Saturday, March 26, 2011

Lent 3

There’s a story I hear a while ago – probably apocryphal, one of those stories that maybe never happened but should have – and it’s set in the 1930’s in the outback of Australia where Afghan camel drivers made improbable journeys across the desert.  And there is a traveller who is lost – how he got there I don’t know, but he is out of water and wandering in circles when he comes across an old water pump that at first glance just looks like a piece of rusted junk.  Attached to the pump handle however, he finds a tin can, and when he gets the lid off he finds a letter folded up tightly - and he reads the faded writing:

"The pump is alright.  I just used it (1932) - but the leather washer dries out and so it’s got to be primed.  Under the flat rock you’ll find a bottle of water - there's enough in it to prime the pump, but not if you go drinking it.  Pour some out to wet the leather.  Then pour in the rest and pump like crazy.  This well has never run dry.  When you’ve got all you need, fill up the bottle and put it back where you found it for the next feller.  (signed) Afghan Billy."

Well it’s one of those stories about a dilemma.  How much do you trust Afghan Billy?  How much faith are you going to put in a rusty pump sticking up out of the desert? On the one hand you’ve got a bottle of stale water that is guaranteed to keep you alive for half a day.  On the other hand you’ve got Afghan Billy telling you there is enough fresh water under your feet to meet all your needs and more.  Onlt catch is – you’ve got to pour out the little bit you’ve got!

We’re living in the second driest State, on the driest continent on earth.  Perth’s water supply, as we are by now all too aware, is precarious.  I remember reading, in the early 90s, that Perth is floating on a deep aquifer with enough fresh water in it to supply the city for 500 years.  Only trouble is we don’t quite know what the environmental consequences would be if we drew large quantities out of it.  The availability of water defines the limits of what’s possible – sitting on the edge of the desert, no water means things die, not enough water means growth goes backwards. 

The whole earth needs water.  Water is what life is made out of.  But we don’t just need water for drinking, or just to water our lawns or drive the engines of industry – we don’t just need physical water but also spiritual water – just as the availability of physical water defines the limits of our physical lives, so our lives contract and dry up if there is no spiritual refreshment, if the wellspring of the spirit dries up in us then our lives shrivel up.

That's how it is with Jesus and the woman of Samaria.  Jesus is thirsty, he is out of place walking the wilderness roads northwards into Samaria, and he needs water.  The Israelites in our first reading are also out of place, wandering in the desert that can’t possibly sustain their lives.  The water they find there reminds them – and us – that God is not limited by our categories of what is or isn’t possible, that we encounter God in the dry and inhospitable places just as much as we do in the leafy green places that we long for.  So Jesus asks for water in an unfamiliar, inhospitable place, on a hot day – asks for life-giving water from a woman who is not only a despised Samaritan but an outcast in her own community – coming as she does to the well in the middle of the day means she is not welcome with the other women who would have come in the cool of the evening – married five times in a society where women aren’t free to choose their husbands means she has probably been divorced five times, or some of her husbands have died, and she is now forced to accept a roof over her head from a man who refuses to marry her.  By implication, this woman is barren, childless – rejected in her own village – yet Jesus chooses to engage her in conversation, both asking her for refreshment and offering her the water of life.  As she is drawn into an understanding of who Jesus is and what he is offering – she is energised and refreshed and she becomes the water-bearer for the whole village – because this outsider has become the one through whom others also have been enabled to drink.  

The water of refreshment comes when Jesus dares to cross the boundaries of convention, when Jesus recognises her as a person who can refresh him by giving something of herself, and as a person able to recognise who he is at the deepest level.  That's the sort of water we need.  Living water is the water that Jesus gives us when he shares himself with us and we recognise that he comes from God – living water is the water we give to others and receive from others when we share with them who we are, and we recognise the trickle of delight that runs deep inside that person because they like ourselves are a child of God.  That living water is not just found in church – it is found in shopping centres and at bus stops and in all the most unlikely places because, as the Israelites found in the desert, God is just as much present there – but the church as the resurrection body of Christ is especially in the business of dispensing it.  The church is in the business of carrying water, the business of sinking wells. 

I guess that each of us have decided that church is a good way to spend your time on a precious Sunday morning because, at least at some point in our lives, we have found that to be here, and to encounter Christ in one another and in the bread and wine of the Eucharist, we have found a source of life-sustaining refreshment.  Maybe we come because we know that if we have a hard week there is something in us that needs to be refilled, we need to touch the source of life and love – for us to keep meeting the demands of our own lives and to give of ourselves in our relationships we need to have our own needs met here.  But is there sometimes a trade-off for us between drinking the spiritual water we need for ourselves and being the water-carriers for others?  Is the cost of sharing living water with those who are in need, that we don’t get to drink deeply ourselves?  Is there enough water to go around? That’s a question that comes up for churches that start to think about doing things differently, changing some familiar traditions to make the message of the Gospel more accessible to people who come through the door for the first time  – why do we actually come here? Because this is where we find water, or to offer water to those who need it? 

That’s the issue – do we go for the familiar and safe, or are we prepared to take a risk?  Afghan Billy reminds us that at the heart of the life of faith is the requirement that we take risks. “You'll get water.  This well has never run dry." That's what Christian faith is all about.  "Pour out the little water you’ve got - then pump like crazy."  Faith is about taking risks and trusting God.  When you "pour out the little bit you’ve got and pump like crazy," you are daring, not just to conserve what you’ve been given, but to multiply it, to work together with God's creative energy, to throw yourself into the process.

The other word for this is responsibility.  Accepting responsibility for the future, taking risks for the sake of others.  The alternative is to be a one-talent church – to bury what we’ve got in the hope of at least ending up with what we had at the beginning.

