‘Love’

Posted: December 4, 2018 in Uncategorized

Advent 2 9.12.2018

Malachi 3:1–4 Luke 3:1–6

‘Love’

Last week I tried to argue for advent as a time of waiting for the opportunity of welcoming Jesus into our hearts at Christmas and that this is about abounding in love. I also suggested that this is a metaphor for acknowledging the humanity of Jesus and that in the recognition we encounter the possibility that God is human and that in our living we share in the journey towards true humanness. I also think I was suggesting that in the journey there is a hope that is manifest in the promise of abounding in love. That despite all the struggles of being human and in the face of the evidence of what we as humans get up to there is a hope that defies belief.

Today I want to explore the nature of love as the second Sunday in Advent and here I want to suggest that this love we are Talking about; this love we call God’s love is beyond all the definitions, in fact the definitions in the distinctiveness and in the common thread demand that there is more to the love than we think. But that is the big picture so lets just go back to our texts for today. And let’s start with Malachi.

When we put ourselves in the time of Malachi we note as Theodore Hiebert says that the author of Malachi was “concerned about a lack of devotion and seriousness in Judah’s Temple” (“Malachi: Introduction,” The Access Bible, 1300). Indeed, the author states that “I [God] am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his [sic] temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he [sic] is coming, says the LORD of hosts” (Mal. 3:1). This reading is apropos of the Christmas season for which Christians are pining during the Advent season. Still, the following verse offers us a warning, asking “who can endure the day of [the messenger’s] coming, and who can stand when [the messenger] appears” (3:2), because this messenger will be more than a light but a “refiner” and a “purifier” of those who seek after God (see 3:2, 3). The author, only then, believes that the offering unto God will be pure (3:4).

The message here is that a spiritual harvest may require a refining fire. Get rid of everything inessential. Throw out the clutter in your life. Malachi reminds us that Advent is a time of refining and simplifying. Faithfulness involves focusing on the deeper meaning of Christmas. The invitation is to see that the metaphor of God’s incarnation in our lives and the coming of the Christ is about turning the world of oppressed people upside down. As a side note I am using the words ‘The Christ’ to acknowledge the distorted use of Christ as a surname for Jesus and claim continuity with the Hebrew concept of Messiah which I would argue is much richer than the way we have come to use it,

Advent one was about letting God be human in order to engage in our fullest human way and advent two is about what that means in practice. It is about abounding in love, about transforming and liberating what is best in us and our communities. It involves a new heart and a generous spirit. Here we have the idea of turning around, born again, New Jerusalem and being transformed and loving God as God loves us. All hunting at something beyond, something more.

Christmas at one level is about appropriately choosing to give generously to our friends and family, and at another our generosity must extend beyond ourselves. It is more than about our generosity. The unconditional invites us to see beyond ourselves and our assumptions. The selfless giving is more than our generosity. And to see this with a global perspective the joy of familial relationship unites us with the larger human family and with the evolutionary creation. Christmas is more than about us, more perhaps than just our acknowledging our human response. Here is the advent of love. In traditional terms; by our own spiritual values and practices, we can midwife the birth of The Christ in our families and communities. Not as a supernatural intervention but by abounding in love and transforming and liberating the slave, the culturally bound and the ideologically trapped.

Another aspect of the anatomy of love is the challenge that lies in the understanding that love changes everything. We see this is the traditional engagement in the Christmas Myth. John the Baptist’s message challenges us to turn around – to forsake the ways of death – so that we might be prepared for The Christ’s coming. When we think about death we acknowledge that we have experienced too much death in recent times. Religious extremists wreak havoc around the world and try to create a theocratic state in the Middle East. In some countries, youth fear the law enforcement intended to protect and serve. Addiction is epidemic in many places and in some we are ambivalent or fearful about welcoming refugees, and in some threats to deport people despite their strong work ethic abound. We debate our own addiction to non-renewable resources despite the knowledge that we put the Earth in jeopardy. John’s message then and now, as Mary’s works in Luke 1:68-79 assert, is to bring light to darkness and help the lost find their way. To help people to realize that their destiny is to become love in human form. To be in the image of God that is love.

Brian Swimme, in his book ‘The Universe Is A Green Dragon’ suggests that in order to approach love we must start with our common context, the emerging universe in which we find ourselves. He claims that love begins as allurement, as attraction. I thought about the current theory around human development, that of attachment theory and how this is so important for new born children who are emerging from the womb into a world of light and language and the human journey of physical and mental evolution. Rooted in this attachment seems to be this attraction, child to mother, child to others, child to family and so on. In this way we can call it love that gives life, love that enhances life, love that endures life, and love that is always present, always intimate and always evolving as we become more fully human. Swimme also challenges us when he suggests that over the last few century’s we have trapped love in anthropomorphic boundaries. We have crippled many of our concepts as limited by human love whereas we should start with love as the attraction we find in the cosmic dimension, the attraction that permeates the entire macrostructure, or the basic binding energy found everywhere in reality

Bringing this down to our present. We are to ordain and induct two people into Eldership within our midst. And I want to suggest that love begins here today because love begins wherever we discover interest. To be interested in Eldership is to the fall in love. To become fascinated about the role of eldership in all its responsibilities and it’s personal challenge and satisfactions is to step into a wild and unknown yet attracting level of life.

Today we are to ordain and induct two of our number to the role of eldership. They have been chosen as special people in our community not just because we like them a lot but also because they have thought hard and long about the role as elder in the light of the challenge John the Baptist brings. The task of liberation is not one to be taken lightly because it is not only about one’s own contribution. The task of transformation is a relational task, it is about making connections with people, about transforming with them their own lives. This is never an easy task and these two people in their living have lived out the abundant love, trusted in the unconditional challenge of loving another. They are worthy people and our celebration of that is to invite them to take the role of a wise one within our community, to take the risk and put love into action. And this is a lifechanging and far from simple task because it is about loving abundantly within God who is love.

John the Baptist’s message, as recorded in Luke’s Gospel, is harsh, but it is ultimately liberating. Despite our participation in the ways of death, we can turn around. Love changes everything, We, can use the freedom we have to change our ways, to transform our value systems, and create new structures of life. The author of Malachi recognizes such transformation may be painful, not unlike a refiner’s fire. The military and political forces of evil must be neutralized and transformed and this will require sacrifice. Cultural values need to change and “downward mobility” may, at first, be painful. Spiritual surgery is always painful but the new creation that emerges brings wholeness and joy, and the promise of a harvest of righteousness. This is the message of Advent: prepare for the coming of The Christ by changing your life and giving birth to Christ within and among us. Amen.

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Advent, is ‘Waiting for What’?

Posted: November 30, 2018 in Uncategorized

Advent, is ‘Waiting for What’?

For most of us Christmas has begun. For some it is already the Christmas Rush! Like a front row of an All black scrum, the season is bound and set, poised to roll over us with all its demands, distractions, details, dilemmas, delights and duties. For many retailers, it’s a “make-or-break” time of year. Or maybe it’s make-and-break, because the more exhausted and overworked they become, the better their business is doing. They make it business-wise by getting broken physically and spiritually. For children, it’s deciding what to put on a list, where to hang the decorations, and who will take them to the mall.

