change” and “by supporting those in need and those who feel excluded in all walks of life.”

Westminster Abbey - during the final hymn
The very name ‘Commonwealth’ carries connotations of inclusiveness and the ‘common good’: the word ‘common’ means everyone, and is inclusive; while ‘wealth’ or its origin in the older word ‘weal’ designates prosperity and well-being.   The thought of a commonwealth or a common weal holds a fundamental realization about our humanity – that in our life together is our strength and our well-being.  

In this realisation the notion of inclusiveness underscores the interests that we all have in common and that we all should build upon.

As our Queen directs our attention to the great benefits of shaping an inclusive society she has also very wisely reminded us of those are in need and of those who feel excluded.  It is worthwhile to remember how often in our world we are not inclusive.

For example the inequitable global distribution of wealth: in recent years it has been pointed out many times that 99% of the world’s wealth is owned and controlled by about 1% of the world’s population.  However that statistic is interpreted, it does not support the notion of inclusion and certainly does not work for the common good.  While this is a global problem the Commonwealth is certainly part of it.

There is the question of how may we talk of inclusion in a globalised economy? 

  • When we saw the Hillside engineering workshops closed down in Dunedin a few years ago, the city and the nation lost a skilled workforce and a resource; instead locomotive stock were purchased from China. However one may explain the decision of the government of the time, the people of Dunedin almost certainly did not feel that to be a decision which included them or their interests. 
  • The negotiations for Free Trade Agreements, most recently the TPPA, have raised significant concerns about equity, justice, transparency and the common good. Many have felt excluded from what were perceived as secret deals between governments and with multinationals. It has been claimed that these agreements will grow markets and create jobs and opportunities; one hopes that will be the case. Another scenario might be exactly the opposite and that, in either case, wealth will be increased for the 1% while the 99% will continue to become even more marginalised in wealth and power. 
  • Housing Markets: we cannot any longer think or speak of housing as an inclusive reality for all New Zealanders. 

The notion of inclusiveness as a value has been singularly absent in some aspects of European political life and has raised questions and concerns that have touched many Commonwealth partners.  

  • The European Union was punitive and not at all inclusive in its approach to the Greek financial crisis; the way it was handled has left many with real questions about how the European Union can work for the common good.

  • Now in Europe there is the refugee crisis that in, the words of some observers, shows Europe staring into a moral abyss.  Borders are closed and states will be paid to keep refugees from Europe.   But this is not just in Europe – one Commonwealth nation is paying neighbouring states to keep its shores clear of refugees/migrants.  There can be no greater contradiction to our belief in inclusiveness than to be so zealous in keeping people out.

I will admit that in a world so globalised and so technologically inter-connected through social media it seems strangely contradictory to exclude people; looking back to the cultural roots of the Christian faith that has formed the template of our moral values, such exclusion seems to deny our common humanity.  

As the famous Dean of that old St Paul’s Cathedral, John Donne, wrote in one famous meditation (on death):
No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man's death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

Can we have that kind of inclusive vision; that moral (and Christian) imagination which says ‘I am involved in mankind’ and that whatever diminishes the lives of others also diminishes us?

To be an inclusive commonwealth is a noble aspiration and a real challenge.  Her Majesty has rightly challenged us to consider what that aspiration means and may entail in a very complex world. 

Monday, March 7, 2016

Jonah and the Whale

Choral Evensong 14.2.2016

Lent 2

Readings: Jonah 3

I am pleased that one of the passages set for this evening is from Jonah, one of the OT books that I really enjoy – it is brief but everything is finely focussed in a highly artistic literary structure.  I can remind you of the story: God commands Jonah to prophesy judgement to Nineveh but he runs away to sea, is swallowed by a sea creature and after repenting his ways, is spewed up and finds himself again on dry land: that forms the first two chapters.  

The second two Chapters, show Jonah again called to judge Nineveh; this time he does as ordered and awaits Nineveh’s doom – except Nineveh repents and God relents; this angers Jonah who sulks outside the city while God appoints a plant to give him shade and then appoints a worm to destroy the plant.  Jonah complains and God questions Jonah’s case.