But if we pour out the little we’ve got and "pump like crazy" that's an act of faith - faith in things not seen, faith in God, faith in human beings.  It's also a gift of hope – especially the sort of hope we call imagination – the sort of hope that encourages us to take risks and to trust in what is yet to be.

Most importantly of all, it’s an act of love.  I can’t imagine why Afghan Billy would have left that note in the first place except as an act of love – or why anyone who found that note and trusted its writer enough to act on it and pour our the little bit of water in the bottle without drinking it would take such a risk unless they knew that it was a gift of love.  Or why we would take such an absurd risk as to pour out the little bit of water we’ve got - unless we trust that the God who gave us the bottle of water in the first place loves us enough to show us how to get the pump going and fulfil the promise of living water to give new life not only to us but to others as well.

Ultimately the thing about living water is that it never stands still.  In the original languages of the Bible ‘living water’ means literally running water, water that gives life because it’s not stagnant but flowing and fresh.  You don’t get to hold on to living water but only to channel it, to make sure it goes where it’s needed.  Like the woman of Samaria, we find ourselves unexpectedly transformed by the gift of living water.  What are we going to do with it?


Saturday, March 19, 2011

Lent 2

A box without hinges, key or lid.

Yet golden treasure inside is hid.

In JRR Tolkien’s fantasy novel, The Hobbit, poor Bilbo Baggins who really wanted nothing more out of life than to live in his comfortable hobbit-hole at Bag End where the kettle was always on the stove and afternoon tea was served every day at 3.00 o’clock and half past four precisely – poor Bilbo Baggins finds himself stuck in a dark wet cave with a nasty creature who insists on playing a game of riddles.  The problem is that the stakes are rather high – if Bilbo wins Gollum gets to show him the way out – but if Gollum wins – then Bilbo gets to be dinner.  This riddle nearly stumped Gollum because it was along time since Gollum had been out of his cave, and he’d forgotten what an egg looked like.

This is what you have to do to see God’s kingdom.

Be born from the wind.

It’s passages like this that show us Jesus at play.  Like Bilbo’s riddling, this is serious play.  There’s a lot at stake, for Nicodemus and perhaps for Jesus as well.  It’s in passages like this that we see through the gentle Jesus meek and mild stereotype, because here we see Jesus as the verbal gymnast who sums the situation up at a glance and who in a single stunning metaphor leads his ambiguous visitor into a moment of self-transcendence.

Why does Nicodemus come to Jesus at night?  Is it just because Nicodemus, an important religious leader, doesn’t want to get jostled by the crowds around Jesus?  Is it because he’s afraid to be seen?  In the heavy symbolism of John’s gospel, the ones who act under cover of darkness are generally the ones who oppose the light that is coming into the world through God’s Son.  They are the ones who prefer the darkness to the light.  So there’s a hint of danger here – and yet – this isn’t a Pharisee-setting-a-trap story.  Nicodemus is in earnest, he is meeting with Jesus privately and he is clearly representing others as well as himself.  We know that you are a teacher come from God.  Is this some sort of back-room deal being proposed?  Nicodemus has been compelled into belief by the signs he has seen Jesus doing, maybe he wants to know if Jesus can establish his credentials in a way that will be acceptable to the establishment.  There’s clearly a lot at stake here for Nicodemus, and perhaps there’s a lot at stake for Jesus too.  I wonder if there is a temptation here for Jesus to become a respectable religious leader – a leader with status and power?  Go on - throw yourself down from the highest point of the temple - let them catch you.

Sometimes I think Nicodemus gets a bad rap – he’s the one who gets it all wrong because he takes Jesus literally and so he misses the whole point.  Bit of a dumbkopf.  Call yourself a teacher?  At the same time, I don’t know about you – I find myself relating pretty strongly to Nicodemus – for modern-day disciples who, like me, sometimes feel a bit ambiguous – we want to follow Jesus but we’d like some guarantees first, and we wouldn’t mind having a foot in the worldly-power camp at the same time – for us, Nicodemus is the pin-up boy.  In fact, as we learn later in the gospel, Nicodemus the secret disciple ends by declaring his allegiance publicly and, for John’s community at the end of the first century, he may even have represented the ideal type of the synagogue-going Jewish Christian who was being forced to choose one side or the other.  Nicodemus passes the test, and so does Jesus.  But here at the start, Nicodemus believes for the wrong reasons.

We need to go back just a bit, to the end of chapter two where we read that because of the miraculous things Jesus was doing, many people started to believe in him.  Trouble was, Jesus didn’t believe in them.  Being impressed is not a sufficient basis for faith.  Jesus, who knows what goes on in people’s hearts, is not impressed by those who believe in him because he performs miracles.  Because real faith is about transformation.  So this is the first problem with Nicodemus – he believes in Jesus because Jesus does what Nicodemus expects that the one sent from God should do – Nicodemus has already made up his mind about what should and what shouldn’t be possible with God.

I remember a number of years ago being described publicly by a person who didn’t know me as a ‘born-again Christian’.  I wasted no time in rejecting that description, mainly because it seemed to label me as a particular sort of Christian – as a label it seemed to describe the sort of faith that is all enthusiasm and no depth – and the sort of person who looks back on a particular moment in time as the moment of conversion – the moment when everything was all of a sudden changed for ever – and life gets divided into ‘before’ and ‘after’.  To me, that didn’t fit as a description of how I had come to faith, because it seemed to me that I hadn’t experienced a single moment of conversion, instead my life was more like a journey that was gradually leading me deeper and deeper into an understanding of God as the ground of my being, and Jesus as the one who reveals what God is like.  A journey that was leading me deeper into the way of contemplative prayer.  But a journey that had its ups and downs, a journey that seemed to bring me sometimes closer and sometimes further away from God.  More like snakes and ladders than being born again.