For teachers and parents, it’s the challenge of keeping a gaggle of fidgety children focused on their schoolwork while arranging some special programs and projects that will honour the season. For some of us us at church, it’s a time for arranging frantic rehearsals, for getting all the decorations out, for extra activities, and services that are hopefully fuller than ever.

Are we prepared for all of this? Is your master list ready with everything you will need to do and buy over the next month? But before you go off down that path adding stress to your lives take a minute to ask yourself what you think Advent is all about. In Christian terms that is. Paul in Thessalonians, the text we didn’t read today urges the people to “Abound in Love,” we might ask how? How does one abound in love?

We speak of Advent as a time for preparing to welcome Jesus into our hearts at Christmas. Is that perhaps how we abound in love? By welcoming Jesus into our hearts? That is of course while acknowledging that he might already be there as well. Paul talks a lot about Christ living in him, and he in Christ. Something about this intimacy is what all the Advent/Christmas language is about so maybe to abound in love is to welcome the one who comes to bring us God’s love. This also seems to fit with the neo-orthodoxy that in Jesus, the Christ event is encountered. In theological language the Word of God breaks into history from outside as the incarnation. In traditional parlance, the only thing that matters is the judgement of God on humanity by way of the Word of God descending upon us. Or using a metaphor from Jeremiah that Karl Barth loved so much, the Word of God as Christ-event hits humanity like a hammer that breaks the rock into pieces. Here we have a theology, powerful, during the time of the Second World War when Christianity was in danger of losing its independence by accommodating itself too closely to political ideologies and nationalism especially that of Nazi Germany. In that context the Word of God breaking in from the outside was the critical, counter-cultural act of prophetic witness. This provides us an interesting challenge even today with the idea that United States American Christians align themselves to a political party. The religious right with the republicans and the liberal left with the democrats. The challenge is not that Christians take politics seriously because we should, but rather that they do so without questioning the ideologies. After all, as Walter Wink has argued ‘God is human” and David Galston has argued here in this Church a couple of years ago ‘It is God’s human future that matters’.

The quote from Walter Wink, a theologian and thinker is this: And this is the revelation: God is HUMAN…It is the great error of humanity to believe that it is human. We are only fragmentarily human, fleetingly human, brokenly human. We see glimpses of our humanness, we can only dream of what a more human existence and political order would be like, but we have not yet arrived at true humanness. Only God is human, and we are made in God’s image and likeness—which is to say, we are capable of becoming human. (Walter Wink, The Human Being, p 26)

I think he is implying here that as a species we are yet to become complete, that evolution is still an unfolding event, that as unfinished we are still filled with potential. God’s image is what we seek to be. In fact, it is a co-creative evolution or as others have said we are on the individuation of God journey. There is an immeasurable hope in this approach, why; because the advent story says so. It attempts to unfold this journey for our use.

David Galston reminds us that Religion is philosophy beyond technical philosophy. Technical philosophy studies wisdom out of love by asking questions about human knowledge, religion, philosophy involves living out wisdom in the practices of economic and social relationships. John D Caputo in his review of David’s book writes; “Religion is the issue of human wisdom, not of a superhuman invasion that descends upon us from on high, like an avatar, to steer us through the choppy waters of time. If we don’t understand that, religion will make us miserable.”

The key is that religion is the issue of human wisdom and this is why religion is involved in politics because it is imbedded in societal practices and it is after all a history of systems concerning how to be in the world. Religion is a lifestyle and in our current form, a set of beliefs that can be conditioned by superstition and I would claim a fear driven, standing over awe that needs to be challenged.

And talking about a set of beliefs we remind ourselves here that orthodoxy claims that God becoming Man or Jesus being God’s Son, is a claim that only a Jesus as Christ, as the event of the incarnation, can break in from heaven as the Word of God? Whereas progressive Christianity claims that Jesus would never have thought that of himself That as a human, Jesus can only ever be the same as everyone else?

So, on this first Sunday of Advent we begin our wait for the arrival of the Human One. It is a hope filled wait because it is a hope beyond the supernatural, beyond the dependence upon a miracle. It is a hope of a full revelation of what it means to be human, and for those of us who follow Jesus, we wait with hope for the revelation as to how his life, his contribution shows us how this becoming human is possible.

We start our preparation with an assessment of our need, an inventory of the challenges that face us. In the symbolic language of the heart we read, “There will be signs in the sun, moon, and stars. On the earth, there will be dismay among nations in their confusion over the roaring of the sea and surging waves.” We say these things, knowing that they are poetic ways of saying that life will be operating out of patterns; unprecedented, unpredictable, and unnerving patterns. They are not magic, supernatural events but rather events that well up from the deep, like uncontrollable forces welling up and causing the sea to roar and the waves to surge. There are human limits to this because the human heart is the place of the deep. Rivalry, vengeance, hatred, chaos, and dark moods spill from the depth where they have been out of sight, out of mind and out of consciousness. They surprise us with their crudeness, barbarism and attractiveness.

We think here of improbable political campaigns and a popularity that seems to baffle all the experts. How can people speak so arrogantly, despising almost everyone else and flaunting their own glory, and still be taken seriously? How can people ridicule the weak, handicapped and female and not plummet in the poles? Our wisest observers keep predicting it will never last but it goes on. We ask what is it about us that creates this? What dark place in our psyche is being manipulated?

We think also of the terrorist groups, the extremists that attract many lonely, lost and angry young people and enlist them in a cause they believe gives them purpose. Committed to purifying the world as their purpose they blow up the relics of ancient civilizations, treat women as abused property and they glory in cruelty; competing with one another for who can be the cruelest. And they do all this in the name of God. Where do these dark impulses come from? What is it about the human heart that makes indiscriminate revenge more valuable to them than life itself?

We think of the front edge of technology and the development of artificial intelligence, of robots who no longer need human involvement. We think of fear based systems of control, of governance, of CCTV surveillance of our every move, of individual tracking and analysis of what we do, why we do it and where, and then the intimate management of our every moment of life. And we ask what does religion have to say to this? What would Jesus say about this?

“The planets and other heavenly bodies will be shaken, causing people to faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world.” To me this is saying confidence in the future as that which flows from the present and the past will be shaken resulting in fear and foreboding. Isn’t that the elephant in the room? The challenges we face look different to us than those we have ever faced before. We don’t know quite what to do.

When we ask ourselves what is a Christian Peace we put aside the complexity, the systemic and simplify our response. At this level we are beginning to suspect what we already knew. That is that our violence in response to another’s violence will only create more and deeper violence in the long run. Look at the Ukraine this last week or so.

And when we look at the birthplace of Christianity, we see a similar experience. Every time we intervene it only seems to make it worse and creates more enemies that we then must subdue. And what we do in other places seems to somehow infect us in ways we had not anticipated. Our own lonely and disaffected young people catch the violent spirit and turn it on ourselves in random ways that make us all afraid. We hear stories of soldiers who come home broken and unable to sustain families and careers in the years ahead of them. How do we pay for all of this and still maintain our own educational and transportation infrastructure? This is our world of early Advent, but our text doesn’t stop there.

“Then they will see the Human One coming on a cloud with power and great splendour.” The Human One is coming! Tradition says he is coming from another place, not this place where everything seems so crazy. Tradition says that his power will be convincing and self-evident, nonviolent and full of truth. It will be so obvious, attractive, radiant and splendid that we will wonder why we had never seen it before. Our imitative souls will begin imitating kindness, gentleness, generosity, compassion and love, all seen in the Human One who comes toward us, visible to all as though on a cloud.

