Saturday, August 19, 2006

Pentecost 11 (Prov 9.1-6)

Many, many years ago there was an emperor whose personal vanity was matched only by his gullibility.  You know the one I’m talking about?  An emperor who cared so much about appearances that he couldn’t resist the offer of a fabric so special that it would enable him to distinguish who in his kingdom was wise, and who was foolish.  An emperor who found himself walking down the street with no clothes on, because he couldn’t bring himself to admit that he was foolish enough not to be able to see this very special fabric.

And neither could anybody else.  So it was left to a small child to point out the blindingly obvious.

We make some poor decisions when our vanity gets in the way of clear thinking.  In fact the irony is that when we’re preoccupied with our image is right when we can come off looking the most foolish.

This morning we read from the Book of Proverbs about Wisdom, in fact a kind of personified image of Lady Wisdom who keeps popping up throughout Proverbs and in the book known as the Wisdom of Solomon.  Wisdom, we’re told, is God’s right hand woman, present at the moment of creation like a sort of muse, the underlying sparkle that gives creation its logic and structure, the key to understanding scripture and the whole point of human life according to books like Ecclesiastes.  Wisdom, if you like, is a sort of connecting tissue between the divine life of God and the human reality of trying to work it all out, trying to live our lives with integrity and direction.  The human quest for wisdom is seen as the desire to live with integrity, the human effort to live in a way that connects with the divine purposes.  It’s symbolic talk, not theology but Biblical metaphor that’s meant to sum up something of the challenge of human life.  You can squint a bit and try to draw a parallel between Lady Wisdom and the Holy Spirit – but it doesn’t quite work.

I think, also, we’re not supposed to get too worked up over the fact that Wisdom is portrayed as female, any more than the fact that God generally gets portrayed in the Bible as male.  But here’s the fascinating thing – the passage that Margaret read for us this morning about Lady Wisdom setting up her shop and trying to tempt us all inside is followed a few verses later by an almost identical description of the even stranger figure commentators call the Strange Woman, or Lady Folly:

The foolish woman is loud; she is ignorant and knows nothing. She sits at the door of her house, on a seat at the high places of the town, calling to those who pass by, who are going straight on their way, "You who are simple, turn in here!" And to those without sense she says, "Stolen water is sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant."

(Pro 9:13-17)

We can either turn aside from our everyday concerns to pursue wisdom, or we can turn aside to pursue folly, and both of these ladies have deceptively similar chat-up lines.  As the Emperor found.  So, what’s the point?

According to the Talmud, that ancient collection of Jewish writings, there’s a sort of code here – the house that Wisdom builds is meant to represent God’s creation of the universe – they came up with all sorts of suggestions about the seven pillars, for example that the represent the six days of creation and the seventh day or rest – so the seven pillars represent the stability and perfection of God’s creation.  The main idea though is that God is basically inviting us to a house-warming party for creation, a massive feast – and the things that we’re invited to feast on are all the life-giving gifts of God’s creation – the idea seems to be that we’re meant to enjoy the goodness of God’s creation but understand what our proper part in it is, what our proper relationship is to everything else.  I think this sort of image is really important to counteract the sort of wowser image of religion.  You know, the sort of idea that God wants us all to get around with long faces and steer well clear of anything that might involve having a good time.  This idea of feasting, the idea of a banquet that Jesus picks up on and weaves into his stories as well as his practice of hospitality – it’s quite the opposite, isn’t it? – giving us a very different idea of God as the one who wants to fill us with goodness, with laughter and who lays down all sorts of surprises for us in the way Creation is put together.  The God who sets up shop and then calls us in for a good time.  The image is one of hospitality, of generosity and even extravagance.  That Creation is just a whole whiz-bang light show with special effects, sights and sounds and tastes just for our benefit.

You know, last week in our Gospel reading, Jesus was talking about bread.  I am the bread of life.  This week, he’s talking about bread.  Next week, guess what he’s going to be talking about?  That’s John’s Gospel for you.  You get the point, don’t you, the connection with the Eucharist.  Maybe the problem is we get the point too well, that as Christians we’re sort of pre-programmed to see all this sort of imagery through a Eucharistic lens.  Jesus body broken for us, our participation in Jesus’ death which paradoxically brings life.  And it’s not too hard for us to start drawing the connections between the bread and body broken and the suffering of innocents in the world we live in, the broken body of a child in the aftermath of a rocket attack in northern Israel, an air raid in Beirut.

But when we look at the same image through the window of Lady Wisdom’s house it looks just a bit different.  It’s just about sheer, exuberant hospitality and welcome.  We saw, last week, a group of courageous Christian politicians daring to cross the floor in Parliament to vote against their own party’s legislation that would put asylum seekers back behind razor wire in Nauru and on Christmas Island.  It’s really very simple.  It’s just about God’s welcome of us, God’s hospitality which we need to extend to those around us.

