Three sermons on a personal observation of the Church in New Zealand making its way with a Christ-faith through personal, social and political realities.

What Reality Are We in?

Another Way of Seeing Reality

An Easter God?

Henryk Skolimowski

Making and Naming Reality

Making and Naming Reality: The Church’s Future Influence

Let me read this for you, by Gerard Manly Hopkins.

As kingfishers catch fire, dragon flies dráw fláme ;

As tumbled over rim in roundy wells

Stones ring ; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s

Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name ;

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same :

Deals out that being indoors each one dwells ;

Selves - goes itself ; myself it speaks and spells,

Crying, Whát I do is me: for that I came.

 

I say móre : the just man justices ;

Keéps gráce : thát keeps all his goings graces ;

Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is –

Chríst – for Christ plays in ten thousand places,

Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his

To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

 

Have you ever counted up the number of times people talk about living “in the real world”? We seem to hear about the real world all the time. For example, in education, the teaching profession wants students to be able to enter the real world, the work force, with confidence. The media also use the term. As far as television programmers are concerned, the Church has no real influence, and hence has little real impact on society, apart from soup-kitchens and the like. It would be boring to televise church events. We have to get real, and get a real life.

Well, I believe exactly the opposite. I believe the universe is grand and purposeful, and God makes a reality far more powerful in each and every human life than ever you will find portrayed anywhere else. I believe that the Church is only really the Church, the body of Christ, when it is participating in God’s reality and naming that reality for what it is: the source, the beginning, the alpha, and then the end, the omega.

Did you yourself make the air that you breathe, or the water that you drink, or the earth upon which you walk, or the sun or the moon or the stars? Did you yourself make yourself, name yourself, nurture yourself? No of course you did not. Nor did Television One, nor Parliament, nor the New Zealand Herald. Their claims to reveal a reality more fundamental to human existence than Christian claims are spurious and flawed. Radically flawed because they leave out facts of prime importance, facts that you can often hear in Churches and other places of deep and intense spirituality, where there is profound thanksgiving for life.

In reality you have received life and soul and spirit and food and warmth and shelter. In reality you have received far more abundantly than ever you can give. Yet it is only in giving that the true depth of receiving is understood. The power of God in the universe is the power of gift, of love, of values by which we are born, live and die.

When I breathe my last, and consciousness flickers out, the only things that will have counted will be the values of God’s reality which I nurtured in myself and in others. Was my family loved? Were friendships held in high regard? How many times did I walk an extra mile for someone I cared for and how many times for someone I did not care for? These are realities of God, they are values of human compassion.

A society, let alone a civilization, cannot exist, cannot come to fruition, until its individual members participate in making and naming God’s reality. The whole will be greater than the sum of the parts but, unless, and until, the parts learn to recognise and follow the source of all love, then that society will be stunted. It will never flourish.

Likewise, as a congregation, filled with diverse people and diverse gifts, how do we name reality? Are we willing to commit ourselves in radical obedience to Christ’s call, as Gerard Manly Hopkins sublimely puts it, “I say more : the just man justices, ... Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is, - Christ”. I have been increasingly gripped by a vision of a Church that audaciously recommits itself to the Christian ethic totally. No ifs, buts or maybes. A commitment so that each of us “acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is - Christ.” Was it John Wesley who said give me twenty-five people committed to Christ’s love and I will change the world? He did.

I believe in some ways that the agenda for us to change our world is shaped by belonging to a genuine faith community. Such a community, which may be a parish church, has a tremendous capacity to influence society by mapping the realities of God for its members. Let us assume our parish is such a community. We are the seedbed for the personalities who transform places of work and leisure. The individual who is constantly shaped by Christ’s influence has far more leverage than the New Zealand Herald or Television One. Today’s newspaper is tomorrow’s fish and chip wrapper, and most TV is forgotten in less than a few hours. The one who lives in Christ has a reality which endures from the far past into the far future. The future shape of the Church as I see it is based on that fact: enduring values. Values to strengthen what it is already doing: transforming personalities so they grow more into the values of Christ.

