Pentecost 19C 2016

25.09.2016

Our Thinking, Feeling and Behaving, as Sacred Tasks.

Jeremiah 32: 1-3a, 6-15                      Luke 16:19-31

Over the last three weeks, in fact for much longer than that but especially in the last weeks we have been exploring what we mean by ordinary life and we have taken as our basis for this the fact that Jesus was a human being just like us and that he taught by using contextualized parables. We have suggested that where we might have gone astray with our interpretation in the past was when we made Jesus into a God and so pushed him away in our thinking ensuring his parables became allegories and they then became doctrine. This tied everything up neatly in a rule and life and hope became dependent upon the supernatural, and upon a miracle form of outcome In so doing we shifted the integrity of our faith and the likelihood of a certain hope towards an early acceptance of the impossible as the indicator of our faith engagement. Believe in the supernatural and you can have hope. In practice this meant that we parked our minds at the door of the church and left them there until we came out again. The ordinary was forever distanced from God.

Our concentration on ordinary life, is an attempt to close this gap by revaluing the ordinary human experience and it has become imperative if we are as Borg suggested see Jesus again for the first time.

We noted as Hal Taussig has said, Jesus was a sage. He did not emphasis either holy scripture or established religious systems as privileged sources of wisdom. He did not care about religious codes of behaviour or belief, and he did not promote an other-worldly emphasis. Instead “The real energy of Jesus’ teachings is found in their expansiveness of vision and in their critique of religion and not in its defence…  And his favourite place to teach was probably at dinner” In other words in the ordinary. The week before last and this week our title has been about the nature of the ordinary and the claim is that the ordinary is sacred and the sacred is found in the ordinary.

The lectionary readings for today together present both challenge and hope.  They plant our hope in our relationship with God or a divine something.  They contain a claim that those who commit themselves to this divine cause can imagine futures and act on their imagination, even if the arc of imagination goes beyond their lifetimes. This is not to claim that non-believers cannot imagine a future and act on it but rather that one who wrestles with the divine relationship will know a different way of living. In their view of what it means to be human they will know of a hope that is certain and an imagination that creates and transforms reality.

Here we have the difference between a person who believes in a God and someone who doesn’t. The difference is revealed in their living life as a human being. In the ordinary. In recent traditional language they can face illness, external threat, and death knowing that their God’s providence encompasses them. In progressive language they can know of a life unlimited by the fear of an ending but rather a life grounded firmly in the limitations of humanity yet with a relational experience of a hope that is certain rather than wishful thinking.

Jeremiah bought the farm!  Locked in jail for his prophetic preaching, Jeremiah decides to buy a plot of land, and makes a plan for the future.  His actions are an audacious image of hope!  The nation is at a precipice, defeat and destruction are on the horizon, and the prophet takes a leap of faith buying a property he will never occupy.

Someone has claimed that Martin Luther said that “If he knew tomorrow that the world would go to pieces, he would still plant a tree.”  Jeremiah’s audacity reminds us that we are always planting seeds for tomorrows we may never see.  Our small daily actions, resolutions about new life, and social involvement transform the world in ways we can’t imagine and may tip the balance between flourishing and destruction.

And when we get to our reading from Luke we find ourselves again drawn toward the idea that it is in the ordinary, everyday event that we find the divine. It is strange but true that we would rather the words of Jesus are not really meant for you and me. We would prefer to be able to say that you and I, at first glance, are neither the rich man in the story before us now nor are we Lazarus.  We would have to agree that on the economic scale we are usually measured by, we probably do fall somewhere in-between.  So at first it would be easy to dismiss Jesus’ words as not meant for us. And yet, we can’t quite do that.

A 25year old student was living in a small flat attached to an old church somewhere in the USA. She lived in this flat free of charge, in exchange for opening the church building in the morning, checking to be sure the doors were locked at night, and this meant taking a late evening walk through that massive building and glancing into every nook and cranny to be sure no one had made their way in during the day who hadn’t also made their way out by nightfall.  Mostly all she encountered were the occasional bats who had been stirred out of their hiding places by the large fans in the church tower in late summer — but it was also so that now and then a homeless person would find his or her way into a pew where he or she hoped to spend the night safe and warm.

You can tell by know I think, that the neighbourhood is not the kind most people would probably want their 25 year old daughter living in, even if it wasn’t known as an area marked by poverty and crime and the kind of fear that can live in every heart when both are present.

The fact was that she wasn’t there most of the time.  She would get up early and unlock the doors and head across town to school where she would spend the day learning and socializing with others who were preparing to be leaders in the church. And most days she’d be getting home long after the neighbourhood had settled down.   It was not so different for those who called that church home.  Most of them didn’t live within walking distance of that building like their ancestors did.  For the most part, except for the small staff, they were only there on Sunday mornings.  And no, they didn’t have a whole lot of connection or commitment to their neighbours.  But they did allow their kitchen to be used on weeknights for a soup kitchen: in an important way ensuring that the hungry were fed. Even that single important ministry was one our student seldom witnessed or so she told everyone.  She claimed that most days she would park her car outside long after that stream of hungry people had made their way past her front door.

The truth was that most of the time she would make sure she didn’t arrive home until late.  And it was because she was actually a little afraid of the people who lined up to be fed every night.  Her world seldom intersected with theirs and she wasn’t all that unhappy on most days to miss that line of children and old people, individuals and entire families who came to have their hunger satisfied.  So when on that rare occasion she did happen to come home a little early, usually she would take a side door in and make her way to her apartment — avoiding too much contact with those who lived so differently than she.

However one day one of the men in line stepped away from the others. He blocked her way to the side door and proceeded to scream at her using words she had seldom, if ever, heard directed at her.  And in that moment she felt a mix of surprise and fear as his outburst forced her to lift up her head and look into his eyes.  And then into her own heart to acknowledge the indifference that lived there.

This story has been told many times and each time the student received a huge amount of sympathy. People have said that, it would be only normal to be afraid in the face of such an encounter. And no, of course, she didn’t necessarily do anything wrong which would have deserved such a chastising from a stranger.  But here’s the point.  Neither had the rich man in Jesus’ parable done something particularly wrong.  At least we don’t hear that he did.  Rather his sin was simply one of indifference.  Of turning the other way his whole life long.  Of not feeling and responding to the pain of one over  whom he apparently literally had to step on his way about his business every morning, noon, and night.  His sin was that of allowing himself to be so utterly closed off from all this world God made and the varied people who inhabited it alongside him not to mention his daily opportunity to make a difference in it.  And to be sure, the rich man’s sin was reflected in his still seeing Lazarus as beneath him — as one whom he could order around — even after their fates had been sealed His sin was not in seeing Lazarus as the child of God that he was. Here we have the challenge. The rich man’s sin is much like ours.

Here we have the common theme or challenge of these last weeks of readings. The clear message is that you and I do understand the rich man in Jesus’ parable.  We might even say that we have some measure of sympathy for him because we know how easy it is to be too busy to take care of the need that is sitting on our doorstep.  We can say we have heard the message that we don’t have what it takes, and we have heard ourselves respond that someone else will take care of it, or that such problems are so massive that one person or even a few hundred people can’t make much of a difference.  And yes we can easily respond that Jesus’ words as not meant for us, and yes we know that to turn away or reject them would be just one more step towards sealing ourselves off into a kind of hell of our own making.  The hell of fear. One where the needs of others are seen as threats and not as opportunities to live as people of the Jesus Way or in traditional language ‘the whole people of God we were made to be’.  The rich man’s sin was his indifference.

It took a screaming, hungry, homeless person to shake our student out of her indifference.  And like her we find ourselves every single day intentionally needing to stand still to try to listen and really see the needs of the world with the eyes of Jesus and not our own. The Jesus Way is a way of living seeking out opportunities to banish fear to the side-lines, replacing it with a confidence born out of a certain hope and living as one who sees and gives and loves in this life right now.

And so we are left to ponder this story of the rich man and Lazarus and to ask who is at our at our doorstep now— who, in fact, passes by our place every single day.   It will be a steady stream of folks who work hard for less than enough pay. And it is not a call to just say hello, or to offer some comment on the weather. It is not to ask a perfunctory ‘how are you?’  The truth is that we do not know their stories.  Sometimes we don’t even know their names.  Why should it take someone screaming at us to awaken us to their plight?

All of this is to remember that the sacred is found in the ordinary and the everyday, in our feelings, thoughts and in our action. It is not the presence of God or the Sacred or the Divine that we need to see but rather the stranger in our midst, the person next to us, the one in need in front of us. The sin is our indifference in the face of the ordinary.

I want to finish with a few verses from a song by Enya. They are based on a song that is endless not unlike a certain hope and they seemed to me to encourage us to sing with courage in the face of the ordinariness of life and it takes the view that this response is irresistible.