The Advent world is the world where these things are beginning to happen but we are not all the way there yet. If you know how to look you see little signs; messages of hope breaking in through the television, behaviour in young people that evidence caring for the earth and the beaten down people who live on it, new ways of thinking that question the age-old equation of violence equaling order. When you see these things happening, stand up straight, and raise your heads, your redemption is near. I don’t know about you, but I see these signs everywhere. The trick is that you have to know where to look and you have to choose to see them.

“Jesus told them a parable: ‘Look at the fig tree and all the trees. When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near.’” If you want to see these signs you have to look on things that are living. Rocks don’t sprout leaves and neither do rifles or bayonets or bombs. If you watch where life is happening, where cells are vital and green, where people have hope and care for one another, where laughter and smiles can be seen even when in the midst of challenge and distress; well then you can see for yourself that summer is near. “In the same way,” Jesus said, “when you see these things happening, you know that God’s kingdom is near.” You see, God’s kingdom is that place wherein full-humanness gets lived-out. This is the place where full-humanness is not just glimpsed but finds expression in the political, economic, environmental and social way humans live together.

“I assure you,” Jesus continues, “that this generation won’t pass away until everything has happened.” This generation does not refer to those living at the time Jesus lived. It refers to the time between Jesus of Nazareth living among us as a human we cannot imagine. And in this time we can find our way out of our early Advent darkness toward light we, as a species, often prefer to avoid or we can destroy ourselves as a species?

We don’t know yet. All we know is that “Heaven and earth will pass away, but we also think that Jesus’ words will not” In the meantime, while we wait, the advice is that we focus on the signs of spring, allowing those to energize us and keep us positive. Look for the good things happening in the world and contribute to them. “Take care that your hearts aren’t dulled by drinking parties, drunkenness, and the anxieties of day-to-day life.”

When things are seemingly going wrong, we find ourselves knowing that and thinking that knowing it isn’t very effective. Acknowledging it is ok but taking it as the whole picture tends to lead to depression, draggy hung-over mornings, and influencing the outcome by supporting poor calculations on any necessary preparation. “Don’t let the day fall upon you unexpectedly, like a trap. It will come upon everyone who lives on the face of the whole earth.” All religions, all races, all ethnic divisions and classes are going to see this happen.

We just remembered how a world war supported an influenza pandemic. With modern communications and rapid mass transportation it’s getting easier to imagine an event that simultaneously impacts every human being on the earth.

And finally, “Stay alert at all times, praying that you are strong enough to escape everything that is about to happen and to stand before the Human One.” Why stay alert, praying for strength? Because advent reminds us that when we look hard at what is we meet the Human One who turns out to be our God, made visible in Jesus, the one with who we create and work with in the journey toward full humanity. Amen.

Terror or Hope

Posted: November 19, 2018 in Uncategorized

Mark 13:1-8

Terror or Hope

For followers of the three-year lectionary as I am and I guess you are as listeners; today is the last week we will hear a gospel story from the storyteller we call Mark. Last, Next week is the end of this liturgical Year B with Christ the King Sunday. Then after that we enter a new Church year and a new season of Advent. And the cycle begins all over again.

One of the things I have noticed within myself is a degree of sadness at two things. One being that; with all that I have read and with my growing understanding of who Jesus is for me I have come to value Mark more as one of the earliest of the gospels we have, and two; I think the lectionary short changes him as one of the most valuable gospels when looking for the most important stories of Jesus spoken by the early Christian movement. It does this by leaving out a lot of what it says and by replacing it with other gospel content.

I tend toward this response because the lectionary misses out many of Mark’s good Down-to-earth stories. Stories which preserve the Jesus Movement’s memory of Jesus. And because those stories demand great respect, not only because they are some of the earliest in our gospel storytelling tradition, but also because there is less ‘layering’ onto these stories. In other words; there seems to be more of an honest Jesus than a church Christ in these stories. And as a follower of Jesus, that has become an important difference for me.

When I think about where this began, I remember a colleague who suggested the book by the late Jesus Seminar scholar Marcus Borg “Seeing Jesus again for the first time’ was a good place to begin. Especially when going “Against the Stream” in theological bible study discussion. It wasn’t long after that I began to grasp the important difference between the pre-Easter Jesus and the post-Easter Christ.

The key point being that when we take the stories about the post-Easter Christ
as historical reporting about the pre-Easter Jesus, Jesus becomes an unreal human being, and we lose track of the utterly remarkable human person he was.

The next learning was with the arrival of John Shelby Spong on the set of my journey and my having to reassess the Jewishness of Jesus and discover the Jewish structure of Mark’s stories. While some people find this discovery of the human Jesus and his Jewishness a threat to their faith and don’t want to go there, I found this a liberating experience.

Jack Spong has written and lectured on Mark, as a Midrash storyteller, telling the Jesus story based on the Hebrew scriptures and organised around the liturgical year of the Jews from Rosh Hashanah (New Year) to Passover. He has claimed that it was inevitable that the first members of the Jesus Movement, who were Jewish people, would: interpret Jesus, organize their memory, and shape their religious life based on their Jewish religious heritage, which was the only tradition they knew.

On reflection I recognize that his Jewishness had always been implied but only as a problem and not as a human, cultural and historical setting for his life. The Post Easter Jesus was always prevalent in my mind dismissing or conditioning this reality and I have never seen the need to explore what it meant until recent years. So, from the Borg and Spong engagement my curiosity as both a storyteller and a liturgist was aroused and excited.

This stood in contrast to the suggestion by my teachers who had shaped my prior thinking.
Where, as Rex Hunt suggests, Mark’s stories were modelled on the parable of The Sower (Mark 4). We remember that story where… some seeds fall on a hard pathway, some seeds fall on rocky ground, some seeds fall among thorns and are choked, some seed fall on good soil. It is claimed that with this story as background we journey through Mark and the other stories like the rich young man. The healing of a man with an unclean spirit. The widow and the coins. And many more, hearing the stories but only responding because for some of the words have fallen on a hard pathway, on rocky ground, among thorns. All through Mark, according to some is this theological vision of sown seed and productive and unproductive earth. The challenge has been to become more sensitive to the stories about outsiders and outcasts in Mark… And Jesus as an outsider.

I really warmed to what Robert Funk has said: “Jesus apparently regarded himself as an outsider.  He was in exile from his hometown, from his friends and neighbours… he was a guest, a traveler, a stranger, an alien in most contexts.” (Funk 2002:45-46).

Jesus appears to have ignored the social boundaries of his time. He embraces the beggars, the poor, the hungry. He becomes known as a friend of toll collectors and prostitutes. All these, fall outside the boundaries of his society in the most radical manner.

While this seems obvious the level of importance in my walk and I am sure most of us is significant. The new awareness is as I argued for a few weeks ago, that, “The invisible domain of God is populated with the poor, the destitute, with women and unwanted children, with lepers and toll collectors, all considered under some circumstances to be the dregs of society.  They are outsiders and outcasts…  No wonder Jesus auditors were puzzled by his vision of… God’s domain – it contradicted their normal notion of who belonged and who did not, of who was in and who was out.” (Funk 2002:55)

I think this might explain why I feel a sense of sadness at coming to the end of the Mark lectionary year. There is a clear sociological challenge in the pre-Easter Jesus not only because of Marks focus on the radicalness of the social change and the place of the poor and destitute, alienated and excluded but also because of the evident change in direction the Jesus movement seems to take as the gospel, the Jesus story, is taken to the gentiles and especially into the Greek and Roman worlds. The cultural expectations of those worlds affect the story, so much so that it becomes institutionalized, and we are then on a path of who is in or out on a different scale. So, maybe this is why I am a bit disappointed that Mark’s year is coming to an end. Then again maybe it’s even deeper than that.