But here’s the thing, when you enter Lady Wisdom’s house of earthly delights you need to bring your discernment with you.  The image here isn’t one of coming in and closing the door and everything is going to be hunky-dory ever after.  The image, instead, is one of a gradual growth in understanding and insight – wisdom, in other words.  Wisdom isn’t a destination, it’s a journey.

Here’s the other thing.  The gifts of God’s creation give life in the house of Lady Wisdom, but lead to death in the house of Lady Folly.  It’s a paradox – wisdom and folly inhabit the same territory in human life, and choosing between them is as tricky as it is important.  Wisdom and foolishness have got almost the same sales pitch but when you get inside, then wisdom’s house represents order and structure – the boundaries and limitations that make life possible – but when you venture into Lady Folly’s house you get too much of a good thing.  Pasta is very good for me but if I eat as much as I feel like it’s not so good.

It’s a point that St Bonaventure picks up.  Evil, he thinks, doesn’t have any sort of independent existence of its own, in fact evil is like a shadow side of the good.  What’s bad for us is a sort of warped version of what’s good for us, and when human beings are seduced by selfishness and greed, it’s for things that God intends us to have, just not to be controlled by.  In the end, Lady Folly hasn’t built her own house, she’s taken up occupation in the house that Lady Wisdom built.  The difference, I think, lies in what our main preoccupation is.  If, like the Emperor, we’re basically controlled by preoccupation with our own selves, then watch out.  If what we love is out of whack, then the reality we inhabit is going to be out of whack too.

St Paul, as he so often does, hits the nail on the head, working out the relationship between wisdom and foolishness.  You’ve probably got there ahead of me?  ‘God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God's weakness is stronger than human strength’ [1] St Paul is here drawing on the rich Jewish wisdom tradition and telling us that the Wisdom of God is Christ crucified and risen.  But the wisdom of God, Paul tells us, is foolishness, and the wisdom of the world is foolishness with God.  It’s paradox territory, an Alice in Wonderland sort of logic that sometimes, because its so familiar to us, we fail to even notice.

‘Put on these clothes, and you will be wise’

‘Eat my flesh and drink my blood, and live for ever!’

Wisdom or foolishness?  Depends on what your deepest desire is.  But you’re invited in.


[1] 1 Cor 1.25

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Transfiguration (Mk 9.2-10)