“How Can I Keep from Singing?”

My life flows on in endless song;

Above earth’s lamentation,

 

I hear the sweet, tho’ far-off hymn

That hails a new creation;

Thro’ all the tumult and the strife

I hear the music ringing;

It finds an echo in my soul—

How can I keep from singing?

 

When tyrants tremble, sick with fear,

And hear their death-knell ringing,

When friends rejoice both far and near,

How can I keep from singing?

 

In prison cell and dungeon vile,

Our thoughts to them go winging;

When friends by shame are undefiled,

How can I keep from singing?

Amen.

Websites

The Text This Week Bruce Epperley   The Adventurous Lectionary: Imaging Hope in Times of Uncertainty

R A E Hunt

 

Pentecost 18C, 2016
Luke 16:19-31

 ‘The Sacred Tasks of Thinking, Feeling, Doing’

Jesus tells the Parable of the so-called dishonest manager or steward, and people have beat their heads against this text for generations trying to figure out what in the world he was talking about. Clergy, lay people, seminary professors and commentators agree that, at least as far as Luke 16 goes, the Lord works in mysterious ways. So what do we do with this text? Do we just ignore it and move on or do we struggle with the millions who have over the centuries? I am not sure so I thought we might just roll with it and see what happens.

We start with the so-called facts as we know them. We start with two characters: the rich man and his manager. First the unnamed rich man who in Luke’s story was likely a man of great style. A member of the ruling urban elite perhaps, he would have worn a contented smile and dined each day on a feast. He would not have been a violent or uncharitable man. He wouldn’t have been one who kicked the poor man, every time he went in or out of the gate. His greatest challenge would have been like most of us who have a reasonable life, one of an apathy and neglect which widened the chasm between rich and poor. He would have been aware of the people who begged but blind to the person who struggled to survive. and he would have been dismissal of the lack of effort yet blind to the human need. His pursuit of great wealth, so the storyteller implies, had taken over his life.

The second character is the manager and the word on the street is that the manager has been misbehaving. Maybe he has been embezzling funds and taking kickbacks. The rich man summons him to his office for a pre-firing dressing down. In serious hot water, the manager realizes he’s not trained for any other type of job and he’d better lay some groundwork for his future. So, going to his master’s clients, he reduces their bills, thereby earning himself their gratitude and restoring his master’s reputation from someone who employs corrupt officials to someone who is generous with his clients.

We can easily follow up to this point in the story. It touches what we know and perceive. The manager is trying to make the best of a bad situation, and since he’s already defrauded his boss, he might as well go whole hog and make himself look good by unethically reducing the amount of money the clients owe. But then comes a twist. We might think that when the rich man found out that his manager had again cheated him out of money, he would call for the tar and feathers. But no.

Jesus said that the “master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”

Here we have arrived at the point of confusion. What is Jesus saying here because he doesn’t seem to make sense. His words don’t seem to match the type of behaviour he usually asks us to display. There’s nothing in the Sermon on the Mount like, “Blessed are the shrewd, for they shall make eternal homes by means of dishonest wealth.” So where do we go next?

Well, if is obvious that hundreds before us have got here and survived. So let’s not panic just yet. There is hope. First of all we remember that parables are meant to be confusing. They are meant to turn conventional wisdom on its head, leave listeners scratching their heads and praying for guidance. So we are in good company and like many before us have experienced Jesus doesn’t leave us totally without resources. He hands us stories like this and says, “Trust what you know of me and figure this out.” So let’s give it another go.

What exactly is it that the manager does that is unethical or wrong? He forgives the clients’ debts. That seems to ring a bell. Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. Maybe this parable is about forgiveness! But hang on this still doesn’t make sense. If Jesus wanted to talk about forgiveness, why didn’t he just say, “There was this guy who had a lot of people owing him money, and this guy could have been a jerk about it an insisted on their paying what was owed, but he said, OK, you guys don’t have to pay, and everyone lived happily ever after.”

Well, once again, we stumble over the reality of human life that doesn’t let us get away with easy answers. Our lives don’t have any easy answers. Jesus doesn’t tell simple stories because none of us live simple stories. Think of the way the connections we have to the people we love sometimes get hopelessly tangled and snarled, until we can’t remember what the problem was in the first place, but we sure can’t figure out how to fix it now. Think of the times you’ve been between a rock and a hard place, knowing that any decision you make will hurt someone. Think of the times you’ve been driven by circumstances to a place where compromising your integrity seems like a small price to pay if it will just get you out of this mess. It seems that there was a need for this parable after all. Suddenly when aligned with what we know it makes sense.

Jesus seemed to know that lives are not black and white, and he also seems to know that we need help to discern how to live out of our better selves. That it is about making choices, its about discerning between being right and being humane.

I was talking with Andrew the other day, about this sermon and he suggested that the issue was about being righteous. I hadn’t thought in that direction but on reflection it is. Righteousness is more than being right, it is about something more holistic. Its about the fact that the rich man did not abandon his manager because he saw that there are always other factors involved in the reason for shrewdness and even dishonest behaviour. The environment, the circumstances all play their part. Justice is always more than right punishment, it is also about education and growth. It’s sometimes more important to maintain relationships between people of difference than it is to be honest.

Now let’s touch on the presenting issue of forgiveness. At one level forgiveness is just about letting someone off some wrongdoing, but at another it is about an extravagant, irrational giving. The master’s affirmation of the manager’s action is such an act. A forgiveness given openly, freely and without restraint. There is a message here that nothing we can ever do will alienate us from the possibility of love and goodness or in traditional terms there is nothing that will take God’s love away from us. There is no way we will ever be anything less than wonderful cherished human beings, no matter how many mistakes we make or people we hurt. Traditionally this is where we are forgiven before we know we are going to do wrong, because Jesus loved us even unto death. This is less about the freedom to do wrong and more about seeing the reality about being human. Knowing that forgiveness is ours for the asking at every step of the way how can we not want to try it out ourselves?

And then we move to the nature of forgiveness or at least two aspects of it. “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” is what happens in this parable. Here the plea is not for an unearned forgiveness but rather a forgiveness that is earned by an act of forgiveness. The dishonest manager is forgiven even as he forgives others. And this is the best part: It’s not neat and tidy and clean cut. There are still loose ends and ethical questions and uncertainty.

Because once again, in our tradition Jesus seems to know that this is what our lives are like. Even as cherished, god like creatures and even though we might have god like abilities we are not God, and we cannot offer one another perfection even a perfect love. We are human, and we are always going to have mixed motives, and screw things up, even when we’re trying to do the right thing; in part, we really want to have integrity and in part we just want everyone to see us as having integrity. This is where we say that Jesus knows us better than we know ourselves, and in this parable, he tells us that it’s OK.

It’s OK to have mixed motives and make mistakes – what’s important is that we keep trying. If we waited to forgive each other until we had perfect charity in our hearts, we’d be here until the apocalypse. Jesus here is saying, just haul off and do it. Forgive everyone. Forgive people even if you know they’re wrong. Forgive people when you know you’re wrong. Forgive people when you don’t feel like it, when they aren’t talking to you, when you aren’t talking to them, when you don’t have time. Forgive people you’ve never met, forgive atrocities so big you are afraid to forgive them, forgive faults so small you are ashamed that they bother you. Forgive even if you’ve done it a thousand times; forgive even if you’ve never forgiven before.

The truth is that there’s a bit of the Dishonest Manager in all of us, our wheeling and dealing in everyday life is about trying to “manage” our lives to be better, to look good or experience happiness. Maybe in this parable Jesus is saying that he sees right through us – and loves us dearly anyway. The challenge then of this parable, the twist in the tail or the tale is the challenge of loving not the ideal but the real. Loving each other even when our frailties and failures are so apparent. And when we can’t do it with the generosity and grace we strive for, the Good News is: We are forgiven.

 

Notes: Mackay, H. 2007.  “Waking up scratchy from the Dreamy Period” in Sydney Morning Herald, Weekend edition, 15-16 September, Pg: 42. Wieman, H. N. 1030.  The issues of life. NY: New York. Abingdon Press.

 

An Alternate, Expansive Vision

Posted: September 28, 2016 in Uncategorized

Pentecost 17C, 2016 Luke 15:1-10

An Alternate, Expansive Vision

 

John Shea the American priest, theologian and storyteller in his book ‘The Challenge of Jesus, says;

“Jesus does not call people into their sins but out of them… The judgement of Jesus is not a police-like searching out and punishing of evil acts” (John Shea. The Challenge of Jesus).

