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Wednesday 29 July 2020

Wrestling with God

Texts:  Genesis 32.22-31; Psalm 17. 1-7, 15; Romans 9.1-8; Matthew 14.13-21

Not, I'll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist — slack they may be — these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.
But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me
Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan
With darksome devouring eyes my bruisèd bones? and fan,
O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee?

Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.
Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod,
Hand rather, my heart lo! lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, chéer.
Cheer whom though? the hero whose heaven-handling flung me, fóot tród
Me? or me that fought him? O which one? is it each one? That night, that year
Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.

In 1885 the English Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote a sonnet in which he describes the tribulations of a long battle with depression and despair. I won’t read the poem to you, because its rhythm is difficult and its imagery particularly dense. In short, I doubt it would make any sense to you at a first hearing! But I would like to dwell, for a moment, on a rather disturbing connection Hopkins makes between two realities which are seldom mentioned in the same sentence, namely, Despair . . . and God. If I understand him rightly, Hopkins says that his year-long wrestle with despair might also be read as a wrestling with God . . . In tones which moves me more than I can say, Hopkins speaks of a God who comes by night to call him into question – to question the calibre of his devotion to God, even after many years of spiritual discipline. Despair, he says, is like a tempest which comes to blow the chaff from the grain of his soul. As such, he says, even despair appears to be God’s instrument, the servant of a God who wrestles with all that is not totally his own. A Love who will tolerate no rival.

There’s a terrible irony here, is there not? If Hopkins were not so intent upon the love of God – striving to love with all his heart, soul and strength – then this particular kind of sorrow would perhaps pass him by! People who have no plans to live under God’s rule are unlikely to become despondent about their lack of spiritual progress!  Such people may be troubled by many things, but I’ll wager that the state of their relationship with God is not one of them! No, it’s the person who genuinely longs for God who is most likely to know that particular kind of sorrow which is the realization that your devotion is not yet complete. It is the sorrow of knowing that you are a sinner. Not because popular piety decrees that you are. But because you really are, and you know you are, deep down where it hurts, in the heart of what we call ‘the Truth’.

Jacob knew this on the night before he met his brother Esau. In the cycle of stories we know as the book of Genesis, God’s messenger had already appeared to Jacob in dreams aplenty, promising that his descendants would dwell in the land of his father Isaac forever, and that this company would prosper and become a great blessing for all the peoples under heaven. But on this night, that promise seemed like vain fantasy because, on the morrow, Jacob and all his family would meet up with Esau, from whom Jacob has swindled the birthright and blessing of a first-born son. Esau the wild man, who loved to hunt; Esau the leader of four-hundred warriors; Esau the one who had once threatened to kill his brother, so that Jacob was forced to flee in order to preserve his life. The promise and presence of God was wonderfully real to Jacob. Yet, on this night, the fear of Esau was yet more present. On this night, Jacob’s faith in God wavered precariously. After sending his family over the river before him, Jacob returns to his camp to spend the night alone. But he is not left alone. As he crosses the creek at Jabbok, a man accosts him in the dark, and wrestles with him, we are told, until daybreak. 

There are many ways to read this strange story. There are many ways to name the man without a name. If we were to read in a Freudian way, we might see the man who comes to Jacob as the externalization of his own fear about all that is likely to occur the next morning, the embodiment of his tendency towards despair before the face of what is feared. Through the long night of decision, Jacob wrestles with the urgent desire to flee from the face of his brother Esau. The part of him which would flee is very strong, but the part of him which longs to be rejoined to his brother is strong also. And so the wrestling goes on through the night, with neither side prevailing until, close to dawn, the fear finally leaves him – and he is blessed with the courage to go and meet with Esau. 