Believe me, this will have implications. It will mean honing our political astuteness, so that we seek consciously to transmit those values not only to politicians, but also to people from every walk of life, and every political persuasion. We will seek to influence by living out of a reality that is much more than economics, much more than processes. We must seek to demonstrate that the universe itself, and us within it, is evolving to a totally new awareness of God. To know this God is to transform everything. Another line of Hopkins says “For Christ plays in ten thousand places”. It means hallowing the ordinary, the every day, the common place, seeing it being transformed, for it is where Christ is to be found.

Of course the papers and television do not consider this newsworthy. They see no value in hallowing the ordinary. It is a media mind-set, it is a blindness. Yet what if a reporter, the toughest, most hardened reporter were to take a scoop of the most mundane thing on earth. What if he or she were to lift up a shovelful of earth from the forest floor, or a green field. Say it was a scoop about one inch thick and one foot square. In it there would be, on average, “about 1,350 living creatures, mites, millipedes, springtails, maybe a dozen other different forms. And an estimated 2 billion bacteria, many millions of fungi, protozoa and algae”. An inch of soil reveals a universe of life beyond comprehension.

All this life, and we are unaware of it. Of course, there is even more life and there is far more in terms of relationships of life: “kingfishers catch fire and dragonflies draw flame”. The poet’s vision of a grand universe in which the interplay of life and imagination becomes illimitably rich has an influence greater and of more worth than the latest sordid headlines. We try to feed the hungry and house the homeless and care for the widow and the orphan. It is too mundane to make the news, apparently it doesn’t change society one iota. But it surely changes the belly of the one who is hungry and the chill felt by the one who is homeless. However, the Church cannot be the Church unless it also feeds the imagination and the heart and the mind. Otherwise, it will be stunted, lop-sided and terminally irrelevant. That is the danger facing us and it is an immense and imminent danger.

We seem to have forgotten that faith and values and transforming people is a hallowed tradition. It is the Christian tradition, our living, relational heritage. Our greatest responsibility is to pass it on to a younger generation. If ever there was a crisis in this country it is the crisis of education. Not a crisis of teaching or professionalism, but a crisis of education. Who is painting the stories of largeness of heart in our schools? The education that really matters, said Martin Buber, the great Jewish scholar and educationist, is education of character. We need to develop personality and character. And that means teaching discernment. The ability to distinguish between right and wrong, good and bad. And it means developing the courage to stand up and be counted. For the only thing greater than evil is to discern it, acknowledge it, and do nothing to overcome it. To overcome evil we need to shape character and personality.

We need to do this because of the scandal of modern life. There is no longer embarrassment in society over its moral failures. It is a scandal, that in a land of plenty, children go hungry while parents feed poker machines. It is a scandal in this country that we have one of the highest rates of youth suicide. Is our society really on track? It is a scandal that in two universities in this country a student could write a history thesis denying the holocaust took place and have it accepted by professors who defend their decisions by claiming a defence of academic freedom. It is a scandal that the word holocaust is used in relation to the land wars in this country in the 1860s. It is a scandal that our homes are simply gateways for advertisers to ply their version of abnormal realities, hour after hour creating perceptions of gratuitous violence, which may prove very difficult to eradicate in the minds of the young. The Church does its social work but it is not enough. It is not the Gospel, it is not bringing all the fulness of life in Christ into play.

The future of the Church will be shaped, I believe, by one transformational ideal. With ever greater clarity it needs to tell of the grandeur of God in the universe and the grandeur of God in Christ, and invite more and more people to be influenced by him. It matters to me that I see a thriving congregation, but it matters even more that I see a courageous congregation, just men justicing, keeping grace.

What will our Church look like in a decade’s time? What influence will we have had? Why, if a single person can say with Hopkins “what I do is me: for that I came” then God’s will will have been done. And if the same one can say, I keep the peace of God, I keep the joy of God, I keep the happiness of God in daily life, and I seek justice, then the effect of the Church will have been profound and deep and holy.

So, as Matthew records it, when Jesus had finished giving his twelve disciples their instructions, he left that place and went to teach and preach in neighbouring towns. You and I have been given our instructions. We are under orders, Christ’s commands. We now are to act in God’s eye what we are in God’s eye - Christ. There is no point in splitting hairs over what reality we are in: we are in Christ’s reality.

 

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