His comment at one level is obvious and of no great new insight yet at another it is profound and life changing. Off course Jesus is calling people to leave their sinful ways for an alternative life style and of course Jesus is not an overlord type policing the rules of life yet one has to know the sin to be able to leave it. One has to understand that the sin is not helpful in order to be able to avoid it. And the judgement of Jesus is not without encouragement of some sort because a life without sin is not possible without planning strategies for its expulsion. One does not leave being a addict without a planned alternative.

In regard to our stories today that comment goes right to their heart. This Jesus is not a push over, he does not soften the blow of his challenge. We heard the last two weeks how one is to leave family and possessions if one want to see the value of an alternative Way of living. This discipleship lark is not easy. This Jesus is no easy touch waiting to be exploited by the clever, but then he is also not a dictatorial, fear mongering communicator. He uses very cleaver literary skills, by means of counter cultural conversation and example. He takes the most radical alternatives and places them into the ordinary everyday environment so turning the status quo upside down and inside out. In the ‘nitty gritty’ of contemporary biblical theology today, all the major scholars agree that Jesus’ primary identity was that of a sage or a wisdom teacher.

What they are attempting to say is that this Jesus was of great depth and understanding as well as skillful in communicating. He was interested both in understanding life, and in communicating that understanding. This means that as a sage, he was not simply just a teacher. And certainly no ‘blackboard-and-chalk’ type teacher. “He spent at least as much time in figuring things out himself… theology on the run so to speak, applicable theology was his mode not head trip intellect without praxis. He was always seeking wisdom which is primarily about applying thought to living practice. He saw his task as communicating the understanding he came to…  And as Hal Taussig claims, the best place to gain wisdom, according to Jesus the sage, was right in the midst of ordinary life”

Right about now we can have a mental picture of this Jesus at work. Our mental picture of Jesus at work is with him sitting on a couch in the corner of some tavern, wine mug in hand, overhearing the conversations of the peasant farmers and soldiers and business folk. Every now and again he’d join in with a comment, a phrase, a story. And his listeners would laugh, some getting the story others thinking they did and others pretending they did. Maybe some would scratch their heads. Or interrupt with a quip of their own. In the midst of ordinary life…  this wisdom sage worked.

And this concentration on ordinary life, according to New Testament scholar Hal Taussig, meant that Jesus as a sage: 1. did not emphasis either holy scripture or established religious systems as privileged sources of wisdom; 2. did not care about religious codes of behaviour or belief, and 3. did not promote an other-worldly emphasis.

Hal Taussig concludes: by saying that “The real energy of Jesus’ teachings is found in their expansiveness of vision and in their critique, not in the defence, of religion…  And his favourite place to teach was probably at dinner”

As a sage, we can accept that Jesus told many stories. And a number of those stories were about being lost and found. And in many of them, that which was lost had nothing whatever to do with their finding.

Today we have two such stories, called parables. The story of ‘A man with a hundred sheep’. And the story of ‘A woman with ten drachmas’. And Luke’s Jesus seems clear. Neither the lost sheep nor the lost coin contributed in any way to their finding. Neither the sheep nor the coin were punished or lectured for being lost. There weren’t any inquests conducted in any of these stories. Nothing at all changed after the finding.

The whole focus of both Luke’s stories is not on the repentance of the sheep or the coin, but rather the seeking and finding by their respective owners. And when that which was lost was found, the finder threw a party. Perhaps even spending more than the value of the coin or committing the sheep to the proceeds of the party!

Here we have the link with our opening comment that the call of Luke’s Jesus is not to repent’ but ‘to rejoice’. But having said that and made that connection with the part Jesus plays there is usually more in these things called parables.

A parable is a story with a twist in the tail, which turns our world views upside down. So where is the twist? Well, let’s ask some more questions. Why a sheep?  Why a woman? We maybe because in the society of Jesus’ day, both shepherds and women, along with many other classes of people, existed on the margins of society. One has to assume this is the case because we still struggle with such realities today. Shepherds and women. History has women as chattels and that could be said to be synonym for slave as well. And that is reinforced by their place as vehicles for the mans child. Wombs to rent for the male of the species. They were not included in the ‘A’ social guest list. They had no status, they were landless and poor, and not to be trusted. They were certainly not candidates for ‘the kingdom’. And shepherds, well who would want their job. They were not much better off than women because all they were good for is spending their lives in the dessert seeking the next blade of grass for their charges. All the responsibility for the prized possessions of the Lord but with no authority and at the beck and call of not only their masters but also the weather and predators of all sorts.

And by naming them, Luke indicates they were indeed part of the general group called ‘toll collectors and sinners’… Those seeking the company of Jesus. Those the Pharisees and the scribes, if we accept Luke’s comments or bias, apparently complained about and rejected.

So we have to say that some degree of social and cultural tension is highlighted in these stories. Along with some overriding negative feelings, often overlooked or ruled out by other commentators. And unravelling the stories further… The world of the parable, is in the midst of ordinary everyday life. Sheep go missing. As a matter of real life. Women lose coins. Sons get angry. Stewards cheat. A judge cares little about justice. A harvest is only average.

The stories themselves are about things of little intrinsic value in the ordinariness of life. It’s only One sheep. One coin. And this is the twist, So too is the kingdom or realm or empire of God. The realm of God is less grand, and less than anticipated. It includes those who are usually or always, excluded.

So we have a couple of stories which say: Look out for the obvious. Look beneath and beyond because it’s in the ordinary, the obvious and the usual that we find the alternative. Be alert! Be aware not fearful because that clouds ones judgement but be ready, alert because we are unable to predict the outcome when the resolution is always unexpected. This is pretty ordinary. It is our everyday experience. We don’t actually know for certain what is about to happen next. Thats life. It’s in the everyday moment. Its always present and waiting so look for it. I invite you to think about what the search is and how it empowers as opposed to the finding. How it invites exploration of the possible, the search often better than the finding. When one sheep or one coin is lost it is not about the finding of that one coin or sheep but it is more about the looking for it and what that brings and the celebration will express just what the value of the searching was. The extravagance of the celebration expresses the value of the searching.

John Donahue says that Surprise, extravagance, and joy characterize these parables (Donahue 1988:150). Tausigg notes that, “Jesus’ teachings about God’s reign were fresh and surprising,” He also notes that. “His teachings were so striking that usually his hearers were inspired, shocked, or actively puzzled.  When he spoke, the clever social involvement of his teachings called people to self-examination and new relationships” (Taussig 1999: 22, 23).

Like Jesus, the people who effectively invite us to change our world view of events or people or relationships, are not the televangelists or the fundamentalists who often scream about other people’s ‘sin’, or the politicians who preach fear and insecurity in the hope of re-election. But those whose lives proclaim an alternative. A new vision of what could be. And that requires living without reservation into a completely open future. The truth of this is that for us in our particular historical moment are experiencing the transformation of Christianity, The growth and the decline of Christianity in our world today tell us this. We are experiencing changes in the place of religion in our lives and this is more unknown and speculative.

I spoke last week of the need to see Jesus differently and to at least question Anselm’s theology of substitutionary atonement, and one way of doing this is to ask how it was that a parable telling wisdom sage was turned into a divine hero of an apocalypse who shows up as Lord of the last judgement. How did we silence wisdom and choose doctrine? David Galston suggests that we did this first by turning parables into allegories and then by converting these new allegories into doctrines of the church. As allegories about Christian identity, beliefs about Jesus, attitudes towards Jews and confessions about Jesus being the end time judge, we silenced wisdom and took Jesus out of the everyday and the ordinary and trapped him in the absurdity of literalism. What happened was that Jesus became a second Jesus who could not be human.

The challenge we face is a way through that does not depend on belief or a blind faith. Ours is the task of not being swallowed up in despair or not wallowing in the sinfulness of the world or of ourselves, if that is even a responsible way of speaking today. Ours is the task of seeing beyond the other side. As Richard Kearney says about anatheism, seeing God after God or as Galston says seeing God not as existence or non-existence but rather as almost. It will be unexpected, alternative and surprising that enlightens, and our call is to seek it with determination and with anticipation. Amen.

Notes: Donahue, J. R.1988.  The Gospel in Parable. Metaphor, Narrative, and Theology in the Synoptic Gospels. Philadelphia. Fortress Press. Taussig, H. 1999. Jesus Before God. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press. Shea, J. 1984.  The Challenge of Jesus. Thomas More Association.

 

 

Pentecost 16C, 2016

Luke 14: 25-33

Integrity is Recognising ‘The Sacred’ Where We Are

One of the most important things that has arisen from the enlightenment is the need to understand the background and culture of Jesus as the most important thing to consider when we come across stories such as those we have today. Without a cultural setting we cannot hope to understand Jesus’ comment that his followers must ‘hate’, or more accurately, ‘detach oneself from’, their immediate family members! Sure we can probably skim past this need because we live in a time when the idea of family means a lot of things. A large percentage of young people’s experiences of family are widely varied. The rosy nuclear family unit is undergoing huge change with the growth of blended families and more communal family models so leaving the family is no great thing and often considered an advancement in terms of valuable relationships, but it was not the environment of Jesus. For a start the idea of a nuclear unit did not exist and secondly the family was an integral part of the way a society existed. Without a familial connection one struggled to even exist in society and the idea of individual human rights was rare.