I got an email the other day from a colleague who complained that if Nicodemus was such a dumbkopf for misunderstanding what Jesus meant, then so was he.  In fact, so are all of us in the church because we’re still arguing over what this one saying of Jesus means.

Jesus, in fact, is posing a riddle.  Turning away from Nicodemus’s categorical statements about what should or shouldn’t be possible for God, turning away from Nicodemus’s emphasis on working it out and getting it right, Jesus says no, just do this: just be born out of the wind.  The Greek word Jesus uses is anothen – it can mean ‘again’ and it also means ‘from above’, from the spirit or from the wind.  There’s no way of translating it into English without choosing one of the meanings and letting the other one go.  That’s what Nicodemus does, he decides that Jesus means he needs to be born again, born anew – if we assume that Jesus means we have to be born again then the logical question –that Nicodemus asks – is what do we have to do to make that happen?  And that’s still the trouble with ‘born again’ talk.  What do we have to do?  Is there some special prayer?  Do we have to practice talking in tongues?  What if you just can’t?  And when does it happen?  Was there a special moment, for you, or is it a journey?

But Jesus says, this isn’t about what you do.  You don’t give birth to yourself.  Your mother gives birth to you – being born of water reminds us of the physicality of birth, and the physicality of baptism – for Jesus there is no diving line between the spiritual world and the physical world – your mother gives birth to you and God is the one who breathes life into you and gives you birth from above.  And that’s just the start of it, because when you are born then you begin to grow, and you begin to learn about the world around you.  But you don’t get to control being born.  The spirit blows wherever it blows.  Being born of the wind means allowing the Spirit to just be, and to fill our sails and blow us along without knowing quite how that works.  Nicodemus wants to ask Jesus ‘how to’ questions, and Jesus tells him about the God who gives birth to us.  Notice that here Jesus gives us an image of God as a mother – be born from above, not begotten from above.  And this maybe gives a clue to the meaning of his next riddle.  You are born from above when I am lifted up on the cross.  You don’t give birth to yourself.  When you are born, there is blood, but isn’t your blood – it belongs to the one who gives birth to you, it belongs to the God who gives you birth into new life.  For John, the writer of this gospel, there is never any separation between suffering and exaltation – Jesus is exalted right in the moment of the crucifixion and in the same way the eternal life that Jesus promises is experienced right now.  Eternal life is not something we have to wait for until this life is over, it’s not something we have to wait for until Jesus returns, rather, it is the quality of living in the Spirit that Jesus describes when he prays that his disciples may be one, as he and the Father are one; ‘I in them, and you in me, that they be become completely one’.

So, how do you do that?  You don’t.  You just need to be willing to be changed.  You receive the gift and if you’re willing to be changed by it, then your life gets reshaped and redefined by the love of God that is in Jesus.

Some things have to be believed to be seen.

Just be born of the wind.



Saturday, March 12, 2011

First Sunday in Lent

It often amazes me whenever I watch TV police dramas, especially the British ones, that the code of honour amongst crooks is so strong.  Time and time again the suspect, who knows he’s been caught red-handed, refuses to grass up his mate even when it’s blindingly clear his mate has landed him in it.  I remember as a child one of the first lines of defence whenever I got into trouble – objectively, I’m not sure how often that was but it seemed to be all the time – the first thing to try to do was to point the finger at somebody else.  It seemed to come instinctively ... ‘it wasn’t me it was her’.

Evasion of responsibility seems to come pretty naturally to human beings, and our story from Genesis shows we’ve been trying to get away with it for as long as civilisation has been around.  It tells us some other things about ourselves also, such as our fear of having our internal contradictions exposed, our fear of being naked, metaphorically speaking, of being seen for who and what we secretly know ourselves to be.  Most of us have probably had that dream where we turn up for some important appointment, maybe an exam or a big meeting at work, and suddenly realise to our horror that we are stark naked ... if so, we know something of what Adam and Eve are going through today.

It’s what Bible scholars call an aetiological myth, which means that it is a story that tries to answer some nagging problems about how things came to be like they are.  Why are we so wilful?  Why do we so often do  - not only the exact opposite of what some authority figure tells us we must do, but what deep down we know is best for us?  Why is the grass always greener on the other side of the fence? Why do our best efforts and our smartest ideas so often turn to ashes and leave us looking and feeling foolish?  Why do we so often feel like naughty children even when we are way old enough to know better?  Why are things so hard? Why do we have to work for a living? Why is there pain in the world?  Why do snakes bite us? If God really did create us in God’s own image, then why don’t we want to do the things God wants us to do?

And so, at the beginning of the journey of Lent, we go back to that most ancient story to think about why we need to be on the journey in the first place.  And so we find ourselves back in the garden with the archetypal human couple, Adam and Eve. For me, anyway, the evocative power of this story was made even more intriguing with the discovery 10 or 15 years ago by biologists working with fossilised human remains that all of us living today share a common female ancestor, not so remote even as we might think, an individual living not much more than 100,000 years ago in central Africa – of course it was a discovery that challenged a great deal of what was then known about the spread of human civilisation, and the lady in question was promptly nicknamed Eve.  That’s by-the-by, I guess, but there is a great deal in the Genesis story of Adam and Eve that tells us what it means to be human.

And God places the creature of earth – which is what the name Adam means – in the garden to tend and nurture it.  The King James version, that most of us instinctively remember at this point, is not really correct in translating this as to ‘till’  - the actual Hebrew word means to serve, and comes from the same root as the word for slave.  Human beings are to care for and protect, not to consume and plunder.  We are to work in partnership with the earth to make it fruitful so that we and all earth’s creatures and life systems flourish together.  There’s an important difference which, given the environmental tipping point the planet finds itself at today, Christian theology needs to reflect on closely.