Some theologians reject such readings out of hand because they distrust, as a matter of principle, any tendency towards what is called the ‘psychologization’ of biblical narrative. I am not one of them. As a theologian who believes, utterly, that God has taken human reality to God’s very bosom in Christ, I do not consider myself free to dismiss the mysterious machinations of human imagination and spirit as somehow beyond the ambit of divine activity. I feel bound, rather (and this precisely as a believer in the Christ by whom God knits the atoms together), to declare that every psychological crisis within the human heart and soul hides, at its heart, a profoundly spiritual encounter and confrontation with God that functions as the very heart and soul of what it means to be a human being. That is to say, with Louis-Marie Chauvet, that every theological reality necessarily has a body, that every anthropological analysis is not entirely itself until it is also theological.

What that means for the story at hand is this: that within and through this recognisably human confrontation of Jacob with his fear and despair one must also look for an encounter with the living God. And that is indeed what the story suggests, does it not? Is not the traumatic visitation of Jacob’s fear at the dead of night also the means by which God comes close to ask his disturbing questions: “Do you really love me? Do you really trust me? Do you really believe in what I have promised?” Finally, after a long struggle, Jacob’s answer is ‘yes’. But not before he feels the full power of the temptation to despair absolutely. Not before he is wounded for life. Not before he loses his name, and his very self with it. And so Jacob emerges from his night of prayer chastened and humbled, and made new in the waters of the river in which the struggle took place. ‘I will name this place’ Peni-El’, he says, ‘because here I have seen the face of God and lived’. 

The Jewish sages knew that seeing God’s face was dangerous. Their God was not as sickly and sentimental and harmless as many modern forms of devotion would have us believe. ‘It is a terrible thing’, wrote Paul, ‘to fall into the hands of the living God’. When Jacob saw God’s face, he died indeed. And the wound he bore for the rest of his life reminded him of that death. But, in the mercy of God, he was raised to life from the waters of his drowning. He received a new name, Israel, which functions in the story as a symbol of his new identity: ‘one who has wrestled with humanity and divinity, yet perseveres’. In the power and hope of this new identity, Jacob is finally empowered to face his brother Esau, not with his usual cocktail of bravado, bluff and deceit, but with humility. It is by this newfound humility, given him in the struggle at Peni-El—literally “The face of God”— that he finally prevails.

So, the bible tells us that fear and panic, even despair, can be the messengers of God, the means by which we are led to choose for God once more. Indeed, the Jewish and Christian traditions say that Satan, also, is the servant of the Lord. But we should be careful to distinguish the servant from the master. The servant is not the master, though the master’s purposes may be fulfilled through the servant’s action. That is why Hopkins, in his poem on the dark night of tribulation, begins by declaring that he shall never give in to despair absolutely. The messenger of God these feelings may prove to be at times, the means by which God wrestles with those remaining vestiges of ego and sin, certainly. But God they are not. And that is important to know. Giving in to despair, you see, is like setting up a false god. It is believing that the God of Abraham and of Jesus is a liar who will not come through on what is promised. When we are tempted to despair, we are tempted to bow down and do obeisance to a very dark god indeed, a god who would have us destroy ourselves absolutely, never to rise again. That is why Soren Kierkegaard, a Danish contemporary of Hopkins, even suggested that sin is another name for despair. 

As for me, I am one of those who has been visited, from time to time, by the dark angels of the Lord, those messengers which ask the questions: ‘Do you really trust me? Is there really any point to your devotion?’ At such times, by the grace of God, I am reminded of Jesus, who persevered in faith against odds far bigger than mine. I am reminded of one who, when his friend John the Baptist was murdered, withdrew to a quiet place to wrestle with his own fears and anxieties and find his faith once more, one who continued to preach and to heal, even when the political and religious establishment decided to go after him. I remember the cup of his suffering. I remember the plea to his disciples: ‘Stay with me. Watch and pray’. I remember his arrest, torture and crucifixion, and his cry upon the cross ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’ I remember the way his disciples scattered in every direction, and denied that they knew him. But, most importantly, I remember this. That Jesus rose to God, that God vindicated his cause, and owned his life as a defining parable concerning the way that God lives and moves in the world. And so, in the story of Jesus I see how even the most monstrous of evils can become the instrument by which God offers healing and wholeness, not only to me, but to everyone . . . And I am encouraged to have faith in God. Yes, and even to imitate the Psalmist in seeking the face in which I know I will find my death. For in dying to myself, to my fears and worries and ambitions, I believe I will become what Christ became. And that is what I want most of all. As Hopkins says in another poem:
               In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
               Is immortal diamond.