The last chapter of Jonah is critical:  in Jonah’s displeasure we recognise something of the wilfulness of human nature and we catch echoes of a view of God that we will recognise in the New Testament.  So God relents and does not punish Nineveh … and as for Jonah … well he indulges in a monstrous sulk ... 

But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, ‘O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.’

Jonah is a delight to read.  Literary labels such as satire, parody and irony are used to describe it.   However one reads Jonah, the book clearly presents us something about God – we encounter a God whose compassion is boundless, who surprises us and who responds to the slightest sign of a move in the right direction.

To read this story is also to be reminded of the limits of theology.  Theology is first of all a story and to grasp that fact is also to understand that God is beyond all our theories, constructions and illusions.  At our best, we tell our stories – but these are gestures, often inspired gestures, made as it were in the dark – pointing us beyond where words can take us.

Jacob's Dream

The usual brief Evensong reflection - Jacob irritates!

Choral Evensong Lent 3

Genesis 28.10-19

The gospel set for the Eucharist this morning used the parable of the fig tree (Luke 13.1-9) and how a fruitless tree was given a further year and much care to give it a chance of bearing fruit.  It raised the question of ‘fruitful living’ – an appropriate consideration for Lent but an awkward pun.

The reading this evening from Genesis puts the question differently as we are introduced to one of the Old Testaments most dodgy patriarchs, Jacob.  Jacob is the sort of character who can really set your teeth on edge: he is a real ‘Mummy’s’ boy; cosseted, always out for the main chance – cunning, an entrepreneur – until he goes too far; he resorts to fraud to steal his father’s blessing, and has to run away.

This evening we meet Jacob ‘on the run’.  Here is someone who seems to be condemned to a fruitless life – he is homeless, landless, kinless and hunted.  Night forces him to stop running and make camp; we may imagine that it is with a troubled mind that he finally falls asleep – and so we read of the most extraordinary and possibly most famous of dreams – the dream that causes Jacob when he awakes to say ‘Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it.’

At the end of his tether and without any expectations, Jacob has a vision of the closeness of God and the purpose of God.  He is given a glimpse of a fruitful life:  his descendants will be ‘like the dust of the earth’ and all the families of the earth will be blessed in him and his offspring.

In the darkness and the fear, God has been present to Jacob.  From that experiences Jacob rises, a different man. May we see in him the sign of something at last starting to bear fruit? 

Listening to Paul

Choral Evensong is primarily a service of music and reflection - but our practice here is to have a short reflection (about 400 words) to encourage some thinking, even disagreement.  This evening the second epistle from Paul to Timothy triggered some thoughts.  

Lent 4 Choral Evensong 2016

2 Timothy 4.1-18

I am trying to listen to Paul but I am not finding it easy.  You never get to have a conversation with him – he holds the floor and talks at you, issuing orders, firing instructions, verbs rattling like a nail gun: “proclaim, persist, convince, rebuke, encourage, be sober, endure, suffer, evangelise…” We have of course been accustomed to listen respectfully to him – his voice is sanctified as scripture – and he is undoubtedly a hero of the faith (what would the New Testament be without him?) – but even given all that, are there moments when we (in thought at least) raise our eyebrows and feel the tug of a mental reservation?

Of course, one understands your sense of urgency: you believed the world was ending and Christ returning – imminently.  In the manner of a ship’s commander, with the vessel sinking, there was no time for nuanced theology or elaborate pastoral guidance; everything was necessarily short, sharp and in summary form.   After all, the world was coming to an end … but you got that wrong didn’t you?  The time scale was much greater than you had allowed for (see Psalm 90.4 and 2 Peter 3:8).  Is it just possible that you might have got some other things wrong as well?

So I find that I not only struggle with what you say, I find myself just disagreeing.  After all, this : “proclaim, persist, convince, rebuke, encourage, be sober, endure, suffer, evangelise…” sounds remarkably like a sales pitch and a program for talking the opposition into the ground, overwhelming everyone by the flow of words and argument.  Is that really what this is all about?  I watch Donald Trump, I also watch the tele-evangelists, ours is a time when we have become word-weary and suspicious of the media and of belief: how would you speak in our time? 

