Saturday, April 29, 2017

The Emmaus moment - a case of peripheral vision?

Sight is a strange thing.  To think about it is to discover a swirl of ideas and links, images and echoes. 
  • Proverbial wisdom claims ‘seeing is believing’ but that same wisdom also holds the adage that ‘There are none so blind as those who won’t see.’ 
  • Is sight reliable, or is it subject to optical illusions? Is sight influenced by expectations and preconceptions?  
  • The concept of sight quickly becomes a metaphor for understanding – as when one says ‘Once I was blind but now I see’ – and we speak of ‘enlightenment’. 
  • Similarly I find myself wondering how sight is related to ‘knowing’ i.e. to cognition and then, by way of a linguistic segue, what is implicit in recognition? May it involve a kind of  ‘re-knowing’?  
  • So in Luke 24.31 we hear: “Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.” Note that Luke does not say that they saw Jesus but that ‘they recognized him’.  Is there just a resonance of a phrase in Genesis 3.7 of Adam and Eve when we are told “the eyes of the two were opened and they recognized they were naked’?

The other thought that intrigues me is the notion of peripheral vision: that partial wider vision where we sense as much as see objects at the margins of our sight.  We turn and look at what we think we have seen – it may be there or not, or, at least, not as we thought.   Maybe peripheral vision is a useful way of thinking about how we recognise the activity of God in our lives – something only spotted in passing, a bare glimpse of something only discerned or recognised later.

"stay with us" The Road to Emmaus, Duccio, 1308-11
Holding such thoughts we may start to find some fresh ways of engaging with this story of the Emmaus experience.  The feel of the story is strangely serene.  The two disciples are joined by a stranger: they relate the terrible story of what has happened and their loss of hope; the stranger then interprets the whole of scripture and the story of Israel to explain why all this had to happen exactly as it had; then at the meal – the familiar action of the breaking of the bread triggers the Emmaus moment – and with that moment of recognition, the stranger vanishes.  From there it is a rush back to Jerusalem to report the experience and in turn to be also told of what the other disciples have experienced and yes, indeed, the Lord is risen.

It is a very accomplished narrative.

Luke shows us how the process of telling and interpreting various fragments of experience begins to build a community narrative – and even more than that – begins to create the community itself.  The fragments that have been scattered in different directions (the women at the tomb, Peter, all who had run to the tomb, now these men on the road) are being gathered into one place with one shared story – which is as we have it – “the Lord has truly risen”.  The stage is set now for much more. We are part of it – this is also our story – every time we celebrate Eucharist, every time we share our faith, share a testimony, we are doing what those disciples did. We are in this story.

The Emmaus moment is in our lives and in the story of the church.  When the disciples’ eyes were opened it was in a context that we recognise as the Eucharist.  That thought naturally shapes the way we approach the Eucharist, our openness, our expectation and our hope.  We say ‘The Lord is here’ and are on the alert. But that Emmaus moment lingers in numerous passages of our lives, moments of intimation, presence, loss, despair and wonder – perhaps only grasped peripherally but later seen more clearly.

In the Episcopal Church, the daily Office has a Collect for the Presence of Christ: it is a prayer that really opens peripheral vision, nudges us into living into the Emmaus moments of life when the presence of God may seem obscure but is recognised in retrospect.

“Lord Jesus, stay with us, for evening is at hand and the day is past; be our companion in the way, kindle our hearts, and awaken hope, that we may know you as you are revealed in Scripture and the breaking of bread. Grant this for the sake of your love. Amen.”

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Low Sunday: thoughts on locked doors

Easter 2, 2017  'Low Sunday'

We read “the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews.”  I find myself thinking about locked doors.

I can imagine locking the doors – when you are fearful of the mob outside raging through the street, unpredictable, violent, plagued by a kind of madness.  Those doors seem vital then – all that stands between you and destruction.  

So you lock the doors, dim the lights, talk in whispers and pretend no one is at home.  You pray that no one starts battering on the door.   

Think of all who have hidden like this in other times and places.  The persecuted Christians during Nero; and the holocaust victims who hoped against hope that their locked doors and silence might be enough.  There are countless others of course: those who hid from Pol Pot in Cambodia; the intellectuals and activists who hid from – well it could have been from Mugabe’s thugs in Zimbabwe, Rouhani’s secret police in Iran, or from any of a dozen regimes in the world today.

Then there have been the doors locked by all who have ever felt the need to take refuge from the apparatus of power – hiding from the landlord, the bailiffs, the debt collector, the social worker, CYFS, the police, abusive parents, a violent spouse …  

Then again there are those other subtler doors of the mind: the clinical depression that has the sufferer in hiding from the world; the addict in denial of his addiction; the one who has never processed their grief and who year after year, hides from it.  Silence, denial, hiding, guilt, illusion and shame – one may think of these as the doors of the mind that keep us – not safe - but in pain.

