Saturday, April 30, 2016

Easter 6 An (almost) Alien Language of Presence

Easter 6
Readings: Acts 16:9-15; John 14: 23-29;

There are times when the task of preaching can feel almost intolerable: particularly 0n those occasions when we face a familiar text and the words seem to have such a smooth and polished surface that we can find little to take hold of; it is then that the mind seems to lose traction and we feel the slippery surface of platitudes threatening to tip pulpit and preacher into the void.   What do you do when you hear such words as these?

“Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.

These are words that seem to come from beyond this world and to speak beyond this world and so there is little wonder if we find them hard for us to connect to.  In their immediate context they are spoken as words of comfort and reassurance to the disciples as Jesus prepares them for his death.  In our liturgical context as we prepare for the Feast of the Ascension, these may also be read as words of comfort and reassurance as the Church prepares for the Feast of Pentecost.  But in our immediate context, roughly two thousand years after this gospel was written, as a people who got up this morning, made breakfast and have gathered here, bringing with us our cares and the cares of the world, these words may likely sound strange and, before we may feel any trace of comfort and reassurance, these words may instead offer challenge and uncertainty.  

“Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.

Think of where these words lead us.  You could say they lead us to a cognitive melt-down as before us in the next week or so we face the sheer strangeness of the Feast of the Ascension – the literal oddity of which is for me most bizarrely commemorated in the Chapel of the Ascension in the shrine at Walsingham where, in the ceiling, are set two plastered feet!  Then fast on the heels of this is the great feast of Pentecost, the interpretation of which usually generates more heat than light; and, as if this were not enough, the following Sunday is Trinity Sunday  with that most intractable and incomprehensible doctrine.

As we feel our heads swim at this approaching tide of strangeness and incomprehensibility, these familiar but difficult words of Jesus confront us with a mysterious and almost alien language of presence. The familiar drone of the atheist and humanist buzz in the background (their shadows inhabit us all) resisting all thought of this presence.  Yet the thought persists:

“Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.

We are talking about a relationship.  The word ‘love’ expresses that – this concerns the conscious choice of our inmost self; a conscious orientation of our will; it is the choice of where we set our heart: despite our cognitive incomprehension; despite our disorientation in the face of strangeness and oddity; and despite the possibility of being wrong.

This choice is not a philosophical abstraction: this is not at all like Pascal’s Wager.  (You may remember that over three hundred years ago the mathematician Blaise Pascal (1623-62) offered what we call ‘Pascal’s Wager’: that a rational person should live as though God exists and seek to believe in God – one would lose nothing and stood to gain everything.)  No!  This is different:

“Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.

The words stretch to us across two millennia and invite us to set our hearts on Christ, even though our minds may not follow.  To do this is to choose Christ as the One we have made a choice to follow.   This is our free choice, our decision – and we make it knowing the difficulties and uncertainties – but whenever that choice is made there begins a relationship.  A ‘door’ in the self is opened and in the homely language of the Gospel ‘we (meaning the Trinity) make our home with them’. To be ‘at home’ with God changes us: over time it shapes us and forms us and ultimately transforms us. 

About the same period that Pascal was formulating his wager, the poet -priest George Herbert was writing his poem ‘The Elixer’ explaining the transforming experience of being at home with God – we have it in our hymnal (no. 583) “Teach me my God and King.”

Monday, April 25, 2016

ANZAC Thoughts - the Erasure of the Sacred

It felt odd to observe the laying up of the colours of New Zealand's Scottish Regiment in Dunedin's Toitu Otago Settler's Museum.   For most of us it is a sensible place for the Colours to be laid up - maybe behind glass and almost certainly in a carefully controlled environment where they will be splendidly maintained and easily and readily on view for the locals and curious tourists. What's to lament?

I'm thinking of the reverence and sense of the sacred that the colours hold for the military; the ritual with which they are treated - and I am remembering the occasions that those colours have been paraded and their surprisingly hefty weight laid upon the altar in the cathedral.  There have been occasions when some good folk (and probably other deans) have deplored such reverence as a glorification of war and many might well consider it a fine thing that these colours are now finally consigned to a museum to become yet another artefact among many.

Something in me is uneasy at this.   I would feel no uneasiness at a replica of the colours being lodged in a museum but the actual colours require, I think, a different arrangement. The tradition of usually laying up the colours in a church or cathedral where they would be hung to fade, thin and in time fall away seems to me to better preserve their special character, what one might describe as their 'sacredness'. They are not just an artefact to be preserved and gawked at, another item among many, but something irreplaceable, that even as it tells the story will itself also eventually fall to dust with those long gone who held its honour dear enough to die for.