Saturday 18 July 2020

What God Hopes For

Texts:  Genesis 28.10-19a; Psalm 139.1-12, 23-24; Romans 8.12-25; Matthew 13.24-30, 36-43

Today I want to talk to you about hope. Not the hopes of humans beings, or even of Christians in particular, but the hopes of God. God’s own hopes are expressed rather well by the apostle Paul, I think:
. . . the creation was subjected to futility, not by its own will, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in HOPE that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God . . . Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
According to Paul, God made the kind of world we have – a world filled with futility and decay – in the hope that the creation itself might one day transcend all of that and embrace what he calls ‘the freedom of the glory of the children of God’ - by which he means that we might all come to share in the joy of God’s life and being in the way that Jesus did. For Paul, you see, Jesus was the first of many children, a human being who submitted himself absolutely to the sadness and despair of the world in order to show that there was a way through to something far better, namely a joyful reconciliation with our creator. In that sense, Jesus is our trail-blazer. God hopes that all of us will embrace the choices Jesus embraced, so trusting his vision and his Father’s care, that we might also come to share in his inheritance as the divine Son of God. God hopes that we might all become divine children like Jesus or, to put it another way, God made us caterpillars in the hope that we might one day become sick of looking at the ground, and so cleave to Christ as he passes from death to life, that we should become butterflies instead.

But note this, friends, that hoping for something is not the same as seeing it happen. In fact, it is quite the opposite. We hope for things precisely because those things are not entirely present to our experience right now. And so hope is always accompanied by a kind of affliction, the affliction of longing for something that has not entirely arrived. Hope then, can be rather tortuous. The contrast between where we are and where we would like to be can be so painful that we cry out with frustration, longing, and anger. Some see Christians who are not content with the present reality as pessimists, ‘glass half empty’ people. But nothing could be further from the truth because, it is only those who have a clear vision and hope for that which has not yet arrived who have a legitimate basis for critiquing what already is, the ‘status quo’ if you like. Of course, the contrast between hope and reality is very difficult to bear sometimes. There is a constant temptation for God’s people to abandon their engagement with hope in order to escape the pain of that contrast. But Paul says that it is not only ourselves but the whole creation which cries out in the pains of labour, longing for the freedom of the children of God to be revealed. In another place he talks of being in the pangs of labour that Christ might be born in the hearts of his people. And so I have come to see that all who suffer because of their commitment to hope bear in their body the scars of the Christ who has gone before us, the Christ who endured the cross in order to bear witness to his vision of a world renewed in love, peace, and justice for all. Thus, it is only those with hope for a new world who really care about the world as it already is.

In that connection, consider this other implication of Christ’s suffering: that it is not only ourselves who hope but do not see, it is not only we human beings who cry out with longing for a reality not yet present. First and foremost it is God. For Christ is God incarnate. In Christ, God longs more deeply than any of us. Thus, it is the longing of God, revealed in Christ Jesus, that actually provides the foundation and impetus for human hope. In the context of this longing, the cross of Christ is not simply a dying for the sins of the world. It is also the sign of God’s willingness to be immersed in the futility of things as they now are. It is the sign that God is with us in longing for a better world. It is the sign of God’s passionate love for all who suffer because the world is not yet what it may be. It is the sign of Immanuel: God with us, in our present, for the sake of a promised future that will renew the world in peace, love and justice.

