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Friday, 24 October 2014

For the love of neurofibromatosis

SERMON PREACHED AT THE WAIAPU CATHEDRAL
OF ST JOHN THE EVANGELIST
NAPIER, NEW ZEALAND
ORDINARY SUNDAY 30 (26th October) 2014

Readings:  Leviticus 19:-1-2, 15-18
                  Psalm 1
                  1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
                  Matthew 22:34-46


Hallowed be thy name! Even today, despite fifty years of contemporary language revisions, it is the seventeenth century version of the great prayer of Jesus that is best recognized (and which, incidentally, I still generally use with dementia and comatose patients). There have been rightly myriad attempts to translate the probable words of Jesus into a contemporary idiom; possibly J.B. Phillips’ 1950s idiom is as good as any: “may your name be honoured.” It misses, though, that the Name is honoured, ipso facto, by the very fact of its owner’s existence. It is holy, because it is of God. Paradoxically there is and can be no name for God, for God’s holiness is beyond names. I am, says God to Moses – I will be what I will be: the choice is mine, the freedom is mine, the holiness is mine. The supremacy of God is an unpopular concept in post-modernity: Hallowed be thy name, even though it is often merely an epithet, a swear word, an ejaculation: Oh my God Oh my God, OMG.

Holiness in relation to God is not optional. This is so even if holiness is much forgotten in the noise and clutter of post-modernity, in the age of the ephemeral, the snapchat selfie, the age of the pixel. Strangely one gift Christianity gives us is timelessness, the moment in which we do something useless: we slow down, we cease to be productive, we waste time-is-money opportunity in order to worship the unseen and unprofitable God of our ancestors. We have no place for clocks in church. Even if we merely approach God from the philosophical sense of “that than which no greater can be conceived” we are standing on holy ground, however unfashionable.

Within the Christian community our lives are invaded by God. There are myriad ways in which this is expressed in our scriptures, though Paul’s understanding that we are “in Christ” and that the Spirit of Christ “dwells in us” is fine shorthand. The Spirit of Christ, the holiness of God, invades us, though we far from deserve it. This doctrine has become darkly muddied by the so-called holiness codes of fundamentalism. In these codes the idea that the body is the dwelling place of the Spirit merges with obsessions with sex and sexuality, and with patriarchal self-interest  to produce an intolerable burden on the shoulders of those who do not fit highly selective and largely unfounded representations of what sexual behaviour is acceptable to God. I mentioned a moment ago that one of the finest translations of the great prayer of Jesus is that of J.B. Phillips, but there is a more profound reflection well known to many of us that came from the pen of Welsh gay theologian and spiritual writer Jim Cotter: “Father and Mother of us all, Loving God, in whom is heaven: The Hallowing of your name echo through the universe!”

The best outliving of holiness, the best demonstration we can achieve of a life lived in harmony with the Spirit of the Triune God who has invaded us, is by striving for integrity, authenticity. That is what Jesus was saying when he said “let your light so shine.” We cannot live lives of integrity in and by our own strength. Paul’s great (representative rather than personal) heartcry “who will rescue me from this body of death?” was immediately given the answer which while often translated “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord” means something more akin to “Thanks be to God who has done so through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Only the invasion of God can turn our lives to holiness, can slowly transform us into the person of today’s psalm, into persons whose integrity is so resplendent that it touches and transforms neighbours’ lives.

Years ago I spent some time with Desmond Tutu, and will never forget watching his encounter with a rather “burnt out case.” It was a tired, embittered and rather drunk clergyman who seemed to grow larger and more beautiful as Tutu conversed with him, as Tutu’s integrity rubbed off on him. That is holiness at work. Many of us saw the powerful image of Pope Francis kissing the disfigured faces of two different men; the first, Vinicio Riva, severely disfigured by the tumours of neurofibromatosis, the second who has remained anonymous, brutally disfigured in what appears to have been a massive cranial accident and reconstruction. In each case one can only imagine the arohanui that was transported in the moment: Riva said he felt only love in the eternal moment of the Pope’s embrace. This is the same great love that Jesus imparted to the lepers and the women and the mentally ill and the grieving outcast in society, the fringe-dwellers of his world.

It is the same great love into which we are challenged to grow as we open ourselves to God in lives of prayer and worship. It is the love that Jim Cotter exemplified in his life and teachings, or that Maximillian Kolbe exemplified when he sacrificed his life to save Franciszek Gajowniczek in Auschwitz.  It is the love that Edith Stein also exemplified in Auschwitz, as a Jewish-Catholic woman who dared to speak out against Hitler and live exercising compassion for the victims of his pogrom.  It is the love exemplified by the mad and manic Simone Weill who likewise lived for others and died of tuberculosis while awaiting conversion to Judaism, her expression of support for Hitler’s victims. It is the same love and work of the Spirit that is sometimes demonstrated in the lives of those far outside the recognizable boundaries of faith: kiwi atheist Fred Hollows, who transformed thousands of lives through ophthalmology; semi-Catholic billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates; or somewhat agnostic philanthropist Oprah Winfrey.

But what is holiness?  There are those whose lives so epitomize the love of God, whether they acknowledge God or not, that an observer’s breath is taken away and their life values changed. Neither Christianity nor any religion has a monopoly on this great gift and discipline of living, as Kolbe’s biographer put it, as “a man [or woman] for others.” Living for others: for present others trapped in poverty and violence, for future others trapped on a warming planet, even for past others whose story needs must still be told and honoured, those who have gone before us whose story ensures we are not a rootless people. It comes of living for other species, too, and for fighting against the greed that strips meaning from earth and its inhabitants.

As Christians we must add that for us it comes from consciously opening ourselves up to the Christ who emptied himself so that we can do the same. Holiness is not the Oh my God Oh my God of the glitterati, but the hard grind of those who dare, like Pope Francis and Jim Cotter and Edith Stein and Simone Weill, to work at love and life for others. Holiness is saturation in the energies of God. Holiness is living out our baptismal vows.


TLBWY
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