Saturday, August 22, 2009

Pentecost +12

On 11 November 1993, the then Prime Minister Paul Keating delivered one of his finest speeches on the occasion of the dedication of the tomb of the Unknown Soldier in the Hall of Memory at the Australian War Memorial.  Keating, never at a loss for words, simply and elegantly reminded Australians of the mad, awful and brutal waste of the war to end all wars which ended in a victory all but indistinguishable from defeat - according to one contemporary commentator - and which sowed the seeds of a second even more bloody conflict in the same century. Refusing to glorify war, or to assert the superiority of one race or one nation or one religion over another, Keating claimed that this Unknown Soldier who died on the Western Front embodied the bravery and the sacrifice of all whose lives were shattered and scattered in the obscenity of war.

It was a simple and profound moment, one of a handful of profound moments in the history of our nation that have informed us who we are, that have given a concrete and recognisable shape to the story of what it means and what perhaps it might mean to be Australian. The tomb of the Unknown Soldier is a solid presence that is also an absence, speaking both of the tragedy of war and the sacrifice of those sent to fight wars, and the character of the nation in whose name they are sent. Perhaps the power of the tomb of the Unknown Soldier is that it tells us what we already know, it confronts us in a way that statistics neither can, with power and the pathos and the futility of suffering. All this is compressed into a single, silent space which one immediately recognises as both familiar and unfamiliar. 

In something of the same way, I think, King Solomon's great prayer at the dedication of the temple in Jerusalem expresses the ambiguous tension of the holy place which serves as a lightening-rod point of contact with the divine – but at the same time fails to contain the divine presence of which it speaks. This is an “aha!” moment in the history of God's people, as the scope of their history and self-identity suddenly gets stretched. Solomon recognises Yahweh not just as the tribal God of the people of Israel, but as the one who is also known and encountered by faithful foreigners with the same shock of familiarity.  As the God of heaven and earth, the God who can't be contained, pinned down, seen or heard - but who at the same time is tangibly encountered in this place that human hands have made. Psalm 84 hints at the same tension between rejoicing in the worship of the temple but recognising that the God we worship is present throughout creation.

Celtic spirituality uses that wonderful expression, "thin places", to describe the places, and the moments in history, where the world of the everyday and the world of the spirit cross over, where the membrane that separates the mundane world from the spirit world becomes thin and permeable, where our lives leak into God's life and God's life leaks into ours. In the British Isles, places like Lindisfarne, Iona or Stonehenge are thin places, places of power and mystery that have been known for thousands of years as places of divine energy and transformation.  Aboriginal spirituality is based on the same intuition, and even non-Aboriginal Australians recognise the mystery and power of places like Uluru or Kakadu or the Porongurups.  The Jerusalem temple was built perhaps 1,000 years before Christ as a way of encapsulating and carrying the power of divine revelation, of representing and of attempting to crystallise God's incarnational presence amongst God’s people. And yet, as Solomon recognises in his prayer, the temple also points to the deeper, uncontained reality of God’s activity in the world. "Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you", Solomon prays, "much less this house that I've made". And so the reality is that God is always deeper and more powerful than we can imagine or describe. Recognising this is the best antidote to idolatry and the religious sin of constructing God in our own image-as the Zen Buddhist koan has it, mistaking the finger pointing at the moon for the moon itself - and it's also the main inspiration for Christian spirituality and mysticism. Like the wonderful and wild Aslan, in the Chronicles of Narnia, God is contained and unchained, everywhere and every-when at once.

It highlights a creative tension in our own Christian faith. For many Christians, God is like an invisible matrix of creative energy that brings the universe into being and shapes it through the underlying dynamic of love. From this sort of perspective, God is not confined by any of our faith traditions, and needs only our imagination and our openness to divine transformation. In this perspective God's grace, and the transformation of divine power, underlie the whole universe, and can't be confined just to a particular religious tradition. For other Christians, the focus is on the historical revelation of God in a particular person at a particular moment in history, Jesus of Nazareth, who not only demonstrates for us what the invisible God is like, but who is himself the promise and the means by which human beings can be brought into a life-giving relationship with God. In this particularist perspective it matters what you believe, and it matters how you worship.

The danger of the first perspective, if we follow it to the nth degree, is that it can lead us to say very little at all about God, and to be so broadly inclusive that we end up making no claims about how human beings should live.  The danger of the second perspective, is that it can lead us to be parochial and narrow-minded, to close our ears to the truth-claims of other religions and to be blind to the language of creation itself.  So - as the prayer of Solomon affirms - we need to hold both these perspectives in a sort of creative tension.  Encountered within the sacred buildings and the sacred stories of our faith tradition in a real and concrete way, God addresses us personally and challenges our humanity in specific ways.  Encountered beyond the walls of our own tradition, outside own salvation-history in the market-place of competing values and cultures, in the evolution of the cosmos and in our own human experience of intimacy and loneliness, fear and joy, the God who whispers to us in all languages, and in none, interweaves our lives into the continuous fabric of creation.

What would it take, I sometimes wonder, for our worship here to be a “thin place”, a time out of time where we recognise the proximity of God?  The consistent witness of the prophets is that it might be a shattering experience were we to come here – not as a place separate from the world – but in the expectation that here our perceptions and experience of the world will be transformed, in the expectation that when we leave we will be different people from who we were when we arrived.  What would it take for us to approach the act of worship in this place as an act of dangerous complicity with the God who expects something of us, if we understood the act of worship as giving God permission to reach deep within us and fiddle with our genetic makeup to change our basic orientation from being self-centred to being other-centred?

I must confess I have always had some trouble with today’s reading from Ephesians – the putting on of the armour of God – not so much in our own day and age because I fear it might make us violent and militaristic, although there’s a pretty sorry history of kings and popes and ordinary Christians taking passages like this literally enough to go out and force others to convert – in our own context I have more of a problem with images like this that encourage us to feel defensive.  Like 1st century Christians, 21st century Christians too often feel embattled, sensing that the seductions and the cares of the world outside are laying siege to an increasingly rickety-looking fortress of faith.  And there’s a temptation to withdraw into the shared language and familiar ritual of a faith that is more about our own reassurance than about being strengthened to share in God’s great work of shalom.

Actually the prayer of Solomon that we read this morning wasn’t written down at the time by some temple recorder on the scene, but hundreds of years later, by Jewish priests in Babylon after the beloved temple had been destroyed. God’s people and the worship of Yahweh had been fundamentally changed through the experience of exile.  It’s a retrospective from a later time when the sacred place in which God’s presence had been experienced was lost, a poignant looking back, and what is most remarkable is that the scribes put on Solomon’s lips a prayer for inclusiveness.  “When foreigners pray towards this place”, he asks God, “hear them”.  It’s a realisation that the temple can’t be a fortress if God is to be truly present, to be a thin place it has to be permeable, to leak like a sieve, in fact.  To be truly sustained by the living water of our own faith we need to offer it to strangers, and we also need to drink deeply from the wells of others.  It’s about a basic orientation, instead of fearful apprehension and holding tightly to the practices and truths of the past, to be open to what God’s un-pin-downable Spirit is revealing to us in our own times and how God might be leading us into the future.

Solomon’s prayer, I think, gets it about right.  A presence that’s also an absence.  A thin place that points to something beyond itself, an openness to the Spirit of God who is encountered in all things and whose truth cannot be contained here.  A place, not a refuge, not of certainty, but of welcome and of humble listening.