Thursday, October 20, 2016

Jeremiah - a prophet for our times

The text of a sermon delivered a few weeks ago is presented out of sequence, mainly because it is relevant to challenges the diocese faces and the questions that are being asked of us all.

27th Sunday in Ordinary Time C


Jeremiah is surely the prophet for our times: he looks around him at what had been the glory of Jerusalem and weeps.  He laments the dismantling of the world he had known.  He laments the departure of the temple; the passing of the great religious festivals and of the crowds that used to come.  The whole social order, the glue that bound society together, no longer exists.   Where power, influence and position had once seemed assured; where one’s place and role in society had been clear – that is no longer the case.   The world now looks strange, confusing and frightening.

Jeremiah Icon
You could truly say that we are in similar times.  The changes experienced in New Zealand over the last few decades have made the country almost unrecognisable to those who knew this country and were formed by it in, say the 1950s.  Full employment, superb social welfare and social security, world class and free education, house-ownership a genuinely common and achievable aspiration; a very even social structure with few extremes: anyone who remembers such things fondly and hankers after them still may look around our present society and wonder and weep.

Or we could take another approach – and it is just possible that some may remember the days when going to church was the norm and just about everyone did.  Some people will remember when this Cathedral was full and the Christian faith was affirmed as the norm.  We inhabit a very different time now: Christianity is on the margins of society, not at the centre; we are in a time when denominations proliferate and fragment; house churches and alternatives to church appear; new churches are planted but the numbers of committed faithful declines; it is common now to talk about the demise of institutional religion and we look toward an ever more uncertain future where there are no answers and no notion at all as to what the future church may be like.

So we may like Jeremiah lament for the good times that are past as we all try and make sense of the present and the extraordinary challenges it presents.  But the truth is that Jeremiah has been in our predicament – he has seen the order of the world change – and while he laments he know that God is in this movement of history and this upheaval of culture: while his predicament troubles him, his hope in God endures.

Lamentations 3:19-263:19 The thought of my affliction and my homelessness is wormwood and gall!

3:20 My soul continually thinks of it and is bowed down within me.

3:21 But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope:

3:22 The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases, his mercies never come to an end;

3:23 they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.

3:24 "The LORD is my portion," says my soul, "therefore I will hope in him."

3:25 The LORD is good to those who wait for him, to the soul that seeks him.

3:26 It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD.

The gospel talks about faith and the mustard seed – and I wonder how that connects with what we may learn from Jeremiah and the troubled situation of our times.  At the very heart of the gospels is that verse from John: “Truly, truly I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”   (John 12:24)

Embedded here is the principle of change and transformation so basic to the gospels   A wise man has noted how it was the life of seeds that informs our religious vision.

“What man saw in the grain, what he learnt when dealing with it, what he was taught by the example of seeds changing their form when they are in the ground, that was the decisive lesson … One of the main roots of soteriological optimism was the belief of prehistoric, agricultural mysticism that the dead, like seeds underground, can return to life in a different form.”   (Mircea Eliade   1907-1986  The Myth Of Eternal Return)

The Church has experienced much change over its nearly 2,000 years of existence. Yet somehow, it has adapted. In fact, one might say that it has reinvented itself many times over. Each of these reinventions has been, at least in part, a death and a resurrection. An American clergyman and scholar, once wrote about the Church:

Christianity started out in Palestine as a fellowship;
it moved to Greece and became a philosophy;
it moved to Italy and became an institution;
it moved to Europe and became a culture;
it came to America and became an enterprise.

As one scholar has expressed it: “With denominations and churches splitting at an ever-increasing rate, and as a result growing smaller and smaller, we may end up with a Church that looks more like it did in its first century state than at any time since: more diverse and less hierarchical, more faith than religion, more a movement than an institution. Indeed, it may well be that Christianity is poised to become a fellowship again. And that might not be so bad. In fact, it might not be going too far to say that by the end of this century we may have witnessed the death and resurrection of Christianity as we know it: the death of Christianity as an organized religion and its resurrection as a movement of the followers of Christ.”

