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Friday, 25 September 2015

Umbridge is Zeresh: who'da guessed?

(September 20th) 2015
Esther 7:1-6, 9-10, 9:20-22
James 5:13-20
Mark 9:38-50
Take a vibrant, sexy heroine (a sort of alpha female, a Katniss Everdeen or a Buffy the Vampire Slayer of the fifth century b.c.e.), add a dastardly, toxic and malicious schemer (Sauron, perhaps?), blend in a Dumbledore-figure, season with a political buffoon (in which context I am not going to mention the fearfully disturbing Donald Trump), and conclude with the triumph of good over evil and you’ve probably got a best seller. As it happens the Book of Esther was so hot to handle that the early compilers of the Jewish and of the later Christian bible wanted to leave it out (it also fails to mention God, and the hero is not a particularly good Jew, for she does not observe the appropriate rites and customs of Judaism). In the end, though, popular opinion held sway, and this vibrant tale became so important that it forced its way into the Canon of Jewish and Christian Scripture, and in Judaism a feast day is even based on Esther’s triumph.
The process is not unlike the slow process towards official celebration of the Trappist monk Thomas Merton. Merton’s integrity was so great that thousands today read his writings and flock to his grave, but his dalliance with broad world-views and perspectives led to his omission from the official US Roman Catholic calendar. It’s no accident that Pope Francis named him as a hero of faith, alongside the equally prickly Dorothy Day, in his address to Congress this past week. It’s not unlike, either, the manner by which popular opinion  is driving the conquest of bigotry and fear with regards to matters of race, gender and sexuality. Popular opinion has slowly driven new thinking, slowly by the grace of God and the winds of God’s irrepressible Spirit, infiltrated the deepest recesses of Christian discourse, even if the final ramifications of that journey will not be upon us for generations yet.
Religious practitioners (and not always the professionals) will often so sanitize the faith they once loved that they leave it shamed and castrated, wriggling on the floor of human awareness. James K Baxter had some very forthright things to say about society’s emasculation of the God of love (which I won’t repeat in a family-friendly liturgy), and Hone Tuwhare said similar things about the symbolic neutering by pakeha of Māoritanga. We become guilty of it when we treasure propriety and process above the mad manic winds of God’s zaniness; order, niceness, and constructions of decency have again and again tried to silence the witness of the Jewish and Christian traditions, not least in that fateful time leading up to World War One when nineteenth century forms of Christian liberalism reduced the gospel to being nice and loving your country.
Esther made her dubious way back into the Canon of Scripture, perhaps more Dorothy Day than Thomas Merton, and has inspired (particularly women) ever since. The actual factual happenstances of her story are long since lost to us, and do not matter. She has inspired others to greatness. That is why we need a doctrine of the saints: those who rise above the humdrum and set imaginations on fire with the flames of God.
The Jewish people found inspiration in the story of this prickly, rule-breaking, protocol-ignoring almost-outsider, inspiration during the times when their own slavish devotion to rules and protocols and insider-protections began to fail them. These were the times when they were as we are confronted with changing circumstances and threats to their existence and ours. Esther’s Sauron or Voldemort-type enemy met his come-uppance and was ultimately and literally hoist on his own petard, as we heard.
Much Christian energy is expounded on keeping things as they were. Esther utterly fails to demonstrate interest in things as they were. She was not a particularly devout or observant Jew prior to her development of a stubborn determination to stand up for herself and, accidentally, for the fellow underdogs of the Jewish community. Yet at great risk to herself she becomes the advocate and saviour of her people. Esther, not an outsider, but a pretty decadent insider, suddenly becomes the chosen one to serve the purposes of God. “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”
Far too often we become the Dolores Umbridge of the Christian narrative, waving our ‎8 inch dragon heartstring and birch wands to ensure things remain safe, comfortable and as they always were. If you have been following the James readings in recent weeks you may be well aware that our actions of self-interest and self-preservation have often demonstrated the opposite of Esther’s risk of self-sacrifice (Esther 4:16b), turning people away from Jesus rather than towards him. We can become like Professor Umbridge: she is in Harry Potter as great a villain as Voldemort. Strangely she has her counterpart in Zeresh in Esther’s story (see Esther 5:10b-15). Like Professor Umbridge, we too often wring our hands in despair and wish things were as they once were, and work to ensure they are as they once were, while the Spirit of God blows on into God’s future.