Maybe my difficulty in letting go of Mark is because controversy in the church is seldom about biblical exegesis and theological formulations. It is more about creating social differences rather than address the theological issues underlying the problem. Today’s story by the one we call Mark is a pretty scary story. Historically it probably refers to the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple many years after the death of Jesus. Theologically it probably warns of those who offered the small Jesus Movement false hopes through dubious signs and wonders. Either way there would be real human memories: the brutality of war, the rape and pillaging, the burning and torture, the killing and mutilation. Historically in the late 1980s the PCANZ began the vilification of gay people by creating the social differences, the unnatural, the non-procreational and the minority value as human beings as opposed to the theological arguments of their being a child of God, and a stranger needing welcome and inclusion, it us not isolation and identification that is justifiable in theology.

The Jesus of Mark takes us into this world of terror and offers a vision of hope.
A defiant hope. A hope centered on the vision of the domain of God. Where inclusiveness is its rule. And a passionate concern for others fires imaginations and compassionate acts. Love cannot be obtained by being right and pure and being defined as different. William Loader goes further when he says that Marks world is a “Terror beyond description being matched by hope beyond description.

I want to leave you with a question today and it is to ask ‘if we opened the gates to a real theological debate, would we be prepared to contemplate and discuss theological ideas? And let’s be sure about the response. It would be that we are abandoning every aspect of traditional Christianity. That is because we would say that despite whether or not one wanted to start new or make change without losing the goodness of tradition, we have to ask whether or not the Christianity we have inherited needs to be abandoned. Spong says he is not ready to surrender Christianity to a secular future nor is he willing to abandon the Christ experience. He would say however that the words traditionally used to describe that experience no longer translate meaningfully in our day. He says that he is willing to sacrifice all claims to possessing a literal bible, literal creeds or historical liturgies in the Christianity he seeks to create. This is rooted in his conviction that there is something real that draws him beyond himself which he calls God. This is also why he claims membership of a church that has courage to seek after the truth of God, come whence it may, cost what it will.

Spong cites Luther as believing that institutional Christianity had ceased to be ‘the body of Christ’ service the world and instead had become a profitable business, designed in such a way as to increase and even enhance the church’s worldly power. In order to finance its institutional need the Vatican had endorsed the practice of selling indulgences. A sinner could purchase one such indulgence and thereby forgo the need to repent. Like Jesus in the temple Luther was challenging the practice and, in his view striking a blow to the economic well-being of the Christian Church of his time. The significance of this was the challenge to all the authority claims being made by the church on its journey through history. And remember that by the sixteenth century the power of the Christian church was so deeply entrenched in the life of Europe’s culture that any challenge to its authority to define truth was regarded as an act of heresy.

Maybe it is time for use to expect the claim of heretic being levelled upon us. And this might mean challenging to Nicene Creed adopted by Christian leaders in Council in 325 ce, It was the essence of the Christian faith for all time and the church had the sole right to interpret the sacred scriptures. Shades of this claim still exist today among some traditionalists trapped in a literalized faith and remember that most lay people learned the stories of the bible by looking at paintings painted by artists whos, biblical knowledge was often minimal.

God was portrayed as a supernatural all-seeing figure who lived above the clouds, watching human behaviour. This God wrote down the deeds and misdeeds of all the people in the ‘Book of Life’ which would determine the eternal destiny of each individual soul. The difference between heaven and hell was enormous and espoused regularly in sermons week after week and in paintings depicting ‘judgement day’. Guilt was the coin of the church’s realm to ensure the number of sinners existed to sustain the story and add value to the indulgences. The time in purgatory was the commodity sold by the church.

Perhaps all we can say about this story in Mark is that it is a challenge that asks us ‘Can the Christ experience be separated from the dying explanations of the past? The reality is that if we can’t then Christianity is doomed to continue its relentless journey into declining state of irrelevance. If we can separate the Christ experience from the past then there will be a need for a reformulation of Christianity that is so radical that Christianity as we know it may dye in the process. As Jesus challenged his time with the need for an alternative social, cultural; and religious world so he does to us today The status quo suggests that we will die in boredom and the alternative offers controversy, maybe even a new reformation. Maybe Mark is the last opportunity to find the pre-Easter Jesus? Maybe Mark is freer from the influences of institutionalized Christianity than even Paul, given that his chosen task was to bring the Jesus story to other cultures i.e. gentiles.

Amen.

Notes:
Funk, R. W. A Credible Jesus. Fragments of a Vision. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2002.

Spong; J S. Unbelievable: Why Neither Ancient Creeds Nor the Reformation Can Produce a Living Faith Today. Kindle.

rexae74@gmail.com

‘Beyond Moral Obligation’

Posted: November 3, 2018 in Uncategorized

Mark 12: 28-34

 ‘Beyond Moral Obligation’  

Back in about 2005 or so Ian Lawton an Australian Colleague who was for a time Priest at St Mathews in the city wrote some notes about what some parents taught their children about religion. While we might recognize some of these moments from the past they are not indictments on parenting as they held within them some elements of wisdom and practicality but they also held within them some religious belief as well. They are sort of tongue in cheek and they are also indicative of some religious belief.

The first is a comment on prayer- it goes “You’d better pray that stain comes out of the carpet.” The second is on Obedience- ” Because I’m your mother and I said so, that’s why.” The third is Compassion- “Keep crying, and I’ll give you something to cry about.”

The fourth is on Perseverance- “You’ll sit there until you’ve eaten all those vegetables.”

The fifth is on the blessing of receiving- “You’re going to get it when you get home!” The sixth is about Tradition- “You’re just like your father.” Seventh Wisdom- “When you get to our age, you’ll understand.” and eighth is Justice- “One day you’ll have kids, and I hope they turn out just like you.”

While these comments might seem a bit harsh as an indication of what we believe about life they are significant in that they are learnt from significant others, and can make a huge difference to us. And sometimes we have to unlearn much of that! The traditional interpretations given to Mark’s story of the ‘widow and the coins’, can be one such example. And we shall unpack this a bit.

On its own, which is usually how we hear it every three years, this story lends itself easily to moralizing about the heroic sacrifice of a poor widow, who gave of all she had. But I want to suggest there is a broader, and perhaps more important story, that Mark is suggesting here. And that broader story seems to be about naming a system which abuses poor people.

We approach this by suggesting that at one end of this system we have powerful people who financially exploit vulnerable widows and an announcement that says you can’t do that and think you can get away with it, at the other end. And in the middle we have the story of the ‘widow and the coins’. Put all these together… and what we hear is Mark, the storyteller, weaving together echoes of the Hebrew scripture’s constant concern for widows and other outcasts. This is not new because we hear also the voices of Hebrew prophets like Isaiah and Amos, who condemned the religious establishment of their day for exploiting the vulnerable. We also bring to mind the early Jesus movement’s hassles with the Temple leaders.