At stake here is that unique sense of the sacred that the colours invoke.  When the sacred is consigned to being an object, something is lost.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Easter 5 - beads on a prayer rope

Easter 5

Readings: Acts 11.1-18; Revelation 21: 1-6; John 13: 31-35;

I propose an exercise in the imagination: a way of thinking of those 3 readings we have heard this morning.  How do they work?  How do we read them?  What are we meant to do with them? Are they there as bits of a puzzle which somehow we are to render intellectually coherent? Try to think of them as three prayer beads on a looped cord: we finger them and reflect; we roll them, thought against thought; nudging each against the other; image and silence; trying to sense what The Word is saying in the silent spaces.

Peter always strikes me as a rather unimaginative  character.  But in Acts he becomes an amazing change-maker, a man of immense character and faith.   Peter has been shaped and formed by his Jewish faith and culture and the young Christian church that is forming through the apostles is very much a Jewish community – and the big question was how to cope with those who joined the church but were not Jews.  It seems to have been table fellowship that caused the trouble – food – because the strict Jewish dietary laws very quickly showed up who did not belong.  Strangely it is Peter who crosses the boundaries and eats with the gentiles.

Oddly enough he describes it in terms of a dream that recurs three times: in which he sees animals that no Jew would eat but which God invites him to eat nonetheless. The command violates everything that Peter has been trained against and the realisation that it brings changes him and the way he sees the world.  God is more than he thought; more than he ever dreamed.  That must have been an agonizing awakening: the self you thought you were is now turned inside out and God is not what you thought or as you thought.  More than this, the future that is to be the church, turns upon a dream.

This thoughts rubs against the reading from Revelation – for however you read Revelation, it has a dreamlike quality in its images.   In fact of course Revelation radically changes how we see the world; it takes us imaginatively beyond time and reality is reconstituted.  What we thought was real is no longer; what we thought defined us, will not.  The dream language opens to us a new dimension , a multiverse in which a new heaven and earth are inaugurated and the wounds of memory find healing and the anguish of finitude is no more.

Just as Peter’s dream  changed his world, in Revelation we are given a coded glimpse of a new creation; we sense something going on within the universe in a cosmic drama – in which we are all involved.  The drama and energy of the universe, the powers involved, are terrifying should we actually grasp the reality, but the dream language insulates us from existential terror and reassures us that we are safe – secured by one who loves us and whose purposes are benign.

When we come from Revelation to the gospel we may start to breathe a sigh of relief – we are awake and in our familiar world, out of dreams and listening to the familiar words of Jesus: except we feel relieved too soon; because as we listen to Jesus our familiar world starts to feel a little strange.  He speaks of being glorified and that he is going away, somewhere we cannot come.   The boundaries  of our world start to feel fluid and uncertain and in this context we receive the new commandment – to love one another.

Is this what life is all about? Is this the real power that creates the universe?   Is this what we are here to learn “to love just as I have loved you?”  Is this what all prayer and meditation, all the disciplines of the spiritual life, the whole ascetic tradition of our faith, the quest for holiness,is about: to teach us to love – to draw us beyond the baggage of self and into the great dance of the cosmos?

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Easter 4 & A Fine Tuned Universe

A first draft for tomorrow's reflection.  Good Shepherd Sunday has often grated slightly with me but I like the icon I found for it.

Easter 4 2016

Readings: Acts 9:36-43; Rev, 7:9-17; John 10:22-30;

Last week while driving to Cromwell through the spectacular landscape of Central Otago and the ‘champagne weather’ of a glorious autumn morning, I spotted a fine looking sheep on the middle of the road.  He spotted me at the same time and immediately bolted back towards the paddocks and safety; as I sped past I glimpsed him hurling himself vainly at the shut gate through which I guess he might have strayed.  I felt a bond between us: in a similar way we too hurl ourselves at the limits of our world; we challenge our finitude; rage at the limits that beset us – of understanding, strength, health, the choices we make, the paths we don’t take or shouldn’t have taken, and so on.  Like that sheep we have moments when we struggle with our world and keep battering at our limitations.

This Fourth Sunday in Easter is known as ‘Good Shepherd Sunday’ (its gospels are selected from John 10) where Christ is known as the ‘Good Shepherd’ and humankind accordingly as ‘sheep’, whether wayward and foolish, or obedient and safe.

The context – the place and the time – for our gospel is the Jerusalem temple in winter on the Feast of the Dedication.  The Feast looks back to the Maccabean revolt (164 BCE) when the people resisted Antiochus IV of Syria, regained control of Jerusalem and purified the temple that had been defiled by pagan practices. The Jews gather about Jesus on the anniversary of this event as he strolls about that same temple.  But which opens the way into truth – the dedicated temple or Jesus himself? Has the temple become a boundary for faith? It appears that the Jewish leaders cannot see beyond the temple; and certainly that they do not recognise in Jesus the activity and person of God calling them further into him.  I keep thinking of that sheep throwing itself at the gate.