The bearers of good news do not wring their hands (or put their hands to the plough) and look longingly backwards. Pope Francis’ friends Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton were possessors of prickly volatility: so too were Hone Tuwhare and James K. Baxter. They were katiaki, custodians of taonga (treasure) from the past, but that served as their keel or rudder (or both), and not as the whole purpose of their boat.  It was as if something of the spirit of prickly but irrepressible Esther leaked into Day’s and Merton’s and Baxter’s and perhaps even Tuwhare’s DNA and they too became, whether they wanted to or not, whether they knew it or not, key players in God’s birthing of the future. “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” “Us”? Another sermon dwells there, methinks.
Our Christian communities today are not exactly beacons of integrity on the horizons of the young. As the Pope speaks out with a commitment to justice and compassion highly reminiscent of his chosen namesake Francis of Assisi (both, it seems, possessors of the DNA of Esther), some Christian communities of the American and American-influenced religious right draw lines in the sand and depict the pope as some form of Marxist anti-Christ. His doctrine is in the end little more than commendably orthodox catholic, though perhaps we can save that conversation for another day, too. Other Christian communities make pronouncements on a grand scale, big picture depictions of gospel-responsibility, but ultimately forget to notice the small picture beggar at the door whose need may be no more than a cup of coffee and a piece of bread.
Pope Francis, we might note this week, left the echelons of niceness and had lunch as best he could with the urban poor of Washington, leaving the rich and the powerful theorists reeling in his wake; this of course is the same man who has kissed the disfigured faces of war vets and disease survivors, who has replaced papal limousines with Ford Fiestas, and opened up papal apartments for refugees. “Whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.” Or, as the Archbishop of Canterbury tweeted this week, “The more the Church cares for the poor, the more people recognise it for what it is: the Jesus movement.” To that, as we are possessors of both Matthew’s and Luke’s versions of the Beatitudes, we might add “The more the Church cares for the poor in spirit the more people recognise it for what it is: the Jesus movement.” In both cases we are called to check to see how wide open our doors really are.
It may be that it is the absent young who are stridently telling us how we might be bearers of Christ and his Resurrection-hope in our community today. The morality they have been finding for a decade and a half in Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Matrix, Avatar, in re-visioned Narnia and Lord of the Rings narratives may well put our often self-interested narratives to shame. Only some of those narratives, though, hint at the great and irreplaceable dimension that Jesus tells of at in his response to the self-interested disciples, and which we lose at great peril, the dimension of judgement.
For while Tolkien only hints, Rowling hints, Lewis hints at a dimension of otherness,  and hinting is their task, we lose sight of the judgement of God at great peril. The risk for us as liturgical Christians is that we can become so obsessed with the preservation of order and propriety that we forget that the Jesus who we proclaim with our liturgy was a divisive figure, was a discomforting divider of wrong from right, of self-interest from compassion, religious hypocrisy from self-sacrificial goodness. We can spend so much time having lunch on Capitol Hill (or wherever) that we forget to serve and eat with the poor, so much time keeping things as we remember them that we forget the God who is birthing things as they will be. “Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it?”
It is up to us, then, to turn again and again to the God who in Christ will (as we will later sing) “land us safe on Canaan’s side.” We are challenged to turn to God to forgive us where we have been more Haman than Esther, more Umbridge than Harry, more closed fortress than madly, eccentrically open community of welcome and embrace. The good news? God hears us as we say we’re sorry and welcomes us back to the mad and glorious dance of resurrection-faith of which the silly things we do in church are a playful foretaste. “Have salt in yourselves” says Jesus – or maybe it was Mark but either way with a twinkling eye because it was a silly thing to say – and then adds the un-silly “and be at peace.”
The peace of Christ be always with you.