To think of the locked doors is also to recall, almost inevitably, the keyless, overgrown locked door in Holman Hunt’s allegorical painting in Westminster Abbey, ‘Behold I stand at the door and knock.’

But the question is why, with this wonderful gospel and the courageous questions of Thomas, why am I lingering over the thought of those locked doors?

I think it is most simply this: whereas the locked door speaks of fear, the love of the risen Christ draws us beyond fear.

One can understand those first disciples hiding behind locked doors.  They had seen their Lord killed.   They knew the real danger of a Jerusalem mob once it found a target, they had seen that happen.  They knew that they could be in danger of being hunted down as associates of Jesus.  They had no leader.  What could they do? They took the prudent course: locked the doors, lay low, and kept quiet till things calmed down.  Is that what we might call a siege mentality? I suspect so.

Against this their experience of the risen Christ is a transforming moment: he says “peace be with you”; peace, to people who almost reek of fear!  We can barely comprehend the nature of their experience – one moment cowering behind locked doors, the next they are confronted and stunned by the apparition of the Lord they saw killed. 

Yet a process is unfolding.  They hear something familiar: his words “Peace be with you” resonate with memories of other occasions, perhaps memories of the Christ who calmed the storm on the lake.  In a similar manner the storm of their confusion and fear is calmed and there follows a process of insight and recognition when Christ shows them his wounds. He is no apparition but flesh and blood.  It is then that their eyes are truly opened and we hear how they rejoiced ‘when they saw the Lord’.

This encounter is the antithesis of the locked doors: this is reminiscent of the stone being rolled away.   Jesus sends them out into the world: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Of course this is the mission of the church, our mission – and it is expressed as he gifts them with the Spirit. 

It is worth dwelling on this moment and his words: he breathes on them; he says “Receive the Holy Spirit” and he links that with the forgiveness of sins.  Here breath is Spirit; the Spirit of God forming the creation; instilling life into inanimate matter; re-generating the minds and lives of these followers and empowering them to be free and whole.  This community behind the locked doors is a new creation in the making.

What are our ‘locked doors’?  Locked minds? Locked hearts?  People we have not forgiven?  

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Who is This?

Palm Sunday 2017

Entry into Jerusalem, Pietro Lorenzetti, c.1320
Liturgy and drama are closely linked.  In fact liturgy is religious theatre.  When we are caught up in the liturgy of this holy season, we are all players or actors in a familiar script that re-enacts the great story of our faith; making that story present not as a passive pageant but as a mystery, present and among us, that demands the entire engagement of our mind and body.  As actors in the mystery, we are changed.  The mystery takes charge of us: we are held within the story.  Everyone who has ever acted in a play will recall that extraordinary experience: that is what liturgical worship does as over this week we are held within the mystery, within its story.  Of course our ordinary lives and familiar rituals continue, but at this season they are held within the greater pattern of the mystery that begins on Maundy Thursday and continues to Easter Day.

This day, Palm Sunday, is our curtain raiser for this season.  The stage is set, some essential props are arranged (how else might we describe the instructions concerning the donkey and the colt) and the disciples appear as stage hands to the moment.   Even Jesus’ own actions now appear as part of a script – there is a prophecy to be fulfilled.

We notice the gospeller’s reference to the crowd – it is a reference that includes us.  The concept of the crowd introduces a rather modern feeling, or at least an urban feeling.  The notion of the crowd in history is inseparable from the idea of the city.  This is the place where people gather in large numbers and this is the place where the peculiar dynamics of crowd behaviour are encountered and the influence of the mob in history may be considered.  We hear of the mob in Rome; historians, sociologists and psychologists have speculated on the factor of the crowd in the French Revolution; so also and with more contemporary events – for instance, the Arab Spring, the Occupy Wall Street movement, the Hong Kong Umbrella protests  – and today we would add to that the phenomenon of the crowd armed with smart phones and overlooked by the social media.

Crowd behaviour has been studied.   Early theorists suggest that the crowd is created by a shared racial or cultural unconscious that focuses the emotions and ideas that define and empower the crowd – and we may catch a sense of that as the gospeller records the crowd shouting: "Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!"  In this moment the people catch a sense of “their moment”, their story, the essential thrust and defining hope of all their yearning – and it explodes onto the streets.  Even within the narrow scope of our gospel for the palms you can sense the energy and role of the crowd as its dynamics evolve: the element of uncertainty gives rise to the question ‘Who is this?’ and that in turn leads to the defining and deadly statement; "This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee."