Secondly, the human creatures’ own needs are provided for in the garden, they are given a place in which they can flourish, but it is a freedom with limitations.  God tells them they must not eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil – an expression that in other parts of the Bible is simply taken as meaning everything – the good and the bad together.  Human wisdom has limits, and for human beings to live in the natural environment in a way that leads to mutual flourishing means understanding and respecting those limits.

All goes well for a time, but inevitably, there is a snake in the grass.  Freud aside, I don’t think the Bible is especially negative about snakes, especially since the seraphim, the holy creatures that hover around God’s throne room in the prophet visions of prophets such as Ezekiel, are basically snakes with multiple wings.  But the Bible does seem to assume snakes are powerful and mysterious creatures, and that’s not so surprising, every culture in the world seems to have some difficult story about snakes and how they got to be so scary.  And the snake is clever – the Hebrew word arum is a pun as the man and woman are naked – arunim – so somehow the craftiness of the serpent and the defencelessness of the man and woman are going to be contrasted.

Interestingly, the snake chooses the woman, not the man, to engage in conversation, and even more interestingly, the woman responds to the snake’s question ‘you can’t eat just anything, can you?’  by revealing she is already very intrigued about the off-limits fruit.  Not only does she tell the serpent they are forbidden from eating the fruit, she goes even further than God’s original warning by claiming that even if they touch the tree they will die.  The serpent argues the point – perhaps we might see a parallel in our own experience with the sort of elaborated arguments we carry in our own heads between what we know we should do and what we’d rather do – not only won’t you die if you eat this, but you’ll actually experience renewed life, the fruit of this tree will literally be an eye-opening experience – the divine knowledge it promises will make them gods themselves! 

So the woman eats, having been persuaded – or having persuaded herself – that the promised knowledge is going to be life-giving, not life-diminishing.  And then offers some to the man who – without any of the internal dialogue or conflict – takes it and eats.  The first woman might have been an opportunistic theologian – the man, it seems, is simply driven by his belly.

Then things start happening. "The eyes of both were opened (was the snake then right about the tree?), and they knew that they were naked . . ." It was indeed a tree of knowledge; they now "know" that they are naked, in other words they know their own defencelessness and vulnerability, they know that they can be seen through.  It is the birth of a sort of self-awareness that comes with curiosity about the world, and reflects the one thing that makes us human – our ability to reflect on ourselves, to find ourselves wanting and to recognise the discrepancy between our desire to put ourselves at the centre of our moral universe, and our true need to live within a network of relationships that puts limits on our desires but leads to mutual flourishing.  Before the man and woman acquire the ambivalent gift of self-awareness, their defencelessness was not a problem as they unconsciously lived within the garden in which all things had their natural relation.  But actually to be human is to be a breaker of limitations, to be human is to be curious and to reach for what is beyond your grasp – so at one level the story of the garden is the story of every one of us coming to self-awareness and having to learn the trade-off between self-actualisation and living in community, between getting what we want and learning to live in harmony with all that God has created in a way that leads to mutual flourishing. 

But in a way that modern human beings can surely relate to, for the first humans the first thing their new self-awareness leads to – is shame.  At first, in the garden of pre-awareness, their nakedness – their see-through-ableness - is not a problem, but now they go to ludicrous lengths to hide themselves. "And they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves." And so the story (or at least today’s instalment of it) ends in hilarious fashion, because ancient men and women knew all too well what fig leaves feel like – sticky and raspy ... You can imagine that when this basically comic tale was spun around the campfires everyone broke up laughing at this point. They sewed what together? A somewhat uncomfortable way to avoid the discomfort of being exposed for who they really were.

But of course that is the point of the story. When human beings set out to play God, we metaphorically sew fig leaves together to cover our nakedness, because, as we ought to expect, God is all too right about us. We simply cannot eat from the tree of divine knowledge; but at the same time we can’t stop ourselves. It’s what it means to be human, and perhaps God knew that all along or else why would the tree have been in the garden in the first place?

The good news of this story – which the lectionary writers haven’t let us get to yet – is that the strategy doesn’t work, and God continues to be able to see us, and see through us.  And yet God’s knowledge of Adam and Eve – or of us – does not condemn but them but creates a new future and a new history.  Turns out of course to be impossible to go back to Eden, and most of us, I suspect, would find it pretty boring.  But on this Lenten journey we learn again how to cast our fig leaves aside – how to be naked before the one who made us and who alone is able to resolve the contradictions of our human-ness.


Thursday, March 10, 2011

Funeral of David Woods

Often when I take a funeral it is for a person who died at the right time and then right place - at the end of a long and productive life, when death comes as a familiar and expected, if not entirely welcome friend.  And it’s easy under those circumstances to make the funeral a celebration, and to rejoice together over happy memories and acknowledge everything that the one we have loved has passed down to us.  Other times, death comes unexpectedly, tragically, and we can only console one another with the knowledge of God’s love that has welcomed home the one we didn’t want to lose.  And it’s like that with David, in fact with the three funerals this family has gathered for at St Michaels over the last six months, Shirley, Helen and David, siblings who have left too soon, with too much unfulfilled and unexpressed.  The third time in six months that we have gathered together the grief of this family and seen in the faces of its younger members the pain of losing another respected and loved elder, the knowledge of losing a relationship that should have been able to grow and deepen over the years, and the wisdom and love that parents and grandparents and uncles and aunties need to and should be able to pass on to younger people.  The third time in six months we have gathered together the grief of what was originally 10 siblings, and seen in their faces what it means to lose one who knew you from your earliest days, who knows your stories and who shares your memories.  The third time we have been forced to reflect on why Noongar people continue in this wealthy country to die too young, to reflect on what sort of message we are sending to the younger members of this family, and perhaps to wonder how we might tell the story of this family in a way that will give inspiration and hope, as well as pride.  To give thanks for the strength of a family that holds together and supports its weakest members, and to reflect on how this family can commit itself to creating a new story of self-respect and pride and responsibility for one another - so that we no longer have to keep gathering here to farewell its middle-aged members dead a quarter of a century before their time.