On the surface the call of Jesus to leave one’s family for the gospel still offends against all the values most people hold dear even if today family is not so rosy.

I want to jump a little now, still holding to the context as vital but exploring the use of language in a context. In other words take a literary critique as a way of contextualizing the text. I want like Bill Loader the Australian Theologian suggest that in our reading level Luke the storyteller has Jesus employing a common rhetorical device, used by many of the wisdom sages of the day.

One of the key aspects is that the approach Jesus uses would be familiar, even if offensive, to the audience. Rex Hunt suggests this sort of speech should be familiar to Australians who were brought up on the writings of Banjo Paterson. I want to read you one of these writings as example… It’s a poem called ‘A Bush Christening’ published in 1893.

On the outer Barcoo where the churches are few, And men of religion are scanty, On a road never cross’d ‘cept by folk that are lost, One Michael Magee had a shanty.

Now this Mike was the dad of a ten year old lad, Plump, healthy, and stoutly conditioned; He was strong as the best, but poor Mike had no rest For the youngster had never been christened.

And his wife used to cry, `If the darlin’ should die Saint Peter would not recognise him.’ But by luck he survived till a preacher arrived, Who agreed straightaway to baptise him.

Now the artful young rogue, while they held their collogue, With his ear to the keyhole was listenin’, And he muttered in fright, while his features turned white, `What the divil and all is this christenin’?’

He was none of your dolts, he had seen them brand colts, And it seemed to his small understanding, If the man in the frock made him one of the flock, It must mean something very like branding.

So away with a rush he set off for the bush, While the tears in his eyelids they glistened — `’Tis outrageous,’ says he, `to brand youngsters like me, I’ll be dashed if I’ll stop to be christened!’

Like a young native dog he ran into a log, And his father with language uncivil, Never heeding the `praste’ cried aloud in his haste, `Come out and be christened, you divil!’

But he lay there as snug as a bug in a rug, And his parents in vain might reprove him, Till his reverence spoke (he was fond of a joke) `I’ve a notion,’ says he, `that’ll move him.’

`Poke a stick up the log, give the spalpeen a prog; Poke him aisy — don’t hurt him or maim him, ‘Tis not long that he’ll stand, I’ve the water at hand, As he rushes out this end I’ll name him.

`Here he comes, and for shame! ye’ve forgotten the name — Is it Patsy or Michael or Dinnis?’ Here the youngster ran out, and the priest gave a shout — `Take your chance, anyhow, wid `Maginnis’!’

As the howling young cub ran away to the scrub Where he knew that pursuit would be risky, The priest, as he fled, flung a flask at his head That was labelled `MAGINNIS’S WHISKY’!

And Maginnis Magee has been made a J.P., And the one thing he hates more than sin is To be asked by the folk, who have heard of the joke, How he came to be christened `Maginnis’!

One has tom agree that people in 1893 might have thought such language an affront to religion, while underneath the rhetoric is the challenge to the efficacy of baptism and a question about the place of ritual in real life.

As I was reading this I thought of a New Zealand example that might be helpful. I can remember when James K Baxter was a controversy in NZ and I can also remember my responses which were a struggle to rejoice at the critique he was making of our society while at the same time hearing older folk around me and their view of a worthless hippie bludging on the taxpayer.

This is a poem by James K Baxter called ‘The Maori Jesus’ and I have to admit that as I read it I found the engagement with culture easier. I am not an Australian it seems.

I saw the Maori Jesus Walking on Wellington Harbour. He wore blue dungarees, His beard and hair were long. His breath smelled of mussels and paraoa. When he smiled it looked like the dawn. When he broke wind the little fishes trembled. When he frowned the ground shook. When he laughed everybody got drunk. The Maori Jesus came on shore And picked out his twelve disciples. One cleaned toilets in the railway station; His hands were scrubbed red to get the shit out of the pores. One was a call-girl who turned it up for nothing. One was a housewife who had forgotten the Pill And stuck her TV set in the rubbish can. One was a little office clerk Who’d tried to set fire to the Government Buldings. Yes, and there were several others; One was a sad old quean; One was an alcoholic priest Going slowly mad in a respectable parish. The Maori Jesus said, ‘Man, From now on the sun will shine.’ He did no miracles; He played the guitar sitting on the ground. The first day he was arrested For having no lawful means of support. The second day he was beaten up by the cops For telling a dee his house was not in order. The third day he was charged with being a Maori And given a month in Mt Crawford. The fourth day he was sent to Porirua For telling a screw the sun would stop rising. The fifth day lasted seven years While he worked in the Asylum laundry Never out of the steam. The sixth day he told the head doctor, ‘I am the Light in the Void; I am who I am.’ The seventh day he was lobotomised; The brain of God was cut in half. On the eighth day the sun did not rise. It did not rise the day after. God was neither alive nor dead. The darkness of the Void, Mountainous, mile-deep, civilised darkness Sat on the earth from then till now.

While Baxter appears to have been more philosophical one can still feel the context of the writing as a critique of the place of religion in everyday life. Baxter was a Catholic and a New Zealander and one can sense the Maori experience of life at the time.

I hope you by now have been able to engage with this sort of language that is part of a culture yet at the same time challenges the integrity of that culture. Another example of this sort of speech might be that of politicians speeches and promises during election time. They seek to find the support for their election by exploring the culture of the time and tell their story of how they will react to it.

Bill Loader suggests that Luke has Jesus using extremes of language to make a so-called ‘point’. He suggests that Luke’s concern is the power of family. “A Family power and control which will not release from its womb, but has become a cage, a prison, but more often a comfortable and secure place in which to turn aside from one’s potential and the world’s challenge” (WLoader Web site 2004).

One could think here perhaps of the Family First group that uses a concept of family to articulate and some might say impose their morality on others. What is the family that they espouse and assume to be the best place to be? Should that family be promoted?

And Bill Loader goes on: he says: “The voice of Jesus articulates human need…  and calls people to discipleship.  Discipleship means a relationship of learning and growth with Jesus as the teacher and God as God, not family” (WLoader Web site 2004).

In a society where individuals had no real social existence apart from belonging to a family, Luke’s Jesus is therefore saying that “hatred of family is a condition of discipleship…  Jesus is therefore confronting the social structures that governed his society at their core” (Funk & Hoover 1993:353).

So… responding to a possible life-threatening situation for his own small community,

Luke the storyteller, weaves together a collection of sage-type sayings… Some probably said by the sage Jesus. Some most likely said by other sages. Luke weaves them together and places them before his community with this challenge: to be a disciple of Jesus one must be willing to let go of what one values most – family, possessions, even one’s own life. Let go… of being possessed by them.  Something else is at stake. Luke seems clear in his mind: let go and be a disciple rather than just a supporter or admirer. I might say in the context of this address that he is saying let go of the assumptions and face up to the outcomes of what blind acceptance does. It locks life away in a sinful place, a place of imprisoned human expression.

Now I want to offer you another example of this sort of counter-cultural, challenge and again I want to say that it is at one and the same time of our present culture and yet also a challenge to it. Here it is.

Jesus did not die for our sins, because they are our responsibility. He did not die as a sacrifice for us, because his living is more important to us. It is his living concept of God, and God’s involvement in human life that is important rather than in his dying a human death. If his acceptance of death has anything to say it is that he believed he could not compromise his vision of what the world could really be like when looked at through God’s eyes. Sure sin exists but only as that which separates us from living a life in God and being forgiven our sin is not about being freed from being fully human, just as being a follower of Jesus is not about feeling good, having huge resources or escaping the real world. It us about living fully human in the real world without fear but with the greatest integrity. In other words the journey of a God-like life is to be committed to the state of being whole, entire, or undiminished. And reality is about seeking to maintain the integrity of the journey which is an adhering to moral and ethical principles always birthed in a soundness of moral character and with honesty. We all know how to be good regardless of what good means.

Rex Hunt in the magazine of the NSW Synod of the Uniting Church once wrote something similar. He wrote that;

  • The cross is about Jesus’ integrity, not sacrificial atonement.
  • God’s love is not about supernatural payment or rescue, but divine sharing in human suffering.
  • Jesus did not invite the cross but accepted it rather than abandon his vision or glimpse of what the world can really be like when you look at it with God’s eyes.