Monday, October 17, 2016

Prayer - thinking about intercession and persistence

Reflections for Sunday October 16, 2016.  The 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time.

Reading: Luke 18:1-8

All theology, all faith, is story – story as a reflection upon experience.  This morning I want to reflect on prayer – particularly on intercessory prayer.

We are a people who pray: consciously, instinctively, unconsciously, reaching toward the one who eludes us and yet is closer to us than breath itself.  We remember the times of need, of desperation, of prayers that were a silent scream of anguish.  We remember the times when our prayers have been the tired hammering at a door that just will not open; a reaching into a sky that remains blue, empty and implacable.

Prayer can be that experience.

Consider this little story from the Desert Fathers:

“A hermit has persevered for thirty years. One day he said to himself, 'I have now spent so many years here and I have had no vision and performed no miracle as did the Fathers who were monks before me'. And he was tempted to go back into the world. Then he was told, 'What miracle do you want to perform that would be more extraordinary than the patience and courage God has given you and which allowed you to persevere for so long?'”

(A Desert Father cited by Marcel Driot, from The Desert, An Anthology for Lent, John Moses.)

To reflect upon that story is surely to be struck by his expense of energy and time, his sheer commitment over so many years – and the sense of disappointment at the outcome, or, to be blunt, what seems to be the lack of outcome.  No results – or at least not the sort of results that he sought.  We do not wonder that his initial response is to give up, abandon the desert and return to the world.

But further reflection, an inner voice or a voice from God or a spiritual director reads the story differently – and draws attention to the extraordinary persistence and courage of the hermit as a sign of the presence and activity of God. 

That is a theological and spiritual reframing.  We start to realise that prayer is different to what we thought it was about.  That prayer involves what might call dispossession – we have to relinquish notions of control and ownership.

We’ll come back to that – but consider the story in the gospel for today.  We can imagine the judge: a man in a position of power and totally absorbed in himself.  Against him is the widow who seeks justice but he decides to hear her case and give her justice only because she keeps pestering him.  What we see is, on the one hand, indifference and, on the other hand, unrelenting, tireless, persistent commitment.  This is a parable that shows us something of what faith in action may look like: it is unrelenting.

A question that might lurk in the background of the parable concerns the nature of the magistrate and God: is God like the Magistrate – indifferent to our pleas?  Does God have to be nagged into response or compliance?  Is that what our prayers are like – an endless battering of heaven with our petitions until God relents and acts?  That is a dreadful thought.   

From our finite ‘outcomes’ point of view prayer can feel like that.  We pray for X to be healed and X dies anyway; we pray for peace in the Middle East or for an end to the conflict in Syria, and nothing seems to change; we pray for social justice in a very inequitable society, and we feel the weight of the world pressing upon us and little seems to change.  Is this when we should give up?

The woman in the parable does not: but she continues to press her case.  The hermit in the story from the Desert Fathers, persists regardless and despite the lack of obvious outcomes.  These are stories that make us revisit and reconsider our life of prayer.

The deeper we engage with prayer the more we become aware of how we are trapped by our human obsession with power, privilege, control and achievement.  Our needs, our pathologies, overpower us.  In our anxieties we distort our relationship with God as we articulate our requests and foreshadow the desired answers.   Instead of an honest petition or conversation, we want to shape and manage what happens.

However prayer resists that impulse: intercession surely acknowledges our recognition of the needs of others and our own relative powerlessness in respect of their future; in prayer we acknowledge our incompleteness and our yearning as we hold the world before God.  Intercession (for the world, others, and ourselves) brings us to the edge of how we think and speak of God: we must persist but there is no management or control.   All prayer, intercession as well, draws us to the limits of how we dare to speak or imagine God.

In Iris Murdoch’s novel Henry and Cato, the character at the centre, the priest and scholar Brendan, explains his realisation of what such persistence involves.

“The point is, one will never get to the end of it, never get to the bottom of it, never, never.  And that never, never, never is what you must take for your hope and shield and your most glorious promise.  Everything that we concoct about God is an illusion.”