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Friday, 31 October 2014

Here's to the alb-wearers of eternity

SERMON PREACHED AT THE WAIAPU CATHEDRAL
OF ST JOHN THE EVANGELIST
NAPIER, NEW ZEALAND
FEAST OF ALL SAINTS (2nd November) 2014
               

Readings:            Revelation 7:9-17
                               Psalm 34:1-10
                               1 John 3:1-3
                               Matthew 5:1-12

Elsewhere [see below] I have introduced you to a lady named Molly Haxby. She is only one of the remarkable servants of Christ who have passed through the labyrinth of my ministry: everyone who has engaged in some form of professional ministry in the service of Christ will have many similar tales to tell. The author of Hebrews writes of a “cloud of witnesses”: what it means I do not pretend to understand, but over the years I have come more and more to treasure the belief that as we gather in prayer we are not merely “us” but “us with unseen hosts.” Molly died years ago now, but whatever that means I like to think she is gathered somewhere with the faithful, beyond human sight, yet there in a manner far more profound than we can understand. Molly’s life was exemplary in its living for others: dwelling now in what we variously call death or eternity I believe that living for others continues, inexplicably, irrationally.

It is not only within the community of faith that we encounter the witnesses of Christ. Roman Catholic theologian Karl Rahner spoke often and controversially of “anonymous Christians,” and while the term can be understood as paternalistic or “Christian-colonialistic” it was never meant to be that way. It simply affirmed Rahner’s deep conviction that the God of Jesus Christ is bigger than our boundaries, faster than our vision, further than our deepest distance in the lives of those around us and the crevices of eternity. Following the terminology of the author of Hebrews biblical scholar Margaret Barker challenges the Christ-community to become what she calls “little Melchizedeks.” Melchizedek was the foreign, non-Jewish priest who becomes the first high priest of Judaism when in Gen 14:17-24 he blesses Abram in the name of God. Melchizedek is the outsider who exemplifies the work of Christ beyond the boundaries of our expectations. Melchizedek is the Fred Hollows or the Bill Gates or the Jon Bon Jovi whose time and fortune is made available to ameliorate the plight of countless of the wretched of the earth.

There were many years in which I dismissed anything that was not empirically quantifiable as nonsense. Gradually I shifted, particularly as I returned in my mid- to late- thirties to reclaim the centrality of the resurrection as the heart of my faith. For some years after that I saw the resurrection of Christ as the exceptional event in the laws of God’s on-going creation, the one moment in which God’s eternity breaks into God’s scientific universe. Yet in the twenty-plus years since then, and under a number of influences, my perspective shifted. I remain deeply aware of the seeming determination of God to limit divine action in the contexts of prayers for the Middle East or other large scale theatres of suffering. I no longer posit an answer to that divine recalcitrance, except to maintain my deep-held belief that we as God’s praying people must continue to pour out our prayers for such tragic contexts. At the same time I am persuaded by that memorable phrase of the archbishop of York, the more I pray the more coincidences happen. I treasure too the thought that our prayer might be the butterfly wing-beat of change.

I increasingly acknowledge these days the presence of the spiritual, unseen and un-understood world beyond my ken. While I don’t condone a sensationalism of that world such as that to which the charismatic movement sometimes tended, I can, after my experiences of Indigenous wisdom and spiritual sentience, no longer dismiss this. Who are we post-Enlightenment westerners to pretend paternalistically that we have a copyright on truth?