Where can we find hope in a life cut short leaving so much unfulfilled and so many promises unkept?  There are, I think, two narratives of hope – two stories that intersect here today, and both of them tell us something about hope.  And the first story is the story of this family itself.  It is a story that – I admit – I have only glimpsed over the years and never fully understood – a story of pride in who you are, the pride of Noongar people who have endured generations of family separation and loss of country, loss of opportunity, generations of being seen as second-class citizens in your own country, the country that you belong to and from which, for generations, you have been forcibly removed.  To have endured as a people and as a family is remarkable.  To have endured without a burden of bitterness, and with the ability to laugh and love, and to welcome someone such as me into your family at such a personal time – is remarkable.  To have endured with the generosity of spirit that I have come to recognise in you – is remarkable.  But to acknowledge and undertake the task that lies ahead of you as a family, the task of imagining a future in which young Noongar people grow up with an education and find meaningful work, the task of letting go of self-destructive patterns and ways of coping so that young people can see that you believe in them and in their future, so that young people can model themselves on you – this is a task that takes courage and commitment and love – but it’s a task that your history tells you you are strong enough and proud enough to undertake.  To walk away from here today with the commitment that no more members of this family will die twenty five years before their time is an undertaking that will honour the lives and deaths of Shirley, Helen and David – and an undertaking that will honour the future promise that you see in the faces of your children.

The second narrative of hope comes from our faith in God – a faith that is never more clearly on display than in times of hardship and grief.  Although we grieve for David we can be glad that his life now rests with God, and trust that the God who creates us in love will complete his loving purposes for David.  As Christians we don’t presume to understand this, we don’t know anything about the fulfilment that lies beyond this life, but we believe that the universe makes sense.  We believe that the love that brings the whole of creation into being, including us, that this love does not abandon us in death.

The psalm we read from this afternoon, psalm 73, tells us something about the mystery of life where so much seems unfair.  Where not everybody has the same life chances, where bad people can thrive and good people are defeated – and like so many of the psalms, this one doesn’t use especially polite language to express to God a sense of frustration and even anger at the unfairness of life.  Why, the psalmist says, did I even bother to try to live a good life?  Has it been for nothing that I have put up with all this heartache?  And then the psalmist remembers – that through everything, God is with him.  Through the whole of this life, our sufferings are God’s sufferings too, because this is the God who is committed to travelling with us through thick and thin.  This is the God who receives us after this life into our true heavenly home, the home that Jesus tells his disciples about in the verse that I read to you at the beginning of the service.  God’s love – which in this life we do experience through the love of family and friends – is the one constant and the one promise that we can rely on, and the guarantee by which we can have confidence in commending David now to God’s care.


Ash Wednesday

A number of years ago I set out on a day’s walk with a group of friends.  We planned to climb Mt Wellington, just outside Hobart, and had chosen a mild summer’s day which Hobart turns on so beautifully.  The walking track began just a few blocks up from the house I lived in Nelson Rd, Sandy Bay, and unlike the road that jack-knifed back and forwards to allow cars to climb the mountain at a gentle enough incline – the walking track cut all the corners, climbing straight up the side of the mountain.  Within a half an hour or so we were deep in the fragrant bushland you only encounter in Tasmania, pushing through bracken and scrambling up banks of damp loamy soil, breathing in the scents of leatherwood and honeysuckle, becoming aware of the buzzing of real live bumblebees growing louder than the receding sounds of city traffic.

Every few hundred metres the walking track crosses back over a loop of the road, but the drivers take it easy up the side of the mountain, you get a few waves from cars that you saw back at the last loop but for most of the time we were on our own, not talking so much as the climbing got harder and steeper, beginning to use hands as much as feet to pull ourselves up the track.  Every now and then pausing for a drink and to look back over our shoulders at the city and the Derwent Estuary below us, enjoying the sounds of birds and invisible animals all around us.  Until – two-thirds or so of the way up the side of the mountain – at a height of about 800 metres – we climbed into a cloud.

For anybody who has never had this experience, it was like stepping abruptly into a refrigerated sauna.  Wetter than your regular fog, you could feel the graininess of the water vapour, feel yourself getting wet as you climbed and unable to see anything further away than the rear of the person climbing in front of you.  Checking the weather forecast, we hadn’t thought about checking whether Mt Wellington would be covered in cloud.  Within a few minutes we were saturated, but of course with the foolishness of youth kept climbing anyway.  Once on top of the mountain, we had a very good view of – five feet in front of us – and had the sense at least not to wander around up there and lose our bearings.  The feeling was of being cocooned, adrift in a sea of cold, wet cotton wool, cut off from everywhere and every when, wrapped in a wet blanket of no place, no time, no-body.

So we ate our sandwiches and drank our hot tea from thermos flasks, and turned back down the track, more than a little bit miffed at having missed out on the view we figured we had well and truly earned.  Until – 400 or so metres below the summit, as abruptly as we entered it, we stumbled back out of the cloud into the late summer afternoon and felt the warmth of the sun, saw the city, the river, the bush and even started to hear the sounds of animals and birds and traffic again.

On the Feast of the Transfiguration, just a few days ago, we ventured up a mountain and stepped into a cloud, and I suggested that this cloud might be a good place to begin the journey of Lent.  This evening, in our first reading from the Book of Joel, we hear the rumblings of thunder getting louder as the cloud approaches.  This time it doesn’t seem to be a very friendly cloud, and in fact if we read a little farther we realise that it isn’t your regular cloud, because this is a cloud of locusts.  This is a batten-down-the hatches sort of cloud, a cloud that strips bare everything in its path, a purposeful and vengeful cloud that pares you down to the bone.  Ancient farmers and modern ones alike are largely powerless in the face of this cloud, it is a cloud from which you can only pray for deliverance.

