Saturday, March 25, 2017

Lent 4 Holding the Margarine!

Lent 4
Readings: 1 Samuel 16:1-13  • Ephesians 5:8-14  • John 9:1-41

I do hope the experience is not unique to me: what I refer to is the experience of looking for something – perhaps in the refrigerator or on the kitchen bench and not being able to see it until someone else points it out to you and there it is, obvious, in plain sight all along.  You wonder, how on earth could I have missed it?  It is a comic moment – we laugh at ourselves for missing the obvious – we are not quite as sharp as we’d like to think.  As we start to question our capacity for perception in the most ordinary circumstances, we might also begin to question our perception in the more complex.

The Man Born Blind, Duccio, 1308-11

At this stage in Lent we experience the depth and complexity of the Fourth gospel.  In the synoptic gospels we follow a story; in this gospel we caught by a series of encounters:  last week, the woman at the well; and this week, the man born blind.  These encounters all offer more than appears on the surface text and instead draw us deep within the great narratives of the scriptures so that we start to see and think differently.

For instance, in the second Genesis account of creation we are told of how “the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground” and how the serpent tempted Eve with the lure of the forbidden fruit because “when you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” 

Remember that against the gospel this morning: Jesus takes dust of the ground, fashions a paste, spreads it upon the blind man’s eyes; and his eyes are opened.   He can see the world for the first time, as Adam did; and, more than this, he sees the world differently from the expectations he had held; he can no longer understand it through the distorting lens of the Pharisees’ and the law.  In the story of the Fall in Eden we remember that “the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leave together and made loincloths for themselves.” In John we hear the once blind man arguing “Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind.  If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.”   Here the gospel and the creation story meet and we recognise in the gospel the outline of a new creation in the making.  How are we to respond?

At this point I catch a glimpse of myself as at the start of this reflection: imagine, I am peering into the refrigerator and scowling at the kitchen bench – at each in turn, in search of the margarine. Then, as it were, my eyes are opened and I realise that the margarine is already in my hand!  This is of course all slightly ridiculous!

The dilemma is familiar: the gospel is in our hand; the great clue to reality is within our grasp; and yet still it seems to elude us. There it is, on the margin of our being: an agreeable concept, but one that we still can’t quite integrate with the wider texture of life.  We need our minds rightly ordered; our desires reformed; and our souls responsive to God in worship.

Paul explores this in the text to the Ephesians – and we recognise ourselves in his analysis: our minds are darkened – no, worse than that, corrupted; everything is filtered through this mesh of selfish desire.  True understanding as the writer of the gospel shows us, requires that we see the world from a greater perspective than our own gratification.  We need to learn a different kind of love to give us the light we need to see the world.  Paul says: “Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you."

It is like waking from the dead! God, reorder our minds; reshape our desires; and draw us to yourself in worship!

In the language of faith, Jesus is the one who ‘opens our eyes’. Jesus is the one who teaches us how to see the world afresh. This is very much the nature of the journey of Lent as we diligently seek to see the world as Christ reveals it to us. "Seeing is holy and immortal. Within the confusion between different levels of sight in this story lies the precious truth that all light participates in the unitive light, the uncreated light, which is the Word and Christ. Light is a grace in the world, a window, an angel of the creation, the beginning and the end burning among us."

-Bruno BarnhartThe Good Wine: Reading John from the Center

Sunday, March 19, 2017

What do you thirst for?

Lent 3, 2017

A good many years ago, I remember being stranded at night in dense fog on the top of the Roberts Ridge in the Nelson Lakes.  We camped the night but had no water. It had been a long and very thirsty night – we were desperate for a drink. In the morning, as the fog cleared a long way down, we spotted a small tarn and could fill a billy. 

One of the last words from the cross is when Jesus says ‘I thirst’.  That points us to a fact of bodily existence: that adequate hydration is needed for us to survive and, that a consequence of extreme dehydration is suffering and death.  The First Testament lesson from Exodus speaks of thirst in the great desert experience of the people of Israel.  In Exodus it is at Mt Horeb that Moses, threatened by the people who fear dying of thirst, strikes the rock and water flows.  Other sources know Horeb by another name, Sinai.  So, consider this: on the mountain where Moses received the Ten Commandments, he also strikes water. Is this sheer coincidence that the law of God and the water of life are found on the same holy mountain?  Or are we meant to understand God as the source we seek, the source of life.

The Samaritan Woman, Duccio, 1308-11
So it is also with the well at the centre of this remarkable and strangely intimate encounter between Jesus and this Samaritan woman.  This is at Jacob’s well and refers back to the story of Jacob and Rachel, how they meet at the well at midday and Jacob helped Rachel (whom he later married) to move the stone over the top of the well so that their different flocks could be watered.  To remember this story in this context is to realise that the different flocks of what were sheep in Jacob’s time, are in this instance Samaritans and Jews.  This is the place where different flocks, different peoples and traditions meet – at the source, the well of life.

