Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Last Sunday in the North

Sermon for St. John's, Brownville Junction and St. Augustine's. Dover-Foxcroft
Sunday, July 25, 2010
The Rev. Amelia Hagen

I returned from a trip to the UK earlier this week.  The primary purpose was to attend a gathering and retreat of the Society of Ordained Scientists.  Of course, I also spent some personal time going to some places I've always wanted to see, York (not Maine), Whitby, the Isle of Iona and Durham.  Like many people I'm drawn to the early saints of Ireland and England.  My own sense of adventure, which is one of my core values, is why I love doing interim work.  Iona was founded by St. Colomba and 12 followers by getting into little boats and sailing from Ireland to the Scottish Islands. From there Christianity came into Scotland and northern England.  And then of course, Whitby is associated with St. Hild and the Council of Whitby where a decision was made on how to calculate the date for Easter (among other things), and then St. Cuthbert and the Venerable Bede in Durham.
Cellist and Pianist—Iona Abbey Church

But back to the gathering of The Society of Ordained Scientists.  Our retreat leader used science fiction as a peg to talk about theological subjects.  You'd be surprised at the number of members who are closeted sci-fi fans.  One of the short stories was by Arthur C. Clark written in 1953, called The Nine Billion Names of God. In this story some Tibetan monks are trying list all of the possible names of God.  They believe that once the naming is done, the universe will be complete and God will bring it to an end. The monks had been working on this for three centuries ever since they created an alphabet that could encode all the names of God, and an algorithm to throw out the nonsensical ones(they believed that all the names had less than nine letters). They had been doing this by hand and had estimated it would take another fifteen thousand years to complete the work. To speed things up, they decided to use a computer. So they hired two western computer programers and rented a computer. 

The computer programers don't believe that listing all the names of God would do anything, but it's a job. The monks take the print-outs and paste them in the books they've been putting together for the last 300 years. After about three months the job is about ended and the programmers were worried that the monks would blame the computer, and them, when nothing happens. They bid the monk goodbye, who, by the way, gives them a strange look, and the programmers leave just before last print run. As they ride down the mountain path on ponies, under clear star-filled skies, they stop briefly. One of the programmers looks at his watch and says that it must be just about the time that the monks are pasting the final printed names into their books.  As they gaze at the stars, they notice that one by one, the they went out.

In some cultures, to know God's name is to know God's nature.  So what nature of God, does today's gospel reading, with Jesus teaching his disciples the Lord's prayer, point to? So when we pray to "Our Father in Heaven, Hallowed be thy name," what kind of Father pops into our mind. You know all of our names for God are metaphors.  God is like a Father who is both strong and caring, that is maternal as well as paternal. For Moses, God is the Great I Am (Will Be) who is present and promises to be present always with God's people. The New Zealand Prayer Book in an alternative Lord's Prayer says it by using lots of metaphors: Eternal Spirit, Earth-maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver, Source of all that is and that shall be, Father and Mother of us all, Loving God, in whom is heaven.

We really get a clue to the part of God's nature, Jesus is talking about, in the second part of the gospel reading. It is about generous hospitality. Some people think it's about pestering God until you get what you ask for, but  there are other translations of the word that we get today as persistence.  Shamelessness or impudence are two of them.  (thanks to Bosco Peters  for this idea) The neighbor asks only once, so persistence doesn't really seem to fit too well.  We know that hospitality is important in that first century culture, and still is, in the Middle East.  And avoidance of shame is also extremely important in that culture.  These first century people lived hand-to-mouth and the extravagant hospitality expected to be given to strangers could put a family in real economic trouble, yet if they didn't show hospitality they would be shamed.  Quite a predicament.  But, I would suspect that it's really not about us, although it could be, as much as it's about God.  It's about Jesus showing us what kind of God, the Father is.

