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Saturday, August 26, 2017

The real question we have to answer







Readings: Exodus 1:8-2:10 and Psalm 124Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20


Who do you say Jesus is?  That is the great question that all the Gospels try to answer; that is the question that looms behind all the stories that are remembered, treasured, recorded, mulled over and meditated upon.  Within the question is the ‘Open sesame’ for all the questions of our lives and of all our searching; within it is the map that shows us the way home and gives us the keys to the kingdom.

Who do you say Jesus is?  How do we begin or where do we begin?  Do we begin with what we know, or rather with what we think we know?  Is this simply a matter of thinking?  A matter of getting our theology sorted out?  Good luck with that!  Can we sort out our Christology and answer the question?  Have we world enough and time?  

Can we explain how Jesus is both truly God and truly human?  Reason would tell us that is an oxymoron: one or the other might be arguable but not both.  Paul encourages Jesus as a model for all his followers and in arguing his case offers a suggestion as to how the two natures, human and divine, may be imaginatively linked.  In Philippians 2 (5-8) he says:


5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.


Christ ‘empties himself’ of his divinity, he puts it aside.  This self-emptying we know of as kenosis – from the Greek term Paul uses.  It could be seen as a dangerous approach to the problem.  Because is a Christ drained of divinity, even voluntarily, really God? But, by the same token, if divinity is not yielded, how can he be truly human?  Are we going to sort out our Christology this morning?  

Paul takes us boldly into the intolerable abyss of ambiguity and seems to grasp the terrible anguish of a God who endures such a state – even ‘death on a cross.’ To be truly human must entail uncertainty: meaning limited knowledge and limited power.  So when Jesus asks the disciples what people say about him, is he voicing his own inner uncertainty?  Is he trying to identify who he really is and what God is requiring of him?  If that is so, is the consciousness of his calling something that gradually emerges over the course of time and through the experience and encounters his ministry provides?  

You may remember from last Sunday that I touched on this in his encounter with the Canaanite woman – when she out-manoeuvred him in theological debate – as I said then, ‘The Son of God changed his mind’. Are we going to sort out our Christology this morning and answer the question?  It seems our minds can’t quite get us there?

Now, what is happening when Jesus asks the disciples what they think of him?  Is he seeking reassurance?  Is he testing them?  Or is he giving them an opportunity to commit themselves and to make a leap beyond where the mind can go?  Perhaps all of these possibilities are on the table.  

Peter’s response seems typical of the man.  He speaks impulsively – typically from the heart rather than the head.  He speaks out of his experience of Jesus – the experience that the gospels record and much more that we can only imagine must have taken place in the informal talk shared during long journeys; conversations through the nights by a fire; questions that arose when impossible things happened; healings, of course;  and then maybe that eery sense of sheer mystery, of otherness,  that always seemed to surround Jesus; but perhaps, most of all was his feeling that whenever he was near Jesus, he felt he was truly and utterly at home; known through and through; at home and at peace.  It was being loved… yes, that was it, love was the key!  

Peter answers out of love.  "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  Love takes Peter where the mind can’t quite go and love gives him the keys of life.  The life we all seek from the very depths and marrow of our being.

Be encouraged in this great journey of the heart, as one great Archbishop of Canterbury, noted:

O Lord my God,
teach my heart where and how to seek you,
where and how to find you.
Lord, if you are not here but absent,
where shall I seek you?
But you are everywhere, so you must be here,
why then do I not seek you?...

Lord, I am not trying to make my way to your height,
for my understanding is in no way equal to that,
but I do desire to understand a little of your truth
which my heart already believes and loves.
I do not seek to understand so that I may believe,
but I believe so that I may understand;
and what is more,
I believe that unless I do believe I shall not understand.

-Anselm of Canterbury c.1033-1109


Lord Jesus, ‘Teach our hearts’.  Give us the keys to the Kingdom.Amen!

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Christ in the flux of History


20th Sunday in Ordinary Time


Reflection

Political events this week – Riots in Charlottesville, North Korea tensions, terrorist violence in Barcelona, the tragedy of the mudslide in Sierra Leone, this is a catalogue of shocking  pain and loss. What response can we make? We come this morning with these matters on our hearts.  Alongside these stories of the world’s confusion and pain we come also to hear again and remember the stories that shape our faith.

The story of Joseph is a tremendous family story of jealousy and betrayal and of reversal of fortunes as the young man sold into slavery becomes a leader of a nation and the story climaxes in the moment when the brothers who sold him come before him for his help.  In a dramatic moment  of disclosure, a brilliant and emotional moment, Joseph re-writes the family story; and sees the whole family narrative, its tragedy of loss and pain, from a greater perspective, “It was not you who sent me here, but God.”  This most Jewish story recognises the purpose of God faithfully keeping the covenant with his people Israel, working within the flux of history.

