Monday, 11 June 2018

Where are you? - avoidance, sanctity and faithfulness

Trinity 2 (Proper 5) Year B – Eucharist –

(Genesis 3.8-15; 2 Corinthians 4.13-5.1; Mark 3.20-35)

Today’s first reading from the Book of Genesis starts with a compelling image: the sound of the Lord God walking in a garden at the time of the evening breeze. It’s the Garden of Eden, of course, given to Adam and Eve, its only human inhabitants, for their use and pleasure as long as they exercise stewardship over it as asked by God. In its centre there are two trees: the Tree of Life, which nourishes them and symbolises all that is life-giving - all that God wishes for our good; and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil - of which God has asked them to refrain from eating its fruit. It’s a deal: they know the deal, but they’ve broken the deal. Now God comes into the picture in person.

Not that you see him. He’s only heard - but he’s taking pleasure in his Creation, all that he has made to be good, by walking in his garden in “the cool of the day,” as more traditional translations put it. I like it to be warm - give me a warm evening so I can sit out in my garden, but you can appreciate what it’s saying. I can sit at the evening hour and appreciate the subsiding of noise and the day’s busy-ness; if I’m outside or have the window open, I hear the song of birds, feel the peace settling in the summer air - and it’s lovely.

But in this third chapter of Genesis everything is about to change. God calls to Adam, “Where are you?” Does he need to ask? Surely God knows. He knows that Adam has been disobedient. He made Adam and everything in the garden, so he doesn’t need to ask… Except for Adam’s sake. “Where are you?” God asks of the man and the woman. Where have you put yourself? What sort of mess have you got yourself into? Why do you feel the need to hide?

Adam’s answer is: “I heard you… and I was afraid, because I was naked.” Adam had been created naked. It’s naked that we all come into the world. But now something has happened that makes him feel shame. Adam has come to see the human condition which he inhabits as something to be ashamed of. He feels alienation. He’s taken the step away from God - and now he realises that his own strength and his own abilities are insufficient to reach back across the gap.

Where are you?” God asks Adam. You can treat the story of Adam and Eve as a myth, if you wish. But it’s no less true for that. If God were to say to me, “Where are you?” what would I answer? What do I answer? What would you say?

Where are you?” So often, if you put that question to people in the context of speaking about faith, they’ll say “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” There’s a lot that religious bigotry and hatred has to answer for, history does have periods which have been described as “Wars of Religion,” and it’s sad that the veneer of religious respectability or even religious authority has been used as a cloak to cover up abuse of various sorts. Is that why so many people are reluctant to describe themselves as “religious?” But I wonder if you’d get very far if you were to press them on what it means to be “spiritual” as at the same time they reject religion and its precepts?

Fr. George Rutler, a Roman Catholic priest in New York, puts it this way:

The Internal Revenue Service would not be impressed by someone who paid taxes not in the formal way, but in a spiritual sense. Yet the equivalent of that has become an esoteric mantra among many who identify as Catholics but reject Catholicism as their religion. 

It’s what he calls “cultural Catholicism.” I suspect it actually has more identity and coherence to it than much of what passes for spirituality in this country. Nevertheless, he goes on:

That “cultural Catholicism” does not work when challenged by Catholicism’s despisers. There is much to be said for inheriting the faith of ancestors, but ancestors are betrayed when that faith is a patrimony that is squandered by a spendthrift heir. In the Middle East there are Christians who can trace their religious identity back to the apostles, but theirs is not a mere cultural religion. A year after Christian towns of northern Iraq were liberated from the Islamic State, many families still live in refugee camps…

In those areas, the faithful have had to resist attempts to make them renounce the Gospel by force. In decadent Western cultures, such surrender has been voluntary. Much of Europe has long since abandoned Christ through indifference.