We know that Jesus, the icon of the Father, was himself a radically hospitable person.  Just remember the feeding with the loaves and fishes, his healings, and his welcoming of sinners to the table.  Jesus points to a God who really is a Mothering-Father; who wants good for all of his creation. In the words of one of my favorite scientist/theologians, John Polkinghorne,  "A creator who is rational, joyful, good and holy."  Jesus points to a God who is not only rational, joyful, good and hospitable and generous and holy, but a God who is the source of hope.  Hope to those who have so little; whose daily bread is not assured. Hope to those who are not welcomed and know nothing of hospitality and generosity. We are called to put our hope and anticipation of God's kingdom come into action every day of our lives.

We are to be the impudent, shameless ones who ask, knock, seek and find until all of God's children have the bread they need for the day.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Trip to the United Kingdom and SOSc Meeting

Although there's a lot of putting away to be done, I've finally got all my belongings (except for my cross country skis and snowshoes) into the apartment.  It was quite an undertaking and just barely accomplished the transfer before I left for a trip to the UK and the annual gathering of the Society of Ordained Scientists.

My first stop was York.  This is one of the most charming cities in England.  I love the old streets and ability to see so much by walking.  Although very tired from my flight I walked over to the minister and wandered around, guidebook in hand. I realized I had left my camera at home, so I took no pictures of the place.  They were getting ready for a concert that evening, but I was way too tired to even contemplate buying a ticket.  I went back to my hotel, ordered tea (sandwiches and sweets) around 6 pm, took a bath and crawled into bed.  I know I was asleep by 8 pm and slept until 8 the next morning.

After breakfast I bought a camera, all the while listening to the York town pipers practically outside the door of the camera shop.  So, of course, that was the first picture I took.

York Pipers
After that I walked through the city park and then along the city walls.

You can walk on top of the wall in York.
The hosts at The Willows B&B in Whitby, suggested that I take the bus rather than the train from York.  It was fascinating going over the moors and through little villages.  It was a long ride though.  They made me a pot of tea when I arrived and I sat and watched a steam-powered bus go by, shooting flames as it came to a stop.  Took a walk through the town to orient myself, but saved going up to the abbey and its 198 steps until Sunday, the next day. The ruins are not of Hild's original abbey, but much later.

Ruins of Whitby Abbey
It was blowing gale force winds on the headlands, but it was sunny and warm enough.  I went to church at St. Mary the Virgin which is just outside the abbey grounds.  It was Morning Prayer, led by a lay person since the clergy, we were told, were off at Oberammergau.  The church itself is very strange.  The arch into the choir and sanctuary is cut off by white-painted pews which form a sort of balcony around the church.  It is very difficult to see the altar.  There is one of those three-tiered pulpits in the center of the church, with the clerk's desk on the lowest level.  Reminded me of colonial-era churches in the US where preaching rather than communion was considered to be most important.  The people, however, were very pleasant and the coffee hour nice.  The view of the town on the way down from the abbey is quite impressive.

Old Town of Whitby from Abbey Steps
After a rest I walked over to the West Cliffs (the abbey is on the East Cliffs), another headland and peered down on the bathing beach below.  The brightly painted cabins are quite a treat to view.  Since it was fairly late in the day on a Sunday there weren't many people left enjoying the sunshine (and wind).  Off in the distance was a replica of Cook's sailing ship.
Whitby, West Cliffs Bathing Cabins
The next day it was supposed to rain, and it did.  I had decided I wanted to take the North Yorkshire Moors Steam Train.  It was lots of fun and the scenery fascinating, especially going through deep valleys in the moors.  The line is run entirely by volunteers and I was told they have no problem getting them. 