And I want to suggest that the cloud of Mt Sinai and the cloud of the prophet Joel both have something to say about the cloud of unknowing into which we are invited to step as we enter the season of Lent. The phrase, the ‘cloud of unknowing’ comes to us as the title of a book on contemplative prayer written, it is supposed, by some anonymous English priest in the fourteenth century who invites us to notice the connection between forgetting ourselves and remembering or grounding ourselves in who we truly are.  Of course it is an extended metaphor, and one to which I can hardly do justice in the space of a brief sermon, but the Cloud author invites us to step into the cloud of self-forgetfulness, to deliberately choose opacity and disorientation, the narrowing of horizons and the fearful isolation of the cloud that he also describes as the hidden-ness of God.  The goal of prayer, he teaches, is to be transparent to God, to be lost in God and immersed in God – and this means choosing to step into the cloud that obscures our everyday vision, that blanks out our Monday to Friday agenda, that disorientates us from our regular sense of which way is up and who we even are.  Less a poetic reflection than a practical, step-by-step manual of instruction in the paradoxical art of contemplative, wordless prayer, the Cloud of Unknowing is built on a simple, paradoxical and yet obvious truth – in order to be laid bare and lost in God we need first to be naked and abandoned and lost to our own preconceptions, our own best theories.  We don’t find a way to God by following a map of our own making but by trusting the one who invites us to step beyond everything we cling to for security and self-affirmation.

Writing at a time of national emergency, however (as indeed most of the prophets are when they are at their most articulate) – the prophet Joel warns us that this cloud has teeth.  This cloud can strip you bare of your pretensions, not only disorientate you but destroy your ability to believe any longer in the myth of your self-sufficiency.  This cloud leaves you with no option but to depend on the one who calls you to step blindly into it.  Spirituality is not for wimps.

The great psychologist Carl Jung commented once that the Hebrew Bible with its emphasis on the dangerousness and the scariness of God has it exactly right.  He likened human spirituality, the need for connection with our Creator, to a subterranean river, a powerful current that most of the time runs unnoticed through our lives and connects us with the ocean.  Except, he said, when it gets blocked.  When human beings forget that they are spiritual creatures, forget that they are made in the image of God and need to be constantly refreshed by the subterranean currents.  When we start to believe in the dangerous fantasy of our own self, the fairytale that it is we ourselves who have created, not only ourselves but the world we inhabit, and we concrete over the underground streams of our lives.  Of course human beings can live like that for a long time.  But that, Jung taught, is when the underground waters of the Spirit become dangerous, when our own unacknowledged need can erupt from underneath and overwhelm us.  The cloud of unknowing into which we are invited to step is not a soft blanket of cotton wool but a cloud of devouring locusts that strip away from us the hard shells we have carefully constructed around our lives, everything that prevents us being open and vulnerable to one another and to God.  We are being invited to submit to the hard discipline of being deconstructed, the extreme backyard makeover of the soul.

Lent invites us to be unsettled, to forget ourselves in order that we may experience the remembering of God.  This is not a fancy play on words but urgent advice to 21st century men and women who find it difficult to look beneath the surface of things, for whom the dark corners and ambiguous spaces of life are rarely visited.  Pray this Lent to be disorientated from your own prejudices and certainties so that the foolishness of God can settle on you, to be stripped bare of your hard protective shell so that you can be wounded by the suffering of God and the unanswered need of men and women, to be enveloped in the cloud of forgetfulness so that the one thing you can remember is that your true home is in the heart of God.

And so I invite you to a holy Lent, to fast from all that anchors you to false conceptions of your own competence and your own needs, from false notions of self-sufficiency.  To re-order your attention from seductive and false narratives of the self so that you might finally hear the whispering of the one who made you.  To immerse yourself in the hiddenness and the darkness of God through the gentle discipline of prayer and through simple acts of compassion. 



Saturday, March 05, 2011

Feast of the Transfiguration

A friend told me the story of picking her grade one-er up at the end of his first full day of school – the teacher had set the kids the task of making posters about what they wanted to learn in school that year so all around the room she saw the usual crayon drawings with “learn to sit up straight” and “listen to the teacher” ... “be good” ... and underneath one particularly abstract drawing “why does the sea shine like it’s on fire?”

Painters get it, and poets get it.  Homer writes about the wine-dark sea, leaving the literal-minded to wonder whether he was colour-blind.  Most of us, most of the time, look at the world we live in and see a list of jobs to be finished, rules to be followed, problems to be solved, we divide the world into stuff we have to do before we can knock off and watch TV, and stuff that could go wrong.  This grade one-er looks at the ocean at the end of the day and sees a sheet of liquid gold. 

Well we all do, sometimes – at the end of a long day, when our defences are down, when we are not feeling totally in control or when we find ourselves in a place of exceptional natural beauty - and suddenly realise we never noticed the world looked like that.  And we find ourselves transfixed by the deep down freshness of what is, and perhaps reflect that the world does, after all, reveal its Creator.

That’s part, I suspect, of what transfiguration is about, the unlearning of old habits of selective vision, the setting aside of old habits of what we notice and what we leave out of our comprehension of reality that perhaps needs to happen before we can learn to live in ways that parallel the movement of the Holy Spirit in our lives.  What comes first is learning to see, to pay attention to what really is, instead of just seeing what we expect. 