This past week I had lunch with a scientist who, carrying on from the Easter sermon where I referred to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, introduced me to some extraordinary concepts in physics.  In particular the realisation that if some of the fundamental physical constants in the universe were to vary only very slightly, the universe as we know it would not have happened.  

Physicists do not yet know how many independent physical constants there are but, to illustrate the kind of dimensionless constants physical existence depends upon – consider these…: 

·         the ratio of the strength of electromagnetism to the strength of gravity (slightly smaller only a smaller and short-lived universe.)
·         the strength of the force binding nucleons into nuclei is o.oo7; above or below that, life is impossible.
·         the density parameter: the relative importance of gravity and expansion energy – any variation from what we have and either the universe would have collapsed or no stars would have formed.

The universe seems so finely tuned that to attribute existence to mere accident seems almost absurd.   (Quoting Fred Hoyle) “the chance of obtaining even a single functioning protein by chance combination of amino acids (is equal to the likelihood of ) a star system full of blind men solving a Rubik’s cube simultaneously”.  Of course physicists debate and dispute the implications of this so-called ‘fine-tuning’ but to contemplate it is to be struck with awe at the precariousness of being in this unimaginably vast universe and no theologian can do less.  How can we speak of God in this vast context: our anthropomorphic vocabulary, metaphorical though it may be, is inadequate and draws us into banality. Physicist, theologian or poet, our efforts to imaginatively (even dimly) apprehend what is at work here is again to call to mind that sheep battering at the limits of the farm gate.

At times we surely stand alongside those Jewish leaders who demand a clear statement from Jesus and in those moments his response is still “I told you, and you do not believe.”

This is the enigma of belief and the mystery of our freedom – we choose to believe; there is no obligation or compulsion.  The question is always where do we choose to set our heart?  Amidst the great mystery of the universe, in the mystery of ourselves and who we are becoming, where do we set our heart?  

In Jesus Christ, in the gospels, in the faith the church has held, we have a bare grammar for the inexhaustible mystery of God and the gospeller urges us towards this source of life and truth as we hear Christ assure us “My sheep hear my voice.  I know them and they follow me.  I give them eternal life, and they will never perish.   No one will snatch them out of my hand.”

Remembering that sheep flinging itself uselessly against the gate, we need to decide where we set our heart and, notwithstanding all the luggage we carry as our doubts and questions, make the choice to follow Christ, the one who , despite the limitations of the metaphor, we may trust and follow as our ‘Good Shepherd’.

Easter 3: Silence on the Beach

Easter 3 - a quick reflection before the Cathedral AGM

Reading: John 21.1-19

I was figuratively ‘stopped in my tracks’ the other day when I came across a sentence from Martin Luther King where he said: “Our lives begin to end the day we keep silent about things that matter.”  

Why do we keep silent?  There is usually a multitude of reasons.  Much depends upon the context.  For example in church life a lot of ‘silence’ reflects our anxiety not to give offence; we don’t want to rock the boat or become unpopular; we don’t want to appear foolish; in some instances maybe we just don’t want to name the ‘elephant in the room’- for something just too painful, too controversial.

Now this is all relevant to this gospel this morning.  This chapter of John is fairly contentious and there is some debate about how it relates to the gospel as a whole and how it is likely to be an addition.  That debate continues …

But, for our purposes this morning we encounter a gathering of the disciples by the Sea of Tiberius.  We don’t know what they have been talking or thinking about.  All we hear is of Peter’s decision to go fishing and the agreement of the others to go with him.   For the rest, we are surrounded by silence – and it is reasonable and very human for us to wonder what that silence might have held.   Was it a comfortable and companionable silence or was it one that had within it some unexpressed  anxieties and questions?

For example, could there still be some confusion or uncertainty over the resurrection? Are the disciples still trying to get their heads around what has happened? Thomas is the one who had doubted and then acknowledged the risen Lord, having placed his fingers in the wounds; might it be that he still has questions as to what he had seen and touched?   Then what about Peter: is he still troubled by the memory of that night in the High Priest’s courtyard when, standing by the charcoal fire –three times he denied knowing Jesus?  Does the silence on the beach hold some questions and painful, shameful memories? 

The breakfast on the beach settles these issues.   Sharing the bread and the fish by the fire is the opportunity for recognition and renewed understanding the disciples needed.  

But after breakfast Jesus deals with the issue that troubles Peter: by the charcoal fire (recalling the scene from the time Peter denied him) Jesus asks Peter 3 times ‘Do you love me?’  In the gentlest way possible the painful and shameful memories are brought out into the open and dealt with by the Risen Christ.   Jesus has spoken about the things that mattered to Peter and the other disciples – and the way for the future is opened to them.