And when talking about the call to ‘discipleship’ Rex affirmed that it is a call to be on a journey. It is not about the ‘feel good’, ‘flag waving’, ‘happy-clappy’ theologies of much of some Pentecostal or charismatic aberrations. Neither is it about accepting 11th century Archbishop Anselm’s idea of salvation: that the crucifixion of Jesus was willed by God to save the world because humanity’s sinfulness had dishonoured God (Brock 2010).

Anselm’s idea is now called ‘substitutionary atonement theology’ but the call today is about an invitation to be engaged in radical inclusive love. On the other hand, the call to be ‘church’ is a call of offer a safe place for some depth of theology and reflection and story. The ‘church may not exist in its present form but it can be a place to connect with and deepen our contemporary experience of God or ‘the sacred’ in public life. A place where we can practice belonging… practice hospitality, practice respect, practice humility, practice conversation and disagreement (Bessler-Northcutt 2004).

And during his presentation to the Common Dreams 2 Conference in Melbourne in 2010, president of The Centre for Progressive Christianity (USA), Revd Fred Plumer, said: “…that “The atonement story was a myth attached to the Jesus story to give more power to the church and its leadership.  It should never have been there.  But I think if the progressive Christian movement is going to progress, we need to repent for the pain that has caused and clearly separate ourselves from this damaging part of the Christian story.  Simply ignoring it no longer seems like an option.  We need to clean our hard drive of this virus.  And then I have hope that we can experience new life in our progressive churches”. Some challenging speeches there are for our contemplation and interpretation. Time for another Baxter perhaps. Amen.

Notes:

Bessler-Northcutt, J. 2004.  “Learning to see God: Prayer and practice in the wake of the Jesus Seminar” in Hoover, R. W. (ed)  The historical Jesus goes to church. CA: Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press.

Brock, R. N. 2010.  “The question of the cross in ‘Good’ Friday” in The Huffington Post, 3/4/2010.

Funk, R. W.; R. W. Hoover. 1993.  The five gospels. The search for the authentic words of Jesus. NY: New York. Macmillan Publishing.

McClendon, J. W. 1974.  Biography as theology. How life stories can remake today’s theology. TN: Nashville. Abingdon Press.

Imagine A Counter World..

Posted: August 31, 2016 in Uncategorized

Pentecost 15C, 2016

Luke 14: 1, 7-13

Imagine A Counter World..

From the many stories available within the Jesus tradition, this storyteller we call Luke has selected and imagined and stitched together, a series of stories in order to create the meaning necessary for that particular moment in time. And the hearers participated in these stories in their imagination and worked together with the storyteller to discern the meaning, the reality, the so-called ‘point’ of the telling.

Today’s story is set around a meal… and the accepted protocol which went with such important public events. From previous stories we know that meal times are special times for storyteller Luke and his small community. In this story a common theme running throughout the whole collection, is again given emphasis: Jesus turns everything upside down with respect to the world’s values.

Last week Alyson indicated that one of the things that came out of the recent Hui at Ohope was that there was a growing need for the ‘Progressive’ movement to articulate just what it believed was the Christian Way of being and living. My initial thought was that if one did that one would actually be going against the very position of the ‘Progressive’ which was to resist the creation of creedal statements and fixed doctrines because they always led to the imposition of belief systems and institutionalization of ideas. In other words they ultimately lead to absolutes and an unassailable truth about things. Whereas being ‘Progressive’ means no absolutes and thus no such thing as a single simple metanarrative, or at least a big story that is always questionable. My second thought was that we actually need to articulate what we do value as opposed to what we don’t like and maybe we need to articulate just what it is that we do believe so long as it is always open to reforming. My starting point was to think of some simple statements and work from there. What I found was that even that was difficult but here they are. My first statement was as follows…….

  1. To ask whether God exists or not is the wrong question to ask.

My second statement was that ……

  1. ‘Theism’ and ‘Atheism’ are redundant positions as they have been replaced by ‘anatheism’ or ‘A God after God’.

My third was that…………

  1. God is the ‘Almost’ or the ‘yet to be’.

I then thought it was about time to include Jesus in this as I think I am a follower of the Jesus Way after all…… So my fourth was …….

  1. Jesus was a human being who was a devout Galilean Jew.

And then I thought I should say something about why I follow his Way and so I said ..

  1. Jesus provided a timeless counter-cultural approach to life.

In summary I think I said that my understanding of God is always ahead of me waiting to be discovered yet thankfully never will be.

Now I want to try to fill this out a bit. So first, some history of this God after God?

Some time ago now humanity woke to a new day when God was no longer an explanation. Logic stopped being self-evident proof for the existence of God and the order of society. The very idea of God became unnecessary rather than necessary in the 17th to 19th centuries as God and other religious ideas became subject to critical thinking based on evidence. This change meant that the existence of God or in fact anything else had to be proven not by logic but by demonstration. In turn this meant that without evidence that God existed the default position was that God was no longer necessary in reality. Here we have today’s problem, in other words without evidence God has to become belief rather than logic and believing in God has to be concerned with a blind faith based in the supernatural, and not as logic claimed; the Being behind nature.

The first great reversal was the reversal of God’s status from the assumption of truth, to that which must be proven, thus opening the way for science to replace the authority of religion and God to became a questionable idea that lacked evidence. Along with this change came the one where theology as the study of God stopped being the driver of the sciences and slipped down the academic ladder. More importantly perhaps was the shift in understanding of reality from that which was founded on a logical necessary Being, to a new reality founded on human experience. An example of this is in our own Auckland University where theology struggles to be considered even as a School of thought whereas Philosophy is a full department of study. We need to acknowledge here that the search for a God that is beyond theism and atheism, The very talk of God after God or anatheism as Richard Kearney calls it, could be seen as an attempt to save theology from disappearing even as a philosophical idea.

In our history of thinking Decartes sought to save the idea of God by establishing the power of reason over God, Spinoza sought to retain God as energy or animation of nature by bringing God out of the heavens and into the nature of things. Hume takes human reason as all we have and thus establishes that God is a construct of ideas emerging from the way common and natural impressions play out in the relationship of ideas. So today for many, God has become a complex idea, or as David Galston suggests, the question on our lips now is, does God have a value for human beings and our collective nature?

Here we have a God who is no longer the source of reason but rather a God who is accountable to reason. Galson in his response to this and one I like a lot, introduces and contemplates the future of God who ‘almost’ is. Here we have a shift from God as ‘More than’, Other than’ and I suspect a release from any theisms and a return to an debate as opposed to taking an either/or position. If that is not a counter-cultural approach in this age of personalized slanging matches between strongly held positions then I don’t know what is.

Like all parables, our Lucan story is a counter-cultural story. It is typical in that Jesus ‘revolts’ against the status quo. His language suggests a counter-world, a hoped-for world “that redresses the world as it is and… offers a new world that makes sense”.

In the story Jesus notices the way people choose the places of honour in the seating arrangements. Here we have the culture being set up for change. The expected process of showing respect is to be changed. When you choose a place to sit don’t look after your own status in the scheme of things. The suggested change is expected to disrupt the ideas of who is important and who isn’t and the action of taking the unexpected route is expected to shift the focus from culturally bound expectations to an authentic respect. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’

What is quite crucial is that Jesus’ reimagining of a counter world makes sense, but it is not about agreement as not everyone agrees on all issues. What is important is that it makes sense on a collective stage. Here we have the argument that says one doesn’t have to have faith in Jesus as the one who fixes things but one does have to have faith with Jesus as one who shows a way of living that is radically different and yet makes sense.

“In the re-imagined world we stand beside Jesus and trust that his world will work, that it can provide the safe place – that it can in its counter culture reality provide a means of rebuffing and resisting all other empires be they physical, cultural or philosophical.  This makes Jesus our companion on the journey of life, not our Lord and Master. This Jesus is always human in incarnation and here I think we have the idea that our God is truly incarnate as a God who is us in our fullest human sense as companion in life as opposed to a God who has always more than us, supernatural as opposed to natural, a God who has made it to completion, made it to perfection and so on. God is the ‘almost’. I want to suggest to you like David Galston; that a God that is ‘almost’ is a valuable idea that avoids the absolutism of both a God who exists and a God who does not.

I wasn’t at the Hui so I can only go on reports of the Hui and it seemed to me to have been caught in the dilemma of either/or. People on both sides of the debate were caught in the same bind, or as William Butler Yeats puts it, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity. Surely some revelation is at hand”. The question for the Hui is I think, ‘what is that revelation?’

I want to suggest a third way or a counter-cultural approach that might get you thinking. I want to suggest that when asked if God exists or not I might say ‘almost’. And what I mean is that almost is being between something and nothing, being partially there but not fully there. I mean that two minutes before arriving here this morning I was an experience of absence and nothingness. I was nowhere in sight. I did not exist but as I was expected there was a trace of my existence in my absence that promised my presence. There was a sign that I will be but am not yet, thus I was ‘almost’.