To all who are chosen by God to share in this longing, the dream of Jacob at Bethel becomes a treasured source of inspiration. For here is one of the most radiant fruits of faithful prayer: a vision in which ordinary things are transformed into extraordinary things. Where places apparently empty of God become places where the angels ascend and descend in a never-ending dance; where stones and grass and sky become the courts of divine presence; where wind and water become the whispering of God’s promise. I remember praying in the bush once, in a place now called Fortescue Bay in South-east Tasmania. At the time I was particularly conscious that the Aboriginal traditions which had once inhabited that part of Tasmania were no longer alive. Colonisation had all but wiped them out, so that there are now very few of us who can recall their significance. But while I prayed, while I lamented the fact, the bush seemed to come alive with presence. I could hear the crackle of campfires, and the songs of children, and the splash of women diving for abalone. It was like a message from God which said ,‘the Spirit of life has not finished hoping for your dead people and their traditions: there will yet be a resurrection in which all that has been lost will be recovered’. In the dream of Jacob, and in many other dreams, God encounters all who are lost and lamenting, and offers them the chance to find themselves anew by becoming emissaries of blessing for all the world – carriers, like the seed of Jacob, Israel, of promise and of hope not only for themselves, but for all people.

Friends, in a world such as ours, it is easy to lose hope. It is easy to numb ourselves against the scandals of poverty, injustice and greed, and pretend that there is nothing we can do. But hear this. When we lose hope, God does not. God continues in hope for a creation renewed in the power of the resurrection. God continues to hope that we may share that longing, and be transformed ourselves, as Christ was transformed. God, you see, is extremely patient in hope. Matthew’s parable of the weeds and the tares tells us that God persists in the belief that no matter how many evils may grow in the world, or in the souls of women and men, that these evils will never have the power to finally overrun all that is good and true and beautiful. In the end it is God, and not death and evil, who will prevail.

Saturday 11 July 2020

Mysteries of the Kingdom

Genesis 25. 19-34; Psalm 119.105-112; Romans 8.1-11; Matthew 13.1-9 (10-17) 18-23

In the beginning, people saw things clearly in Palestine.  There were a chosen few who were born to wealth and privilege, while thousands of others were born to sweat and be hungry and die in childbirth.  There were the godly citizens who knew and obeyed the law of Moses to the tee, tithing even the herbs from their garden because they believed God had commanded it.  And there were the godless citizens who were estranged from God because of the sheer impossibility of their obeying the law—the widow without family to care for her, who sold her body to survive, and so could never aspire to the cultic cleanliness required by the law; the landless peasant, who struggled under the weight of Roman taxation, who had literally nothing of value to tithe at the temple; the slaves, whose bodies belonged to the ruling classes, who must do as they are told, even if so doing contradicted God’s command; the demoniacs and lepers, haunted by the evils of colonial rule, rendered godless by their manifestation of all these injustices.  In the beginning, people saw things clearly in Palestine.  There were those who were wealthy enough to be godly if they wanted to, and there were those who were so poor that godliness was not even an option.  Apparently, God had made it so.

But then there came a man who took away their sight.  He spoke to them in parables, strange, subversive stories in which all they had come to believe and rely on was questioned, changed and transformed from the bottom up.  He told them of a sower sowing seed in a field.  Some of the seed fell on a path, where the birds came to eat it before it could take root.  Some seed fell on rocky ground where the soil was scarce.  It sprang up quickly but died for lack of room to put out roots.  Other seeds fell amongst thorns which choked the young plants as they grew.  But the seeds that fell on good soil grew well, bringing forth a huge harvest.  On hearing the story, people felt a shiver down their spines.  The rich and the godly felt a shiver of fear.  The poor and the godless felt a shiver of hope.  The shiver was an invitation to change, to abandon the old way of seeing and embrace the new.  Sadly, most of the folk who experienced that shiver walked away.  Such change seemed either too much to hope for or threatening to the very core.  They returned to the way their lives had always been, to their habitual way of seeing.  It seemed safer.  But some folk, a small few, felt the shiver and knew it to be divine.  They spent time with the Parabler, the teller of stories, and learned the secret of his vision.  They left everything, weather wealth or poverty, and followed him around the countryside.  Slowly but surely, that shiver did its work.  Their hearts became the good soil in the parable.  Slowly they became people in whom the reign of God could grow.

