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Sunday 27 March 2011

Springs of Living Water

Texts: Exodus 17.1-7; Psalm 95; John 4.5-42
In October 2000, much of the state of Victoria found itself without hot water. A key gas processing plant exploded, rendering most of the state's hot water systems useless. For weeks, the Melbourne papers showed pictures of scantily-clad people cuing at public utilities and hostels, hanging out for that hot shower. I was in Melbourne for a Minister's retreat during the crisis. We were staying at a centre which happened to have electric showers. It was very comical to see the Victorians heading for the showers the moment they arrived, and to hear their shouts of glee filtering down to the lounge from the upstairs bathrooms. The whole episode caused me to reflect on how much we Australians take for granted. I remember staying with my wife, Lil's, Aunty Mary once. Mary works as a doctor in Fiji. We got to talking about the contrast between life in Australia and life in Fiji. Mary pointed out that the most valuable facility an Australian house possesses is not the television, or the microwave oven, or the electric lights and heaters, but the capacity to provide pure, clean, running water by a simple turn of the tap.

The readings from Scripture today remind us that water is most certainly not to be taken for granted. In the ancient Near East, where these stories were first told, water was a very scarce commodity indeed. Much of the land in and around Palestine was extremely dry and arid. Indeed, after several millennia of de-forestation, it is even more so today. Although the Israeli irrigation schemes have become legendary for their efficiency in providing water for Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and some of the other big towns, it remains the case that much of the countryside is still serviced by little more than the wells dug in biblical times. It is still customary for some folk, rural folk in particular, to walk great distances to draw water in the manner of their ancestors. In dry and dusty climes like these, water is valued more than gold. It is properly regarded as both the bringer, and the sustainer, of life itself.

No wonder, then, that the Bible frequently uses the image of water to describe the gift of God for the renewal of a parched and dry life. In Exodus we read the story of the people's thirst. Having left Egypt in miraculous circumstances some months before, the people now find themselves in an inhospitable wilderness called Sin, and their thirst has become intolerable. They cry out against Moses and his God, saying, 'Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our livestock and our children with thirst?' An exasperated Moses goes to God and asks for a solution. The Lord instructs Moses to strike the rock of Horeb, from whence water will flow to quench the people’s thirst. He does so, and the people drink. Now, as with most Bible stories, whatever the historical circumstances that gave this story birth, it is being retold here for a purpose, a theological purpose. So let us listen for that purpose, else we shall miss the point.

Let me suggest to you that the thirst of the Israelites here represents their poverty of spirit before God. Note that the people have been wandering in the desert of Sin (a most revealing name, don't you think?), a place of meaningless desolation where there is precious little to live for. It is a place that represents their fundamental lack of trust in Yahweh, with whom they began to quarrel from the very moment the Red Sea closed behind them. Faced with an uncertain future, the people seem to quickly forget all that miraculous, cosmic, stuff around the liberation from Egypt. So much so, that they even begin to long for the slavery they left behind! 'Take us back', they say. 'Take us back to the place of slavery. It was so good there, compared to this terrible thirst we feel!'

Here the Israelites do what many of us do. They re-write the history of the old days in order to give comfort in a time of uncertainty or fear. The ‘old’ days, in these circumstances, have an uncanny knack for being far rosier than the history books would suggest, and certainly far better than these ‘new’ days could ever be! In moments of uncertainly or fear, people are very prone to nostalgia for a place and a feeling that never really existed. They are also prone to blame the loss of that nostalgic Eden on anyone else but themselves! In this case, it was Yahweh and his servant Moses who copped the blame. Frequently, in these days of apparently diminished Christianity, it is pastors and church leaders who are to blame. In his reflection on this story, the writer of Psalm 95 says that, in fact, the people have no-one to blame but themselves, for they were stubborn and hard of heart. They would not, in the face of uncertainty and fear, trust themselves to the God who had gotten them this far. Preferring the devil they already knew, their hunger and thirst turned to the gods of Egypt once more, the gods who had done nothing but turn them into slaves.

