Saturday, February 28, 2009

Lent 1

I wonder if anyone knows the ‘Far Side’ cartoons by Gary Larsen?  You occasionally see them in magazines and newspapers, not the current affairs section but somewhere down the back where the editors reckon, if you’ve got that far, you’re entitled to a bit of a laugh at the ridiculousness of everyday life.  So, in this one cartoon – you need to picture this – you see the usual stuff, stalactites and stalagmites, vast gloomy underground caverns with flickering furnaces around every other corner, demented-looking bats and horned devils, the usual sort of stuff that lets you know where you’ve ended up, and in the central cavern a neat row of dormitory beds, each one with some poor damned soul sound asleep at the end of a long day’s brimstone and sulphur.  But in the middle bed a figure sits bolt upright, eyes out on stalks, screaming wildly. ‘Relax, Chuck’, says the bloke in the next-door bed.  ‘It’s only a nightmare.  Course, you are still in hell’.

I remember, as a teenager with already a fairly jaded view of sermons, coming across this most obscure doctrine that the church, back then, anyway, called by the name of the ‘harrowing of hell’.  It seemed to me that hell would be harrowing enough as it was, without the poor damned souls having to put up with Jesus coming down to preach to them on Holy Saturday.  Can’t you just imagine the heckler – there’d have to be a heckler, amongst that audience, ‘Mate, talk about shutting the door after the horse has bolted’.

Of course, most Bible scholars are pretty comfortable with the idea of this one having a fair dash of poetic licence about it.  Whatever Jesus got up to between the crucifixion and Easter morning, the one thing we know for sure is that there weren’t any eyewitnesses.  So clearly this little aside in the letter of Peter written around the end of the first century probably not by Peter himself but a second-generation protégé - is by way of allegory, a poetic, theological reflection.  And yet – this cryptic aside in verse 19, then in the next chapter, verse six where the writer talks again about the Gospel being preached to those already dead – there’s always seemed to me to something powerfully evocative about this image.  What’s the writer trying to say here?  If the idea isn’t simply Jesus going down to other place to rub it in a bit – ‘bet you’re sorry you didn’t go to church now’ – and I don’t seriously think it is – then what’s the point?

A modern theologian who rejoices in the name Hans Urs von Balthazar picks up this image which, despite its pretty sketchy basis in the New Testament featured pretty strongly in older forms of the Creed – before squeamish 19th century editors got to it the Apostles’ Creed used to solemnly assure us that Jesus ‘descended into Hell’.  Von Balthazar makes this the whole cornerstone of his theology of the Trinity, and he even strengthens it up a bit.  Jesus, he says, is no whistlestop evangelist, he’s not just blowing in and out of Hell on a sort of cosmic Billy Graham Crusade.  This is actually it, Jesus, as dead as a doornail, drifting down into the desolate and hopeless realm of those who have voluntarily chosen death over life, who have freely chosen the absolute loneliness of non-relationship with the Source of all life.  Jesus’ drifting downwards – we accept for the moment the visual imagery of the first century where heaven was up there and hell down there – this drifting downwards is not active but passive – Jesus, who has experienced on the cross the total darkness of abandonment by divine love, stripped of every power and initiative of his own, drifts into the realm of utter negativity.  But there is a difference.  From the point of view of Hell, there is a problem.  Because alone among the residents of Hell, Jesus is here out of love for those who he now joins – and in choosing to be together with those who have chosen loneliness he upsets the whole applecart.

This, I guess, is the sermon Jesus preaches in that place of utmost desolation.  That God, still being God even though in this place utterly devoid of power and initiative, can still follow human creatures and can still be available in love even to those who in their wilfulness have chosen to put themselves apart from the possibility of divine love.  The radical freedom of creation means that human creatures are able to separate themselves from God.  We do have that power.  We can make that much of a muck of our lives, and of our world.  It’s just that, in the absolute weakness and passivity of death, God chooses to join us.  In the words of the old pop song: if you leave me, can I come too?

