I spent the summers of my erstwhile youth in the Republic of Waiheke. No traffic lights, no fast food, no television, not many adults, and lots of time. It was there, on isolated beaches, surrounded by surf, pohutukawa, and friendship I learnt the prayerful art of making fire. There can be something quite beautiful, and holy, about a fire at night on the beach.
What is holy? How do we know it to be holy? Are some places, words, actions and thoughts always sacred? Like most of us, I call it as I feel it. I can walk into a church and feel nothing holy. It’s just a big barn with a bunch of chairs. I can also walk into a barn and feel something holy. An arena of hay, animals, and dung was and can still be the nativity scene. The ordinary can be extraordinary.
Moses, a young fugitive from the law and from himself, came upon a burning bush. He could have grabbed a bucket of sand and doused it muttering to himself about kids who play with matches. He could have got out his bedroll and barbeque kit and settled down for a nice desert evening. Instead, he saw the fire as holy. He saw the ordinary, fire, as extraordinary.
The holy does not respect our boundaries of place and time. It doesn’t wait until we’re in church, or feeling good. Experiences of the numinous, of awe and wonder happen on beaches and deserts, in kitchens, bedrooms, and boardrooms, in churches, mosques, and synagogues. No place or time has a monopoly on sacredness.
St Matthew’s is one of the few neo-Gothic churches in this country. Here generations of people have experienced something holy. When you talk to people though, even if they can articulate what they mean by holy, it is not consistent. One person will experience the windows as holy, another the welcome as holy, and another the communion. The mystery and power move us in different ways at different times – and sometimes we aren’t moved at all.
A few weeks back I was at the annual Robin Hood Foundation dinner here in St Matthew’s. The pews and parishioners were gone replaced by dinner tables and guests. The Foundation, which encourages businesses to invest creatively in social enterprises particularly geared to those in poverty, was handing out accolades and awards. The Bank of New Zealand, for example, was applauded for their involvement in Preventing Violence in the Home, and The House of Travel for their relationship with Hospice NZ. We sponsored the event.
There is something fundamentally holy about compassion, thinking creatively about fighting poverty, and rewarding those who do. There also can be built a communion amongst those committed to caring for others.
Last Friday night there was another event hosted here with tables, food, and wine. It was Price Waterhouse Cooper’s Emerging Artists. Music, conversation, and awards were on the menu. This was not a charity event. Yet was the holy absent? In talking, listening, laughing… is there not always the possibility of God showing up? Are the sacred and secular neat categories where we can lock God in, and lock others out?
Every moment has the potential for holiness. Every place has the potential for holiness. Within every person is the holiness of God, ready and waiting to guide us in the ways of love, justice, and joy. God doesn’t just fraternize with nice people, or church people, or righteous upstanding people.
As I listened afresh this week to the Lukan story of Jesus and the woman afflicted by degenerative osteoporosis I heard again this struggle over who, what, and when is holy.
In many cultures and religions there seems to be a holiness continuum. Up one end are the saints and down the other are the scumbags. The saint end tends to be dominated by those who follow a rigorous spiritual discipline; and the scumbag end by those who seemingly don’t have much discipline at all. Unfortunately such continuums have historically pushed the sick, the poor, and dissenters towards the scumbag end, and those who keep to the rules towards sainthood.
We need to understand that this Lukan story deliberately characterizes two diametrically opposed understandings of holiness. It is, in that sense, using stereotypes. It would be most inappropriate, in fact, directly offensive, if we were not to see this and to start caricaturing Jewish leaders and Judaism on the basis of this story.
Jesus has an evolving understanding of holiness that makes him wary of presuming. Something in his Jewish background and experience has alerted him to the broader truth that God and holiness are found in the little, the meek, the mediocre, and the marginalized. Holiness is amongst the impure. Holiness is not limited to certain places or people. Holiness can happen at a party, be evident in an enemy soldier, a person of heathen faith, or a woman of ill repute. Piety, on the other hand, made Jesus puke.
Of course God can be found in all sorts of places. God can be found amongst the high and mighty, as well as the low and slimy, in community meetings and backyards, committees and ball games, Cathedrals and brothels, niggling, nudging, and agitating. God can be found in Sydney Diocese and in the words of Bishop John Spong. Banning won’t work. God is not hemmed in by our preconceptions, but is out and about, splashing the world with iconoclastic irreverence and courageous love.
Jesus calls the bent woman a ‘daughter of Abraham’. He calls her an insider, follower of the faith, whereas society has called her an outsider, and has reshaped her with their prejudice. Jesus calls her into community and wellbeing. And he does it on the Sabbath.
Another heir of Abraham objects. ‘Look Jesus, we all like a healing mate, but this is the Sabbath. Couldn’t you have waited until tomorrow?’ Jesus quips, ‘Well, animals need water on the Sabbath.’ ‘Sorry Jesus,’ he might have replied, ‘it’s not a good argument. Animals need water to survive; the woman could have waited until the morrow.’
But this argument is not really about what the texts of scripture definitively say. It is about where the heart lies. The objector, a gate keeper of holiness, wanted compassion and kindness to fit within the rules. Jesus’ God however wasn’t keen on rules. Holiness happens when it happens, just like it happens where it happens, among whom it happens. We can’t stop it. But we can choose not to recognize it or support it.
Texts and traditions, valuable and cherished as they may be, can be used to try to lock God in and lock so-called ‘undesirables’ out. In many parts of the Anglican world today women and gays are locked out of leadership. In many places tight controls are placed around those who can receive sacraments like baptism, communion, and marriage. In many places church buildings can only be used for authorized worship services and Robin Hood wouldn’t be welcome.
I return to the fire on the Waiheke beach. It is warm there, a place rich with memories. I can’t deny the holiness of those encounters. I can’t deny God was there as much as God is here. I can’t deny that in the friendships of those moments there was something holy and precious. Sacred and secular are different from each other but not fixed categories with definitive boundaries. I know this because I have experienced a God who dances and flits where She wills, totally disregarding any fences I’ve tried to erect and laughing at my attempts.