So…  is the ‘widow and the coins’, a story about boundless generosity and self- sacrifice? Or is it more pointed evidence under-girding Mark’s Jesus who judges against an exploiting religio-politic of his day?

Preached once every three years and told and heard as a single story, this widow story is often offered as a model of stewardship to encourage giving to the church. Yet when the stories are stitched together it suggests a very different reading. Nothing short of a radical protest against the use of religion and politics and power to victimize those who are powerless and vulnerable. As Ian Cairns says; That’s different.  And that’s very challenging. Because heard with those ears this story becomes an “exposition of the ‘politics of compassion’” (Cairns 2004:201).

One of the difficulties with this is that it seems to suggests that the Bible is both a dangerous book and an adults-only book. This makes it difficult to use when working with younger children as it makes the line between just telling the bible stories and telling what you think they mean for today difficult to discern. Theories of child development and readiness for the metaphorical and the morals of a story get complex. I suspect this is why Bible in Schools is fraught in today’s environment of knowledge and understanding.

One position I think we as progressive liberals might take is to suggest something like this… When we tell, or listen to, or quote from, biblical stories we need to be very careful how we do that. Because our general tendency is to: (i) take the stories or quotes out of context, or (ii) over-spiritualize or domesticate them. To hear beyond the ‘domestication’ of biblical stories often means we will have to unlearn much of what we have been taught.

And for some folk that can be really threatening. But that’s what many contemporary biblical scholars are calling for. Seek out the broader context. But also listen with a healthy dose of skepticism. And this is even from those of the evangelical end of the church. In this telling comment one scholar, from the ‘radical evangelical’ side, a certain William O’Brien says: “The scriptures have served as propagandistic fodder for slavery, subjugation of women, even ethnic cleansing.  Yet many of us believe the Bible is profoundly life-giving, offering a vision of justice, salvation, peace, and human dignity….” And he goes on: “the Word…  must be liberated from dangerous distortions, untruths, and half-truths.  To open our lives to the guiding truth of the biblical revelation, we may need to unlearn much of what we’ve been taught about the Bible” (WO’Brien. Web site /The Other Side).

The truth is that a system which keeps people in poverty is evil.  Period. But to that one person, their poverty and their hunger is just that. Very real hunger and poverty, every day. And that’s the ‘hard’ saying, and its tension shouldn’t be ‘softened’. Widows in the ancient world were especially vulnerable, especially if they had no sons to protect them.

Both the Hebrew and Greek terms for ‘widow’ come from word roots that suggest ‘helplessness’, ‘emptiness’ or ‘being forsaken’. And what all these people have in common is their “isolation from the web of love and support, and a deep sense of powerlessness” (JDonahue, 2000, <americamagazine.org>).

The Old Testament and Process Theology scholar Robert Gnuse suggests that the term ‘scribe’ in the ancient world, was more than likely used, not to described a religious group or party, but more likely “[was] a general term for affluent landowners, probably urbanites, who could manipulate the poor brutally in order to make more wealth” (RGnuse, P&F web site, 2006). This is a challenge to the more sanitized reference to scholar or learned sect. Gnuse suggests that we live so well because we import cheap goods from overseas made by people in factories who sometimes are brutally underpaid.  We live well because they live poorly.  We thus should identify ourselves… with the scribes in this passage, not the widows” (RGnuse, P&F web site, 2006). So rather than our story being a moralising story about the heroic sacrifice of a poor widow, it is really a story about the need for a fair distributive justice.

And to test this we hear a comment from another scholar named Beth Quick. In her sermon for this day (in 2003) she writes: “… perhaps you have heard it said that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer in this world.  Or that the top 1 or 2 percent own or hold a huge disproportionate percentage of the world’s wealth.

Now, we have all heard these statistics, and shaken our heads in dismay at the offensive wealth displayed by so few.  But when we get past the figures what really shocks us is that we are in the top 1 percent. To be in the top percent, to be among the richest people in this entire globe, one simply needs a household income similar to ours.  This suggests that Jesus is speaking about (most of) us as he speaks about the scribes, not as he speaks of the widow” (BQuick 2003/ <www.bethquick.com>).

I was trolling through stuff on my phone the other day when I came across a video report posted by Action Station Aotearoa claiming we have a justice system that is broken because it fails to ask the hard questions about systemic issues like colonization and its underlying effect on the numbers and ethnicities of those in prisons. It claims this because of the list of countries which have the most indigenous people in prisons and these countries are all countries that have been colonized. And by that I think it is meant not those who have been subject to historic movements of people migrating but those countries that have in their history a clear historical period that was linked to an intentional colonization period by another more superior country. Get beyond the moral obligation and look for the systemic issue beneath. Get beyond the blame game and address the systemic issue beneath.

And let’s be clear, it is not easy to hear that we belong to a privileged grouping and when it comes to our Christian faith we are confronted with unlearning much of what we’ve been taught if we are to understand these claims. In our case it is especially hard to hear that the destruction of the way we have been brought up on the Bible stories needs to be relearned. It is hard for us to understand that to change our thinking is an exciting and challenging experience. That sharing in that experience with a group of equally open-minded people is a positive and empowering and liberating experience. Get beyond the moral obligation and look for the systemic issue beneath. Look beyond the injustice faced by the widow and see why widows find themselves among the poor, look beyond the Maori of Pacific Islander in prison and see why they number among the most incarcerated.

Get beyond the moral obligation as one of the few privileged and see the system at work beneath.

As challenging as it can be to suggest that for years we have got it wrong, or missed the point, we have much to gain when we approach even the most familiar biblical stories as if we’ve never heard them before. We are called to • Probe for fresh aspects. • Listen for new voices, including the silent voices. • and be surprised. This is what is known as separating the ‘gospel’ of Jesus from the gospel’s Jesus! See the agenda in the text so as to find the real story so to speak. This is why self-awareness is so important. This is why awareness of the big picture is so important. That’s the journey the Spongs and the Scotts and the Funks and the Herzogs of our day are calling us to share in. To take a lead in. To empower people to shape a new and open and honest theology and spirituality for a different, post-modern world. One where fewer people find themselves in prisons, where fewer people are among the widows because of culture, and if any congregation can do that, this congregation can! And continue to do it well! And I can’t resist the opportunity to suggest that our attempt as a private Christian school was and is an attempt to tell the bible stories beyond the moral obligation, beyond the bias of the elite and the privileged that we are. An attempt to empower people to shape a new and open and honest theology and spirituality for a different and new world. Amen.

Notes:

Cairns, I. J. 2004. Mark of a Non-realist. A Contemporary Reading of the Second Gospel. Masterton: Fraser Books.

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Possible In The New…

Posted: October 24, 2018 in Uncategorized

Pentecost 23B, 2018
Mark 10: 46-52

Possible In The New…

Ian Cairns’ writes: “Mark [the storyteller] also wishes to stress that faith, rightly understood, is not dependence-inducing, but rather is eliciting of a sturdy independence.  Faith is choosing to trust that life’s kindliness does not support us, however circumstances seem to contradict this…”.

The Jesus of the Marcan story we just read, saw and heard Bartimaeus and did something about it. He offered some simple words and ordinary caring. Jack Spong says that “In Jesus we have met a presence of God… come among us offering life, love, and being to this world” (J S Spong. 2003).

