July 29 NOTES FOR REFLECTION Ordinary 17
Texts: 2 Kings 4:42-44; Ephesians 3:14-21; John 6:1-21
Theme: It speaks for itself this week – The Abundance of God!
Introduction. All three readings paint a picture of the excess, the extravagance, of God: with God there is always something more. One hundred members of the Company of Prophets (now there's a group that might be worth joining, but not perhaps as the minutes secretary!) are fed from 20 loaves intended as a gift for their most distinguished member, "and they had some left over". In the second lesson, superlative is heaped upon superlative as Paul tries to cope with the impossible task of describing the love of God, which is just too big to be confined to words. And when Jesus commands his disciples to feed the multitude by the lake from 5 small loaves and 2 small fish, the cleaning up afterwards yields 12 baskets of leftovers! God doesn't just meet our needs, he swamps them.
Background. In an effort to understand how it is that a man as educated, intelligent and downright clever as biologist Richard Dawkins can be so rudely dismissive of any form of religious belief I have set myself the task of reading about the beliefs of others that many of us would rudely dismiss as crackpots. A few minutes on the internet, with Google's amazing assistance, soon showed there were many possibilities to choose from. I chose the Findhorn Community on the North-East coast of Scotland.
They have a wonderful website, and if you had never heard anything about them before you might get the impression that they are a relatively orthodox group of people interested in saving the planet from ecological disaster. Thus, the website shows their work in developing energy-efficient housing, efficient and non-polluting sewerage systems, and of course good food-producing practices. They have come a long way in the 50-odd years since their foundation by 3 adults and two children trying to survive in a caravan on a combined income of 6 pounds a week! (That caravan is preserved for its heritage value in the present community – or, more accurately, in the village of several hundred people that has grown from the vision and efforts of those early pioneers.)
They started their venture in the early 1960's, and even by the standards of those days (Britain was just beginning to swing, remember, courtesy of drugs, rock 'n' roll, imported flower-power, locally designed mini-skirts, and heaven knows what else), the beliefs associated rightly or wrongly with the Findhorn pioneers were a little weird. Think of the ridicule heaped on Prince Charles when he famously admitted to talking to his plants, multiply that by ten, and you have some idea of what most people thought about the "Findhorn fanatics". They didn't just talk to the plants; they talked to the governing spirits of the plants, and consulted them on the proper care of the plants. The problem (for the critics) was, whatever they were doing it seemed to be working spectacularly.
They started small. To supplement their meagre income they asked permission from the owner of the caravan park where they were parked to start a small vegetable patch. He was much amused, because the land was a mixture of coastal sand over which a layer of gravel had been poured; but he gave permission. Not only was the ground a lost cause, but the site was open to the coastal winds, salt-laden and powerful. But the garden grew wonderfully well. They asked to use more land and the landlord agreed. Again huge success. A rose expert, irritated by his wife's obsessive interest in Findhorn, offered to donate a dozen roses. When the offer was gleefully accepted he sprung the trap. He chose 12 of the most delicate and difficult roses to grow and donated those. When he checked a year later he was astonished to find they had all produced roses of championship quality.
The Findhorn Garden became famous, and attracted horticultural experts to investigate. They found that the people were using good horticultural practices – plenty of compost, and so on – but the consensus was that such practices alone could not possibly account for the produce coming from the garden. (The clincher was the average weight of their cabbages – 40lbs!). There had to be some other factor involved, but what was it? Of course, they asked the pioneers themselves and the answer was always the same: we ask the inner spirits and they tell us what to do.