Steam Train from Whitby to Pickering
The next day I met some colleagues at the bus station and we were taken to Sneaton Castle (a former school) where our gathering and retreat of the Society of Ordained Scientists was held.  I didn't take any pictures there.  Whitby Abbey was visible at a distance when the fog and rain didn't hide it.  Walking the grounds of the Castle was pleasant.  The place is run by sisters of the Order of the Holy Paraclete, who are basically a teaching order.  There is no longer a school, but a lot of their work in done in Africa.  What was a school is now a conference center, and quite well run.  The chaplain, new to the place, was originally a scientist and decided to join us for our meditations and at the admittance Eucharist, became a member along with four others.  One of the new members is Moira, from Scotland.  She and I both studied chemistry and math.  Since she offered me a lift to Edinburgh, I accepted. That was my next stop, where I spent the night with Fiona, a friend from long-ago time in Vienna.  Her condo overlooks the Firth of Forth and this is the view I woke up to in the morning.  I sat and watched the fog lift a bit while I sipped coffee.

Firth of Forth
It was then off to Oban and Iona.  I booked a tour across the Isle of Mull.  The bus driver gave us a great history of the place as we went along.  It was about a two-hour ride. The scenery was beautiful—high, green, rounded mountains with waterfalls coming down from great heights; shaggy highland cattle and of course, lots of sheep of all sorts.  The little ferry to Iona runs every 15 minutes, but the big one to Oban, not so often.  Because the weather had been so bad, the last ferry of the day had been canceled and we needed to be sure we caught the three o'clock one off Iona.  It was raining when we arrived, but the sun was out when we left.
Oban to Mull Ferry
St. Colomba's Shrine
You can read the words.
Iona Abbey Buildings

Nave of Church
There were a cellist and pianist rehearsing in the nave crossing for a concert to be held in a couple of days.  I sat down and basked in the beauty of the music and the place.  Next pictures are from the cloisters.
The Cloisters at Iona
Abbey Bell
I was getting hungry so I decided to go have lunch when it decided to rain quite hard.  The sheep in the next picture looked like it was trying to get a bit of shelter from the rain.
After lunch I went for a walk along the shore in the opposite direction of the abbey.  The sky went from grey to blue over the course of my walk.  Here are a few of the things I saw.

As you can see the sky has begun to turn blue by the last picture.  I then started to walk back to the ferry terminal.  Both the sky and water are much bluer.  People were sitting on the rocks eating their lunches and waiting for the ferry to come.  I am even more amazed now that I've seen the place that St. Colomba and his 12 companions safely made the trip from Ireland to Iona and that this lovely little island became such a place of learning an pilgrimage.
The next morning I went to church at the Episcopal Church of Scotland cathedral in Oban.  They're in the process of searching for a new bishop, so the bishop of Moray, Ross and Caithness celebrated and preached.  He had just spent some time camping on Mull (lots of rain) and said he probably didn't look much like a bishop that morning.  The people really like him.  One woman told me she hoped they could find someone like him to be their bishop.  The sermon basically said we need to be both Martha and Mary, not one or the other.  The bishop asked what would a church be like if everyone were Marys?  Interesting thought.  I got a really warm welcome and am glad I went.  I then grabbed my suitcase and took the noon train to Glasgow, then Edinburgh and finally to my destination, Durham.

I really did get steeped in the early saints of Ireland and Britain.  First Colomba, then in Durham, Cuthbert and Bede.  I loved the Norman towers of Durham and the history is fascinating.
Durham Cathedral
Too short a time in Durham, just like it was too short a time in York. The train was not nearly so interesting from Durham to London as it was between Edinburgh and Durham.  I loved the vistas out to the North Sea.  Got to my hotel near Victoria Station just in time to meet Doug's train from Bristol.  We had about 2 hours for dinner and talking.  Not nearly enough time.  The next morning I went for a walk to St. James Park and took a stroll.  The duck and the flowers were little treasures, but most of the treasures were in my mind.  The first time I went to London for the IAEA I stayed on the other side of the park and went for a stroll through it.  The memories were of all the wonderful scientists I got to meet and work with:  Mike Bewers, Bill Templeton, John Shepherd, George Needler, Geoff Webb, Dennis Whitehead, Jan Pentreath, Chris Garrett, Gunnar Kullenberg and so many others whose names escape me at this time like Marion's last name.
Duck in St. James' Park
Flowers, St. James' Park