So the disciples go with Jesus up the mountain – away from their everyday routine – where for a short time they see Jesus as he really is, an experience that both illuminates and terrifies them, a vision that at the same time seems to lie outside and beyond their ordinary reality and yet at the same time makes this world clearer and deeper and more mysterious.  Writer Annie Dillard describes the similar experience of people blind since birth who receive the gift of sight following surgery.  She tells us that even to begin to see, the newly sighted need to learn to reconcile their pre-existing ideas of the world with the new sensations of colour and distance and shape.  The radical new gift is often experienced at first not as a blessing but as a confusing, troubling contradiction – and the newly sighted person often goes through a phase of wishing they had never received it. 

Both the Old Testament reading from the Book of Exodus, and Matthew’s story of the Transfiguration, have got to do with marvellously mythic experiences on mountains – mythic, that is, not in the sense of being less than true but in the sense of being deeply, powerfully and un-pin-downably true.  Writer Madeleine L’Engel complains about the inability of late-modern men and women to comprehend myth, seeing a parallel between the Western world’s literal loss of vocabulary in the late 20th and early 21st centuries and the loss of depth by which we take seriously the claims of television commercials but no longer remember how to inhabit the truly transformative narratives of our own culture.  The category of myth is of course related to the ability to suddenly see the depth dimension of human experience, and so today’s readings invite us to pay attention in a different way, to prepare ourselves to perceive our reality in a new and transformed way.

Both of our stories today involve mountains, both have something to do with revelation and Torah, the law that gives life, and both have something to do with Moses, the archetypal mediator between God and God’s people.  Both Moses and Jesus are transformed, but not in some sort of private mystical experience. God’s revelation, and the human response to it, are experienced in community and in and through God’s creation, both human and non-human.

The 24th chapter of Exodus, part of the ancient Holiness Code that spans anything up to 1,000 years, attempts in part to answer the question, ‘how can unholy human beings approach the holiness of God’?  God is not safe, the holiness of God is volatile, and mostly in the Book of Exodus the clear answer is that sinful human beings had better keep their distance.  Moses alone is able to act as a go-between.  Except in the few verses that come just before today’s reading, verses 9 to 11 that record a different tradition - Moses goes up the mountain with Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders.  The same Aaron who a few chapters later will collude with the people in making an idol of gold, the same Nadab and Abihu who, in the Book of Leviticus (chapter 10) offer unholy sacrifices and are consumed by fire from God - elsewhere in the tradition of the Hebrew Bible to see God is to die, and yet in these verses Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and the 70 elders see God, even noticing that the pavement under God’s feet is made of clear blue sapphire, and Exodus records ‘God did not lay a hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; yet they beheld God, and they ate and drank.’ Up there on the mountain, casually and unworthily, they meet God and sit down to a picnic. 

The bit we read this morning, starting from verse 12, seems to be an alternative memory of the same scene in which Moses alone is invited to climb the mountain and he leaves Aaron and the others behind while he goes up alone receive the tablets of the Torah.  The mountain is obscured by a cloud in which God’s glory settles on the mountain, and for six days there is silence.  On day seven God calls to Moses out of the cloud – in this version Moses doesn’t see God directly, just the glory of God like a devouring fire on top of the mountain.  Down below, the trembling people see the fire, while on the mountain Moses enters the cloud alone and remains there for 40 days and nights.

What are we to make of these strange pyrotechnic stories, and what do they mean for us?  Clouds and fire and divine voices, or just the distant recollection of a volcano and the primitive attempt to make sense of it? We late moderns, who believe in Brandpower but are blasé about the birth of solar systems, who go to sleep out of sheer boredom on supersonic aircraft and who have seen enough mushroom clouds that they no longer have the power to haunt even our dreams – how excited can we get about mountains spewing flames and clouds and stones miles into the sky?  Living in a culture that reduces the experience of coming face to face with the living God to a three-letter text message – OMG – have we lost the ability to hear the voice of God in the groaning of the earth?  Has the story of Jesus' chat with Moses and Elijah on a later mountain simply become over-familiar and quaint?

On the feast of the Transfiguration, it seems to me, we are invited to reflect on what is actually at stake for us, on whether our investment and our expectations are large enough and on whether we are even paying enough attention.  Maybe we can even hear the voice of Jesus asking us: ‘what did you come here for? To be entertained? To be soothed?  Or are you prepared to be over-whelmed and changed?’

We are about to enter the season of Lent, another over-familiar story rendered banal by generations of questions about whether we should give up eating chocolate or drinking alcohol.  This year, try something risky, instead.  This year, try seeing.  Try forty days of living inside the cloud that obscures your vision of everything that distracts you from the clear quiddity of what is.  Step into the season of Lent with the commitment to keeping your eyes and ears open for the presence of God, for the priorities and purposes of God in the world and for your own place in God’s purposes.  Enter the season of Lent aware of the ways in which you need to be transformed, aware of the distance that has crept in between you and God, between you and those Jesus tells you are your neighbours, aware of how disconnected you have become from God’s creation and the communities of care within which you are called to live.

This year, disconcert yourself.


World Day of Prayer service, Friday 4 March

Last year, we were all stunned to witness the dramatic rescue over 69 days of 33 miners trapped almost a kilometre underground in the San Jose copper and gold mine in the Atacama Desert near Copiapo in Chile. On display was not only the spirit of the Chilean people, and the resilience of the 33 miners themselves, but the resourcefulness, unity and technical ability of this South American nation. The eventual rescue, in technical terms alone, was nothing short of miraculous-with a 66 cm diameter shaft being drilled vertically into the ground with pinpoint accuracy, and the miners hoisted up one at a time to the relief of their families and the excitement of waiting media.  It is estimated that as the first miner, Florencia Avalos, was winched from his underground prison he had  a television audience of more than 1 billion people, one–sixth of the world’s entire population.