The world has changed Paul, how would you speak to the life of the mind today?  Would you engage the arts and sciences as you did on Mars Hill (Acts 17.22-31)?  By the way, I think you’d need the internet.)  Science is so much more complex now and changing almost daily.

How would you manage differences of opinion?  What about other faiths? Is God more than tribal allegiances and formulations?  Is God more than you allow for?

Just one other thing Paul: I have never heard you instruct Timothy or anyone else to listen?  Do you listen Paul?

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Lent 4: A Father and two Brothers

Lent 4 2016
Reading: Luke 15: 1-3, 11b-32 (and Genesis 27-35)

This is possibly the most famous of all the parables and every time I come to it I find something new.  I think the phrase that has been touching me this week is that associated with the younger son in his poverty  “… when he came to himself.”   Behind that phrase I find in myself the question “who am I?”  Where is my true self?   What is it?  Embedded in those questions is a great and deep sense of a continual question as one progresses through life – “Who am I becoming?”  Who is the self that is emerging through the fears, the challenges, and all the rich and often troubling stuff of life?

I always come to this parable with a sense of recognition – I find in myself all the characters of this tale:  the prodigal, the Father and the elder son.  I  suspect we all have some idea what it is to mess up like the prodigal; to love like the Father – and risk being indulgent (no tough love here!); and to feel what it is like to be unappreciated and treated unjustly, like the elder brother.

Maybe I also come to this parable with some irritation: there is part of me that wants to argue with the parable and, especially, argue with the Father; I think I want to suggest that he has some responsibility in this domestic shambles!  Well – did he not know what his younger son was like?  What did he think he was going to do with the inheritance?   Even as I hear myself voicing the complaint, I know it is absurd – life is like this.

I also come to this parable with a sense that it echoes another and older story – the story of Jacob, his brother Esau and their father Isaac: a father and two sons!  Jacob is the most disreputable of the patriarchs – he is a fraudster and when he tricks his father and gets the elder son’s birthright he runs from Esau’s wrath.  Homeless, frightened and on the run something happens: he dreams of a ladder to heaven and of angels coming hither and thither – and God appears to him and promises him a future.  In the morning he arises a changed man.

So it seems to me that this parable of the prodigal son is, like the story of Jacob, the story of Israel.  Jesus tells his Jewish listeners their story: they are a people who have received grace and gifts from God but seem unwilling to extend that generosity to strangers and gentiles.  In telling the story this way, Jesus opens up a more expansive view of God and calls Israel back to its true identity as the people of the promise.

To read this parable in Lent is to hear that call back to our true selves.  We might have been estranged from our true selves for so long that we are confused at the thought of the truth about ourselves.   We should not be.  A moment’s glance at the confession we say in the liturgy should remind us of the failings we’d rather the world never heard about; and remind us that the highly edited version of ourselves that we present to the world is far from the whole story.  So Lent is a time when, with the aid of this parable, we have a chance to review our journey of faith and, in the words of the parable, “come to ourselves”.

I hope most of us will remember moments in our lives when we have said ‘sorry’ just to ourselves or maybe to God.  Just a moment when we have realised how selfish, foolish or unloving we have been and we are ashamed of ourselves.  Those are the moments when we ‘come to ourselves’.

If this is something you would like to tackle in some depth and make some progress in – I commend to you the form of private confession on page 750 of the New Zealand Prayer Book.  It is an ancient practice and most helpful to some, especially as we seek to ‘come to ourselves.’

In this same spirit is the observation by the Orthodox spiritual writer, the late Anthony Bloom:
“We must try to discover the real person we are, otherwise we cannot encounter the Lord in truth.  From time to time something authentic shows through: in moments when we are carried away by such joy that we forget who might be looking at us … when we are unself-conscious in moments of extreme pain … or when we have a deep sense of sadness or wonder.  At these moments we see something of the true person that we are.  But no sooner have we seen than we often turn away because we do not want to confront this person face to face … Nevertheless this is the only real person there is in us.

-Anthony Bloom 1914-2003

Courage to Pray

Friday, March 4, 2016

Euthanasia: A humanist solution to a humanist dilemma?