The question we have now is; is this what blind Bartimaeus saw in Jesus? Did he see a God presence offering life, love and being? Tom Boomershine, an Australian storyteller when working with this story, says: “Jesus response is a word of affirmation and encouragement in which he gives permission for Bartimaeus to act on the power implicit in his own faith” (Boomershine 1988:128).

If we put this scene into our context today we might get a bit confused given that our environment seems to be caught up in the loss of absolute truth and the power of perception and the importance of rhetoric. The wild debates around what is and is not PC or politically correct and just scuttlebutt. Where is common sense in all this, in fact what is common sense anymore. Our human systems of order seem to be in some chaotic meltdown process and it is hard to discern where to from here. In the context of our story, who is the nobody in the world’s eyes? It might be the gullible, or the naïve or even the sensible.

On the perhaps more positive side of this picture is the concern for education, and the concern for mental health. Sir Ken Robinson says that “Given the challenges we face, education doesn’t need to be reformed — it needs to be transformed. The key to this transformation is not to standardize education, but to personalize it, to build achievement on discovering the individual talents of each child, to put students in an environment where they want to learn and where they can naturally discover their true passions.” This needs good teachers and good teachers are teachers for whom teaching is a vocation not a job, it is not an exchange of offering for reward, it is a valuing of a gift, a making an authentic place for an offering of love for humanity. Pay is part of it but only when it is alongside a true valuing of the person.

Here we have a nobody in the world’s eyes, a sidelined person, a blind beggar sitting in the dust. And then, suddenly, and to the surprise of all, he becomes the hero of the story. When he raised his voice, when he spoke out, when he challenged the culturally expected people were quick to remind him he was a nobody. Hey! Shut up! Be quiet! No-one wants to listen to you! Get back in the closet! But then with the persistence which can characterize the desperate, the deviant, the different he doesn’t shy away from being a nuisance… I am not odd, I am not stupid, I am not a case to be handled, I am not a need to be met. I’m a person, not a discounted person or a person to be discounted. Mark’s Jesus responds, hears his request, and, we are told, makes him whole.

William Loader, the Australian biblical scholar, suggests this is storyteller Mark at his subversive best. “Mark can do this because he knew such stories.  Jesus did not sideline people. Jesus responded to what were seen as the ‘hopeless cases’ of his day” (William Loader/Web site-2003). This is a central theme to the ministry of Jesus and here again “Whether at the symbolic level or at a literal level, the story illustrates an approach to people which is central to Jesus’ teaching” (WLoader/Web site-2003).

About now you might be saying yes; we recognize this theme. It’s a familiar one in almost all of Marks stories We hear this ‘inclusive’ theme in Mark as we hear of children, legalism, Toll collectors, Lepers, Purity Rules and women. “The invisible domain of God is populated with the poor, the destitute, with women and unwanted children, with lepers, and toll collectors, all considered under some circumstances to be the dregs of society.  They are outsiders and outcasts.  They are exiles from their native social, political, economic and religious traditions.

One of the reasons perhaps as to why we hear these themes often is that they are humanity’s most likely areas of neglect. We remember also that much of Jesus’ energy in controversy is with his fellow Jews. He spent lots of his energy trying to show that scripture needed to be interpreted in a way which sees its priority as concern for human well-being.

In responding as he did to Bartimaeus as he did Jesus is giving him permission to express and act on the power implicit in their own faith or religious journey, especially when others want to say to them: shut up! His action is an affirmation of courage and faith and encouragement which allow that faith or religious journey to be fully lived out… offering life, love and being. The challenge is also to see the shut up, get back in your closet response is born in the fear of change, the fear of having to integrate a huge change of world view. That’s the clear defining characteristic of a life lived out of fear. It sees the loss of fear as a life of chaos, of frightening openness. A life of so much choice it is akin to madness. It is threatened by the possible in the new.

Another dimension to this dilemma is what might be termed neo-liberalism or trickle-down theory. Leave it to the free market to provide. This seems to have ignored the fact that human resources are like natural resources; they’re often buried deep. One has to go looking for them, they’re not just lying around on the surface waiting to be turned into money. One has to create the circumstances where they show themselves.” One has to listen and I mean really listen to Bartimaeus. No good just paying lip-service. Co-creators must participate, take responsibility for one’s role, act in God’s image if you like.

I want to interject a note on systemic, archetypal and mythical suggestion here in that I think we are at a point in time where we need to listen to Bartimaeus again. Not to argue for the replacement of neo-liberalism by state control or some sort of socialist expression but rather to suggest that most of us who hold power in the world in all areas of human endeavour are facing obsolescence on a big scale if we don’t listen hard enough. Get beyond our partisan positions and listen to the big picture that underlies the voice of our Bartimaeus. Our particular world in our particular part of history was created in the interests and images of industrialism. In many ways, we reflect the culture our world was designed to support. Our systems are based on the principles of the assembly line and the efficient division of labour and our economies are exchange based. We do this in exchange for that, we provide this in exchange for that. Our knowledge is a commodity to be valued monetarily and we divide it up into specialist segments in order to impose a value on it.: We arrange our days in standard units of time, marked out by the clocking on and off, or the amount of product we produce. Students are educated in batches, according to age, as if the most important thing they have in common is their date of manufacture. Our super schemes are related to age in the workforce, thus the debate about superannuation being paid for by one’s tax contribution. What I think the voice of Bartimaeus is saying here is “Hey, I am here, its my worth you are talking about, am I of any value?” ‘Just because I can’t see do this mean that I am of no value?” Just because I can’t till fields, make mats, herd sheep, build houses, doesn’t mean I can’t sing songs, tell stories, teach and participate in human flourishing. What if the world was based on the assumption that what I as one of billions of persons bring to the world is of value? What if what I did was of value not for what it gets in return but just for what I give?

Given our current worldwide disillusionment with politics, international relationships, economic uncertainty and chaotic diplomacy Mark’s story about a bloke called Bartimaeus is an important story. Especially in our religious tradition, at this time as we need to listen to all the Bartimaeus’. Jesus had to hear him and enable him to transform his place in the society. Human flourishing is not a mechanical process; it’s an organic process. And we cannot predict the outcome of human development. What we are called to do is to create the conditions under which the oppressed may begin to flourish.” We need to listen to all the voices that speak up against injustice, apathy, ignorance and assumption. For when we do listen, we know they affirm the journey we are all on. We invite them into the sacred conversation and enable their voice to share in the journey of transformation. And in that journeying which we might call life or living we and others are blessed. Amen.

Notes:
Bausch, W. A World of Stories for Preachers and Teachers. Mystic. Twenty-Third Publications, 1998.
Boomershine, T. E. Story Journey. An Invitation to the Gospel as Storytelling. Nashville. Abingdon Press, 1988.
Cairns, I. J. Mark of a Non-realist. A Contemporary Reading of the Second Gospel. Masterton. Fraser Books., 2004
Funk, R. W. A Credible Jesus. Fragments of a Vision. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2002.

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Pretending to be asleep?

Posted: October 17, 2018 in Uncategorized

Pentecost 22B, 2018
Mark 10:35-45

Pretending to be asleep?