Thursday, 17 September 2015

Luther, Prejean, and a dead Syrian ascetic

(September 20th) 2015
Jeremiah 11:18-20
James 3:13-4:3
Mark 9:30-37
Theme: - Who is Wise?
Firstly forgive me if I begin with a little back-story, a mihimihi. Although a pretty-much kiwi, growing up from the age of seven until I graduated from university in New Zealand, I have spent much of my ministry in Australia. We’ll skip that bit though – I after all never supported anyone except the All Blacks in a nation where most people wouldn’t know Richie McCaw from Billy Bunter – and simply say what a privilege and miracle it is to pulpit swap with Richard. We come from such vastly different backgrounds that we are almost living testimony to that remarkable Pauline vision of the many members of one body.

I’m a sort of unregenerate retro-hippie, who at least until and possibly after I came to Christ believed that life consisted of chemical enhancement and Led Zeppelin (yeah, maybe that all changed a bit after I came to faith!); although Richard was a copper long after the times I faced off against the police in rabble rousing left-wing protests I suspect we would not necessarily have had a beer together in those days! My ideal church would have so much incense that the route to the exits would need to be lit by floor lighting and the sanctuary party would wear every item of obscure clothing known to humankind, I am theologically conservative and socially liberal, and I believe Richard is pretty much the opposite, and, well, pretty much so on and so on.

I say that because our theme is one of wisdom – who is wise? – and I am for ever convinced of the weird truth of that great observation of God in Isaiah 55, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” and of that other insight of St Paul, when he writes “For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.” Human wisdom tends to seek monochrome friendships, obsequious co-operation, and sycophantic cloning. The wisdom of God seeks diverse contrasts, myriad world views and back-stories, and with all that diversity begins to breathe into existence a community of Christ.

Of which more in a minute.
It was Martin Luther who, mid-way through his reforming career (if it can be called that), described the letter ascribed to James as “a right strawy epistle.” By that he meant it didn’t altogether fit his view of the way the Bible should be written or his opinion of what the Bible should say. He hadn’t believed that earlier in his career, but as his emphasis on what came to be known as “justification by faith alone” became greater and greater the text that didn’t suit him became an embarrassment. I have some – not much but some – admiration for Luther’s thought, although that is more to do with the centrality of the cross, the death and resurrection of Jesus in his thought than with the place of faith. I think, though, that Luther got James badly wrong. He got it wrong because, although it might be very nice to be filled with joy at the thought that one is in some way “saved,” such a view of oneself is all but deluded if the encounter with Jesus that the word “saved” denotes is not expressed in acts of justice and compassion in the world into which God has called us. I might add that I think Roman Catholicism gets this profoundly right, at least in theory.
I think sadly of the self-congratulatory religious Right in the USA, and its clones around the world: their happy experience of life as “the saved,” while translating into conviction maintaining the rights of the unborn, does not extend to the right to life of citizens of other nations, and they therefore contentedly support indiscriminate military action as a solution to perceived international injustice. I think of those whose happy experiences of salvation are not expressed in compassion for others beyond their shores, peoples whose livelihoods and even lives are jeopardized by rising sea-levels. I think of those whose sanctimonious faith leaves them with little or no compassion towards others who may be unjustly convicted, like Richard Glossip.
Glossip’s execution in Oklahoma was delayed once more this past week; his prosecution was based on what appears to be a reasonably shaky or at least ambivalent accusation that makes the NZ Police case against Arthur Alan Thomas look rock solid (it wasn’t). Unless we are ourselves God we should maintain at least some degree of possible fallibility in our knowledge, and leave the right to life and death in the hands of God. Glossip’s supporters incidentally include both Roman Catholic nun Sister Helen Prejean and her alter-ego Susan Sarandon, who played her in Dean Man Walking. We should never forget that there are myriad and disproportionately non-Caucasian inmates amongst the ranks of death-row prisoners in the USA, as there are Māori in New Zealand’s gaols, and it may just be that violent crime is a matter of justice not only for victims but for all who are entrapped in webs of injustice and unequal life-opportunity
As one Facebook meme acerbically puts it, “Deliver us, O Lord, from those who say they are pro-life, but in the next breath discuss obliterating entire countries”(as others have said, eloquently) Jeremiah after all asks God to take revenge, a far remove from asking the followers of God to take it upon their own shoulders.
The author of the epistle we call James got this. He got that we are a community that should, having encountered the Risen Christ, be conspicuous by our acts of love and justice. We are also of course called to be conspicuous by our belief in a God and a faith and a relationship that spreads beyond the boundaries of mere human mortality and mere human understanding. We should be conspicuous because we are a resurrection people, with the implications of that strange belief reaching into every dimension of our life. James got that wisdom is not only, or perhaps not ever intellectual knowledge or spiritual exhibitionism, but must be expressed in conspicuous action, even when sometimes we get it wrong, for it is better to err on the side of compassion than of judgement, hatred and revenge.
St Isaac the Syrian (or Isaac of Nineveh) put it profoundly in a seventh century prayer: “Conquer evil people by your gentle kindness, and make zealous people wonder at your goodness. Put the lover of legality to shame by your compassion. With the afflicted be afflicted in mind. Love all people, but keep distant from all people.” It’s not a bad directive.
This is probably why Mark provides the strange scene of the followers of Jesus acting like pigs in a trough.  The biblical writers did not need to tell the history of the followers of Jesus warts and all, but they did so: they knew who they were without the infiltration of the Spirit of Christ. They could afford to tell these stories in those early days of Christianity, because the love of Christians for one another and for those in need was so conspicuous that they began to dismantle the brutal dog-eat-dog ethos of the Roman Empire.
They did not pen self-righteous bumper stickers of the “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven” variety, but set about demonstrating in every facet of their lives that their encounter with the Risen Lord Jesus, encountered in worship, fellowship and scriptural study, was an encounter with the eternities of God, by which their lives and the lives of all members of the Body of Christ were transformed. In the ancient church “wisdom” was more often than not seen not in the intellect but in the behaviour of the faithful. The challenge to us is to rediscover that, with all our different back-stories and whakapapa, so that we are the compassion and justice and eternity proclaiming Body of Christ.