It is taking quite a bit of time to prepare, but soon after Easter the Cathedral will be helping to host a series of speakers on the subject of Euthanasia.  This is hardly an easy subject to speak about and one that inevitably attracts strong views pro and con.  The aim of the series is not to adopt or argue for any particular position on the subject but to help all who may be concerned become better informed. The image below is one I just grabbed off the Web but there could as well be others expressing a different view.

The Web is saturated with articles on Euthanasia but recently one particular essay in the New Yorker June 22, 2015, by Rachel Aviv, caught my attention.

Aviv wrote on the use of euthanasia in Belgium: her essay 'The Death Treatment' focussed on a particular case of a depressed woman, Godeliever de Troyer, who had been euthanased and whose family were only informed afterwards.  She writes with a journalist's ear and eye for the sensational phrase or the telling detail.  She quotes Dirk De Wachter (Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Leuven and the president of the ethics commission for the university's psychiatric centre) who believes Belgium's approach to suicide reflects a crisis of nihilism created by the rapid secularisation of Flemish culture in the past thirty years and that euthanasia became a humanist solution to a humanist dilemma."What is life worth when there is no God?"   "What is life worth when I am not successful?"

Aviv particularly focuses on the prominent role of Wim Distelmans (an oncologist and professor of palliative medicine at the Free University of Brussels) as a proponent of the 2002 legislation in Belgium and an active advocate and practitioner of euthanasia.  I found it extraordinary to learn that he had taken 70 medical professionals and scholars on a 'study trip' to Auschwitz, claiming that "for those who are constantly confronted with existential pain and questions about the meaning of life" Auschwitz is an "inspiring place to contemplate these issues."

In the light of that attitude all commentary seems superfluous!

The article is certainly worth reading. It can be sourced below:

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Look at all that pain - WHY? Lent 3

No answer to the big questions but we need to keep asking them ...

Lent 3 2016

Reading: Luke 13.1-9

We see it all the time on the television news:  some hostages are taken at random by a terrorist group and summarily killed; or a group of people on holiday are killed by sudden accident – their bus crashes or a building is rocked by an earthquake and falls on them.  These appear to be arbitrary or capricious events that could happen to anyone: on the one hand indiscriminate terror, on the other hand natural disaster.  There is no process of selection or justice that governs such events, the victims are just that, victims: the good and the bad, innocent and guilty, all suffer alike.  We protest at such things but we cannot prevent them – we inhabit a world where this happens.

We know this to be true.  We don’t like to think of it or be reminded of it.  Secretly perhaps we reserve a thought in the back of our minds that such mishaps will not befall us; that we are privileged by God – and under special protection.  Such casual thinking on our part raises real questions about how we imagine God to act and how we understand prayer to work.

With that caution in mind, why we may ask is Jesus, in the first half of this gospel, telling us the obvious about the unexpectedness of death?  Is it really because he is on his way to Jerusalem?  On his way to the place where terrible things happen?  Is he reminding them and us that this is the world we live in and we have to be prepared: “unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”

Is this one of those moments of truth telling when Jesus urges his hearers to shred away the illusions they daily live by (i.e. it won’t happen to me or at least not yet) and realise that what we seek to ignore or forget is inevitable – and we need to be ready for it - now.  The word ‘repent’ is about a ‘change of mind’, changing how we think – abandoning illusion and living in the full consciousness of our mortality and in openness toward God: illusory living is replaced by intentional living.

So what about this parable of the fig tree?   Why does Luke locate the parable in the context of his journey towards Jerusalem?  The story invites our interpretation and we may ponder who/what fits the parts of the landowner, the gardener – possibly even the fig tree.  The owner of the vineyard is usually read as representing God.  Is Jerusalem possibly the fig tree: the city living on borrowed time, never living up to its high destiny?  Most typically we have tended to read in the fig tree the story of our lives: that we are created to live fruitful lives but tend to serve only ourselves – and in that sense are fruitless.

The point of the parable is that the fruitless tree is given a respite from judgement, and given the opportunity to do better.  We have all known such moments in our lives and sensed again a grace and hope in our living.  We have all known moments when we needed a chance to start again; the well-known parable we know as The Prodigal Son engages with something of that experience.