Jesus, a young rabbi, crosses the cultural boundaries – the outer limits – by striking up a conversation at midday with this Samaritan woman; even the hour of the day, a time when women would not normally draw water, suggests to some interpreters that she is a social outcast and may be morally compromised – something also suggested by references to her past marital adventures and her current illicit union.   This is about the sixth hour, and Jesus is on his journey toward Jerusalem and the journey’s end, when he asks the woman for a drink and there is this strange conversation that follows as he makes his request:   He says "If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, 'Give me a drink,' you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water."

Asking for a drink, Jesus looks back to the story of the well and its place in the great story of Israel; and he looks forward toward the cross and the thirst he will suffer there.  One of the early Fathers of the Church (John Chrysostom) put it this way: ‘the woman came to draw water but she lighted upon the true well’.  She encounters the Christ, the true well of life, the one who meets our deepest and most urgent need.

It is a fragile moment of painful truth when she admits the truth of her relationships; even as Jesus admits that he is the Messiah and, using richly metaphorical language, talks of the water he offers as a source “gushing up to eternal life”.  That is a moment of transformation: she enters into freedom.

John Chrysostom captures the moment vividly, saying “She of her own accord, without the command of any, leaves her water pot, and winged by joy performs the office of Evangelists. And she calls not one or two, as did Andrew and Philip, but having aroused a whole city and people, so brought them to Him....
Observe too how prudently she speaks; she said not, Come and see the Christ, but with the same condescension by which Christ had netted her she draws the men to Him; Come, she says, see a Man who told me all that ever I did. She was not ashamed to say that He told me all that ever I did.

Some simple questions come to mind as I think about how we as a people may respond to this gospel and the rich symbolic language that draws us deep into our inner being. 

·         Most particularly, what do you thirst for?  Understand that I mean ‘thirst’ as that desperate sense of longing for – what?  Certain words come to mind: love, meaning … but you must determine your own words for this question, ‘What do you thirst for?’  

·         The second question is ‘where do you go?’ If it is to a church, is it a place that extends you, mind and soul? 

·         There is also a third question: ‘what do you give?’ This is not about the collection!  Rather, remember that the woman at the well put herself on the line – it would be true to say that the life we receive is the life we give.

(Side note: The Eastern Church never abandons the Samaritan woman to obscurity in her city. The Orthodox give her a name, Photini (“the enlightened one”), a feast day (February 26), a title (Evangelist and Apostle), and a story.  As Chrysostom points out she did not bring one or two disciples to Jesus like Andrew and Philip, but she brought a whole city; and not through empty superlatives but with the cleverness and conviction of her personal narrative.)

Thursday, March 16, 2017


Out of our Lenten studies at the deanery last night came the sharing of this prayer dealing with envy and in our group it rang so many 'bells' we all begged the one who told us of it that it be shared. I am grateful to note it here. I understand it was published posthumously in 1662, in a volume entitled "Good Thoughts in Bad Times", the author was one Thomas Fuller.


Let us pray for  ourselves; that we may be delivered from  restless egoism.

Lord, I perceive  my soul deeply guilty of envy.

I had rather thy work were undone than done better by another than by myself. Dispossess me, Lord, of this bad spirit, and turn my envy into holy emulation. Yea, make the gifts of others to be mine by making me thankful to thee for them.

For Jesus Christ's sake, Amen.

Commonwealth Sunday

For a blog that tries to follow the liturgical year, things get confused because the Cathedral does other things as well, for instance on the second Sunday in March we hold a service for Commonwealth Sunday.  The Queen’s Message is sent from Westminster Abbey (where a splendid service is held) to the Royal Commonwealth Society which then distributes the message around the world.  The protocols for the message stipulate a time before which the message is embargoed.  This year there was a delay and it was touch and go whether we would receive it in time for the service (or for the address to be prepared).  It is a civic service; it has a strong focus on the young; and the challenge in the address (from my point of view) is not to be too ‘preachy’ …

From the start of her message, HMTQ (Her Majesty the Queen) gives us an image of the Commonwealth as she speaks of a baton that will be carried around the world by thousands of people.  It will involve people of different races, diverse backgrounds and it will traverse vastly different types of terrain, coasts and mountains, through different climates, across islands and continents.  It is an ambitious concept: it is not just delivering a message to the Commonwealth Games but it is mapping in the most direct and tangible form the physical and cultural diversity of the Commonwealth.  It gives the abstract idea of the Commonwealth renewed substance and form.  

In a time when digital technology, social media and globalisation have shrunk the world and made diversity and difference accessible on your smartphone, this finite physical journey recreates the imagination of the Commonwealth.   Differences, people and places and their connections (and disconnections) become real.

Her Majesty suggests that this real sense of difference and diversity is what makes the Commonwealth a good agent for building peace.  That seems reasonable: the kind of familiarity that grows through acquaintance, experience, mutual respect and tolerance has the capacity to build bridges, make connections across cultures.  The Commonwealth can indeed be a force for good in the world.