Many years after, the Parabler became himself a parable.  In the hands of St Paul, he became a story which sent shivers down the spine of all who heard it.  A story about finding life in the midst of death and acceptance in the midst of rejection.   In the hands of St Paul, the Parabler became a story which caused Jews to stumble and was sheer nonsense to almost everyone else.  Why?  Because he invited the hearer to change, to put off the old way and take on the new.  He invited the hearer to let go of all she or he thought they knew and embrace an enigma, a secret, a mystery from God that could change the world as we know it.

Now, you will often hear people say that the telling of parables were Jesus way of making complex things simple enough for almost anyone to understand.  You will sometimes hear people complaining about preachers and theologians who so complicate the simple gospel that few can understand it.  'Why don't they just tell simple stories, stories, like Jesus told', they say, 'then everyone could understand and the gospel would not be so mysterious'.  Unfortunately, that is not what parables do at all – not in the ministry of Jesus, nor in the ministry of the church.  Let me quote to you the bit of the gospel that the lectionary left out this morning:
Then the disciples came and asked him, ‘Why do you speak to them in parables?’ He answered, ‘To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. The reason I speak to them in parables is that “seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.” With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that says: 
“You will indeed listen, but never understand,
    and you will indeed look, but never perceive.
For this people’s heart has grown dull,
    and their ears are hard of hearing,
and they have shut their eyes;
      so that they might not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and understand with their heart and turn—
and I would heal them.” 
But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. Truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.
Parables, Matthew tells us in the bit which the lectionary leaves out, are stories which convey the secret of the kingdom of heaven.  The word secret, in Greek, is mysterion, mystery: an enigma or ‘dark interval’ which evades understanding.  While Matthew wants us to divide humanity into those who understand the parables and those who do not, is there not a sense in which the word of God persists in its mysteriousness, as much for those within the circle of faith as for those without?  

If that is the case, then it may be that the meaning of Jesus’ preaching has eluded many who claim that the parables are simple stories with simple meanings.  In the light of this I am troubled by those who, for example, would like to reduce the meaning of this parable to a description of those who are 'in' the community of faith and those who are 'out'.  In fact, each of us comprise both the bad and the good soil.  Each of us are, at different times in our lives, both receptive and non-receptive to the gift of the kingdom.  I, myself, sometimes lose faith and hope when I see the power of radical evil, in the Sudan, in Palestine or in Washington.  I myself lose faith and hope in God when troubles come along, or when people patronise me because I am a Christian.  I myself lose faith and hope because of that drive to be socially and financially ‘successful’.  I myself am subject to all these things.  So the certainty of some about those who are in and those who are out is not a certainty I can share.

Perhaps, in such re-telling of the sower parable, some preachers do not give enough attention to something else which Jesus said (and, again, we find this in the part which the lectionary leaves out).  Jesus also said, and Matthew reports this, that the understanding of the mysterion is a gift, which in Greek is dedotai, donation.  Now, if even our capacity to understand God’s word is a gift, then who can boast?  Who can thank God that their heart comprises good soil, while another’s does not?  And who, in the end, can know who is in an who is out?  Who can know if they’ve really grasped the mystery of the kingdom?

Now that, that little detail, preserves for me the original subversiveness of the parable and the Parabler.  That little detail, that the word of God is a gift which ever remains a gift, reminds me that what I see and what I know of God and his ways are mine not because of my status and history in the community of faith, but by virtue of God’s love and grace alone.  There is no reason, therefore, for me to look upon myself as either an insider or an outsider.  All who know something of God’s love and liberation, whatever their status in terms of spiritual affiliation or godliness, do so because of God’s grace.  No more.  No less.  Grace is the great leveller, the great parabolic subverter of status, even and especially within the realm of the Spirit.   Friends, if we could grasp that, then we would also have grasped that there is nothing to grasp.  For it is only by letting go of all we know, only by relinquishing that tribal need to define who is in and who is out, that any of us shall, in the end, show forth a kingdom which is from God.  In the end, that is all that is clear to me.  But it is enough.