But here is the fig tree and the gardener has got it another year in which to start to produce results and we hear of the plans to dig it and dung it – and give it every opportunity to prosper.

That leaves us with a question – pondering this gardener digging in the manure about the fig tree – what are the things in our lives that give us an opportunity to live fruitfully.  That is worth taking some time and using some imagination to consider.  We might easily enough recognise where we have been blessed or fortunate and consider how such things should be used for a common good.  However what about those things that cause us grief, sorrow or hardship?  Can they also produce some good in us? For example, might adversity produce compassion?  It doesn't always - but might this just be possible?

How might we see the circumstances of our lives, whether favourable or not so favourable, as opportunities for fruitfulness in our living?

In this season of Lent as we review our Christian living, this parable reminds us of the seriousness, the urgency of our Christian calling.  This parable invites us to ask questions.  At the very least it warns us that we are not to live in illusion; we are not to procrastinate; we are to live fruitfully and be ready in the midst of our living to be held to account.

Lament Jerusalem!

I am way behind with the blog and the sermons,but here is the text of the Lent 2 reflection as I tried to connect the gospel with the baptism.

Lent 2 2016

Readings: Luke 13: 31-35;

Our processional hymn this morning followed the baptism (of Oliver and Jaxon) with the simple words, ‘I want to walk as a child of the light, I want to follow Jesus’.  Those words are a statement of  intention; they are a statement of  where we have set our hearts, a statement about the sort of person we wish to be and how this is all going to happen – ‘I want to follow Jesus’.  The Christian life is ultimately very simple – it is to follow Jesus.  We spend our lives learning that and trying to live it.
Now please look at the refrain of the hymn – it uses the language of poetry – metaphor and symbol to talk about the Jesus we follow.
In him there is no darkness at all;
the night and the day are both alike.
The Lamb is the light of the city of God;
Shine in my heart, Lord Jesus.

In our Lenten studies a week ago, we were directed to think of God in terms of light; the source of the light of creation; one who is light itself.  We catch echoes of that in this refrain. We also hear of Jesus as ‘the Lamb who is the light of the city of God’ – not meaning the earthly Jerusalem but something beyond the envelope of space and time as we know them – what the writer in the book of Revelation called the New Jerusalem.  Thinking of this great thought the refrain then ends with a prayer, bare and simple, “Shine in my heart Lord Jesus”.

That can be our prayer through this Lent, I can’t think of better: “Shine in my heart Lord Jesus.”

‘The city of God’, Jerusalem: just the name, the word, sets us off thinking, or at least reacting.  I can think of no other city in the world that has such a powerful hold on our imagination.  It has prompted the most unholy wars, feuds, divisions, Blake’s great poem of that name, and Parry’s hymn setting of the poem - sung by Women’s Institutes and at the Last night of the Proms – Jerusalem!

This is the second Sunday of Lent.  You of course know that is the season when we review how we follow Jesus.  In the gospel for today we see Jesus on his way to Jerusalem but notice how he talks about it: just the mention of the city provokes the deepest sadness and lament. This is the city that had such promise and hope; the place that was to be the city of God – but instead it has turned out to be the place “that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it.”  What should have been a place of light has become instead a place of darkness where the messengers of God are killed.

Mosaic, Dominus Flavet Church, Mount of Olives
In this gospel passage we see Jesus as light in the darkness – he exorcises demons, heals the sick.  He has aroused curiosity and stirred up the people about him. But note, his intention is to go to Jerusalem – and the political and religious powers in Jerusalem do not want him anywhere near the place.  Jerusalem is the spiritual centre for all the Jews, if Jesus comes, there will be trouble.

No wonder the Pharisees try to prevent him.  They pretend it is for his welfare (alleging Herod wanted to kill him) – but they are not looking out for Jesus; it makes better sense to read what they say as blatant hypocrisy; they are threatened by Jesus.  What follows when Jesus reaches Jerusalem is at one level a very human story of malice, envy, deceit and cruelty; and, at a far deeper level than we ever grasp, it is also the story of the love of God reaching into our finite time and space to draw us into union with him.

This is the story we follow through this Lent.  To follow this story is also to pray, “Shine in my heart, Lord Jesus.”