So I chose Findhorn as my project, and through the wonders of the internet, and Amazon Kindle, I have been reading all about it. Remembering that I started by wondering how Richard Dawkins, trained and highly skilled in the scientific method, could be so closed-minded when it came to religious belief, I was sure that with my own training in the legal method I could consider their beliefs in a calm, rational and open-minded way. I couldn't! I was less than 3 pages in to the autobiography of one on those early pioneers when I started snorting in derision: "what a load of codswallop! How can anyone believe this stuff?" I out-dawkined Dawkins – until I remembered my calm and reasonable approach to those who do not believe in the resurrection of Christ. With people like that, I start with the undeniable fact that from the desolation of Good Friday, a defeated rabble of 11 disciples, exhausted and terrified, hiding behind locked doors, were suddenly transformed into fearless apostles, many of whom suffered martyrdom rather than deny the reality of their belief in Jesus. And the movement they started has now grown worldwide, etc. We say that only the resurrection could have caused such a transformation. That is our explanation. What is yours?
You see what a model of calm, polite discussion that is? But when I apply that approach to Findhorn I find I'm hoisted on my own petard. They can start with the undeniable fact of their garden: they say that the phenomenal growth is due to their cooperation with the inner spirits; and they can now point to the worldwide reputation and influence of the Findhorn Community as it is today. They say that it is all due to their spiritual beliefs and practices. What is my explanation?
And with all this in mind I turned to today's readings and found myself in a real quandary. Read the whole of chapter 4 of the Second Book of Kings, and what do we find? The multiplication of a small quantity of oil into enough to fill many large jars; the miraculous conception of a son, and the subsequent raising of that son back to life from death; the detoxification of poisoned stew; and the feeding of 100 hungry prophets from 20 loaves of bread. Add to these the two miracle stories in today's gospel passage, and you begin to see the sort of difficulties I'm talking about. Why is it that I can accept these biblical stories as essentially true, while dismissing the beliefs of people whose garden defies all scientific explanation?
Kings. Have you ever noticed how Elisha tends to fly under the radar compared with Elijah? Maybe it's the misfortune of having a rather similar name, so rather than trying to remember which is which we tend to amalgamate them in our minds and ascribe everything to Elijah. Perhaps the only story that we are confident is about Elisha is the healing of Naaman, the Syrian commander. Yet, as mentioned above, the whole of chapter 4 of this book features miraculous outcomes associated with Elisha. And today we have a sort of prototype "feeding of the multitude". Notice that the bread is made from the first fruits of the corn harvest, and is offered as a gift to the "man of God". This is a story about offering, blessing, and growth: and it seems to me to have a ritualistic flavour to it. A gathering of religious men shared bread together.
Taking It Personally.
· Contemplate a piece of bread, or, better, a whole loaf. Think about all the biblical stories that come immediately to mind featuring bread. Pray the relevant petition from the Lord's Prayer. Give thanks every time you eat bread this week.
· Think about the way in which a loaf of bread is a symbol of co-creation. What part of that creation is attributable to God and what to human agency?
· Break the bread. Recall that the liturgical word for the action of the priest in breaking the Eucharistic bread is "the fracture". Ponder the meaning and significance of that.
· Do you agree that our use of individual wafers weakens the significance of the Eucharistic liturgy? What can we do about it?
Ephesians. This is yet another sublime passage that defies summary and analysis. It almost smacks of "automatic writing", that produced by people in mystical states. At the heart of it is the astonishment felt by the Jewish faithful at the time that God loves Gentiles as much as he loves Jews. We find it hard to grasp how Paul and his contemporaries felt about this, but it truly was a most amazing revelation for them. (Perhaps their version of what our educated ancestors felt when they discovered the earth isn't flat and isn't the centre of the universe.) Note that the passage is in the form of a prayer for the recipients of the letter, the faithful at Ephesus. If I had to pick two elements as of particular significance I would go firstly for the idea in verse 19 of "love that surpasses knowledge" – on which so much of St Augustine's theology was based. We know about God through our minds; we know God through our hearts. Secondly, I would go for the concluding doxology in verses 20 and 21, which makes such a wonderful conclusion to the prayers in our funeral liturgy.
Taking It Personally.