The trouble is that this capacity for being such a force for good is more often aspirational than substantial. 

The Commonwealth may be described as a family of nations but there are states in conflict with each other; in many nations there is rampant corruption and an ever widening gap between the affluent and the poor.  (That is always a recipe for disaster.)

The fact is that the Commonwealth does not inhabit a privileged space or hold a secure identity.  It experiences all the forces that trouble the rest of the world, especially now: climate change, global warming, pollution, the destruction of the environment and wild life.  Globalisation has broken its boundaries and challenged its identity.  And as members of the Commonwealth will know, the Commonwealth identity does not always confer any privileges at an airport’s immigration control and, on entering the United Kingdom, I still remember my sense of indignation at being directed to wait in the queue for aliens.

Is the Commonwealth just an idea?   It has historical connections and shared narratives – but now, is it just an idea, a sentimental association fading away almost as we watch, as the world changes?

These are uncomfortable questions but is it an idea that has the capacity for good; an idea worth holding on to?  I believe so and that is the strength and the faith in the Queen’s Message.  The story of the baton is the symbol of an idea – of a shared story, diverse, often tenuous in its sharing but with this capacity to draw people together and to seek a common good and a peaceful path.  Today is a moment when we celebrate those who hold honours for their service to the nation; a time when, in our hearts, we pass on the baton for such service to a new generation as we acknowledge our schools and university colleges represented here.  We pass on the baton today and the idea lives.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Lent 1 When the world becomes strange

Readings Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4.1-11.

We have arrived at the first Sunday in Lent and on Wednesday we will begin our Lent study program with reflections on the mystic Dame Julian of Norwich.

This Sunday we begin with the traditional gospel that leads us into Lent.  It is traditional and it is familiar.  To say that is to poke rather roughly at one of the most calloused, obtuse and frustrating obstacles to Christian faith – the deadening illusion of our familiarity with the scriptures and its consequences: that (a) we don’t read them with expectancy and (b) we are not startled and the light does not break through.  The most fundamental exercise in approaching such scriptures is to read repeatedly until the familiarity shreds away and the text starts to feel strange.  It is an exercise, a discipline, in defamiliarisation.

The text that is our portal into Lent, Matthew 4.1: reads quite starkly, “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.”

The normal device of speech falters as our  literal understanding is confronted by another order of reality operating in the world.  Jesus is led by the Spirit, by God; this tangible and real human figure is influenced by another dimension; another being and is directed into an encounter with a malevolent evil power.   With this thought dimensions of reality collide; the world as we assume it to be, suddenly assumes a different appearance.  Questions explode into uncomfortable clarity – what has God to do with the Devil? Is God really in charge here?  If we were scripting this text for a film, someone would be screaming a warning, ‘Don’t go Jesus!” We customarily evade such questions by literary subterfuge: reminding ourselves that this is all metaphor, mythology and symbols; and certainly not to be taken literally.  Except – what if all speech and not just metaphor and myth is a mirror for a reality beyond our grasp?

Of course metaphor, myth and symbolism are present – the back story to this gospel is the story of the wilderness in which Israel wandered for forty years enroute to the Promised Land; it is the story of their being tested by God; it’s the story of their failure.  But later (after the exile) in the literature of Israel God is no longer the tester of his people – that job is handed over to Satan as the tester or tempter (Job 1-2; Zech.3:1-2; 1 Chr.21:1.)  The assumption is that the devil remains under God’s ultimate control. Theologically that presents some problems.

How does the testing begin?  It is preceded by that detail of the forty days and nights of fasting which connects with the story of Israel and of course it all takes place in the wilderness, recalling the places of Israel’s wanderings – but amidst these echoes, resonances and allusions is the fact that Jesus is in a reduced and weakened state when the tempter makes his appearance.  

From our own knowledge or experience we have some idea of what happens to the body and the mind when food is denied for a long period – the boundaries of how we perceive our world may begin to change.  Are we talking about hallucinations?  Maybe. I wouldn’t rule them out – but enough at this point to note that mental or spiritual boundaries may shift and in the process Jesus becomes more vulnerable.

Duccio, di Buoninsegna, d. 1319
While being physically depleted and vulnerable over an extended period changes the boundaries of how we see the world, to also be in the wilderness at the same time accentuates these changes in perception – the loneliness, the space, the harshness of the place – challenges us, reduces us.  This is the context for real testing – taken when the subject may be at a low ebb physically, mentally and spiritually – and when the world feels strange.  It is in this alienated context that Jesus discovers and reveals who he is, as he faithfully resists the intense psychic assaults of the devil.

This is our portal to Lent.  We follow Christ: find our wilderness, however slight or minimal, a space where we are left with ourselves, where we cannot hide behind the fictions and phantasms we present to the world; where we must face our weakness and vulnerability in the presence or the absence of God.  Lent is a portal that draws us into another world and reveals something of ourselves.  We are changed in the process.