And yet, for all this, the Exodus story finishes not with God's condemnation, but with God's rather surprising provision of water. God sustains the people's lives, though they clearly don't deserve it, and keeps them moving towards the land of promise. Who would have thought? There is an extraordinary word of grace here for us. How many of us are like the Israelites who, having made a radical choice for faith long ago, now long for all that we foreswore at that time? How many of us, having chosen to follow in the footprints of the Crucified, now daydream about life in the service of other gods? Well, I do, for one. Sometimes I lie awake at night and wonder if I'm stark-raving mad; I lie there fantasizing about all those other lives I might have lived. Like the one where I’m an ethics-free corporate lawyer, retreating periodically to my wine-soaked retreat-house in Tuscany. Or the one where I’m Paris Hilton, the limit of my responsibility-free zone being exceeded only by the size of my credit-limit. But no, I became a follower of Christ, which immediately excluded either of these possibilities. And, let’s face it, in the eyes of our possession-obsessed society, that means I am one to be either pitied or detested. Can you see how these mid-night wonderings are a hungering and a thirsting? Like some of you, I hazard to guess, I wake up in the middle of the night feeling that my life has become dry and barren. I long for something more.

Of course, as the much-maligned (but scarily insightful) St. Augustine of Hippo said, all of us remain restless until we find our home in God. When Jesus met the woman at the well, he promised that the water he would give would be able to quench her thirst entirely. We thirst without end until we are given the water of God's Spirit to drink. We hunger until we are satiated by Christ, who is the bread of life. Only God can fill the hole inside. Only God can make life meaningful, right? Yes, but how constantly do we believe this? How vulnerable to the views of others do we remain?

Each of us, said Margaret Cooley, are mirror-selves, people who see ourselves not as we are, but as others see us. So that if others think Christians are naïve fools, we eventually become vulnerable to thinking that way ourselves. And the more we do, the more thirsty we become. Instead of hungering and thirsting after God, we start to hunger and thirst after other 'gods'. Gods like approval from others. Gods like 'the old days'. Gods like the perceived right to a sanitized, pain-free, life. Gods that can never, in a million years, satiate our desire for meaningfulness. Gods that succeed only in making us more thirsty, not less, because they are ultimately ureal, so many chimera: creations of desire and therefore never unable to finally satisfy desire. In this way, all of us who thirst are not so very different to those Israelites in the wilderness, or like the Samaritans who made the marriage covenant with all those pagan gods. Having chosen to believe in God's promise of a land flowing with milk and honey, we started on the journey to find it. Yet, along the way our minds and hearts begin to yearn for lesser things. Deep down we begin to have our doubts. We turn from God, and ceased to believe in the promise. We, like both the Israelites of old and the Samaritans of the first century, become prone to the worship of lesser gods, ever wanting to cleave unto husbands whose promises prove, in the end, to be empty.

Like the woman of Samaria, we may indeed lose our way in life. When faced with earthquakes and tsunamis, with nuclear meltdowns and collapsing buildings -whether literal or figurative - whether as individuals or as church communities, we are tempted to covenant ourselves to the control of the many false gods around us. We may indeed become thirsty for the sweeter water they seem to offer. And, very often, we do indeed place ourselves in their devilish hands. Sometimes it is so, and there is little point in pretending otherwise. The good news is that God does not abandon us to our empty flirtations. If we listen carefully, as the woman of Samaria listened to Christ, we shall hear a word of grace, the promise of a spring of living water which, being alive and real (rather than chimera, a nothing) is able to re-animate our lives and fill us with all that we really need: the far deeper truth that we are God’s beloved children, that in worshipping God we will find not only God, but also our best selves, the selves and communities we can be when we are alive with the Spirit who is love. That truth, and the knowing of that truth deep in our bones, is indeed as powerful as water to the dying. It can fill us with life, and hope, and the courage that is called faith. It can be, in short, our salvation.

But let me conclude with a few words about what this salvation might look like, 'in the flesh', as it were. As always, there is more to be said than can be said, but let me make just this one point for now. Salvation is certainly not about the giving away or cessation of desire altogether, as in Buddhism. It is not about denying ourselves to the point where we are able to shut down our senses, thereby blocking out the enticements of this world entirely. (Not that the Buddhism of the West even pretends to such a thing! In Western Buddhism, the denial of desire in meditation has a very different purpose: only to give it a much-needed rest, so that the drive for power and success can again go into overdrive when the meditation is over!) By way of contrast, listen to what Jesus tells his disciples in one of the many passages in John's gospel having to do with food and drink, with what is real and what is not: 'My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work'.