· Slowly, meditatively, read through this passage in the style of lectio divina. Savour each phrase – stay with it for as long as it holds your attention. Take all week if necessary. Don't try to analyse it, or have any clever thoughts about it. Try to bathe in it, as in a warm bath.
· Pray this prayer for yourself, then for the members of your local church, and then for everyone else for whom you pray.
· When you have finished, turn to verse 16. Do you feel strengthened by your faith?
· Close by reciting verses 20 and 21 several times until you know it by heart.
John. Two obvious observations to start with. First, consider why in Year B of our three-year cycle of readings featuring the Gospel of Mark we are suddenly given a chunk from the gospel of John, not just this week but for 5 consecutive weeks. Secondly, notice that this chunk of five gospel passages are all taken from one chapter, chapter 6. I suggest there is good reason for this. In this second part of our liturgical year we are focused on the life of discipleship – how are we as people of faith to live out that faith in our everyday world? The danger is that we focus entirely on doing Christian things, rather than on being Christian. Remember how the first mission conducted by the twelve ended with them being so busy that they didn't have time even to eat. What did Jesus do about that? He took them away to a solitary place for prayer and spiritual refreshment. It seems to me that what our Lectionary arrangement is saying is, at the centre of our life of discipleship, of active ministry, is our relationship with Christ, the living bread. We must never be so busy that we forget our need for daily, deep nourishment. Our readings from John on this and the next four Sundays form a period of spiritual retreat (a 40-day fast, almost) from the helter-skelter pace of life so well captured by Mark's frenetic pace. Bread is life stripped down to the bare essentials.
The text is so well-known as to require little comment. A few little bits that caught my attention in the feeding narrative. Notice how well Jesus reads the crowds. They are after what they can get from him – healings, and later on a free lunch. The narrative is set in the shadow of the Passover festival (think unleavened bread, followed by manna, the original bread of life/bread of heaven.) I enjoy the little interplay between Jesus and Philip: the text says Jesus was testing him; I think he was teasing him, a nice little human touch. Andrew illustrates our tendency to focus on the problem, not the solution, on scarcity not possibility. When the bread is distributed, all receive what they "wanted", not just what they needed. And, of course, there are heaps left over.
As always the question of Jesus' identity and role is never far from the surface. Is he the long-awaited prophet who was to come? And there are those who see him as a natural leader for a rebel uprising. Let's crown him as our king and sock it to the Romans!
The episode on the lake is curious. I'm inclined to believe that it is intended as a parable aimed at the Church. Notice that in this version the disciples seem to have set off without Jesus, who "had not yet joined them". At the literal level the difficulties are obvious: why would the disciples leave him behind, and how precisely was he supposed to join them if they had already cast off? But suppose the boat represents the Church, and suppose that some in the Church believed that Jesus had died and they had to go on without him now. In other words, not everyone believed in the resurrection. So, off goes the tine Church, having left Jesus behind, and immediately gets into strife. When Jesus is seen coming towards them they are terrified, assuming he is a ghost, perhaps. Only when he speaks to them are they reassured, and, in a curious phrase, "then they were willing to take him into the boat". Just a thought (with which even Richard Dawkins might agree).
Taking It Personally.
· Re-visit Findhorn. (Google it, if you're that way inclined. Some key names to pursue are Peter and Eileen Caddy, Dorothy Mclean, David Spangler and R Ogilvie Crombie.) Are you tempted to be dismissive? What is it that distinguishes their beliefs from our own?
· In the story of walking on water, are you tempted to choose between the literal and the parabolic approach to the story, or can Scripture be true on two or more levels?
· In preparation for what is to come over the next 4 weeks read the rest of chapter 6 of John's gospel. Note any questions you have. Revisit the list at the end of August. Do you have any questions still unanswered? What are you going to do about that?
· In the gardening world, August is a month of resting before the energy of spring. Use this period, with the help of this chapter, to re-charge your spiritual energies.