The gospel this morning is caught up in a family debate within the Judaism of Jesus’ time.  Some of the Pharisees promoted a tradition of hand-washing before meals as a way of encouraging holiness, a spiritual discipline, not a matter of hygiene.  Jesus dissents from that tradition when he declares that holiness proceeds from the heart and not from the laws and customs associated with food: this was a controversial position to take.  In this moment we see Jesus speaking as a Jew within the assumptions and debates of Judaism.  But what happens next?

Jesus heads away from Jerusalem and heads northwest toward the Mediterranean coast, toward a region associated with non-Jewish communities.  There he encounters an unknown woman identified only as a Canaanite – the ancient designation for the inhabitants of the region.

The Canaanite Woman asks for healing for her daughter . 
Juan, de Flandes, approximately 1465-1519 
The Jewish Jesus is confronted by his cultural and religious antithesis – a Canaanite woman who wants him to heal her daughter.   Again we see Jesus speaking as a Jew within Judaism: he ignores this religious ‘outsider’.   She creates a scene and obviously makes his disciples uncomfortable – because they ask him to send her away “for she keeps shouting after us”.  He explains the problem and why he ignores her: she is not within his mission: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”.  This is a very orthodox Jewish point of view, a family perspective if you like.  His objection is entirely comprehensible to Jesus’ Jewish followers.  There is no surprise in this.

But what follows does surprise us.  The Canaanite woman directly approaches Jesus and kneels in front of him directly with a direct petition “Lord help me”.  In that moment, by that movement, the Canaanite woman cannot be ignored.  She is seen differently, she becomes a person and cannot be dismissed simply as a cultural outsider.  She says, “Lord help me”.   It cannot be more direct or simple than that.  It is the suppliant’s prayer.  We may find ourselves praying that a dozen times a day: in every situation where we are stumped as to what to say or do.  It is a relational plea; it produces a relational realignment.

This is not Charlottesville, a race confrontation  with no one really ‘seeing’ each other,  just different groups , ‘us’ and ‘them’, yelling across a history of stereotypes, slogans and prejudice.

Jesus’ response is still firmly rooted in his exclusive Jewish vision: salvation is for the Jews.  Accordingly his response sounds harsh: "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs."  For him, the Jews are the children, and the dogs are the Gentiles.  Admittedly his harshness  is somewhat softened by his use of the term for puppies – but that is a trivial nuance – the relational position is still severe: Jews are children; Gentiles are dogs.

Her clever response turns Jesus’ words back upon him "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table." In a word, all are fed by God.

At that response Jesus, the Son of God, changes his mind: in that moment his vision of salvation is transformed; expanded beyond recognition. He is ‘out-theologised’ by this early feminist theologian!

Jesus’ theology has shifted; it has become more comprehensive as it has been challenged in this ministry encounter. But it is even more than that: his consciousness has changed. He starts to understand his calling differently under the pressure of this encounter. Maybe here we see something of the nature of the incarnation; a Christ who develops into his calling; in the activity of a God who works constantly within the untidy flux and hazards of history. God works in the encounter with this unnamed Canaanite woman; it may be that God is at work in the shambles at Charlottesville, even in the tragic death of Heather Heyer.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Believing with the Heart


19th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Readings: Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28; Romans 10:5-15; Matthew 14: 22-33;

Reflection:  “One believes with the heart”

There is a moment in Mark’s gospel (Mark 9) where a desperate father brings his son to Jesus for healing and, when Jesus says all things are possible if you believe, the father says “I believe, help my unbelief.”  I suspect we can all sympathise and identify with that man’s dilemma: do we believe?  How can we know? Be certain?  Is the voice of doubt and unbelief perched on our shoulders whispering?  Each time we say the creed, just that first phrase “I believe in God…” is there a tremor of uncertainty, a moment in which we engage with the question “what do I mean”, and “what if this is true”?  In that brief moment our world begins to shift, the paradigms by which we see ‘reality’, tilt and something new emerges.

Thomas Kuhn (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 1996) has traced the way scientific method has advanced, especially when the results don’t fit the accepted paradigm and supposition and imagination press the boundaries to find a new way of seeing.  A new paradigm emerges.  George MacDonald wrote about the imagination as enabling the scaffolding of hypothesis without which “the house of science would never rise.”
So, if Mark reports the situation accurately, what changes for the father when his son is healed? Belief is not just a hypothesis but a paradigm shifting moment in which he sees Jesus differently. Can we imagine how we might respond to such a moment in our lives?  I am confident that we too would experience a paradigm shift and believe!

But such a paradigm shifting belief is not founded on intellectual conviction or scientific comprehension – for we don’t have that measure of control – but something else, something that Paul describes in terms of the heart. He says “one believes with the heart.” One believes with the heart! Take note, we are so accustomed to think of belief as a matter of the mind and intellectual conviction, but instead Paul locates the core of belief in the heart! In saying that, he follows a consistent thread through the OT scriptures where the heart is our spiritual, intellectual, moral and ethical centre. It shapes our fundamental disposition; and Proverbs accordingly counsels us “keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.” (Prov. 4:23) Much closer to our own time we find similar conviction in Blasé Pascal, who famously noted "The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of... We know the truth not only by the reason, but by the heart."