Which means, if even the chaos of sin and hell can be gathered into the sweep of divine love, then the Trinitarian love of Father and Son that expresses itself into creation in the person of the Holy Spirit encompasses the whole of creation - everything we can do, whether good or bad, the future of creation as well as the whole of human history, is gathered up together into the sphere of God’s activity. Human freedom to act for good or for evil is not diminished by this, the dreadful toll of bushfires and earthquakes and tsunamis is not diminished and neither is the serendipity of love or the unlooked for miracle of human happiness.  But the whole chaotic, wonderful mess of creation, from our best impulses to our worst choices, are held within the loving purposes of God, everything is transformed and holds within it the potential for new life and new hope in the wider horizon that is God’s perspective.

In a fairly tortured chain of logic, the writer of the epistle connects this reflection with Noah’s ark for no better reason than that he really, really wants to talk about baptism, and Noah’s ark has got water in it.  I want to suggest another connection, and it’s suggested to me by the fact that the Hebrew name, Noah, means ‘rest’.  Yes, building a three storey ark the size of a football field and rounding up mating pairs of every single living creature in the world in the seven days flat that God gives him in chapter seven, verse 4, would have been a fairly strenuous undertaking, but actually Noah’s role is essentially passive.  They go into the ark, as God commands them, and in chapter seven, verse 16, we are told, God himself closes the door behind them.  And there they sit and wait.

It’s a wonderful, terrible story, when you think about it.  Noah and his family and their menagerie, representing the seeds of all life on the planet, sealed into their little time capsule, waiting in the darkness.  It’s a journey over which they have no control, a journey from the familiar to the unfamiliar, from one world to another world, from a world of trees and plants and rivers and living creatures, from villages and cities of men and women and children to - what?  We might, and many have, drawn tenuous parallels between the 40 days in the ark and Jesus’ three days in the tomb.  Or we might just think of the story in its own terms, a journey into holiness and the darkness of waiting, in which there are no reference points, no maps, no remembered stories that assure us that we’ll ever reach a safe destination, and in which God himself is silent. 

And the point is that we – all of us, I guess – recognise that place.  Somewhere in your life you can probably remember being in such a place, drifting on the dark water, alone in the silence of God.  And the name, Noah, tells us what to do.  Just rest.

It’s a pretty active rest.  He still has to feed the animals and clean out their stalls and stop them from eating each other.  He’s still taking soundings, searching for landfall by firing off the odd dove.  But the role of Noah is to rest and to wait.

I find this not a bad metaphor for where we are now – for the ark of the planet, for the ark of the Church.  We’ve become poignantly aware of the fragility of the planet God has given us to care for, we can’t escape the realisation that our care of it has been negligent, that in treating the earth and its creatures as commodities for our use we have reached a tipping point where its future is precarious and uncertain.  We’ve reached the point where we realise that our human culture, our economy, our technology, don’t insulate us or give us the security we are so desperate for.  We’ve reached the point where the Church, that once seemed to be the solid centre of our world, has receded to a single voice among many in the marketplace of ideas and fads.  And it can seem, in these circumstances, as though we are cocooned in an ark covered over with tar listening to the muffled sound of the water slapping against the sides, on a journey from the familiar to the unfamiliar, without any reference points or remembered stories to assure us that there’s going to be a safe destination.

But God remembers Noah.  That’s the point.  God reconnects and restores Noah, and in this muddy, unrecognisable new world in which he lands, God gives Noah a new fixed point, new horizons and a new covenant.  It’s the same point as the one made allegorically in the letter of Peter – there is nowhere and nowhen that is outside the circle of God’s care, no circumstances that can’t be opened up to God’s perspective and transformed.  Wherever we find ourselves, in the hell of loneliness or desolation of our own making, in the darkness of transition between a longed for past and a fearful future, God remembers us, God waits with us.

Which is a pretty good place for us to begin this journey of Lent.