Christians do not shut down their senses or their desire; they simply have a desire-transplant. We learn, through a long process of attending to the word of Christ in Scripture and liturgy and Christian community, to desire in a different way, to desire as Christ desires so that our own needs, like his, are entirely met by doing the will of our Father. And what is the will of the Father, according to John? That we should not love our lives so much that we are unable to give them away for the sake of loving another. For, in the words of the Franciscan song, it is indeed ‘in giving we receive and in pardoning that we are pardoned’. And finally, it is quite literally true that it is only in dying to our fear, our uncertainty, and our nostalgia for an Arcadian past and handing it all over to Christ on his cross, that we shall find ourselves raised into the land and into the blessed way of life to which God has called us. This is the Lenten paradox. And, my friends, it is the only way to be saved.

Sunday 13 March 2011

The Fast that Satiates our Hunger

Texts: Genesis 2.15-17; 3.1-7; Psalm 32; Romans 5.12-19; Matthew 4.1-11

This morning I want to talk about a spiritual practice that, like most spiritual practices in modernity, is rarely practised anymore.  Fasting: going without food. Allowing oneself to experience genuine hunger.

Fasting used to be a very important part of Christian discipleship, especially during the season of the church year that began on Wednesday, the season of Lent.  ‘Lent’, which means ‘spring’ (somewhat anachronistically for us in the southern hemisphere) has served, since its inception in the second century, a dual purpose: (1) to prepare the newly converted for their baptism into the life, death and resurrection of Christ; and (2) to renew the baptised, all the people of God, in the life and discipline of that same Easter faith.  The practice of fasting was seen as an essential part of this purpose because it taught people the discipline of letting the old desires go—the desires that belonged to the old, pre-Christian, way of life—in order to embrace a radically new set of desires, the desires planted in our hearts by the Spirit of Jesus Christ.  Here a clear connection was being drawn between desire and hunger.  The church reasoned that if one could learn to discipline the body’s basic desire for food and drink then one might also learn to discipline the wayward desires of the heart, that these might come to more accurately reflect the love of God in Jesus Christ.

With that history in mind, it is perhaps easy to see why fasting is no longer seen as a particularly relevant or beneficial thing to do, even by many a good Christian.  Modern wisdom has become suspicious, after all, about any practice that would seem to limit or deny what the body (or the soul) feels it ‘needs’. According to the prevailing common-sense, self-denial is a bad thing, an ancient evil, a form of repression which turns perfectly happy, actualized, assertive and confident people into miserable door-mats for others to wipe their feet upon.  What is wrong, after all, with getting what you want?  Greed may not be good, but don’t we all have a right to be happy, and to follow whatever path we choose in order to obtain that happiness?  What is so wrong with eating, or drinking, or sex, if it feeds one’s inner hungers?  What is so wrong with gaining the world through financial or social 'success' if it enlarges one’s happiness?  If I were to name an anthem that sums up all this modern mythologizing, it may well be the Queen song, ‘I want it all’, which seeks to re-define the traditional notion of love so that it is no longer about putting limits on one’s own wants or needs for the sake of the other person, but about enlisting the other person -  indeed all things -  to the cause of one’s own insatiable desire.

Of course, as well as accepting and absorbing the popular mythology, many contemporary Christians have found additional reasons not to fast. Baptists, for example, often reject the practise as too 'Catholic', too much to do with working one’s way to salvation and not enough to do with being saved by God’s grace alone.  The irony here is that many of the first Baptists were very diligent fasters.  Not because they accepted the supposedly Roman Catholic notion of working one’s way to God through good works and self-discipline, but because, for them, fasting was a way to make room in one’s life for a different kind of feasting, a feasting upon the word of God.  One cannot attend to God or God’s word, which is the only source of life, they argued, unless one also, and at the same time, seeks to put aside the many false gods which clamour for our attention.  Like the god of one’s stomach, for example.  In this, ironically, the early Baptists were closer to both Catholic and biblical teaching than they are to a great many of the moderns who bear their name.