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Hildegard and the Beatles

September 17th 2015

Very briefly, and with a conglomerate of readings from evensong for this day and the themes raised by the life of the great feisty mystic Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), let us reflect on the gift of God's tomorrow.
Hildegard, it should be said, has come somewhat into vogue in the last 40 years. That coming into vogue is not unrelated to the birth of alternative visions of life, including hippie cultures. A symbolic watershed for our era, our half a century, is probably the Beatles’ “Love Me Do” in 1962.
If pointing to that moment  is to draw a long bow don’t worry: most watershed descriptors are, but it’ll do. If we were to look for a symbolic moment at which mainstream, conservative, small-o orthodox religion went into its death throes it was when the Fab Four chanted those famous and vacuous lines. Love, Love me do, the way I love you: for I, of course, am the centre of the universe and the yardstick of all things.
It was of course far more complex. Without going into details in a family friendly service, oral contraception had hit the market, western civilization was peaking, psychedelic drugs were spreading, post-war euphoria had given way to harsh new realities of gender equality, capitalism was tapping on the door of Sunday trading, sport was becoming capitalist, television was spreading its soporific influence exponentially, the times they were a-changing (I had to get my guru in somewhere), and Christendom was dead.
Some theologians were even claiming God was dead, but reports of God’s death were, as Mark Twain didn’t put it, grossly exaggerated. And as one of the myriad wings of new feminist consciousness reached forward to the summer of love, another wing reached back into a small twelfth century monastic cell and there found twelfth century Benedictine nun Hildegard.
Feisty, feminist, reformist, peripatetic and prophetic, Hildegard has been called the most important woman of the twelfth century. She was a visionary who devoted her life to prayer and teaching, and who brought science, faith and art together in an inseparable tie of mutual love and respect. Like the Jesuit poet Hopkins centuries later she saw the whole world charged with the grandeur of God, but she saw equally the plight of the poor, heard the cry of the dispossessed, and exercised Jesus’ radical and unquestioning Hebrew ethos of inclusion and embrace.
But this is not merely academic and feel-good nostalgia. Where for us is the rubber of feisty prophetic vision to hit the road of post-Beatles nonchalance, misunderstanding and disinterest?
For the feisty prophetic tradition, from the Zechariah tradition of “My sword, wake-up,” to Jesus’ gauntlets at the feet of religious hypocrites, to Hildegard’s famous “Dare to declare who you are. It is not far from the shores of silence to the boundaries of speech. The path is not long, but the way is deep. You must not only walk there, you must be prepared to leap;” through these outbursts the challenge is the same: how do we speak of a radically compassionate God, a radically death-transcending God, a radically hope-bringing God in a world marked by all fifty shades of indifference, corruption, and self-interest?
Tonight we will share a gift and a vision and a talent or two in the body of Christ, but every night is only a pause of renewal before a new beginning: as we say cosily in one of the great prayers of He Karakia Mihinare o Aotearoa:
Give us that due sense of all your mysteries, that our hearts may be truly thankful, and that we praise you not only with our lips but with our lives.

Or, as might put it on this evening of the Feast of St Hildegard,
O God, by whose grace thy servant Hildegard, enkindled with the Fire of thy love, became a burning and shining light in thy Church: Grant that we also may be aflame with the spirit of love and discipline, and may ever walk before thee as children of light; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, liveth and reigneth, one God, now and for ever.