It was not only a feel-good moment, but one that spoke volumes about how much Chile has developed as a modern, open and resourceful nation since the dark days of political repression during the military dictatorship under General Pinochet that lasted between 1973 and 1990, and focussed world attention on the political instability and institutionalised violence that continues in Chile to this day. It was Pinochet who is largely credited with the modernisation of the Chilean economy – also Pinochet of whom the International Human Rights Foundation records: “He shut down parliament, suffocated political life, banned trade unions, and made Chile his sultanate. His government disappeared 3,000 opponents, arrested 30,000 (torturing thousands of them) ... Pinochet's name will forever be linked to the Desaparecidos, the Caravan of Death”.  One enduring and troubling legacy of the years of military dictatorship is seen in the massive gulf that divides rich and poor in Chile– with 34% of Chileans living in poverty and the top 20% of Chileans controlling over 80% of the nation’s wealth.

This evening, we are privileged to take part in a liturgy that has been prepared for us by the women of the World Day of Prayer committee in Chile, who invite us to reflect with them on the blessings, opportunities and challenges that have characterised Chile in the past and lie before it in the future.  No doubt the longest, skinniest country in the world - the map of Chile resembles nothing so much as a long backbone. And that of course is precisely what it is, being defined by the ocean on one side and the long spine of the Andes ranges on the other. Chile includes a bewildering variety of natural habitats, from fertile grazing lands to deserts and inhospitable mountain terrain. 

Our first reading from the book of Deuteronomy, just a couple of short verses, remind us of the pride Chilean people take in their country, their awareness of the blessings they have received through its unrivalled natural beauty and resources.  It seems to me, that in choosing these verses, the women of the world Day of Prayer committee in Chile are reflecting that the blessings of God are always sufficient - that no matter the problems their country faces, no matter the legacy of political repression or the massive divide that still exists between rich and poor in their country, as a people they have been blessed not only with sufficient resources for their own needs but that their nation may be a blessing to others around them.

The theme of this evening service – “how many loaves have you?” - first emerges in the reading from one Kings, in which the prophet Elijah, a political refugee on the run from the religious persecution and genocidal ambitions of King Ahab, seeks refuge in the Canaanite occupied territory which we today know as Gaza.  Roaming in the desert, Elijah is famished, and following God’s instructions asks for hospitality from the least likely person imaginable-a widow with a young son who has literally nothing apart from a single handful of flour. Conventional wisdom that you seek hospitality from the person who at least has enough to spare is here turned on its head-in fact it is generally those who have nothing that are the most generous, generally those for whom it is a daily struggle to put bread on the table who are most willing to share the little they have with strangers. The woman of course explains to Elijah the difficulty and the fact that she and her son are facing starvation, but he invites her to trust God's promise that they will have a future. The reading reminds us that God's promises and our willingness to put God's priorities of compassion and mercy into practice go hand-in-hand.  For those of us who - unlike the woman of Zarephath - do have enough for our daily needs, it seems to me the challenge is even sharper-how have we responded to those who throw themselves on the mercy of our hospitality?-how have we responded to refugees who arrive on our shores with literally nothing, asking that we share with them out all the blessings God has given us?  Do we as a nation stand for generosity and justice in recognising the claim that others have on the blessings God has given us, or are we to be known instead for responding in ways that are limited by our fear of losing the abundance of what we already have? Recognising the generosity of the very poor, the Chilean women suggest that a country characterised by extreme inequality between rich and poor has much to learn from the widow of Zarephath.

The same theme runs through the reading from St Mark's Gospel, the wonderful story of the feeding of the 5000.   The miraculous picnic in Mark’s Gospel makes the same hard-edged point as the Old Testament story of the widow of Zarephath –that God’s gracious provision for all God's people goes hand in glove with the willingness of God's people to recognise the claim that others have on our compassion and mercy.

It is important to notice the circumstances of this miracle-there would have been no need for a whip-around at all if it hadn't been that the people were hungry in the first place for the good news of God's love and forgiveness. St Mark tells us that the people follow Jesus into the desert even though he would really rather have given them the slip.  But Jesus message is infectious and attractive-he is showing God’s priorities by healing the sick, by preaching a simple message of God's love and forgiveness that is capable of transforming the lives of men and women in the here and now. And the people follow Jesus because they recognise that he has the words that bring life. I don't actually think it is any different today. We sometimes make religion too complicated, too inaccessible - Jesus doesn't - he speaks simply and directly the words that are capable of transforming men and women’s lives.

And yet, as the famous psychologist Abraham Maslow pointed out, there is such a thing as a hierarchy of needs. People can't hear the transforming message of grace and forgiveness with empty bellies. We who don’t have empty bellies can't hear Jesus transforming message of grace and forgiveness if we haven't learned to reach out in simple acts of compassion and the recognition of shared humanity. And so when Jesus’ disciples come to him and complain to him that the people are getting hungry and restless, Jesus turns to them – to us! - and says: “you feed them”. Well, the disciples don't seem to have been spectacularly rich, and not only that, they don't seem to have been very well prepared, being able to produce nothing more than one little boy’s play-lunch. The ridiculousness of this situation, it seems to me, is intended to remind us of Elijah's insistence that the widow of Zarephath takes him in as a houseguest when she and her son are sitting down to eat their last piece of bread. What is being asked is simply over-the-top - way in excess of the resources that are available.

This, of course, is where the biblical writers, and the women of Chile see the miracle and the everyday reality of God's providence. History tells us that God does not prevent famines, that men and women and children do routinely starve during the great climatic cycles of the Earth in which the rain stubbornly refuses to fall for months and years on end. But both stories make a connection between God’s priority that all human beings should have enough to their needs, and our own willingness to be agents of God’s mercy, our willingness to put God’s priorities into practice.

In the end, this evening’s readings and the liturgy so generously prepared for us by the women of Chile are about justice, about the difference between the world as we know it to be and the world as God imagines it, and about our own response.  And so we pray with the women of Chile that their nation and ours may be transformed by the mercy and justice of God.