For what does the Bible actually teach us about hunger, desire, and fasting?  Well, there’s the story from Genesis, for a start, the story about Adam and Eve eating fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and of evil.  Note, here, that in contrast to many contemporary assumptions about the story, the problem is not that Adam and Eve gave in to desire as such (for God had told them that they could eat and drink pretty much anything else they desired from the garden in which they lived), but that they desired more than was actually good for them.  It might just be possible, you see—despite what the prevailing wisdom says—that desire and need are often rather different.  It might be possible, in fact, that some of the things we desire are really rather poisonous.  Unfortunately, a great many poisons do not advertise their nature as a matter of course.  They can look and taste rather heavenly! That in no way mitigates a poison's essential function and identity, however: ultimately to do little else but injure, deceive or destroy whomever would take it to one's lips or heart.   

That is why I often think of the serpent (who first introduced the ludicrous idea that poison might actually be good for you) as the very first advertising executive!  Just as the serpent argued that the fruit of the tree would not kill Adam and Eve, but make them like God, so modern advertising tries to convince us that bigger and shinier houses, cars, toys, drinks, gadgets and television programmes will make us the masters of our own destinies and fulfil our every hunger.  In truth, of course, they cannot and they do not.  More usually, these many shiny things make us miserable because we don’t actually need them: they do not fill the hole that is a non-possessive relationship with God, neighbour and creation.  For that is really all we need, according to Scripture: relationships of love in which there is nothing to possess, because everything we need has already been given us.  The truth is that all this other stuff, this consuming of things, does little else than distract us from what is really real: God, and who were are in God’s embrace.

Paul deepens the point in his reflection on this story in the letter to the Romans.  While sin and death came into the world via Adam’s desire for something he had never desired before - through his trust in the serpent’s lie - life and relationship come into the world through the simple and foundational reality of the gift, or grace.  I mean, think about it for just one second.  God has already given us all that we need in creation, and in the revelation that God, from eternity, desires nothing other than to know and love us.  The gift of Jesus Christ, says Paul, is first of all the good news that this is still the case, in spite of the fact that we have woven for ourselves so many other desires, desires for things that succeed only to maim or destroy human life.  Yet, in Christ, there is the further gift of forgiveness.  In Christ God teaches us that even where we have harmed and maimed and killed for the sake of our desire, even where we have forsaken the gifts or God for the sake of so many chimera without any substance or gravity whatsoever, God is willing to forgive.  To go searching for us in the wilderness of our sin, to take us again to Godself and give us the gift of life and of healing.  If only we will let go of our poisonous addictions!

The temptations of Jesus, as they are enumerated in Matthew’s account, make this point yet again, but in another way.  According to this story, the practise of fasting is indeed about the denial of self, but the self that is being denied is the self that buys into the lies of the devil.  For the self that desires to (1) turn the whole world, as if by magic, into something that I can consume; or (2) turn God into someone who is only there to confirm and serve my desire; or (3) turn every other being into my slave, engaged only to confirm and serve my desire; is ultimately a false self that has tragically retreated from the fulness of a world already given us in grace and love by God.  It is a self that indeed dreams of becoming like a god, but certainly not the God revealed in Jesus Christ.  For the Father of Jesus is a God who invites and pleads and remonstrates with his creation, but never bullies or coerces or forces us accept his path.  The god we would become, on the other hand - by all our misplaced faith in demonic lies - is a god who sucks our loved ones, the true God and, indeed, the whole world, into despotic slavery.

Therefore, when Jesus resists such lies, when he resists the temptations of the devil, he is not harming his essential self, the self that is God’s and belongs to God’s way of love.  It is the other self he is harming: the accumulating, consuming, magical self, the inner demon who would make all the world its food and its slave.  It is the self that Thomas Merton rightly called ‘the false self’, ‘false’ because it is built upon a lie.

As followers of Jesus, we too are called to resist such a self, and to do so because what we desire most of all is not a house built of lies on a foundation of sand, but the firm and real house that is God’s welcoming love.  This home is a gift of God, given in creation itself, and given again in Jesus Christ, who comes to us anew each day in the stories of Scripture, the sacrament of bread and wine, the call of the neighbour and the witness of the faithful.  In this perspective, to fast from all that is a lie in order to listen to what is true, to fast from all that would poison in order to drink from the waters of life, is not really a fast at all.  It is to quieten one's heart and its false desires, in order to listen for the one word, the one gift, that is able to save us from ourselves. It is to make room in one's longing for the immeasurable gift of God’s friendship, that is alone finally able to satisfy our deepest hunger and quench our deepest thirst.