And let’s be candid here. God is very good at being almost. For thousands of years the trace of God’s existence in human history and culture has been around but never fully present. No age has been able to fully claim God as fully present. Lots and lots of words have been written and spoken about God promising that God will turn up but God has disappointed and there is a delay. Morning arrives and God is nowhere to be seen. Of course we know that God does not really exist because we know that God is a human creation do we not? It is words about God that remain like a promissory note. If God really did exist there would be no need to ask whether God existed. I am here now so there is no question as to whether I would arrive. My absence has to occur before the question about my presence can be asked. God’s absence has to occur before the question about God’s existence can be asked.

This is one of the ironies of life. We are aware of existence because in the background is non-existence. If there was no non-existence then I could not be conscious of existing. This also says that there is a gap of emptiness that allows me to know that I do exist. There is a gap between thoughts that allows different thoughts and an ability to be aware of thinking. We only know things well when we know the gaps that compose our knowledge. Like Stuart Firestein the scientist argues when he talks about the necessity of ignorance for science to have value, we can argue that the gaps are our ignorance and it is the wise ones who know when to keep silent.

Like the gap between my existence and non-existence is the way in which I know I exist. So the gap that makes wisdom possible accounts for the existence of religion and religion exists only because there is no God but an absence of God. If God were absolutely present, there could be no question about God, no yearning for God, and no belief in God. Only absence raises the question of belief. My argument therefore is that a God that is ‘almost’ is a God more believable, and more likely to exist. This also claims that wisdom is the most likely companion of this God that is ‘almost, firstly because in wisdom teaching God is always sidelined, and never the subject. God is at the edge but never the centre of wisdom. The parables of the historical Jesus, the human culturally aware Jesus hold this quality. The parables are not about God, and God is not present in any parable. They are in fact secular theology which means applied theology or theology acted out in the world. They are concerned for a vision called the basileia of God which has been interpreted as kingdom of God but is also something like the activities or happenings of God within a realm. This means that the parable is empty of God. It may feel like the place of God but God has to be created through imagination for God to be in the parable. Again here is the claim that the parables are not about God but about the Way of God in a counter-cultural setting.

All of that is very technical in a philosophical way but it is important in trying to get a handle on this ‘almost’ sort of God. I want to see if I can now place that thinking in context and I want to ask another question as a way in. The question is; ‘what is it that we believe?

Well, for many Religion is no longer a fact like it used to be and the forms of theology related to religion are no longer self-evident. Religion is no longer necessary to ensure that blessings fall upon a culture and a people. Religion remains a sign only of what used to be and what is now absent. Religion has moved from its authoritative past, when it could explain the nature of things, to a contemplative setting where it is a matter of choice. It belongs to private life where it might be engaged in an effort to overcome anxiety, to achieve self-acceptance, or to cultivate family identities. Some would say that it religion has become therapy.

It does however still express the artistry of life. It still expresses the elements of wonder about life and still inspires acts of human compassion. It defines a culture’s history and expresses its inherited orientation in the world. The struggle it has is how to find ways to be without God, without the old beliefs in supernatural things but still be with religion in the artistic sense of valuing life, history and the expression of beauty.

Well maybe the value of religion is that it has nothing to offer us except everything. It gives us no God, but in handing over God it does give us the possibility of life. Maybe God has a future and it is a human future. Out of nothing religion creates life. Maybe that is its artistic skill, its hidden promise, its value and its vision. Maybe that is the wisdom of religion, to be a religion without God. Or as I might argue, a wisdom with a God who is ‘almost’.

 

And by that I mean:

  • My God is the ‘Almost’ or the ‘yet to be’ that never will be.
  • I am convinced religion has a human value
  • Jesus was a human being who was a devout Galilean Jew.
  • The Jesus Way was a counter-cultural approach to life.
  • I am a follower of the Jesus Way.

 

I am reminded here of the 8 points that define a progressive Christian as written at the beginning of the movement.

They are

  1. I Have found an approach to God through the life and teachings of Jesus;
  2. I Recognize the faithfulness of other people who have other names for the way to God’s realm, and acknowledge that their ways are true for them, as our ways are true for us;
  3. I Understand the sharing of bread and wine in Jesus’s name to be a representation of an ancient vision of God’s feast for all peoples;
  4. I Invite all people to participate in our community and worship life without insisting that they become like us in order to be acceptable
  5. I Know that the way we behave toward one another and toward other people is the fullest expression of what we believe;
  6. I Find more grace in the search for understanding than we do in dogmatic certainty – more value in questioning than in absolutes;
  7. We form ourselves into communities dedicated to equipping one another for the work we feel called to do: striving for peace and justice among all people, protecting and restoring the integrity of all God’s creation, and bringing hope to those Jesus called the least of his sisters and brothers; and
  8. We recognize that being followers of Jesus is costly, and entails selfless love, conscientious resistance to evil, and renunciation of privilege.

Amen.

Notes: Scott, B. B. 2001.  Re-imagining the World. An Introduction to the Parables of Jesus. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press.

Galston D 2016 Gods Human Future. The struggle to define Theology Today. Salem, Oregon Polebridge Press

Website: TCPC 8 points

 

Pentecost 14C,

21.08.2016 Luke 13: 10-17

A Spiritual Life, Conscientious Objector

Last week we read of a Jesus who was not happy, so much so that he set out to shock his hearers into change. He clarified the process of important change by reminding his hearers that the message he had to give would go against all the assumptions of familial relationships. It would go right to the heart of society’s normalcy. Today we find him in the very heart of the religious home voicing protest about normal practice. He is hitting right at the heart of the rules that govern normal practice by protesting the hypocrisy of those who create rules for others and flout them, themselves.

At one level this is just about practice meeting ideology or practice meeting ones world view and this happens all the time. We know of people in the church who condemn literalism of the bible and yet discriminate against Gay people, or people who are liberal about abortion yet believe that the world was made in 6 days. There was a Hui just last week in our church where people tried to find a way forward on the issue of human sexuality. The focus was on difference in the interests of unity. Seems a strange way of doing things but that is what we do. It is always easier to create rules for others than it is to find a common way forward it seems. Is that what Jesus is on about here in our text? Is the matter about healing on the Sabbath or is it about the futility of creating rules that don’t work, that don’t fit the practice, or is it about an alternative way of living one’s life? Is the religious life about following the rules or is it about loving one another?

John Bennison in his blog quotes one Mitch Albom who said:

“So many people walk around with a meaningless life. They seem half-asleep, even when they’re busy doing things they think are important. This is because they’re chasing the wrong things. The way you get meaning into your life is to devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to your community around you, and devote yourself to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning.”

I gave this address the title of ‘A Spiritual life, Conscientious Objector’ because like last week the challenge to life a spiritual life is somehow imbedded in the call to be a conscientious objector. Jesus is showing the life of a spiritual person as being one who challenges the very heart of things, upsets the status quo and goes direct to the heart of things in his objection.

The word Spirituality and what is understood as Spirituality is often an amorphous and bandied about term that too often connotes the merely religious type, as somehow distinct from those who are not. It’s a little like the artificial distinction sometimes made between what is sacred or secular in a world of human experience that is actually infused with the totality of all things, known and unknown. Jesus calls this inability to see the interconnectedness of things hypocrisy.

Bennison suggests that we might enter this discussion through an understanding of human consciousness and being conscious. He suggests that human consciousness is the awareness of a personal conscience; where conscience is a core dimension with which we have the innate capacity to take account of ourselves. He also suggests that one’s conscience, is not simply about adherence to an external set of beliefs about what is “right” or “wrong;” which can — and do – change, both cross-culturally and over time. Rather, it is something intrinsic within every human being, and is universal when it comes to our common humanity. Ultimately, it has to do with meaning and purpose.

It is also similar to the observation that at the heart of every great religious tradition the same fundamental positions on purpose and meaning are espoused; with ways of wisdom practiced as expressions of those positions. In this sense, the human conscience is not only that spiritual home from which we can wander; but from which we can often lose the way of return, as well. One would have to say that our Christian faith tradition is a good example of just such a journey.

Bennison suggests that there was a time when human consciousness was free of the rule about what was good and what was bad. A time before Human Consciousness became “Spiritualized” he quotes a text from The Gospel of Thomas.

 

“The (Father’s) imperial rule is within you and it is outside you. … If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” – Gospel of Thomas, 113:4, 70

It is the bringing forth of that which is within is the catalyst for meaning and not the rules that are created after about what is right or wrong or who is in or who is out.