I want to begin today with a paraphrase of our text from Mark. James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” In other words we are worried and maybe even a bit afraid so how about you help? And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” In other words we want the assurance you have. We want to know that we will be ok in the future so can you keep us close to you in this realm of God you talk about. But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” In other words, do you really know what you are asking? Have you thought this through as my life is at risk because I have taken on the world that we know and live in. By joining me in my baptism there is only one way this will end. Baptism is a whole of life journey. They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; In other words ok you will come with me. but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” In other words ‘coming with me on this journey is a commitment to leave everything worthwhile behind and risk your very existence. You will only know you have arrived when you get there. When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. Now look what you have done, you have made it impossible for all of us. You have caused the setting of entry standards beyond our reach. So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” See its not about getting on the coattails of God, hedging one’s bets on the journey being comfortable. It’s about participating as a servant of good, in fact its about service itself, serving as an orientation for living, a doing for others, not as an unthinking obedient slave but as a collective corporate existence.

We have just finished our General Assembly in Christchurch and we await the uplifting, confident encouragement that our church is in mission. It is no longer consumed by debates and rulemaking about who’s in or out, who’s eligible to be a leader in our church or who’s not. It is no longer consumed with its decline in income and what to do with its growing value in assets. Its no longer hell bent on telling the world how to think and how to behave as if the world will listen. Our hope is that it has in traditional fashion, listened to its people explaining where the world is at and what the world is saying and it has with the help of all those present found how to encourage, resource and facilitate, mission initiatives among the people of the world. Surely the business of the church is about enabling mission as opposed to more efficiently managing the decline. As was said to me the other day about the current plan for strategic management of the church’s property portfolio, it is good for the institution, it will focus on the efficiency of the management but it will have little to offer mission. Having your seat on the left or right of Jesus is not the issue. It is about risking the alternative, about the leap of faith, about the stepping out beyond the frontier, it is about God’s mission which you know exists but have little idea of how to secure your seat. It’s in the risk of Baptism and not the security of appointment to power. It’s about moving with God’s Spirit, and that is best understood when wrestling with it and engaged in that wrestling together. It is not about finding out how to avoid it.

There’s a prayer by a J Wood that could be helpful at this point. The prayer seems to give insight into what a Session, Presbytery and General Assembly might do at its meetings, consider as motivation for its gathering and remember when it is caught up in seeking to claim its place alongside Jesus. It goes like this….

Galilean Jesus,
on hills and near beaches you called people
around you for reflection, explanation and resolution.

So now we reflect together, knowing that
we will hear wise words if only we listen intently.

We each bring some knowledge and some understanding
and we bring our faith,
incomplete,
sometimes uncertain, but willing.

Help us to complete our task together
and to be resolute in gospel action.
Amen. J Wood

The challenge in that prayer is that the only role General Assemblies, Presbyteries and Sessions have is not to meet, as if that is a committee’s or council’s reason for existence is to manage, but rather, “to be resolute in gospel action”. The challenge in business language might be to not expect to sell your ice blocks to eskimos but rather to feed the hungry. The question we ask today is how did our General Assembly go? There seems to have been a lot of words said and discussion had and there may have been some resolution passing. But was there any theology debated? Was there any social justice action planned? Was there any theological exploration into why fewer people call themselves religious let alone Christian? Was there any theological and sociological discussion about why fewer people see the worth of a faith journey? And I don’t mean wallowing in the church’s decline and finding reasons that justify our reasons for doing nothing, that is just the church looking at itself through its own lens and it is a good way of avoiding the real questions. If you and I believe so strongly that the Jesus Way is a convincing call to live our lives in that manner why is it that others do not? Why are people not flocking to call themselves followers of Jesus? Its more than ‘they just haven’t heard that truth’, and its more than’ we haven’t told them our story yet’. The story is already out there and they seem to be rejecting it. I wonder why?

I often think that this dilemma is the one that lies at the heart of St David’s frustration about an educational project as our mission. Show us how it will provide a congregation. Show us how it will add success to the institution; show us how it will not have a detrimental effect on other church schools. All these seem to be focused on the survival of the institution as opposed to the gospel in action. Maybe they think we don’t know what the gospel is, or maybe its because there is some confusion around what it is so let’s not do anything. Or maybe its because St David’s are thinking too far out of the institutional theological boundaries. I might agree with this last critique but I rather think its because no theology is being done because it might rock the institutional boat.

On the Presbyterian Website it says that there are thirteen schools with associations to the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand. It also says that each school has its own story, valued traditions and current flavour but they all share the special character of a Christian ethos within the Presbyterian/Reformed tradition. My question is a mission question and it is; what is the special character of a Christian ethos within the Presbyterian, Reformed tradition? What does it mean and what is it about St David’s proposal that is outside that reformed tradition?

I want to now switch tack a bit and explore some reasons for what I think is our dilemma as a church. In the mid-1980s Archbishop Desmond Tutu said “It’s very difficult to wake up someone who is pretending to be asleep.” And I think this might be a charitable reason to consider.

Our church has been virtually paralysed by more than 30 years of debate and dispute
over human sexuality and falling attendance numbers. Led by the fundamentalists, ultraconservatives, and many liberals our Church has shown itself to be too anxious about these issues to risk perceived additional losses at the hands of, what might be termed, theological reform. Even the liberals were limited in their concern for deconstruction and universality and afraid to embrace constructive theological reform. Today at least among thinking people the message is clear. What is perhaps a ‘progressive’ Christian grassroots movement is loud and clear: that theological and liturgical reform is the much -needed root of ‘gospel action’ today. As we at St David’s have explored this desired reform should include as Hal Taussig said in 2006:

  1. a spiritual vitality and expressiveness,
  2. an insistence on Christianity with intellectual integrity,
  3. a transgression of traditional gender boundaries,
  4. the belief that Christianity can be vital without claiming to be the best or the only true religion, and
  5. (v) strong ecological and social justice commitment.

Like others I want to suggest that today’s gospel story from the storyteller we call Mark, touches on this matter of ‘gospel action’ or ‘mission’. It does this in that it seeks to empower its listeners. It appears Jesus was experienced as powerful, but in an empowering way. His life did not require him to seek power for his own sake, but to own the power he had in compassion and in self-giving. His call was to model a new kind of being in the world. Not to be served but to serve. Not to be about maintenance, or in-reach, but to be at mission, at outreach, at risk taking stuff, or as suggested, at ‘gospel action’. The challenge to us is to stop pretending to be asleep and get on with God’s Mission. Amen.

It Was A Test

Posted: October 5, 2018 in Uncategorized

Mark 10: 2-16

It Was A Test

I don’t think the reading this morning has anything to do with Divorce. Not only because the text actually relates to marriage but also because I don’t think the text is addressed to individuals. It is in my view more likely to be a descriptive of and a helpmate to community. I am here suggesting that we approach this text in a different way to the traditional literalist way and a way different from an intensely personal way. This will not be all that easy because most of us will have had some contact with divorce, be it personal experience of family experience or someone close to you. What such an experience does is influence us to hear this passage as addressed to particular individuals and feeling ashamed or angry or hurt or embarrassed, and that’s totally understandable. Especially if Jesus imagined these words being addressed to individuals.