Years ago, my mate Theo and I took up mountain-climbing. Not, you understand, the sort of fair-dinkum mountain-climbing with ropes and little spikes that you hammer in, or the sort where you have to count your fingers and toes afterwards – but Brisbane, where I lived at the time, is just a hundred kilometres or so south of the collection of strange-shaped volcanic plugs that make up the Glasshouse Mountains. Theo and I got hold of one of those little bush-walking guides that – rather misleadingly – graded the climbs into easy, moderate or difficult – and after we’d managed most of the moderate climbs and even a few of the difficult ones we began to feel just a bit pleased with ourselves. For anyone who doesn’t know the Glasshouse Mountains, they just rear up like great big icecream cones of rock out of a perfectly flat landscape of sugar cane. It really isn’t hard to see why – not only for the people of Israel but for just about every ancient civilisation – the mountain-top is where the everyday human world comes into contact with the divine. You get a different perspective – literally – as you look out across the top of the world and you see the city where you live your everyday life telescoped into a blip on the horizon. On the Glasshouse Mountains you can turn around 360 degrees and catch a view of the ocean to the east, the coastline stretching north and south as far as you can see and inland to the flat grazing country. You get, also, a sort of psychological telescoping that puts your own life in perspective, just for a few moments the everyday conundrums of life get viewed through the lens of eternity –
Unfortunately, our mountain-climbing career came to a fairly sudden end. We were south of Brisbane, this time, down in the Green Mountains near the NSW border when we decided to tackle Flinders Peak without bothering to check the weather forecast first – the climb up was just fine and we couldn’t quite see why this one was rated a difficult climb. Then just as we got to the top it came bucketing down – we came sliding down the mountain in what seemed like a nightmare of mud and rock and stinging-bushes – certainly not on any of the official tracks – and ended up at the bottom on the wrong side. Theo never spoke to me about mountain-climbing again.
So today Jesus takes his disciples mountain-climbing, and they, too, get more than they bargained for. Remember, this is after the miracles of the feeding of the 5,000 and the 4,000, after the raising of Jairus’s daughter and the healing of the woman with the haemorrhage and the midnight stroll on the Sea of Galilee – and after Peter has made his daring declaration that Jesus is the Messiah, the One they’ve all been waiting for. It’s been a heady buildup of success and anticipation, and Peter isn’t wrong – but Jesus isn’t having any of it. Jesus insists on spoiling the scene by talking to them about failure, and suffering, and death. That’s the context of this bushwalking expedition, and whatever the disciples expected they were going to find up the mountain they got more than they bargained for when – in a sort of advance instalment of the resurrection - they see a vision of Jesus transformed and standing there with two heroes of the Jewish faith who according to legend had been whisked up to heaven without the troublesome detail of having to die first – Moses and Elijah. The whole scene of course is choc-a-bloc with symbolism about Jesus outranking even these two who used to casually chat with God.
It’s a strange little story, and one that sometimes even seems out of place. Some Bible scholars even wonder whether this was originally a resurrection appearance story that’s somehow got put in the wrong sequence – but I think that might be missing the whole point. I think the story of the Transfiguration needs to be exactly where it is, because it’s about reminding us of the connection between the risen and glorified Christ of faith – and the all too human one struggling into understanding and acceptance of the suffering that lies ahead of him.
So at the top of the mountain the disciples see reality from a different perspective, a cosmic point of view in which things – just for a moment - fall into place. The Celtic peoples have an expression for magic times and places like this where the barrier between the divine and human worlds seems more permeable than normal, where the spirit world somehow seeps through and interpenetrates the everyday – they call it ‘thin time’. It’s the vertical dimension of human experience, the dimension of epiphanies or sudden insights that we all experience from time to time – for example at the birth of a child, or when we fall in love all over again with the face we’ve seen across the breakfast table every morning for the past forty years. We experience it when we dream and know that what we’re dreaming is true, we experience it when we hear the silence of the bush or feel the red and gold warmth of the sun setting into the ocean and know ourselves to be a part of everything that is. That’s the vertical dimension of human life, and we need it because it nourishes us and connects us with the Spirit of God that gleams and winks at us from every cranny of creation.
Preachers often wisely observe at this point that the mountain top is not a place where we get to remain. Peter blurts out that they could build a shelter each for Jesus and Moses and Elijah, but of course he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. You can’t hold on to the fleeting experience of grace, you can only be grateful for it and allow it to transform some part of you. Besides, if the whole point is that these three – Jesus even more so than Moses and Elijah – stand alive in the presence of God then it would hardly be possible to lock them up in a shack on top of Mt Tabor. Peter needs to let go and come back down to earth. And preachers who point out that mountain-tops aren’t for staying for ever on are right – but the real point is that we do need to go there. Regularly. We need to connect with the vertical dimension, with God in us and beneath us and above us, in the miracle of the Eucharist and in the mystery of prayer as in the fleeting just-so-ness of life.
But the disciples don’t just see a vision up there in the rarefied mountain air, they also hear a voice. It’s a voice they’ve never heard before, although Jesus has at his baptism in the Jordan River, and we the readers of Mark’s Gospel heard it too because we were in the box seat. ‘This is my Son, the Beloved’, says the voice, and this time it adds, ‘Listen to him’. It makes a connection, this voice of God, between who Jesus is and what he does – between the vertical dimension which is the relationship between Jesus and the One he calls Father, and the horizontal dimension of human relationships formed and nurtured in the villages and along the dusty roads of Galilee and Judea.
‘Listen to him’. It means that the truth of who Jesus is, is revealed in how he lives, in his ministry of lowliness and compassion, in the humility of touching the sick and the outcast, of eating and talking and laughing with outsiders, with rich folk and with poor folk, in words of tenderness and challenge, of forgiveness and freedom and love that – he knows all too well – are taking him closer and closer to a shameful death at the hands of those who for whom any talk of freedom and forgiveness is dangerous. That’s the meaning of Jesus, not a mountain-top experience of private spirituality but a life of service and commitment.
This is the whole point of the Transfiguration experience on this, the wrong side of Easter. The shadow of the cross is getting closer, and the Transfiguration is a reminder that the risen and glorified one is first and foremost the one who is crucified. The risen Jesus still bears the wounds of the cross. This is a truth not only about Jesus but also about ourselves, because the way of resurrection for us as well as Jesus is the way of selfless love that always has a price tag attached.
That’s what Jesus has been trying to tell them, but the disciples don’t get it. Peter has already been told off for refusing to accept the necessity for Jesus to suffer and die. Pretty soon James and John are going to show themselves more preoccupied with status than with service – and all three are going to fall asleep in the garden and run like the blazes when the Temple guard arrive. They’ve followed Jesus up the mountain without checking the weather report first. The heavens have opened on cue, and they’ve got more than they bargained for. They don’t know it yet, but they’re scrambling down the mountain on the wrong side.
‘Listen to him’. It’s the voice that connects our spirituality, our experience of Jesus as the one who shows us the Father, with the way we live. That transforms the everyday – our relationships become holy because we have experienced the holiness of God – our everyday acts of kindness and service become a sacrament because we have experienced the reality of Christ’s body broken for us.