That of course is the statement that provokes the religious and political authorities to act and sets in motion the events of this week.  Here we also find ourselves among the crowd, asking “Who is this?”  

This is a question we never quite stop asking and our worship this week is the working out of something toward an answer.  The answer is never quite held in the frame of an intellectual concept, but always something more – something encountered most truly in worship, in a movement of the heart, in a stirring of the will, that is the encounter we seek this week.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

'Lazarus, Come Out!'

The Resurrection of Lazarus, Duccio, 1308-11

This is the first cut for the reflection tomorrow morning, I don't think its quite where I want it to be but it may be all I can manage this time around.

Lent 5, 2017

Readings: Ezekiel 37:1-14; Romans 8:6-11; John 11:1-45

As I read Ezekiel’s vision of the ‘Valley of Dry Bones’, I find it hard to silence the jingle in my memory of the African-American spiritual based on this text: ‘Dem Bones’ composed about the 1920s. Its anatomy lesson haunts the memory, as these things can:

Toe bone connected to the foot bone
Foot bone connected to the heel bone
Heel bone connected to the ankle bone – and so on.

The jingle catches us with the mechanics of physical ‘reconstruction’, the playful assembly of bone to bone; but it lacks the imaginative sweep of Ezekiel’s vision where something close to horror looms as we imagine sinew layered to sinew and then the layers of flesh that create physiognomy; and finally the breath of life that creates the unique person. In this vision of reconstruction from the barest remnants of humanity, we feel the pressure of the Genesis account of creation and the making of humanity. Is the likeness of God still imprinted in these fragments, these broken shards?

The gospel story of the raising of Lazarus is found only in John where the story dramatically foreshadows Jesus’ own death and resurrection. There are elements within the story that confuse us: how is it that the anointing at Bethany is mentioned before John tells of it? Furthermore, given the closeness between Jesus and his friends in Bethany, why does Jesus delay attending Lazarus when he hears of his sickness? Further, how is it that both Martha and Mary make the same complaint: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

Here we strike familiar territory. The complaint of Martha and Mary is what we always make when we feel the pinch of mortality: ‘God if you had been here this would not have happened.’ Whether it is a cancer, a murder, a casual accident, or death in a natural disaster – we have this tendency to expect God to prevent such things happening and, by implication, to be eternally intervening to overrule the diverse natural processes that allow cancers and earthquakes, typhoons and tsunami while also sustaining the universe; to also intervene and overrule the evil will of murderers, dictators and other wrong doers. We feel and fear the arbitrary impact of tragedy. We feel helpless and we deplore and mourn the loss and waste of lives, of goodness vanished and beauty defaced – and still we struggle to comprehend how a good God , a loving God, can let such things be. Of course we pondered this before; many times.

How can it be different? How could it be?

We find Jesus is angry and sorrowful, and weepy. We feel the conflux of very human emotions; the way that grief has, of being complex and bitter. By the tomb Jesus is watched keenly and we sense a toxicity among the mourners, some are all too ready with a jibe to undermine or discredit the man who so threatens their status:

“he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. … Jesus began to weep…. So the Jews said, "See how he loved him!" … But some of them said, "Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?"

That is the question: could he have? But at what cost?

Is there a greater plan at work concealed from our understanding? For this purpose to be fulfilled Lazarus must experience death – as so must Christ – but death is only part of the story. Lazarus is Everyman, everyone of us, and for him (as for us) death is the door for entry into a new world. But this is no easy thing to contemplate , nor indeed for Christ who looks toward Jerusalem and what he must suffer there. Yet Christ remains steadfast, walking alongside his friends in Bethany and keepi ng himself clearly focussed on what he must do. He will awaken Lazarus and Lazarus will become the sign for what God is doing in all of us through Christ.

So at the tomb they roll the stone away and we have this grotesque image of the bandaged and hobbled man responding to the command ‘Lazarus come out’. And now others assist in this moment as Jesus commands, “Unbind him and let him go.”

This is the moment of fearful and terrifying wonder – in this moment Lazarus is a new creation; a new order, a new reality dawns. “Lazarus, come out.”

That is where we are in this gospel. We are with Lazarus, being called into life; again and again and again. Everytime we leave behind the grave cloths of previous stages as our life in Christ calls us into new transfomations , new cycles of rebirth, self-sacrifice, dying and being born again. We are called to come out of our tomb.

"This resurrection is a process that begins every morning,
every night, every day.
We are called on a journey of resurrection
to do the work of God,
to bring love into our families, our communities and the world."

-Jean Vanier