But here’s the thing: I don’t think he did. I don’t think this text is anything to do with the personal but rather is about the communal. We note, for instance, how Mark sets up this scene: “Some Pharisees came and to test him, said ‘Is it lawful…. Here we have the suggestion that this isn’t a casual – or even intense, conversation about love, marriage, and divorce. It’s a test. And not even a test about divorce, but rather about the law. We remember here that there were, in that time, several competing schools of thought about the legality of divorce. Not so much about whether divorce was legal – everyone agreed upon that – but rather under what circumstances. And with this question of test, the Pharisees are trying to pin Jesus down, trying to label him, trying to draw him out and perhaps entrap him so that they know better how to deal with him. I felt a little like Jesus might have felt at a recent Auckland Council hearing where the issue was about Church verses buildings and the Council was trying to test my understanding of heritage in a lawful sense.

But Jesus was having none of this. He deflects their question away from matters of the law and turns it instead to relationship and, in particular, to God’s hope that our relationships are more than legal matters but instead help us to have and share more abundant life. Hence the turn to Genesis: questions of marriage and divorce, he argues, aren’t simply a matter of legal niceties, but rather are about the Creator’s intention that we be in relationships of mutual dependence and health.

In fact, Jesus goes one step further and takes what had turned into a legal convenience – typically for the man who sought a divorce – and pushes his interlocutors to see that this law – indeed, all law – was and is intended to protect the vulnerable. When a woman was divorced she lost pretty much everything – status, reputation, economic security, everything – so how can they treat this as a convenience, Jesus asks, let alone a debating topic. The law is meant to protect the vulnerable and hurting and every time we use it for another purpose we are twisting it from the Creator’s plan and, indeed, violating it in spirit if not in letter. One could also say that when we literalize this text, when we see it as about the legalities of marriage and divorce we are placing the law before the people as opposed to the people before the law.

The thing to see here is that Jesus isn’t speaking to individuals, he’s instead making a statement about the kind of community we will be. In fact, he’s inviting us to imagine communities centered in and on real relationships; relationships, that are founded on love and mutual dependence, fostered by respect and dignity, and pursued for the sake of the health of the community and the protection of the vulnerable. Marriage and divorce in his time was a time when women were chattels, vehicles for the man’s child. Procreation was the primary purpose for women’s existence. There are several brief articles from the Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible about this text.  First, the article on divorce (IDB, I, 859) reveals that “something objectionable” (NRSV) in Deut. 24:1 was very loosely defined.  Indeed there were two schools of thought as to what this meant:  “The Hillel school viewed this as a general term, and the Shammai school took it to mean adultery only.”  A woman’s inability to bear children was a common reason for divorce.  The article on marriage is also instructive (IDB, III, 278f).  We note the following:  “The husband has the power over his wife…She has rights and freedoms only within the context of this authority…  The husband may even revoke a vow that his wife made to God, if he sees fit. (Num 30:10-13)…” Finally, the article on woman is also revealing:  “The father received a bride price for his daughter and thus engaged in a contract with the prospective husband to make her sexuality available to him.  This transaction, however, was not a transfer of chattel property.  Rather it was the surrender of authority over a woman by one man to another.” (IDB, IV, 864f) All of this reveals why Jesus viewed wives as “the little ones” (in other words; vulnerable ones needing protection).  In his critique of law, Jesus was championing the cause of women who would be living in abject poverty, without support, if dismissed by their powerful husbands.

The background to this world was a past where female children were exterminated at birth, and despite the fact that we now think that women played a significant and founding role in the Jesus movement, in fact may have been instrumental in the survival of the movement, Jesus here was challenging all the historical cultural assumptions by challenging the use of marriage and divorce as a tool for the law when trying to protect their world view.

The interesting part about this is that even though the discussion has been about divorce, I don’t think that’s really the heart of what’s going on here. We can be grateful the lectionary includes the next verses describing the reaction of Jesus’ disciples to those bringing children to Jesus to bless and, more importantly, Jesus’ reaction to the same.

We go back to the context and remember that Jesus has announced his intention to go to Jerusalem to probably or maybe die and, in response, his disciples argue about who is the greatest. Jesus in turn tells them that to be great is to serve, and that the very heart of the kingdom he proclaims is about welcoming the vulnerable. In fact, he says that whenever you welcome and honour a child – one who had the least status and power in the ancient world – you were actually welcoming and honouring Jesus. Now, on the heels of this conversation about the purpose of the law, some folks bring their children to be blessed and the disciples try to keep them away. And Jesus intervenes, forcefully, saying that welcoming the kingdom pretty much means welcoming children, that is, the vulnerable, those at risk, and those in need.

This suggests that this whole passage, is about community. But it’s not the kind of community we’ve been trained to seek. It’s not, that is, a community of the strong, or the wealthy, or the powerful, or the independent. Rather, this is a community of the broken, of the vulnerable, of those at risk. It’s a community, in other words, of those who know their need and seek to be in relationship with each other because they have learned that by being in honest and open relationship with each other they are in relationship with God, the very one who created them for each other in the first place.

Here we have the seeds of what a church might be about – in traditional language, a place for all those who have been broken by life or rejected by the powerful and who come to experience God through the crucified Jesus as the One who met them precisely in their vulnerability, not to make them impervious to harm but rather open to the brokenness and need of those around them. And let’s be very honest here. This is not easy to remember! The Church is not for us who have made it. Even Paul speaking into the movement before it became known as Church had to remind the Corinthians of this.

When we consider our own call to walk the Jesus Way, in hindsight we could say that not many of us were wise by human standards, not many of us considered ourselves powerful, not many of us were of noble birth. There is a sense that we were foolish and weak and were chosen to shame the wise; chosen as weak in a world to shame the strong. Perhaps we were not chosen as low and despised in the world but chosen because we are vulnerable in the face of something like the law. Not in the sense of woe is me, not as a need to reduce to nothing things that are real, but rather as one who is vulnerable to the systems and intentions of a world that can alienate, isolate and destroy the very fabric of life.

We are reminded that part of being human is to be insecure, to be aware of our need and, in light of the cultural preference for strength, power, and independence, to maybe even be embarrassed by our need. For this reason, Paul, following Jesus, reminds us that to be broken isn’t something to be ashamed of. Rather, to be foolish, unfinished, incomplete and broken is, in fact, to be human. And to be human is to be loved by God and drawn together into relationship with all the others that God loves. Which means that our gatherings on Sundays are local gatherings of the broken and loved, of those who are hurting but also healing, of those who are lost but have also been found, of those that know their need and seek not simply to have those needs met but have realized that in helping meet the needs of others their own are met in turn.

The challenge today is to look at our text, not so much as instructions about divorce but instead as an invitation to see our communities as those places where God’s work to heal and restore the whole creation is ongoing, not by taking away all our problems but surrounding us with people who understand, and care, and help us to discover together our potential to reach out to others in love and compassion? We can tell people that we are communities of the broken, but we are those broken whom God loves and is healing and, indeed, using to make all things new?

We are then, in short, communities of the broken and blessed. And let’s be honest here, that can be a hard message to hear because it runs contrary to conventional wisdom about strength and security. To be strong is to be blessed. To be in control is to be blessed whereas we are seen in today’s environment as people in therapy, in need of religion to get through life. Dependent on an old story. We are seen as foolish, but we know it can also be life-giving, not only to those who know themselves to be broken and wonder if this is a place to them, but also to those in denial, seeking relentlessly to make it on their own, even if it kills them. Our text rather than being about those who have failed in marriage or whose ideals are foolish and unattainable, is rather about how one might discover God’s life-giving grace, love, and mercy. Amen.