From what little we know, the historical Jesus was an itinerant 1st century Galilean sage, teacher from Jewish peasant stock. Later he was also sometimes referred to as a “spirit” person. I think this was likely because of the Greek and or Roman experience of the movement. But put another way, he was also a person of conscience, with a keen awareness of the human condition in all its consequence and magnificence.

While his teachings were life changing for his followers, they were also soon affiliated with what quickly became a legendary figure; and to which a messianic title was subsequently attributed by a religious sect that arose in the years following his human demise.

In the decades and centuries that followed, a whole set of beliefs about his divinity overshadowed his teachings. Furthermore, it’s worth noting those teachings now considered most historically authentic were noticeably void of any religious language, but richly and colloquially descriptive of his full humanity. When we examine our own time and culture we see people called ‘progressives’ critiquing tradition, protesting literalism, conscientiously objecting to claims for practice that have no meaning, no link into the unity of humanity.

Central to those teachings was the fundamental notion that there was not only an inherent dimension within every person that was connected to the source of all being-ness; but that it also required an awakening, of sorts, for those who had “eyes” to see, and “ears” to hear. Any notions of such religiously laden ideas like salvation or redemption — that were subsequently overlaid and instituted — originated from a transformative process that first arose within the individual.

Harry Emerson Fosdick the American Baptist Theologian years ago when talking about movements like the ‘progressives’ of today said; “that there is a widespread, deep seated, positive desire on the part of many Christians in all the churches to recover for our modern life, for its personal character and its social relationships, the religion of Jesus as distinguished from the accumulated, conventionalized, largely inadequate and sometimes grossly false religion about Jesus”.

Of course as we know, the early Christian movement quickly constructed a hierarchical structure with ecclesiastical authority, dispensing certain orthodoxies (right belief) and heresies (wrong beliefs). The role for the human conscience as the source of “spiritual” awareness and practice was replaced by conformity to those external doctrines called Church teachings; along with the proprietary claim that personal salvation was mediated solely through the divinity of Jesus, as the Christ.

In contrast, Jesus the wisdom teacher directed his earliest followers to look within themselves, and each other. As such, Jesus was not “the way,” but a companion in the way each person has the capacity to travel, to move, to grow, and develop; given the conscious awareness of that path, and the choice to venture wherever it leads.

So, if consciousness and conscience are the way of being are they actually the “Spiritual” Path we talk about?

Bennison suggests that we look around at the world in which we live with all our faults and foibles and we can perhaps see that we seem to be hard-wired as human beings, but soft-wired whenever we try to describe or imagine ourselves to be so-called spiritual beings. As physical, finite beings, we find it hard to remain unaware of outward human frailties, successes and excesses. But to become aware of anything more — or other — than what is empirical, verifiable and (consequently) believable, is commonly considered to be a venture into the intangible, ethereal realm of “spirituality.” Our soft-wired side can’t seem to stand up to the harsh realities with which we are confronted and challenged in today’s world of disruption, chaos, and sheer seeming madness.

When our “spiritual” side is invoked or employed, it’s typically in some religious context or tradition; that is, as often as not, seen to be in a battle over whose “god” is greater, and whose religious convictions possess the “truth.”

This sort of dualistic approach means that whenever a crack of doubt is introduced into any set of staunchly held beliefs, two options present themselves.

One can shut one’s eyes, squeeze them tightly, and endlessly repeat, “I believe, I believe, I believe _____ (fill in the blank).” The world around us then becomes filled with competing rules, ideals and principles; all representing ways we should behave, as well as what we should think and believe. It is as if the devil perches on one shoulder, an angel on the other, both whispering in our ear. Such religious constructs become morality plays, depicting the battle between the forces of good and evil; typically tinged with the illusory promise of something better when our hard-wired selves ultimately wear out.

The other option is the option I think Jesus is advocating in the synagogue. One can acknowledge a conscious awareness of something new and revelatory stirring within oneself, beckoning one to see with new eyes. However, this spiritual wellspring is not some external divine, but something just as worthy of being revered as sacred; namely, the human conscience. It is the awareness one might liken to an internal “divining rod” of what is right or wrong. And one which supersedes any external moral constructs of right and wrong, and instead instigates compassionate acts for a common good; yielding to a sense of personal purpose, and a kind of conversion or transformation worthy of any reputable “spiritual” quest for a meaningful life.

Right about now if all of this has your head swimming, I want to give you two “secular” examples Bennison quotes. They are examples of transformative power of human conscience, or lack thereof. The first is about the Whistleblower Edward Snowden who was a former security analyst contractor with the NSA. He made the conscious decision to breach the confidentiality agreement he had with the government, flee the country with sensitive documents, and then disclose the evidence government officials were flat out lying to the American public about the massive level of surveillance being indiscriminately conducted on the citizenry.

Snowden violated U.S. law by his conduct, jeopardized military information gathering practices and was charged with violating the Espionage Act of 1917. When asked why he did so, he explained it as a matter of conscience; where his actions were essentially the result of competing external values and the importance he placed upon himself of one over the other. He has said he was willing to accept the consequences of his actions, and that no matter what happened to him, he felt good about what he did. For him, one might say, it was a self-redemptive act.  It gave him a sense of meaning and purpose. It’s also worth noting that two years later, a bill was introduced in Congress to overhaul the Patriot Act, curtailing the metadata collection program exposed by Snowden.

A second example: The late Chris Kyle, the Navy SEAL known as the American sniper, was a renowned killing machine; credited with saving his comrades time and again in Iraq. “After the first kill, the others come easy,” he wrote in his best-selling memoir. “I don’t have to psych myself up, or do something special mentally — I look through the scope, get my target in the cross hairs, and kill my enemy, before he kills one of my people.”

When explaining how he’d managed to kill one insurgent from an incredible distance, he was quoted saying, “God blew that bullet and hit him.” Kyle went on to say he performed his duty with the values he held to be most important to him, and with a “clear conscience.”

At the same time, Kyle subsequently suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of his military service. The bitter irony is that he himself was shot and killed at point blank range at a shooting range by another troubled veteran suffering from PTSD.

Now, we may all have our own opinions and labels for who is the hero, the villain, the patriot, or the traitor. But once consciously aware of what they were doing or had done, it might be said it became for both of these individuals a wrestling match with their better natures. They struggled to reconcile their hard-wired self with their soft-wired conscience; each in their own redemptive quest.

Our own small lives may not be as dramatic as these examples. But for those of us who may have previously simply relegated the idea of spiritual transformation to the religious life, as opposed to our everyday life might consider what we would identify as our own conscience, when and how we become consciously aware of it, and how we apply it to the manner in which we live our life. Is it good enough to take a position on something that is incongruent with what we believe to be the meaning of human life? Is the diversity we seek and exclusion of another? Is our position of human sexuality Just, inclusive, accepting, non-discriminatory, and is it loving, empowering, encouraging and does it embrace what it means to be human together. Or as Bennison might put it; How does your soft-wired side within inform and direct your hard-wired world in ways that give real meaning and purpose to your life? Jesus brought about a healing by challenging the rules, despite their institutional legitimacy, despite their potential for disruption. He was transforming the spirit of life by his conscious, conscientious objection. Amen.

http://thechristianprogressive.com/ John William Bennison,

Pentecost 13C, 2016 Luke 12:49-56

Violence, Faith, and Reconstruction

Last week I think I argued for a need to revisit our concepts of life, of Religion and of God and I think I suggested that we should examine our assumptions and the limits of our imagination. I think I also suggested that our obsession with reason and belief as primary modes of engagement with truth could be questioned. I don’t think I left much untouched and maybe left you with a world too complex to deal with. I don’t think that feeling is anything new but rather just the normal human response to the future. It is always more complex, more detailed, and more confusing than the present, let alone the past. No wonder we prefer things the way they were. It was easier, more certain, and simpler or so we think. I am not sure my parents didn’t say the same about the future in their perspective.

Just taking a look at the present as people who call ourselves ‘Christian’ we might suggest like Sam Harris does in his book ‘The End Of Faith’; that; “The greatest problem facing civilization is not merely religious extremism: rather, it is the larger set of cultural and intellectual accommodations we have made to faith itself. Religious moderates are, in large part, responsible for the religious conflict in our world, because their beliefs provide the context in which scriptural literalism and religious violence can never be adequately opposed” (Sam Harris. End of Faith/45).

Harris is here placing the world we have today in the hands of the religious moderate and I for one found that hard to take. I place myself among those moderates because as a liberal and inclusive and peace advocating person I according to Harris have allowed scriptural literalism to flourish and religious violence to have legitimacy. This is an interesting challenge in that some in the progressive movement in NZ are trying to find a place for dialogue with the Presbyterian Fundamentalists and I hope they don’t compromise the progressive position in the interests of harmony. The theological difference is crucial real and needs to be as our text suggests.