Where are you?” God asks Adam - and us. It’s a challenge. Adam does what so many of us do when we’re found out or put on the spot. He blames someone else. It was her… “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me the fruit from the tree, and I ate.” At least Eve had some curiosity about her as she took up the challenge to eat a fruit which would give her the knowledge of good and evil.

Where are you?” How would we respond to the challenge which Jesus brought to the communities amongst which he proclaimed the coming Kingdom of God? His hearers at the time said he was mad, but they themselves could talk only about Satan and the work of demons. How much different is it in today’s world where there’s a growing interest in the occult, but little action taken to learn or practise anything of the positive aspects of faith? Even Jesus’ own family can’t take in what he is doing. Flesh and blood are not enough. There needs to be an openness to receive the message of Christ. As Jesus says, “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

That’s not to say that you should write your own family off. As some of you know, my Mother has been dealing with increasing pain and lack of mobility as doctors have again and again put off surgery to replace her hip. I know I’m by no means unique in wrestling with how best to help when I live at such a distance yet am at the same time the only person she has who can try to get her the help and provision she needs. For months when I’ve asked how she is, she’s responded with the word, “Rubbish.” Her frailty and pain are not the human condition which God wills for his Creation. And then I read St. Paul’s words in today’s Second Reading from his Second Letter to the Corinthians:

So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. 17 For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, 18 because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.

How can my Mother not lose heart? I know I have. The months and years of pain are rather more than what St. Paul calls a “slight momentary affliction.” Thankfully as the crisis came to a head she has been admitted to hospital and will get her operation later this week. But for the moment there is still uncertainty, anxiety, confusion - and that sense of mortality, the “outer nature which is wasting away.”

Yet there is more that we can affirm. For a start the human condition which lets us down is a glorious condition and a gift. “Behold, I am wonderfully made,” the Psalmist could affirm - even though he spends much of his time complaining and lamenting the state he and the world are in. If sickness, pain and death make us angry with God - well, that’s better than being merely angry. Anger alone at our frailty and wretchedness get us nowhere and give us no hope. Anger where God is in the picture at least gives us hope. Not necessarily an answer - but something and someone beyond our time-limited pain.

Because I needed a day off last Friday, but wanted to see my Mother in North Tees Hospital, I drove down to North Yorkshire for the day so I could visit her on the way back. Too much driving! But I was glad I did it. In Lastingham (once I’d been to the pub!), I re-visited the village church and its ancient crypt. It’s a place where St. Chad had lived in the seventh century. A man of great ability, skilled in preaching and a faithful pastor of his people, Chad found himself deposed from his bishopric. But he didn’t engage in recrimination, he didn’t let despondency overcome him. He continued faithful in prayer and sought new ways in which God was calling him. And the end-result was that he took his Christian faith to people he’d never expected to encounter. God opened new ways.

Carrying on from there I stopped in Egton Bridge - literally because we were going the wrong way and I needed to make a U-turn. It became an opportunity to visit the Roman Catholic Church of St. Hedda. Inside we found the relics of Blessed Nicholas Postgate, a priest born nearby and who had ministered for 50 years at a time in the 17th century when the practice of his faith was forbidden. In a period of national hysteria over the so-called Popish Plot he was caught performing a baptism, judged and condemned for treason, and sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered. At the age of 82 he was the oldest person in this country ever to be executed for his faith - a faith he’d put into practice living quietly but travelling far and wide to be a priest to his people.

It was an ignominious end to a life lived largely in obscurity. It’s said that the man who went out of his way to trap him was rewarded with a payment of 22 shillings, but then committed suicide by drowning himself. Bigotry and hatred played their part. But the faith which Blessed Nicholas practised sustained him through a ministry lived out in the hardest of times with no earthly reward until it ended on the gallows in York. Better that way than to be like those who brought accusations against him as others did against Jesus. Better to know the cost of discipleship than to follow the easy option which avoids grappling with the hard issues of suffering and mortality, of faithful religion and a calling made real in Christ.  

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