Saturday, February 21, 2009


Many years ago when I lived in Brisbane, a mate and I decided we were going to climb all the local mountains worth climbing.  South-east Queensland is certainly blessed with a spectacular selection of them – to the north, the Glasshouse Mountains, formidable-looking volcanic plugs rising straight up out of the cane-fields, to the south, the Green Mountains in the Lamington National Park, huge densely forested peaks overlooking the Tweed Valley and New South Wales.  We didn’t overestimate our ability – we weren’t into ropes and special boots with suction caps or whatever it is that mountaineers use to climb upside down – but we worked our way up the scale of difficulty until we came unstuck and lost our taste for adventure on Flinders Peak.  This was a big one, the guide-book told us we needed to search carefully for the right way up because there was only one – and it was a tough climb, with a few tricky bits.  After three or four hours we made it to the top, ate our sandwiches and took a couple of photos – then we made two unsettling discoveries – one, that the clouds were coming in fast and we couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of us – two, that we’d forgotten which way we came up.  All of a sudden it seemed we were experiencing the flip side of Mt Flinders, from exhilarating to terrifying within the space of a few minutes.  After a brief argument about the wisdom of staying put until the rain stopped – an argument I’m glad I lost because it rained like cats and dogs for four days – we decided on a likely-looking direction and more or less skidded and rolled down with the torrents of mud on what turned out to be the unclimbable face of the mountain. 

We learned a few things that day – one invaluable lesson of course was the wisdom of checking weather forecasts – another was that strange and wonderful things can happen on mountains, that in some ways you get to see the truth of things more clearly.

So today we have this strange and wonderful story of Jesus and his disciples going mountain-climbing.  It seems to have been plonked somehow in the middle of the story where it doesn’t quite fit – one minute Jesus is going about his business of healing and teaching, the next he takes his best mates up the nearest high mountain where they have an experience they clearly don’t understand.  His face and clothes all of a sudden turn Napisan-white and Moses and Elijah appear from nowhere either side of him for a chat.  With a Cecil B. de Milne style voice from the cloud giving a commentary just for good measure, leaving Peter, James and John, wide-eyed and whimpering with fear and wonder. 

What an odd story!  What are we supposed to make of it?  And what’s it doing here, right in the middle of Jesus’ ministry?  Some Bible scholars even go so far as to suggest this incident was originally told as a resurrection story that somehow got jumbled up in the oral tradition and reinserted at the wrong place, in the middle of the story instead of right at the end.  And it’s a story that feels especially mysterious and meaningful because of the connection it makes with older stories the hearers already know – the account of Moses encountering God on Mount Sinai and coming down the mountain with his face shining with divine light.  Or the passage from 2 Kings that we read this morning where earth and heaven overlap as Elijah is carried bodily away into God’s presence.

But the story of the Transfiguration doesn’t just send us scurrying backwards to the Old Testament stories of God’s people, it also sends us fast-forwarding to the story of another mountain – this one called Golgatha, the place of the skull.  Except when we put these two stories together, what we notice is not how similar they are, but how absolutely they contrast.  In the Transfiguration story, Jesus’ clothes shine with an unearthly brilliance – on Golgotha his clothes become a pathetic gamblers’ stake.  Today, Jesus’ is flanked either side by the two greats of Jewish folklore – on Golgotha he is crucified between two brigands.  At the Transfiguration, Jesus’ exaltation is witnessed by his three closest male disciples – on Golgotha, after all the male disciples have fled, Jesus’ death on the cross is witnessed by three women, the two Marys and Salome.  The scene of the Transfiguration is one of dazzling brilliance – as Jesus dies, Matthew tells us, darkness descends over the whole land.  In today’s story, Jesus is radiant with the presence of God – on Golgotha he suffers the hell of abandonment by the One he calls his Father.  On today’s mountain a divine voice proclaims, ‘this is my son’ – on Golgotha it is left to a pagan Roman soldier, one of Jesus’ executioners, to blurt out at the end, ‘surely, this man was God’s son’.