Our text for today tells it how it is. In the words attributed to Jesus we hear of the struggle to deal with the realities of being human in an environment where violence is a legitimate response. Hey, look he says; My task is to stir you up and disrupt your world, turn it inside out in fact. The disruption will be transformative of your very familial system, of all your assumptions about what’s right and wrong!! This is huge when we realize that the familial system is at the very root of the society they know. Why can’t you see this he says; It’s as plain as the nose on your face.

We read the text;

49 ‘I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! 51Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! 52From now on, five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; 53they will be divided: father against son    and son against father, mother against daughter    and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law    and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.’

Interpreting the Time

54 He also said to the crowds, ‘When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, “It is going to rain”; and so it happens. 55And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, “There will be scorching heat”; and it happens. 56You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?

When we read this Lucan story and really hear the words we have to admit to getting a bit of a shock.  This isn’t the gentle and long-suffering and peaceful and approachable Jesus many of us have traditionally come to expect. This sounds like a harsh, despairing outburst from someone near the end of his tether. And it is a text with a deeper message we have to dig out?

Hearing the story again, we can still feel somewhat anxious, because it paints such a dark picture, and then we realize that it is a dark story because history has proved it true in so many ways. When we take the ‘peace and conflict’ bit we find that the scholars belonging to the Jesus Seminar in their notes on this story, write that “Jesus is the kind of sage that did introduce into family relationships, the suggestion that followers should forgo obligations to parents in order to become disciples” (Funk & Hoover 1993:343).

Immediately we begin to wrestle with the idea of a peaceful existence being the result of familial breakup. It make sense because we know that not all families are good places to be and we know that some of the most bitter rivalry exists in families, Not all marriages work and not all families are good places to be when siblings differ in their wants, needs, and world views. About now I hear the West Australian theologian Bill Loader saying; “This is not a text one would choose for a sermon on ecumenism…”

But then he goes on to say, “…or is it?  ‘Harmony’ is one of those soft words which people sometimes use to plea for peace.  The peace is often a shallow calm of suppressed fears and conflicts which are bound to emerge from under their marshmallow captivity.  Orderliness and harmony were great Stoic themes.  At worst it meant everyone in their place, an unchanged and unchanging status quo.  For many people Christian peace is still seen as that kind of harmony, if not achievable outwardly, then at least achievable inwardly.  The gospel then takes up its stall beside all the others offering serenity of life and ‘feel good’ spirituality” The gospel becomes an unworkable dream or aspiration at worst and a simple human feel good therapy at best. Maybe that’s what our text is on about?

It is also true that Religion has been the cause of many wars and conflicts, and has divided families. The most long running one for many of us is the Northern Ireland conflict. It seems that even though we think we have reached a lasting peace it still goes on at some levels, not unlike that of the women’s equality enterprise or the racial questions in the States.

The text seems to make sense in this so-called reality we know yet in another way we can find this story… comforting. Comforting that Jesus not only knew what stress was, but that he responded to it in exactly the way human beings have always responded to it. Despite his regular habit of going into lonely places to pray and to restore his own space and equilibrium, he still experienced stress and tiredness and perhaps a degree of depression, and he reacted to it.

And again as I suggested last week some of us will find these words difficult to hear… and that’s maybe, because we often tend to see Jesus as not really a real human and so it isn’t always easy to realize how his chosen way of action, must have got Jesus down at times.

In his short few years he set out to change the socio- political, and religious worlds. Is it any wonder he needed time out occasionally or that he lost his cool sometimes? We often tend to think of Jesus as some superhuman being who doesn’t feel things. But here in today’s story is a very human glimpse of a very human being. Someone who’s exhausted, frustrated, and who suddenly erupts in an angry outburst. Even if it is a fictional story made up by the storyteller we call Luke it speaks to us of a very human Jesus and of the lifelong nature of the world changing task we are called to embark on.

The truth is that the world we live in, like the so-called ‘biblical’ world of the prophets and apostles, can be an angry and violent one. For us today our world is a world that is often rocked with religious violence. A world where people bomb and kill other people all in the name of God. Yes we know that media plays a huge role in placing the blame in the hands of the religious but in the end we allow that. I am aware that moderate Muslims in NZ are afraid to speak out because of fear of being put upon by fundamentalists and even though the media might be caught up in terrorists causes by accepting their claims to be Muslim or Christian Militia, or a particular movements recruits, all this seems supportive of the claim that moderate’s allow this violence to continue. The question we are left with is whether or not there is there something in our religious tradition that encourage acts of violence? And if there is, what are we doing about it?

Even moderates do not believe that it is God’s will for hundreds of people to die in the bomb explosions and even if we think that the horrific attacks on people and property are wake up calls for us to realize just what our alliances are perpetrating in the name of control and even peace. And to ask ourselves just what our responsibility is, to remain true to our progressive journey in faith we cannot and do not want to say that this violence is from God.

While our text is a reality check as a reminder that our decisions and what we support matters it is not a claim that we need to have the violence of God in order to hear the ‘good news’?

But let’s just wrestle with the so-called ‘reality’ for a bit. Does it make any difference if the ‘fire’ or ‘conflict’, is for the so-called ‘bad people’ rather than the so-called ‘good people? Is the reality about the fact that bad people get their deserts or is it rather that the ‘good news’ itself is a lure to see the inadequacy of our ways, whatever they are, and change them? Here I think of the difference between retributive justice and distributive justice, revenge and justice or the world’s justice and God’s justice perhaps.

Continuing this line of thinking process theologian Rick Marshall, asks: “Why do many Christians, pastors, and churches support the use of violence?” He then answers his question. He says “… is it that the King of Peace is not as appealing as a King of War who uses coercion and violence, revenge and retribution to do God’s will?  Maybe the image of Jesus the Messiah embodying persuasive power is not ‘strong enough.’

Here again we return to the discussion last week where we talked about the anatomy of power. We ask “What kind of power does God have?  Is it coercive and manipulative, or persuasive and loving?  Is it power found in some sort of power over or a power found in weakness, a turn the other cheek, love your enemies sort of weakness? What kind of power should the church emulate, embody, and deploy in service of the Kingdom of God?  Another question might be: What does it mean to win or conquer?” Can both parties win?

The truth is that we don’t need to be university historians to know of the triumphal Christian church behind Constantine’s sword “the bloody Crusades in which Roman Catholics slaughtered Orthodox Christians and Jews as well as Muslims, and the use of Christian just war doctrine to rationalize countless conflagrations, including politicians justifications of the war in Iraq” (McLennan 2009:115-16).

So how can we hear the words of Luke’s Jesus, today? Rex Hunt has a couple of suggestions. He says: First, we need to hear them in context. And that context seems to have been an expectation, wrongly, that the world was coming to an imminent end.

With an imminent end coming people were required to live ‘in the proper way’ even when parents or friends or one’s spouse may have held a different religious orientation.

Second, we need to hear these words within the dominant Jesus message, usually summened up in what we now call the Sermon on the Mount.

Third, we can listen to the critics of religion.  And listen well. Sam Harris says there is ‘good religion’.  He writes: “We must find ways to invoke the power of ritual and to mark those transitions in every human life that demand profundity – birth, marriage, death – without lying to ourselves about the nature of reality…  Jesus and the Buddha weren’t talking nonsense when they spoke about our capacity as human beings to transform our lives in rare and beautiful ways” (Harris 2006:88, 90).

Sallie McFague in her book Models of God, has suggested that each age must look at how its images for God function. And if some images work for death, it is appropriate, even necessary, to find the new ones that work for life.  All of life. I think this is what undergirded my sermon last week about the need for our concept of God to be real to where we are at in our world view.

It is also affirming of my claim last week that thinking theologically, is more than just interpreting our given ‘orthodox’ biblical tradition and creedal statements. It also means being willing to think differently now than in the past. To reconstruct, rather than just restate. The challenge of today then, is to get on with that reconstruction journey. Amen.

 

Notes: Harris, S. 2006.  Letter to a Christian Nation. New York. A. A. Knopf. Harris, S. 2004.  The End of Faith. Religion, terror, and the future of reason. New York. W. W. Norton. Wm Loader. “First thoughts… Pentecost 12C”.  http://wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/LkPentecost12.htm McFague, S. 1987.  Models of God. Theology for an ecological nuclear age. London. SCM Press. McLennan. S. 2009.  Jesus was a Liberal. Reclaiming christianity for all. New York. Palgrave/Mavmillan. Rick Marshall.   < http://www.processandfaith.org/lectionary/YearC/2009-2010/2010-08-15.shtml&gt; Susan Nelson.  <www.processandfaith.org/lectionary/Year