Last Monday Billie and I visited a very special place; the Glowworm Caves at Waitomo. It really was an extraordinary and humbling experience, as our knowledgable guide led us through the beautiful, 24 million year old caves, showing us the stalagtites, stalagmites and even a naturally formed and acoustically perfect cathedral chamber. The highlight of the tour though was the concluding silent boat journey along the underwater river illuminated by thousands of tiny glowworm larvae on the roof of the cave, with beautiful threads like golden hair dangling beneath them. The sense of peace and beauty and the presence of God was beyond description. I was reminded of that lovely Quaker idea of prayer as being held in the light. How wonderful it was that these tiny creatures enabled us to experience this. I also thought I had found a sermon illustration - preachers are always on the lookout for these - well, the glowworms reminded me of St Paul's poetic advice to Christians that they should shine like stars in a crooked and depraved generation.
But ... as our guide explained the life cycle of the glowworm, a slightly different picture emerged. It turns out that the purpose of the glowworms' glow is not to entertain tourists, but to attract their prey, smaller insects which become trapped on the sticky lines hanging below each larva's nest, before being drawn up and devoured. These gentle, peaceful creatures also happen to be very territorial and will fight, kill and even eat each other to get the best place on the cave roof. This explains how they end up evenly spaced out like light fittings. Not such a good example for Christians after all. So much for innocent beauty!
2. A Sabbath Upset
Like the Glowworm cave, the Sabbath meal attended by Jesus in our gospel story may appear peaceful, beautiful and innocent on the surface, but we know from the start that it has been carefully staged. Jesus, the troublemaker, is being watched. But the one under observation is watching too and he can see straight through the actions and motives of his fellow guests.
He notices how, rather like glowworms, they seek the best places at the table for themselves, not caring about the needs or status of others. Jesus lets his fellow guests know he has noticed this and reminds them of an old proverb warning against this kind of behaviour. The host, one of the leading Pharisees, does not escape Jesus's disapproval either. Jesus has noticed how carefully the guest list, with the exception of Jesus, has been drawn up to include safe, friendly, wealthy people who can be relied on to make the host feel good about himself and to return the invitation in due course. Jesus wants to know why the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind down-and-outs are not around the table instead. His objection seems a little impertinent, and we may have some sympathy with the host.
Then again, this was no ordinary meal, but a Sabbath meal, and Jesus was very concerned about the proper and improper observance of the Sabbath, as we heard last week: "Should this woman not be released on the Sabbath" (Luke 13:16); "Does our Law allow healing on the Sabbath or not?" (Luke 14:3); "If anyone of you had a son or an ox that happened to fall in a well on a Sabbath, would you not pull them out at once on the Sabbath itself?" (Luke 14:5). His questions meet with a cold silence and it seems that nothing angers Jesus more than when religious duty is used as an excuse for denying a vulnerable person the help they need.
According to Jewish tradition the celebration of a Sabbath meal had three purposes. Firstly to commemorate the Creation and God's own Sabbath day rest, secondly to remember the exodus, God's act of liberating his people from slavery in Egypt and thirdly to enjoy a foretaste of the future 'messianic' age in which justice will be done for the oppressed and all things put right. How could a genteel dinner party for the well heeled and respectable be 'fit for purpose'? Maybe Jesus had a point: those Jewish religious characters needed to sort out their weekly sabbath meal and make sure it lived up to its billing. But to be fair the same point could be made about our own special weekly meal, Holy Communion, which has a similar threefold purpose and which is equally prone to lose its prophetic edge and degenerate into a piece of bland, comfortable theatre.
3. Confront with Care
The boldness and confidence with which Jesus confronted people about their practices and motives is a clear model for Christian initiatives in society, but it may not always be easy to intervene in the right way. An example given by Prof Kwame Anthony Appiah during the recent Robb Lectures at Auckland University illustrates the point. One of Prof Appiah's main themes was the power of the idea of honour in bringing about social change and improvement. Some real social evils, such as the practice of footbinding in China, have been addressed and greatly reduced or eradicated by encouraging the pursuit of honour or the diminishing of dishonour. But honour can work both ways and Prof Appiah also gave the example of the Church of Scotland's opposition to the practice of Female Genital Mutilation in Kenya, where the Church's stern disapproval backfired and actually made the problem worse, by making the continuation of the practice a matter of national honour. So instead of FGM dying out quietly, as it might have done, it became more deeply entrenched. The lesson of history is not that the Church was wrong to take action and oppose FGM but that tactics need to be thought through. A better approach might have been to listen to and support groups of victims or their supporters within the culture, rather than offer criticism from outside. This alternative approach is in fact what worked so well to help eradicate foot-binding. Not confronting an injustice is not an option, we cannot stand by and allow evil to continue, but we need to look for the most effective strategy.
I am sure we can all think of other examples where opposition by a Church or State or individual to someone else's actions or attitudes has caused a backlash instead of bringing about the hoped for reform. So perhaps we need to choose our tactics carefully, even though Jesus himself does not always appear to have done so. He was at least in conversation with his opponents, until they executed him anyway.
4. The Guide is in the Boat
So where does this leave us and what is the role of Christians in the world? Human society is drifting through some pretty dark caves these days, with wars, atrocities and injustice all around. There is a need for light and for action, but many of the bright lights on the roof of our caves turn out to be no more than glowworms, whose light is merely for their own benefit, whose concern is only for their own flourishing at the expense of anyone who gets in the way. The answer was in the boat with us at Waitomo caves, our guide whose name was actually Christian, a young Maori man, from the tribe which owns the cave.
It was Christian's presence with the rest of us in the boat which got us through the cave and out into daylight. He didn't walk away and leave us there, nor did he stand outside, shouting instructions at us. If Christian hadn't been with us we'd probably still be stuck there now and not doing very well. His calm, knowledgable presence was reassuring, even though it was difficult to see how he was guiding the boat along. Eventually, as my eyes grew accustomed to the darkness, I noticed a rope above the boat and I could see that Christian was holding onto the rope and pulling on it to guide us through and eventually out of the cave into the glorious sunlight.
Like our guide, we Christians living in dark days cannot do our job by shouting instructions from outside society: we are in fact in the same boat as everyone else, including the victims and the perpetrators of violence and injustice. We too are related to the owner of the cave and there is a rope which I would call the presence of God, the things we have learned about God, our relationship with God if you like. You might call it something else, but the rope is here with us and so the boat we are all in need not just drift aimlessly. Our calm presence will hopefully be reassuring to our fellow travellers, and most importantly we can take the initiative and steadily help pull the boat through the darkness and into the light.