It’s almost as though the scene on Golgotha is a perverse mockery – the flip side- of today’s mountain.  But if this is right – if this is part of what the writer of the Gospel wants us to notice – then what does it mean?

I think that Mark – who finishes his Gospel with silence and a question-mark – is reminding us in advance that the journey Jesus is on doesn’t end with the crucifixion.  In the chapter before today’s reading, just a few verses ago, Jesus is telling his uncomprehending disciples that his journey is taking him towards his death, and today’s story is giving us a glimpse of the end of that journey – a journey that has to pass through Golgotha but is promised not to end there.  The cross is the means, not the end.

But the most important thing for us to notice is that what we glimpse just for a moment on the mountain-top is not just the end of Jesus’ journey, but the destination that God intends for every one of us.  In St Paul’s second letter to the Corinthian church he reflects on Moses’ encounter with God on Mt Sinai, and he says that is what’s in store for all of us, that Christ’s resurrection is the promise of our own transformation.  So what Peter, James and John are witnessing, what Peter would like to hold onto by building huts up there on the mountain, is not just Jesus’ destination but their own, too, after the long and arduous journey that still lies ahead of them.  And to get there, paradoxically, they can’t stay.

I think it’s interesting that this story begins with the words, ‘after six days’, because what Mark’s hearers would automatically connect that phrase with – what happens after six days – is the Sabbath.  The Transfiguration for Mark is primarily a Sabbath experience, that uniquely Jewish conception of time out of time, the day set apart – not our modern Aussie Sunday that occasional churchgoers assure us is really family time, a day for sleeping in and going to the beach or playing football.  But the real Sabbath, the day of creation.  The day when all creation is at rest and at peace, when God rejoices with God’s creatures in the wonder of being.  A day of reconciliation and harmony when God’s purposes are complete and fulfilled.  And so the transfigured Christ is first and foremost the sabbath Christ: the Christ of our journey’s end.

No wonder Peter wants to stay. But of course the mystery of the Sabbath is that it is a glimpse of God’s time, interwoven with and experienced within the rhythm of creation.  So down the mountain they go, and within a few verses they are confronted by a desperate need - a man whose son is possessed by a demon that flings him on the ground and has him foaming at the mouth.  It’s the flip side, again.  Abruptly we’ve cut to a very different image of our humanity.  From divinely transfigured humanity, to a cruelly disfigured parody of what God intends for human life.  An image closer to Golgotha than to the mountain of transfiguration.  And the most shocking thing of all is that we recognise this place more readily.  It’s part of our everyday experience, it’s the everyday reality of a world where the humanity of women and men is abused and denied.

I read the other day a story from the Western Front in World War I, in the mud of the trenches with the twisted bodies of the dead and dying all around, a young soldier turns to a comrade in desperation and says, ‘we weren’t made for this’.  Maybe that phrase should stick in our minds as we look around us at the landscape of the 21st century.  When we see Aboriginal children born into our wealthy democracy with a life expectancy 20 years less than white babies.  When we see the human faces of war in Gaza or cholera in Zimbabwe.  When we see the see the loss of old growth forest and the drying up of waterways, the destruction of habitat that drives more and more species to extinction.  When in the evidence of climate change and financial catastrophe we see the inevitable consequences of greed and overconsumption.  We weren’t meant for this.

And the danger is that we give in to despair, or that we just switch off.  That we get overwhelmed, or that we simply stop caring, when what we need instead, and what as Christians we need to be able to offer, is an alternative vision.  A vision of what we have been created to be, a vision of transfiguration, a vision of Sabbath which is our true journey’s end.  All around us we see visions of Golgotha, and our vocation is to say, we were not meant for this.  This is not what we have been created to be. Christ came to raise us from this.  Like Peter and James and John we have been given a vision of what God intends for all human life, and the promise that through us that vision will come into being.  If we can just believe it, if we can just hold it out to a world that is desperate for it.