Glory be to God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit, as in the beginning, so now, and for ever.  Amen.

Monday 7 March 2011

What's all this LENT stuff about, anyway?

Most of the Christian churches worship God within an ecumenically agreed pattern of biblical readings and sacred seasons known as the liturgical year. With its origins in Jewish festivals like Passover and Pentecost – which commemorate the most important events in Jewish salvation history – the Christian year is the Church’s annual pilgrimage into the significance of Christ’s saving life, death, resurrection and ascension for our time and every time. It is nothing less, therefore, than a theological interpretation of reality as a whole.

Lent (a word which simply means ‘spring’ in old Germanic, and is therefore somewhat anachronistic in this part of the world) is a season of preparation for Easter. Lasting for 40 days (excluding Sundays, which are always a ‘little Easter’), it is the time when enquirers into the faith are enrolled as candidates for baptism and enter their final preparations. Candidates are called to imitate Christ’s time in the wilderness as he prepared for ministry and faced the many demonic temptations of his age. At another level, they are called to join Jesus in an imaginative pilgrimage from Galilee to Jerusalem, where everything is lost, but far more is found.

Lent is also the time when the whole church is called to return to the watersof baptism and discern therein, again and again, the precise form its radical obedience to God ought to take for the year at hand. For baptism, to which the whole season points and for which it prepares, is at once the death of Christ and the death of his followers. It is our death to all that would maim and destroy on God’s hallowed earth; it is Christ’s exorcism of all that can kill the body but can never kill the divine life itself.

In the Great Three Days, which straddle the end of Lent and the beginning of Easter, the church recalls Christ’s baptismal passage from ruin to triumph, from death through hell and into the living hope of resurrection life. In the baptisms that are performed and celebrated as Easter dawns, the church embraces that hope and promises anew to live in the power of the resurrection yet one year more.

As preparation for this great Paschal festival of death and rebirth, Lent is littered with rituals that seek to inspire a fundamental conversion of life. The day before Lent begins – traditionally known as ‘mardigras’ or Shrove Tuesday – is a feast with a particular purpose, the feast one has before a fast or a famine. We mock its significance if we reduce it to either a mere fundraiser or a celebration of sin. It is the feast of plenty that one enters into knowing full well that such feasting is not entirely good for one’s spiritual health. It is the party with your family before you go into the wilderness to fast and pray and seek the face of God. It is the last supper before you take the narrow path that leads to salvation.  ‘Fat Tuesday’ looks, with an appropriate level of apprehension, toward the 40 days of lenten fasting, in which the Christian is called to develop a discipline able to resist the demon gluttony and learn to feast, instead, on the word of God that is able to save us from the fires of our own destruction. It is also about the fast called ‘justice’, by which we are called to become poor, like Christ, that others may be enriched.

Thus, the day after Shrove Tuesday, Lent begins in earnest with the fast known as Ash Wednesday. As the name suggests, the central symbol at work here is that of ashes. Ashes are a biblical symbol of fragility, ruin, and repentance in the face of our greatest evils. Humanity, the ritual suggests, is little more than dust and ashes in the last analysis. Though God has given us a good world, by our choice for greed and gluttony, we destroy each other and burn into nothingness everything that is good or noble or praiseworthy.

The imposition of ashes on one’s forehead, sometimes mixed with baptismal water or chrism oil, reminds us of this uncomfortable but ultimately undeniable fact. The ritual also speaks of the mercy of God by which the truly penitent may be brought to life once more. Ashes we may be, but the grace of Jesus Christ has the power to reanimate even a worthless pile of dust and ashes so that it can become the compost of a better world.

In this, Ash Wednesday is a beginning symbol and anticipation of the Easter event to which Lent is leading. It speaks of our ruin, but also of the possibility of rebirth and renewal through a power in the world that is even stronger than our will-to-destruction: the love of God in Jesus Christ.

Previously published in Crosslight on March 6, 2011.