So I encourage you to read our gospel this morning not merely with the critical faculties but also with the warmth and insight of your imagination.  Remember the context: the disciples have witnessed the spectacular miracle of the Feeding of the Five Thousand and have been separated from Jesus who went off to pray while they launched off into the Sea of Galilee.  These are experienced fisherman, used to weather, boats and the ways of the sea; but nothing in their life has prepared them for the appearance of Jesus walking on the water toward them.  Can we believe the gospel here?  Is the gospel presenting a symbolic and metaphorical statement about the nature of God or is this a literal account of something that happened?  If it is a true record, what are its implications for us?   Is this a moment when the disciples’ understanding of reality and the world endures a radical paradigm shift and adjusts to a new understanding of faith and of Jesus?

Their initial reaction to the sight of Jesus walking on the sea is one of fear – they dismiss what they cannot comprehend, and explain the improbable and inexplicable event as a supernatural apparition – a ghost.  Can we blame them?   But Jesus identifies himself and in terms we associate with the resurrection appearances “It is I, do not be afraid.”
Peter’s response is a test: “Lord if it is you command me to come to you on the water.”
‘If it is you’ – This is the question.  Peter is testing the unknown.   He knows the sea, its dangers and the hazards he faces so far from land – he risks himself to know the truth.  “Lord if it is you command me to come to you on the water.”

He knows this is madness, sheer folly.  We do not walk on water.  And yet against every human instinct he steps out of the boat and begins to walk toward Jesus.  Maybe like a tightrope walker his eyes focussed ahead to his destination and all his thoughts keeping at bay the thought of the depths  beneath him until, until the moment he is distracted and,overwhelmed  by fear, he  sinks into the dark waters.


“Lord save me!”  That is the moment when we are told that Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him saying “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”   As Peter finds himself held and safe, what might have gone through his mind; or is it rather what overwhelmed his heart?  He was safe in the abyss, in the dark waters.  

All of us may recognise something of ourselves in Peter and something of what it means to be people of little faith.  We may say, Lord it is human to doubt.  We want to believe but help us with our unbelief. 

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Prayers for the City at noon


Most days the Cathedral offers Midday Prayers for the city.  Some have asked what we use and I post it here for those who are interested.  The greatest variation is about the 'particular' collect which usually engages with a particular concern for the city.  (However we did create a collect for the Grenfell Towers tragedy.)  Suggestions for Midday Prayers are always welcome, and local offers to share the prayers especially so.


Midday Prayer

The ambulatory bell is rung at noon

Welcome to your Cathedral.  Please pause for this brief midday prayer.

Invocation

E te whānau / My brothers and sisters,
our help is in the name of the eternal God,
who is making the heavens and the earth.
Eternal Spirit,
flow through our being and open our lips,
that our mouths may proclaim your praise.

Silence

Let us worship the God of love.
Alleluia. Alleluia.

O God of many names,
lover of all peoples;
we pray for peace
in our hearts and homes,
in our nations and our world;
the peace of your will,
the peace of our need.  Amen.

COLLECT FOR THE CITY
Gracious Lord of all that is,
You delight in all fullness of life;
Look with your grace and mercy upon our city:
Bless all who labour for the common good and who
serve to build up the life we share;
Bless our City Council, our University and all places of learning;
Bless our Courts, all who administer justice and all who seek it;
Bless our hospitals and all places of healing, social service and support;
that your fullness of life and purpose may abound and flourish here.
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Particular Collect (may vary)
God of grace, we thank you for the many years the Cadbury Factory has enriched the life of our city: provided employment; sustained families; and served the common good.  We grieve the factory closure and ask your grace to uphold all affected staff and their families in the days ahead that they find alternative local employment. In the power of your Holy Spirit, so lead us that this darkness and adversity will not prevail and we will know the joy and purpose of your perfect will, through Jesus Christ our Lord, ever one God, world without end. Amen

COLLECT FOR MIDDAY
Blessed Saviour, at this hour you hung upon the cross, stretching out your loving arms; grant that all the peoples of the earth may be drawn to your uplifted love; for your kingdom’s sake.
Amen.



THE LORD’S PRAYER & BLESSING
Jesus, remember us in your kingdom and teach us to pray
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins
as we forgive those who sin against us.
Save us from the time of trial
and deliver us from evil.
For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours
now and for ever.    Amen.

Dismissal & Blessing
In the following a deacon or layperson says ‘us’ instead of ‘you’.
Go forth into the world in peace;
hold fast that which is good;
render to no one evil for evil;
strengthen the fainthearted; support the weak;
help the afflicted; honour everyone;
love and serve the Lord,
rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit;
and the blessing …