Saturday, February 07, 2009

Epiphany 5 - the long day at Capernaum

One of the greatest privileges in my life is that, from time to time, I am invited to share with people an experience of great joy, or of great sorrow.  You might think it strange that I include both extremes of the human condition in the same breath.  I’m speaking, of course, of great transition points in human life, the imminent birth of a child, the joy of preparing for a baptism or a marriage – and those other overwhelming experiences, the experience no parent should ever have to endure, the losing of a child, or the waiting by the bedside of a dearly loved spouse.  As a priest, I count it as a great privilege to be invited into this most intimate human space where words are always inadequate and our wisdom is always insufficient, and I understand that I am not there to give advice, or to offer shallow formulas, but just to wait in solidarity, to bear witness to the mystery of life and the mystery of God who so often is silent to us.

And it seems to me that when these times of transition happen around us, there’s often a sense of being caught unprepared, of not being ready, not knowing quite what to do, a feeling of having been left alone to deal with an anxiety or a loss that nothing in our lives has ever prepared us for, a concern also that our expressions of care for one another might be inadequate.  A feeling of having come adrift from our moorings, the solid supports that keep our lives on an even keel.  A feeling of tiredness, of being overwhelmed. 

And in our life as a community we go through other experiences of dislocation, when the direction of our lives seems unclear, and the security we took for granted evaporates.  Governments struggle to come to grips with a global financial crisis that seems to have no real cause, and to which nobody claims to have real answers, but certainly has real consequences in the loss of retirement savings, the tidal wave of job losses that we can see heading for us.  We feel overwhelmed.

Of course we know that we will get through these things, and we are reminded of the importance of caring and praying for one another.  But maybe we are also reminded how our faith in God and our faith in one another may have become weak or habitual.  The fabric of our community of care may seem to have frayed.  Where is God for us today?  How does God help, in times when everything seems to be falling down around us?  Or even – as the people of Israel seem to be asking in the background of our reading from Isaiah - does God care?

Isaiah is writing here to a community who have survived war and captivity, a community on the edge of being released from exile but who are tired and dispirited.  After 70 years of exile Israel no longer sees God’s promises as trustworthy – against the cruel realities of international politics and being tossed around as a minor trophy between the great powers, Israel no longer has the awareness of God as being in control or even caring much about them.  God has come to seem remote and uninterested.  And against this background, in Isaiah chapter 40, God himself speaks – the prophet dares to speak in God’s own words.

It’s a message that’s more awe-inspiring than cosy, isn’t it?  God reminds the people of their difference in perspective – don’t you get just slightly the feeling that God is talking to the people as though they were schoolchildren who have forgotten something they should have learned back in grade one?  ‘Don’t you know?  Have you forgotten?’  Our best efforts to understand the ways of God or of the world around us seem pretty feeble, nothing we do is permanent, none of our achievements will last – our plans and everything we build are transient, gone in a moment from God’s perspective, we hop around like grasshoppers.  We get distracted by success, and we get distracted by grief.  God points out the stars in the sky and reminds us who created them, who holds them in place.  You might be reminded here of God’s answer to Job in his sufferings.  ‘Just remember who created you, buster – don’t expect to see things from my point of view’.  You might not be feeling a whole lot better at this point.  But does God care?