Parallel with that discovery, I have increasingly opened myself up to awareness of those unseen witnesses, the saints, who surround us with the love and the energies and the purposes of God. Does this mean my Molly dwells nearby, as if in a Dr Whoivan alternative time-zone, inexplicable, but present? I’m not sure. I certainly don’t think there is some sort of monkey colony on my shoulder, watching my every move, from toileting to praying. Perhaps the saints afford us the same privacy we afford one another! Yet, and particularly under the influence of so-called pre-Enlightenment cultures, and their awareness of spiritual realms beyond rational explanation, I no longer limit God’s universe to the merely rational. I am these days far more willing to be aware, for example, of the kind and benevolent presence of those who have prayed before us in this place; caring, smiling, perhaps even guiding as we struggle on through our myopic vision. Romantically I sometimes wonder if Kate Williams (who we hope soon to honour with a new window) and Edith Barry don’t in particular smile kindly on our struggled efforts to keep the flames of faith alive. All those, who have fought to live and proclaim the values of the Reign of God as set out in the Beatitudes of Jesus, those who lived faith but who have moved beyond our sight, may well have a special role in the on-going purposes of God. They will continue to do so this side of the New Heavens and Earth, that for which we pray in the Lord’s Prayer and that which is the driving hope of the Apocalypse of John from which we read before.

We all know, too, the phenomenon that one friend of mine refers to as “the diaspora of friendship.” In the vast and unfathomable matrix of God’s dealings with us and with humanity lives pass through ours, often enriching our lives and our faith-lives beyond comprehension or measure. I do not see God as a celestial multi-dimensional chess player, but I do sometimes wonder at the inexplicable gifts of both transient and lasting connection that pass through the chemistry of our being as we crawl from cradle to grave and onto birth and understanding beyond this sight. This is mystery, and mystery is the dwelling place of God.

What though of those strange writings of John of Patmos? I would not have written a book about them if I did not believe they had, not in some spooky sensationalist way but in some open secret way, something powerful to say to us as we journey the years God gives us, the hallowed years that are embraced on our paschal candle between alpha and omega. The strange imagery of the Book of Revelation is not some sacred mushroom munching gobbledegook, nor weird and occult (secret) conspiracy code, but the proclamation of an open secret: God wins, and wins despite the tears: God will (the tense is significant) wipe away the tears from broken humans. Above all at the heart of the Book of Revelation is the belief that God is in control, despite Da’esh, despite rising tides, despite a warming earth or advancing cancer, despite mortality in all its brutal forms.

While some branches of Christianity see this doctrine as an excuse to do nothing about the destructive anatomy of humankind and its greedy exploitation of the garden of God, I believe that when the control of God is held in tension with the doctrine of the saints it teaches us otherwise, teaches us answerability to the God of judgement. The blessed of the beatitudes are not the complacent and self-satisfied but the army of doers. The saints, robed in their white albs which ours are designed to remind us of, are those caught between the already and not yet, those who live as if Christ were to tap them on their shoulder and seek an account of their lives this minute. The saints know their unreadiness for that shoulder tap, yet live in eagerness for it: what have you done for the least of these my sisters and my brothers, the poor and broken people and species of God’s earth? The saints inspire us and perhaps, who knows, even guide our stumbling footsteps. The saints, like my Molly Haxby, are those who enthuse us despite their fallibility, from either side of the grave.
Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom
and thanksgiving and honour
and power and might
be to our God for ever and ever! Amen.’

TLBWY
 
 
[on the late Molly Haxby and Matt 5:1-12]:
I have long harboured a deep sense of the saints who gather with me, with us, as we pray and as we serve. The poor (or poor in spirit, in Luke’s version), the mourners, the meek, the list goes on. You and I have encountered them more often than we deserve, as they pass through our lives, slowly or fleetingly, in the vast celestial waltz we call existence.
Back in December 1993 I was living in Central NSW when a massive storm swept through the region. It terrified  many residents in my parish for an hour, lifting roofs and throwing ancient trees to the ground. As the winds settled and I headed off to visit vulnerable parishioners I found I had been beaten to it: one of my eldest parishioners, a nonagenarian saint named Molly Haxby, was already ahead of me, “visiting the old people to make sure they’re okay.” There are saints in many shapes and sizes. She walked everywhere—not just after storms—and spread Christ-love wherever she went.
We’ve probably all encountered saints: the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the persecuted-for-faith. In the great choreography of God they remind us that divine holiness pops up wherever God chooses, and our lives are the richer for the encounter.]
 
 
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