Friday, 4 September 2015

Aylan Kurdi, Bryndis Bjorgvinsdottir, and a garden

(6th September) 2015


Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23
Psalm 125
James 2:1-17
Mark 7:24-37

“Yet he could not escape notice”

I’m not normally one for the old technique of taking a text, yet these words of Mark scream out to be cited. Yet he could not escape notice. For we who are the body of Christ of Waiapu Cathedral in Napier, is this true?

It is worth experimenting from time to time. Have you ever tried walking down Napier’s Hastings or Emerson’s streets and asking a local the direction to the cathedral? Many and by far most times out of ten the answer is a variation on a theme of “the what?” There are of course two issues here: there is now one adult generation for whom the word “cathedral” is as close to meaningless as the words litotes or metonymy. There are a handful of people for whom the word is meaningful, but as vast majority for whom it is not. There is a handful for whom the word might mean something like “bloody big church in Europe,” which is slightly more than metonymy might convey, but even that handful is depleting. For two generations the likelihood of knowing that there is such a thing as a cathedral in New Zealand, let alone Napier, is slim. For two generations the likelihood of caring is slimmer still.

Now I am not naïve about the manner in which the biblical narratives came to birth. Jesus was not headline material in the first century, and church noticeboards of the “kid born in stable saves world” genre miss the point that nobody really noticed the entrance of the Incarnation into human experience. The gospel writers even used some tools of embellishment to beat up their stories, using the tools of the religious “trade” of their day to compete in a market place of religious discourse. But their stories would have gained zero traction on the consciousness of the world around the story-tellers if they did not resonate with the experience of those who encountered the presence of Jesus in worship, fellowship and storytelling. The Syrophoenecian woman was not the last person to hear tell of the one who could transform darkness into light, and reach out accordingly in desperation.

Yet are we the vehicles of that same Christlight that first rumoured hope to those in the vicinity of the Incarnate Word in the first centuries and then encountered Christlight in the ministrations of God’s church, enflamed by God’s Spirit, in the centuries to come? We know of course that much that this institution subsequently did was not Christlight but the darkness of Christlessness, and we are deeply sorry for that, but are we going to allow that weight to crush our ability to bear Christlight into the community?

Neither you nor I will change the world. The challenge to carry Christlight into the world does not expect us to. But it does not take an entire solar furnace to light a small darkness. A single candle is a start – the old bible song it only takes a spark to set a fire going was a vehicle of much truth. It is, in any case, better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.

When the community garden now forming outside the north walls of the cathedral was first mooted by a handful of caring Christ-bearers, a lot of nay-sayers muttered “I don’t think a community garden on the north side of the Cathedral is actually going to carry on the good links we had with the city council and the business community.” I agree. Yet as that garden began to take shape yesterday I had no fewer than a dozen people – strangers – compliment the cathedral on its new initiative, however small; an initiative of vision and compassion in the community. I must confess that fraternising with the council or the business community is not entirely my aim; I hope instead a few people may in months to come pull a carrot, munch on it, and even wonder why the users of a big and foreign and seemingly impenetrable building bothered to put a garden there.

In the last several days the tragic sight of Aylan Kurdi’s lifeless body on a Turkish beach began at last to change the narrative about the world’s refugees. Aylan was neither the first, nor will he be the last to drown in the waters of desperation. His brother Galip and mother Rihan and innumerable others have died, are dying, and still will die, disguised by political speech-makers as parts of a “swarm”, “marauders,” “migrants” and in Australia “queue jumpers.” But even (outside Australia) the politicians’ language is changing. Since Aylan died there has been a groundswell of sorrow and anger, and the darkness that has been most of the international community’s response to an immeasurable human tragedy has begun to be penetrated by tiny sparks of light.

A community garden won’t change the world. A single letter to a politician by Icelandic activist Bryndis Bjorgvinsdottir won’t change the world. A single action by Jesus in showing compassion for a Syrophoenecian girl didn’t change the world. Slowly though the actions of people who care can begin, as we say in the evening collect, to lighten our darkness, and we blossom enough to become the answer to our prayers for the world and its suffering people.

“Yet he could not escape notice.” If we dare to act a little more like Jesus and for Jesus in the community it could well be that our cathedral ceases to be a big and foreign and seemingly impenetrable building on the edge of the CBD and becomes instead a place where the resurrection is rumoured, and where light and hope are midwifed.