But then comes the rest of the answer.  ‘Why do you suppose that I don’t care?’, God asks – ‘because my strength is your strength, my infiniteness is what holds you up’.  That’s more or less what God says here.  All you need to do is wait on me – but the Hebrew word that our Bible translates as waiting is an interesting one because it’s an active thing, not just hanging around twiddling your thumbs.  Qawah which means ‘to wait for’ and ‘to hope in’ comes from a root word that means twisting or plaiting a strand of rope – but here it’s in the passive tense – so waiting on God means allowing God to work on us, to braid us or plait us into God’s own strength and purpose for us.  Even young athletes run out of puff – remember that poor young Olympic rower who collapsed in the middle of a race – and that’s how it is for us if we try to depend on our own strength.   But if you allow God’s strength and God’s wisdom to hold you up then you will soar like an eagle – I’m reminded of the advertisement for the so-called energy drink – ‘Red Bull gives you wings! – apparently it’s got about as much caffeine in it as ten cups of coffee, not to mention guarana, whatever that is - in contrast the image from Isaiah is not manic, but effortless, the way an eagle hangs in the air almost without moving.  It finds the thermals and just lets itself get carried.  Do nothing, just wait and trust and allow God to work on you

That’s a pretty strong and encouraging picture, isn’t it?  Turn to God, says Isaiah, and God will give you wings that will enable you to soar and ride out the storm, whatever happens, or wherever you find yourself in life. God will refresh and restore you, God will renew your strength and fill you with new energy.

But how do we do that?  Is that just spiritual jargon – ‘turn to God’?  Or is it something you can actually do?  In our gospel reading today Jesus shows us exactly how.

Our gospel reading today is part of the passage in Mark’s gospel that some commentators call ‘the long day at Capernaum’.  We actually started last week, with Jesus teaching in the synagogue, making some new enemies and healing the man possessed with a demon.  Then straight after church, off to Simon Peter’s house to heal his mother-in-law.  A quick break for lunch and hopefully an afternoon nap, because as soon as the sun sets, at the end of the Jewish Sabbath, the whole village is queued up at the front door.  People to be healed, demons to be dispelled.  Everybody wants something from Jesus.  This is Jesus’ busiest day ever, and taken altogether it shows us why the kingdom that Jesus is proclaiming is good news – because people are being healed and set free.  Jesus in his ministry is fulfilling the promise of Isaiah.

But I want to pick up just two points out of this jam-packed reading – and this is the first one, that Jesus heals people by touching them.  He heals by showing compassion, by holding people, taking them by the hand – and this is the ministry of healing with which Jesus also charges us, as his disciples.  God heals us by physical touch, by coming into our own community and touching us in the universal language of human care.  Nothing more glamorous than that, and that is how we also are called to heal one another.  Simon Peter’s mother-in-law responds to the healing she receives by getting up and making lunch.  Simple acts of physical availability make us part of God’s own life, because that’s what the Trinitarian life of God is all about – pouring out God’s own self in the service of the Other.

But the gospel writer also wants us to notice the need for balance, because the morning after the night before Jesus wakes up feeling drained and tired.  We do know what it’s like to be worn out by grief, our own grief and the grief of other people.  Jesus must be feeling light-headed with it, and what does he do but go right back to where he started – straight back out into the desert to spend some time alone in prayer.  This tells us something fundamental about Jesus and about ourselves too.  Jesus needs to turn inwards, away from the desperation and demands of human need and back to the solitude that will bring him back into focus and reconnect him with the source of healing and compassion.  Take time out to let God plait you back into the rope of God’s own life.  Learn to be silent.  Wait on God.  Learn to listen.

There’s something else that often gets overlooked, and it’s that Jesus never did heal everyone who needed him.  There were always so many others, that’s the problem isn’t it? – if you’re in Capernaum then you’re not in Bethsaida – if you’re praying in the desert then there are people in the villages not getting attended to.  Can’t you imagine the clamour next morning when it turns out Jesus has disappeared – ‘but I brought my mum all the way from Sidon!’  Jesus is no exception to the reality that, on a human level, the needs that surround us are always too great.  Learn from Jesus that you can’t do it all.

Jesus doesn’t need to be needed.  He just needs to be in touch with God.  The point – for we who are called to be Christ to one another - is to be in touch with the source of what gives us life, stop flapping our wings and wait for the thermal currents of God’s own breath to lift us up.  Allow ourselves to be healed and we will be a source of healing and peace for those around us.